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George Chopping spends a lifetime preserving history in Whitewood

Private museum requires more than one visit to appreciate.
George Chopping at home in Whitewood.

WHITEWOOD — George Chopping and his museum are famous in Whitewood, and he’s just the type of person you’d picture having thousands of treasures under his belt. He provided a tour of his saloon, complete with an old Western-style bar Chopping built himself from scraps collected “here and there.” Entering the Wild West saloon, one expects a rag-tag group of gamblers at the table amid a high-stakes poker game. Maybe we just missed ‘em.

“There’s 30 buildings back there,” says Chopping as we exit the saloon and travel to a fork in the path, a rustic wooden sign reading “Welcome to my dream.”

“You go snoop and have fun. I’ll be in the house when you get back.”

Like a mysterious oracle, the long-haired, bearded man wearing a buckskin jacket and well-worn cowboy hat vanishes; I’m left to my own devices—navigating the Hidden Village with sunny rays and birdsong as my guide. 

The trail is scattered with all types of furnished buildings, sometimes appearing unassuming at first glance until you open an ancient door to peer inside. Motion-sensing lights pop on, revealing staged rooms chock full of character and antiques harkening back to a simpler time.

After an hour or so spent exploring the village (one could spend days back there and still not see it all), I meet with Chopping once more in the confines of his 1885 brick home.

I explain my tour was rapid, expressing a desire to return with a friend who would like to meet Chopping, and that I’d reserve a more in-depth tour for a future date.

“Different people come two or three times and they still say you can’t see everything,” he advises. “I call it the Little Hidden Village, it’s like the Wild West and it’s abandoned!”

He then sends me on the next errand—explore the house, then return to the sitting room for a chat. Again, even a quick look around easily consumes an hour with one wishing for nine pairs of eyes to fully take everything in. I could spend countless paragraphs documenting the amazing contents of the house, but one simply needs to see it for themselves.

Chopping tells me the collecting bug bit him at the age of eight, beginning with a stamp collection. He recalls fondly discovering a 10-cent piece in a Chesterfield his father was pulling apart when Chopping was a couple years older. From there, Old George as he’s affectionately known, was hooked on the hunt for prairie treasures. 

Back in 1985, he purchased the Limoges brick house just off Highway 1 near Whitewood. Benjamin Limoges was a French merchant, who constructed the massive house in 1885, then added to the main building in 1908 as his daughter Marie-Lousie married French aristocrat Count d’Etchegoyen. The west wing was built to accommodate the newlyweds in the 9,000-square-foot home nestled on 12 acres of land.

Chopping is the fourth owner of the grand home, which perfectly suited his collecting desires while working full-time at the potash mine.

“I was collecting and I always wanted a place to show off my stuff,” he said. “I asked the guy if he’d consider selling the place. He had a German Shepherd and a Doberman, and none of them ever let anybody come up or knock on the door. I knocked on the door and he was totally shocked!”

Indeed, a long-haired, bearded guy on one’s doorstep unannounced might be cause for concern, but Chopping was eventually able to convince the man to sell the property. When asked about the key to his success, Chopping narrowed it down to one thing: “When you work at something, and you really work at it, things turn out.”

“I’ve worked extremely hard on it and have some very nice honours,” he said of the museum project, pointing to some 17 features on his place, including mention in National Geographic’s ‘Drives of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Road Trips’.

Through the years, Chopping estimates hosting around 27,000 curious visitors, with about 20 per cent of those being ‘repeat customers.’

“I have specialized in items about the three Prairie provinces quite seriously; 80 per cent of my stuff I’ve collected up here in Saskatchewan, 15 per cent from Manitoba, and five per cent in Alberta,” he explains. “I got a jug downstairs that’s got ‘Moosomin, Northwest Territories’ on it, and another one from Fleming—a crock—and that’s the Northwest Territories, too.”

It’s the passion to preserve prairie history and share that vast knowledge that nudges Chopping along; something evident as he explains in detail how First Nations people would have used some of the objects featured in his main sitting room.

“I’m getting to be quite the motormouth, as you noticed, but that’s how we learn,” says Chopping. “You learn from each other and that’s how we go along in life.”


Return to the bottle collection

One area where Chopping has long been considered an expert is the topic of bottles in Western Canada. He wrote the book on the subject, authoring “Bottles of the Canadian Prairies” back in 1978. Only running one printing, the book is considered as rare to find as some of the clues Chopping is hunting down with his decades-long project on the Manitoba Glass Works that once reigned in Beausejour, Man. At its peak, the glassworks employed 350 people, but today only ruins of the place remain—save for a commemorative plaque placed there in 1989 designating it a provincial historic site.

“There was nothing, no records of what was made there, and it was operational in 1906,” Chopping said. 

Back in 1979, he began excavating the site; returning home with some intact bottles, but also thousands of pieces that he vowed to one day meticulously re-assemble. 

“I spent 120 days—on average 10 hours a day—digging up the site and screening through shards to try and prove what was made there because there’s no records, no books or anything. So when I moved here, I boxed it all up, and just here in December, we cleaned out a building and now I got that on display and I’m sorting through it.”

From those boxes, there are thousands of pieces to rummage through, bottles that Chopping knows were handmade. He walked me through the process, of how cast iron molds for the bottles would need to be pre-heated before workers would begin the process of blowing the glass bottles. 

“Those were made from the 1880s up to 1920, then that technique phased out because of the new techniques of making bottles,” explains Chopping, referring to a particular piece in his collection.

Another mystery he’s doggedly working on involves the link between the Beausejour manufacturer and the Silver Spring Brewery in Victoria, B.C. that operated from 1902 until amalgamation with Coast Breweries Ltd. in 1928. Chopping believes he’s found evidence of bottles made in Manitoba for the B.C. operation.

“I suspect 260 were made at the factory,” he said. “I’m up to 143 that I got 100 per cent proof they were made there.”


Old George’s future

Surrounded by items of a bygone era, it’s quite easy to be transported back in time while visiting Old George’s Museum and Pioneer Hidden Village. That’s the whole point, really, to immerse one’s self in those nostalgic days of yesteryear and pay homage to the dedicated people before us that built this land.

“If it wasn’t for the hardship of the pioneers of the past, we—the generation now—have the great luxury of living,” Chopping told me. “It is from collectors like ourselves that collect the history from the past that will make the future museums.”

On self-reflection, Chopping realizes that his time operating his home/museum may be drawing to a close. After a heart attack that led to bypass surgery in 2014, he’s slowed down a bit. That also means Chopping is finding it increasingly difficult to perform all the maintenance work required to keep his dream in tip-top shape.

“I’m 81, and I can’t go anymore,” he said, regaling me with one more story that also serves as a cautionary tale.

Chopping managed to acquire a 20,000-piece arrowhead collection from a man in Regina over 10 years. He recounted that collector’s wise words upon receiving the last portion of those historic arrowheads.

“Here’s the words he said: ‘Now, George, you own one of the largest arrowhead collections in Saskatchewan. Someday, George, you got to learn to have the enjoyment of disposing as well as collecting and don’t ever get too big!’ and I’m too big,” he said modestly.

There will be a future for the Whitewood-area landmark as Chopping confirmed working on a plan to pass the torch but preferred to not divulge details just yet. 

Perhaps during my next visit, I’ll learn the plan about Old George’s march "onward to yesterday."