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Wilkie and District Museum fears destruction of rare artifacts

The museum has said they’ve communicated their concerns with the town frequently.

WILKIE — The Wilkie and District Museum is just one of the 250 museums across Saskatchewan that act as stewards of history, artifacts and heritage. 

The museum, located about 50 kilometres southwest of North Battleford, combines over 100 years of history into six buildings, including an old schoolhouse, an R.M. building, the original Wilkie Press building and a yellow caboose. 

In Wilkie, however, their goal of preserving history isn’t proving to be a simple task. The Wilkie Press building, deemed municipal heritage property by the Town of Wilkie in 1985, has been steadily falling into disrepair for years.

The floor is heaving, the papers dating back almost 100 years are yellowing, and what, according to the Wilkie District and Museum board, may be “the only complete press building in Saskatchewan” is in danger of being destroyed by the elements. 

According to an interview with the Battlefords Regional News-Optimist in December 2022, the museum says that the destruction of the press building is only being hastened by the town’s decision to cut power and natural gas to the buildings in late 2021.

“They (the town of Wilkie) could no longer afford to pay power for everything … they felt we weren’t contributing, so they informed us that they were going to discontinue our services except for this building [fire hall],” the vice-president of the board said to the News-Optimist.

Despite the museum sharing its concerns that the press equipment and the papers stored inside the building would be ruined, the town went forward with their plan, without negotiation according to the board, and cut power to almost all of the buildings, including the heating in the press building.

Before the fall of 2021, the building was “always” temperature controlled.

“Before the Press people moved out, the furnace was maintained, and the temperature was always checked to make sure that everything was running.”

Despite inquiries into paying half of the power bill or even having the museum pay for it themselves despite their lack of funding, the town gave them no choice; according to the museum. Even a request to know simple dollar amounts for retaining heating was not considered.

“They gave us no choice,” another board member said. “They won’t even try to negotiate, they basically said, ‘nope, this is the way it is, and you’re doing what we tell you.’” 

According to a document from the Western Development Museum regarding archival material in winter conditions and unheated buildings, rapid temperature changes can cause drastic damage to archival materials, including mould, rust and corrosion. 

“Water in contact with metal can be the catalysis of corrosion of the metal … over long enough time, the corrosion process can completely deteriorate the surface to a total irreversible change of the item,” the document reads.

“Paper stored inside an environmentally uncontrolled building can be damaged in several ways if unprotected … the space behind the paper on the wall would be an ideal location for mould as the paper creates a microcosm behind it that mould can flourish in.”

“We felt they would deteriorate. Plus, we had newspapers stored there. I’m thinking certain parts are going to start to rust anytime soon,” the vice-president of the Wilkie museum said.

According to a Wilkie bylaw passed in 1985 and another bylaw in 1989, the town of Wilkie designated the old Wilkie Press, the old R.M. office, the old town office, and the Ramsey building as heritage property. Information provided by the town states they own the land and the improvements on them. 

And according to the Heritage Property Act, which says that no one shall alter, restore or repair any part of a designated property without written approval from the council in which the property is situated, the town has insisted the museum should be fixing the buildings on their own dime.

“There is a lot to be done. Even grant money doesn’t stretch as far as expected. We are a business, a non-profit, but a business. Summer students must be paid, and T4s must be done up. Grants don’t cover things 100 per cent,” the vice-president said.

And the board, a collection of volunteers, some of whom have spent more than a decade working with the museum to preserve the artifacts, still has to fundraise money to continue operations.

“We do not charge people to come to the museum. Everything here is free. If we want to open earlier or close later, all that money has to be fundraised."

The museum members still say they feel they’re rewarded with support from citizens in Wilkie. The museum’s summer programs for children during were so full they were forced to take reservations. 

“We had more than the summer students could handle.”

Finally, in 2021, the town decided to renovate a large room in the main fire hall and old town office. The museum was required to move all the artifacts out, and what couldn’t be removed in time was pushed against the walls and covered in plastic. 

Now, in 2023, the renovations are reportedly still underway. 

“We still don’t see any progress. It’s still the same way it was.” 

The timbers brought to do the shoring still lie in front of the large doors. 

“But they’re doing something. Before that, it was all on our own.”

Everything was on them, sparing a furnace in 2010, for which the town paid half. 

“We cut the grass, trim the trees, and do all the yard maintenance. They were always on our case for years that we were not looking after the place, but we do try. 

“We fixed the bell tower with our own money, we’ve painted with our own money, and we’ve been able to paint a few things with donations from the Wilkie Co-op.”

The museum has said they’ve communicated their concerns with the town frequently, often via their town representative from the council required to sit on the museum board.

“We actually got to the point where we’d go down and meet with the town. But usually, we just go through the town representative or write a letter.” 

The town representative is the only official interaction between the board and the town, but they’re struggling to get an accurate description of the town representative’s responsibilities.

Museum members say they are frustrated and out of options as the artifacts, and essentially, the museum, is threatened with destruction. 

“They (the town) come and do a walk through, and they find out everything that’s wrong and tell us everything we need to fix. We can’t afford it, we don’t have the manpower, and we don’t have the expertise.

“They say it’s too far gone, especially the north wall which you can poke your finger through the siding. And so we said, ‘can you not bring a town crew out for a couple of hours and give us a hand?” 

The answer, so far, has been no.

Still, the museum spokesperson says he hopes there can be collaboration in the future. The members say they hope people can work together to “ensure the story of the community’s historical past is sustained into their future,” in line with the town’s official 2015 community plan.

“If we could get with the town and work together as a team, that would be the best-case scenario.”

The News-Optimist reached out to the town of Wilkie prior to the publication of this story, but town officials have been unavailable for comment.