During the holiday season that just recently concluded, I listened to Susan Stanley on the CBC, interviewing Gerry Peters, a local businessman with a passion for collecting old things.
These were items salvaged from buildings being demolished, or artifacts collected along riverbanks and lakeshores, and old tools and gizmos from abandoned minesites.
The items have a charm that requires little embellishment, so he displays them for sale in a tidy little shop down in Marwell.
This radio interview evoked some strong feelings in me, and caused me to think about an issue that was central to my career: to collect or not collect.
And most central: do we turn these old cast-offs into profit-centres?
I visited the business and met Gerry, and his wife, Lynda. We had a friendly conversation about old things, what they mean, and how they are used.
The shop is neatly organized and the old relics are artfully displayed on two floors. Most of the items speak for themselves; they have received no paint nor has the patina of age been removed. Some of the items were put together playfully in artistic arrangements, but mostly they are displayed raw and unadorned. Everything has a price tag.
I never thought of collecting old artifacts for profit.
Before I became a curator, I visited a close personal friend who showed me an item she had collected during a visit to the Dawson City area a few years before. It was an old sad-iron with a detachable wooden handle. She was proud of this collectible and at the time I was appalled. She said that she had found it at an abandoned old site up one of the creeks.
She didn’t see anything wrong with picking up something that had been abandoned and forgotten. After all, it was only one item; what harm could that do?
I explained how this item was part of an old site that, if left undisturbed, could eventually be studied, recorded, collected, restored and put on display for the public to enjoy. Context was everything. Having experience in the field of archeology, I explained that we can learn much from where we find these items, and their context.
Further, I told her, it may seem like only one item, but if 50,000 visitors to the area each year were to collect one item each, within 20 years, that would represent a million items collected and taken away from their context. These items would become history lost; mere novelties, dislocated from their original place on the landscape.
Either from guilt or conviction, she gave me the sad iron, and I returned it to the Klondike, but the place where it was found will forever be a mystery. The sad iron is now a sad orphan.
In my youthful exuberance, I assumed that all of these abandoned things should be collected and preserved in public institutions for public benefit.
Every abandoned artifact found on the Yukon landscape represents a piece of human history from Yukon’s intriguing past. When left in the context of the place where the item was abandoned, it remains the product of its deposition, and tells us something about the people who left it there.
These objects from the past can be put to good instructional use.
Two excellent examples of historic places in the Yukon which, despite the ravages of time and human intervention, have survived for us and our grandchildren to benefit from are Fort Selkirk and Dawson City.
While the moveable contents at Fort Selkirk have been carted away over time, the buildings that remain represent an amazing assemblage of architectural artifacts that testify to the existence to the community that at one time almost became the seat of Yukon government. These old buildings are now being stabilized and restored for public enjoyment.
To this day, I think that Fort Selkirk contains the best collection of log buildings in their original context that you will find just about anywhere. Most historic villages of similar ilk have come about by collecting buildings from various locations and moving them to some central location. Fort Steele, in British Columbia, is an example of this. Fort Selkirk, on the other hand, with its buildings left in place, is the genuine article.
Dawson City has suffered the ravages of time and progress. Buildings have disappeared because of decay, fire and demolition, to name but a few causes. Many of the thousands of artifacts that once rested in the streets and in the old buildings have been gathered up by collectors and hauled away.
I assume that most of those were sold for profit.
Fortunately, there were a number of forward-thinking Dawson citizens, notable among them being Fred Caley, who secured some of the old buildings and saved them for the community’s—no, let me change that—the nation’s benefit. In some of these buildings, the contents remained in place much as they had since they were abandoned so many years ago.
Because so many items were preserved rather than carried away, it was possible to restore the appearance of the Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson City to when it was occupied by George and Martha Black, two of Yukon’s leading political figures. Several historically spirited individuals supported our efforts by returning things that came from the residence when they learned of Parks Canada’s efforts to restore the building. No charge.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien came for the opening of the Commissioner’s Residence, and the entire community turned out to witness the transformation of the building from derelict to jewel.
I’m not saying that every old building and every piece of junk found lying about should be turned over to the government or placed in or converted into a museum. First of all, that isn’t physically or technically possible. Second, private collectors have in some instances been the benefactors of major museum collections.
There are some who will point out that if these things just lie about the countryside, they were just going to rot away anyway, so why not parlay them into some dollars, or at least something useful? Flower planters seem to be a popular use for many such items.
I wouldn’t condone this type of activity, but neither can I condemn it. To some extent, it depends upon the circumstances; however, there are plenty of charitable organizations, museums, where these items could be placed to study, care for, and display them for community enjoyment.
Collectively, the thousands of pieces of junk lying about the territory represent the proud and interesting history of our land.
So what’s it going to be—do we leave these cast-offs where they are with expectation that they will be recorded, collected and then put into a museum, or do we gather them up and sell them off before they rot away?
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.