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History in art brings muralist home to Elk Point

Tourism product in the works

ELK POINT - A request from Alberta’s Lakeland DMO manager Marianne Janke for in-depth information about Elk Point’s 100-foot historical mural brought mural creator Billie Milholland, now of St. Albert, back to her home town last week.  

The Elk Point mural and the 30-foot statue of Hudson’s Bay surveyor Peter Fidler were on the checklist of Brian Siddle of Strong Coffee Marketing, whose team, hired by Alberta’s Lakeland, is visiting communities in the region to create a tourism product that will attract families to visit the area and its attractions.  

The mural grew from a modest proposal by the Elk Point Historical Society in 1987 to paint a historical scene on the wall of a downtown business, to mark the 80th anniversary of settlement in the Elk Point area, eventually covering a century of area history as the community came forth with old photos and memories to share with the artist, some of them becoming models for scenes on the mural. 

“It was originally only going to be the first three panels,” Milholland said as she told Siddle the story of the immense project’s completion, “It was only going to cover the time from the Northwest Rebellion and the coming of the settlers to the first World War. But when people started bringing me all this material, I knew it had to be much larger than that.” 

The mural went on to detail life in the Hungry 30s to the industrialization after World War II, and ended with a parade from the first bridge to span the North Saskatchewan River in 1950 to its successor, built after a vehicle fire on the bridge in 1981 compromised the safety of the original structure. The parade honoured the volunteers who helped to make the community grow and flourish, Milholland said, pointing out civic leaders, representatives of community groups, the tourist association’s furry mascot and even the reporter who captured them with her camera. The mural was completed on Oct. 5, 1988, and was set in frames built by Milholland’s husband, John Tilton, who was also on hand to reminisce about the project’s creation. 

From the mural, Milholland and the marketing team moved on to another local landmark created by St. Paul’s Herman Poulin from sketches and photos provided by Milholland of a black powder enthusiast from the Edmonton House Brigade, dressed in the costume of the 1790s. 

The 30-foot chainsaw carved statue of Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor and mapmaker Peter Fidler was completed and set in place on Nov. 7. 1991, 11 months short of a century from the day Fidler left Manchester House, south of today’s Turtleford, Sask., with seven canoes, 26 men and their families, to build a new HBC trading fort on the North Saskatchewan that would be called Buckingham House. With the fort completed, Fidler left on explorations that took him south to the Old Man River, returning to Buckingham House the following spring, and becoming factor of the fort a few years later. Fidler and his wife Mary have many descendants still living in this area and proud of their Métis heritage that had its beginnings in the fur trade era. 

The statue’s installation was one of the first events leading up to the year-long 1992 celebration, coordinated by Milholland, of the Bicentennial of Buckingham House and the North West Company’s Fort George, built side by side above the North Saskatchewan, and now the site of the provincial historic site that bears their names. The yearlong celebration brought commemorative mail to town by dogsled and wagon train and featured a variety of events, including a huge celebration in August that included a reunion of numerous Fidler family descendants. 

The Strong Coffee team also visited three local businesses, Golden Loaf Bakery, Magic Pizza and Sew Heavenly Quilting, before heading out to Whitney Lakes Provincial Park and Heinsburg to track down tourism attractions. Other communities and attractions included in the project are St. Paul, Lac Bellevue, Smoky Lake, Vilna, Métis Crossing and the Iron Horse Trail. 

As for Milholland, she vowed to return to Elk Point in the near future, to compile a list of the people and places the mural contains, which she feels can inform future viewers that these were not just random people, but the community’s pioneers and those who led it through its first century of existence. 


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