By Keltie MacKenzie
Pictured above is a structure that many visitors to Fort Edmonton Park have seen, but understandably few can identify. Take a guess…what do you believe it is?
A. John Rowand’s watchtower
B. An old windmill
C. Edmonton’s first weather centre
D. Rapunzel’s Tower, which is all that remains of the failed attempt to create a fairy tale princess exhibit at Fort Edmonton Park
If you were one of the few who remember when this Fort Edmonton Park exhibit was open, or if you boast some uncanny ability to identify old agricultural buildings, then you were correct when you guessed B: An old windmill. But this begs a slew of new questions. Mainly, what’s the full story behind it? We’re glad you asked. Though this year’s warm winter means for many farmers that an early planting season may be on the horizon, more typical winter weather was a profound barrier to early farmers in the Edmonton region.
Though golden stalks of wheat are now so synonymous with the province that they are emblazoned on our provincial crest, the reality is that until the crop was genetically modified, it was nearly impossible to grow in this region. The Hudson’s Bay Company tried their hardest, however, and in 1846 a windmill was built at Fort Edmonton to turn grain crops into flour.
The Hudson’s Bay Company built the windmill in an attempt to increase the self-sustaining nature of Fort Edmonton and to provide food and resources for employees and their families and lessen their dependence on local First Nations hunters like Lapotack and grain shipped from Red River (now Winnipeg). By constructing a windmill on the crest of the river, it was hoped that the winds would be enough to power the mill, though eventually animal power was introduced to help with the process. However, the mill simply could not stand the test of time, and was ultimately torn down in 1869 due to maintenance costs and a lack of viable grain to mill. Later, the plot of land became home to a new and politically crucial building: The Alberta Legislature.
Fort Edmonton Park constructed a replica of the windmill to pay homage to The Hudson’s Bay Company’s attempts to create more economically viable forts as well as Alberta’s impressive agricultural heritage. However, unfavourable winds soon ripped the sails from the mill, eventually leaving the windmill unsafe to visit and the plot of land unused for more than two decades. Likely, many people walked by the now derelict building, with a good deal of curiosity as to why it was no longer open, or what it even was. But that is all about to change.
Thanks to the exciting new expansion coming to Fort Edmonton Park that focuses on the narrative of Indigenous Peoples, the spot where the replica once stood will soon be home to a lodge where visitors can come and learn more about First Nations heritage and the making of Treaty No. 6. This will be just part of the larger exhibits focused on First Nations and Métis histories and cultures.
The windmill at Fort Edmonton Park serves as a distinct reminder of the power of climate, be it related to weather or overdue societal progression, though ultimately will meet an end eerily similar to its predecessor. In preparation for the upcoming demolition, Fort Edmonton Park hosted a ceremony led by Elders from the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations; the relationship and collaboration between them being invaluable not only to the next stage of construction, but also to the years to come.
It seems so perfectly fitting that the parallels of the original windmill and the replica continue. While the original windmill plot now hosts the provincial house of government, the replica’s old plot will soon be home to another politically crucial building, where visitors can learn and reflect on Treaty politics. While the harsh Albertan climate laid claim to the windmill twice over, it is the new climate of reconciliation and recognition that will guide the next phase of construction, education, and interpretation here at Fort Edmonton Park.