Virtual Exhibit

The Michener House

Through the Years

It was agreed that as soon as we have received our certificate of incorporation, we will obtain an Option to purchase the home.” Maski-Pitoon Historical Society Minutes, April 29th, 1971.

That small white unassuming home located at 5036-51st street, has had a long journey through it 125+ years. As the oldest remaining building in Lacombe, it started out as a manse and then made the logical transition to a private residence. However, the most surprising transition made by this building is moving from a private house into a painstakingly restored Heritage House and Museum, now at the center of Lacombe’s famous heritage landscape.

In order to tell the story of the Michener House, we have to start with the …

History of the Methodist Church in Lacombe

Prior to the creation of distinct denominational congregations in Lacombe, religious service was a family affair. Families would worship independently in their own homes. It was only when saddlebag ministers, such as Father Lacombe, came through the area that inter-denominational group worship occurred. In 1891, as new residents began moving to the Lacombe area, weekly services for the Methodists and Presbyterians took place in the Siding 12 boxcar, which served as a train station. Rev. John Nelson was the first ordained Methodist minister in the Lacombe area and conducted these weekly services. When he was unavailable, Mr. W. L. Parish and then Mr. R. G. McGhee, took over leading the services in the boxcar.

A brief timeline

The Story Begins in the 19th Century

It was not until Rev. Edward John Chegwin arrived in Lacombe from Winnipeg that an official Methodist congregation was formed in Lacombe. In early 1893, the first communion roll held 20 names, and the Methodists moved their weekly worship services into the newly built log schoolhouse. When Chegwin’s circuit expanded in early 1894 and membership doubled, it was decided that it was time to build a church for the Lacombe Methodist congregation.
The Methodist church and manse were built on Alberta Street (5036 51st Street) in 1894. The manse (now the Michener House Museum or MHM) still stands in its original lot. The church was located directly south of the manse, where the parking lot between the MHM and Kavaccino’s is today. Rev. Chegwin is credited with the construction of both structures, but several other church members – E. E. Matthias, George Jamieson, Dan Gourlay, Percy Switzer, Peter Talbot, M. J. McLeod, and William F. Puffer – also helped constructed the church and manse.

The church was a simple wooden structure constructed with wood sawn at the Matthias sawmill. It featured white painted wood siding, a steeply-pitched roof covered in cedar shingles, and arched windows. Double doors with an arched stain-glass transom led into a small vestibule at the front of the building. Inside, there was space for a pulpit, a wood stove, and several rows of pews. The dedication service for the Grace Methodist Church was held on September 16, 1894.

From Humble Beginnings…

The Manse was also a very simple building, originally consisting of four rooms, two on each floor. The home featured a parlour and combined kitchen-dining room on the main floor, and two bedrooms on the second floor. A well and outhouse were located at the back of the property. In 1911, Reverend Locke requested the fence surrounding the Grace Methodist Church and manse be repaired so he could keep a dairy cow on the property. His son Dean was in charge of tending to the cow, much to his displeasure. Evidence indicates that there was a lean-to or shed on the rear of the house by 1901. The purpose of this section of the house is unknown, but it could have been a summer kitchen or some kind. By 1899, the interior was finished with plaster and likely white-washed.

Edward Chegwin continued on as the minister until 1899, when he left and was replaced by Edward Michener. The Michener family and his wife Mary had moved to Banff, Alberta, from Ontario in 1895. After approximately a year on the Banff-Canmore circuit, Edward and Mary moved to a farm in the Lacombe area so that Edward could regain his health in 1898. The Michener’s had their first stay in the manse when they arrived in Lacombe and Mary said that they “were kindly invited by the Methodist Minister, Rev. E. Chegwin, to share their home for a few days until we could look up a place to live.” While living on the farm, their first child, Anna Marie. In 1899, after a year of recuperating, Edward took up ministry work again, this time on replacing Edward Chegwin on the Lacombe circuit and the family moved into the Methodist manse in town. It was here that Daniel Roland Michener was born on April 19, 1900. Edward and Mary had nine children together – five girls and four boys.
To learn more about Roland Michener, visit our virtual exhibit, Roland Michener: Rooted in the West.

In her memoirs, Mary wrote the following about her life at the Methodist Manse:

We moved again, this time into the parsonage, and for the first time since our marriage we had a house with white plastered walls and very good furniture. It seemed a palace to me to see good walls and floors, and to have a ‘sideboard’ to use for dishes and silver. The parsonage was beside the Church and both were on the very edge of the town with prairie beyond.
In those ‘early days’ in the West people were very friendly and hospitable. Lacombe was a small town but people shared one another’s joys and sorrows and looked to the Minister and his wife as sort of confidants. We kept open house—the parsonage we considered the home of the Methodist congregation and we were ready for and received callers at any hour of the day.
We were now able to replace the piano we had sold, and how the people did appreciate my playing for them and many a good ‘sing song’ we had.

Mary Michener, Memoirs

Edward retired from ministry work entirely in June 1900 for health reasons. The Michener’s moved to Red Deer where Edward eventually became the mayor of Red Deer, and MLA, the leader of the Provincial Conservatives, and eventually a member of the Canadian Senate. Sometime after the Michener’s left, likely around 1902-03, the first layer of wallpaper was added to the interior of the manse and a carpet was purchased for it in 1902. Many of the floors would have been painted as they are today in the upstairs of the MHM.

The Manse was truly an extension of the Grace Methodist Church. Despite it being the lodgings for the minister, the house was not considered a private residence. Church functions flowed over into the parlour of the manse, including Bible study sessions and weddings. Many couples were married at the manse if they were not able to pay for a church wedding. The house was also the birthplace of the children of two ministers. Most famously, Rev. Michener’s son, Roland, was born in the house on April 19, 1900. Fifteen years later, Rev. Scragg’s daughter was born in the house on October 1, 1915, quite possibly in the same room as Roland.

In 1905, the church was painted inside and out. A year later, a small addition was added to the west wall (back) of the building to accommodate the growing Sunday School. At that time, a raised platform was added at the front, new carpet was laid, and electric lights were installed. There was also talk to build a new, larger church to fit the congregation in 1906. This new church was to be built on the opposite side of the manse, on the corner of Alberta Street and Hamilton Avenue (51st Street and 51st Avenue). However, this plan was turned down and the existing church was enlarged instead. In 1907, the east wall (front) of the church was detached and moved 10 feet closer to the sidewalk and the body of the church was extended to fill in the gap. This offered seating for up to 300 people as well as two new “clubrooms” near the Sunday School classroom. The dedication service for the enlarged church occurred July 14, 1907.

In 1918, while William Hollingsworth was the minister, the shed addition on the back of the manse was torn down and a two-story addition was added along the back of the house. It was at this time that the porch on the east and south sides of the house were added.

Several interior changes occurred within the house as well, including the removal of the wall between the front hall and the parlour, the addition of a plate rail in the kitchen, and the addition of new windows and dormers upstairs in the original portion of the house. However, it is uncertain when exactly these changes took place. During a renovation in the 1950s, the homeowner at the time discovered 12 layers of wallpaper in the parlour. There was is also some evidence that a wall was added at the top of the stairs between 1901-1908 to create a third bedroom, but it is unclear if this wall was permanent or temporary.

Next Phases for the Church & Manse

On May 7, 1922, after nearly 10 years of on-and-off discussion, the congregations of Grace Methodist and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian merged to form one of the first United Churches in Canada. Official Canada-wide union would not occur until 1925. Sunday services were held in the much larger St. Andrew’s Church and the Grace Methodist Church building became the church hall. The Grace Methodist was also used for over-flow Sunday School classes.

When St. Andrew’s built the Christian Education building, there was no more need for the church hall. The Grace Methodist was purchased by the Kinsmen Club of Lacombe c. 1957 and was renamed the Kinsmen Scout Hall. It served as a meeting place for the local Boy Scouts and Girl Guides troops. The building also underwent some renovations at this time, including changing out the windows along the north and south walls, and removing the vestibule at the front. In the summer of 1981, the old Methodist church was closed and put up for sale. It was never purchased and fell into disrepair. While the Historical Society seriously considered attempting to save the building, significant structural problems were found. It was eventually condemned and torn down on August 27th, of 1984. According to Wes Jackson’s notes, the demolition only took 45 minutes.

History of the Methodist Manse

The 1922 Union of the local Methodist and Presbyterian congregation meant significant changes for the manse as well  as it was no longer need by the new United Church, so it was rented out. The first renter is said to have been James Craigen in 1922. In 1920, James Craigen took over the Lacombe Bakery, and renamed the business “Bakery & Kandy Kitchen. He sold bread, pastries, candy, ice cream and soft drinks from this store on Barnett Avenue. Craigen operated this business until at least 1923.

The next renter was Neil McFarlane who went on to become a very successful poultry farmer. In 1934, St. Andrew’s United Church sold the manse. The house was owned by only three individuals – Winter, Orin Rourke, and James Jefferson – during the 37 years between when it was sold by St. Andrew’s United Church and when the fate of the old house took a dramatic turn when the Maski-Pitoon Historical Society (now the Lacombe & District Historical Society or LDHS) took an interested in the old manse.

Roland Michener, who was born in the manse in 1900 when his father was the Methodist minister, became Governor General in 1967. This spurred a great deal of local interest and pride. Michener Park was named for the famous Lacombian and Wes Jackson, who was heavily involved in the developing historical society, was friends with ‘Roly’ Michener. Interest developed in acquiring and restoring Michener’s birthplace.

In 1971, Mr. Jefferson was willing to sell the house for $12,000, and the local Historical Society decided that they wanted to buy the house. Plans appear to have moved quickly, for even before the Maski-Pitoon Historical Society was officially incorporated, Roland Michener had already offered to make a significant financial donation and to procure his mother’s furniture for the house.

Mr. Jefferson generously allowed the newly formed Historical Society, led by Wes Jackson, some time to get their plans and resources together to purchase the house. However, the Historical Society’s original plan was to move the house from its original location to a new home in Michener Park and turn it into a museum there. The original quote given for moving costs was a mere $1,700! At that time, “a maximum figure of $25,000.00 was suggested, to acquire, move, restore and establish the old home so that it would be converted in to a museum.”

Plans stalled for some time, but the death of Mr. Jefferson brought the issue of purchasing the house to a critical point. During the fall of 1972, the Historical Society made an offer of $8,000 for the property, which was accepted and a loan was taken out from the Treasury Branch to finance approximately half of the cost. The Michener House officially became the property of the Maski-Pitoon Historical Society on October 11, 1972.

Sometimes living in the birthplace of the Governor General carried unexpected risks. In the early 1970s, John Engelsen and his sister were busy moving out of the house one day. John was wearing a T-shirt that was perhaps a little less dignified than what one would normally wear when meeting an important personage (it had a nude woman with butterfly wings on it) and had long hair at the time. As he was backing out the door with a mattress, he nearly bumped directly into Governor General Roland Michener, who had stopped by for a surprise visit to his birthplace. John stated that:

I would have run him over if he hadn’t greeted us. I turned around to see him, his wife and his entire spit ‘n polish entourage standing there. He seemed amused and was very gracious. His wife and security people, not so much. They gave us a bit of a stink-eye. He asked us a few questions about the place while we gave him a bit of a tour.

John Engelsen, 2021

From Manse to Museum

Purchasing the “Michener birthplace” was one thing, deciding what to do with it proved to be another entirely. In report presented to the Town Council, likely in 1976, the Historical Society discussed their tight financial situation which had prevented restoration of the building. Additionally, the ongoing potential for relocating the house to Michener Park was proving to be a deterrent to developing the historical site.

All manner of ideas had been proposed, from relocated the house to Heritage Park in Calgary in 1974 to selling the property to the Provincial Government to build a Provincial building on the location in 1975. A hairdresser even expressed interest in using the main floor for her hairdressing parlour in 1979. The future of the house, or even if the building had a future, was far from certain at this time. In the meantime, the Historical Society rented out the house from roughly 1973 to 1975 and was dependent on the income from the renters. Finally, the Michener House received the protection provided by becoming a Provincial Historic Resource in 1977. This also meant that it stayed on its original location.

After several years of fundraising and grant applications, the restoration of the Michener House began in the early 1980s. The first order of business was to raise the house on steel beams so a full basement could be dug. Due to its close proximity to the sidewalk and property line, the house was shifted slightly but still remains on its original lot. Once the house was set back down on its new foundation, the careful restoration of the interior could begin, but work halted in January of 1981 because the Historical Society had run out of money.

Work began again in earnest in 1983 with substantial involvement from Alberta Culture. Finances continued to be an ongoing struggle, but so was making decisions about how exactly the house should be restored. Significant amounts of research had to be done to decide everything from how the staircase should be rebuilt, how the flooring should be finished, and how each room should be interpreted. It was decided to focus on presenting the house as it would have been during the Michener family’s time here in 1899-1900. This meant white plastered walls, painted floors upstairs, and a focus on artifacts donated by Roland Michener. The 1918 addition at the back would be used as office space and a live-in caretaker’s suit upstairs. The basement would eventually become home to a community archives, a conservation area, and a reading room.

Restorations – 13 Years in the Making

The original layout of the home was preserved as were many of the original materials. The museum-side of the house was restored with lath & plaster walls and period appropriate fir flooring. Upstairs, the original painted fir flooring was restored. Most of the original baseboards, trim, and some of the doors were restored. Several non-original windows on the main floor were removed entirely while others were re-installed in their original locations. Upstairs, the window that had been added on the landing was removed along with the dormer window on the north side of the roof. The most important restoration inside the house was the relocation of the period staircase. Once the stairs had been moved back to their original location at the front of the house, the Society debated for over a year on how to appropriately restore the staircase so it would suit the style of the home and its new use as a museum. Additionally, the plumbing, electrical, and heating were updated throughout the house.

The exterior also underwent several restorations as well. The cedar shingles on the roof were replaced along with some of the sheeting underneath, and a new brick chimney was re-constructed. The porch and portico had been removed when the new foundations were poured and had to be completely rebuilt. Much of the original siding was restored and the entire building was painted a bright white with brown trim. The porch was painted a grey-blue to match the original painted floors upstairs. Additionally, a local sign painter was commissioned to create a free-standing sign to put in the yard out front.

Thoughtful consideration was also given to the artifacts that were acquired to furnish the museum. Furniture and other artifacts were acquired from Roland Michener, the Red Deer Museum, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, and local residents. One special piece that came to the museum later is the pump organ that was purchased for the Grace Methodist Church in 1906. Roland and his siblings donated numerous artifacts and furniture pieces to the museum, including original artwork done by Mary Michener, Edward and Mary’s three-piece oak bedroom suite, Roland’s boyhood dresser, and a clock that was gifted to Edward and Mary at their wedding in 1897. Roland also donated numerous items from his personal collection that tell the story of his time as Speaker of the House of Commons and Governor General.

The building itself is not much to look at, although I suppose if decorated and fitted with furniture of the time, it would be of interest to the more opulent descendants of the pioneers.

Roland Michener, in a letter to Wes Jackson, February 5th, 1972.

The Michener House Museum officially opened to the public on May 25, 1984. The opening ceremonies included speeches from Roland Michener, Lacombe Mayor Charles Budd, MLA Ron Moore, and a representative of the Alberta Heritage Resource Foundation. Roland also cut the ribbon at the ceremony with a boy scout knife. After the ceremony, the public was invited to tour the museum for the first time.

Provincial & Municipal Designation

As an important representation of Lacombe’s residential history, the Michener House became a Designated Provincial Historic Resource on June 28, 1977. On September 24, 2016 it became a Municipal Historic Resource. The Michener House is among fourteen buildings and monuments in Lacombe that have been designated historic resources either by the Province of Alberta or the City of Lacombe. Six buildings are Designated Provincial Historic Resources. Five buildings are Registered Historic Resources. Six buildings and one monument are Municipal Historic Resources. These classifications aid in the preservation of the building and the important history they hold.

The Michener House Museum & Archives Today

The Michener House Museum and the Lacombe & District Historical Society have been hard at work these past 50 years to collect, preserve, interpret, and exhibit the history of Lacombe. Free guided tours are provided by costumed interpreters at both the Michener House Museum and the Blacksmith Shop Museum. School programs are offered to local school classes in May and June and drop-in programming like Art in the Garden and Skills for Homesteaders have run all summer.

Special activities are also hosted at the museums for Canada Day, Lacombe Days, Open Farm Days, and the Culture & Harvest Festival. The community archives housed in the basement of the Michener House is continually collecting and preserving local history through artifacts donated by local residents.

Ministers of the Grace Methodist Church

Over the course of its 30 year history in Lacombe, the Grace Methodist Church saw eleven different ministers serve the congregation. During this time period, ministers were assigned to a charge by the Methodist Conference on a one-year term that could be extended at the discretion of the Conference. Individual ministers had no say in where they were assigned or the duration of their tenure there.

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