A Didsbury antique store-owner has found what he believes to be an antique from Crossfield’s earliest resident James A. Sutherland, who owned the first hardware store in the town more than 100 years ago.
Todd Cunningham, the owner of an antique shop in Didsbury called Rusty Rose Pickin’s, said he was recently invited to a farm pick on an acreage nearby Crossfield to scout out some antiques for his business when he came across an antique gunny sack loader with Sutherland’s logo embossed on the front.
“[At first], I didn’t know what it was, so the trick was to discover what it was,” he said adding he implored several antique and vintage tool groups on social media to help discover the object’s origins.
Sutherland’s hardware store was called the James A. Sutherland Hardware and Post Office. Cunningham said the gunny sack loader would not have been sold within the hardware shop, but was likely used instead as an advertising piece for the business, and was probably hung up as art within the shop.
“It wouldn’t go to vendors. It wouldn’t go to customers. It was something that was unique just to that place,” he said. “It’s one of the earliest advertising pieces that I’ve found in Alberta.”
He suspects there may have been more than one of them.
“Typically, at a sales desk of a hardware store of that era, it would be hanging so they could bag grain, coffee, and anything they sell there,” he said. “So, it would hold the bag open and advertise [the store].”
Cunningham added a local craftsperson or company such as Eaton’s may have been commissioned to make the object for the hardware shop between 1904 and 1910, though he acknowledged determining an exact date will not be easy.
“It’s really hard to pinpoint that exact year or date, but we certainly can find the time when he opened the store and the time when it changed hands,” he said. “Somewhere in that mix it was moved, stored, maybe bought, sold, traded, and passed along to family and friends.
“And then it ended up, gosh, not even six kilometres from the original store where I found it.”
He said he has been on the pursuit of chasing down the heritage and lineage of the piece since its discovery in hopes of passing the object on to the descendants of its original owner.
“I had a few people message me with a few details,” Cunningham said. “What I was trying to do is track down some of the family."
He added Sutherland is a common name in the area and is prolific in the rodeo circuit across Alberta, so finding any living relatives of the historic figure is proving to be quite a challenge.
“It’s difficult to know who’s a direct descendent, but there’s some really good information in the Alberta archives about him as well as the hardware store in Crossfield,” he said.
“So, there’s a lot more to find out – it's a really cool piece of the first resident of Crossfield.”
Cunningham cited both Prairie Sod and Golden Rod: History of Crossfield and District, and History of the Province of Alberta, Vol. 2 in his search to determine the history of the Sutherlands. A handful of local historians have also stepped forward to help Cunningham with his search into the genealogy of one of the first Crossfieldians.
“I’m sure people are out there and there’s a likelihood that people who are direct descendants aren’t even aware,” he said, adding the search involved tracing several family trees.
“There could be people long gone from this area that are the people I’m looking for.”
According to Cunningham, he is hopeful of finding a Sutherland descendent who has a keen interest in their own personal family history, and who might treasure the gunny sack loader for years to come.
“Whether that’s somebody in their 80s or someone who is eight years old,” he said. “I want to get this into the right hands and that’s always my mission – to make sure that it returns home.”
Until that time, Cunningham noted he will ensure the object is preserved while on display in his shop, and if he cannot find a relative to claim the piece, he said he would like to donate it to a local museum for posterity.
“I want to get it somewhere like Heritage Park or somewhere local that will have eyes on it and [where] people appreciate it and understand it,” he said.
The antique store owner said there is a dichotomy between the young and old in Crossfield.
“There’s a large older, rural membership of people who have lived in Crossfield for generations and there’s an insurgence of new people to Crossfield and new generations,” he said. “Younger people don’t know, don’t understand, and some don’t have interest in the history of the area.”
He said the region, consisting of Nose Creek Valley, Crossfield, Carstairs, Didsbury, and Airdrie, boasts a rich history that many do not stop to consider in their day-to-day lives.
“People live their lives and go to work every day and they don’t think about the ground they live on,” he said. “They don’t think about where they are and the effort that people took a hundred years ago to establish this place.”
He said he considers it a moral responsibility to share and preserve that history.
“This piece symbolizes the hardworking people who settled here and started something,” he said. “So, I think it’s important for anyone who’s going forward in Alberta to look back and see what got us here.
“That’s kind of what I’m trying to always preserve.”
Those who are interested in viewing the gunny sack loader are encouraged to visit Cunningham’s antique store Rusty Rose Pickin’s, located at 31166, Range Road 20 in Didsbury.