Latest addition a gem for Fort Edmonton
Why is this living history park different from all other living history parks?
That’s the philosophical question the people who run Fort Edmonton Park have wrestled with since its inception.
In the past few years, the Fort has drifted from its original mission, to tell the authentic story of Edmonton. Park management focused instead on glitzy Disney-style attractions, aiming to make the park more high-tech and more commercially successful.
But now, after wandering in the wilderness, a bit lost, the fort looks to be making something of return to its promised mission.
When Fort Edmonton reopens this May, it will include an historically authentic, though not particularly flashy, new installation: a recreation of H.B. Kline’s historic jewelry and optometry shop.
The shop will demonstrate an intriguing aspect of our city’s medical past — how exactly people got their glasses in Edmonton in the 1920s. But the store will also be the first element in the park to recognize and explore the history of Edmonton’s Jewish community.
“We’re just thrilled that this will provide a toehold in the park, so that we can tell the story of the Jewish pioneers,” says Debbie Shoctor, executive director of the Jewish Archives and Historical Society of Edmonton and northern Alberta, or JAHSENA.
Two years ago, Fort Edmonton opened a lavish recreation of the old Capitol Theatre movie and vaudeville house. The actual theatre building opened in late 1918, under its original name, the Allen Theatre. That same year, Herman B. Kline opened a small jewelry store within the theatre building.
Kline was born in Alsace in 1856, and came of age when the region was embroiled in the Franco-Prussian War. He and his wife Theresa immigrated to Montreal in the 1880s.
Janne Switzer, a Fort Edmonton staff researcher, says the date of Kline’s arrival in Edmonton is a bit murky. Family lore says he first visited in 1904, and he himself long claimed that was the year he established business here. But Switzer’s archival research suggests H.B. actually opened his first pawnshop and jewelry store on 99th Street and Jasper Avenue in 1907. He moved to the theatre site 11 years later.
“They repaired watches. They did eye exams. They pierced ears. They sold crystal and china,” says Shoctor. “They sold glass eyes, because soldiers who had been wounded in the war needed glass eyes.”
The store had an assay scale, so prospectors who’d panned for gold would weigh what they’d found, and a chronometer, so people in Edmonton could set their watches accurately.
When the Fort’s Capitol Theatre opened in 2011, it included the windows of Kline’s store, but little more. The 400-sq.ft. shop interior was used for storage.
It was Kline’s great-grandson, Ken Wasserman, together with Shoctor and JAHSENA, who set out to bring the store back to life.
The total budget for the exhibit is $70,000, but none of that is coming from the City of Edmonton or the Fort Edmonton Foundation. It’s up to Edmonton’s Jewish community raise every penny. So far, they’ve collected $42,000.
This Friday, JAHSENA launched a wider public appeal for donations.
The society is looking for more money, of course. But Shoctor is also asking for donations of vintage jewelry, antique eyeglasses, and 1920sera crystal and silver, to stock the store shelves.
So far, people have been generous. One local clock restorer, who got his start in Canada working for Kline’s son Irving, donated five antique clocks for the exhibit. Another anonymous donor has promised to match all monetary donations, up to a $10,000 ceiling.
The timing couldn’t be better.
This Monday is the start of Passover, the great Jewish festival of freedom, redemption and fresh beginnings.
It’s the perfect season to remember the bold pioneers who made their exodus to this promised land, who found freedom from persecution and the opportunity to build new lives. We need to hear and share such stories — the polyglot narratives that make up the tapestry of Edmonton.
We need our Fort Edmonton Park to reflect the multicultural diversity of our city, not with holograms or 3-D movies, but with authentic exhibits that recapture the real people of our past.
Edmonton’s Jewish community, in pulling together to fund and build this modest exhibit, has given a gift to our whole city.
Now, let’s find ways and means to tell more such immigrant stories so that our Fort Edmonton leads us to a deeper understanding of the rich history we share.