Edmonton’s new historian laureate wants your grandmother’s shopping list

You don’t have to be famous to be a page, or a chapter, in history.

Edmonton’s archives have many stories from prominent people of the past, so the city’s new historian laureate is looking for things that show how “everyday” people lived.

Marlena Wyman said simple things such as shopping lists can reflect an era, as well as a moment in time.

“What kind of groceries were bought, what was in the pantry — just everyday small things that you wouldn’t necessarily think are of interest historically. But they really are.” 

Volunteer papers, business records and recipes all show a snapshot of life.

When a relative has died, Wyman said it’s a good time to contact the archives before throwing anything out. 

Marlena Wyman had her artist’s studio in the historic Ortona Armoury on 97th Avenue and 102nd Street.

“I’ve had so many stories when I’ve gone to visit people and they’ve kept certain things,” she said. “And they tell me what they’ve thrown out and I go, ‘Oh no, I wish you hadn’t.’ “

She said it’s not just about the past.

“History is being made at every moment, and if we don’t preserve it now it will be gone.”

Wyman worked for the provincial archives for 28 years in photos, film and sound history. She’s also an artist and is now the city’s fifth historian laureate.

The missing stories

She wants to focus on untold stories.

One of the big gaps in the archives, she said, are stories about women, indigenous people and those from other cultures.

In the past, women underestimated the value they brought to the community.

For example, after a man died his wife may have contacted the archives to see if they were interested in having her husband’s records.

“I would say, ‘Yes, definitely these are important papers of your husband’s business.’ Then I would say to the woman, ‘How about your records?’ “

Who me? was the common response Wyman heard. 

“Women were community builders and still continue to be,” she said. “They were the ones who got the churches started and the schools and the social, cultural organizations and charity work.”

Wyman’s focus on women, indigenous and other cultures has the support of city councillor Scott McKeen.

“You can imagine the work that a couple put into creating a farm, to homestead,” McKeen said. “The work would have been shared equally and women deserve to have their stories told.”

Wyman said Edmontonians cleaning out their grandmother’s, mother’s or aunt’s homes are encouraged to share things such as household lists, annotations in cookbooks and homemade patterns.

“Women really clothed and fed our society,” she said. 

Now home to film and arts groups, the historic Ortona Armoury building in Rossdale was the Hudson’s Bay Company stables and later an armoury for HMCS Nonsuch. (CBC)

McKeen believes Edmonton’s documented history is also short on indigenous groups.

“Settlers and homesteaders in the area were actually saved, maybe their lives saved at times, by First Nations people.”

“If Edmonton has — and I think it does have — this reputation for being a really welcome and friendly place,” he said, “maybe that was the underpinnings of it. Maybe the First Nations people deserve the credit for establishing a culture of welcome.”

The role of art

Wyman, a painter, sketcher and co-founder of Urban Sketchers Edmonton, plans to arrange exhibits showing Edmonton’s heritage buildings and history.  

McKeen thinks that will get the community more involved.

“Kids are automatically fascinated by art, because they’re creators. So here’s an opportunity to get kids interested in history as well in a different way, rather than reading the textbook and answering multiple choice questions.” 

Marlena Wyman has posted her art online, including this mixed media piece titled ‘All my dishes are broken.’ (Marlena Wyman)

McKeen thinks the historian laureate is important in helping the community understand where it comes from.

“One of the struggles that modern Edmonton has had is describing itself in a succinct way,” he said. “Maybe one of the reasons is because we don’t understand our history well, either.”

The historian laureate has a two-year term.

Wyman’s predecessors are Ken Tingley, Shirley Lowe, Daniel Metcalfe-Chenail, and Chris Chang-Yen Phillips.


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Sherwood Park

Sherwood Park is a large hamlet in Alberta, Canada within Strathcona County that is recognized as an urban service area.[7] It is located adjacent to the City of Edmonton’s eastern boundary,[8] generally south of Highway 16 (Yellowhead Trail), west of Highway 21 and north of Highway 630 (Wye Road).[9] Other portions of Sherwood Park extend beyond Yellowhead Trail and Wye Road, while Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) separates Refinery Row to the west from the balance of the hamlet to the east.[9]

Sherwood Park was established in 1955 on farmland of the Smeltzer family, east of Edmonton. With a population of 70,618 in 2016,[6] Sherwood Park has enough people to be Alberta’s seventh largest city, but technically retains the status of a hamlet. The Government of Alberta recognizes the Sherwood Park Urban Service Area as equivalent to a city.


Sherwood Park, originally named Campbelltown, was founded by John Hook Campbell and John Mitchell in 1953 when the Municipal District of Strathcona No. 83 approved their proposed development of a bedroom community east of Edmonton. The first homes within the community were marketed to the public in 1955. Canada Post intervened on the name of Campbelltown due to the existence of several other communities in Canada within the same name, so the community’s name was changed to Sherwood Park in 1956.

The Sherwood Park Urban Service Area is located in the Edmonton Capital Region along the western edge of central Strathcona County adjacent to the City of Edmonton.[8] The majority of the community is bound by Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway) to the north, Highway 21 to the east, Highway 630 (Wye Road) to the south, and Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) to the west. The Refinery Row portion of Sherwood Park is located across Anthony Henday Drive to the west, between Sherwood Park Freeway and Highway 16. Numerous developments fronting the south side of Wye Road, including Wye Gardens, Wye Crossing, Salisbury Village and the Estates of Sherwood Park, are also within the community. Lands north of Highway 16 and south of Township Road 534/Oldman Creek between Range Road 232 (Sherwood Drive) to the west and Highway 21 to the east are also within the Sherwood Park urban service area.

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