The Junk Pile of History? A Final Look at the Canadian Energy Museum’s Object Garden

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This piece is the fourth in a series of blogs about the Canadian Energy Museum, a small museum situated in the town of Devon, Alberta that has closed due to the loss of funding.  The goal of these blogs is to share some of the Canadian Energy Museum’s rich collection with the broader community of environmental historians and museum professionals before the museum closes, as well as to tell the story of the unfolding funding crisis amongst smaller regional museums in Canada through the perspective of this museum. We hope that NiCHE’s readers might be compelled by these pieces to either donate to the effort to save the CEM, or to play a more active role in advocating for the continued funding of small regional museums across the country.

Photo Essay by Jean-René Leblanc
Text by Sabrina Perić

As of the publication of this piece, the Canadian Energy Museum (CEM) has closed for the foreseeable future. Its incredible collection is no longer accessible to the public. In May, I wrote how the closure of this museum is a significant loss for Western Canada, especially due to its focus on the social history of energy in Alberta. The CEM’s Collections Manager, Danielle Lane, wrote with great concern about the potential scattering of the museum’s collection: some objects might be taken in by other museums, while others might be condemned to the junk pile of history.

But as many people know, junk piles can sometimes be the richest repositories; they are full of meaning, memories and represent the curated personal and collective materialities of the past.

With a view to honouring the junk piles of Canada’s energy history and the complex assemblage of technology, people and nature they represent, this week’s piece presents a photo essay by artist and professor Dr. Jean-René Leblanc, which captures the now inaccessible object garden situated on the grounds of the CEM. The object garden not only includes the national and provincial historic site of the Leduc no 1 well and the Leduc-Woodbend Oil Field, but also a collection of derricks and other oil field equipment that will remain outside for the time being, subject to the weathering of time.  

The object garden at the Canadian Energy Museum is unique in that it allows the public to interact with the historic technologies and infrastructure of Canada’s first major commercial oil field. Yet, the object garden also indexes a type of place that is found all over Alberta: abandoned industrial infrastructure sites that sit on contaminated land, often in an uncomfortable relationship with the active agricultural landscapes around them.

close up shot of teeth of drill bit. Dark metal.
Photo: Jean-René Leblanc. Used with permission of the CEM.

The first image is a close-up of a whipstock, which was donated by Sperry-Sun Drilling Service of Canada to the CEM. Whipstocks are steel wedges placed in a borehole and used to start the drilling of a new line.

Green field with dandelions under cloudy blue sky. Old wooden pump derrick. Wooden beams fastened together with metal components.
Photo: Jean-René Leblanc. Used with permission of the CEM.

Wooden pumpjacks like the one depicted above were developed in the 1860s in Oil Springs, Ontario to pump oil from wells 380 feet deep. This pumpjack was donated by the Barnes Oil Company, Oil Springs, Ontario, and is the oldest pumpjack in western Canada.

black and white close up photo of metal pump machinery
Photo: Jean-René Leblanc. Used with permission of the CEM.

The oil well pumping unit depicted above was manufactured by Oil Well Supply in Pittsburgh in the 1920s. It was designed to pump up to 2000 feet deep and could be powered by a one cylinder gas engine.

green truck sitting on brown stubble field under overcast cloudy sky. Bed of truck holds rig and machinery.
Photo: Jean-René Leblanc. Used with permission of the CEM.

The above pick up truck is one of many situated on the CEM grounds. This particular one is from the International LT Series, manufactured by International Harverster and launched in 1949. It sits next to a wooden derrick structure from the early 20th century. The exact date and provenance of the truck are unknown.

large oil derrick, lattice work of metal bars assembled into a tall cone shape.
Photo: Jean-René Leblanc. Used with permission of the CEM.

The original oil derrick from the Leduc no 1 discovery (February 13, 1947) occupies a prominent place on the CEM grounds. It can be seen from kilometers away on the prairies. For two decades, the derrick sat at Edmonton’s Gateway Park before being returned to its original site on the grounds of the Canadian Energy Museum in November 2018.

Blue truck with metal frame oil derrick on bed parked in brown stubble field under overcast sky.
Photo: Jean-René Leblanc. Used with permission of the CEM.

The pumpjack in the above photo sits on the site of the original Leduc no1 well. This well is an Alberta Provincial Historic Resource, while the entire oilfield on which the well is situated – the Leduc-Woodbend Oilfield – is a Canadian National Historic Site.

two old sheds protecting drilling rig equipment next to metal frame derrick on green-brown field under overcast sky.
Photo: Jean-René Leblanc. Used with permission of the CEM.

This wooden oil derrick represents a type of rig that was a permanent fixture of the Alberta landscape in the early 20th century. From the wells of Turner Valley to the Leduc-Woodbend Oilfield, this wooden derrick would often find itself next to a shed housing the cable-tool drilling rig. The complete rig stands at 25 meters high.

Feature image: Close up on an International LT Series pick up truck, manufactured by International Harvester between 1949 and 1953. This pick up is situated on the grounds of the Canadian Energy Museum. Photo: Jean-René Leblanc. Used with permission of the CEM.
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Sabrina Perić (she/her) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Calgary. Her current research focuses on understanding the role that individuals and communities play in determining energy transition possibilities. As the co-director of the CFI-funded Energy Stories Lab at UCalgary, she favours a community-based and collaborative approach to energy research that brings together both anthropological as well as visual participatory methods.

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