Sheila Willis and her mission to make history come alive

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

“Six-hundred thirty-eight downloads,” says Sheila Willis. That’s her answer to the question: ‘How’s your History Check app coming along?’

History Check, as some will already know, is a smart phone application that facilitates tours of northern Alberta with a historical theme. That’s just for starters, of course. One thing leads to another, and Willis is steadily compiling all sorts of useful information to travelers. But history is at the base of it and it seems to be catching on.

“We’re getting more people sending us more information for historical sites,” Willis says. “A guy yesterday sent me a lot of photos from old Fairview – the cemetery, the mile zero Mackenzie Highway sign, the old Anglican cemetery in Peace River. And there’s a link to the Fairview Post article.”

All this sort of stuff goes into the History Check database, and travelers can click on this, click on that and have their visit enhanced in various ways.

Another example of how History Check is getting better all the time: Willis says she’s got permission from the provincial archives to link photos of pilot Wop May’s legendary ‘Mercy Flight’ to locations on the History Check map where he stopped on that flight. History Check can then play the role of “leading people to the source,” she says.
Meanwhile, Willis’s hunt for more and better (and rarer) historical information on northern places and people continues. As news spreads of her efforts, doors open.

“I’m going to Vancouver,” she says. “A lady named Jean is a descendant of the Hult family from Mirror Landing (the town at the mouth of the Lesser Slave River that thrived briefly in the few years before the arrival of the railway). They had a cabin and she has objects from that cabin.”

Those objects, whatever they may be, could well end up as an historical display somewhere. The question is where. Behind glass at the M.D. office is one idea Willis has. A museum? Maybe someday. She has other “bits and pieces” of historical material that could become part of a formal display. Or rather the Friends of Historical Northern Alberta Society (FNHAS) does.

But let’s get back to that B.C. trip Willis is taking. It includes a second visit to Nanaimo to visit the granddaughter of ‘Peace River Jim’ Cornwall, the Alberta politician and businessman who owned the Northern Transportation Company. The granddaughter – named Carolyn – had previously invited Willis to go through some Cornwall material.

“Now she’s found three more boxes,” Willis says. “That nobody’s been through. This time I’m going to spend two nights there.” Cornwall’s transportation company ran river and lake boats and barges up and down the Athabasca, Lesser Slave and Mackenzie Rivers. He was involved in the transportation of plains bison to Wood Buffalo National Park back in the 1920s and much else besides. His first steamboat operated on the Lesser Slave River and Lake, from 1904. Willis says photos Carolyn gave her from the Cornwall family archive are now at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

As for what she will find in the Cornwall boxes, Willis has no idea.
“It could be anything,” she says, from photos, to documents to other artifacts. “He came in the late 1800s. He spent two years living with northern Indigenous people. He spoke six languages. He was at the Treaty 8 signing.”

And that was just the start of it. The Brantford Ontario-born adventurer was an Alberta MLA, a decorated war veteran, a fur trader and a tireless promoter of the northwest.

Chances are good some of the images or information Willis finds will end up linked to the History Check app.
Stay tuned.

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