Years back, when talk began about setting up a museum in St. Claude, everyone was all for it, except no one knew where to start.
It wasn’t just a matter of collecting old stuff. The provincial Culture and Heritage Branch urged them to try something different. Manitoba already had plenty of pioneer museums.
“They said we should choose a theme,” said retired dairy farmer Raymond Philippot.
It was the early 1990s, and his son was taking over the family farm near St. Claude. Philippot had more time on his hands so he joined the St. Claude Historical Society and started going to workshops and seminars with other members.
The idea for a dairy museum began to emerge as Philippot began reading widely about the history of dairying, not just in this part of Manitoba but beyond. His research led him to farm families throughout the province who offered artifacts for a museum. He took photos of dairy barns and listened to owners’ stories. He talked with Trappist monks at Our Lady of the Prairies Monastery near Holland, “who had the best herd for many years,” Philippot said — and they were also very helpful, among other things offering a very rare book on the origin of Holstein cattle in North America.
In time, St. Claude realized it could develop a singularly unique museum devoted to dairying, and realized it wasn’t just going to be a museum about that community.
“That’s when we applied to have our name changed to the Manitoba Dairy Museum,” Philippot said.
And so it became. The ribbon was officially cut on the 2,400-sq.-ft. museum in 2004. Today it receives about 800 visitors annually, including many tour groups from Quebec.
It’s an impressive facility, filled with pictures, artifacts and equipment. It features displays, stories and extensive interpretive signage that tell the story of how dairying evolved in Manitoba. Here one can learn about different breeds raised on Manitoba farms, how farms, processing, and distribution systems changed over time, and where dairy farms were established around the province. There’s a map of the greater Winnipeg milk shed, showing where dairy farms moved beyond the city as the city grew.
The collection has presses and cream cans and replica barns and models of early haying equipment and a display showing how barn stalls changed. There’s one-of-a-kind items like a petition signed by Manitoba farm families defending the sale of raw milk.
“They put it in the paper and said guard your children against pasteurization,” said Philippot.
At the entrance is a facade of a log pioneer home he dismantled himself at its original site to rebuild inside the museum.
“It should be higher,” he said with a shrug.
He recalls the stories told him while photographing those barns, all neatly framed in barn wood.
“That one was first a church,” Philippot said, pointing to a rare hexagonal barn in the Lac du Bonnet area. “Then the congregation got into a fight. So they made a barn out of it.”
Barbed wire display
There is even a display of 72 types of barbed wire dating back to the 1870s.
“At first we never thought we’d fill the place, but now it’s full,” said Philippot.
And yet it’s not, he added. “It’s not complete. There’s so much more to learn.”
Which is what kept him so busy all those years. And why he enjoyed this work so much, he says.
“I like history, no matter what kind,” he said. “I met so many interesting people. It becomes a passion and the more you know, the more you want to know.
He is modest about an award presented to him by Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon earlier this month. He and four other Manitobans were recognized for their long and meritorious service to promote history and heritage.
The Manitoba Dairy Museum is a collection many people contributed to, and St. Claude Historical Society has an extremely dedicated membership base, he said.
“You can’t do this on your own,” Philippot said.
“I take all the honours, and they do all the work,” he added with a chuckle.
Others also recognized for their extensive work to preserve a piece of Manitoba’s rich history were Gordon McGill in Clearwater, Shayne Campbell in Argyle, Pat Eyolfson in Arborg, and Janis McMorran at Clear Lake.
These individuals all “demonstrate that our history is a tapestry of many threads telling many stories,” Lt.-Gov. Filmon said in a news release.
“They have kept alive our understanding of the specific histories of local communities or industries and placed these stories in a provincial, national and global context,” she said.