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Looking Back: Every Stone has a Story


John Kinnear

Jun 5, 2024

Exploring the Old Blairmore Cemetery

Last Sunday was designated by the Crowsnest Memorial Society and the Municipality of the Crowsnest Pass as Cemetery Day.  This 6th annual event is a day of opportunity for the public to get out and explore any one of the twelve beautiful and historic places of rest here.  

I personally have been wandering cemeteries for the better part of my life and know full well that every single marker has a story.  Every headstone and the information on it throughout  the Pass was documented in 2013 by Alison Glass and Pat Goulden, dedicated findagraver’s that have mapped dozens of cemeteries. All marker information, an exact location description, and a picture of the marker can be found there.  The website is simple to use and generally these two dedicated mappers went the extra mile, where they could, and posted the newspaper obits on the individual’s site. They also, whenever possible, link all related family members together (spouses, siblings and parents) which allows for in-depth research. It is a remarkable example of volunteerism. 

The Old Blairmore Union is a spectacular site perched on a steep hillside east of the Blairmore Catholic. Most of the upper graves have built-up platforms of concrete and it is amazing to see just how far up the slope they went.   In 2022 members of the Memorial Society organized yet another major cleanup there as this cemetery did and still does need a lot of work.  I arrived on cleanup day equipped with a machete, pruning shears, clippers and a bush ax.  My primary target was the Reuben Steeves grave, one of the nicest in the Pass. 

It is a rose coloured tapered cylindrical masterpiece that stands about nine feet high.  It was totally overgrown by brush and vines. When all was said and done and the site opened up I discovered yet a second flat marker under the vines. The name on it is Mary C. Klish- (1931-1991).  

Findagrave allowed me to dig deeper into the linkage and with the help of Ian McKenzie’s must own book, Heritage Cemeteries of Crowsnest Pass, the Steeves story can be studied. Ian added cemetery maps for each cemetery and marked out on them an interesting cross section of graves he researched with numbers that correspond to the stories in the book.   “Reuben Steeves (1860-1908) - #9. B-1A-10) was a member of the first Frank village council and a self-made businessman who amongst other things owned the Imperial Hotel, the brick yard, part of a wholesale liquor business in Frank and the Windsor Hotel in Lundbreck.” The story goes that the then 48-year-old Steeves drowned in a small lake near Stavely while hunting ducks with his partners. He was paddling a canvas canoe, driving the ducks towards the hunting party when it overturned.  It took nine days to finally find him and his funeral was reported in the Coleman Miner newspaper as the biggest the Pass had ever seen.  Findagravers like Alison dip into the University of Alberta’s -Peels Prairie Provinces, a website of scanned newspapers like the Coleman Miner and the Blairmore Enterprise to find details to post along with the grave information.  Mary C.Klish, it turns out, was Reuben Steeves granddaughter and the daughter of Reuben’s son Gordon.  Gordon was only 16 when he lost his father and went on to graduate with a degree in pharmacy and ran pharmacy stores in both Blairmore and Coleman for many years.  The huge toppled marker next to Reuben’s is that of his daughter Eva May Steeves who was only 16 when she passed in 1907, ten months before her father.  

That is just one site at the Union Cemetery and McKenzie picked no less than 32 varied sites and stories from that hillside garden of memories for that chapter. I went up there the other day to check on a specific site that I had also cleaned, that being the one for Joseph Kneip.  Joseph died in 1927 at the age of 28 from a broken back, caused by falling off of construction scaffolding at the Kimberley smelter. Joseph was a meat-cutter who worked at the Union Meat Market in Blairmore, then started his own business in Michel and then went to work at the Success Meat Market in Kimberley.  Eleven years later, in 1938, his 14 year-old son Joseph Jr. was accidentally killed while hunting and is buried in a tiered plot directly above Joseph. The reason I went to his marker was to check on the peony plant that has been growing out of a special circle in the middle of his plot for many decades, perhaps since his death. It is getting ready to bloom once again, a testament to his memory.

About half way up to the top end of the cemetery is the tiered grave of Frank Kutcher Sr., a German immigrant. Frank Sr. came here in 1913 and was a blacksmith by trade, working at the Mohawk and then Bellevue Mine until he was injured in January of 1935 and passed five days later of his injuries. His son Frank Kutcher Jr. became a mechanic to avoid going into the mine but nevertheless on June 19, 1969 found himself heading into Balmer South #1 underground to repair a jack on a mechanical miner. The mine flooded in a horrific event that cost three lives and left Frank and two others trapped for 84 hours until their rescue. Incidentally that incident occurred exactly 55 years to the day after Canada’s worst coal mine disaster at Hillcrest. 

The variety of marker designs in the Union is fascinating and there is a distinct section of small Chinese markers that runs upwards in a row. The markers include the names of their birth villages written in sinograph characters.  There is also another north south row of military graves that all carry the distinctive maple leaf that indicates that they are a CWGC marker (Commonwealth War Graves Commission).  I noted in my walkabout that a lovely addition has been made to these markers and every other military marker in the Union. On top of each is a white rock with the image of a poppy painted onto it, no doubt a student project that made my heart glad.

Cemetery Day should be a day that people consider coming to pay their respects to loved ones or ancestors or just to do as I do, wander about and learn about those interred there and their stories. I use my cell phone and, the newspaper archive site and Ian’s book to lead me through some always fascinating and important stories. Cemetery Day can be any day you like and perhaps you might even be inclined to apply a little elbow grease to a site that needs some love and care, whether it be a relative or not. 

These days we choose to conduct mostly brief celebrations of life, which are important acknowledgements of those who slip away from us. All around the world cultures conduct more sophisticated and unique festivals, ceremonies and even feasts to celebrate their dead. Chuseok is the way that Koreans honor their ancestors in a celebration over three days that combines dance, food and general revelry. Rice cakes, called songpyeon, are given to the deceased for their role in providing a good harvest.  Gai Jatra is the Nepalese Festival of the Cows which is an 8-day affair. Cows are thought to help guide the deceased into the afterlife, so families with a recently departed loved will guide a cow (or a boy dressed as a cow) through the streets of Kathmandu to both honor and aid their deceased.

Of course one of the most familiar celebrations that comes to mind is known as Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead, a Mexican tradition that occurs the day after Halloween on November 1st. Mexicans believed that the dead would be offended by mourning and sadness so they launched this annual event to honor the dead as a day separate from funerals, memorials and wakes. The desire is to separate the border between the living and the dead. 

So contemplate a visit to any one of these 12 amazing repositories. You will find it a fascinating journey. 

Author’s Note – Ian McKenzie’s book is available at the Crowsnest Museum and all sales monies go towards the museum.

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