May 28th, 2024

Playgoers costume discovered to be a piece of local First World War history

By Lethbridge Herald on November 9, 2021.

Herald photo by Al Beeber - Kevin MacLean of the Galt Museum and Archives discusses a jacket donated to the facility by Playgoers of Lethbridge that was worn by Major A.B. Stafford. Somehow the jacket ended up in Playgoers costume collection.

Al Beeber –  Lethbridge Herald

Alexander Boswell Stafford lost his life at Vimy Ridge in France on June 24, 1917 but his legacy lives on.

A uniform jacket that was in the costume collection of theatre group Playgoers of Lethbridge was discovered several years ago by collections assistant Kirstan Schamuhn to have a handwritten name on a collar table. The label listed the jacket’s wearer as Major A.B. Stafford.

The uniform was one of many items that was in Playgoers “costume cage” in the basement of the Yates Centre when a massive renovation project started in 2017.

Playgoers members thought some costumes might have had cultural value so Galt collections technician Kevin MacLean took some military material back to the museum for examination.

How the  jacket, which was donated by the Playgoers to the museum this year, got into the theatre group’s costume cage is a mystery, said MacLean at the museum on Tuesday.

The jacket was among 107 items from the Playgoers costume collection that were brought back to the Yates for examination and research, he recalled. The jacket is one of 750 military items at the museum related to military service but it is not yet accessible via the Galt database; it will be however in 2022.

Stafford was the commander of the Lethbridge 39th artillery battery that was raised in 1915. A mason in civilian life, he was a resident actively engaged in the building of this community, said the Legion’s Glenn Miller.

While a family plot in Lethbridge holds the remains of his wife and daughters, Miller said the major’s spot is empty because he is buried in France.

After fighting in the infamous Battle of Vimy Ridge in April of 1917, Stafford was critically wounded by a German shell on June 23 and died the following day. His remains are interred at the Noeux-Les-Mines Communal Cemetery near Vimy.

The jacket shows that Stafford had been wounded previously in the war prior to his death  – the left sleeve has what is known as a “wound stripe.” The authority to wear that stripe shows the jacket belonged to a person who had been on the casualty list. In a press release, Miller states that Stafford was known to have worn the jacket between the time of his wounding and his death.

“This jacket is definitely a mystery piece,” said MacLean.

The Yates basement is “not necessarily a place that you would think that you’re going to find”  such a historical connection to Lethbridge.

In 2010, MacLean said a Memorial cross was donated to the museum that was also connected to Stafford. It was one of two that would have been given to his family and a mystery also surrounds it since that medal was discovered in a storage locker in London, Ont., MacLean said.

 Playgoers  contacted  Galt collections staff to visit its basement costume cage in the Yates theatre back in March of 2017,” he recalled.

The Playgoers suggested there were some culturally significant objects among the objects being removed from the basement “so they gave us a call and we withdrew 107 items back to the Galt for examination and research.

“Most of what we took out of the basement were military items because we are aware that often military objects have some form of marking.”

Schaumuhn was tasked with conducting an inventory of any type of descriptive information, making note of it to determine and establish if anything was important.

A piece of tool tape that was at the back of the collar that had a name on it,he said. 

“Potentially a member of the Playgoers had put that there because maybe it was a stage actor and Kirstan had the initiative to actually pick up the tape” and look underneath, he said.

“Major A.B. Stafford would be familiar us as a heritage institution and we would recognize that Major Stafford was connected to the artillery and we are as stewards of material culture down here, aware that there is very little artillery down here in the basement of the Galt. In fact, I think there are 74 objects,” he said.

The lack of artillery items in the Galt collection is ironic, he said because Lethbridge “would be seen as an artillery town” due it the city’s military past.

“Even amongst those 74 objects we have, most of them are not personality pieces, they’re more generic type equipment pieces or they’re cartridge casings, etcetera,” unlike the Stafford jacket, MacLean said.

Elaine Jagielski, president of Playgoers, said “these sorts of items, military uniforms, or anything along those lines we thought might have some significance for someone,” she said.

The Playgoers costume mistress contacted the Galt, she said, to see if they wanted any of the military items.

“There were some trunks and again a number of uniforms and those kinds of items. Thankfully, Kevin came and removed a number. 

“We’re really delighted because we do get a lot of donations because people will give us things that they feel have some significance. They don’t want to take it to a thrift shop, they don’t want to throw it away and they’re hoping it can be used in a play or at least be on stage or have it  front and centre in some way.

“And so to realize this actually is part of the Stafford family, which of course has significance in Lethbridge, was amazing. And so we’re all really quite delighted it has that significance.”

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