July 21st, 2024

Dale Leffingwell on a mission to preserve history of Milk River

By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on November 18, 2023.

Herald photo by Al Beeber Dale Leffingwell is passionate about preserving the history of the community of Milk River and the surrounding area.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDabeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

Dale Leffingwell is on a mission.

The president of the Milk River Historical Society, he not only wants to preserve for future generations the history of that community and the surrounding area but he also believes there should be an interpretive centre in the community.

To Leffingwell, the tourist facility at Milk River at the south edge of town is the ideal spot to give visitors to Canada their first introduction to the province.

But his efforts to seek provincial support to create a facility that gives American guests insights into the area and province have been fruitless.

Leffingwell, who spent years working in social work at Sifton House in North Lethbridge, believes history matters.

In a letter he wrote to The Herald several years ago, a letter he keeps in a binder filled with newspaper articles and his own writings for various publications, Leffingwell stated “Canadian storytelling matters. Whether it is on screens or in our newspapers, whether it is about a new initiative to support local businesses or about a new after-school program – our stories tell us who we are as a society. So if these stories disappear, so do we.”

Many of those stories could be told at just across the Coutts border at Milk River as Americans begin their Canadian journey.

Earlier this year in April, Leffingwell and his wife Beth wrote the Herald and said “We are disappointed and embarrassed over the treatment of visitors to our province. When our guests are finally approved to enter our country from the United States by our customs officers, the overall intimidating – at times – barrage of questions designed to ensure the legitimacy of their entry and anxiety of the experience of crossing the border inspires the driver to put the pedal to the metal.

“Approaching Milk River, as the first sign of civilization the visitors notice there is no longer a much-needed interpretive rest stop open where the dog could be walked, the horses watered and the kids allowed to run some stink off while the navigators receive a warm and informative welcome to our province.

“The government is trying to sell the idea of visiting our amazing tourist sites in Alberta and they close one of the very engaging and interesting interpretive centres close to the Canada-American border.

“It’s an embarrassment to southern Albertans.”

Leffingwell is the consummate storyteller. He spent a large part of his life in Milk River and area before moving to Lethbridge in 1983. A huge supporter of newspapers, he has a binder filled with clippings from The Herald and other publications such as the Twin City Advocate of Coutts-Sweetgrass in 1928,, The Warner Record from 1912, the Coutts-Sweetgrass International Herald from 1911 and others.

Leffingwell is not only interested in written history but also oral. Several years ago the Milk River Historical Society staged an oral history community workshop. A follow-up never happened because of the COVID-19 pandemic that hit the world in 2020. A year ago this month, another workshop was held but a winter blizzard and power outage interrupted it.

To Leffingwell, it’s important to never forget the spirit and education on oral history. And he is an encyclopedia of it. He can talk in detail about all aspects of history in the south region. To listen to him is to take a walk back through time to the pioneering days of southern Alberta. One of his workbooks for the oral history workshops contains pages of grainy photos of old schools in the area – Milk River, Coutts, Masinasin, Del Bonita – and horse drawn carriages carrying children to school.

One part of the area’s history he wants honoured is a former barracks used by the Northwest Mounted Police at the Milk River Outpost, a building that spent the better part of a century being used as a granary in a farmer’s field.

The structure was built in 1889 on the Milk River Ridge along what was known as the Fort Benton-Whoop-Up Trail, says Leffingwell who also has an immense interest in preserving the history of NWMP in this area.

Part of that interest is due to the fact he was born on a farm next to the location where the building still stands.

Leffingwell would like to see the barracks moved to the interpretive centre where it would enhance the ability to tell the story of the area’s past.

The scarlet paint can still be seen on the weathered wooden structure, which the historian says is still a solid building. In 2017, the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta provided a grant of $6,000 from its Community Priorities Fund which enabled the Milk River Historical Society to replace its roof.

He sees enormous potential in the building which could be used for as an education venue. Leffingwell has written a long history of the RCMP detachment which includes details such as the cost to paint detachment buildings in 1897 – $30.25. Hay, he wrote, was supplied at $7 per ton.

In the meantime, while Leffingwell lobbies for support his interpretive centre dream, he continues to collect and share the history of the Milk River area – history that this passionate advocate for the area knows so well.

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