Submitted by Carolyn Brown
Not far from Beaverlodge is one of the rare examples of a site rich in Peace Country heritage that has officially been declared a Provincial Historical Resource. The McNaught Homestead is a remarkable collection of 17 buildings, including a house, barns, chicken coop, pump house and schoolhouse, some dating back as far as 1912 when the McNaught family arrived.
The McNaughts were the kind of people everyone wants to know. They were strong community members, active in sports of all kinds as well as literary discussions, explorations of the Monkman Pass wilderness, and hosting Strawberry Teas. The four daughters and one son were all teachers, but helped manage the family farm and keep horses and other animals. The youngest girl, Euphemia, introduced gymkhanas and musical rides to the area after attending school in Ontario and seeing such events. It was always pleasant just to go and visit: the McNaughts were favourites in the community for decades.
Old buildings, old farm machinery, old landscaping: they can be poignant reminders of days and people gone by, yet alone or even together they are not enough to earn official recognition of historical value no matter how much the people were loved. We see these relics of another age all the time, fewer every year, slowly decaying here in the Peace Country. What is needed to preserve them?
In the case of the McNaught Homestead, there was a special consideration. Euphemia had become one of Alberta’s most recognized artists. The school she had attended in Ontario from 1924 – 1929 was the Ontario College of Art, and she was one of the first women from the west to attend. The work and instruction of Canadian greats such as Arthur Lismer and J.E.H. MacDonald (of the Group of Seven) shaped Euphemia’s style. She taught for several years at Mount Royal College in Calgary and the Ontario Ladies’ College in Whitby. Then she came back to the Peace Country and inspired generations of other artists with her teaching, personality, and success. She was recognized nationally for her depictions of the Western Canadian landscape. You may have seen silhouetted trees standing hauntingly before pale suns, or horses and riders pausing to survey a valley far below with the blue mountains beyond, all rendered in the distinctive style of Euphemia McNaught. During World War II, Prime Minister Mackenzie King awarded permission to Euphemia and her friend Evy McBryan to produce a series of paintings to document the making of the Alaska Highway. In the mid-50s, Euphemia was back to teaching in Grande Prairie in an extension program from the University of Alberta. She was a founder of the Grande Prairie (1934) and Beaverlodge (1972) Art Clubs as well as the Peace Watercolour Society (1976), and a lifetime member of both the Peace Watercolour Society and the Alberta Society of Artists. All the while she was showing in solo and group shows all over Canada. It is Euphemia McNaught’s connection with the McNaught Homestead that makes the site important enough for official recognition and preservation.
Euphemia’s triple passions for art, teaching, and gathering people together were thoroughly exercised throughout her lifetime. For over 70 years after she returned from college, she inspired artists from beginners to professionals. It was her dream that there should be a place devoted to the meeting of artists to share their ideas and work, and to create art. This dream was partially fulfilled in 1992, when the Beaverlodge Cultural Centre was officially opened. It is a tribute to the character of Euphemia McNaught that her community joined together and worked so hard to rescue, move and restore the old Beaverlodge Hospital to make possible a place and society devoted to the arts. Euphemia’s easel and paint box are displayed in the old Men’s Ward; her portrait is prominent at the end of the hall; and stained glass perfectly compliments her style in a beautifully illuminated, wall-sized rendition of some of her paintings. You are invited to sip a hot drink and nibble sweets in the tradition of the old Strawberry Teas.
The McNaught Homestead became a gathering place for local artists too. There were sketching expeditions to the lake, painters gathered at the barn, and artists wandered in and out of the poplar woods looking for wagon wheels and old cars. Visitors were charmed by the old schoolhouse turned studio where Euphemia painted. Those visitors included some renowned artists, including A.Y. Jackson and Francis Loring.
In 2002, Euphemia McNaught died at the age of 100. It was not long after her work was shown in the National Gallery of Canada. The pioneer Alberta artist who found acclaim across Canada was not to be forgotten by the people of her own community: following her death the homestead property was donated to the Grande Prairie Art Gallery, received official designation as a Provincial Historical Resource in 2003, and was then taken over by the McNaught Homestead Preservation Society in 2005. The Society’s goal is to preserve the land, lake and buildings on the site, allow visitors to experience Peace Country pioneer life, and provide a place for artists to gather, learn and create.
Today, visitors are still charmed by the old schoolhouse turned art studio, now beautifully restored by a bevy of hardworking volunteers. The barn has a new roof and the accumulated plows, harrows and wagons of the working farm now line a maze of mown trails through the woods, but the granaries still lean jauntily and the original log cabin has retired amid vines and wild roses. There is another lifetime of work to be done here, both preservative and artistic, and that work is already the age young Euphemia was when she arrived in Beaverlodge so long ago. What great things may happen at the McNaught Homestead in the decades to come?
Each year events and workshops at the McNaught Homestead bring the spirit of friendship and creativity, which Euphemia so desired to foster, to the site. Her legacy is strong, with the help of others who share her vision.
If you would like to learn more about Euphemia McNaught and the McNaught Homestead, visit McNaught Homestead Heritage: a Natural Gathering Place at http://www.mcnaught-homestead-heritage.com/. Be sure to watch out for the McNaught Art Festival and I.O.D.E. Strawberry Tea at the homestead on July 20th. This year marks the Homestead’s centennial, which will be celebrated with an exhibit in the studio gallery (wine and cheese) on Friday, July 20th and a family BBQ and barn dance on Saturday, July 21st.