The History of Lethbridge Through Ryan’s Eyes-A Chat with Author Ryan Uytdewilligen

Last week I read about the new Lethbridge history book written by Ryan Uytdewilligen. Ryan is a fairly young lad and I was intrigued as to why someone at his age would take such an interest in writing a history book-especially about Lethbridge.  I had to find out a little bit more. As you will realize in this interview he is a very articulate and ambitious man with a great writing future. I really enjoyed his insight. (I particularly liked his movie ideas.)  

When you set out to tell the story of Lethbridge, where do you even begin?

I began right in the middle – the 1960s. I wanted to read a book about what Lethbridge was like during that decade, but couldn’t find anything. I found myself getting more and more obsessed with what I was reading at the Galt Museum and Historical Society research that I knew I had to be the one to write it.

I moved away from the city in 2014 and have missed it quite frequently. I thought immersing myself in research was a great pastime that would cure my homesickness. I decided to write about the city from the 1940s to 1970s and it snowballed from there.

There are a number of authors of Lethbridge historical books like Alex Johnston, Belinda Crowson, Garry Allison and Georgia Fooks to name a few. How is your book different from theirs or is yours an extension of what they have written about?

It’s a bit of both. There certainly would not be my book without the great, immense amount of research they already had done. But a lot of their work is very specific and goes into great detail about certain aspects of the city’s history like sugar beets or the red-light district. I wanted to do something all-encompassing and paint a picture of how exactly the city formed and took shape – which was an angle I don’t think has been done before.

History is also fluid and I go right up until 2020 (before the pandemic). In a few years, my book with be out of date because we’ll gain yet another lens to look back at history with, changing perceptions and of course adding new details.

As you reflect on what the city has gone through over the years, how would you describe the people that created our history?

I would describe them as hardworking, determined, strong-willed folks who had one desire; create a great community. I look to Harry Bentley as the shining example of what people were like when the city formed. This gentleman served as mayor, owned grocery stores, and sat on countless committees. When you look at the history books covering the late 1800s, his name pops up everywhere. He seemed to want nothing more than to raise the community up. I think the people who shaped the city had the same goal in mind and were constantly active in helping.

Is there a segment of our history that has been totally ignored and requires more attention?

Of course there needs to be more talked about regarding Indigenous history. While I boiled down several thousand years to a section of one chapter, the indigenous population lived off the land that Lethbridge is built on for centuries; there certainly needs to be more said. The book is too short to go into much detail, but I do touch on a lot of racism that occurred, not only to Indigenous people in the late 1800s, but to the segregated population of Chinese railroad workers. As hard as it is to talk about, racism ran rampant in the early days of the city’s history and continues to have after effects throughout modern day.

What era of the history you’ve written about would you say is the most dynamic?

There is a chapter in the book called “The Boom.” 1907 to 1913 was an unprecedented time of progress for Lethbridge. Once it became a city, landmarks that we still enjoy today like the Federal Building, High Level Bridge, and Henderson Lake were constructed. The city hosted the Dry Farming Congress in 1911 and welcomed thousands of people from all over the world to talk about agriculture. The local government put forth so many upgrades at the same time, like implement a streetcar system, it ultimately wreaked financial havoc and slowed Lethbridge’s growth by 1914 because so much money was spent on this conference. 

What era was the toughest?

I would say 1914 to 1946 were not good years for Lethbridge – over three decades! After the city spent too much money on vast growth, The First World War happened and many men went off to fight. You had the Spanish Flu causing deaths, prohibition attracting gangsters like Emilio Picariello, prostitution, racial segregation, spikes in crime, and then the Great Depression. One after another, these problems plagued the city and the population hardly grew until after the Second World War rejigged the local economy. I can’t imagine how the population fought through it.

In your opinion, what’s the biggest scandal we’ve ever had in the city?

Oh boy, that’s a tough question. Lethbridge has generally been scandal-free in the traditional terms of the word. I generally look to politics when I hear that word, but the city has been fortunate enough to have a clean record there… as far as we know! I might have to go with prostitution as the most scandalous aspect, seeing as how bawdy houses sprung up the day coal miners moved into town. That lasted for decades, the red-light district grew and grew until it was simply known as “The Point,” a place on the western edge of town – a place Alberta Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Ives was accused to have helped build or at least invest in.

I’ll name an historical part of Lethbridge that should be made into a movie and you give us a title and the movie’s star or stars who should be in it:

a)    The Coal Industry

“The Case for Coal” starring as Orson Welles as Alexander Galt

b)   The building of the High Level Bridge

“Bridge on the River Old Man” starring Alec Guinness as superintendent C.F. Prettie

c)    The Red Light District

“Lust in Lethbridge” starring Meryl Streep as the bawdy house madame and Anne Hathaway as the prostitute looking to start a new life for herself.

d)   Prohibition and therefore boot-legging

Robert De Niro as Fernie rum-rummer Emilio Picariello and AL Pacino as Lethbridge bootlegger Mark “R” Rogers star in “Red Rum”

e)    Fort Whoop-Up

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star as Alfred Baker Hamilton and John J. Healy in “Healy and Hamilton”

f)     The Last Great Indian Battle

Controversially, Leonardo DiCaprio will star and win an Oscar for playing Jerry Potts in the “The Belly River Battle”

Is it safe to say that you have always been a history nerd (and I mean that in a positive sense) or did an interest in history just evolve?

Absolutely. I love history and have written particularly about film history, though I do find any fiction project I do must begin with a certain place and time. I do a lot of reading documentary watching and enjoy the history of the old west and the social climate of the Baby Boomer era. When I’m not writing, I’m often pining to be transported to these times. Writing about them, I believe, is the closed thing I’ll ever get to time-travelling, so I hope to do that for the rest of my life.

Why is recording our own history so important to you and why should it be important to everyone?

I say it right on the back cover of the book – too many people were saying to me “I didn’t even know Lethbridge had a history.” Every place and every human has a history – and one worth telling! So many people have told me that they never knew about certain aspect like Lethbridge’s involvement in both World Wars or why coal mining started there in the first place. I want to offer people the chance to get to know where they live and showcase a city that is not as well known or regarded as a place like New York or Paris, but has an equally interesting history to share.

Our history can often predict our future. Any predictions?

Well, that is so very tough to say, but I have been reading a lot about the 1920s and how the roaring jazz age erupted after the Spanish Flu and First World War. Lethbridge saw a spike in speakeasys and entertainment in the 1920s and I think it’s fair to say the next few years will bring a lot of social gatherings and celebrations once COVID dissipates. After that, no telling!

How much fun or how frustrating was it to do this book?

It was a journey! I started writing about the 1960s in 2015, expanding the book to cover the 1940s through 1970s in 2016, got the book hooked up with a publisher in 2017 who encouraged me to tell the whole encompassing history of Lethbridge, and then in 2018, when the book was all set to be released, the publisher went through financial troubles and couldn’t release the book. It sat on the shelf in 2019 while I tried to find a new home for it, but ultimately couldn’t. With some time on my hands in 2020, I decided to self-publish and learned a lot about the process. The road to publication was the frustrating part, but reading about Lethbridge history, visiting the Galt on numerous occasions, and spending hours on end writing was the most fun I’ve ever had.

What’s next?

I have a children’s book coming out with KidsCan Press later this year called This is Not My Story and a nonfiction film history about a terrible movie called The Conqueror. It’s called Killing John Wayne and will be released in the fall. My third novel will be out in early 2022! So, I’ve got a lot on the go, but I love writing so much that none of it feels like work.

Final thoughts?

I can’t talk about Lethbridge history without talking about Mark Campbell. I remember watching you give the weather when I was a child and had to stop whatever I was doing to listen to you. I remember meeting you for the first time when I went on a school trip to the television station and was completely star struck. Over the years, friends and family and people I spoke to when researching book shared stories about listening to you on CJOC or having you perform at their wedding or workplace with the Greetergrammars. So I had to mention you in the book of course because, like it or not, you are a special part of Lethbridge history! Thank you for doing what you do and taking the time to talk with me.

(I’m blushing here)

Where can we get your book.

I am selling the book on my own right now. Watch local bookstores and museums later on in the year – I’ll be sure to make an announcement when they are available in person. But for right now, people can find me on Facebook at Ryan Uytdewilligen or email me at ryan.uytdewilligen@yahoo.ca and place their order!

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