by Leslie Norman/Special to The News
Unlike Geraldo Rivera, when he opened Al Capone’s vault, when the City of Pitt Meadows went digging in their old Heritage Hall vault last summer, they and the museum were not to be disappointed.
What was revealed is a treasure trove of archival material with at least one document dating back to the late 1880s.
For museum staff – especially the curator who has been waiting more than 20 years to see what lurked within – it was like Christmas.
Ledgers, letters, ephemera, and other miscellaneous documents and images have come to light and reveal information about the beginnings of this municipality and through the first decades of incorporation.
During the course of the fall and early winter of 2020, and with COVID restrictions vastly reducing the time museum staff were spending on programs and tours, we managed to organize and house the material and digitize the entire collection.
The next step, likely this summer, will be to produce a finding aid and write a few Looking Back columns based on some of the material, the first of these here today.
At the museum, the story of German machine guns – “war trophies” – given to the municipality by the dominion government, and placed atop the first municipal hall in 1929/1930 as a Halloween prank, is well known.
We have never doubted the authenticity of the story as it is documented in Edith McDermott’s 1967 Historical Story of Pitt Meadows, and we have an image in the collection that shows one of the guns clearly mounted on the building.
However, what we have never been able to establish is how the municipality came to have the weapons, or, what happened to them after the hall burned to the ground in December 1930.
Thanks to this new collection, the first of those questions has now been answered.
Contained in the records obtained last summer is the full – from the municipality’s original letter requesting the guns through to the municipality’s letter acknowledging receipt and all the other paperwork in between – documentation of the guns including their assigned government numbers, 4783 and 822.
We now also know the process was incredibly quick with the municipality sending their request letter to the director of war trophies on Sept. 13, 1920 and receiving a positive response from the public archives of Canada dated the 30th with shipment of the guns a day earlier on the 29th.
We still do not know their exact arrival date in Pitt Meadows, but we do know that municipal clerk William McDermott acknowledged receipt in writing to the director of war trophies on Nov. 8 of that year.
After that, we think the trophies must have been stored in the hall and gathering dust for almost a decade until that Halloween night when, according to the historical story book, Ted Herbert and William McDermott mounted at least one of them to the hall’s roof while a small crowd cheered them on.
As for the question of what happened to the guns after the 1930 fire, that information did not come out of the vault and continues to be a mystery. A mystery we are still hoping to solve.
More images from the War Trophies papers will be posted on the museum’s website later this month.
– Leslie Norman is curator of the Pitt Meadows Museum and Archives
Is there more to the story? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org