Some words have a strong personal and local connection – place names especially. I thought of this today when, as Aina and I walked down the street near my parents’ house in Cochrane, Alberta, we passed the Glenbow Elementary School. It’s so called because the neighbourhood is called Glenbow. But for me, the name Glenbow has a strong sense of one particular place, and all that comes with it, and it’s not an elementary school or a neighbourhood. It’s a museum.
In the southern Alberta of my childhood, there was one museum that was the museum. My brother and I always looked forward to a chance to spend some hours in it in a trip to downtown Calgary. That museum was the Glenbow Museum. It presented a massive mid-20th-century modern solidity, with concrete outside and wood and carpet inside. To me, the name Glenbow has a similar warm, heavy feel, like wood and carpet, in no small part thanks to the association – though its voiced stops, with the liquid and nasal, and the /gl/ onset shining, and the handsome /bo/ end, certainly work with that.
But there’s more detail that comes with the name, like memories flooding in at the taste of a treat from childhood. In the lobby, surrounded by an angular grand staircase, was a brushed steel sculpture, an impression of the aurora borealis, that every so often would have a gentle light show on it to the sound of a synthesizer version of “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” Up the stairs waited a panoply of wonders – including some wondrous panoplies: medieval suits of armour. There was also a recreation of a frontier town, including old vehicles, scales, other commercial things, and even little machines you could put a nickel in, turn the handle, and watch a dancing girl for a few seconds, set in motion by a series of little photographic prints on something like a rotating file. There were quite a few other historical displays. And of course there was art.
I say was but of course it’s all still there, the building, the contents (revised over the years), the sculpture. It’s been some time since I’ve been to it, and I probably won’t make it back there this trip either, but it remains a centre of cultural importance in Calgary. And an important part of my childhood. But this name Glenbow… Where does that come from?
In southern Alberta, anything with a Scottish taste in the name is fairly common, as many of the Europeans first to set up ranches in the area were Scottish. But there is no Glenbow in Scotland. Nor is it a family name. Actually, it’s the name of the ranch owned by Eric Harvie, who endowed the Glenbow Museum (I know his name first from the Eric Harvie Theatre at the Banff Centre). Harvie made his fortune from oil discovered on his ranch. How classic southern Alberta is that – ranching and oil. The ranch is now a park stretching along the Bow River in the narrow stretch of valley between Calgary and Cochrane.
But where did the Glenbow Ranch get its name? Well, I pretty much just said where. It’s in a glen, on the Bow River. Glen – that’s not just a male name (such as the name of the principal of the elementary school I went to, Glen McKenzie), it’s a Gaelic word for a narrow valley. And Bow? I grew up in the Bow Valley and was never sure what the name referred to specifically – was it some curve in the river? But all rivers have curves. From the Bow Glacier and Bow Lake, which it flows from? The other way around, actually. No, apparently it is from the reeds growing on its banks, which were used by local First Nations for making bows. Not for putting on gifts or shoes, of course – for shooting arrows.
But could you imagine Reed Valley Museum or something of that order having the same taste as Glenbow Museum? I couldn’t.