The efforts of a lifetime, spent in amassing Canada's largest private silver collection, went on display to the public for the first time on Friday, November 7, 1997, with the opening of the Charlie Wilson Collection at the Soo Line Historical Museum.
The Charlie Wilson Room, constructed specially to hold the collection of over 5000 items, is the result of two and a half years of work by members of the Soo Line Historical Society, along with museum curator Lavine Stepp and workers hired along the way through the provision of grants. The items range from around 1700 through to 1972, with a large number of the silverware from the 1800s.
The collection of silverware, glass, furniture and antiques represents the passion of Charlie Wilson, a Weyburn area farmer who died in March, 1995. He was a bachelor who travelled extensively throughout North America, England and Europe to add to and improve his collection, an interest he began in his teen years and carried on with into his senior years.
Charles Wilson was born in the Bell Hotel at Swindon, near Nottingham, England, in 1904, and emigrated to Canada with his parents, Frederick and Eliza Wilson, in 1907. Charlie's father bought the Waverly Hotel in Weyburn (now known as the King George Hotel), as well as a farm eight miles north of Weyburn. The hotel was sold in 1915 and the family moved out to the farm.
Charlie spent most of the rest of his life on the farm, making his living as a livestock and grain farmer. He was a member of the Anglican Church, the Masonic Lodge and the Shrine Club. He lived at his farm home until ill health forced him to move to the Weyburn Special Care Home a few months prior to his death.
In his will, he bequested his collection to the Soo Line Historical Museum, with a number of stipulations. One of those was that the entire collection had to be displayed at once, either in a special room or in a separate building; part of the bequest included some money to provide for display cabinets.
"We were very surprised to hear that we were going to receive his collection," said Mrs. Stepp, adding that when she, Isabelle Eaglesham and other society members went to see what was in his house, "we went into a state of shock to see all that. Going into the living room and dining room, everything was just plum full. We went into this one windowless room, his 'silver room', and it was completely packed from the floor to the ceiling."
Mrs. Eaglesham, who had seen the collection some years ago, was surprised at the magnitude of it.
"He didn't advertise too much that he had this collection; just a favored few ever saw it. There was so much more than when I had seen it before," she said.
A part of the collection - 437 specific objects, including silverware, cut glass, furniture and antiques - is protected under the Cultural Property Export and Import Act, which has designated these pieces as having national historical importance. The Soo Line Historical Museum was designated a Category "B" institution by the federal Minister of Canadian Heritage, Sheila Copps, in order to be able to house these valuable items.
The designation came after a team went out from the museum, including Mrs. Stepp and historical society members Carla Kristensen, Jim Nedelcov, Mary Konotopetz and an executor of the estate; they packed it all up, brought it to the museum and had two separate appraisers identify and appraise the pieces. Once the appraisal work was done, the paperwork was filled out and an application made to the Canadian Heritage department.
A bequest also came to the museum from the estate of Noreen Robins, a longtime member of the historical society, which largely paid for the cost to renovate and build the special room. The room includes a display of the antique furniture and crystal on a second floor.
The society bought 19 cabinets from Family Pharmacy, and Larry Balog built two large double-sided cabinets and two smaller ones over the summer. Grants helped pay for temporary and student workers through the Human Resources Centre, the Wheatland-Souris Regional Recreation Association, Care and Company, the Young Canada Works program and the Summer Career Placements program.
A large part of their work was cataloging the pieces, and polishing the huge numbers of silver pieces; a total of 159 bottles of silver cleaner was used in this process.
The Charlie Wilson Collection covers several generations, with the silver pieces including tea service sets, cream and sugar sets, salt and pepper shakers, and group themes including all types of coasters, napkin rings, trays, platters, mirrors, bathroom sets, figurines, prints, pictures, frames, letter openers, evening purses, wax seals, shoe horns, binoculars, opera glasses and spoons.
Other items encompass the Art Nouveau and Victorian eras, with designs including the fiddle pattern and grape and vine patterns. The glass includes china, cut glass, Bohemian and Pinwheel crystal, along with antique furniture and household items.