Lacombe: Mural Capital of Alberta 

It seems like every town and hamlet in Alberta, Canada and North America has developed a mural program as a means of trying to attract tourists off the major highway and into town where they might spend a few bucks.  

In addition to attracting tourist, these mural programs can be the catalyst for fostering community pride in both the past and the present.  

In my opinion, fostering community pride is the most important aspect of sustaining community prosperity - be is a small town or a big city.  

Without civic pride, a town or city is destined to decline

Lacombe’s mural program is unique in that all of the murals are hidden in the downtown’s back lanes, rather than on side walls building that can be seen from the main street sidewalks.

Lacombe’s mural program is unique in that all of the murals are hidden in the downtown’s back lanes, rather than on side walls building that can be seen from the main street sidewalks.

I love that you can examine them close up to see the detail of the artist Tim Giles’ painting.

I love that you can examine them close up to see the detail of the artist Tim Giles’ painting.

While many mural programs are based on capturing the history of the community, Lacombe’s murals integrate the actual buildings into the mural so as you wander the alleys you begin to forget we live in the 21st century. I imagine, it is a bit like wander onto a movie set.

While many mural programs are based on capturing the history of the community, Lacombe’s murals integrate the actual buildings into the mural so as you wander the alleys you begin to forget we live in the 21st century. I imagine, it is a bit like wander onto a movie set.

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Murals to the rescue

The first town I remember to created a comprehensive curated mural program in Canada was Chemainus, BC back in 1981. The town’s lumber mill had closed and the town leaders looked to tourism to save the town.  It has been a huge success. Other towns followed - High River, Alberta just south of Calgary, Windsor, Nova Scotia and Huntsville, Ontario.  The later has 90 murals celebrating the work of the Canada’s Group of Seven (note to self, go to Huntsville next time you are in Ontario).  Even I, as an artist, got on the bandwagon, initiating the ill-fated Street Art For Gleichen project while living in Gleichen, Alberta back in 1983.   

Link: Best Outdoor Murals in Canada

Several years ago, I heard Lacombe (100 km south of Edmonton on the QEII highway) had a great mural program and made a mental note to check them out when I was in the neighbourhood. That is exactly what happened on a trip to Edmonton this past January.

There is something intriging about how the murals and the dumpsters are juxtaposed.

There is something intriging about how the murals and the dumpsters are juxtaposed.

Giles’ work successfully integrate the existing buildings into his murals to create a lovely narrative and realism.

Giles’ work successfully integrate the existing buildings into his murals to create a lovely narrative and realism.

More than just murals

Lacombe (population: 13,000) has a lovely historic downtown main street with lots of early 20th century buildings. Who knew they have six designated Provincial historic buildings and the most intact concentration of Edwardian buildings in the province? 

Lacombe has a rich history.  It is named after Father Albert Lacombe (1827 – 1916), a Roman Catholic Oblate missionary who is best known for brokering peace between the Cree and Blackfoot to allow the Canadian Pacific Railway to build Canada’s transcontinental railway. It is where Governor General Roland Michener (1967 to 1974) was born.  In 1907, the federal government set up the Lacombe Experimental Farm, establishing the town as the agricultural hub for the region.  And, it is home to Burma University, formerly the Seventh-day Adventist Canadian University College campus which can be traced back to 1909.  

There are some fun shops including a mid-century bowling alley that look like a hoot.  And they have not one, not two, but three museums – Flatiron Museum, Michener House Museum and Blacksmith Shop Museum. 

Link: Lacombe Historical Resources

Note to self: Next time you are in Lacombe area, give yourself more time so you can check out the Burman University campus and the museums. 

Link: Burman University

But I digress…

Next time I will definitely be booking a lane at Ambassador Lanes.

Next time I will definitely be booking a lane at Ambassador Lanes.

Flatiron Museum & Interpretive Centre

Flatiron Museum & Interpretive Centre

Lacombe United Church

Lacombe United Church

Michener House

Michener House

Main Street

Main Street

Burma University

Burma University

Mural Capital of Alberta 

I was surprised to discover that most of the murals are done by one guy – Tim Giles. Giles, a self-taught artist, who comes from a family of artists, started creating murals in 2004 as part of Lacombe’s effort to win the Canada-wide “Communities in Bloom” contest.  He didn’t know if his first mural would be temporary or permanent, however they were well received and he was asked to do more.  

“More” meant he would eventually do 20+ murals – all in the back alleys of downtown Lacombe and all depicting the life of early area pioneers (from 1890 to 1910). In 2009, he completed another series of murals depicting life in the 1930s. Using archival photos of local street scenes, his painterly realism style of painting transformed Lacombe’s downtown alleys into a lovely, walk back in time.   

Link: Lacombe Regional Tourism Murals

I was surprised the murals were in such great shape given some are 15 years old. After some digging I learned why. In 2015, St. Albert, Alberta muralist Robert Murray was hired to restore the murals.  There are also new murals being added. Local sign painter turned artist, John Ellenberger (known as Little John) recently created a mural titled Clydesdale Parade based the Clydesdales were the common draft horse used for field work at the Lacombe Research Station.  

While wandering Lacombe’s alleys you quickly began to feel that you were actually wandering into the back yards of homes and businesses at the turn of the century.

While wandering Lacombe’s alleys you quickly began to feel that you were actually wandering into the back yards of homes and businesses at the turn of the century.

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Last Word

What I most loved about Lacombe’s mural program is that it gives visitors an immediate sense of the community’s pride not only in its history, but in its present and future. Rather than let their downtown decline as many smaller rural towns have done, they have kept theirs alive.

They are so proud of their mural they have proclaimed themselves, “The Mural Capital of Alberta.” And, who is going to argue with them?

Lacombe is great example of the importance of “civic pride.” If people are proud of where they live they will take ownership in it. They will ensure it’s streets, alleys and buildings are clean, safe and in good repair, which in turn will make the community an attractive place to live, work and play for themselves, as well as potential newcomers. 

If you ever find yourself in the Lacombe area, check out the murals and experience the community pride for yourself. Even if you have only 30 minutes. 

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Meeting Creek: Ghost Town Meets Art Town

2018 Summer of Murals: Beltline

2018 Summer of Murals: Northern Hills

Boise: Freakn Fun in Freak Alley 


Too Much Fun: Teapots to Hippos

One of the ten commandments of an “everyday tourist” is “thou shalt always look for an independent restaurant, retailer or café.”  Recently, while driving back from Edmonton to Calgary and needing a pitstop at Alberta’s famous “gasoline alley,” we looked for a local place to eat.

And, we were justly rewarded with a “too much fun” experience.

This Boler trailer teapot was one fo the first “too much fun” teapots I spotted at Glenn’s Family Restaurant.

This Boler trailer teapot was one fo the first “too much fun” teapots I spotted at Glenn’s Family Restaurant.

This one is for Tamara….

This one is for Tamara….

Glenn’s Family Restaurant

Just to be clear, for those who don’t know halfway between Calgary and Edmonton (distance 300 km) is a cluster of gas stations, fast food places and hotels that has been called “gasoline alley” for as long as anyone can remember.  There are probably a dozen gas stations, more than a dozen fast food restaurants and probably a baker’s dozen budget motels. Amongst the mostly chains, you can find a few unique gems.

As a good “everyday tourist” we looked for an independent restaurant where we thought we might find a heartier meal and eat amongst some locals. Without knowing what we were in for, we stumbled upon Glenn’s Family Restaurant at the south end of the alley. 

Yes there is even a custom Glenn’s Family Restaurant teapot.

Yes there is even a custom Glenn’s Family Restaurant teapot.

Teapot Surprise

It was a lively place on Saturday at about 10:30 am, but we were seated quickly. I immediately noticed that true to its name, this place had the feeling of an authentic “family” restaurant. In fact, it looked like a “grandma’s house” with knickknacks everywhere. Looking more closely, I realized it was a collection of very eclectic or some might say kitschy teapots.  For me they were simply “too much fun,” so I got out the phone and started taking pictures.

Soon, the manager came over and asked “can I help you?” Explaining that I was the “everyday tourist” he quickly offered to get any of the teapots down for me to see more closely.  I took a few more pics, then sat down to enjoy my Western Skillet meal with a huge tasty biscuit with Saskatoon berry syrup for dipping on the side (take that you grit-loving Southerners). 

After the meal, I decided to take more photos and the manager came up to me and said “do you want to see the really old ones in storage?” Yes, I did! But we were on a tight schedule so I said reluctantly “next time.” 

 But not before, noticing the wall of teas, I asked if he had any Lapsang Souchong tea and he said of course. What was I thinking, they have 200+ varieties of tea – the biggest selection in Alberta they claim. I asked about Tea Traders in Calgary, my favourite place to buy lapsang souchong and he said we probably have twice the selection.

Turns out the Manager was also the owner, Glenn Simon, the son of the original owner who opened the restaurant in 1986.  I also learned, the family owns the gift shop next door that was established by his Aunt Cindy (it use to be called Cindy’s Teapot Gallery & Gift shop). And, the Donut Mill two doors down (most Albertans living along the “Edmonton-Calgary Corridor” know it as the place with the huge windmill) is operated by Glenn’s son-in-law Parry Dyck, and daughter Michelle Dyck. There is truly a family affair happening on this stretch of gasoline alley!

The walls around the restaurant are lined with shelves showcasing Glenn’s kitschy teapot collection.

The walls around the restaurant are lined with shelves showcasing Glenn’s kitschy teapot collection.

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Glenn’s Great Wall Of Tea

Glenn’s Great Wall Of Tea

Cindy’s Teapot Gallery & Gift Shop

When I heard there were more teapots in the gift shop I had to check them out. Luckily my travel companions were also willing to come along for the fun.

Wowsers! The place was packed from floor to ceiling with not only teapots, cups and saucers but everything from kitschy animal sculptures to Lug travel accessories. It was a kaleidoscope of the colours and shapes that almost hurt the eye. 

But it was fun….

This is what you see upon entering Cindy’s….

This is what you see upon entering Cindy’s….

I not sure who the target market is for this large hippo ornament.

I not sure who the target market is for this large hippo ornament.

There are more Bolers and more teapots everywhere.

There are more Bolers and more teapots everywhere.

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Lesson Learned

Always look for the independent restaurant or retailer when you are travelling. You will almost always be rewarded with a fun experience.  

If you like this blog, you will love these links:

Calgary: Tea Trader & Lapsang Souchong

Art of Vintage: A Hidden Gem

Torrington: The Kitsch Capital of Alberta