Skip to content

Museum of Making a bucket list adventure through the history of machines

"I feel like I am the custodian of these objects somehow and there is a story to tell. If you do it right, it is an interesting story for somebody. Not everybody, but somebody."

BIGHORN – Ian MacGregor is a collector of stories. 

His collection tells the tale of machines and tools used in North America and Britain from 1750 to 1920 and has been turned into the Canadian Museum of Making, on display in an underground labyrinth beneath an original homestead in the foothills between Cochrane and Canmore.

"The things that are in here, I tried to save stuff that was unique and if it got melted down, you would never see it again in your life," MacGregor said. 

"I feel like I am the custodian of these objects somehow and there is a story to tell. If you do it right, it is an interesting story for somebody. Not everybody, but somebody."

Preserved and still in perfect working order, the goal is to provide an accurate history of machinery for those interested in it. But if you want to tour the facility, you will have to wait for the opportunity to arise as the museum is not open to the general public. It is open for private tours and events like the recent Way Out West Fest held mid-September. 

Organizer Ingrid Schulz said the goal of the event, in its fourth year, was to bridge the gap between rural and urban Albertans by providing hands-on experiences. 

“I always found a big, big disconnect between the people in the city, urban Calgarians, with the West,” Schulz said previously. “It kind of tweaked me all the time that urban Calgary wasn’t getting to experience the West the way you should.”

In addition to a tour of the museum, the event offered a viewing of the Rock House in Carraig Ridge, MacGregor's residential subdivision project in the MD of Bighorn along Jamieson Road. 

MacGregor, who made his fortune in oil and gas with companies like North West Refining and Enhance Energy Inc., began to build the 20,000-square-foot underground museum in 2001. 

He said as a businessman, he has gone through several phases of taking a company from startup to success, then selling and "retiring" for a period of time until he finds a new venture to pursue. His current project, the Sturgeon Refinery northeast of Edmonton, is a multi-billion dollar venture to turn bitumen into diesel by the North West Redwater Partnership. 

MacGregor has curated the collection's display throughout the museum as it winds its way underneath the original homestead, which has also been restored with meticulous attention to detail.

The fireplace, for example, warms the inside of the modest-sized cabin with a steam locomotive. Custom built to sit half inside, half outside, the other half features a barbecue grill. Tucked away above engine, is a hidden loft for the young and young-at-heart to hide out. 

"In the mountains of truth, you never climb in vain," is written in gold above the hearth. 

With a nod to the arts and crafts architectural movement, the homestead and museum carries through it a windmill theme. An intentional choice for a self-made entrepreneur like MacGregor, who pays attention to the details.

"I have a theory," he said, standing in a room custom-built to house a 19th century tandem compound mill engine named Mary. "When you are doing things like this, you can either do them as best as you can do them, or don’t bother." 

When MacGregor came across it in Halifax, England, the steam engine had been locked away in a room since 1954. Getting Mary's story right was a priority. It took a year to determine the right dimensions for the space needed to display it. 

A quote from Mark Twain sits above Mary: "Action speaks louder than words, but not nearly as often." 

"It all comes with a story," MacGregor said. "Like that drill over there came from a very small shipyard in Pictou, Nova Scotia." 

He had heard about the unique drill and approached the owner, who was in long-term care and only interested in selling the shipyard as a whole. 

MacGregor kept going back over the course of a couple of years to convince the man to change his mind, but instead ended up changing his and bought the entire shipyard in order to acquire the drill. It took him a year to offload the rest of the contents, "but I got the drill for free." 

"The drill was an unusual drill – I had never seen one like it in my life," he said. 

In addition to collecting tools and machines like steam engines and drills that date back to the industrial revolution, MacGregor's collections include two rooms dedicated to African metalwork. The first room focuses on alloys and the second on iron.  

"I am more interested in iron, but I thought there was a complete story to tell, so I had to have the whole thing," he said. 

"The plan with this [collection] is we will give it to the Glenbow [Museum] eventually, because they have a really good collection too and if you put the two of them together – that would be as good as it gets." 

Scattered throughout are bits and pieces of his own family's history in Alberta. MacGregor is from Calgary, having grown up in the Renfrew and Brentwood areas before attending the University of Calgary's engineering program and graduating in 1971. 

Also a collector of books and manuscripts, MacGregor's display of machinery is accompanied by schematics and drawings of them. It is a detailed added touch that gives visitors a sense of how important it has been for the collection to tell the story behind each piece. 

"Usually for us it is an iterative process," he said with respect to how everything is displayed. 

That process continues today with MacGregor and his staff of five in his fabrication shop working to rebuild a small oil refinery and a selection of drilling equipment on site representing the early history of the industry in Alberta. 

"We are trying to set up this oilfield and you can't do that inside," he said. "We have all the tools that were with it. We haven’t figured out how we are going to set it up yet, but we are working away at it." 

Go to the Canadian Museum of Making's website to find out more. 

Tanya Foubert

About the Author: Tanya Foubert

Tanya Foubert started as a news reporter at the Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2006. She won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best news story for her coverage of the 2013 flood. In December 2018, she became editor of the Outlook.
Read more