She wrote her mother every other day – for over thirty years – in clear cursive writing, animated with little drawings and sketches.
Catharine Robb Whyte had so much to say about her amazing new life. And she knew her mother was worried about her: her young daughter, newly married to an artist, living in a small mountain town thousands of miles away.
When Catharine Robb married Peter Whyte in 1930, they moved to Banff where they stayed with Peter’s relatives and at the Mount Royal Hotel while building their log cabin on the White property beside the Bow River. She had come from Concord Massachusetts, a debutante from a wealthy family with servants, cars, houses and sailboats.
Catharine was well-read, and a warm and compassionate communicator, to the hundreds of people who arrived at their door for a visit, and to her many friends and family.
But it is in her letters to her mother that she reveals her impressions and exuberance for the new life in the mountains. In these letters – more than ten thousand of them - written over a 33-year period, she traces the growth of Banff as a community, the colourful people and events that shaped it, and her growing commitment to making it flourish.
Friday, May 27th 1939:
There was a stir at the King Edward corner, they were coming…It was an open car, the Queen on our side smiling and making her gracious gesture with her right hand, she had on a lovely pinkish hat…Then I realized I hadn't seen the King and as they passed us he was sitting on the edge of his seat and was bare headed looking quite tanned and very young. It was all over and we just stood, it seemed like a dream it was all so unreal, Pete felt they had looked like wax, and though they were within ten feet of us we hardly could take it all in."
For the first time, the Archives and Special Collections of the Whyte is digitizing this priceless collection of personal letters by our remarkable founder. Two staff, Kate Riordan and Jennifer Royal have divided the collection and are digitizing the papers to make them available to the public in time for Catharine’s 115th birthday on June 13, 2021.
It’s distracting work.
“Digitizing Catharine’s letters is more than a privilege, it’s a treat,” says Kate Riordan. “I live for her stories of the wildlife in their yard, Pete constantly fiddling with his camera equipment, and her thorough retellings of conversations with all the friends and visitors who come calling. Her handwriting sometimes takes some puzzling, and often her typewriter needs new ribbons, but her words are always clear and the letters always signed with love.”
Education Manager Jennifer Royal has found the project completely absorbing. “For years I’ve wanted to delve into Catharine’s personal letters to her mother. I speak about Catharine all of the time, but I don’t really know her. Now, I’m learning her favourite phrases, I’m seeing her willingness to try different activities and meet people in her new life in Banff, and I’m hearing her pride when making her own curtains or Campbell’s soup for visitors on the stove in her new house. When a project arises involving the Whyte Museum’s collection — and the founder’s personal letters in particular — it seems so much more meaningful. Catharine as a person is emerging. Being able to digitize Catharine’s letters was an unexpected but absolute treat this year.”
Editor’s note: Now, quick, write a letter to your mom, or a mother you know!