SUNDRE — A local pioneer and hunter whose taxidermied trophies from around the world helped place the Sundre & District Museum on the map has died at the age of 101.
The late Chester Mjolsness was no stranger at the Sundre & District Museum, which held a special place in his heart and hosted in 2019 a portion of his centennial celebration.
Mjolsness, who for many years hung his hat here in town, died peacefully on March 5 surrounded by family at their Cochrane-area home.
The centenarian who played an important role in pioneering the community is remembered as a big personality who was full of life and love for Sundre.
Jaime Marr, who has an enthusiastic passion for preserving local history, got to know him pretty well over the span of several years since becoming the museum’s executive director, and said through tears that she would miss his random visits.
“Every time he popped into the museum, we would sit and chat,” said Marr last week during a phone interview.
“He always had a smile. He was always excited to talk, and happy to be here — coming to the museum always brought him great joy,” she said.
“He just had so much life in him. He always had a twinkle in his eye, a smile on his face, and was excited to discuss the different things that were happening at the museum. He was just really involved.”
Marr said she always enjoyed every opportunity to catch up with him whenever he would visit the museum.
“He was such a grandpa figure, and to me, I definitely picked up on that and just loved that,” she said, describing Mjolsness as a “warm, sophisticated human. I really enjoyed that about him.”
Also an avid outdoorsman who throughout his retirement years had embarked on numerous hunting excursions on multiple continents including Africa, he harboured a vast repertoire of stories that he loved to share.
“I’m not a hunter, but he was happy to sit and break it down,” said Marr, who also thought of him as a teacher.
Fighting through tears and taking a few moments to compose her thoughts when asked what she would notice most about his absence, Marr said, “I think I’ll miss Chester’s random visits — just out of the blue, stop in, have-a-coffee visit. That’s what I’m going to miss.”
Mjolsness’s wife Martha would “drop him off at the museum so that she could go get her hair done and go have coffee with her girlfriends, and just have some alone time,” she said.
“She’s always a hoot. I remember her just laughing, she’d wheel him in, and at first she would stick around. And I said, ‘Martha, just go. I’ve got him. He’s happy as a clam in this place!’”
The two would then sit in Marr’s office at the museum and chat over a cup of coffee for a little while.
“And then, he would move on into the wildlife exhibit,” she said.
“He would just spend a couple of hours in that exhibit, just remembering the adventures he had.”
On occasions when other visitors were there, she said Mjolsness was perfectly comfortable approaching them and recounting some of his stories.
But as much as he enjoyed reminiscing about his adventures, which over the years resulted in a substantial collection that he eventually donated to the museum specifically for the wildlife exhibit, the community was always close to his heart.
“I think one of his biggest accomplishments he would say, would be his contribution, or how he helped build Sundre,” said Marr.
“He was very proud of the work that he did.”
Born in Didsbury to Minnie and Louis Mjolsness on Oct. 14, 1919, Chester was raised on the family farm west of Sundre, where he learned the value of hard work, honesty and integrity. He carried those core values throughout his life, which paved a successful and prosperous path.
Along with his brother Lloyd, Chester owned and operated M & M Farming. But his primary passion was the logging industry. First operating as Mjolsness Bros. Ltd. in Sundre, Chester founded Spray Lake Sawmills — first in Canmore and then in its current location in Cochrane.
“He loved it,” said Marr. “The lumber industry was just huge for him.”
Perhaps the only thing he adored even more was his family.
“He was so proud of his children. He absolutely loved his children, he passed the legacy of lumber mill onto his sons,” said Marr.
After Chester sold the business to his son Barry in 1980, he began an exciting retirement. Never one to slow down, Chester spent the next 30 years pursuing his passion for hunting, along the way traveling to exotic locations around the world.
“I think he would say he was most proud of his legacy of helping to build the town of Sundre, and then his children,” said Marr, adding she would agree with him that he’d left an indelible mark.
“He employed so many people, he played a huge role in our Metis community here in Sundre. A lot of people just don’t realize the impact he had here,” she said.
From her perspective as a local historian, she also felt compelled to recognize his substantial contribution as well as the role he played supporting the Sundre & District Historical Society.
“The donation he did of his wildlife exhibit, really helped draw tourism to the town of Sundre, and he did that purposefully,” she said.
“He had the opportunity to put the wildlife exhibit in a different location, and he chose to put it in Sundre because he loved this community so much.”
He leaves to mourn his loving wife, Martha of Bottrel; two sons, Brian of Atlin, B.C. and Barry (Lorna) of Calgary; and daughter, Lorie (Royce) of Cochrane. Chester will also be missed by 11 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, two great-great grandchildren as well as many nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by first wife Beryl in 1996, son Steven in 1956, daughter Cindy in 2017, great-granddaughter Leisha-Daun in 1995, sisters Gladys and Marion, and brother Lloyd.
“It’s important for us to recognize the role that people have played here,” said Marr.
“We want to make sure that we honour Chester and the Mjolsness family,” she said, adding two of the society’s board members belong to the family.
“We just want to make sure that the legacy of our pioneering families lives on. The Mjolsness family is absolutely a pioneering family that we’re going to recognize, and we’ll have something here in the future months as we start to reopen, that will honour that family.”
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