BANFF – When Catharine Robb married Peter Whyte and moved to his hometown of Banff in the Canadian Rockies, it was the start of a committed and prolific correspondence between her and her mother.
Robb Whyte penned 10,000 letters to her mother, Edith Robb Morse, who lived in Concord, Massachusetts. Every few days she would share her observations and the events of the community, or stories of her travels with her husband, from 1930 until her mother passed away in 1962.
She also founded what would become the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies after her husband's passing. It is through the establishment of that foundation that the museum came into possession of all the Whyte's possessions after her death, including the three decades worth of correspondence.
Collections processor Kate Riordon helped with the project to scan and digitize those letters in the Whyte's archives, which are now available online for anyone to read.
Riordon said the experience was thrilling for her, having been born and raised in Banff herself, and provided her with a unique opportunity to get to know her hometown better through a different perspective – Catharine's.
"Now that I am done with [scanning] the letters, I kind of miss her as she consumed so much of my work life and life in general," Riordon said, adding the community then and now still has a lot in common.
"Banff is a mountain town full of people who love to explore, create and consume. Nothing has changed. We like to think it has, but we just have faster cars and the Internet."
With Mother's Day coming up this weekend, and what would've been Robb Whyte's 115th birthday in June, making the collection of letters available to the public through the digitization project has been well timed.
Riordon said the letters show how close a relationship Robb Whyte had with her mother, adding she definitely mentions Mother's Day. She went so far as to say every day was Mother's Day because she thinks of her mother that often.
Many people write to their mothers, but nowadays it is through a direct messaging app, email or text messages. To have penned more than 10,000 letters (11,983 to be exact), puts Robb Whyte in an entirely different category.
"It is just such a foreign thing to the modern mind to write letters full stop, let alone to write as many as she did," Riordon said.
Robb Whyte grew up in a wealthy New England family, attended private school and even briefly dated John D. Rockefeller III. She met Peter Whyte at the Boston Museum of Fine Art in 1925 and the couple was eventually married. They moved to Banff, where Whyte's father owned one of the community's first general stores.
The remarkable legacy that the letters provide is a looking glass into the community from the early 1930s until the 1960s. The insights into local culture, observations about wildlife, Parks Canada, the Second World War, transportation, the couple's life filled with art and adventures and their relationship with friends from the Stoney Nakoda Nation.
The Whyte Museum’s education manager Jennifer Royal was also involved in the digitization project, which was made possible with funding from Library and Archives Canada.
“This has opened my eyes as to who she was, more as a person opposed to almost a character,” Royal said in a press release. “But it's such a lovely story about a lovely human being, and I can't wait for people to get to know Catharine.”
The sheer quantity of material made it difficult for Riordon to read every letter that she scanned on the museum’s flatbed scanner. But she was able to skim through them to pick out important names and events, including her husband’s family, and characters like Jim Brewster, Mary Vaux, George McLean, Jimmy Simpson Jr., Nick Morant – who was apparently a notorious prankster – and Col. Philip Moore, whom the local Legion was named after.
“I do feel like having read all these letters, not only do I know Catharine a lot better, but I also feel I know other people in town a lot better as well, despite the fact they have been dead for years before I was even born,” said Riordon
"That was another thing that was really neat," she said. "Being able to do such a wide breadth of them, you see how her interests and focus, and what she talks to her about."
Riordon said Robb Whyte told her mother about many of the dishes she cooked as well. Having grown up as part of the upper class, a young Catharine would have had servants to do all the housework required. That was not the case in Banff.
“From learning how to properly cook a chicken to using a pressure cooker,” she said. “She loved Hollandaise sauce and put it on everything, which I can relate to – if I had free rein on my diet, I would also put Hollandaise sauce on everything.
“[The letters] really run the gamut. So you get a really good idea of what was occupying her attention ... from cocktail parties and meeting friends at the Mount Royal for dinner ... to doing the laundry or washing the floors.”
Riordon kept a list of the most interesting anecdotes and insights made by Robb Whyte in the letters. For example, in July, 1937, she wrote about the first time she saw a grizzly bear.
“When we came up the other day and got to the bridge at Mosquito Creek what should we see but a grizzly bear and a tiny cub,” Robb Whyte wrote. “We were so surprised and stopped the car. The mother bear rose up on her hind legs and she was so prepared to protect her young that the froth streamed won from her moth and then they went off into the woods and as we drove over the bridge, the two were crossing the creek.
“It was pretty exciting and the first grizzly I’ve ever seen.”
Robb Whyte was a newcomer to Banff when she arrived after marrying her husband. So her observations resonated with Riordon as being some of the same insights she has heard from others who come to the tourist town to live and work.
“Honestly, it sounded a lot like remarks and comments, and impressions that my friends have made to me,” she said, adding, for example, she wrote to her mother to tell her that beavers have webbed feet and to complain about tourists.
The museum does have in its possession the letters from Edith to her daughter; however, at some point they were separated from Robb Whyte’s correspondence and are no longer in order of when they were sent. Riordon said those letters are not all dated, so adding them to the digital collection will take further efforts.
“Hopefully now that Catharine’s have been made more accessible, it would be easier for someone in the future to go and match Edith’s [letters],” she said.
Go to whyte.org/research-collections to explore the letters collection.