Don Light doesn’t seem like a man who would choose to while away the hours. Currently 85 years old, Light walks with a cane loosely-gripped in his hand, “it’s for the stairs” he shares, but this is the only obvious indication that he’s slowing down some.
His Battleford office is in the home his father built and where his eldest daughter currently lives. The office is in the basement and, as Light switches to tour guide mode, he points out unique features of the rumpus room that have stayed basically the same since his father built it. He adds that his father also dug the entire basement himself, by hand. It’s possible keeping yourself occupied with projects may be a family trait.
Visitors to Light’s spacious but crammed office that runs the width of the basement are immediately greeted by a table piled high with papers and odds and ends and surrounded by cabinets full of Battleford records and RCMP history books, while photos of relatives dating back to the First World War and Canadian historical figures take up the rest of the available wall space.
Light’s interest in local history began sometime during his childhood. What happened, he says, is that his elder brother Doug began collecting historical records of the town after their uncle, Charlie Light, asked him to clear out a few boxes filled with old records from the post office and take them to the dump. Instead, Doug, with Don’s help, brought the boxes home.
Many of the binders of photocopied historical Fort Battleford records and other documents in Light’s collection today were first assembled by his brother and given to him by his sister-in-law after Doug passed away in 2008.
Of course, the brothers weren’t the only members of the family interested in their town’s history. The Fred Light Museum in Battleford was founded by their father and houses local artifacts, including western Canada’s “most comprehensive firearm collection,” a collection of military uniforms and accessories from both World Wars and the 1885 North-West Rebellion, as well as a replica of an old general store.
It seems likely the Light family’s interest in local history was due in part to their own rich family history. Light’s father was born in Fort Battleford in 1908, the son of S/Sgt. Frederick Walter Light, regimental number 2386, who was selected to attend Queen Victoria’s jubilee celebration in 1897 representing the Mounted Police.
These historical facts and dates about Light’s own family, as well as other prominent families in the area, come to him easily and without hesitation. Light picks up a large calendar from 1924 with an image of the Selkirk settlers he bought on a trip to Calgary while visiting his brother’s family. His mother, it turns out, is a descendant of Scottish Donald Gunn, who immigrated to the Red River area, along with other Selkirk settlers, on the “godship Eddystone” and became the Hon. Donald Gunn of Manitoba’s legislative council.
From these familial influences, Light says, his own interest in local history followed, as North-West Historical Society president and member, in addition to the work he did “to sustain” himself. Doug, meanwhile, made the shared family interest into his career. First in Banff as the Luxton Museum curator and later in Calgary as Glenbow’s director of collections.
Light is characteristically modest when speaking about his own career accomplishments as a consultant to Senator Herb Sparrow, as well as his business partner, and as part of Ross Thatcher’s campaign staff.
To hear Light tell it, his start was inauspicious when, at age 10, he started work in his father’s service station and garage behind the counter.
“(My father) wasn’t very tall, and like his mother, I think, he had a bad temper, so he wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense at all.
“He used to say to me ‘with your height, you have a tremendous advantage, you shouldn’t be shy. I’ll put you at the cash register, you be polite, I’ll tell you what to say.’”
A couple years later his father put him in charge of bookkeeping, although Light wasn’t as confident in his abilities.
“My dad put me in as the bookkeeper of his businesses, like I’m supposed to know,” he says, laughing, “so what he did, he got Joe Ulmer, who became the owner of Ulmer Chev, and he was working in the office at Boyd’s shop, so he came over and (trained me).”
After some time working for his father, Light, still a teenager, was looking to head out on his own.
“I got the notion that working for my dad wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I went over to Boyd’s garage and I asked at the office if they had any openings. They asked if I had any experience and I said ‘no, not really,’ but then Joe speaks up ‘oh yeah he can keep the books for you, no problem with that’ so I got that job.”
Sometime later, Light also found himself working for his Uncle Charlie, the postmaster, delivering mail and the Saskatoon StarPhoenix from the Battlefords to the train and from the train to the Battlefords every morning and night. He also had a stint farming a portion of land owned by a wealthy relative.
By the time Light was 20, he’d been working for 10 years, and was developing an interest in politics.
“There was a fellow by the name of Herb Sparrow and he was struggling, he was selling cars, so he talked me into helping him, he wanted to be elected.
“So,” Light continues, “Sparrow and I teamed up on that and then he was elected to council and I went to work for Ross Thatcher, and he was remarkable. I enjoyed that immensely.”
After campaigning with W. Ross Thatcher, who was an MP for Moose Jaw and would later become premier of Saskatchewan, Light again partnered up with Sparrow, this time, for fried chicken.
“Sparrow was trying to get Kentucky Fried Chicken going. It was kind of a wonderful time because we got to know the Colonel really well, he used to come and stay with us. He’d come for the fair parades.
“We went to Vegas. KFC used to have a show there every year. The Colonel was up there on stage and by this time he was old, he decided he was going to come down six or eight steps and someone wanted to help him and he (shrugged them off) and of course down he went,” Light says, laughing at the memory. “Then the old guy brushed off his white suit and carried on.”
Sparrow eventually did get the franchise, the third KFC in all of Canada, and later opened more in Meadow Lake and North Dakota.
For Light’s next career incarnation he tried his hand at land development, this time with Sparrow and three other partners.
There was an opportunity to buy a farm on the north side of the city but they had no money so, Light says, he went to his father for a $10,000 loan.
“My dad said, in a word, ‘no,’” Light recalls, laughing. “He could probably sense that I wasn’t pleased, so as I was getting up he said ‘but what I will do is sign your note at the bank’ and I said, ‘Oh well, that’s just as good as far as I’m concerned,’ so we borrowed the $10,000 and we raised the $110,000 at the bank and the five of us bought that Killdeer farm.
“Over by Country Kitchen, all the area going over west of the railway tracks, we bought 650 acres there. For the first time the City allowed a private developer, so we got it subdivided and started selling lots.”
Eventually, Light and Sparrow had a falling out. Sparrow had bought Light’s share but the payments stopped after the first two, Light says. At first Light didn’t push the subject because he “didn’t need the money.” Ultimately Light brought the issue to court and lost because, he says, the statute had expired.
Nowadays, Light keeps busy with his collection, with people often calling for information while researching their family and the area. Lately, too, he has begun a project with the North-West Historical Society to lobby the mayor’s office to rename streets in honour of Battleford citizens he believes contributed to the town in a meaningful way.
In this way, Light has left his own mark on Battleford history by keeping the family passion for local history alive, to serve not just himself, but all Battlefords residents and their descendants for years to come.