A peculiar facet of southern Alberta’s pioneer-era history is that there is little permanence to it. While we tend to adhere to an old world bias that history involves a permanent physical and literary record, neither of these exist throughout much of the plains. Much of Palliser’s Triangle was settled and abandoned a century ago, and with the pioneer exodus went the stories of hope and heartbreak, which were quickly forgotten as new lives were built somewhere else and generations passed on. Inevitably, the physical evidence of the homestead experiment is fading, with man and Mother Nature working in consort to set the clock back to zero. In time it will be like they were never here at all.
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Thankfully, the memory of Alderson (nee Carlstadt) at the peak of the settlement boom was chronicled in great detail by photographers, Chester Coffey in particular. The Starr family seems to have been a favoured subject, and several photographs documenting their presence in the community now existence within the province’s archival collections.
“Among the strong riders of the plains in those days of the big round-up and the chuck wagon, was one who had something of the “seer’s vision” and he pondered as he rode over that great triangle, between the 4th and 5th Meridians and on either side of the 51st standard parallel, which apexes at the now cities of Calgary, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. The burden of his thought was, “If only this land could be watered what a glorious thing it would be.”
– Excerpt from “The Story of the Big Ditch” by E. Cora Hind (1912)
As we drove eastward on Secondary Highway 524, emerging from the haze of the “Hays Maze” (and its famous maize), the broad sweep of the Bow valley came partially into view, revealing the remains of Ronalane.
Despite being nearly three hours and 300 kilometres away from the conflagration at Waterton, acrid smoke hung heavy in the air, seemingly unmoved by the steady gale that swirled the scorched grass around our feet.
The dream of J.D. McGregor, he of the “seer’s vision”, was never to come to pass here, but out here on arid steppe, the sepia smog that obscured the view also served to underscore the scale of this ambitious failure, a testament to the overreach and ambition of those who attempted to colonize these unforgiving plains over a century ago.
Highway 25 north of Lethbridge is mostly known for one thing: cows. This is heart of “Feedlot Alley“, the highest concentration of intensive farming operations in Alberta, which produces over half of the beef consumed in Canada. While industrial farms dominate the landscape today, the area’s roots are deep underground, in the rich coal seams that run along the Oldman River. Underneath silage pits, cattle pens, and pivot tracks lie a rich heritage of boom towns, ghost towns, and a pioneer history dating back over century.
Sad news coming from Orion, Alberta this morning. I have received word from a few friends of Forgotten Alberta that the pioneer-era hardware store operated by prairie icon, Boyd Stevens, burned to the ground on Christmas Day.
Comments on Facebook and elsewhere online indicate that Boyd is safe, but I will post confirmation and further details once they become available.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have stopped by Stevens Hardware on a few occasions in during sojourns through the south, and had the privilege of conversing with Boyd about his life and times in isolated Orion, Alberta. Visitors to Stevens Hardware were assured of great conversation, and came away knowing the intimate details of the history of the region. Hopefully Boyd made it through okay, and his family’s legacy will continue.
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First of all, I have to apologize that it has taken me so long to get this post online. The pace of my personal and professional life has ramped up considerably, leaving me with less and less time to devote to my passion, the Forgotten Alberta project. However, on the flip side. I’m truly blessed through the course of my work to be able to work alongside many passionate and dedicated rural Alberta residents who are making their communities better places to live. Last month I was honoured to spend time in Veteran, Consort, and Oyen, where I interviewed local residents, and learned about rural leadership, and the challenges of keeping healthcare professionals in rural communities. I also encountered a stretch of glorious summer weather (one of the few this year), and some spectacular scenery in my travels throughout the Special Areas.