All posts by Jonathan Koch

Drawing on over a century of family history in southeastern Alberta, Jonathan Koch chronicles the forgotten people and places of southern Alberta, Canada's Badlands region.

Here’s to the Grange

The venerable Grange in 2006. It was a good day.

Last weekend was a bad one for Carmangay.

On Sunday this village of 250 was visited twice by fire, the scourge of many an old tyme prairie burg.

The region’s infamous gales drove a blaze eastward across the tinder dry plains towards the town, prompting an evacuation of the community Sunday afternoon.

The prairie fire burned up miles of the surrounding countryside, with videos of the onrushing inferno going viral, and grabbing headlines nationwide.

However in Carmangay, it is the loss of the venerable Grange Hotel in a conflagration hours earlier that this weekend will surely be remembered for.

Mere days after hosting the annual “world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade”, the Grange, with its iconic creamsicle coloured façade, was razed to the ground during the wee hours of Sunday, taking with it over 110 years of history and hijinks.

Continue reading Here’s to the Grange

Mike Drew, Hemaruka, and A mention in passing

My friend and colleague, Lorena Franchuk, alerted me to the fact that the legendary Calgary Sun photographer and columnist, Mike Drew, was on CBC Radio earlier today.

While I don’t know him personally, Mike was a great inspiration to me in the early days of this project. I was pleased to hear he and I are clearly cut from the same cloth, as he adheres to the same philoshphy on the Rockies as myself: you’ve seen one mountain, you’ve seen them all.

Be sure to listen in here:

https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-1/clip/15832445

The interview was also notable for the surprising amount of time taken discussing the desert outpost of Hemaruka.

Located roughly about half-way between Veteran and Youngstown on SH 884, this almost forgotten prairie burg is notable for its name, which is derived from a rather prolific railroad official named Warren:

Continue reading Mike Drew, Hemaruka, and A mention in passing

Search for grandfather’s story turns up Ranching roots of C.Y. School


C.Y. School, circa 1917
– Photo courtesy of Sandra Martin Guymon.

The subject of the email was “Re: C.Y. District school”.

Sandra Guymon, the director and sole employee of a “very very very small library” in upstate New York, was searching for information about this curiously named district in southern Alberta.

 “My Grandfather Duncan Lorne Martin was a school teacher at C.Y. District school. I have some photos from about 1917. I know he lived in Taber Alberta, but I don’t know anything about the C.Y. district, and can’t seem to find anything about it on the internet.”

Duncan L. Martin enlisted with the 49th battalion Edmonton, Canadian Expeditionary Force, during the First World War. 
– Photo courtesy of Sandra Martin Guymon.

As Guymon explained, Martin was a native of Tottenham, Ontario, who came west around 1917 to teach at C.Y. School, northwest of the town of Taber. Martin enlisted with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment towards the end of the First World War, returning to the C.Y. district in 1919.

Martin initially boarded with the Garrett and Wilhelmina Gertzen family, who lived on a farm near the school, and later married Wilhelmina following the couple’s divorce. In 1926, the Martins moved to another farm in the area, where they would eke out a living for over a decade.

According to Guymon, Duncan and Wilhelmina enjoyed some success during the wetter years of 1927-28, before eventually being driven off the land in 1937, victims of the twin economic and ecological disasters known today as the Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties.

After returning to Tottenham, Martin worked for a time in the post office before hiring on as construction labourer at Camp Borden, where army and flight training was undertaken for the Canadian armed forces during the Second World War. He was hospitalized in April 1940 when a trench he was working on caved in. Shortly afterwards he suffered a brain aneurysm, and passed away at the age of 49.

Some 80 years later, Guymon is seeking to learn more about her intrepid grandfather’s western adventures, and the country her father and grandparents called home.

“I hope they might start up a conversation!” she added.

As it turns out, the origin of the C.Y. is rooted in southern Alberta ranching history.

Both the C.Y. school and district derive their name from the C.Y. Ranch, which was established in the late 19th century along the Belly (now Oldman) River, north of what is now Taber.

Continue reading Search for grandfather’s story turns up Ranching roots of C.Y. School

Oyen endured trial and fire during efforts to construct first school

Charlotte Gorley was scanning some family photos when a couple of unfamiliar images captured her attention.

“I have found two photos of the Oyen school fire in [1918],” explained Ms. Gorley, a resident of Victoria, B.C., in an email message.  “The photos show clouds of smoke billowing out and a crowd of people watching.”

Postcard showing the fire at Oyen School in 1918.
– Image courtesy of the collection of Wilma Gyger (nee Gorley), daughter of Harold Gorley and Thelma Miller

On the back of one of the images, a postcard, was written: “This is a picture our school when it was in flames”, signed by “Barney, Oyen”.

Both images were from the collection of Wilma Gyger (nee Gorley), daughter of Harold Gorley and Thelma Miller, who passed away in 2017.

A genealogy researcher, Gorley wished to learn about the area, and the ‘backstory’ behind these postcards and images. 

Back of the postcard, addressed to Martin Gorley of Rosyth, Alberta, with the note “This is a picture of our first school when it was in flames”, signed “Barney. Oyen”. The postcard was erroneously dated “1916”, as the Oyen School fire took place in 1918.
– Image courtesy of the collection of Wilma Gyger (nee Gorley), daughter of Harold Gorley and Thelma Miller

“I’m curious to know more about the fire and the community of Oyen,” she added.

Continue reading Oyen endured trial and fire during efforts to construct first school

Finding fingerboard signs a lifelong passion for Seven Persons native

Devin Drozdz’s search for AMA / CAA “fingerboard” signs has taken him all across the province. Unfortunately, the signs he finds often no longer have the fingers in place, such as this one he found in Aug. 2019 in the M.D. of Pincher Creek, southwest of Head-smashed-in Buffalo Jump, at the intersection of Hwy. 785 and Twp. Rd. 84 (The Sheep Camp Road). – Photo courtesy of Devin Drozdz

A Seven Persons native’s passion for old road signage has led him to preserve the past, while pointing the way to his future.

Devin Drozdz, 22, developed a fascination for “fingerboard signs”, the once ubiquitous green arrows featuring the names of locales past and present found along the highways and by-ways of Alberta, as a youth growing up west of Medicine Hat.

Drozdz recalled it was his job to serve as the navigator on family road trips, and to read the maps and make sure they were on the right track.

“As a kid, I can remember seeing these fingerboard signs around and being fascinated by them.  There really is nothing else like it,” he explained.

The first of the province’s fingerboard signs were installed almost a century ago, as motorists took to Alberta’s rudimentary road network armed with sketched maps, and the hope their vintage era roadsters would get them where they wanted to go. The Alberta Motor Association began installing road markers in the late ‘20s, and as late as 2001 there were reportedly 1500 of the iconic green arrows pointing the way to places across the province as part of the AMA’s Rural Road Signage program.

In several instances, these signs at lonely country crossroads serve as the only visible reminder of rural communities and institutions, such as former one room schools or community halls, that have been lost to time. 

Continue reading Finding fingerboard signs a lifelong passion for Seven Persons native