Origin of the name of the Hamlet of Hairy Hill
Recently the Edmonton Journal ran a photo essay and article about the Hamlet of Hairy Hill, which included the story about the origin of the name (see the Further Reading section below for links). Hairy Hill is undoubtedly one of the most unusual place names in Alberta. It is a name that frequently raises questions, not to mention more than a few eyebrows.
The region around what is now Hairy Hill has been historically known as both the Whitford District and the Soda Lake District. In November 1903, a post office by the name of Soda Lake was established with A. E. Boutellier as the first postmaster. The post office name was in reference to a highly alkaline lake located nearby (which has since dried up). However, in February 1907, a new post office was opened closer to the lake. Probably in recognition of geographical realities and to avoid confusion, the new post office was given the name Soda Lake, meaning the older post office needed a new name. (Click on the above image for a larger view.)
The new name chosen for the post office was inspired by a strange phenomenon the region’s early settlers had observed. In the 1940s, folklorists recorded this story told by George Chrapka, an early resident of the area:
The first settlers, on moving into this district … chose the site for their new homes on a large flat hill. This hill, however, was somewhat different from any other they had seen. Everywhere they looked they saw large mats of hair covering the ground. Naturally they were puzzled, but with the coming of the spring also came an answer. One bright morning they saw a hundred or more buffalo roaming lazily along the slopes of the hill. On going to the spot they found fresh mats of hair. This solved the “hairy mystery,” and also suggested a name for the locality – Hairy Hill.
Many mammals grow a shaggy coat during the winter, which they shed in the spring. North American bison, commonly referred to as buffalo, are known to rub themselves on the ground and against foliage to rid themselves of their winter coats. Jack Brink, a former archaeologist with the Alberta Archeological Survey and now a curator at the Royal Alberta Museum, has commented:
Bison, or buffalo as they are commonly known, have lived in central Alberta for thousands of years. The area around Hairy Hill would have been an especially attractive region because it straddles the boundary of two eco-zones: the plains to the south and the parkland and forest to the north. As such it offers access to and advantages of both regions. Hilly areas offered lush grass, greater moisture and some protection from extremes of weather. So it is reasonable to suggest that Hairy Hill was a popular spot for bison herds. This could account for the historic records of great amounts of buffalo hair found on the hill by early settlers.
Year after year, while there was still bison roaming the plains, they would return each spring to this hill, leaving new deposits of hair over its surface. The settlers called the place Hairy Hill. The unusual name stuck, gained a following and in 1907, the regional post office was given the name Hairy Hill.
As the writer of the Edmonton Journal article points out, Hairy Hill’s history is a common one for many of Alberta’s rural communities – a promising and optimistic start followed by disappointment and decline. The population of Hairy Hill grew, slowly but steadily, over the first few decades. In 1928, the Canadain Pacific Railway built an east-west line through the community. Soon after the completion of the rail line, Hairy Hill boasted a large school, numerous stores, and up to six grain elevators. By 1946 the population had reached 235 and the community was erected as a village. The population continued to grow, reaching a high of 250 in 1948 before beginning a steady decline, falling to 136 by the late-1960s. The population dropped precipitously through the 1970s and 1980s, reaching a low of 54 people by 1993. In 1996, the village was dissolved and Hairy Hill became a hamlet under the jurisdiction of the County of Two Hills No. 21.
Written by: Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Officer and Geographic Names Program Coordinator
National Topographic System Map Sheet: 73 E/13 – Hairy Hill
Latitude/Longitude: 53° 45′ 48″ N & 111° 58′ 43″ W
Alberta Township System: Sec 23 Twp 55 Rge 14 W4
Description: Approximately 18 km northwest of the Town of Two Hills and 11 km southeast of the Village of Willingdon.
More information about Hairy Hill can be found in:
Chrapka, George. “How Hairy Hill got its Name,” Alberta Folklore Quarterly, Vol. 2 no. 1 (March 1946), p. 34, available from the Alberta Folklore and Local History Collection, University of Alberta Libraries http://www.ourfutureourpast.ca/folklore.html.
Lucas, John. “Gallery: Hairy Hill,” Edmonton Journal, 29 October 2011, Available from http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/photos/Gallery+Hairy+Hill/5628500/story.html.
Mah, Bill. “Hamlet of Hairy Hill Fading Slowly Into Alberta’s Past,” Edmonton Journal, 30 October 2011, Available from http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Hamlet+Hairy+Hill+fading+slowly+into+Alberta+past/5630654/story.html.