Oil Sands history and archaeology featured in award winner’s poems

In the spring of 2010, I took award-winning poet David Martin on a tour of Bitumount, an oil sands separation plant located on the Athabasca River north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. This provincially-designated historic site was founded in the late 1920s by Robert Fitzsimmons, a man whose unique sense of entrepreneurship and ability to stir convention made him one of the most colourful characters in oil sands history.

Bitumount Site Provincial Historic Resource, near Fort McMurray  (Historic Resources Management Branch, July 2005).
Bitumount Site Provincial Historic Resource, near Fort McMurray
(Historic Resources Management Branch, July 2005).

Fitzsimmons’ story is an important element of David’s recent work, a collection of poems that examines the oil sands milieu from historical, archaeological and even geological perspectives. His compositions have been published in literary journals such as The Malahat Review, Grain magazine, The Fiddlehead and CV2, and he won the 2014 CBC Poetry prize for his oil sands themed poem “Tar Swan.” Fitzsimmons and the oil sands archaeological record are also featured in “Ballad of RCF,” a song from Stone Boat, the second album from David’s pop rock group The Fragments.

Our visit to Bitumount, and the pre-contact period archaeological excavations nearby, provided David with insight into the oil sands past that he could not gain by other means. This illustrates an element of historic resource preservation that is rarely documented: literary inspiration. I spoke to David about the trip, oil sands as poetry and how he incorporates archaeological information into his work.

The powerhouse at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).
The powerhouse at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).

What drew you to write about Robert Fitzsimmons and Bitumount?

I felt that the Fitzsimmons story offered me a smaller, more manageable way to write about the oil sands, rather than to focus on current industrial operations. Fitzsimmons was undoubtedly a very charismatic person, so naturally I was drawn to his experiences. I read about him in several history books, as well as in his personal letters and a small pamphlet that he published; although I quickly learned that he was not always the most reliable source in discussing his own work.

How did the trip to Bitumount and the surrounding area influence your writing?

I had done a great deal of research before the trip, such as reading books and examining documents in the Provincial Archives. However, being at the actual site offered me many details that I would never have discovered in books or photographs. I was able to incorporate these small details into the poems, which I believe helps to give my work a sense of verisimilitude.

I was keen to visit Bitumount because it presented a tangible way to understand the development of the oil sands, and it was fascinating to see it in the context of the surrounding environment: an abandoned industrial site hidden within the boreal forest. As well, there are different phases of history within this single space, such as the original Fitzsimmons plant, the larger provincial pilot plant that was later built and the modern debris left by people who have passed through the area.

Remains of a small barge at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).
Remains of a small barge at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).

What site feature or landscape feature struck you the most?

I had previously seen a brief archival film of Fitzsimmons piloting his boat, The Golden Slipper, and it was an amazing moment for me to see the same boat tucked beneath a small A-frame shelter. The boat is slowly falling apart but the name is still visible, and this was a powerful way for me to connect the history I had been learning about with a physical object in front of me. It’s always inspiring when history appears in a concrete form.

It was also interesting, and a bit eerie, to see handwritten words at the entrance to one of the buildings, supposedly from Ernie Eakins, a long time caretaker of the Bitumount site. In neat blue cursive it reads: “You will never never make it home again if I catch you in this lab.” He probably wrote this note to scare off trespassers, but it was unsettling to read it in the abandoned building.

The incorporation of boreal forest archaeology in your poems is certainly unconventional. What role does archaeology play in your compositions? What source information did you draw upon?

The archaeological work in the Athabasca area was important for my poems because it reveals a historical context that extends back thousands of years. Just as important, though, was my learning about excavations of more recent sites, such as Fitzsimmons’ early drilling camp. The archeological dig serves as a narrative frame for my work; it demonstrates a way of literally uncovering history.

Another archaeological idea that is central to my work is debitage: making inferences about the past based on debris and fragments. Debitage analysis seems like a fitting analogy for what my poems are aiming for — building a connection to the past by using the imagination and the fragments that have survived from that time.

Will you continue to mine historical information for future compositions?

Currently I’m researching about lake sediment sampling for some poems. I’m drawn to the idea that a core sample can contain a great deal of information about what the environment was like thousands of years ago.

Written by: Robin Woywitka, Cultural Land Use Analyst, and a special thanks to David Martin for his participation.

David holding a piece of bitumen (photo by David Martin).
David holding a piece of bitumen (photo by David Martin).

Below is an excerpt from David Martin’s oil sands poetry manuscript:

The road, paved with bitu-phalt,
rutted, dimpled, summer-soft:

a stubborn swipe between
Fitzsimmons and Government.

Frogs draw in counterpoint
behind the boiler house.

Across the river, the Horizon Project,
a mouth-brooding grandnephew,

punctures its dull tonic
with bleats of backfiring cannons –

Where do you stand?
Where do you stand?

The boat is slack, leaves
and moss rising, no one to bail.


South: other minds left behind
a beached steam engine, fridge

shamed in the woods, wind-hewn
garage, stalagmite-filled pump house,

and clutches of tanks and tubs –
all mute actors in a government-funded

play that closed on opening night.

Behind the scrum: a muskeg’s frame
freed of its burden.

Topographic hills relent; a drop
of bitumen syrup galls the whorls,

stains the finger.
The song resents the singer.

Narcisse Blood Remembrance

Mokaakiit Iikakimat!

Narcisse Blood (Tatsikiistamik) was a Blackfoot Elder, teacher, academic, artist and visionary. Narcisse passed away, along with Michael Green, co-founder of the One Yellow Rabbit (OYR) theatre company and founder of the Making Treaty 7 initiative, Michele Sereda, artistic director of Regina’s Curtain Razor Theatre, and dancer Lacy Morin-Desjarlais in a tragic car accident on February 10, 2015. Narcisse was well known to those of us in Alberta Culture and Tourism who had the privilege of meeting and working with him for well over twenty years. His commitment to sharing Blackfoot culture, his welcoming and sharing approach to teaching others and his ability to bring people together will be dearly missed. Seeing Narcisse on the many fieldtrips he took with students from Red Crow College or the chance to hear Narcisse speak and teach others about Blackfoot culture has all been integral to the work we do here at Alberta Culture and Tourism. Through all of his efforts and all of his talents, Narcisse challenged us to see ourselves differently in our relationships with each other, for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. He taught us to be honest about the past but not be limited by the hard legacies left to us. He encouraged us to share stories about the past so we may learn from each other, so Blackfoot people and their stories are shared and heard by others, so we can all understand and appreciate our history better. We are all Treaty people after all.

Narcisse Blood, photo by Jack Brink.
Narcisse Blood, photo by Jack Brink.

In Narcisse’s own words, “mokaakiit Iikakimat”, to strive and persevere, may we all take this message to heart as we continue working together to preserve our past, share our stories and build a more inclusive and meaningful understanding of who we are as a community.

The following are a few personal reflections from the staff at Alberta Culture and Tourism who had long standing personal and professional relationships with Narcisse:

“There are those who stand out in time and place and Narcisse was one of those. He left a legacy of hope and future for our Blackfoot ways of knowing things, all those things that teach about humility, the great spirits teachings and reaching out to those who seek out knowledge about the land. He was a true ambassador and champion for his people.” – Blair First Rider, Aboriginal Heritage, Historic Resources Management Branch

“Narcisse leaves a huge void in the Alberta cultural heritage and arts community and in the hearts of all those who knew him. He contributed in so many ways to building cultural understanding–the heart and soul of what we do. Narcisse worked closely with staff at the Royal Alberta Museum and Alberta Justice on developing the First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act. With characteristic patience and good humour, he gently but firmly educated Government of Alberta staff on the importance of bringing home sacred Blackfoot Bundles. The First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act (FNSCORA) – the first repatriation legislation in Canada – is a testament to his vision and his dedication. Over the years, Narcisse’s hard work and unwavering commitment brought home to Blackfoot country sacred Bundles from museum collections around the world.

As a member of the Royal Alberta Museum’s Aboriginal Advisory panel, Narcisse sparked ideas for our displays and counseled us on exhibit development. He helped identify themes for the Museum’s future history galleries, advised us on display content, and encouraged us to think in new ways about what we could achieve, working together. We will miss this esteemed colleague and beloved friend very much.” – Susan Berry, Royal Alberta Museum

“For many years Narcisse worked closely with archaeologists from across the province, including staff at the Royal Alberta Museum and the Archaeological Survey. Narcisse was a visionary who saw the value of collaboration. He routinely invited archaeologists to accompany his Red Crow College students on visits to important archaeological sites, such as buffalo jumps and medicine wheels, so that the students were exposed to both traditional and scientific perspectives. He willingly participated on archaeological tours lending his informed and reasoned voice to the interpretation. He has been a major force in the interpretation of sacred rock art sites in Writing-on-Stone Park, and was a key player in the development of the new Visitor Centre. Few if any other Aboriginal leaders had such a profound and lasting impact on the practice of archaeology across Alberta and on archaeologists themselves. His contributions will live on, but his warm and welcoming presence will be sorely missed.” – Jack Brink, Royal Alberta Museum

We would like to send our heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Narcisse, and Michael Green, Michele Sereda and Lacy Morin-Desjarlais. Our thoughts are with you during this most difficult time.

African American Immigration to Alberta

In the early twentieth century, hundreds of African Americans crossed the border in search of land and opportunity in the Prairie West. Many of these immigrants ultimately settled in Alberta, establishing communities such as Wildwood, Keystone (now Breton), Campsie and Amber Valley. The story of these settlers is one of perseverance on both sides of the border – driven out of the United States by persecution and violence, African American migrants had to overcome racist hostility and other barriers on the road to successful settlement in Alberta.

In the minds of many African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Canada was a land of freedom and opportunity. As detailed by historian Sarah-Jane Mathieu, this positive view was rooted in several factors, including Canada’s status as a refuge for runaway slaves in the mid-nineteenth century, and a general perception that African Americans would enjoy fairer treatment under Canadian than American law. This idealization of Canada was heightened by the harsh reality of life for many African Americans, as promises of land and equality in the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) gave way to segregation, violence and legally-sanctioned discrimination. By the late nineteenth century, many African Americans viewed migration to Canada with increasing favour.

L-R: Thomas Mapp, Richard Hinton, Geneva Mapp, Eva Mapp, Ferris Mapp, Nouvella Hinton, an African American family from Amber Valley, Alberta, ca. 1925 (Glenbow Archives, NA-316-1).
L-R: Thomas Mapp, Richard Hinton, Geneva Mapp, Eva Mapp, Ferris Mapp, and Nouvella Hinton, from Amber Valley, Alberta, ca. 1925 (Glenbow Archives, NA-316-1).

This view of Canada as a haven for African American settlers would prove overly optimistic. A sharp increase in African American immigration to western Canada in 1909-1910 sparked a severe backlash across the region, including several cities in Alberta. The Edmonton Board of Trade prepared a petition calling on the federal government to act against the “serious menace” of ‘negro’ immigration, warning that it would result in “bitter race hatred” if left unchecked. The petition was endorsed by the Boards of Trade for Fort Saskatchewan, Strathcona and Calgary, and was signed by over three thousand citizens of Edmonton, at a time when the city’s population was only twenty-four thousand. Newspapers printed sensationalist stories about the impending “invasion of Negroes,” and while some voices were raised in support of the rights of African American settlers, the federal government came under intense public pressure to take action.

This pressure placed the Government of Canada in a very awkward position. The government was reluctant to openly admit that its immigration policy was dictated by considerations of race (even though that precedent had already been set with the passage of the Chinese Head Tax in 1885). Specifically barring African Americans from entry into Canada at a time when the government was working hard to attract white American homesteaders would create a glaring inconsistency in Canada’s immigration policy. Further, the Canadian government did not want to risk a public dispute with the American government over the issue by explicitly banning the free movement of some of its people across the border.

Instead of enacting an outright ban, the Canadian government took other measures to try and restrict African American immigration. For example, medical examiners stationed at border crossings were instructed to scrutinize African American immigrants for any medical condition that would justify their exclusion, quietly offering a financial bonus to doctors for each African American immigrant rejected at the border. Inspectors were also told to make certain that African American immigrants had adequate cash on hand to successfully homestead – at least two hundred dollars – even though such agents had the power to waive such a requirement for white immigrants. Frustratingly for the federal government, these measures were met with limited success – African American immigrants proved to be healthy, prosperous and well prepared for the challenge that met them at the border. The influx of African American immigrants thus continued through 1910 and 1911.

Facing continued pressure to act, Minister of the Interior Frank Oliver drafted an Order in Council in 1911 that banned “any immigrants belonging to the Negro race” from entering Canada for one year. The Order in Council was approved by Prime Minister Laurier, but the government continued to stall, fearing that enacting an open ban would harm Canadian-American relations at a time when the two governments were negotiating a major trade agreement. Instead, the Canadian government made one final effort to cut off African American immigration at the source by deploying agents to warn potential immigrants about Canada’s harsh and unforgiving climate. The hypocrisy of this strategy was remarkable – at a time when the Canadian government was working hard to assure white Americans that rumours of Canada’s cold climate were exaggerated, other agents were telling potential African American immigrants that Canada was a barren, arctic wasteland. These measures, coupled with the hostile reception already given to African American immigrants, worked to discourage potential migrants and African American immigration to Canada declined after 1911.

To some degree, this legacy of hostility dictated the settlement patterns of those African Americans, about one thousand, who did make it across the border to settle in Alberta in this period. Rather than accepting the best available land as individual homesteaders, they tended to settle in somewhat isolated rural areas where land was plentiful, if somewhat marginal, and they could establish self-sufficient, independent communities. The isolation that allowed such cohesive communities to form also worked against their survival, however, as the children of the first wave of immigrants tended to move on to Alberta’s urban centres in search of better economic opportunity. Of the early settlements, Amber Valley proved to be the most durable, surviving through the Great Depression and World War Two as an important centre of African American settlement in the province.

The story of early twentieth-century African American immigration is an important chapter in the broader history of agricultural settlement in the Canadian west. African Americans sought land and security in Canada at a time when the federal government was eager to attract homesteaders with farming experience. There was little question that the African Americans fleeing Oklahoma possessed the qualifications that the Canadian government prized in immigrants – even the Edmonton Board of Trade’s petition did not deny that “these people may be good farmers or good citizens.” However, the backlash against them, at a time when they comprised up a miniscule proportion of the population, illustrates the extent to which considerations of race entered into immigration policy and what constituted, in the public mind, a desirable settler for Canada. Approximately one thousand African Americans managed to find a home in Alberta between 1909 and 1911, but the public reaction and sustained effort to keep them from entering Canada speaks volumes about the challenges they had to overcome on the road to starting a new life in Alberta.

Written by: Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer.


Mathieu, Sarah-Jane. North of the Colour Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Palmer, Howard, and Tamara Palmer, eds. Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.

Winks, Robin W. The Blacks in Canada: A History. 2nd ed. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997.

Ancient Origins, Modern Marvels in Drumheller

Visitors to the Town of Drumheller can now learn more about the history, geology and natural resources of the community with the installation of a new Alberta Historical Resources Foundation Heritage Marker. Combining text with contemporary and archival photographs, the marker describes how the forces of nature shaped the area’s striking landscape and left the region rich in the two resources that would define Drumheller’s future – coal and dinosaur fossils.

Heritage Marker along Highway 9, north of Drumheller.
The Drumheller Heritage Marker up-close (Courtesy of Stefan Cieslik, Historic Resources Management Branch).

It was coal that first attracted the attention of railway and mining investors, who established a townsite to support the booming coal industry. By the end of World War One, the Drumheller region was one of Canada’s leading coal producers. The area also caught the imagination of fossil hunters, who flocked to the region from 1910 onward in search of fossils like the massive Albertosaurus skull unearthed by Joseph B. Tyrrell in 1884. The abundance of dinosaur bones made Drumheller a natural home for the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, one of the world’s leading facilities for the research and presentation of prehistoric life.

The marker was installed on November 20, 2014, along Highway 9, one-and-a-half kilometers north of the Town of Drumheller. The Town of Drumheller applied for the development of the heritage marker through the Alberta Heritage Markers Program. The program was established in 1955 to promote greater awareness of the historic people, places, events and themes that have defined the character of our province. The program brings Alberta’s dynamic history alive through heritage markers placed at roadside pullouts, within parks and in other community locales.

Written by: Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer.

Happy Holidays!

HRM xmas dgtl cardThe staff of the Historic Resources Management Branch wishes you a safe and joyous holiday season.

We’ve worked hard to identify, protect and conserve Alberta’s historic resources this past year. We’d like to thank the countless people throughout Alberta for helping us to do that. Without your support, conserving our historic places would be impossible.

RETROactive will be taking a break over the holidays — we will resume publishing on January 13th, 2014. We look forward to seeing you all in the New Year!

Ski Flyers

“If you get the right angle to float on top of the pressure of the wind you get more distance.” (Clarence Sverold, Canadian Olympian)

The huge metal ski jump at the Stoney Creek Valley in Camrose is an impressive sight. It is the legacy of the daring Norwegian flyers who made Camrose the birth place of ski jumping in Alberta. Adolph and Lars Marland, P. Mikkelson and the Engbretonson brothers formed the Fram Ski Club there in 1911. It was named for the Fram, meaning “forward” in Norwegian, the ship that carried Roald Amundsen on his famous expedition to Antarctica.

The Fram Ski club began construction in the fall of 1911 on a fifty-foot scaffold tower with a long slide in the Stoney Creek valley. Anticipation mounted for the club’s first ski jump tournament held in January 1912. People came from miles around in sleighs and cutters and happily paid the 25 cents entry fee. Adolph Marland soared seventy-four feet through the air to be acclaimed the winner.

Ski tournament, Edmonton, Alberta, 1914 (Glenbow Archives, NC-6-1308).

The Fram Ski Club soon had competition. Not to be outdone, Edmonton also formed a club in 1911, and built a bigger jump at Connor’s Hill for the 1912 season. Camrose hosted the first tournament between the two clubs on February 17th 1912. Edmonton’s John Hogan outdistanced the Camrose team with a jump of 87 feet. On the same day the Fram and Edmonton Ski Clubs formed the National Ski Association of Western Canada. Its purpose was to “to create, develop and sustain interest in the sport of ski running and ski jumping.” It set out the rules and scoring system for combining points for length of ski jump, landing, and aspects of style to determine the overall winner. The distance is still measured today from the edge of the take-off to where the jumper touches the landing slope below.

A week later the two clubs held a return competition at Connor’s Hill and John Hogan once again made the longest jump. “The spectator would gasp,” noted The Edmonton Journal, “as a skier came whizzing down the long wooden slide, hit the take off platform, doubled up like a jack-knife and then flew out into space, landing on both feet in the snow, and speeding down the hill.”

Spectators at Camrose Ski Jump, 1954 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, PA237.1).
Spectators at Camrose Ski Jump, 1954 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, PA237.1).

Although ski running, soon known as cross country skiing (or Nordic skiing) was becoming popular, it was ski jumping that captured the public’s imagination. In 1913 over 5,000 spectators watched John Hogan set a new Canadian record with a jump of 109 feet at Connors Hill. It was a major event attended by the Lieutenant Governor Bulyea, Mayor McNamara, and the Norwegian consul.

The ski clubs often had to repair or replace the first ski jumps because they were generally built from wood and deteriorated quickly. Although the Connor’s Hill jump survived the 1915 flood on the Saskatchewan River, it gradually weakened. Finally deemed unsafe by the City, it was dismantled in 1926. The Edmonton Ski Club rebuilt it in 1935. When the first jump at Camrose blew down, it was replaced in 1924. This in turn was replaced by a third one in 1930, in time for the western Canadian Championships in 1932.

The Camrose Ski Club Club, as the Fram became known, remained at the heart of ski jumping in Alberta through the 1950s. The Servold brothers, Clarence and Irwin, who represented Canada at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, continued the tradition of those early Camrose jumpers who mentored them. Nevertheless, despite club ski jumps at Devon and Athabasca, ski jumping fell somewhat out of vogue during the 1960s. The Camrose ski jump was taken down, and Edmonton’s last ski jumping tournament was held on Connor’s Hill in 1975, although the jump remained as a city landmark until 1978.

Fram ski club tournament, Camrose, Alberta, February 17, 1912 (Glenbow Archives NA-2537-13).
Fram ski club tournament, Camrose, Alberta, February 17, 1912 (Glenbow Archives, NA-2537-13).

As a spectator sport ski jumping had less appeal than alpine competition through the 1970s. There was a resurgence of interest during the 1980s when a large concrete ski jump took shape at Calgary Olympic Park as the city prepared to host the Olympic Winter Games in 1988. Clarence Sverold designed a new ski jump constructed from welded pipes with a wooden slide surface for the Alberta Winter Games held in Camrose in1990. Because athletes’ ability and equipment has advanced so much, longer landing lanes are needed than in 1990. The Camrose jump does not meet current standards and is no longer used. The largest jump at Canada Olympic Park is no longer used for the same reason. The national ski jumping team still trains on the smaller ski jumps.

Today, the International Ski Federation holds events in three types of ski jump competitions: normal hill, large hill and ski flying hill on which incrementally longer distances have been achieved. The current Ski Flying World Record of 246.5 metres (809 feet) was set by Johan Remen Evensen of Norway in 2011—well over ten times the distance flown a hundred years earlier by Adolph Marland of Camrose.

Passionate about Polo

Polo became the passion of the ranchers who worked the extensive corporate grazing leases in southwestern foothills of the Rockies by the late 1880s and quickly developed into a sport of daring horsemanship and exploits. Polo Clubs were initially organized by the wealthy owners and managers of the large ranches, former mounted police officers, and remittance men from well-to do landed families in Britain and Ireland. Recreational polo blurred social boundaries. These socially upper class men played on teams alongside small ranch operators, cowboys, and farmer-settlers, and even store clerks. In a time when everyone rode and in a place where ranchers bred thousands of potential mounts, polo offered social and business connections as well as thrills (and spills) for rider and spectators alike.

Polo team, southern Alberta, ca. 1890s (Glenbow Archives, NA-5554-10).
Four of Alberta’s legendary polo players: Left to right George Ross; Francis MacNaghten; Oswald Critchley; Addison Hone, ca. 1890s (Glenbow Archives, NA-5554-10).

Polo had ancient origins in Persia. It had only come to the British Isles, via its colonial connection with India in the 1870s. Popular among British military officers, it became an organized sport. A small number of early ranchers in the foothills had some experience or had seen the game before coming to Canada. One of those who participated in informal pickup games in the 1880s was Captain E.M. Wilmot of Chinook Ranch, credited with founding the first polo club at Pincher Creek in 1889.

Mostly, it seems, Alberta’s players found time to learn the rules, then adapted and honed their range land skills to the game played on hay meadows. Alberta’s tough agile little cow ponies, accustomed to herding cattle in quick response to commands, made steadfast partners. As the Fort MacLeod Gazette noted in 1892, “the qualities that go to make a good polo player—dashing horsemanship, courage, quickness and sureness of eye, and strength of wrist and arm, are those which are especially dear to the western heart.”

Overall polo is played in a way reminiscent of hockey. On a 300 yard long ten acre field, mounted competitors, four to a side, galloped up and down using mallets to drive a ball into the opponents’ goal. Polo is a positional game: a designated player number four, or back, plays defense, a designated number one player plays well ahead, and numbers two and three play mid-field. The ponies had to gallop hard: each rested after one or two seven and ½ minute periods called a “chukker.” The player could change ponies several times during a game. The ponies made hard contact shoulder to-shoulder as players attempt to “ride-off” their opponents and take control of the ball.

Polo players at Cochrane, Alberta, ca.1913 (Glenbow Archives, NA-2924-6).
Polo match at Cochrane, Alberta, ca. 1913. Left to right: Dick Brown, Fish Creek; O.A. Critchley and Gilbert Rhodes, Cochrane (Glenbow Archives, NA-2924-6).

Two mounted referees, and a third on the sidelines, enforced the rules that mainly pertain to riding infractions and dangerous maneuvers that interfere with flow of the game or can lead to violent collisions. The ball kept in continuous play so the excitement was non-stop during the four, and later six, chukkers that made a game.

The first polo games were played between teams formed within each club, but polo tournaments caught on quickly. Fort McLeod organized the first tournament in June 1892. Four club teams, Calgary, Fort McLeod, Pincher Creek and High River, competed for a cup donated by Colonel James McLeod, former Commissioner of the North West Mounted Police. The Calgary Challenge Cup, presented at the first Calgary tournament in September 1892, has been in continuous play since. The same year a team travelled from Calgary to challenge polo players on the west coast, bringing their ponies described by a Victoria newspaper as “strong close-knit little brutes.”

Organizing and attending tournaments took work: ponies had to be ridden to the rail line, loaded in a box car, and feed arranged. Club finances and skilled teams were sustained by wealthy enthusiasts. Within a few years clubs formed at Cochrane, De Winton, Fish Creek, Millarville, High River, Peisko at the Bar U Ranche, Cowley, and Pine Creek.

As the twentieth century began club rivalry intensified. New trophies, including the Sheep Creek Challenge Cup (awarded to the winner of the annual Millarville tournament beginning in 1903) and the Fish Creek Challenge Cup (first awarded in 1906), were sought after. Most clubs had enough riders to mount several teams. For club play team configurations shifted constantly as senior and junior levels or A and B teams formed, while the best teams played at tournaments. The club allegiance of expert players became uncertain: they moved club as it suited them. A professional aspect became apparent; individuals and teams from Alberta played at tournaments across Canada and were popular at the Coronado Polo Club near San Diego.

Polo game, Cochrane, Alberta - Millarville versus Cochrane, ca. 1900-1903 (Glenbow Archives, NA-156-8).
Polo game, Cochrane, Alberta – Millarville versus Cochrane, ca. 1900-1903 (Glenbow Archives, NA-156-8).

It seemed that everyone was passionate about polo and polo players. Games were avidly followed by the press and tournaments were family outings. High River and Calgary hosted dinner dances after tournaments that were major society events. In 1903 a hundred guests attended Calgary’s polo ball. In June 1905 the town of High River shut down and everyone set out to the polo grounds about a mile from town for the day as the Calgary team arrived on the train accompanied by 100 supporters. Polo hit its high as a spectator sport at the Calgary Exhibition of 1907 where 20,000 people watched a game.

Seven years later the flame was extinguished. Polo teams fell apart in Alberta as war took many players to the European front. After World War I the great ranching communities declined and the heyday of the horse drew to a close. Attempts to revive the game with fewer polo teams were on-going and women took up and promoted the game during the 1920s. The downturn of the 1930s and World War II, however, resulted in the Calgary Polo Club being the only club surviving by 1945. The days of the ranch cow pony doubling as polo pony were long over. As polo slowly revived during the 1950s, it was evident that horses and polo playing had become the preserve of the well-to-do. J.B. Cross, son of A. E. Cross (a founding member of the Calgary Polo Club and grandson of Colonel James McLeod), provided new grounds for the Calgary Polo Club east of the Millarville in 1960. From the late 1970s the Fish Creek Challenge Cup was back in play after a decades-long hiatus.

Today, the Calgary Polo Club covers about 300 acres with nine playing fields, about a dozen professional players and numerous amateurs call it home. Two other clubs in Alberta are active, Grande Prairie Polo Club, an established club prior to World War I, and Black Diamond Polo Club founded in 1999. The traditions and rules of play for polo have remained constant in Alberta. From June through early September club matches, local, and interprovincial tournaments are open for spectators to enjoy one of Alberta’s earliest sports.

Hooked on Movies

It’s been over a hundred years since movies first came to the towns and cities of Alberta. Early short black and white silent motion pictures carried subtitles or inter-titles, frames of script interspersed with the action. The 10 to 15 minute reels shown on hand-cranked projectors started up jerkily and ended with a flapping sound as they flew off the reel at the finale. While the managers of “legitimate” theatres, as the newspapers dubbed them, believed the movies would never compete with live shows, their comparatively low price soon made them popular.

Despite the reputation of movies as “low-brow” entertainment, specialized movie houses sprang up in urban areas. The movie business was a competitive one from the outset: by 1913 there were twelve theatres in Edmonton that showed movies. Soon dubbed nickelodeons, after the 5 cent admission price and the Greek word for theatre, they proved to be financially successful. Edmonton’s Bijou that opened downtown around 1908 in converted retail premises filled its tightly-packed rows of wooden seats. Offering a two reel show using a hand cranked projector, each screening featured an educational reel with a short comedy followed by a full reel length feature. The manager Bill Hamilton explained the action on the screen and a small orchestra or pianist played during intermissions as the projectionist rewound the reels. In 1910 the Bijou rushed in a reel of King Edward’s funeral from London and played it for six days, accompanied by Chopin’s Funeral March on the piano.

Palace Theatre, Calgary, Alberta, ca. 1925 (Glenbow Archives, NA-446-132).
Palace Theatre, Calgary, Alberta, ca. 1925 (Glenbow Archives NA-446-132).

Albertans were hooked on movie going from the start. The experience ranged from hard kitchen chairs in the plain Innisfail Opera house to plush seating in lavishly decorated theatres. In Calgary, the Canadian chain of Allen Theatres built Alberta’s first “real picture palace” in 1913. The Allen Theatre, later known as the Palace Theatre, had 840 luxurious seats, a large balcony and an organ for musical interludes. By 1915 movie goers in Edmonton could enjoy a similar experience in plush seats under lavishly decorated plaster friezes and painted tableaus in the marble-fronted Princess Theatre.

Competition from the movies pushed the Pantages, Edmonton’s highbrow vaudeville palace, into near bankruptcy in 1920. It was reborn in 1921 as the Metropolitan, advertised as “a high-class motion picture theatre,” with continuous performances from 11 am to 11 pm. Admission prices ranged from 10 cents for a children’s matinee to 45 cents for adult evening ticket in lounge or box seating.

Rural Albertans also developed a taste for the movies. Itinerant projectionists travelled between villages and towns to show movies in schools and community halls. By the 1920s busy towns boasted their own cinema, such as the Crowsnest’s Grand Theatre in Frank and the Orpheum in Blairmore. These cinemas played the same movies as in urban centres, but offered fewer screenings.

During the silent movie decade of the 1920s movie goers showed a preference for American movies. Despite the Allen chain’s promise of “Canadian Pictures for Canadian People,” American films dominated Canadian screens. Nevertheless, Calgary movie-goers relished the low budget, locally produced movie His Destiny. It stared Barbara Kent of Gadsby, Alberta, alongside Neal Hart, screen star of silent westerns, and was shown at the Palace in 1928, thanks to the introduction of a preferential quota for films made in the British Empire, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Elsewhere in Alberta His Destiny was not a hit. From the outset movie-goers decided what they wanted to see and theatres provided it.

The Empress Theatre on Main Street, Fort Macleod, 1924 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A5462).
The Empress Theatre on Main Street, Fort Macleod, 1924
(Provincial Archives of Alberta, A5462).

And then came the excitement of the “talkies,” the first motion pictures with sound. First introduced in New York in 1926 by Warner Brothers, they took urban audiences in Alberta by storm two years later. The world was never the same as movies came into their own. The expectations and experiences of movie goers were transformed, much as we have been by the internet. Theatres invested in expensive sound equipment, which needed constant attention and adjustment for optimum results. In Edmonton the Princess theatre showed the first talkie; crowds lined up in August 1929 to see The Canary Murder Case. By November 1929 when Edmonton’s Dreamland installed sound, the Journal provided detailed explanation of how it worked, noting the city’s theatres were “100 per cent Talkie Now.”  By 1930 no one in Alberta wanted silent movies and theatres ceased showing any live performance along with motion pictures in the same program. The golden age of movies had begun.

Through the 1930s movie-going offered Albertans, many of whom were out of work, something to do for a few cents, and it was a way to forget harsh economic reality and miserable weather. The movie houses lowered their prices and used a number of tactics to encourage patrons to part with their limited funds. Raffles, gimmicks and prizes lured movie goers. Posters and advertising for films carried melodramatic flare, whether they offered romances, comedies, tragedies, westerns or mysteries. Elaborate front-of-house themed installations on sidewalks stopped passers-by and at night flickering tracer lights beckoned.

The Garneau Theatre, Edmonton, 1943 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A6885).
The Garneau Theatre, Edmonton, 1943 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A6885).

By the 1940s the wartime economy fueled the love of cinema to greater heights. Surviving older multipurpose theatres such as the Empress Theatre in Fort McLeod experienced a new lease on life as a movie theatre. Bashaw’s Majestic Theatre, built in 1915, which had operated as a silent picture house through the 1920s but subsequently fell on hard times, reopened in 1945 as the Dixy. At the same time cinemas began to move out of the downtown core. In Edmonton two rival theatres appeared on the south side in 1940, the Varscona and the Garneau Threatre, both designed specially as cinemas in the modernist Art Deco style that was emerging in the city and across the province. At the Garneau fashionably uniformed ushers escorted patrons to their seats, which included a new twist—“two’s company” love seats for young couples.

Movie theatres continued to evolve in architectural style (or lack thereof ) and taste in films changed, too, over the next decades. Technology has brought us ever more exciting experiences. But the buzz is still the same—on a Saturday night it’s clear that Albertans are still hooked on movies.

Written by: Judy Larmour.

Rapid Rail to St. Albert

Edmontonians have been talking about extending the LRT system for a while now. The completion of the Metro line as far north as NAIT is the first segment of a planned extension past the city limits and into St. Albert. It’s still on the drawing board, but it’s worth remembering it’s been done almost a hundred years ago. Yes, believe it or not, there was a commuter rail line to St. Albert before the Great War.

In 1910 Financier Raymond Brutinel, who had a home on the St. Albert Trail and an eye to make a buck in real estate along the route, acquired a charter for the all-electric Interurban Railway. The company reorganized in 1912 through an agreement with the Franco-Canadian Corporation; the vice president was well-known Edmontonian J.H Picard. The Interurban Railway thought big—not only was there to be a line to St. Albert, but other lines to Beaver Lake and Tofield, Pigeon Lake, and Namao.

Construction to St. Albert began in 1912 and by late summer, seven miles had been graded. The Interurban track was nearing completion by mid-summer 1913. Sidings were constructed every mile or mile and a half, to be used for the loading and unloading of freight, and to provide passing points for the cars. A car barn was erected at Queen Mary’s Park near 137th Avenue and 124th street. By the time the company was ready to go into operation it could not afford the electric grid. Instead it ordered a number of unusual hybrid-drive rail cars.

The first of these was a Drake. Built in Chicago, it was a gas-electric trolley car with its own gasoline engine and generator. It ran at about 35 miles an hour. Passengers could expect a deluxe experience as it was panelled in oak, and the seats upholstered in dark green plush. A second type of car, designed by McEwan Pratt and Company of London, England, was ordered from Baguely Cars (who took over McEwan Pratt in 1911). This gas hydraulic-drive car was reported to use the innovative Hele-Shaw hydrostatic transmission. It was 33 feet long and 8 ½ feet wide with a seating capacity of 36, “provided in rattan covered cross seats, with central aisle.”

Interurban railway, ca. 1913-1915 (Musée Héritage Museum, St. Albert Historical Society fonds, 2003.01.795).
Interurban railway, ca. 1913-1915 (Musée Héritage Museum, St. Albert Historical Society fonds, 2003.01.795).

The Drake arrived in August 1913 and its initial runs included carrying prospective real estate buyers to their Summerland subdivision located along the route. Although the second car had not yet been shipped from England, by December 1913 the Interurban was running on a full schedule of 5 round trips a day, with 5 stops along the route. From the Hill Top Stop south of St. Albert, according a newspaper report, “a wire cable handled by a donkey engine [a steam-engine powered winch] is attached to the car for the greater safety of the passengers on the off chance that there might be at some time be a failure of the brakes to work perfectly and on the car’s return the cable is again fastened to the car at the foot of the hill for the same reason.”

The route, which took 45 minutes each way, connected with Edmonton Radial Railway street cars at 24th Street and Alberta Avenue. One could get on the interurban in St. Albert, travel to the terminus at 124th Street and then transfer to the Edmonton Radial Railway’s red and green line, whose route eventually went over the Low Level Bridge to Whyte Avenue and returned over the High Level Bridge.

The Interurban Railway was touted as the key to the vision of St. Albert as a bucolic suburb, complete with its scenic vistas, historic buildings, and recreational possibilities on the Sturgeon River and Big Lake. As the St. Albert News noted April 1912 “this ideally located dreamy hollow [is] in our mind’s eyes, the thriving suburb of what is believed will be one of the West’s greatest cities—Edmonton.”

Unfortunately, the Interurban was destined to be short lived. The service was not profitable: the hybrid car suffered breakdowns, making the schedule unreliable. Passengers transferring at 124th street often had a long wait. Soon after it was up and running Edmonton plunged into economic recession. The Interurban limped along until a fire on April 1, 1914 destroyed the Drake in the barns at St. Mary’s Park. The Twin City Transfer Company saw an opportunity and quickly offered auto bus jitney (taxi) service from Edmonton to St. Albert. The Interurban Railway Company, still without a second car, talked about rebuilding to operate with electricity, but the economic climate and war precluded such a vision.

In 1916 the Edmonton Radial Railway took over a portion of the tracks to serve the Calder yards. Plans to get the Interurban running again were last floated in 1917, as the Franco Canadian Corporation was in a better position to bargain with the City of Edmonton. “The city council is likely to be quite tractable and reasonable. Our main lever in securing an advantageous agreement is the fact that we are now renting to the City 1.4 mile[s] of our track, where the development of the traffic to Calder has been so great that the city would not now interfere with a service that has become a public necessity.” Nothing ever came of it and the remainder of the line was torn up. St. Albert commuters still rely on the bus, their eye on the future when electric rail will finally be realized.

An interesting post script to this story is that while the Drake burned in the 1914 fire, the McEwan Pratt car, when it eventually arrived in Alberta, ended up on the Lacombe and Blindman Valley Electric Railway (like the Interurban it was never electrified). The details of this transfer of ownership are a little mysterious, but it was hauling passengers to Gull Lake by 1917. Evidently not very successful on that line, it was replaced by 1919. It resurfaced in the historical record in 1928—in the Canadian Pacific Railway Ogden Yards in Calgary on its way to be scrapped. Unfortunately, although CPR workers noticed its unusual design, no one thought to preserve it as an Alberta rail anomaly.

Written by: Judy Larmour.

Why I Miss the Local Elevator

The elevator agent in his office was at the heart of the community, 1950s. (Glenbow Archives, Photo: Glenbow Archives, NA-4510-707.)
The elevator agent in his office was at the heart of the community, 1950s. (Glenbow Archives, Photo: Glenbow Archives, NA-4510-707.)

It’s when the grain is ripe for harvest in late August or early September that I miss going to our local Alberta Wheat Pool elevator the most. Jumping off the combine and going to the elevator to have its friendly agent, Bill, run a moisture test on a grain sample and discuss the state of the crop was one of my jobs on the farm. When I arrived in Alberta in the 1980s, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze with the neighbours while the elevator agent was busy, was part of the culture, but the old-timer grain farmers could smell change the air. How right they were.

Our closest local elevator, a single composite wood crib facility constructed in 1963, at Eckville, closed in 2001. Since then we rarely visit an elevator. Now we have our own moisture tester, analysis market conditions using the internet, and have our grain trucked from the bins in the yard to the inland terminal at Lacombe or further afield—selling grain over the phone and having it trucked to a concrete silo is not much fun!

Alberta Wheat Pool at Eckville, (Photo courtesy of the Alberta Heritage Survey 79-R0240-13.
Alberta Wheat Pool at Eckville (Photo courtesy of the Alberta Heritage Survey, 79-R0240-13.)

In past decades farmers were in and out of the elevator office in a rhythm that reflected the farmer’s seasonal activity. A major reason to go to the elevator was to update the permit book, which kept a record of the type, quantity and grade of grain delivered as well as the number of acres seeded to various grains, and the acreage assigned to each grain for quota purposes. Canadian Wheat Board regulations required that all grain sales, even to local users, be recorded in the permit book.

The permit book had its origins in the quota system on cereal grains introduced during the Second World War. Beginning with the crop year 1941-1942, farmers were only able to deliver limited amounts of grain, based on their acreage, at certain times. The quota system, administered by the Wheat Board, was designed to prevent the clogging of the grain handling system at a time when production exceeded available markets. It continued after the war in an attempt to give each producer an equal opportunity to sell his or her grain at the Wheat Board price for the crop year.

A farmer’s pay check and hence his loyalty to one grain company over another was ultimately determined by whether he could get space in the elevator to deliver his quota of grain. If there was room, some farmers preferred to haul to the Alberta Wheat Pool or United Grain Growers elevator, lured by the promise of patronage dividends on deliveries in relation to the companies’ profits for the year.

Many farmers made a point of being at the elevator office often, not only to find out what was going on but to establish a good relationship with the agent. They sometimes helped out when the agent was especially busy. In years when the harvest was plentiful, railway box cars were often in short supply and elevator storage space was limited, bonds of friendship, along with a reputation for reliable delivery and honesty might ensure one’s grain would be taken in before the neighbour’s.

There were a thousand and one reasons why a farmer might be at the elevator other than when he was delivering grain. He bought coal and flour throughout the year, seed in the spring and from the 1950s, fertilizer. He might be in to check prices, find out if there was space in the elevator for his grain or pick up a cheque for grain previously delivered. Farmers needed the use of the scale at the elevator for inter-farm grain sales, and the elevator agent usually obliged.

UGG promoted a new image of their agents as the dispenser of free advice: “How to get the most from your UGG agent,” Country Guide, August 1961, pag e 41. (Reproduced with the permission of the Glenbow Archives.)
UGG promoted a new image of their agents as the dispenser of free advice: “How to get the most from your UGG agent,” Country Guide, August 1961, pag e 41. (Reproduced with the permission of the Glenbow Archives.)

There was no need for a business excuse to go to the elevator. On wet days farmers dropped in to see who else was there, play crib or just to complain about the weather. The elevator office was a good place to catch up on local gossip: who had bought a new tractor, who was selling out, who was renting land from who, and to gauge the relative condition of neighbouring crops, as well as shifting land and machinery auction prices.

Farmers gravitated towards the elevator they dealt with and elevator agents played host to groups of farmer-customers in their cramped offices during visits to town. The elevator agent, urged on by his company to network and increase sales, was part of the community, involved in social and sporting events. At Forshee, a long forgotten elevator siding between Rimbey and Bentley, Harry Proudfoot, a U.G.G. agent from 1946-1968, was a member of several athletic teams, and helped his farmer neighbours during haying season and other times when grain deliveries were slow.

Back in the 1930s when elevator agents often had the only radio in the district, broadcasts were a lure for farmers, who might hope to catch more than the day’s grain prices. In the 1990s farmer went to the elevator to catch the farm weather cast and to watch world-wide commodity trading on cutting-edge computers. The farmers gathered whiled away hours discussing every farming topic under the sun. The agent would go off to receive a load or two of grain, and they would often still be there when he returned from the driveway.

A somewhat idealized artistic perspective on the importance of the grain elevator to the business of the prairie town. Country Guide, March, 1933, page 10, (reproduced with the permission of the Glenbow Archives.)
A somewhat idealized artistic perspective on the importance of the grain elevator to the business of the prairie town. Country Guide, March, 1933, page 10, (reproduced with the permission of the Glenbow Archives.)

From the mid-twentieth century, much of the farmer’s economic news, social connections, information about the latest cropping practices, and even family activities and entertainment came through the elevator office as grain companies vied to be foremost in the farmers’ lives and keep their business. All grain companies, especially the farmer-owned Alberta Wheat Pool and United Grain Growers, pushed the image of the grain elevator as the stable symbol of rural life.

It ended for us in 2001. We knew it would happen. We saw elevators topple all over the province after 1995. When Eckville went down in a cloud of dust we did not go to watch. Now in 2014, the Canadian Wheat Board is no more: there are no quotas, no permit book. We market our own grain. Like so many others in the farming community we have lost a connectedness with fellow grain producers and direct involvement with the grain handling system that really was centred in the elevator office.

Written by: Judy Larmour.