Leighton House and Art Centre

Leighton House and Art Centre

Two of the most influential individuals in the history of painting in Alberta were Barbara and Alfred Crocker Leighton.  Alfred was born in Hastings, England in October 1901.  He attended the Hastings Grammar School, and the Hastings Municipal School of Art, where he studied architecture.  He served with the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, and was severely injured after a crash.  Following the war, he began to paint landscape scenes and was encouraged to submit his work to the Royal Society of British Artists.  He became influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, established earlier by William Morris, and his paintings in this genre began to draw attention in the early 1920s.

Alfred Leighton

In 1924, the Canadian Pacific Railway commissioned Leighton to do paintings about the western Canadian landscape in order to attract potential immigrant farmers.  In 1925, he was sent out to paint the scenic Canadian Rockies.  He produced paintings exclusively for the CPR until 1929 when he resigned and accepted the position of Director of Art for the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Art, a position he held until 1935 when he was forced to return to Britain due to ill health with his wife, Barbara (Harvey), an art student whom he had married in 1931.  Barbara was born in 1909 in Plymouth, and would become a direct associate in all of Alfred’s undertakings.

While at the SAIT, Alfred Leighton had been instrumental in founding the Alberta Society of Artists.  In 1933, he established a summer school in the Kananaskis which was the precursor to the Banff School of Fine Arts.  Upon returning to Canada in 1938, he resigned from SAIT and moved with Barbara to southern British Columbia.  Here he tried farming in Chilliwack, but soon moved to Crescent Beach, where he and Barbara did commercial art work.

Leighton, Barbara. Evening, Bow Lake. Printmaking, woodcut. Alberta Foundation for the Arts.

In 1952, the Leightons purchased an acreage near Millarville where they designed and built a one-room dwelling with the idea of having it serve as a art studio, with adjoining rooms to be added later.  It was named Ballihamish after the school district of which it was a part.  The structure was designed in the form of a cross, which allowed painters to focus on different perspectives of the Millarville Valley and Rocky Mountains at different times of the season.  It was completed over the course of many years, with the inheritance from Arthur Leighton’s father in 1960 being a major contributing factor.

Alfred Leighton painting in mountains.

Following Alfred Leighton’s death in 1965, Barbara Leighton established the Leighton Center for Arts and Crafts, which was officially opened in November, 1970.  The 1928 Billihamish School was also brought in to become part of the complex.  In 1974, she established the Leighton Foundation for the encouragement of art, and an arts and crafts center for all people to engage in landscape painting.  The Foundation is currently housed in the Leighton Art Centre, which includes a museum, art gallery, and educational programming.

In May 2009, the Leighton House and Art Centre was designated a Provincial Historic Resource.  Its historical significance lies primarily in its direct association with Alfred and Barbara Leighton, two of the most influential people in the history of art in Alberta.

Written by: David Leonard, Historian

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Leighton, Alfred C. Moraine Lake. Painting, watercolour. Alberta Foundation for the Arts.

In the Alberta Foundation for the Arts Collection of over 7500 works there are paintings by Alfred and Barbara Leighton. The collection represents more than 1700 Alberta artists. Like the Leightons, many of these artists have significantly contributed to the development of the visual arts throughout Alberta. You can search the Alberta Foundation for the Arts Collection, and other provincial art collections here.

To view works by Barbara Leighton, click here.

To view works by Alfred Leighton, click here.

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Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Leighton House and Art Centre. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Leighton House and Art Centre.

Strathcona Fire Hall No. 1

When the Calgary & Edmonton Railway arrived at the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River in 1891, the C & E immediately subdivided a town site which it named South Edmonton.  Being at the end of steel, the community steadily grew throughout the decade until, in 1899, it was incorporated as the Town of Strathcona with a population exceeding 1,000.  To serve this burgeoning community, which consisted primarily of wood frame buildings, it was obvious that some method of organized fire protection was needed.  A volunteer fire brigade was organized in 1901, and, that same year, Town Council provided for the construction of a wood frame fire hall on lot 2, block 79, just north of main street, and near the Town water well.  A horse drawn fire wagon with a wooden water tank was then acquired.

As with Edmonton to the north across the river, Strathcona grew rapidly in the wake of the Klondike gold rush.  In 1907, it was incorporated as a city with an estimated population of 3,500.  It was soon evident that the old fire hall was inadequate, and, so, provision was made for a newer and larger structure.  As the City waterworks was right next door to the old fire hall, it was felt appropriate to build the new structure at the same location.  The firm of Wilson and Herrald was thus contracted to design, and the firm of J.M. Eaton contracted to build a modern two-story red brick facility which could accommodate three fire wagons.  The estimate for construction was $13,715.  A stable in the rear was designed for nine horses, while a bell tower extended from the middle of the structure 77 feet in the air.  The second floor was made to accommodate a chief’s office, a general hall, bedrooms, a band room, and a bathroom with showers.  Two fire poles facilitated instant access to the ground floor.

The Strathcona Fire Hall with its horse-drawn wagons served the City of Strathcona until its amalgamation with Edmonton in 1912.  It was then designated as Edmonton Fire Hall #6 and became part of the Edmonton Fire Department.  A permanent salaried chief was assigned to the Hall, and the number of salaried firefighters grew over the passage of time.  The crews were always supplemented by volunteers in times of emergency.  By 1954, however, the facility was considered dilapidated and outdated, and, so, a new fire hall was constructed nearby.  The old structure was apparently slated for demolition but was considered adequate for storage, and, so, it was leased to Strathcona Furniture, which used it as a warehouse.

By the early 1970’s, there was a growing appreciation in Edmonton about the early buildings of Strathcona, and, so, when the Walterdale Theatre began to plan for a new home, thoughts turned to the old fire hall, which seemed to provide adequate space for a live theatre building.  The Walterdale group moved into its internally renovated facility in 1974, and, in 1976, the structure was designated a Registered Historic Resource.  In the years that followed, it became a central venue for Edmonton’s Fringe Festival.

In September 2007, the Strathcona Fire Hall was designated a Provincial Historic Resource.  Its historical significance lies in its provision of structural evidence of fire fighting facilities in a large urban area in the early 20th century in Alberta.  It is the oldest major fire hall in the province.  It is also important as one of the surviving early public buildings of the City of Strathcona, which tells of life in general in this community.      

Written by: David Leonard, Historian

Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Strathcona Fire Hall. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Strathcona Fire Hall.

Rowley Grain Elevator Row

In the spring of 1909, Premier Rutherford of Alberta announced his government’s commitment to a vast program of railway expansion in Alberta.  To do this, the government offered to guarantee the bonds of major railway companies to the extent of $20,000 per mile of completed track.  Taking advantage of this, the Canadian Northern Railway decided to incorporate several subsidiary companies to undertake specific lines in Alberta.  One of these was the Alberta Midland, which was chartered by the provincial government in May 1909 to build a line from Vegreville south through Drumheller to Calgary.  One purpose was to open up new land for farming, another was to tap into the coal reserves around Drumheller which had hitherto been unavailable to the Canadian Northern or any of its subsidiaries.

By the end of 1911, the Alberta Midland line was completed.  Along it, several stations were built.  One of these, 25 km north of Drumheller, was named Rowley, after the Manager of the Calgary branch of the Canadian Bank of Commerce.  The Bank itself had provided substantial backing to the Canadian Northern.  Behind the station, a townsite was subdivided, and, before long, a community evolved, the main purpose of which was to provide services to the surrounding hinterland where mixed farming was the staple economy.

It was essential therefore that Rowley be provided with grain elevators, and, in 1915, the first one was built by the Home Grain Company.  It was apparently not well constructed however, for, shortly after its completion, it collapsed.  Though rebuilt soon after, another mishap occurred when an annex burst, and, not long after that, the elevator burned down.  In the wake of these mishaps, two other elevators were built in 1917.  These were owned by the National Grain Company and the United Grain Growers.  The UGG had only recently been incorporated as a farmer-owned company, and it was a good time for it to build for, like most of the western prairies, the Rowley district was seeing high yields and much demand because the war in Europe was diverting the activities of farmers there to other matters.

The National and the UGG had a monopoly on the local grain export at Rowley until 1923, when the Searle Grain Company, formerly the Home Grain Company, decided erect another elevator on the site of their first one at Rowley.  At 40,000 bushels, this would be the biggest of the village’s three elevators.  It was an unusual time to build, for grain prices had recently collapsed in the wake of the post war overproduction of wheat.  Also, during 1919-20, both the Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk Railways had been taken over by the federal government and consolidated into Canadian National.  This meant reduced services, and, in 1922, rail traffic between Vegreville and Drumheller were significantly reduced.

The three grain elevators in Rowley managed to survive however, and, in 1928, the UGG structure was acquired by the Alberta Wheat Pool.  Formed five years earlier, in the wake of plummeting grain prices, the Pool was a business concept advocated by UFA president Henry Wise Wood which saw farmers pool their wheat in a co-operative to ensure that no member would suffer unduly in times of stress.  Such stress occurred during the early 1930’s, when the price of #1 wheat fell to 32 cents a bushel and many farmers could not afford to ship out their wheat.  During the end of the decade however, with Great Britain gearing for war, the demand for wheat began to rise, and, with it, productivity on the Canadian prairies.  In 1940 therefore, the Wheat Pool decided to twin its elevator in Rowley with a new 40,000 bushel structure.

The three grain elevators at Rowley continued to serve the district long after the war.  In 1967, the Searle elevator was sold to the Federal Grain Company, and, in 1972, to the Wheat Pool, which then owned all three elevators.  In 1989 however, the CN line between Rowley and Morrin was closed down, and farmers soon began trucking their grain to Morrin or elsewhere.  The elevators therefore were closed also.  They remained standing however, and, in recent years, have been acquired by the Rowley Community Hall Association which is seeking to preserve them.

In June 2010, the grain elevators in Rowley were designated a Provincial Historic Resource.  Their historical significance lies in their representation of the major economy of Alberta for most of the 20th century, the growth and export of grain, and mainly wheat.  They are also important as landmarks in Rowley, providing structural evidence of the community dating back to 1917, when the district was prospering.  The first elevator represents the main source of that prosperity, and the three of them the economy of the district in the years that followed.    

Written by: David Leonard, Historian

Click here for statistics on remaining grain elevators in Alberta.

Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Rowley Grain Elevator Row. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Rowley Grain Elevator Row.


Campbell Block, Lacombe

With the completion of the Calgary & Edmonton Railway in 1891, a number of stations were erected along the rail line to accommodate the expanding agricultural population of the region. Next to several of these stations, the C & E subdivided townsites, several of which grew to some size.  One of these was Lacombe, which was named after the venerated Oblate priest. In 1896, Lacombe was incorporated as a village, and, in 1902, it became a town with over 500 people, possessing most of the amenities required of a northern farming community.

As years passed, Lacombe remained a farming town, its major industries being the grain elevators and the various stores, garages and equipment dealerships which served the farmers. One of leading merchants during the early 20th century was A.M. (Sandy) Campbell, who, like Gordon Puffer, was perpetually on Town Council and the executive of the Board of Trade.  He was also a leading member of the local lodge of Masons. In his memoir, Puffer wrote, “Sandy Campbell was a very popular and successful business man in Lacombe for many years. He was active in civic affairs and he and Mrs. Campbell were social leaders in the community.”

Campbell had run a general store in Lacombe since 1903, and, on 17 March 1920, the Lacombe newspaper, the Western Globe, wrote about the pending erection of a new store on 50th Avenue:

Mr. A.M. Campbell has completed arrangements for the erection of a modern building on the site of his present store…. The plan shows a well designed front, which will add greatly to the appearance of our main street.   

The new two-story brick store was almost a miniature department store, as it was anticipated to include hardware, clothing, dry goods and grocery departments, and also a millinery. It was a two-storey, red-brick building which featured a wide front facade accommodating two storefronts, eight large wood-framed windows on the second floor, and a bracketed cornice surmounted by a simple brick parapet prominently situated on two and a half lots.

The Campbell Block still maintains strong integrity and retains most of its original features, in particular, design, location and environment that are sufficient to communicate its significance in a local context and as a contributing resource to the Town of Lacombe’s distinctive historic commercial downtown area.  Its historical significance lies in its service as a general store, and hardware and furniture store since 1920.  It has served the town and district of Lacombe ever since, concentrating in recent years on hardware and furniture. It ties in well with other main street structures nearby, providing a glimpse of life in large-town Alberta throughout most of the 20th century.  In 2009, it was designated a Provincial Historic Resource.

Written by: David Leonard, Historian

Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Campbell Block. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Campbell Block.

Sharman House, near Onoway

When the Canadian Northern Railway extended a line through Onoway in 1909, en route to Jasper and Vancouver, much of the rich agricultural land east of Lac Ste Anne was made immediately viable for homesteading.  Even before the railway arrived however, and indeed even before the Dominion Land Surveys of 1904-05, a number of settlers had taken up land in the Onoway area.  One of these was Thomas Sharman, who settled on NW34 TP52 R3 W5 in 1903, in a district soon to be known as Heatherdown.  Sharman was born in Ireland and had come to western Canada from North Dakota, where he had been a stonemason as well as a farmer.  He first attempted to homestead near Camrose, but was unsuccessful.  Near Heatherdown however, he and his wife succeeded in proving up, and eventually they acquired five quarters.

As he cleared and broke his land, Sharman made a point of salvaging pristine stones that inundated his fields.  Being a stonemason, he had an idea that one day these would prove useful.  By the mid 1920s, he decided to use these stones for a new house.  With the help of his youngest son, Lawrence, and local neighbors, he designed and built a large dwelling utilizing the material he had salvaged.  He moved into his new home in about 1927, and lived there with his wife until passing away a few years later.  The house and the farm were then taken over by Lawrence Sharman and his wife, Florence, who died tragically in a fire on the farm in 1936.  The Sharman House then continued to be occupied by Lawrence on his own until he moved to British Columbia in 1947.  It was then acquired by Gordon Stewart, his wife Lenabelle, and their son, Lowell.  With Lenabelle’s death, Gordon and Lowell continued to farm the land and occupy the house as bachelors.

The historical significance of the Sharman House  lies in its representation of the settlement of the Onoway area, and of the richness of the farmland in the district.  It is also significant in demonstrating the inventiveness and craftsmanship of one of Onoway’s early settlers.  Its heritage value lies in the excellent craftsmanship evident in its split fieldstone construction and the home’s picturesque aesthetic appeal.  It is distinguished by its picturesque exterior, which is composed of different shapes and sizes of split fieldstone.  Other prominent features of the home include a hipped roof with intersecting roof ridges, hipped wall dormers, three tall stone chimneys, and a two-storey bay projecting from the southwest corner of the building.  The yard of the home includes a garden and mature evergreen trees north of the house dating from the period of construction. The Sharman House was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 2007.

Written by: David Leonard, Historian

Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Sharman House. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Sharman House.

Alequiers Ranch House, near Longview

During the latter part of the 19th century, the foothills of what is now southern Alberta were given over largely as grazing leases to several big ranching companies, many of them with close ties to the Conservative Party.  With the election of the Liberal party in 1896 however, more emphasis came to be placed on settling the West with small, independent farmers.  Under Interior Minister Clifford Sifton therefore, many grazing leases, when expired, were not renewed, in order that the land could be subdivided into quarter-sections for homesteading, or given over to the CPR Land Department.

Among the many homesteaders to flock into the region during the turn of the 20th century were Nellie and Alexander Weir who, in July 1900, filed for SE18 TP18 R3 W5, on the east bank of the Highwood River, some 20 km northwest of High River.  This was on land previously occupied by the North-West Ranch Company.  The Weirs were from Ontario, and, like many of the new settlers, they combined dryland farming with cattle raising.  In May 1905, Alexander Weir received title to his land, and, in February 1906, the High River Times reported that he was erecting a new 26’ x 26’ log home on his ranch.

The Weirs never owned more than one single quarter-section of land, and, with grain prices declining during the early 1900’s, they probably found it difficult to make ends meet.  At the time, their property was surrounded by a large ranch owned by George Lane, which consisted of several sections.  At any rate, as soon as Weir gained title to his quarter, he mortgaged it to the Fairchild Company of Winnipeg.  Two years later, the Fairchild Company became owners of the land, while Weir apparently drifted off to some other form of employment.  Shortly thereafter, the western portion of the quarter-section was sold to an Italian immigrant named George Pocaterra, who turned it into a dude ranch called the Buffalo Head Ranch.  The eastern portion, which held Weir’s house, was acquired by an English immigrant named Owen Royal, who seems to have had business interests in Calgary.  It was Royal who upgraded the house, adding three bedrooms, a kitchen and a porch, while landscaping the yard and planting trees.  Royal named it Alequiers, a name derived from the spelling of Alex McQueen Weir.

In 1939, the Alequiers property was acquired by an artist named Ted Schintz.  Schintz had migrated to western Canada from Holland in the 1920’s, taking odd jobs and cultivating his skills as a painter.  In 1928, he stayed at the Buffalo Head Ranch and developed an affinity for the foothills environment.  In 1931, he married Jeanette Kay from England, and the couple stayed for a while at Algequiers before traveling to Europe.  While the couple took odd jobs, Ted enrolled in the Academy of Arts in Munich, studying under Angelo Yank.  Upon his graduation, the Schintzes returned to western Canada, and, soon, Ted began to sell his paintings at reasonably high prices, mostly to magazines like Country Guide and Cattleman, which were interested in images of the prairie West.  Jeanette was also able to sell some of her work.  Finally, in 1939, the couple had sufficient means to purchase Alequiers, where they lived until retiring to High River in the 1960’s.

The Alequiers Ranch House was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 2005.  Its historical significance lies in its provision of structural evidence of the homesteading experience on the southern foothills of Alberta after the break-up of many of the large ranches that had dominated the area.  The expanded house of about 1920 is also important as the showpiece home of Owen Royal and, more importantly, the artist Ted Schintz, many of whose works have graced magazine covers with images of the southwestern plains of Canada, and several of which are stored in the Glenbow Museum.

Written by: David Leonard, Historian

Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Alequiers Ranch House. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Alequiers Ranch House.

Cypress Club, Medicine Hat

As the Canadian Pacific Railway was planning its route between Winnipeg and Fort Calgary, the decision was made to cross the South Saskatchewan River at a wide valley west of Fort Walsh lush with cypress trees.  Here a station was erected and a townsite subdivided called Medicine Hat after a Cree medicine man.  The surrounding district was soon the domain of numerous ranches, and, during the 1890’s, Medicine Hat emerged as the regional metropolis of a cattle domain.  In 1898, it was incorporated as a town with over 500 people.  By this time, gas reserves were discovered in the district and incentive was provided for industrial development, particularly in pottery.  In the meantime, the city’s streets came to glow from gaslight.  By 1906, Medicine Hat was large enough to be incorporated as a city.  By 1911, its population stood at 5,600.  Contributing to its growth was its comparative isolation, and the conversion of much of the surrounding ranching leases into farmland, which resulted in the emergence of a large farming population in the hinterland.

Though the surrounding countryside and growing urban population of Medicine Hat was ethnically mixed, the business elite of the community was primarily British.  The first ranchers had been mainly British, and the new wave of industrialists and real estate developers were also of British origin, primarily immigrants from Ontario.  It was natural therefore that the first City Councils would often contain the same people as the Chamber of Commerce, with names such as Fewings, Tweed, Cousins, Crawford, Milne, Pingle, Sissons, Kealy, Huckvale and Stewart predominating.  It was probably also natural that such people would found a social club, where affairs of common interest could be discussed with less formality and out of the public eye.  Thus, on 21 November 1903, the Cypress Club was incorporated by an act of the Legislative Assembly of the North-west Territories.  Like the Edmonton Club and Ranchman’s Club (Calgary) before it, the Cypress Club was intended to provide a retreat for local business and community leaders to plot the development of the community in an atmosphere of brotherhood and congeniality.  A great incentive was the authority such a private club would have to obtain a liquor license and so provide intoxicants to its members at any time it chose.  As was typical, membership was confined to men.

Three of the first six presidents of the Cypress Club, F.L. Crawford, William Cousins and Charles Pingle, would also be presidents of the Medicine Hat Chamber of Commerce at roughly the same time, while numerous others would also be members of City Council.  To expand its scope, the Club also encouraged membership among the more prominent of the local ranch owners, and also the professional classes, particularly lawyers.  The first president was F. L. Crawford, the manager of the Bank of Commerce, but the tradition would soon be established that the presidency should alternate between City businessmen and district ranchers.

Members of the Cypress Club first met in the Cousins Block in downtown Medicine Hat.  As membership soared, and the Club quickly evolved into the elite social club of the business community, there was incentive and resources to construct a self contained building.  In 1907 therefore, the Club purchased the lot on 218 – 6th Avenue SE in the downtown core and contracted the prominent local architect, William T. Williams, to design a small, but elegant structure of red brick and sandstone to serve exclusively the functions of the Club, or whatever other purpose the Club would choose.  A deal was struck with the Bank of Commerce which gave the Bank the front half of the property on Main Street, while the Club building itself was to be built on the back part, within easy walking distance for most of the local businessmen.  When the design of the $15,000 building was complete, A.P. Burns was contracted to begin construction.  This was done through a loan from Hop Yuill, who would be repaid over the years from membership dues and fundraising activities.

As time passed, the Cypress Club continued to serve the business and professional elite of Medicine Hat and its surrounding district as a men’s social club.  During World War II, it was turned over to the Empire Club for use by armed service personnel stationed in the district.  Occasional internal renovations would occur, and, at times, financing was precarious, but, invariably, members from the business community would come to the rescue with loans.  Members over the years would include most of Medicine Hat’s mayors and members of City Council, several of the districts Members of the provincial Legislative Assembly, and Members of Parliament William Wylie, Bud Olson and Bert Hargrave.  Other members to gain a strong reputation outside the district of Medicine Hat include Judge John Sissons and Edmonton Journal editor Andrew Snaddon.

In 2002, the Cypress Club was designated a Provincial Historic Resource.  Its historical significance lies in its service as the main social club for men in the city and district of Medicine Hat since its inception in 1903.  

Written by: David Leonard, Historian

Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Cypress Club. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Cypress Club.

Bad Heart Straw Church

In the aftermath of World War I, the Dominion government established the Soldiers Settlement Board, which was to serve two purposes.  First, it was a mechanism whereby the government could reward men who had physically defended their country in time of need; second, it could provide an outlet for an unemployment problem that was rapidly building up.  The Board identified tracts of land in arable districts which had not hitherto been taken up by homesteaders and proceeded to have portions of them set aside for the soldiers.  One region where considerable land was reserved was the Peace River Country, the central grasslands of which had been settled much earlier.  One of the districts of this region where soldiers were encouraged to come was a small stretch of parkland off the Bad Heart River, which flows through the Burnt Hills into the Smoky River.  Here, in TPs74 & 75 R2 W6, several veterans took advantage of the government’s offer and applied for land in 1919, including the highly decorated but soon to be notorious George Frederick “Nobby” Clark.

The war veterans were soon joined by other settlers, and, gradually, the community to be known as Bad Heart evolved.  A school district was incorporated in 1928 and a store and post office was built the following year.  Bad Heart was, however, somewhat cut off from the more heavily settled areas of the Grande Prairie, and conditions were far from ideal for farming.  A number of foreclosures occurred, but the community did hang together, as cattle, hogs and poultry were raised to offset the costs of dry land farming.  Being remote however, amenities were few, and it wasn’t until the late 1950’s that electrical power and telephone services were extended there.

Until the mid-1950’s, the Bad Heart district was without a church, with local residents attending Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Churches in the Teepee Creek district just to the southwest.  At the time, one of the most energetic Roman Catholic priests in the region was resident at Sexsmith, over 50km away.  This was the Redemptorist Father Francis Dales, who, as a trained architect, had just designed a new $70,000 church in Sexsmith.  He had also constructed, and would design and construct other public buildings, the work being either volunteer or undertaken by young teenagers at a small wage.  To complete his projects, Father Dales often salvaged lumber from demolished buildings.  Scrap metal from demolished vehicles and farm equipment was also recovered and sold.  Other fundraisers of varying kinds were also undertaken.

As his parish included Bad Heart, Father Dales decided, in the early 1950’s, that it was time for a church of the right persuasion to be built there.  For the district at this time, the major problem was financing, for all Roman Catholic churches relied strongly on local support, and the people of Bad Heart were hardly in a position to fund a new church structure, being relatively few in numbers and anything but wealthy.  Work bees and salvaged lumber would not be enough.  Father Dales, however, had learned that, in eastern Canada, certain farmers had built cattle sheds out of straw bales, the oil from the rye or flax serving as a preservative.  He therefore submitted a design to the Vicar Apostolic of the Archdiocese of Grouard, Bishop Henri Routhier, who approved the plan, and, apparently, personally advanced $500 towards its fulfillment.

In the summer of 1954, work began on the soon to be famous rye straw church at Bad Heart.  Before long, word spread of the unique venture, which was completed in about six weeks.  Eventually, even the Toronto Star Weekly did a story on the church and its builder.  All work, of course, was volunteer, while fixtures and furnishings were salvaged from other churches in the region.  The pews, for example, were taken from the old Roman Catholic church in Sexsmith.

In March 2009, the Bad Heart Straw Church was designated a Provincial Historic Resource.  Its significance lies foremost in its representation of the ability of people in remote rural areas of the province to find ways of adapting what they have into useful purposes.  The building is also important in being directly associated with Father Francis Dales, the ebullient architecture priest who designed and built many structures in the region and elsewhere, including several churches, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic School in Sexsmith, and the Anglican Speke Hall in Grande Prairie.

Written by: David Leonard, Historian

Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Bad Heart Straw Church. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Bad Heart Straw Church.

Strathcona Collegiate Institute, Edmonton

When the Calgary & Edmonton Railway arrived at the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River in 1891, the C & E immediately subdivided a townsite which it named South Edmonton.  Being at the end of steel, the community steadily grew throughout the decade until, in 1899, it was incorporated as the Town of Strathcona with a population exceeding 1,000.  As with Edmonton to the north, Strathcona grew rapidly in the wake of the Klondike gold rush, and, in 1907, it was incorporated as a city with an estimated population of 3,500.  Edmonton, however, was destined to grow at an even greater pace when the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific Railways arrived there in 1905 and 1908 respectively, giving this city a direct rail link to eastern Canada.  With most major industries concentrating their operations in Edmonton, Strathcona became more of a residential district, a phenomenon encouraged by the decision of the provincial government, in 1908, to locate a provincial university just to the west of this city.  From this point on, Strathcona would be billed as the University City.

In the spring of 1908, the buildings of the new University of Alberta had yet to be designed let alone constructed.  There were, however, a growing number of high school graduates who wanted to attend university right away.  As a result, the University’s Board of Governors approached the Strathcona Public School Board for the use of a portion of a new high school which was then nearing completion on Lumsden (84th) Avenue and Duggan (105th) Street.  The new 125’ x 77’ school had been designed by the architectural firm of Johnson & Lines to become the largest and most sophisticated high school in Alberta.  It was being built by the firm of Thomas Richards at what would turn out to be a cost of about $100,000.  This was on the site of the earlier Duggan Street School, with additional land acquired by the School Board to the west to accommodate the larger facility.

The cornerstone of the new facility had been laid by Premier Rutherford himself on 18 October, 1907.  Rutherford, from Strathcona, was also the Minister of Education for Alberta.  When it was officially opened by Lieutenant-Governor Bulyea on 17 February 1909, at a ceremony attended by about 600 people, the institution was officially designated the Strathcona Collegiate Institute, in recognition of its initial post-secondary role.  The main floor was to house 71 high school students in four classrooms, while the 2nd floor was taken over by the University.  This included four classrooms to accommodate 47 undergraduate students, the office of President Henry M. Tory, and the University Library.  The third floor was made over into an auditorium with a stage, while the basement provided room for both a boys and a girls gymnasium. Read more

Atlantic No. 3 Wild Well Site, near Devon

When Imperial Oil Well #1 began gushing vast quantities of crude oil in February, 1947, Alberta officially entered the “oil age,” and soon became Canada’s leading producer.  In short order, other important discoveries were made at Redwater, Devon, Valleyview and Swan Hills.  In the meantime, the Leduc field was expanded, with other oil companies making significant strikes.  One of these was the Atlanta Oil Company, headed by Frank MacMahon.  On 16 August 1947, he signed a lease option for NW23 TP50 R26 W4 for $175,000.  The owners of this farm were all members of the Rebus family, with the actual title to the land then in dispute.  Also in dispute was a claim by Imperial Oil that it in fact already held a lease option for this quarter.  MacMahon was able to work a deal with Imperial, while getting the Rebus family members to agree to his option.

On 15 January 1948, drilling proved successful, as oil gushed out of the ground to a height of 150 feet.  It was pressured by an estimated 15 million cubic feet per day flow.  Such extensive pressure was not easy to control however.  On 21 March, efforts to clear a stuck pipe resulted in the fracturing of the surrounding area, and natural gas and oil began to escape over a wide radius.  Fearful of a fire, the government put up roadblocks in the district, while the construction workers worked frantically to control the surge of oil and gas.  Reportedly, redwood fibre, mud, and even feathers were used to stop the gush, without success.  As the oil and gas spread, the entire Leduc field was shut down.  On 15 May, operation of the errant well was taken over by the provincial Oil & Gas Conservation Board, which contracted Imperial Oil to try to cap the well and begin cleanup operations.  The main activity involved pumping water down a nearby well directed towards the shaft of Atlantic #3.  In the meantime, planes were warned away from the area, and there were even rumours that water supply could be affected as far away as Edmonton.

By June, most of the escaping fluid was seen to be oil.  On 7 June, this was estimated to be 11,097 barrels daily.  That which was gathering in various surface sumps then began to be piped away from the area.  By 19 July, production from the well was estimated to have dropped to 7,772 barrels per day.  Then, on 6 September, a spark from somewhere ignited a fire, and the greatest oil well disaster in Alberta’s history began.  The event caused a sensation heard around the world.  As flames licked a hundred feet into the air, smoke billows could be seen for over a hundred miles, while the atmosphere around most of Alberta was darkened.  News reporters came from all over North America, and the story was featured on television and on the Movietone News in theatres. Read more