When early settlers came to the prairie areas that would become Saskatchewan and Alberta, they often built sod houses to live in. These sod houses were simple structures that could often leak, have rodent and snake problems, and generally were not the most pleasant places to live. Nonetheless, entire families would live in these places until a more permanent structure could be built.
Move to an area, build a sod house, then build a regular house. That was the standard path of most settlers.
That wasn’t the path one settler in the Didsbury area took.
When you drive down one of the dirt roads that criss-cross the area, you are going to see what looks like a small door standing up in the middle of a field. That door leads to the Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter.
It is not known precisely who built this structure, which is a simple dugout into the ground but there is a theory, which I will get to.
The shelter today exists much as it did over 100 years ago. The shelter is beneath an earthen, grass-covered mound and the only visible part of the shelter is the sandstone entrance that faces to the west. Shelters like this were more common than we realize. Several homesteaders who migrated to the central Alberta area would create shelters such as this using pre-modern building techniques. Often the shelters were temporary living quarters, with families living in sod houses, simple shacks or tents. The shelter roofs were typically made of logs or sod, supported by poles.
The area around the Sunnyslope Shelter is free of trees for the most part, so such shelters would provide an excellent escape from the wind and the cold.
Let’s look at this shelter, and who possibly built it.
The first records on this land relates to an Erich Steendahl, who made an entry for the quarter of land on Aug. 22, 1902. He would hold the land until he released it on June 26, 1903. Early settlers in the area recalled seeing Steendahl hauling sandstones from the nearby lake. Local blacksmith, a Mr. Coventry out of Olds, would later state that Steendahl had come to him asking Coventry to make him hinges for a door. Years later, Coventry in relating the story to a Jack Smith, stated that he visited the shelter and saw that his hinges were on the door. The shelter at that time was 10 feet by 12 feet, with a dome-shaped ceiling in which there was a skylight and a chimney. The walls were whitewashed in lime to make it as bright as possible within the the shelter.
In the fall of 1902, a local settler noticed that there was smoking coming up from the northwest. He believed that it was a prairie fire and ran out to deal with the flames. It was then they saw that it was actually smoke coming from the chimney of the shelter.
Steendahl would live in the shelter through the winter of 1902-03. He would leave soon after releasing his land, moving to North Dakota.
Following Steendahl was a man by the name of George Schech, who obtained the right to the land from the government on Feb. 12, 1904. He would reside there from March 1, 1904 to April 8, 1904 before returning to Montana to work as a labourer. He moved back to the quarter on Aug. 10, 1904. He built a wood-frame building that he lived in, using the shelter as a root cellar.
Many believe that it was George Schech who built the shelter, rather than Steendahl. So, lets look at that. In Memoirs of Sunnyslope Pioneers, it is stated that Schech arrived from Wisconsin in 1903 to try homesteading. He is described as a stone mason and that he built the underground house from native stone in the area. It also describes the frame buildings on the land that he lived in. Schech apparently trained oxen and horses and took his animals very seriously, not allowing any jokes about his livestock. In an issue of The Olds Gazette, it is stated that the dugout was built around 1907, rather than 1903 as was stated before in this episode. After a few years, he would leave the area and his frame buildings would slowly disappear until only the stone shelter remained.
In June of 1977, the Sunnyslope Shelter as it is now called was designed as a registered Alberta historic site. In the June 1, 1977 issue of The Olds Gazette, the dugout was known as The Schech Dugout or One Man’s Castle. Over the years since it was abandoned, vandals had damaged the entrance but the structure remained sound for the most part.
Information for this piece comes from Alberta Historic Places, the plaque at the site, Memoirs of Sunnyslope Pioneers, The Olds Gazette,