As you drive down Highway 16, heading towards Edmonton or towards Lloydminster depending on your destination, you are going to pass a community midway between Alberta’s capital and the border city. You will also start to see a lot of signs advertising something called a Pysanka, but more on that later.
The town is Vegreville, and its history goes back to before Alberta was a province and it’s a fascinating history.
Let’s dive into the history of this community where many different people have come together to create something great. Throughout this episode I am going to be looking at specific events and stories, rather than a chronological journey through its history.
The area around Vegreville is said to be a land of legends and was very important to the Indigenous who moved through the area for centuries. One interesting piece of the landscape is Akasu Hill, located 10 kilometres east of Vegreville. It rises to 736.4 metres, making it the highest geodetic elevation between the Obed Summit and the Canadian Shield within the boreal plains. The oral histories of the Indigenous state that bands used to come to his landmark and use it as a rest stop thanks to the lake. It was said it was a place for souls that were in need of inspiration. Local farmers have found plenty of evidence of Indigenous activity in the area, including petrified pemmican and arrowheads. The name, Akasu, means sick and it is not known where the name came from for the hill. Some theories say that local Indigenous would go to the top of the hill to pass on, and others attribute it to a smallpox epidemic that swept through the area in the 1870s. Charles Napier Bell would write in his diary that the hill was referred to as Sickman Hill.
One legend relating to the hill comes from the story of an Indigenous warrior who came to the area and collapsed on the land, ill and unable to carry on his journey. As he coughed and sneezed, gusts of wind churned up dust and as he became sicker, a crater was formed that would become Akasu Lake, and the dust from that crater formed Akasu Hill.
It is said that the area was called by the Indigenous Beaver Hills Lake, and that name would pop up in the early history of the area. In 1881, we get our first settlers arriving when Dick Steele and Billy Inglis turned the first land on the east shore of the lake. They were followed by a man named Peter McCallum, a carpenter, who would be one of the most important individuals in the early history of Vegreville. He had travelled throughout Canada for many years, looking for his spot and it seems he would find it in the area. He quickly saw the potential of the area and began to write to his friends back in Ontario, urging them to come to the district.
A.R. Moody would arrive in the area in 1887 and brought with him an air of distinction. He had served in the North West Mounted Police from 1880 to 1885 and was with Lt. Col. Otter when he attacked Poundmaker’s camp at the Battle of Cut Knife.
At the time, the nearest station to the area was Edmonton, quite the distance away. This made a very long journey for anyone looking to trade for goods, sell their crops, or get to any place that had a train station.
The area would continue to grow though, as settlers passing through started to see the potential of the land. By 1892, a school district was organized with J.B. Steel serving as the first teacher for the area. Settlers continue to flock to the area, many taking up ranching, and the sound of cattle could be heard throughout the area.
In 1894, several French-Canadian families were living in Kansas and began to hear positive reports about the land in the Canadian North-West Territories. With no real knowledge of the area, these families sent three men, Joseph Poulin, Benoit Tretreau and Octave Letourneau, to the area to see what it was like and to scout it out. The three men would make it to St. Boniface, Manitoba where they met another man by the name of Martin, who had surveyed much of the area around future Vegreville. He told them that the land of the Vermilion Valley was excellent. They decided to continue on to Calgary, then up to Edmonton, to see the valley. Unfortunately, the bad trails prevented this but they were impressed enough with what they did see to make it their recommendation to the families in letters back to Kansas. Reaching as far as Egg Lake, a flag was put down to claim the land and the party returned to Edmonton on April 29. They would come back to the valley on May 2 and break the first bit of land on May 19, planting potatoes ten days later, corn on the 31st and oats and barley on June 5.
The agricultural history of Vegreville had begun.
On June 14, the first church service in the area was held and on July 4, Father Dorias came to conduct the funeral of a child who had died. This was the first confirmed death in the area and the first funeral service. One day later, the first school, called the Independent Catholic School, was established.
At the start of 1895, the community was growing and there needed to be a proper name for the settlement. Father Morin would come forward with his idea for a name, suggesting it be called Vegreville after Father Valentin Vegre. Father Vegre was a missionary who had a residence near Lac Ste. Anne. He would spend 50 years serving the North West Territories of Canada and was an expert linguist, able to speak several Indigenous languages including Cree and Assiniboine. He had arrived in the Alberta and Saskatchewan are in 1865 and published several books in Cree and wrote a French/Assiniboine dictionary. He would pass away in 1903. He would never see the community named for him but his efforts to encourage settlement in Western Canada were a big reason for Vegreville to come into being.
The same year he died, speculators arrived in Vegreville to survey 80 acres of land for town lots. By this point, the village had five stores, one hotel, two blacksmith shops and several homes. In 1904, the first Catholic Church was completed and Bishop Legal came to the settlement to bless the church. Before long there were 20 buildings, including a blacksmith shop, two restaurants, a hotel, three machine shops, a police barracks, four stores and two banks.
It was around this time that the railway was coming through and residents could see the writing on the wall, it was not going to go through their community. They did what anyone would at the time. They picked up the town and moved it a few kilometres away to where the railway was coming. By the time the Canadian Northern Railway arrived in Vegreville in the fall of 1905, the community of Old Vegreville was empty of its residents and buildings were being moved, skidded across the prairie to the new site. By the end of the winter of 1905-06, Old Vegreville was an empty site on the prairie.
The boom was now on for Vegreville and the population would explode as new residents began to arrive and set up businesses and homes.
THE POST OFFICE
When settlers first came to Vegreville, or at least the area that would be Vegreville, the nearest post office was found at Beaver Lake, 20 kilometres away. During that time, Jean Poulin handled the mail and would take a trip to pick it up twice a month, far from the daily mail we enjoy today. As was stated before, the post office would arrive just as the 19th century began to close out and the 20th century dawned.
When Vegreville moved to its new location, a post office was set up and operated out of the Five Cents to $1 store, before it would eventually move to the Dobbin’s Building.
By the 1920s, the community was growing at such a rate that work was begun on a new post office in 1929, with the new building costing $60,000 to build but serving as the central meeting spot for the decades to come when it was finished.
A TOUGH 1918
While the year 1918 is remembered as when the First World War finally ended, and that is good news, but there were some tough moments during the year. One of the worst was the fire that broke through the community, destroying 28 stores and burning business blocks to the ground on April 11. The total cost of the damage was $350,000, or $5.45 million today.
In July, the summer heat was interrupted when the district was hit by frost and essentially destroyed the crops that were in the ground. In the night of July 23, the temperature fell to -5 degrees Celsius. At the time, the district was looking at possibly having the best crop it had had in years.
By November, as the war was ended, the Spanish Flu arrived and spread through the community, causing many to become sick and sadly, a few die.
ST MARTINS SCHOOL
The Daughters of Providence arrived in Vegreville from France over a century ago and formed the St. Martin’s Catholic Separate School District. In 1907, the first students began to arrive and attended classes at the church rectory. In 1908, the Convent of Immaculate Conception was built and served as a residence for the sisters, as well as a school. In 1914, a school was built and that school exists in the community today as St. Martin’s Catholic School. Since that point, the school has been upgraded on with a new gymnasium in 1958, and a new wing added onto the original brick school in 1981.
The area of Vegreville was very enticing to many settlers during the first half of the 20th century. By the 1950s, Vegreville was one of the most ethnically-diverse communities in western Canada with 30 different ethnic groups living in the area, with the four largest being English, French, German and Ukranian. Thanks to the French influence I touched on earlier in the episode, the northeast part of Vegreville was actually known for some time as French Town, where many of the French families lived.
The arrival of the railroad was always a huge event for a new community and Vegreville was no different. Before the railroad arrived, settlers had to travel to Edmonton for goods and to trade their crops. When the railroad arrived, Vegreville boomed and that boom is celebrated in the community through the symbol of a bygone era. The Canadian National Railway Caboose #79458 was converted from a box car in 1971 in Winnipeg and would travel the country for the next 22 years until it was retired in 1993. The caboose was then donated by the CNR to the Vegreville Chamber of Commerce.
The Vegreville Train Station was built in the spring of 1930, housing the local telegraph office as well. For the next four decades the railroad station was the hub of activity for the community. The railway had a 126 passenger car called The Skunk, that ran from Edmonton to Saskatoon. From 1974 to 1979, it was jointly owned by the Canadian National Railway and the Senior Citizens Sunshine Club of Vegreville. During those four years, the last Dayliner train between Vegreville and Mundare would run and in August of 1978, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip would arrive by train in Vegreville on their Canadian Tour. This was the last time the CNR station was used as a train station. Today, the station still exists in the community and is designated as a historic site on the municipal, provincial and federal levels.
Without a doubt, the most famous aspect of Vegreville is the Pysanka, also known as the world’s largest easter egg. Coming from the pysty, which means to write, the egg would get its start thanks to the Alberta Century Celebrations Committee that was coordinating the centennial celebrations of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to be held in 1974, honouring the 100th anniversary of the March West by the North West Mounted Police. The committee was tasked with distributing funds to communities to build a monument to the RCMP.
For Vegreville, this mean that the Vegreville and District Chamber of Commerce would take up the challenge and while many suggestions came in, the most popular was a giant Easter egg to symbolize the peace and security the Mounties offered the areas during those early years. Designed by Paul Sembaliuk, an artist who was born in the Vegreville area, Professor Ron Resch from the University of Utah was tasked with creating the Pysanka, which required the development of new computer programs. This was no simple Easter egg. The egg would feature 524 star patterns, 2,208 equilateral triangles, 3,512 visible facets, 6,978 nuts and bolts and 177 internal struts. All of this would come together to not only form arguably one of the most famous roadside attractions in the province, but an artistic masterpiece that has the distinction of accomplishing nine mathematical, architectural and engineering firsts and its design represents the first computer modeling of an egg. In all, the egg measures 25.7 feet long, 18 feet wide and is 31 feet high. The base it sits on is 27,000 pounds and turns in the wind like a weathervane.
The Pysanka is coloured bronze, silver and gold, with each colour representing something. The bronze colour represents the good earth of the area, the gold stars symbolize life and good fortune and the three pointed stars alternating in gold and silver represent devotion to the faith of ancestors. In addition, the band of silver has no beginning or end and represents eternity, while the gold and silver windmills with six vanes and points symbolize the rich harvest of the area. As for the silver wolfs’ teeth, that represents the protection and security of the pioneers by the RCMP.
It was such a notable achievement that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited the egg during a cross-country tour.
Another amazing fact is that the software used to guide the lasers to cut the Pysanka’s tiles would be purchased by NASA and used for cutting exterior tiles on the space shuttle.
In highlighting the ethnic background of the community, the caption under the Pysanka is written in the languages of the four largest ethnic groups of the community. The dedication says:
“This Pysanka (Easter Egg) symbolizes the harmony, vitality and culture of the community and is dedicated as a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who brought peace and security to the largest multi-cultural settlement in all of Canada.”
When you go to any town, one of the best places to visit to learn its history is the local museum and the Vegreville Regional Museum has an excellent one that chronicles the history of the area going back to 1890. It also features an exhibit honouring long-time MLA Donald Mazankowski, and the Vegreville and District Sports Hall of Fame.
While Donald Frank Mazankowski was not born in Vegreville, his impact on Vegreville would be immense. Born in Viking, he would be elected to the House of Commons in 1968 for the Vegreville riding. For the next 25 years, he would serve the community faithfully, becoming the Minister of Finance from 1991 to 1993 and serving as the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada from 1986 to 1993. While he was offered a seat on the Senate but declined, he would receive the Order of Canada in 2000 and was inducted into the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2003.
OUR LADY OF THE HIGHWAY
Nearby to Vegreville you will also find the Our Lady of the Highway Shrine. Sculpted from Italian white marble, behind the statue are marked stones that display the Stations of the Cross.
In Vegreville, you can learn the history of the community through its Historic Walking Tour, which takes through the Historic Downtown of the community as you learn its history.
On the walking tour you will come across the Post Office, which I had mentioned previously.
Unlike many communities in rural areas, Vegreville has a theatre that has existed since the dawn of motion pictures. The Capital Theatre, once called Vimy, was opened in 1919 and today is a twinned movie house.
Murals in the community highlight the history of Vegreville as well. At the previous location of the Prince Edward Hotel, which is now the Rendezvous Rotary Park, there is a mural that has the flags of Germany, Quebec, Ukraine, the United States and Britain on it, along with images of people from the past of the community including Father Valentine Vegre, the namesake of the community. The second mural is of the HMCS Vegreville, which depicts the minesweeper that was built in 1941 and that operated during the Second World War. The ship saw action at the Battle of the St. Lawrence, the Battle of the Atlantic and the Invasion of Normandy. It was broken up in 1947 for scrap.
One of the things I love about local history is that each place has a story to tell and there are many stories. So, I am closing out this episode on Vegreville with some of those stories.
One story tells of an incident on May 10, 1946. At 10:10 p.m., a monopole was flying from Edmonton Cold Lake when it began to experience engine trouble. Needing to find a place to land, the pilot, identified as an M. Wales, along with his passenger R.W. Howlett, chose Main Street in Vegreville. As they descended though, the plane clipped a power line at the corner of Main Street and Third Avenue. The wires were torn off a power line outside the curling rink, and a post fell, striking 13-year-old Olive Salamandick, who thankfully only suffered a broken leg. The plane then hit a light standard across from the newspaper office and came to a rest after taking the tops off several trees on the courthouse lawn. The plane was nearly destroyed but neither Wales or Howlett suffered anything beyond serious injuries.
I had already mentioned about the time Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip had come to Vegreville, but the community has been visited several times by prominent individuals over its history.
Likely the first prime minister to ever visit Vegreville was Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who came to the community in August 1910, only a few years after it had moved to its new spot. One year later, since it was an election year, Robert Borden came to Vegreville to campaign. While Borden wasn’t prime minister yet, he was soon to be elected, serving from 1911 to 1920.
In October 1924, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, along with several members of his cabinet, came to the community and met with Mayor A.W. Fraser.
On Aug. 8, 1951, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent arrived in the community where he met with as many residents as he could in the community. He then went to Elk Island Park where 30,000 people had gathered to hear him speak and officially open the Ukrainian Museum located there.
In May of 1962, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker came to the community on May 25. He received a very warm welcome as he went down Main Street with his wife to the Queen Elizabeth School. Once he arrived there, 1,000 children sent up a cheer for him and he spent some time talking with the children while at the school.