The History Of Stettler

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CraigBaird

Travel south of Edmonton and you will come across the community of Stettler. This community, which dates to 1905, has had an interesting history and one that is celebrated quite a bit in the town. Given the name of the community, it seems appropriate that we begin looking at the history of Stettler by looking at him.

Before we do that though, we need to go back further and look at the Indigenous history of the area. The land that would one day be the townsite of Stetter was originally the land of the Blackfoot and the Cree. They would occupy the land for centuries until fur traders began to move through the area, including people such as Anthony Henday and David Thompson.

By the turn of the 20th century, more people were arriving in the area and when Alberta became a province in 1905, Stettler was ready to appear on the provincial stage. It all began with the aforementioned Carl Stettler, who had come from Switzerland to Alberta in 1903 and filed a homestead just three kilometres away from the present site of Stettler. Upon his land, he would found a Swiss colony in 1905 under the name, and I hope I pronounce this right, Blumenau. That same year, in the fall, the townsite that would become Stettler was put on the market because the Canadian Pacific Railway had just reached the site. Blumenau was doing quite well by this point, having a lumberyard, two general stores, a tavern, bakery, blacksmith shop and a feed store. The people in the community knew that to survive in that era, a community needed to have access to the railway. As a result, and this is way more common than you may realize, the entire town moved to this new location that would become Stettler. Since Carl Stettler was the first postmaster, the community was named for him.

Stettler didn’t just lend his name to the community. In 1906, he would build the National Hotel, which would sadly burn down in 1908. Undeterred, he then built another on the same night in 1909 and called it by the same name. That hotel would last until 1942 when it too burned down.

Stettler also served as the CPR land agent for the community and was a member of the first Stettler town council and the president of the Liberal Association. Stettler would eventually move to nearby Castor where he owned a coal company. He kept his holdings in Stettler, choosing not to sell them but this would nearly cost him when stringent economic times nearly bankrupted him.

Nonetheless, he would return to Stettler in 1919 with the intention of spending his remaining years in the community. Always trying to help the community grow, he would travel to Memphis, Tennessee to find interested buyers to purchase lots and land in the Stettler area. Sadly, he would contract blood poisoning. An operation was conducted to curb the infection, but he would die soon after. His body was shipped from Memphis to Stettler to be buried.

Needless to say, the current community of Stettler owes a lot to the man whose name it honours and you can visit his grave in the community today, located at the Lake View Cemetery in Block 1, Lot 95, Plot 3.

As for the community he helped to establish, it would quickly grow, catching the notice of many.

The Edmonton Bulletin would say “Stettler is one of the busiest towns in Alberta”, while the Calgary Herald would state, “The town of Stettler was always alive with possibilities.”

The first bank was established out of a tent in 1905, called The Merchant’s Bank, while the first hospital was set up by a Dr. Donovan out of a rented building in 1909. By 1912, there was a 10-bed hospital and two years later a 12-bed hospital was opened. In 1913, the town installed a steam-electric plant with a capacity of 150 kilowatts. A decade later, the system was upgraded to 200 kilowatts and by 1928, a Canadian Utilities power line was connected to the town.  

The Stettler Board of Trade was organized in 1905, and the first newspaper, the Stettler Independent, was established in 1906 by an Australian immigrant named Will Godson. He would run the paper until 1908 when it was bought by C.L. Willis.

The community would see 1,500 people living there in 1914 and has grown today to become one of the most important communities in Alberta with 6,000 residents.

William Brighton Gray

Another important person in the early history of Stettler was William Brighton Gray. He was a cowboy, pioneer and rancher in the area who was well-liked by residents of the community for his kindness, humour, generosity and devotion to duty. As a young man he had been employed for the Bank of England for six years, before joining the British Navy for two years. That was followed by four years of international travel that would eventually bring him to western Canada in 1882. By 1906, he was living in the Stettler area and serving as the Dominion Land Agent in the community. That was far from the only job that he had or would have. During his time in Canada he worked as an agent for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Registrar of Vital Statistics for the district, and was the official issuer of marriage licences in Stettler. He also served as the town clerk when Stetter was incorporated, and as the Justice of the Peace, earning him the name Judge Gray in the community. His home, located on the outskirts of town, was known for its many animal residents including raccoons, bear cubs and even a gold eagle for a time. Over the course of his life he had also collected many historical items including rare coins, Indigenous outfits, guns and other artifacts. In 1946, he would sell his collection to the Alberta Government.

Stetter Flour Mill

In many communities, the mill is the unsung hero of the community. Sure, you have lumber yards and churches and schools all providing a vital service, but the flour mill is where the hard work of farmers is turned into food for the residents. In Stettler, the Estonian pioneers who came to the area would bring that mill to the community. Originally, settlers had to travel to Red Deer for food and farm supplies and the trip typically took four or five days in all. In the early 1900s, Magnus Tipman and Hans Johansen arrived and set about building a flour mill on the homestead owned by Johansen. Made of wood with a fan made of four blades, covered in canvas and attached to a large gear that drove another gear, which drove the grinding stone. The entire contraption was housed in a small building and the structure could be moved to take advantage of the wind. The mill would operate for several years, even after the death of both Hans and Magnus. John Tipman would take over the mill after the death of his father, but in the 1920s he would dismantle the building and move it to land he purchase, where it operated until 1945. At that point, it was dismantled and moved to its final home at the Stettler Museum.

Farming overall was an important industry in the area, with dairy and poultry proving to be important revenue producers for the Stettler area. Those products, along with the other services in the area, brought $500,000 to the local economy, no small amount then. By the 1920s and 1930s, the area had a creamery, two egg grading stations and six grain elevators that could handle 215,000 bushels.

Oil Arrives

On May 3, 1949, oil was discovered at Gulf-Ellis No. 1, 10 kilometres southwest of town. Another well, a lucrative one, was found on Sept. 5, 1950 in nearby Big Valley. Before long, the Stettler district had become one of the most important and largest gas fields in the province, producing 974 barrels of oil a day with nearly no water. Eventually, this field would produce 35,000 barrels a day and account for 26 per cent of the Gulf Company’s total production of light oil. Today, oil and gas continue to support the community with Koch Service Canada, Morrison Petroleum and Gulf Canada all having offices in the community.

The Underwood Flying Machine

After the Wright Brothers launched their aircraft, it was not long before others around the world began to do the same. One of the earliest aircraft to ever be built and tested was tested right near Stettler, only a few miles to the east. Tested in 1907 and 1908, it was flown by the sons of John K. Underwood, a pioneer from the area.

Underwood was widely known for his innovations in the area. In 1872, he found a better way to break the sod acres and he took out a patent on his new disc plough. John’s sons would inherit their father’s ability to craft new things and once they heard about the Wright Brothers, they got down to work to replicate the accomplishment.

On May 14, 1907, the boys began testing out a rectangle, tailless kite that was eight feet across. A few days later, they tested their flying wing kites, this time with a 20-foot model. Tests would continue well into June as the boys fine-tuned the methods and the machines. In the middle of June, they were nearly completely done making their flying machine, modeled on that of the Wright Brothers design.

With many locals hearing about their design, they were invited by the Stettler Exhibition to showcase the machine at the fairgrounds in Stettler. They accepted and transported it 10 miles to Stettler. Many people were very impressed by the machine and it was even mentioned in the Toronto Globe, as well as several other newspapers. The Edmonton Journal called it Alberta’s Airship.

After the exhibition, the boys transported the aircraft back home and got down to work to have it fly. Since it had no engine, the boys decided to fly it like a kite, and they took a rope of 700-feet and ran it along the ground to a post and the other side to the machine.  They did their first test on Aug. 10, 1907 and were encouraged by the results and the remarkable stability of the wing in the high winds. In all, the aircraft with five sacks of wheat weighed 350 pounds and took off easily. John Underwood, then 22-years-old, then got in the aircraft and was lifted 10 feet in the air where he stayed aloft for 15 minutes.

In the spring, the boys were able to get a seven-horsepower motorcycle engine and hoped to use it for flying. Unfortunately, it did not have enough power. They attached a belt to drive a four-blade bamboo and canvas propeller. Due to the low power of the engine though, the aircraft was unable to get off the ground. The Underwood boys attempted to get a better engine and were able to find a 40-horsepower one that cost $1,300.

Thanks to the high interest in the endeavor of the boys in Alberta, a member of Parliament took up the cause in Ottawa and suggested a bill to allow any engine purchased by a Canadian to be imported into Canada duty-free. It did not get past that stage though.

Without the proper engine, the boys continued to fly their aircraft as a kite, well into 1908. Unfortunately, a high wind came up and the boys did not handle their aircraft properly. The rope was broken, and the kite fell to the ground and was badly smashed.

In the end, the boys decided not to repair the aircraft as they had lost interest in trying to find a larger engine.

Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions

If you go to Stettler, I will highly recommend you take a trip with Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions. I have actually done this, back in 2006, and it was a wonderful experience. It provides you with the opportunity to ride on a train as people did decades ago, seeing the landscape as the wind whips by. The train runs from Stettler to Big Valley and lasts five to six hours. Everyone is provided with a buffet meal and it is a great experience because it also features a train robbery. The train is pulled by the number 41, a 1920 Baldwin 2-8-0 steam locomotive that used to run on the Mississippian Railway. Sometimes, a diesel switcher will be used. In the winter, the train operates as a Polar Express from mid-November to just before Christmas. Throughout the trip during the summer, professional performers entertain passengers, and you can enjoy the open-air coach if you like. You will also enjoy the local history of Big Valley when you get there.

Parrish & Heimbecker Grain Elevator

Decades ago, the landscape was littered with grain elevators in each community you drove through. Most grain elevators are disappearing, and most communities don’t have them anymore. When you find a grain elevator, and one you can actually see as part of a museum, that is something you should take advantage of. In Stettler, you have the Parrish & Heimbecker Grain Elevator. Pushing 100 years, the wonderful structure also includes an annex that was built in the 1950s. The elevator was still being used until the early-2000s and a group was organized to save the structure and fix it up. Today, the entire elevator is a museum and the interior are filled with displays about the history of the area and the elevator itself.

Town & Country Museum

Every community has a museum. Some have larger museums than others and Stettler has one that is a step above. It is not only the fifth largest pioneer village in the province, but it has some of the original buildings from the community including three one-room schools, the 1910 courthouse, a church, harness shop, a farmhouse and a log home. In all, there are 26 buildings for you to explore.

I’m going to look, briefly, at the history of some of the buildings at the museum.

Whetsel School, which was named for Charles Addison Whetsel, the owner of a nearby rooming house, is considered to be the first school built in the area east of Tail Creek and the Red Deer River. It was officially built and opened in 1905, with Florence Close serving as the teacher for 19 students. The building also saw many card parties, concerts, meetings and dances. It would eventually become a home after it was done being a school, until it was sold and eventually moved to the museum.

Content School, also known as Nevis School, was built in 1914 and in 1957 was sold to the Nevis Community Centre for $175 and would find its way to the museum grounds.

The Stettler School’s construction began in 1907 and would finish in 1908. In 1914, the Stettler School Board sold the building for $9,000 so that it could become the courthouse for the community. The building was then converted by C.E. McGowan and local labour to become the courthouse. It would serve in that purpose until 1974 when it was sold to the community and would then find its way to the museum.

Also located on the grounds are the Lakeview Church, built in 1908, a farmhouse and a harness shop both from 1910, the CNR Train Station from 1911, which includes a caboose, and 1930 log house.

Walking Tour

Stettler has several historic buildings outside the museum that you can see by just taking a walking tour through the community. Some of the buildings on this tour have a really interesting history, and I want to relate some of those histories here.

The Stettler Cigar Factory was opened in January 1912 under the care of Fred D. Carter. With the slogan of “Stettler Heart of Alberta Beats Them All”, the company quickly became one of the top cigar makers in the province. Within six months of opening, the company was making 1,600 cigars per day and by the end of 1912 the business employed 12 men who made 40,000 cigars per month. The company continued to grow. By June of 1915, 65 men were employed at the business, producing 6,500 cigars per day, making it the largest cigar factory in western Canada. Unfortunately, in 1917 the Stettler Cigar Factory moved to Vancouver to form an additional branch, which soon became the main factory, ending the cigar history of Stettler.

The Stettler United Church sits on the lot originally built for the Swedish Lutheran Church, which sadly burned down. The new church was built and dedicated to the Glory of God in January of 1928, bringing together the Presbyterian and Methodist congregations of Stettler. In 1952, the church was enlarged so that it could seat 250 people, and a beautiful pipe organ was installed and dedicated in 1955. In 1967, the Christian Education wing was added to enhance the community-focused ministry of the congregation in the community.

Earlier in this episode I had mentioned that Carl Stettler built a hotel, only to have it burn down, so he built another hotel, which too eventually burned down. You can see the hotel that was built on that site in 1948, the Stettler Hotel, which stands to this day and continues to operate to this day.

Anyone who is familiar with Doctor Who knows that The Doctor regenerates every so often into a different Doctor. Buildings in a small town can be much the same, and they can be many things over their history. One building on the walking tour, the Sutton Landmark Realty building, was originally built in 1936 and over the course of its history it has served as a butcher shop, a car dealership, a flower shop, an insurance agency and, today, a realty office.

Some buildings are newer on the walking tour but are linked to important parts of Alberta’s history. The Stettler Post Office was built in 1954 and was the original home of the Stettler RCMP detachment, which included living quarters for the officers, as well as jail cells. One of those jail cells housed a man by the name of Robert Raymond Cook, who had been convicted of killing his father in Stettler in June of 1959. Cook would eventually be transferred to Ponoka, and then have his journey end in Fort Saskatchewan when he became the last man hanged in Alberta.

Along the tour you will come to the Stettler Pool Hall, built in 1920. It was a place where you could play some pool, and get your hair cut by a barber. In 1924, a bowling alley was installed in the basement.

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