Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the land around Millet was occupied mostly by the Cree people who moved through the area following bison. The movement of the Indigenous would have a very big impact on Millet and likely contributed to its founding. The paths the Indigenous took through the region would be used by the fur traders and explorers, which led to the establishment of Fort Edmonton. From there, the trails eventually grew in use and when it came time for the railroad to go through, the path the Indigenous took for centuries would be the path of the railroad. From there, Millet would be born as a new community.
Today, Millet sits on Treaty 6 land.
Founding Of Millet
Millet is unique in terms of communities in Alberta because the origin of its name come from several different sources. One source says that the name comes from Jean-Francois Millet, who was a French painter and a favourite painter of William Cornelius Van Horne, who was a railway owner that named Hobbema, nearby to Millet, after Miendert Hobbema, a Dutch painter.
The other origin of the name, and much more likely according to local historians, is that the name comes from August Millet, who was a fur trader who often moved through the area. Sometimes Millet would work for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and other times he was under the employ of the Northwest Mounted Police at their outpost at Fort Saskatchewan. He was often a travel companion and guide for Father Lacombe, one of the most revered figures from the early history of Alberta and for whom Lacombe, Alberta was named. This is where we get back to William Van Horne. He asked Father Lacombe to name stations along the Edmonton-Calgary railway line. He would suggest several names, including Leduc, now pronounced Leduc, in honour of a fellow missionary, and Millet, for the travel companion who joined him on so many journeys.
August Millet would eventually die tragically while trying to cross the Red Deer River. It is not known where Millet is buried but the community that shares his name has a memorial to him.
In 1883, the CN Railway would reach Calgary and the road up to Edmonton was a cart trail that was getting busier. Stage coaches carrying passengers, mail and freight would go up the road, roughly 300 kilometres, which took five days. Each night, the stagecoach would stop at a stopping place. In the Millet area, the most common stopping place was that of Frank Lucas and his family.
In 1890, the Calgary-Edmonton Railway Company would be formed and 6,400 acres of land would be granted for the railway to build on. In August of 1891, the railroad reached Strathcona, just south of Edmonton.
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The first person to live in the Millet area was Ben Slaughter, who was also friends with the aforementioned August Millet. He had a store and living quarters on the east side of the railroad and served as the first postmaster for the area. That store was an important place to stay in those early years. T.H. Howes, recounted in 1978 that, “When we arrived with a car of settlers’ effects on April 7, 1900, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Wright and their daughter were living in rooms over the store of Ben Slaughter. They were kind enough to let us stay in the store part that first night.”
Within a few years, more people began to live nearby and in 1901, several buildings were in what would one day be Millet. A store would be built by B.A. Van Meter in 1902, followed by a hotel, the Millet Hotel, that same year.
On June 17, 1903, the Village of Millet was established with James Blades becoming the first overseer of the community. The community was ready to grow.
The Nebraska Club
Many of the early settlers to the Millet area came from the United States, looking for cheap and plentiful land. Many were far from home and knew very few people. For the women, who were often at home for weeks on end, it could be a very lonely existence. Many of the families in the area had come from Nebraska and they would meet at each other’s home on a regular basis, singing songs and playing games. Homemade ice cream was often served during the pot luck suppers and eventually the group of families started to call themselves the Nebraska Club.
The 1927 Town Fire
Fire was an ever present danger in many rural Alberta communities and before modern firefighting techniques, a single fire could destroy an entire community. In October of that year, a fire broke out in Vic’s Garage around 2:30 p.m. when a gasoline engine that was being repaired burst into flames and quickly burned down the entire building. In a terrible stroke of bad luck, the chemical apparatus that was the fire fighting equipment of the town was in the garage that burned down. It could not be reached due to the flame and heat and a bucket brigade was started but there was not enough water to deal with the raging fire. Help was summoned from Wetaskiwin and Leduc and threshing gangs came in from the fields to assist in dealing with the fire. In the end, the damage would be $50,000, or $750,000 in today’s funds and it would destroy most of the downtown area. Mayor A.P. Mitchell would lose an entire business block and lost most of his household effects and clothing. Also lost in the fire were Graham’s Pharmacy, F. Day’s legal office, Dr. Ward’s dental office and much more.
When I talk about the history of a community, one thing I really enjoy doing is looking at the history of a community through the people who came from it and reached the world stage. Those people shed light on their community and, in some cases, bring people to the community itself. With Bob Robinson, Millet has one of the greatest rodeo competitors ever. Robinson was born on Sept. 13, 1931 and his father was Sykes Robinson, who won the World Champion Steer Riding competition at Madison Square Garden in 1927 and was the Canadian Saddle Bronc Riding Champion at the Calgary Stampede in 1939.
As for Bob, he would get his first professional rodeo win in 1953 as the All Around Champion in Edmonton. This would begin an incredible streak of excellence that few have equaled in the rodeo world. From 1955 to 1964, he was one of the top 20 bull riders and saddle bronc riders in the RCA, during that time he was the 1954 Saddle Bronc Champion in the Alberta Central Circuit, the 1956 Canadian Champion Saddle Bronc Rider, 1956 All Around Champion Edmonton and the Saddle Bronc Champion at the Calgary Stampede. In 1962, he would become the first Canadian to win a major event in the NFR in the United States.
Robinson would be inducted into the Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1997, was awarded the Pioneer Rodeo Award at the Calgary Stampede in 2009 and was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma in 2014. He was also ranked as the ninth greatest bull rider in Canadian history by Everything Cowboy.
Another notable resident was Winnifred Thompson Ross, who would find herself a war widow in 1918 in Millet and quickly began to farm the land herself. She would then join the Millet chapter of the Farm Women’s Union of Alberta and she became interested in improving the standards of rural schooling and promoting adult education. For the next 24 years, she would serve as the provincial leader of the organization and was on the original committees for the National Farm Forums, the Canadian Research Committee on Practical Education and the Advisory Committee to the Schools Of Agriculture. In 1948, she was appointed to the board of governors of the University of Alberta and served as the vice president of the Alberta Council on Child and Welfare. She would pass away in 1974.
Millet and District Museum
The lifeblood of the history of a community is found in its local museum. On Feb. 25, 1977, the Millet & District Historical Society was formed and less than a decade later, in 1985, the Millet and District Museum would be built and the Exhibit Room was opened. The facility has 12,800 artifacts from Millet and the 13 surrounding school districts dating back to the first half the 20th century. In addition, there are several rooms that depict the history of the area including the Hillside School, John Barth’s Barbershop and Kenny Kerr’s Implement Office, along with the home setting of a bedroom, living room and kitchen that represents the period of 1900 to 1950. There is also the Veteran’s Wall in the upper floor of the museum, which features the portraits of the Millet and District Veterans of the First and Second World War. The exhibit, From A Signpost In A Slough, the history of Millet is depicted from 1900 to 1960, depicting everything from the railroad arriving to the building of several important landmarks in the community.
Millet Town Murals
The history of Millet can be found not just in books and at the museum, but on the walls of buildings throughout the community. One mural is the Lions Club mural, which depicts a Lions Club celebration in the community, complete with a dance and fundraisers that highlights some of the things the organization has done for the community. The library mural is one of the more unique murals in that it depicts scenes from books, including Charlotte’s Web, while also displaying grain elevators from the early history of the community and two young individuals who are on their way to get books from the library, opening up new worlds for themselves. The community spirit mural depicts a dance at the community hall, which brought many people out for dances, social events, fundraisers and much more.
A great way to learn about a community’s history is through a walking tour. The wonderful thing about a walking tour is that you not only learn that history, but you can experience that history directly and often it comes at no cost.
In Millet, there is an excellent walking tour that runs 3.3 kilometres in total, taking about an hour and a half and features 30 stops, which I will highlight some of here.
The first stop of the tour is a fire wagon that actually dates back to 1938 and was used in Millet by the fire department from 1939 to 1954. As I mentioned earlier, the community had gone through a terrible fire in 1929 and ensuring that didn’t happen again was of paramount importance. Prior to 1938, the community used soda-acid extinguishers. In 1916, the first fire fighting equipment was bought in the community, which had a hand pamper but this was never used because the hose for the device had already began to decay. The new small engine bought in 1938 held two 45-gallon tanks that contained calcium chloride to prevent the water from freezing, along with carbon dioxide to provide pressure. The wagon could be moved by a machine, or by two or three men pulling it. This fire wagon proved its worth when it saved both Vic’s Garage and Moan’s Grocery in fires that occurred during the usage period of the wagon.
The St. John’s Anglican Church was built in 1929 but the land it sits on was originally purchased by the congregation in 1914. Most of the money to build the church was raised by two women named Burness and Winifred Jacques. The church would be built by Harry Parlee, a farmer near Cold Lake. Bishop H.A. Gray of Edmonton would conduct the service of the church soon after its construction. The first wedding would be held on Jan. 1, 1930 and was conducted by Reverend Arthur Murphy. That wedding has a strong connection to Canadian history because his wife was Emily Murphy. Emily Murphy would a Canadian women’s rights activist and author who was the first female magistrate not only in Canada, but in the British Empire. She is also one of the Famous Five, who were a group of women that fought for women’s rights and launched the Persons Case. I talked about that case in a previous episode and its impact on Canadian history and I encourage you to check it out.
A later stop in the walking tour is that of the Millet Royal Canadian Legion. While the building itself was built in 1997 after a fire destroyed the original Legion at a different site, the site its on has a deep history in Millet thanks to the Millet Creamery. The Millet Creamery was built in 1924 and quickly began to produce cheese and butter. The creamery provides another historic stop on the walking tour and its found at the re-creation of the Millet Burns Creamery Rock Garden. In 1937, the creamery staff decided to beautify the town and they created a rock garden just south of the creamery building. Perennials were donated by local residents and a fountain was installed in the garden. The garden would flourish for years until many creamery staff members left to join the fight in Europe during the Second World War. In 1998, the Communities in Bloom Committee, as well as the town and volunteers recreated the current garden.
In 1907, St. Norbert’s Catholic Church was built in the community on land that had been donated by P.J. Mullen two years previous. Fundraising began in 1906, with P.J. Mullen going above and beyond once again and donating $200, equivalent to $5,000 today. Several other donations came from business owners in the community, including a keg of nails from the hardware store. Lumber was donated by the Mullen Brothers Saw Mill at Pigeon Lake, hauled to the community by volunteers. The church would cost $1,550 to build, or $38,000 today and opened on Dec. 1, 1907 when it was blessed by Bishop Emile-Joseph Legal, the future archbishop of Edmonton. A statue was donated by the Abbey of Grimbergen in Belgium and while changes would come over the year, the building itself still stands.
Schools were incredibly important to early communities and often it did not take long for a school to be built in any new community. Two previous schools had been built in Millet over the years. One school was built in 1901 but burned down soon after, and was replaced in 1902 with a two-room school. In 1930, $15,000 was borrowed, or $224,000 today, to build a brand new school for the growing community. This new school would have four classrooms, accommodating grades one to 12. A laboratory was situated in the building as well, and there was a large central hall that was used for many events. The school would change over the years with new additions in 1954, 1959 and 1965. The school still operates to this day, but since March 23, 1981 it has been called Griffiths-Scott School, in honour of Perry Griffiths who was principal for 24 years, and Jean Scott, who was a teacher for 27 years.
Earlier in this episode I talked about the great fire of 1927 that hit Millet. That fire had started in Vic’s Garage and the garage was completely destroyed in that fire. On the site of that fire a new building was built in 1927 for the garage, which was again damaged in 1948 by fire but the building was not destroyed. While Vic’s Garage is no longer around, the building still is and today it is Leanne’s Bar and Grill.
The railway was the lifeblood of any community if it wanted to survive in the 20th century. Without a railway, chances were a community could go from boom to bust within a year. The first railroad to go through the Millet area was built by the CPR in 1891 and with that railroad came settlers and new visitors to what would be Alberta. The first station would be built in 1902, consisting of a 20-foot platform that replaced the boxcar building that had been the station for years. A new station would be built in 1907, which included a better platform, freight sheds and living quarters. From this station, the world would come to Millet. One of the more unique stories of the station is that until the 1950s, train orders were telegraphed to the station and the station agent would attach them to a bamboo hoop and the engineer would grab the orders as the train went by. The longest serving agent at the station was Cephas A. Kent, who served from 1913 to 1947. Passenger service would end in the 1970s and the station was moved but on the site of the station is a wonderful tree grove with a plaque detailing the history of the station on the walking tour.
On the 18th stop on the walking tour, you will come to one of the oldest buildings in the community and arguably the first church. In 1901, the Methodist Home Mission was started in Millet by a Mr. Frid, who was stone mason and would be the person to get the church built in the community. In 1902, the Millet United Church was built and opened in 1903. At the time it was called the Millet Methodist Church. The Methodist Church served many purposes in the community, including acting as an early school for the children of the area until a new school was built. In 1948, the church was remodeled and further changes came in the 1980s. In 2012, the building was officially sold, ending over a century of church services in the building.
Community halls have always been an important part of a community’s social life. The first community hall was Pinyon’s Hall, built in 1917. Pinyon’s Hall would host concerts, movies and more for several decades until 1942 when it was sold and demolished. Fred Pinyon had built the hall himself by cutting logs from Pigeon Lake and transporting them to the community. A new hall would eventually be built and it is the 21st stop on the walking tour. The Millet Community Hall that was built by the Millet Board of Trade in 1950 and 1951. The first event to be held at the hall was a dance on June 27, 1951 when the building was still slightly under construction. A total of 300 people attended that first dance and there would be many more after that. A large legacy mural is on the front of the hall that was painted for the 100th birthday of the community.
Quite odd for a community like Millet, it would take a decade, until 1912, before a bank was built. Discussions were conducted with the Imperial Bank in Wetaskiwin and it was decided that the hotel sample room would be used as the new bank. Previously, it had been used by traveling salesman so they could show merchandise to local shopkeepers. From that year on, Millet would have a bank. In 1927, a cottage-style building was built and it served as the location of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce until 1985 when it moved to Wetaskiwin. The building still exists and can be seen as the 24th stop on the walking tour.
Hotels were always something that was needed in an community during its formative years and at the present site of Rexall Drugs, the 25th stop on the walking tour, you will come across the original site of the Arlington Hotel. The original hotel was built in 1902 and it would see several additions and changes. In 1924, W. Keats of Edmonton would purchase the Arlington Hotel and he is notable because his son was Duke Keats. Duke was a member of the NHA, WCHL and NHL from 1915 to 1934, during which time he competed in the 1923 Stanley Cup Final with the Edmonton Eskimos, losing to the Ottawa Senators. From 1926 to 1929, he played for Boston, Detroit and Chicago in the NHL, recording 49 points in 82 games. He would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958. As for the hotel, it would sadly burn down on Feb. 15, 1995 but a mural is now on the building at the site that shows how the hotel looked during its prime. Within the hotel was also found the telephone exchange, which operated there from 1915 to 1958.