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Indigenous History

For centuries, long before Europeans began to arrive in the area, the area of Camrose was primarily the home of the Cree people. The Indigenous Cree roamed through the area, following the herds of bison that had moved through the land for eons.

The area was rich in fur and was a common place for both the Indigenous and early explorers and traders with the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company, to pass through in order to get furs for sale.

One of the first settlers to the area was also an Indigenous man. Pe-o-kis, who was a Cree man that was born south of Fort Pitt in the mid-19th century. His son Louie was born northeast of Camrose in 1872 on the prairie and the family would live in the area for many years. While he was likely born in the mid-19th century, legend says that while living in his cabin north of the CPR tracks in Camrose, he recorded his 125th birthday. While this is highly unlikely, it would put his birth year as 1811, and would also make him three years older than the oldest recorded person. True or not, Pe-o-kis left a legacy of many stories and is regarded as one of the first settlers in the Camrose area. 

Founding of Community

Following the Indigenous, few people stayed in the area, typically moving through instead of settling. That would change with Ole Bakken, who had the first home on the present townsite of Camrose. Built in 1893, it was a crude shack measuring 10 feet by 14 feet in size, built of poplar logs with a sod roof. It had one door and one small window and all you would find inside would be a stove, table, chairs, a bunk and an oil lamp. It may not have been the best looking house but it was always open to anyone coming through and he kept his home clean, and his baked bread was considered to be a local delicacy. Ole would occupy this home until 1905, when he left Camrose to live in Banff, where he died at the age of 60.

During the first decade of the 20th century, many settlers were coming through the area. Often, they got off the train in Wetaskiwin and went out from there. As they travelled, the buildings at future Camrose became a popular stopping office place. As people came through, some chose instead to stay and a small hamlet called Stony Creek was formed. Duncan Sampson, who had come from Little Current, Ontario, built a small store and lived upstairs. The store was located on the west side of future Camrose, which was being surveyed at the time thanks to the increase in visitors to the area. Lots were not for sale yet, that would happen in October. By the end of the year, with lots being sold, two hotels were built, called the Windsor and Arlington, and a name was chosen for the new townsite. It would be called Sparling, after Reverend Dr. Sparling of Winnipeg.

How did Sparling become Camrose? Well, I’ll get to that.

By June 1905, the railway grade was completed to Sparling, which included a bridge over Stoney Creek. From that point, a train would come from Wetaskiwin three times a week, and the community was ready to explode in size. A lumber yard would be built, several businesses would be opened including a hardware store, a jewelry store, an insurance office and a drug store. The first elevator would be built. Constable Blue Smith would also be the first police officer for the area. On May 4, 1905, the community would be incorporated as Sparling, with F.P. Layton serving as the first overseer for the community.

An issue began to arise with the name of Sparling. Postal authorities were often confused with Sparking, Alberta, Sperling, Manitoba and Stirling, Alberta. To keep this confusion from becoming worse, the decision was made to rename the community as Camrose.

Unlike many communities, the origin of its name is not quite note. It is likely though that the name of Camrose in Wales and was simply selected from a British postal guide in 1905. As for the name itself, it either comes from the Welsh words cam rhos, which mean crooked moor, or the Anglicized form of camrhos, which means crooked heather.

Either way, the name has stuck and the community was ready to grow. On Dec. 11, 1906, the community became a town and Layton would continue as leader of the community, this time with the title of mayor.

Camrose quickly became a railroad hub, with lines running to Edmonton and Calgary, as well as other communities such as Vegreville, Stettler, Drumheller and Wetaskiwin. By 1914, the community was receiving 12 passenger trains a day. When the first Grand Trunk Pacific Train came through the community, Premier Ernest Rutherford was on the train and enjoyed a huge welcome from the community as he disembarked with Attorney General C.W. Cross and the Minister of Agriculture, Duncan Marshall.

Camrose Lutheran College

In 1910, Norwegian settlers had arrived in Camrose and established a new school called the Camrose Lutheran College. It all began on June 29, 1910 when representatives from six of the Norwegian Lutheran Congregations, along with three pastors, met in Camrose to look at building a school for the young people of the Norwegian Lutheran faith. Interestingly, this was not the only group of Norwegian Lutherans planning the same thing in the area. The two groups came together at two meetings on Aug. 9 and 10 of that year and the Alberta Norwegian Lutheran College Association was created. Later in the fall, a decision was made to build a school for the fall of 1911 because, as they felt, how could you conduct school without buildings. Until the school was ready, classes were held at the two Lutheran churches located in Camrose. The other issue was where the students would be housed and fed. For this, Reverend T.T. Carlson came forward as vice-president of the association, and working with J.P. Tandberg, who had been appointed by the church in the United States, worked to find accommodations. That accommodation was found when the Heather Brae Hotel was rented for $200 per month, roughly $4,700 today.

The first school year of the Camrose Lutheran College began on Oct. 2, 1911 with classes in the two churches. Construction had also begun on the new building to be located on the southern outskirts of Camrose. The cornerstone for the building was laid down on July 1, 1911 and the concrete foundation had been completed by the time the first school year began in those churches. The structure itself was put up in the summer and fall of 1912 and was ready to open for the second academic year on Oct. 21, 1912. On June 26, 1913, the building was dedicated with a huge ceremony. The first building that would make up the campus would be the Old Main Building, which would become the Founder’s Hall. The building stands to this day and is one of the earliest examples of wood-construction for a post-secondary institution in Alberta. On June 13, 1977, it would be designated as a Alberta Registered Historic Resource.

The Old Main building would be the only building on the campus for three decades until the Canadian Army left Camrose after the Second World War and the old army barracks building was purchased, remodeled and turned into a gymnasium and dormitory for the men. The building would exist for many years before it was dismantled.

In 1952, a second permanent building was built west of Old Main, with it being dedicated on Nov. 23, 1952.

In 1958, the Lutheran College was granted Junior College Status and in the fall of that year, the first Junior College Class enrolled. A new classroom building was also built that year and opened on Oct. 26.

In 1959, the school began to offer university work in 1959 as an affiliate of the University of Alberta, while adding a second year of the university transfer program in 1969.

In 1985, it would become the first private university in Alberta when it began to grant its first Bachelor of Arts degrees.

On July 1, 2004, the Lutheran college became the Augustana University College after it merged with the University of Alberta to become a separate faculty and satellite campus of the university. Today, the campus is home to over 1,000 students who can enroll in over 30 areas of study from science to business management to the fine arts and humanities. In addition, there are 56 full-time faculty members and students come from more than 15 countries to attend.

The campus also as an Indigenous Student Services that provide a wide range of programs and services that are intended to increase, support and enhance the experience and success of Indigenous students. This includes an Indigenous Student Mentor Program, Smudging on Campus and celebrations and gatherings.

Chester Ronning, Canada’s first ambassador to China, was a student at the school and would serve as its principal from 1927 to 1942. He would receive the Order of Canada in 1972.

Three alumni of the Augustana campus also competed for Canada at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, in cross country skiing, speed skating and biathlon.

Another notable alumni of the school is Deena Hinshaw, who received her undergraduate degree at the school, once it was the Augustana University College, in 1997. She would go on to earn her medical degree at the University of Manitoba and in 2019, was appointed as Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health. She would become very notable during the COVID-19 outbreak thanks to her nearly daily media events and Global News called her the “trusted face for Albertans calmly delivering the facts as cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in our province.”

Bertha Fowler attended the Camrose Lutheran College and would be awarded the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2006 thanks to her commitment to Camrose and various political accomplishments.

Camrose Fairgrounds World War II

The Second World War was a time when the world changed forever. Not only were communities sending their men and women away to serve in the various armed forces, many places in Canada trained those soldiers. In Camrose, the fairgrounds had been the place for agricultural fairs since 1908 when the Town of Camrose purchased the land for the Camrose Agricultural Society. These fairs were always looked forward to by residents, helping to break up the hard work of the spring and summer and letting everyone get together and socialize. That tradition would continue until 1940 when the grounds were taken over by the Canadian Army, who started using the fairgrounds as a training facility.

The Camrose Normal School had closed in 1938 and had been left vacant for several years until the army came along. This old building became the headquarters for an army base that was set up in Camrose in 1940. On the fairgrounds themselves, ten H-shaped huts were built for the trainees and the grandstand was dismantled to make room for a parade ground. New buildings were erected to operate as mess quarters, a medical building and a stores room.

Until the end of the war, the army would occupy the grounds but after the army left following the Second World War, a number buildings were left on the property to be used by the town and the Agricultural Society. In 1948, the new barns would be filled with livestock exhibits and by 1949, a boys’ and girls’ camp was initiated. The Royal Canadian Legion obtained one of the huts and moved it to town to serve as the new home of the Legion. Other buildings were disposed of but some buildings, like the drill hall, were left at the fairgrounds.

Another interesting aspect of Camrose and its role during the Second World War comes from the heavy brass ball that was used by the Rotary Club to call members to order. This bell was used on the HMCS Camrose, a Corvette ship that was named for Camrose and was launched on Nov. 16, 1940. It served for the entire Second World War, and was used as an ocean escort on convoys from St. John’s to Iceland until February of 1942. In June of that year, it was assigned to the Western Local Escort Force. On Jan. 4, 1944, it was involved in the sinking of the German U-Boat U-757, which went down on that day, taking 49 seamen with it. The bell was taken as a memento after the ship was decommissioned on July 22, 1945.

Notable Buildings

The Camrose Feed Mill was built in 1910 by Georgeson and Company Ltd, a wholesale grocery firm out of Calgary. The warehouse was one of many constructed by the company and its construction helped Camrose become a wholesale centre for the entire region. The fact that so many branch lines came into Camrose helped with this and the goods in the building would go out across Central Alberta. In 1938, the building was bought by the provincial government to serve as a liquor store. It would operate as such until 1944 when the Alberta Seed Growers Co-operative Limited, which resulted in an additional superstructure and machinery being added onto the building. In 1967, it was sold and turned into the Feed Mill Dining Lounge. It would be recognized as an Alberta Provincial Historic Resource on May 31, 1985. Today, the building remains one of the few remaining wholesale facilities in the original warehouse district of Camrose.

The Camrose Public Library’s building is one of the most beautiful library buildings that you will see anywhere in the prairies. The building itself was constructed in 1908 and was the home of the Canadian Club of Camrose, providing the businessmen of Camrose a place to play billiards socialize, read and talk of the current events of the day. Interestingly, the Camrose Canadian Club was incorporated through an act of the Alberta Legislature on March 5, 1908. The club was an early lesson in civic cooperation and was described as doing quite a bit to build the reputation of Camrose citizens. In a copy of Immigration Number of the Camrose Canadian, printed on May 6, 1909, the club was described as follows:

“One of the finest sites in the town was secured and a building erected that would be a credit to a town many times larger than Camrose. The first floor was devoted to billiards and pool and three very handsome tables were purchased. Here the men of the town, both young and old, while away many an idle hour engaged in one of the most fascinating and graceful games that human ingenuity has yet evolved for recreation of fatigued humanity.”

It then goes on to describe the second floor:

“The second floor was splendidly finished and fitted up as the Club’s reading room. Here a spacious fireplace, pictures, piano and easy chairs give a touch of real home life.”

It then states that under no circumstances is liquor allowed on the premises, not even at public banquets.

The building served as the home of the club until 1918 when it was sold and the club was disbanded. It was then occupied by an Alberta Treasury Branch office and also served as the provincial courthouse. In 1957, the building was sold and moved one block to begin its life as the Camrose Public Library. On Jan. 24, 1978, it was designated as a Provincial Historic Resource.

The Bailey Theatre is truly a remarkable place because so few of these types of buildings are still around. It was originally built in 1908 and is one of the oldest existing purpose-built theatres in all of Alberta. The theatre was established by Camille David, who was also a partner in the first hotel in the community, and was financed by him as a place for local and visiting performers to come out. Over the years the building would showcase musical performances, theatre productions, silent movies, vaudeville shows and more. In those first years, it would see the Toronto Glee Club perform, along with several plays, musicals and dances. It would be sold to Stan Bailey in 1913 and renamed the Bailey Theatre in 1921. During those early years, the theatre would see the Georgia Minstrels, The Winnipeg Kiddies and the San Carlo Opera Company, all of whom signed the walls in the dressing rooms and left messages for other performers. Today, the theatre still has the pressed metal-paneled auditorium walls and ceiling, wood trusses supporting the ceiling and the stage that so many have performed on. The building was made a Municipal Historic Resource on Jan. 24, 2000.

The Camrose Normal School is a three and one-half storey brick building that dates back to 1915 when it was opened by the provincial government. The decision to build the school was made in 1912 and it was built between 1913 and 1914. George Peter Smith, the MLA for the area, came to Camrose on July 11, 1912 to announce the new school at the largest public meeting ever held in Camrose to that time. It was to be the second teacher training facility in Alberta, with Calgary having the first back in 1906. Originally it was planned to open the building on Aug. 23, 1912 before it was changed to the spring of 1913 to allow a building to be built. Until the school could be built, the Normal School used two rooms at the John Russell School until 1915. When the school opened in its temporary location in 1912, it had 20 students, made up of 16 women and four men. The first class would graduate at Christmas of 1912. The formal opening of the building that stands to this day would happen on Oct. 8, 1915. For the next 23 years, it would serve as a place for the education of teachers, who themselves would go out and educate students around the province. C. Fred McNally would be the founding principal of the school and was a pioneer educator in Alberta. He would eventually go on to become the Deputy Minister of Education under Premier William “Bible Bill” Aberhart. McNally would also go on to become the Chancellor of the University of Alberta from 1946 to 1952. During the Normal School’s years of operation, thousands of teachers would receive their training there until the building was turned over to the Canadian Army. It was made a Provincial Historic Resource on March 15, 1977.

Camrose And District Museum

If you are a regular listener to Canadian History Ehx, then you know that I absolutely love local museums. I feel that they are often better than the larger museums and provide a more personal experience as you discover the past of a community.

The museum was officially opened on Canada’s centennial birthday, July 1, 1967, and is now home to thousands of artifacts from the past of the community. Unlike many local history museums that are only a small building with some items, the Camrose and District Museum features several buildings, of which I will cover a few here.

The main building of the facility contains the Della Robson Archival Gallery, a Reading Room and a Museum Library.

On the grounds you will find a replica of the 1907 Camrose Fire Hall, which also served as the administrative offices of the town. The replica was opened on the museum grounds in 1981.

The Camrose Canadian building is another replica building that shows what the early newspaper office was like. For its first two years it was known as The Mail before becoming the Camrose Canadian in 1908. Inside the building you will find a printing press and a linotype machine, both of which are in working order.

The Blacksmith Shop was built on the grounds in 1993 out of the wood from old granaries in the area and today has a working forge with demonstrations available for the public.

You can see what life was like for the soldiers who lived on the fairgrounds during the Second World War by touring the Old Timer’s Hut, which was an army hut during at the army training facility. The building still sits in its original location and has not moved since the Second World War.

Earlier in this episode I talked about Ole Bakken. You can see the type of building he lived in by checking out the Log Hut on the museum grounds. The replica hut was built in 2005 in honour of Ole Bakken and features exactly what he would have had in his home over 125 years ago.

On that same note of homes, the Pioneer Log House on the grounds was built by the Thore Grue family in 1898, made entirely of logs. The house was first located near Armena and was quite small. Over the years, it would be renovated and expanded on several times. It would move further to the east in 1903 using two bob-sleds pulled by two teams of six horses. The final move for the building would happen in 1979 when it was moved to the museum grounds, restored and furnished. It was opened, with furnishings donated by the community, on Sept. 1, 1980.

Railway Museum

When you visit Camrose, one unique museum that is definitely worth a visit is the Camrose Railway Museum and Park. In 1911, with Camrose booming, a Third Class Station was set up by the Canadian Northern Railway in the community. This Third Class Station was the third of four to be developed by architect Ralph Benjamin Pratt, which are all distinguished by their hip roof, which is unique to Canadian Northern Railway buildings. The importance of the station and Camrose as a railway centre is shown in the fact that the station was expanded in 1952, something that didn’t typically happen by that point. Passenger service continued to fall in use and by the 1980s, it was dropped as a service at the station. The station would then close but it would be resurrected and moved in 1992 to begin serving as a symbol of a bygone era, and an excellent museum in the community.

Today, you can walk through the railway museum grounds, visit the watchman’s shed and the bunkhouse. The depot also features the Canadian Northern Society’s archives and library and the Sparling Centre, which features historic pictures of Camrose. You can also visit the track car storage shed and hear the stories of the people who worked maintaining the tracks and their machines. The park itself is also a beautiful place that features G-scale trains, a Thomas the Tank Engine and more moving along the route of the old Canadian Northern Railway, built to scale. 

Big Valley Jamboree

When I was 15, I went to Camrose on a trip with my parents, a friend of mine and my cousin. We went for an event, and it was a big one. It was the Big Valley Jamboree and it continues to run to this day, serving as one of the biggest music festivals in western Canada.

In 1992, the owners of the Big Valley Jamboree in Craven, which is now called Country Thunder Saskatchewan, wanted to host a second festival in Alberta. They chose Big Valley because of name but also the geography of the area. In September of 1992, a rock concert was held in Big Valley that featured the Steve Miller Band, Sass Jordan, who appeared on the podcast back in May, and Bryan Adams. Unfortunately, the 15,000 campers were met with a sloppy field of snow and mud as cold fall weather moved in.

For 1993, it was decided that a new location needed to be found. At the same time, the Camrose Regional Exhibition was looking to revive its annual summer fair. These two things came together and the Big Valley Jamboree was rebranded as a country music festival. The new festival was held for the first time in Camrose on the 1993 August long weekend. Since then, musicians and star such as Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Kevin Costner, Brad Paisley, Brooks and Dunn, Billy Ray Cyrus and Reba McEntire have played the festival. The festival now brings $10 million a year into the Camrose economy, and the Canadian Country Music Association voted the Big Valley Jamboree as the best country music event of the year in 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2010. In all, it averages 25,000 people per day during the four-day festival.

Important Visitors

Due to its proximity to Edmonton, and its role as a hub for the railroad, Camrose would see several important visits from well-known Canadians.

An early important visitor came on Oct. 8, 1915 when Premier A.L. Sifton was on hand for the evening meeting at the Camrose Normal School.

One of the first came in 1920 when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, just recently elected as prime minister, would visit Camrose in his private coach. The Stettler Band, which had been invited the previous year to play in Camrose and soon after Camrose started up its own band. That band would welcome Prime Minister King to the community.

On July 30, 1959, when the Northern Alberta Dairy Pool Plant opened, Premier E.C. Manning was in Camrose to open the plant, which at the time was the most modern dairy plant in all of Canada.

In 1962, Lester B. Pearson visited the community on a cross-country tour and took part in a barbecue in his honour. At the time he was the Leader of the Opposition but soon enough he would be elected as prime minister, becoming one of Canada’s greatest over the next few years.

Notable Residents

Scott Ferguson was born in Camrose on Jan. 6, 1973 and would play for the Kamloops Blazers during the 1993-94 season and would sign a free agent contract with the Edmonton Oilers oon after. He would spend several seasons in the minor leagues before landing a regular job with the Oilers. Following the NHL lockout, he would sign with the Minnesota Wild, followed by time with the San Jose Sharks. Over the course of his career, he would play in 218 NHL games, recording seven goals and 14 assists.

Josh Green was born in Camrose on Nov. 16, 1977 and would be drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Kings in 1996. He would be traded to the New York Islanders in 1999 and would be traded to the Edmonton Oilers in the 2000 Entry Draft. With the Oilers during those two seasons, he would play 81 games and recorded 10 goals and seven assists. He would then play for the Calgary Flames, New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Ducks and once more with the Oilers. Over the course of his career, he would play in 341 NHL games, recording 36 goals and 40 assists.

Kenneth Iverson was born on Dec. 17, 1920 in Camrose and after a stint in the Canadian Army and then the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, he would earn degrees at Queen’s University and Harvard and begin working for several computer companies. He would develop the programming language APL and was honoured with the Turing Award for his pioneering effort in programming languages and mathematical notations. He would pass away on Oct. 19, 2004 in Toronto.

Rose City

The community today is known as The Rose City and has a population of 15,300, making it one of the most prominent cities in Alberta. The name comes from the fact that there are a large amount of wild roses that grow in the surrounding parkland. In 1995, the Camrose Rose was developed to withstand the Alberta climate and was introduced to the city by Jerry Twomey, who bred and patented the rose to honour the place of his birth. Twomey was well known in the world of plant breeders. He created a pure white gladiola that was voted the World’s Most Beautiful Glad Award at the 1939 World’s Fair and he would eventually amass the world’s largest private collection of Inuit carvings, which he donated to the Winnipeg Art Gallery before passing away in 2008.

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