The History of Westlock

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Indigenous History

Before Europeans arrived in the area, which would begin with Anthony Henday in 1754, the Indigenous inhabited the land that would one day be Westlock. They would follow the bison through the area and artifacts of the Indigenous have been found through the years in the area. The fur trade would comes active from the 1760s onward, as fur traders and explorers came through the area. The first mention of the district in writing would be thanks to David Thompson, who came through in April of 1799.

The area of future Westlock was a popular stopping place for the Indigenous because of the Pembina River.

The very earliest records of the Indigenous being in the area comes from archaeological research. It is believed the original inhabitants to come through the area were incursions from the Plains Indigenous. The area was covered in boreal forest and the Indigenous who arrived, became the Athapaskan-speaking Beaver people who themselves would be replaced by the Algonquin-speaking Cree.

Many settlers and farmers have found projectile points on their land and many of these have been placed in the Pioneer Museum.

It is believed that when the fur trade opened up, around 1750 in the west, the Cree entered the area living as mobile groups of 50 to 100 people who hunted, fished and gathered in the area. The bison were an important part of their lives, as was mentioned previously, and bison skulls and remains have been found on land when it is being cleared.

Today, Westlock is home to hundreds of Indigenous and Metis individuals and the community sits on Treaty 6 land. The Treaty was signed on Aug. 21, 1877 and the Cree, who had traded through Fort Assiniboine for decades, relocated to Lac La Nonne, near to future Westlock. When Treaty 6 came into effect, the Cree moved to Alexander First Nation Reserve, around 1880.

Founding of the Community

The settlement of Westlock would begin in 1902, but not quite in Westlock. If you have listened to my episodes on community histories you will see two trends. Either the town has to move to be near the railroad, or the community needs to change its name. Sometimes both things happen. In the case of Westlock, there was a little of both.

The original settlement was founded five kilometres to the east of present-day Westlock. Four Edgerson brothers built a stopping place there, and that stopping place formed the basis of a community for settlers from eastern Canada, the United States and Europe. The community was going to be named Edgson but misspellings in the mail led them to change it to Edison was chosen in honour of Thomas Edison.

Around the same time Edison was being founded, some unique carvings were found. Two carvings made to resemble the face of two men were taken down from a tree by a timber inspector and brought to the home of G. Berry, who was a local farmer. The carvings were eventually taken to the provincial museum years later. According to the museum, several such carvings were sometimes found but usually in the Sangudo area. It was known that the Iroquois came to the area with fur traders and often camped nearby. The Iroquois were known for their carvings and it is believed that the carvings of the faces were at least 100 years old when they were found.

By 1912, the community had grown to have 13 buildings, including a harness shop, a blacksmith shop, many homes, two churches and even one family living in a tent while they waited for their home to be built. The post office had closed the previous year due to cutbacks but in the year that the post office closed, the railway was approaching from the east.

In 1912, the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway mapped out a new townsite, which would be future Westlock. For Edison, this was not good news. They had Clyde to the east and Westlock to the west and had been bypassed by the railroad. The end was near for that community.

Edison’s loss was Westlock’s gain though and in 1914 the Methodist church was moved from Edison to the new community of Westlock. The name of Westlock would come from the names of William Westgate and William Lockhart, who owned the property that the future town would sit on. The first four letters of each last name formed Westlock.

Within a few years, Westlock was booming.  On  March 13, 1916, the hamlet became a village with a population of 65 residents. That same year, the first grain elevator would go up, a brick schoolhouse would be built and Westlock would grow in popularity among the rural residents of the area. In 1918, the first bank, the Merchant’s Bank, was opened, and a permanent brick schoolhouse was built in 1926. In 1928, a hospital was opened out of a former house and a cenotaph for fallen soldiers was unveiled in 1934. On Jan. 7, 1947, Westlock became a town as its population reached 854 people.

The community was ready for the latter-half of the 20th century.

Nearby to Westlock you will find Protestant Hill. When the first homesteaders came to the area, three houses were located at the base of a large hill. They were the houses of Joseph Beauchamp Ferdinand Beauchamp and Euclid Leguerrier, along with their families. Just a bit farther south there was a large cross that marked the site of a future church. Bill MacKay, a local settler, named it Protestant Hill as a result.

Canadian Tractor Museum

In the Westlock area, after the first elevator was built in 1916, the community became a focal point for farmers surrounding the community. For those farmers, harvesting and shipping grain was their lifeblood. Initially, those early settlers would come to the area and clear the land by hand, which was no simple task. Once that was done, they would get to work seeding the areas they had cleared and beginning the process of being a farmer. As the months wore on they would harvest the crop, either using animal power or by hand once again.

As time went on, mechanized agriculture became more popular and common. A machine could do the work of dozens of men, and faster. The age of the tractor was born in Westlock.

That history is actually chronicled in the Canadian Tractor Museum. Many of the children of settlers had grown up farming in the area and still had many old tractors on their land. Rather than letting their tractors and steam engines disappear in the landscape, they chose to save those farm implements. The Vintage Tractor Club then go to work with fundraising, donations and lobbying for grants. They became a society under the Alberta Society Act and the Westlock and District Tractor Museum Foundation was created in 1999. In 2002, a 20,000 square foot facility was opened, and then expanded four years later.

Today, the community has 90 restored full-sized tractors, 30 stationary engines, hundreds of toy tractors and implements and hundreds of literature resources.

One of the standout items of this museum is the 50-foot working weather vane, the largest in the world, that has a 1942 Model D Case on top of it.

Pioneer Museum

You never know what you will find when you visit a local museum and in Westlock, you will find something truly unique. The museum is home to the Bernard Wiese Gramophone Exhibit, which opened in 2008 and currently houses over 150 gramophones and other memorabilia, making it the most extensive collection of such items in all of Western Canada. The story of Bernard Wiese, for whom the exhibit was named, is one of a family who came looking for a better life, allowing their children and descendants to prosper. Bernard was born on May 27, 1930 near Westlock, the second child of seven. His family had come from Prussia to Minnesota in 1867, and in 1913 his grandfather had moved to Westlock. Bernard first attended school at the Sunniebend School around 1936 and he would graduate in 1950 from the Vermilion Agricultural College. After spending many years working on his farm, he would retire and begin writing local history books, while also founding the Vintage Tractor Club that I mentioned earlier. He would pass away on July 5, 2017. Within the collection is an extremely rare nickel-plated Edison phonograph dating from 1912, the only known model in existence. The collection also features a Columbia Gramophone dating from about 1899.

In addition to the gramophones, there is also the Trueblood Family Firearm exhibit that features firearms traced back to the original homesteaders of the area. Over 100 vintage guns and numerous types of ammunition are on display. The collection features a Civil War carbine, a Marlin rifle dating from 1893, an 1819 Barnett trade rifle and a Hudson Bay Company presentation rifle.

There is also the Max and Mary Wiese Aladdin lamp collection, featuring 140 lamps in mint condition. Max began collecting the lamps in 1978 after he read Aladdin: The Magic Name in Lamps. For the next 27 years, he collected some of the most rare and beautiful examples of Aladdin lamps, and then donated them to the museum. Included in this collect is the Aladdin Super Five Radio. In the 1920s, the Aladdin Company attempted to diversify and began building radios, along with phonographs, but both business ventures for the company failed. In the collection you will find a wall-bracket lamp dating from 1912, one of only five left in the world.

Going with the theme of huge collections, the Pioneer museum also has the Mildred Hay Doll Collection, which was opened in May of 2010 and features one of the largest doll collections in Canada. Hundreds of Barbies, Kewpies, porcelain and other types of dollars are available to view in the museum. If there is a doll you loved from your youth, chances are you will find it here.

Beyond those huge collections, this museum features hundreds of other objects donated by the descendants of the early settlers to the area. From pioneer farm equipment to vehicles, to wedding dresses and kitchen utensils, this museum helps you relive the life of the Westlock pioneers. One interesting part of the general collection is a 1918 Smith Flyer. The Smith Flyer was designed in England to allow bicycle riders to have access to a motorized bicycle, and were built out of Milwaukee.

St. Philips Church

While there aren’t any buildings within the community that have been recognized as Provincial Historic Sites, one building has been recognized by the community itself for its history. St. Philips Church was built in March of 1913 when the community of Westlock was still a small location with only a few dozen people.

Over the years, the church would go through some changes but overall the structure has stayed the same, while the steeple was revamped slightly in the 1960s.

In October of 1986, the church was recognized as a heritage site by the Town of Westlock. Today, the church has a plaque on it outlining its historic designation in the community. The plaque reads:

“The Town Council of Westlock recognizes St. Philips Anglican Church as a Historic Building in the community since March, 1913”

The church isn’t the only historic building in the community and a binder at the Pioneer Museum actually chronicles the houses that were built in the community prior to 1945.

The Centennial

In 2016, Westlock celebrated 100 years since the community became a village. The community went all out to celebrate, with events going on for an entire year, bringing in 5,000 people, and showcasing over 50 local artists and performers as part of the anniversary. The main event was from July 1 to 3 of that year.

Notable Residents

Every town has notable residents from its history. Some towns only have a couple, others have several. Westlock is one of those towns that has several and I am going to look at a few of them now.

WAC Bennett is arguably the most famous person to come from Westlock in its history. Born in Hastings, New Brunswick on Sept. 6, 1900, Bennett was the third cousin of future prime minister of Canada, R.B. Bennett. After he left formal school at the age of nine, he would move to Edmonton at the age of 18 and then to Westlock to work at his father’s hardware store. He would live in the community until 1930, three years after opening his own hardware store, selling it in 1929 after the Stock Market crash. He would move to Kelowna at this point and eventually became the 25th Premier of British Columbia, serving for two decades from 1952 to 1972.

Kyle Chipchura was born in Westlock on Feb. 19, 1986 and played minor league hockey in the community before beginning a major junior career with the Prince Albert Raiders. After being selected 18th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, he would go on to play 482 games in the NHL, recording 104 points, along with 183 games in the KHL, recording 61 points. He would also win gold at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in 2004 and gold at the World Junior Championship in 2006. 

Herbert Greenfield was born in Winchester, England in 1869 and came out with his family to Alberta in 1904. A fire would destroy their home that first year and he and his wife spent the winter in an old sod hut. In 1906, he moved just south of Westlock and began a political career that saw him serve 12 years on the local school board, as president of the Westlock Agricultural Society and the President of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts. In 1921, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, serving until 1926. During that time, he was the fourth Premier of Alberta from 1921 to 1925. As premier, saw the elimination of the provincial deficit, progress in negotiating natural resource rights with Ottawa, creating the Alberta Wheat Pool and naming the first female cabinet minister in provincial history. He would move to Calgary after his time in politics, passing away in 1949.

Carolyn Dawn Johnson was born in Grande Prairie in 1971, moving to Westlock as a young child and attending high school in the community. After attending university in Edmonton, she would co-write Single White Female, which became a number one hit on the Billboard Hot Country Singles and Tracks. She signed with a record label in 2000 and released her debut album Room With A View, which produced the hits with Georgia and Complicated. She has since released three more albums. Over the course of her career, she has been nominated, and won, several Juno Awards and Canadian Country Music Association awards.

Greg Polis was born in Westlock on Aug. 8, 1950 and began his professional hockey career when he was selected seventh overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1970 NHL Entry Draft. He would play in three All-Star games with the Penguins, earning MVP honours in 1973. Over the course of 615 games in the NHL with Pittsburgh, St. Louis, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, he had 343 points.

Dale Cairns Thomson was born in Westlock on June 17, 1923 and after serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, he would attend school in Edmonton, Paris and Germany. Eventually, Thomson would become the Associate Private Secretary to Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, and after 1958 was a professor at McGill University and vice-principal of the school. He would pass away in 1999.

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