The area around Didsbury had been used by the Indigenous people for centuries, where they followed the bison as they migrated along the Plains. The land around Didsbury was occupied primarily by the Blackfoot. The Cree also lived in the area and the community of Dog Pound is said to have received its name from the fact that the Cree had their dogs at the local creek as they returned to their winter camp from hunting food. The creeks in the area provided natural roadways for the Indigenous and were used extensively by the Blackfoot and the Cree. Didsbury has celebrated its Indigenous history over the years, including in 2020. In September 2020, the museum held Indigenous Day of the Arts and had Metis artist and storyteller Dennis Weber on hand, along with Metis elder Doreen Bergum teaching beading.
Founding of Community
As Europeans arrived in the area, the area was sparsely populated for the most part, but it would slowly develop into a small settlement, with Mennonite settlers arriving around 1894. The Mennonites had come from Pennsylvania as United Empire Loyalists to Waterloo County in Ontario, and then moved on to future-Alberta. The community was founded by Jacob Shantz, who led the 34 settlers to the new area to take advantage of the excellent farm land. Shantz had been commissioned by Sir John A. Macdonald himself The pre-1900 settlement of the area was limited to only a small group of people. Jacob Shantz set to work building an immigration hall, a barn and a well in preparation of the settlers arriving. He would return to Waterloo County and select the first settlers, giving each a quarter section of land for $10, although Boer War veterans were given land for free.
With a strong Mennonite population, the first focus was on building a church, one of the first buildings in the entire area. The North West Mounted Police had been in the area since 1890 and provided the police protection for the new community.
During the 1890s, the development of Didsbury was very slow as the area was sparsely populated. Jacob Y. Shantz, the son of Jerry Shantz and his wife was the first child born in the district, while Ezra Sherick and Cora Hunsperger were the first couple to be married in 1898.
In 1897, the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in the area and this would spur on the development of the community. In 1899, J.C. Robertson built the first store for the community.
By 1901, the community had three general stores, a hardware store, a hotel, a boarding house, along with many retail outlets. The community continued to move towards becoming a prominent centre in the area with the creation of the Didsbury Board of Trade in 1902. In 1904, a train station would be built in the community and the following year the hamlet became a village. In that year, a creamery would open, and one year after that, the village was a town and business was booming for the community. That same year, a pork planting plant and a brickyard were started in Didsbury. Four years later, the first grain elevators were built.
In 1901, the village overseer was a man named Cornelius Hiebert. He had moved to Didsbury in 1900 and would serve as overseer for three years until 1904 when he made the decision to run for the Alberta Legislature the following year, when Alberta would be a province in Canada. He would win, becoming one of only two Conservatives elected that year. He was also the first Mennonite elected to the Alberta Legislature.
As for the name, that comes from the township of Didsbury, which is now part of Manchester in England.
When early settlers came to the prairie areas that would become Saskatchewan and Alberta, they often built sod houses to live in. These sod houses were simple structures that could often leak, have rodent and snake problems, and generally were not the most pleasant places to live. Nonetheless, entire families would live in these places until a more permanent structure could be built.
Move to an area, build a sod house, then build a regular house. That was the standard path of most settlers.
That wasn’t the path one settler in the Didsbury area took.
When you drive down one of the dirt roads that criss-cross the area, you are going to see what looks like a small door standing up in the middle of a field. That door leads to the Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter.
It is not known precisely who built this structure, which is a simple dugout into the ground but there is a theory, which I will get to.
The shelter today exists much as it did over 100 years ago. The shelter is beneath an earthen, grass-covered mound and the only visible part of the shelter is the sandstone entrance that faces to the west. Shelters like this were more common than we realize. Several homesteaders who migrated to the central Alberta area would create shelters such as this using pre-modern building techniques. Often the shelters were temporary living quarters, with families living in sod houses, simple shacks or tents. The shelter roofs were typically made of logs or sod, supported by poles.
The area around the Sunnyslope Shelter is free of trees for the most part, so such shelters would provide an excellent escape from the wind and the cold.
Let’s look at this shelter, and who possibly built it.
The first records on this land relates to an Erich Steendahl, who made an entry for the quarter of land on Aug. 22, 1902. He would hold the land until he released it on June 26, 1903. Early settlers in the area recalled seeing Steendahl hauling sandstones from the nearby lake. Local blacksmith, a Mr. Coventry out of Olds, would later state that Steendahl had come to him asking Coventry to make him hinges for a door. Years later, Coventry in relating the story to a Jack Smith, stated that he visited the shelter and saw that his hinges were on the door. The shelter at that time was 10 feet by 12 feet, with a dome-shaped ceiling in which there was a skylight and a chimney. The walls were whitewashed in lime to make it as bright as possible within the shelter.
In the fall of 1902, a local settler noticed that there was smoking coming up from the northwest. He believed that it was a prairie fire and ran out to deal with the flames. It was then they saw that it was actually smoke coming from the chimney of the shelter.
Steendahl would live in the shelter through the winter of 1902-03. He would leave soon after releasing his land, moving to North Dakota.
Following Steendahl was a man by the name of George Schech, who obtained the right to the land from the government on Feb. 12, 1904. He would reside there from March 1, 1904 to April 8, 1904 before returning to Montana to work as a labourer. He moved back to the quarter on Aug. 10, 1904. He built a wood-frame building that he lived in, using the shelter as a root cellar.
Many believe that it was George Schech who built the shelter, rather than Steendahl. So, lets look at that. In Memoirs of Sunnyslope Pioneers, it is stated that Schech arrived from Wisconsin in 1903 to try homesteading. He is described as a stone mason and that he built the underground house from native stone in the area. It also describes the frame buildings on the land that he lived in. Schech apparently trained oxen and horses and took his animals very seriously, not allowing any jokes about his livestock. In an issue of The Olds Gazette, it is stated that the dugout was built around 1907, rather than 1903 as was stated before in this episode. After a few years, he would leave the area and his frame buildings would slowly disappear until only the stone shelter remained.
In June of 1977, the Sunnyslope Shelter as it is now called was designed as a registered Alberta historic site. In the June 1, 1977 issue of The Olds Gazette, the dugout was known as The Schech Dugout or One Man’s Castle. Over the years since it was abandoned, vandals had damaged the entrance but the structure remained sound for the most part.
The 1914 and 1924 Fires
Fire is always something that early settlers of communities worried about and Didsbury was no different. The community had already dealt with the loss of the Maple Leaf Mill in 1910 from fire, but 1914 would prove to be one of the worst years for the community when it came to fires. On Jan. 1, 1914, the original business section of the community was burned to the ground, including two of the main blocks on Railway Avenue, which included two large frame hotels and a barn. The total cost of damages was estimated to be $300,000, which would have been nearly $7 million today. Some of the prominent buildings lost in that fire included the post office and the home of the Didsbury Pioneer newspaper. If that wasn’t bad enough, another fire erupted on March 7 when the block south of the original two blocks that were already destroyed burned to the ground. That loss was pegged at $12,000, or $274,000 today. Then, another fire would happen only a week later on March 13, when the Cloverhill Creamery was destroyed by a fire, causing $5,000 in damages. Needless to say, it was not a great year for the community, especially with the First World War kicking off as well. Nonetheless, the community would rebound and continue through cooperation, determination and hard work.
One person who lost their business in 1914 was J.V. Berscht, but he would rebuild his store, making it large and built of brick. Sadly, ten years later, the community was hit with another terrible fire and he would again see his store and livelihood burned to the ground. Once again, he got back down to work and built his shop up, eventually going into business with his son in 1925, and opening a second store in Innisfail in 1936. The 1924 fire, which had started at the rear of the W.G. Liesemer hardware store, had once again destroyed the commercial streetscape, would result in town council passing a bylaw that required masonry construction for all new downtown commercial buildings. That forward thinking by council would benefit visitors and residents today because many of the buildings built after 1924 still stand thanks to their sturdy construction in the face of two devastating fires previously.
The Didsbury newspaper would actually have terrible luck when it came to fires. The original newspaper was started in 1903 and that office burned down in the aforementioned 1914 fire. The second office was burned to the ground in 1940. The building the newspaper operates on now is actually built the site of another fire that happened in 1972, but thankfully since the newspaper moved into the location in the early 1990s, no fires have happened.
The Didsbury Museum
If you have listened to my town histories before, then you know that I absolutely love local museums.
The building that houses the Didsbury Building was originally the Didsbury Public School, a brick and sandstone structure that was built in 1907 and held its first classes in 1908. The school would be used not only by students, but was also a temporary hospital during the outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 1918, and as a training area for the men and women who enlisted during the Second World War. In 1989, it became the home of the museum and in 2011 was designated as a Provincial Historic Resource.
Within the museum you will also find displays that depict a school room, medical room, a general store, a 1907 cast iron safe, the churches of the area, military uniforms and artifacts from the homestead days of the community. If you want to read the newspapers of the past in the community, you can find every newspaper since 1908 at the museum.
Beyond the building the school is in, Didsbury has two other buildings that have been recognized as Provincial Historic Sites. For many of these buildings, you can walk around the downtown core of Didsbury and find plaques on the buildings detailing the history in even greater detail than I am here.
The Canadian Pacific Railway Station that would bring so many future residents to the area was built in 1902 and is a Type-Eight Depot. Similar types of stations were built throughout the province but the Didsbury is the last example of this type of station still in Alberta. Not only that, it is one of the oldest stations on the historic Calgary-Edmonton rail line, which was constructed in 1891. The construction of the building would have a huge impact on Didsbury as the community officially became a stopping spot for those traveling the railroad. As was seen, within a few years of the station being constructed, Didsbury had grown from a hamlet to a full-fledged town. The train station would become a Provincial Historic Site in 1978.
The Hiebert Residence was built in 1907 as the home for Cornelius Hiebert, who we talked about earlier. Cornelius had lost that election in 1909 and would leave the community soon after, moving into northern Alberta and then into Saskatchewan, before coming back to the community he loved, where he passed away in 1919. When the Hiebert Residence was built, it was one of the most luxurious homes in the entire region and one of the few that actually had running water, a rarity for the time. Following the death of Hiebert, the building would continue as a residence until 1942 when it was purchased by the Province of Alberta to serve as a health unit office. It was converted back into a residence in 1965 and in 1983, was listed as a Provincial Historic Site.
The Berscht Block in the community dates from the fires that destroyed two different stores owned by J.V. Berscht. That building still stands and it is a testament to the importance of Berscht, who had come to Didsbury in 1903 with his wife. He would become one of the most influential businessmen in the community, while also serving as a member of the first town council, a member of the school board and the Sunday school council. Berscht would pass away in 1957 but his building still stands, and is a symbol of a bygone era and the determination and endurance of early settlers in the Didsbury area.
The Liesemer Block was also built after the 1924 fire, and it had even worse luck than the Berscht Block. Originally built in 1901, the store owned by W.G. Liesemer would burn down in 1908, was rebuilt, then burned down in 1914, and was rebuilt once again, only to burn down once more in 1924. The new building would be built using the new bylaw rules from the town and continues to stand to this day.
The Royal Bank building stands on the original site of an embalming studio and furniture shop that was built in 1902. The terrible 1914 fire would start at that store and spread throughout the downtown core. Later in 1914, the Royal Bank would erect its current building, which has housed many businesses over the years and was lucky enough to survive the 1924 fire.
Following the 1914 fire, the Ranton and Studor Blocks would be built upon the ashes of the post office and other buildings that had stood there previously. The new buildings were made with brick, using stricter building codes and that was a big reason for their survival in subsequent fires like in 1924. Many businesses would occupy these buildings over the years, which have survived almost untouched for over a century.
The Klinck Block was built in 1919 in the Chicago style, replacing the building that had housed the opera house and theatre and been destroyed in the 1914 fire, and the new building would house the same businesses and serve as a movie theatre until 1968 when it was purchased by the Elks Lodge.
In 1903, the Union Bank arrived in Didsbury and operated out of a wood building until 1906 when new building was made using masonry construction. That turned out to be a good move since it was one of the few downtown buildings to survive the 1914 fire and it still exists to this day, serving as the home of the Bank of Montreal for many years beginning in the 1920s, and then as the municipal building for the town afterwards. Today, it is one of the few remaining cast-stone buildings in Alberta.
The AGT Telephone Exchange Building was built in 1920 following the fires of the previous decade and it survives to this day as an excellent example of public architecture of the 1920s. Not only that, it has been designated a provincial historic site because it is one of the few remaining examples of the old telephone exchange buildings still in Alberta.
I am going to close out this episode, as I usually do, by looking at the notable people to come from the community.
Canada is not known for its fencers, but Didsbury has one of the best fencers in Canadian history. On Dec. 31, 1916, Edward Brooke was born in Didsbury. In 1950, he would take second at the British Empire Games, and second in 1954 at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in fencing. In 1952, he would compete Summer Olympic Games in Helsinki, finishing 14th and 22nd in his events. Brooke would pass away on Nov. 1, 2002 in Calgary at the age of 85.
Brooke is not the only Olympian from the community. Ice dancer Karyn Garossino was born in Didsbury in 1965 and would go on to compete in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, taking 12th in her event. She would have a great deal of success at the Canadian Championships, winning third twice, second four times and first in 1989. She is also the aunt of Claire Boucher, the singer and artist also known as Grimes, who is currently married to Elon Musk. Karyn’s brother Rod competed with her in ice dancing and was also born in Didsbury.
Byllee Lang was born in Didsbury on Dec. 4, 1908 and thanks to her rancher father, grew up knowing how to use a rifle and ride a horse. After paying her way through art school in Winnipeg by painting people’s pets, she would gain commissions making sculptures of pet dogs for wealthy women in Toronto, using that money to travel to Europe. After spending a few years in Europe, she would leave Berlin when Adolf Hitler took power, travelling to Paris where she met her husband Alphonso and the couple settled in Spain. As the Spanish Civil War started, she returned to Canada and her husband stayed with the Spanish Red Cross. She would never hear from him again. In Canada, her work was becoming widely known and made several works that were widely acclaimed. In 1945, she moved to Bermuda where she would live for the rest of her life.