For centuries, the land around Sundre would be used by the Stoney, Tsuu T’ina, Cree and the Blackfoot as the 19th century began to dawn. As the years went on through that century, the Metis started to live in the area, becoming important pioneers whose families still live in the region to this day. The bison were the main reason for many of the Indigenous to move through the area, but the Red Deer River also provided a way to move quickly through the region, while also a source of fresh water and fish for the Indigenous.
In the summer, the Indigenous would come to the area to hunt deer, moose and bison, while in the winter they would often move into the mountains, or farther south.
In the community, there have been efforts to celebrate the Indigenous history of the region. In June of 2019, the Sundre and District Historical Society organized a celebration of national Indigenous Peoples Day, which included showcases the art and culture of the Indigenous, Metis and Inuit.
Located near Sundre, you will find the Painted Warrior Education Centre, which is a 100 per cent Indigenous owned facility that offers traditionally-based learning programs with a focus on the tourism industry. Staff of the facility provide Indigenous tour guides and operators for their partner companies, providing training programs that bring qualified Indigenous guides forward. Visiting Painted Warriors, people can go for a walk through the woods with a guide, eat traditional Indigenous foods and learn to shoot a bow and arrow.
Founding of the Community
One of the first Europeans to be in the area was a legendary explorer named David Thompson, who came to the area of future Sundre in the late-1700s during his explorations of the Canadian west. He is said to have described the area as “prairie on the mountain”.
As with many places in this region of the province, settlers began to arrive in the area around the early 1900s. This was thanks to the Dominion land policy that offered free land to homesteaders. A settler only needed to request 160 acres for $10 and live on the land for five years initially in 1871, before that was lowered to three years. Through this system, 60 million acres were available and people in what would one day be Sundre were happy to take advantage of this agreement.
Eventually, the huge amount of affordable land would bring out enough people that there was a need for some sort of postal service.. Nels Hagen would be the first postmaster of the area beginning in 1906. Nels had immigrated initially out to the United States as a young man and then settled in Canada. Arriving in the Sundre area, he bought land and the store owned by David McDougall, who was the son of George McDougall who was a Methodist missionary that helped negotiate Treaty 6 and Treaty 7 between the Canadian government and the Indigenous tribes of the prairies.
While Nels was the postmaster for the community, there was no community yet or really a post office. The post office would officially be established on Dec. 15, 1909 and the name of Sundre was given to it. The name comes from Sondre, Norway, which means south in Norwegian. Nels was described as a kind man who could turn a dollar from anything and it was in his home that the Great West Lumber Company men would meet to discuss business, and the Sundre Women’s Institute would be organized. The loft of his home also served as the first boarding house and hotel for the community.
Among the first group of settlers to come to the area were Arthur Fletcher and William Niddrie and his family. They had come north from Morley in 1894 in search of water and green pastures and settled near the land of David McDougall. They would set up the Spruce Grove Ranch. Arthur and William would actually have a major impact on the entire area. They were known to be public-spirited citizens of Sundre and they would organize the first school district in the area, called Eagle Valley, in 1904. Thanks to the work of the men, a bridge called Niddrie Bridge would be built. That bridge would eventually come down after a heavy rain nearly destroyed it. Niddrie would also serve as the Justice of the Peace for the area from 1906 to 1921, the year that he died.
One interesting story of Niddrie as justice of the peace comes from when two men were in a dispute over something and one went after the other with an axe. A complaint was put forward and a charge of attempted murder was put in front of Niddrie to assess. Niddrie had his son head out on a horse to summon Sidney DeBarathy, another Justice of the Peace, to assist in this case. Before the hearing, Niddrie and DeBarathy sat in a room together discussing the case. They then heard that the defendant had entered a guilty plea, and they again went back to confer. A fine of $10 was imposed and the defendant said he could not pay that amount as his crops were just maturing. The decision was made that once harvest was done, the man would pay his fine.
In 1910, a telephone line connected the community to the growing world of communication, with residents paying $30 for each installation of a phone, a decent amount for the time. One of the first places to be connected was the store of Nels Hagen. In 1919, a library was in the growing community and a hotel was built, followed by a creamery. Sundre, was well on its way.
The Sundre East School would open in 1919 out of the Ralston House by Jessie MacDowell and the children of Sundre would attend this school until 1929 when the Sundre School would open. The Sundre East School would operate until 1940 when enrolment began to fall. The school would close for the next few years and after the Second World War, it would move to the Village of Sundre to be added to the growing complex of school buildings in the community.
In 1929, a proper school was opened in Sundre itself with Katherine Grant serving as the first teacher. Frank Lowe would teach there in 1935 and 1936, becoming the first male teacher at the school. Known for being a talented violinist and boxer, he was always happy to teach both to anyone who was interested.
By the 1950s, Sundre was dealing with a boom thanks to the lumber and oil industry, helping it reach village status in 1950. Within six years, the community was a town and had seen its population grow from 300 to a town of over 1,000.
The Cowboy Trail
Within the area of Sundre, you will see a lot of talk and mention on signs of The Cowboy Trail. Thanks to the broad area grasslands, the mild climate and the abundance of wildlife, the trail along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains attracted many ranchers and cowboys, who would drive their herds up from southern Alberta to central and northern Alberta. The first ranching families would begin to settle in the territory in the 1880s as the land transferred from being rolling grasslands into cattle country.
The trails that the ranchers and cowboys would take up the along the foothills would eventually form into a gravel road and then into a paved road that ran from Cardston to Mayerthorpe, right through the community of Sundre.
Sundre and District Museum
Anyone who listens to this podcast knows that I love local museums and every museum is unique in small towns. In Sundre, you have the Sundre and District Museum, which allows you to learn about the people and things that made Sundre the community that it is today. On the four-acre museum grounds, you will find a pioneer village that includes eight heritage buildings that you can wander through and explore. The pioneer village was once the original Sundre museum but is now one of three exhibit spaces. Along with the eight buildings, there is an area dedicated to farm machinery and implements, a tractor and wagon display and a wonderful green space that is perfect for a nice picnic. The buildings on the property include a ranger station, a school house, a ferryman house, a trappers cabin, a chapel and more.
The museum also features the Mural Project, which is an ongoing project that brings local artists and the museum together to depict the history of Sundre in collage form. Each four foot by eight foot sheet is sponsored by someone or something in the community, and all show the history of the community from the arrival of ranchers on the Cowboy Trail, to the Indigenous, to the early settlers who called the community home.
Another very interesting project is the Fence Panel Project at the museum. The metal fence is being created by Ken Sandor of Sundre and it allows interested families to purchase a section of fence and decide what they want on the panels when it comes to pictures and names. The fence is becoming an excellent look at the history of the community and the surrounding area, told by the families who have lived here over the past century.
Another interesting aspect of the museum is that you can explore the World Of Wildlife. In this exhibit, you can see a large floor to ceiling landscape mural by a local artist that spans the room and provides a great environment to see the 170 animal mounts from around the world, including a life-sized replica elephant. This exhibit was donated by Chester Mjolsness, who grew up near Sundre and was an avid hunter who travelled around the world, hunting on every continent other than South Africa and Antarctica. It was Chester’s wish to show his collection of trophy animals to the general public.
Bergen Rocks International Sculpture Park
One of the most unique things in the Sundre area is the Bergen Rocks International Sculpture Garden. Bergen Rocks is a unique art experience for people traveling through the area and the sculpture park is well worth a visit. Artist Morton Burke had visited a sculpture symposium and felt that the resulting artwork could be something that Canadians and Albertans would enjoy. For the next five years, he worked on his idea and then started a sculpture park on his own rural property. Over time, this park would grow and sculptures by artists from Vietnam, Germany, Thailand, India, China, Turkey, Korea, Mongolia, Iran, Ireland, Kenya, Cuba, Italy and Canada are now housed at this park. The park is located just south of Sundre. The giant works of marble art are actually quite amazing and worth a visit.
Communities all over the province have famous individuals who have called the community home. In Sundre, there is one individual who led a life that was quite interesting to say the least.
Myron Thompson was born in Monte Vista, Colorado, where he grew up and excelled at baseball. As a catcher, he was given the chance to try out for the position with the New York Yankees but unfortunately didn’t make the team. At the time, the Yankees had another catcher who was doing a pretty good job, named Yogi Berra. One interesting fact about Thompson is that he would meet President George W. Bush years later and upon hearing about the tryout, Bush was able to guess what position Thompson had played just by looking at his hands.
After serving with the US Army from 1958 to 1960, he would move to Canada in 1968 and became a Canadian citizen in 1974. He would work as a teacher and high school principal, and became the mayor of Sundre from 1974 to 1980. In 1993, he was elected to the House of Commons as a member of the Reform Party and was known to wear a cowboy hat to Parliament and lobbied unsuccessfully to wear it on the floor of the Commons. Thompson would serve until 2008 when he decided to step down from Parliament after the 2008 election.
Thompson passed away on Jan. 5, 2019 at the age of 82.
No episode about Sundre would be complete without talking about Russ Greenwood, one of the most unique individuals to ever call the community home.
Russ was born to parents who had come out west from Waterloo, Ontario at the turn of the century and settled in the Morrin, Alberta area. Raising cattle and operating a butcher shop there, Russ was one child of nine, the third born, and would attend White Rose School near to his home. Most of the boys of the family would go on to become ranchers and rodeo participants, but Russ would become the most well-known on the rodeo circuit for his abilities with animals of all sorts.
Marie Noble described meeting Russ soon after her and her husband moved to Sundre. Sundre at the time had no sidewalks in the 1950s and Muriel would walk on the street where her footing was better. That was when she saw a man riding a horse with a coyote perched on its withers. That man was Russ Greenwood.
Children in the 1950s also remember Russ and his ponies, named Rabbit, Beaver, sometimes called Little Beaver, and Golden Laddie, along with his goat and his dog. It was said they were all trained to his bidding, as were his bison and steers.
The Calgary Stampede certainly would not have been the same without Russ. His buffalo and Scottish highland steer would feature in several Stampede parades and at the grandstand shows. His animals didn’t just delight people in Calgary, but all over Alberta and the west, where he was often seen at parades and rodeos throughout the years.
The Greenwood Community Gazebo in Sundre is named for him, as is the campground that it is in.