The History of Claresholm

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Indigenous History

The area around Claresholm had been inhabited by the Indigenous for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. In fact, about a half hour to the south of Claresholm near Fort Macleod you will find the Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. This World Heritage Site was where thousands of bison were killed in a systematic operation by the Indigenous that involved moving the bison herd as a group over a cliff where they would die at the bottom. The ability to kill bison this way allowed for more leisure time for the Indigenous groups in the area, which allowed their culture to flourish prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Traditionally, the area where Claresholm sits was originally the home of the Blackfoot and the Stony-Nakoda. As Europeans began to push from the east, the Cree and Metis would come into the area in the 1800s, leading to minor conflicts between the groups until peace was achieved in the later-1800s.

The land today is covered by Treaty 7, which was signed in 1877 to the north of the community at Blackfoot Crossing.

Founding of the Community

The first recorded permanent settler in the area was Henry Kountz, who came from Pennsylvania around 1870. At the time, he made his living as a bison hunter and the Indigenous called him Lone Bull, because he always hunted alone.

Originally, the location was a spot for steam engines to stop in order to take on water along the Canadian Pacific Railway line along the Macleod Trail. The first trains arrived in the area in 1891, with the first station consisting of just a box car. It would not be until 1895 that a proper building was built. For ranchers, the railroad stopping point was a perfect place to take their cattle for shipping elsewhere on the continent.

Slowly, people would begin to arrive, with the first being William Moffat, who came from Pilot Mound, Manitoba with 10 carloads of lumber. Not only was he the first resident of Claresholm, but he would be the first mayor and eventually the first MLA for the area.

On May 30, 1903, the Village of Claresholm was established. During that first year, the community had a lumber yard, post office, hardware store and two hotels.  Two years later on Aug. 31, 1905, it had become a town. Interestingly, this was the last official act of the territorial government because the next day, Alberta was born. A big part of this sudden growth is thanks to a man named Ole Amundsen, who arrived in 1902 from Norway via North Dakota, bringing with him many early settlers of a Norwegian heritage. For where the name comes from, as with many prairie communities, it takes its name from a prominent citizen. In this case, it was a woman named Clare. Although, there is also the claim that it was named by John Niblock, the superintendent of the CPR between Medicine Hat and Calgary, who named it after his wife, who was back home in Medicine Hat, named Clare.

Claresholm and District Museum

Many rural towns have wonderful museums and Claresholm is no exception. Through the museum, you will be able to relieve the history of the area starting with the pre-contact Blackfoot culture, to the arrival of the railway, to the ranchers who lived around Claresholm, all the way up to today.

The museum itself was established in 1969 and is located in the CPR train station, a building I will speak about later. Within the station you will find a station agent’s office, an exhibit dedicated to the hospitals of Claresholm, as well as one for Louise McKinney, more on her later.

The exhibit hall, which is 8,000 square feet, features exhibits that highlight the Indigenous history of the area, the North West Mounted Police and the ranching history. There is also a blacksmith shop, telephone office, general store, a 1930s house, a land agent office, newspaper office, barber shop, and displays honouring the military, churches, firefighters and farmers of the area.

Venturing outside the museum, there is a 1903 school house, a 1920s log cabin, a CPR caboose and a CPR speeder car that is brough out for the summer season.

The museum is open in the spring and summer, and admission is free but donations are always accepted.

Claresholm School of Agriculture

In 1911, the Department of Agriculture decided to purchase a piece of land near Claresholm to set up a demonstration farm. It was from this that the Claresholm School of Agriculture. School buildings would be constructed in 1912 and on Nov. 19, 1913, the school was officially opened but classes had actually begun earlier on Oct. 28. At the opening, N. Holmes, the mayor of Claresholm was on hand, as well as the minister of public works, the minister of education, the president of the University of Alberta and several other members of parliament and the Alberta legislature. In total, 500 people attended the big event.

One important historical note about this school was that Claresholm had the largest initial class of any similar institution on the continent. Of that first class, 16 would go on to attend the University of Alberta.

The school would operate every year until 1931, except during the Spanish Flu epidemic when it was turned into a hospital. The school would eventually be turned into a provincial auxiliary mental hospital, and is now the site of the Claresholm Centre for Mental Health Addictions. 

Claresholm, WW2 & The Industrial Airport

One of the most significant events for Claresholm was the outbreak of the Second World War. Under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, Base 15 Service Flying Training School was operated from June 9, 1941 to March 1945 in Claresholm.

The first commanding officer of the base was Wing Commander Campbell and by Aug. 16, 1941, the first class of students had completed their training and were ready to receive their wings. At this ceremony, Lt. Governor J.E. Bowlen would attend for the special day, as would the mayor of Claresholm. Many people from town came to see the big event.

On Oct. 15, 1941, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor came to the base for a visit and to complete an inspection. The Duke presented wings to the graduating class of Course 34 and he told the pilots he appreciated their hard work.

On Feb. 23, 1942, the Women’s Division of the Air Force arrived, and soon after the No. 2 Flying Instructors School was established.

The training school was not without accidents. The most notable happened when two pilots were flying a Crane. The plane suddenly had engine failure and dove into the barracks block, crashing through the roof of the barracks and landing on top of the bunks. Thankfully, it only pinned down one man who was sleeping. The man who had been on the top bunk had gone to the washroom, likely saving his life. As for the man who was trapped under the plane, he escaped mostly unharmed.

Another big visit came to the base in May of 1942 when her Royal Highness Princess Alice and His Excellency the Earl of Athlone, visited the station and inspected the guard of honour.

The final event of the flying training school happened on March 29, 1945 when Courses 121 and 122 received their wings, amounting to 122 airmen.

Pilots would return to the base in 1951 when it was used to train pilots for the Korean War, operating as No. 3 Flight Training School, while also training NATO pilots. This new facility had 1,100 personnel with 140 housing units on the base, as well as a school for 250 children. Orrin Matson served as the principal of that school. As well, a grocery store, two churches and barber shop built. The first class at the base would graduate, consisting of 30 pilots, on March 8, 1952. The first NATO personnel class graduated on Oct. 22, 1952.

The base would close on Aug. 25, 1958 and the hangars were converted into industrial use. A part of the base would eventually operate as the Claresholm Industrial Airport.

The 1928 Tornado

For one resident near Claresholm, Aug. 27, 1928 was a very troubling day. It was on that day, on the land of Carl Weidner, when a very brief tornado moved through the area causing havoc on several other farms as well. Carl Weidner had seen the storm coming and recognizing what it was, he let his horses loose and got his family into the car where he quickly drove them to the nearby school. They were able to escape any injury but on his farm the barn was wrecked, as were his granaries, and chicken and pig pens. Several pigs and chickens were killed and his house was severely damaged. In the house, bedding and clothes were tossed everywhere and dishes were even found in the cellar as the tornado had torn the cellar doors open. His machinery and tools were found all over the area, some were never found again.

Over on the land of Frank Kerr, his crops were destroyed and several trees were torn up. One person in the house was hurt and two others escaped injury by running into the root cellar.

To help those impacted, many in Claresholm raised money and gave it to the families to help them rebuild.

The 1946 Fire

Fires are a constant danger for any community, especially in the first half of the 20th century. Claresholm had already dealt with a terrible fire that destroyed the Wilton Hotel in 1930, but on March 28, 1946 fire gutted through several businesses in the middle of the night. The fire alarm had gone off at 12:30 a.m. and by 12:45 a.m. the fire brigade was out and dealing with the fire at Cuthbert’s Bowladrome. At the same time, a Legion dance was being held and several of the dancers came out to see the fire or to assist in any way that they could.

It was believed that the fire had started at the rear of Cuthbert’s Bowladrome and spread due to a strong wind, towards the front of the building. The fire then jumped over to the Harwood Meat Market and the volunteer fire brigade worked through the night to save what they could. To the east of the Bowladrome, the fire hit the McKenzie building and several fires were on the roof trying to control the embers but then the wind shifted and began burning inside the building and moving up towards the roof. The fire fighters were forced to get off the building as fast as they could.

At this point, the fire was growing and a call was put to Fort MacLeod, who responded with a truck and six firefighters. After burning out the Bowladrome, Harwood’s Meat Market and the McKenzie building, the Funeral Parlour of W.G. Ringrose was hit, becoming the fourth building to start to burn. Most of the damage in that building wasn’t from the flames, but the water to put out the flames.

By 5 a.m., after working all night, the fire was under control. As light came to Claresholm, the Boladrome was gone, Harwood’s was gutted, as was the Mckenzie building. Total damages were estimated at $15,000, or $212,000 today.

The 1967 Snowstorm

Snow in late April and early May is nothing unusual but the snow storm that hit Claresholm on April 25, 1967 was something else. It was the night before when a heavy and wet snow began to fall. Soon enough, visibility was cut to nearly zero and huge drifts began appear on the roads as winds whipped up the snow to compound the fact that only 10 days earlier, two feet of snow had fallen.

Before long, the snow was blocking roads and caused the power to go out for up to 48 hours in some places. Many people were stranded from their homes and ranchers could not get food to their cattle. Sadly, for many, newborn calves were lost to the storm.

To deal with this, under the direction of Tom Slemko, a helicopter service was set up to feed stranded cattle. Dubbed Operation Haylift, three helicopters took hay into the air and then dropped it near the stranded cattle. This ran for three days until ranchers could get to their cattle.

The heavy snow on roofs caused problems and there was the concern that the rink’s roof would collapse. Volunteers came out and began shoveling off the roof to protect it. At the same time, town workers kept lanes open in the community in case there was a fire or a medical emergency.

As can be expected, school was closed for several days. Cars were also buried and there were some minor accidents. There was so much snow that it had to be piled in the middle of the street for clearing but thankfully cool temperatures allowed the snow to be cleared, and no flooding was reported.

Harvard Memorial

When you drive through Claresholm, you will come across a plane that is currently sitting in the centre of Centennial Park. This plane was erected in 1998 as a special project put forward by Bill Erickson and Friends. It serves to honour the pilots who trained in the community during the Second World War and the 1950s, and the personnel who were stationed in the community during these training programs.

The plane on display is a yellow Harvard and many of the young student pilots who came through before going overseas to fight in the Second World War and Korea, were trained in a yellow Harvard like the one on display.

Claresholm Murals

I come from Stony Plain, a town that has dozens of murals depicting its past so I have a special love of towns that show their history through murals and Claresholm is one such town. There are several murals in Claresholm that look at its history.

Where The Wheatlands Meet The Range was painted in 2002 to depict the ranching and farming life of Claresholm around 1902. The mural depicts wheat on one side, which was the principal crop grown east of town, and on the other side of the mural is cattle raising, which was the principal use of the land west of town. In the middle, is an early depiction of Claresholm.

A Claresholm Celebration was painted in 2003 and it shows the community coming together in Amundsen Park to celebrate in the early years of the community.

The Ringrose Park Quadriptych features several murals that honour women, farmers, the elders and the Indigenous. It was painted in 2012 and it shows Claresholm in four images, before European contact when the Blackfoot were in the region, the early years of Claresholm before cars arrived, the NATO years when Harvard trainers flew over Claresholm every day and the present that includes Hutterites selling their produce at a Farmers Market.

The Water Tower

You don’t see too many water towers anymore. With modern water treatment and distribution systems, water towers are a relic of the past. While most towns demolish them, Claresholm chose to preserve its tower. The tower itself was built in 1909 and completed in 1910. It was used to pump water from nearby Willow Creek to supply the residents of the town. Originally, the tower was black but it was painted silver in the 1950s.

Without this water tower, it is likely that the community of Claresholm would have never gone far beyond its early population level. By October of 1909, Claresholm was facing a serious shortage of water in the town. Throughout that year, pipe was being put into the ground from Willow Creek to the water tower to bring water to the residents.

By the 1980s, a new water system made the tower obsolete but the tower was not torn down and today, its role in the history of the community is celebrated in the municipal logo of the town.

Canada’s First School Bus

One thing I love about small community history’s is you never know what interesting tidbit of information you will find. Case in point, Canada’s first motorized school bus, or at least that is what some people theorize. The bus, which was a motor bus on a Model T Ford chassis, was first used to take children to school in 1919, replacing the horse-drawn school bus children had used since 1916.

In that year, the Ruby School District had decided to begin moving its students into Claresholm, which was located about 25 kilometres away. The decision was made to do this, rather than build a school themselves. The old horse-drawn school bus took an hour and a half to take children to school. In 1919, with the new school bus it only took half an hour.

That school bus was used until 1938 when it was traded in for a new panel truck. At this point, the old school bus was sold to Carl Smedstad, and then Marvin Mosley, who used it as a playhouse for his kids. Instead of eventually winding up in a junk yard, its historic value was seen and it was renovated and Ken Hurlburt, the mayor of Fort Macleod, donated it to the Claresholm Museum.

The Historic Buildings And Places

The Leavings At Willow Creek consists of a small log house, a log and sandstone barn, a log staple and a well, plantings and a cart trail. The site, located near Claresholm, was first settled in 1875 and uses a place to get water for travelers moving through the area. Called The Leavings because it was where the trail left a water supply, it was one of only four stops between Fort MacLeod and Calgary that was used as a camping ground. By the late 1870s, Henry Kountz, a former bison hunter, set up a stopping house. The stopping house was purchased in 1882 by J.R. Craig, who was the first manager of the New Oxley Ranch, which covered 200,000 acres in the area. He built the log house and the barn on the property that can still be seen to this day. On the floor of the barn, there are inscriptions of 1884 and cattle brands, left there by those who worked at the location. In 1886, and continuing until 1903, the North West Mounted Police used the location as a post, sending patrols north and west through the Porcupine Hills. At this time, the house and barn were rented by the NWMP from Craig. The location was recognized as a Provincial Historic Resource on Jan. 17, 2006.

Located 20 kilometres west of Claresholm on Lyndon Road, you will find the old Circle L Ranch, which is a collection of historic buildings that showcase cattle ranching and rural life from the turn of the century. The buildings consist of a ranch house, bunk house, ice house, log barn, hay shed and machine/buggy shed. The ranch dates back to 1896 when the land was claimed by Charles Lyndon and his family. They would build a main house that same year, and throughout the years would build various buildings on the property including the barn in 1919. From 1896 to 1904, the ranch expanded by purchasing land from the Hudson’s Bay Company and the federal government, and through filing of homestead applications by family members. By 1919, William Lyndon, the son of Charles, owned 14 quarter-sections. The family would remain on the ranch until 1966. The site was proclaimed a Provincial Historic Resource on June 10, 2004.

When you step into the museum in Claresholm, you are stepping into history, literally. The Canadian Pacific Railway Station was built in 1911 and served as the main transportation locale for the community and area from that year until 1966. The building was made of sandstone, consisting of the original 1893 sandstone used at the 9th Avenue CPR Depot in Calgary, which was dismantled and transported to Claresholm. The west wing of the materials of the Depot went to Claresholm, while the east wing of materials went to High River. As a result, Claresholm has one of only two remaining sandstone stations in Alberta. By the 1950s, the use of rail was declining and in 1966 a station was no longer needed. It was then converted to a museum, remaining on its original site. On Nov. 23, 2004, it was listed as a provincial historic resource.

Bernie Sparkes

One interesting fact about Claresholm is that the community has some of the best curlers the country has ever seen. In 1951, the Kennedy rink would represent southern Alberta at the Briar and four years later, the Brown Rink would represent all of Alberta at the Briar but no person has achieved the amount of fame in the curling world as Bernie Sparkes.

Bernie was born in 1940 to Leslie and Daisy Sparkes, who had come to Claresholm five years previous. From an early age, he excelled at sports, including baseball and hockey. In 1955, he joined the All-Star Tigers Baseball team that won the Canadian Pony Championship and he was picked up by the Detroit Tigers, who took him to Florida. Homesick, he decided to come back to Claresholm and went back to curling, something he had started at 15 and continued to practice at ever change he could. It helped that his father was the icemaker in the community.

He would gain his first major championship in 1958 when he skipped the high school rink and won the Alberta Briar, and then took third at the Canadian Briar. In 1960, he won the Canadian Championship in Halifax as part of the Northcott Rink, and in 1968 and 1969 won the World Championship with the same rink. Also in 1969, the rink won the Silver Broom Bonspiel in Perth, Scotland. Due to this success, the Northcott Rink was the Grand Marshall of the Calgary Stampede that year. In all, the team won three World Curling Championship golds in 1966, 1968 and 1969.

Sparkes eventually moved to British Columbia, where he was on eight BC championship teams in 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1983, 1984 and 1987. Six of those teams were skipped by Sparkes himself. He would compete in a record 12 appearances at the Briar for Alberta and Saskatchewan.

After finishing in the runner-up position in the 1987 Labatt Brier, he chose to retire. 

In 1974, Sparkes was inducted into the Curling Canada Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Southern Alberta Curling Hall of Fame and the Lethbridge Sports Hall of Fame for baseball. In 1995, he was inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.

Louise McKinney

By far, the most famous resident to come from Claresholm was Louise McKinney, who would make her mark as one of the Famous Five, among other major accomplishments. Originally born in Frankville, Ontario in 1868, she originally wanted to be a doctor but the circumstances of the time prevented this so she trained as a teacher. After teaching in Ontario and North Dakota, where she met her husband James. She would move to Claresholm with him in 1903, just as the community was starting to grow. A devout Christian with her husband, they would help build the village’s Methodist Church. She would also organize the Ladies Aid within the church. The home of McKinney and her husband would serve as a center for church life and the couple were always helping needy families in the area.

Helping to organize the local temperance groups, she would gain prominence throughout the next decade and in 1917 became the first woman elected to the Alberta Legislature, and the first woman elected to a legislature in the entire British Empire. The man she defeated in the election was William Moffatt, the first resident and first mayor of Claresholm. In her capacity as an MLA, she would work to improve the legal status of widows and separated wives, getting the Dower Act bill drafted and passed in the Legislature. Serving until 1921, she would continue to advocate for women’s suffrage and temperance. It was in her role of women’s suffrage that she became involved in the Persons Case as one of the Famous Five. The case would lead to a constitutional ruling that established the right of women to be appointed to the Senate and legally recognized as persons under the British North America Act. The ruling also meant that women could no longer be denied rights based on a narrow interpretation of the law. Soon after the legendary ruling, Louise McKinney would organize a reading club in Claresholm with Florence Gray, and McKinney was elected as the first president of the Women’s Reading Club.

She would be made the Vice-President of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of Alberta, and became the first woman to have her portrait painted and hung in the Legislative Building in Edmonton.

Two years after the successful resolution of the Persons Case, McKinney became ill while attending a convention in Toronto and would pass away upon her return to Claresholm on July 10, 1931. Her husband died the next year. In 1939, she was recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance. In Claresholm, a plaque honours her at the post office, and the Persons Case was recognized as a Historic Event in 1997. Statues of McKinney also exist in several places including Calgary and on Parliament Hill itself. In 2009, McKinney, along with the other four on the women, were made honorary senators.

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