Long before the arrival of Europeans to the area, with great bison herds roaming over the land and numbering in the millions, the Indigenous occupied the land that would be Olds. The entire area was the traditional land of the Blackfoot people, and later the Cree and Metis would also settle in the area, as Europeans pushed in from the east.
The bison provided not only food for the Indigenous of the area, but nearly everything else they needed through the harvesting of various pats of the body. When European settlers began to arrive in the area, they reported seeing bison wallows, where the great beasts and rolled and wallowed through the centuries to alleviate the flies that were bothering them. There were other reminders of these bygone days, including the bleached skulls and bones of bison, sitting on the prairies when settlers arrived.
Other reminders of the Indigenous who lived in the area have been found in the past century including cutting tools, arrowheads and trails. One such trail ran from near Calgary through what would eventually be Olds, up to Hobbema. A local watering hole also provided a spot for the Indigenous to stop while traveling through the area.
The Founding Of The Community
While the transcontinental railway going through Calgary would spur development in southern Alberta, it was still some time before any communities like Olds would pop up. Homesteaders began to buy up land in the area as early as 1885, but settlement was still few and far between. All of that would change in just a few years when the railroad running from Calgary to Edmonton was built. The first sod was turned on this line on July 21, 1890 and it was not long before the sixth siding north of Calgary, what would eventually become Olds, began to attract interest.
The rail line would reach the sixth siding north of Calgary and a man named David Shannon liked the area and established squatter’s rights on a quarter section of land, giving him the distinction of being the first resident of Olds.
On July 27, 1891, the first train made the trip from Calgary to Strathcona, just south of Edmonton, marking a new beginning for the entire area. The same month that happened, the Canadian Pacific Railway took over the operation of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway, and released a list of names for the sidings on the route. The sixth siding was given the name Olds, in honour of CPR traffic manager, George Olds. A suggested name of Shannon, was rejected.
Soon after the name was given to the new community, the first place of business was opened by Charlie Jamison, a little store on what would eventually be 51st street. As those early years began to pass, more and more settlers started to arrive in the area. The North West Mounted Police would establish a post in the area, and they would stay at a stopping house built by George Batho.
In 1891, the Shannon family moved from their sod house to the station house and in October of that year, their daughter Mamie was born, the first baby born in Olds.
By 1892, there was a need for a school due to the influx of students arriving, the decision was made to build a school building, which was located on the property of J.W. Silverthone. That land would eventually be donated to the town to become a cemetery.
Within only a few years, Olds would have a hardware store, blacksmith shop, two general stores, a dance hall and more. By 1894, the hamlet had 100 people living in it and its future was looking bright.
In 1900, the hamlet became a village and W.J. Brumpton was elected as the overseer, the only one the community would ever have until 1905. It was in that year, after several years of debate, that Olds became a town, with William Dean serving as the first mayor of the community.
The First Olds Aviator
When the concept of flight took the world by storm, one man named Charlie Hodges became very interested in the concept. He was born in 1900 in England but came to Canada as a small boy and by 1923 was living in Olds where he was a self-taught motor mechanic. He developed a keen interest in planes and by 1932 had earned his pilot license. He would by a First World War Circus Moth that had been condemned for flying, and he spent his evenings and weekends rebuilding it, often building pieces in his living room. Neighbourhood children became very interested in what Charlie was doing, and they would often visit his living room to see what he was putting together.
Once he had found all the pieces he needed and restored the parts, he assembled the plane in a pasture near to town. On July 14, 1935, the plane took flight, likely for the first time in two decades. Under regulations at the time, an engineer had to check the plane before each flight. Olds didn’t have an engineer, so Charlie trained and became a qualified air engineer.
When snowstorms would hit and the roads were impassable, Charlie began to deliver airmail to points around the area. He would also help snowbound teachers and farmers. In one situation, a local man was bleeding internally after an accident. There was a terrible storm but Charlie flew to where the man was, picked him up and flew him to a doctor, saving his life. On another occasion, Charlie dressed as Santa Claus and landed his plane at the north end of Main Street and taxied to the Victoria Hotel, much to the delight of children.
Sunny Slope Shelter
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 Olds 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 1922 Fire
Fire was a constant danger for any rural Alberta community and Olds would find how dangerous it could be in February 1922. A fire had sparked up, and would wipe out a huge section of the business block, south from the Victoria Hotel corner. The only building that survived was the cement block building and the brick building housing the Bank of Montreal. Several other businesses, which had dated from the founding of the community were gone. In this terrible fire, Olds lost the several stores, a drug store, a bakery and several offices, causing nearly $80,000 in damages, or $1.2 million today. There was no loss of life thanks to the quick actions of a Dr. Hartman, who operated a small hospital above the drug store. He was able to get people out, including three patients, before flames overtook the building.
By the next morning, several of the businesses opened up temporary locations and were able to continue operating, and were rebuilt quite quickly. Town council also took quick action in May of 1922 by passing a bylaw that regulated building within the town, with an emphasis on minimizing fire hazards.
Mountain View Museum and Archives
On your trip to Olds, you need to stop at the Mountain View Museum, which celebrates the history of Olds through many artifacts and displays featured in the facility. Located in the Olds AGT building, which dates back to the 1920s, the museum features 7,000 artifacts, 14 metres of textual documents and over 2,000 photographs.
The history of the museum began in 1972 when William Wiper went to town council with a request to form a historical society. The society was incorporated the following year, and artifacts were collected from residents throughout the year. There was no place for the museum yet, so town council gave them one room in the recreation building, with storage at the library building. A display case was built, and artifacts were put on display. By 1978, the historical society had established archives for research and educational purposes, with Mariane Spence serving as the first archivist for Olds. Eventually, the museum was bursting with artifacts, and the facility would eventually find its way to a new location. Today, you can see all that the museum has to offer in its current location, and relive the history of this community.
In the main hall, dynamic displays change through the year, giving a unique experience on each visit to the museum. Group and guided tours are also available in the museum.
Westerdale United Church
Travel north of Olds and you will find a church that is very unique for the area. The story of that church begins on April 30, 1902 when a permit was obtained by Dr. Thomas Powell to cut logs on crown land and to use those to build a new church in the area. Church services were already being conducted in the area, but this would provide the residents with a place they could visit, and a social centre for meetings, concerts and more.
Through the use of donations and volunteer help, the church was finished and dedicated as the Westerdale Methodist Church on June 16, 1904. One unique fact about this church is that a Calgary lawyer named R.B. Bennett was responsible for a pulpit being installed in the church. Bennett of course would go on to become the prime minister of Canada.
A Manse was built in 1915, and was used until 1930. In 1925, the church became the Westerdale United Church. The church was a popular place for people to visit for the next several decades and it was open to all who wanted to come in and sign the guest book. That practice stopped in 1979 when the organ and guest book were stolen. Eventually, services stopped at the church and in 2009, the building was in disrepair. It could not be saved and it was torn down. In its place, a replica took its spot, built by local residents. The replica is much smaller than the original church, making it one of the smallest churches, and one of the coolest to visit, in all of Alberta.
The Japanese Attack Olds
The Second World War was a chaotic time for the world, and no place seemed to be safe from attack, not even Olds, Alberta. Many in Olds may have though they were safe from the Japanese but in early 1945, the Japanese bombed Olds.
That may seem far fetched, given that the Japanese never invaded Canada, or that Olds is nowhere near the coast, but it actually happened.
It was in late 1944 that the Japanese created the first intercontinental bomb delivery system, the Fu Go Bomb, which consisted of a series of bombs attached to a balloon and then sent across the ocean by the wind currents. In all, 9,000 were launched by the Japanese. Only 10 per cent of those bombs actually made it to North America, and only 600 were actually found in North America, with 80 reaching Canada.
One such bomb actually came down near Olds. It was reported to Corporal Dave Dunlop of the RCMP, who quickly called in the Canadian Army to deal with the matter. They arrived and dealt with the unexploded bomb. The army told Dunlop and the others who saw the bomb to keep it secret. It was not until after the war that the Canadian government released the information about the bombs, having kept them secret to prevent any panic before the end of the war.
A Famous Visitor
Every so often, a community has a visitor who becomes incredibly famous later in life, or perhaps was already famous. For Olds, that famous person was a man who resolved the Suez Crisis in the 1950s, preventing nuclear war, while also creating the Peacekeepers. In 1958, the Honourable Lester B. Pearson visited Olds, prior to becoming the Prime Minister of Canada. He was in town to turn the sod for a new four-room addition to the high school.
After the ceremony, he addressed the students of the school and enjoyed a barbecue at the Community Club House.
The Early Armistice Celebration (A celebration too early)
The end of the First World War was an event that needed to be celebrated and on Nov. 11, 1918, hundreds of thousands of Canadians celebrated the momentous event. Olds also celebrated on that day, but they also celebrated nearly a week before.
It was on Nov. 7 when a rumor was spread in the community that the First World War had finally ended. With the war apparently over, people wanted to celebrate and that involved a very large bonfire, speeches and more. The leaders of the town got together and did a call out for material to burn in the bornfire. A spot was found on the corner at the Victoria Hotel, and before long a lot of wood was gathered for the celebration. At the same time, someone made a straw man and put it up on a rope so that it could be burned, as an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm.
As darkness fell, the mayor spoke, as did Dr. Michael Clark, bringing welcomed words of thanksgiving that the war was over. Then, gallons of kerosene were thrown on the pile of wood and a match was struck. The fire roared to life, eventually burning the effigy as well.
In the middle of the celebration, word spread that the war was not over yet. It didn’t matter to the people at the bonfire, it was a celebration after four long years. Five days later, the First World War officially ended.
The Battle of Olds
So far in Olds we have seen an early celebration of the end of the First World War, a Japanese bombing and now, we are going to talk about the Battle of Olds.
It all began in 1904 when the town received permission to build a second railway crossing a block north of the existing crossing near the station. The cost of the installation of this new crossing cost $500, no small amount, and it would have helped the townspeople as the main crossing was closed for long periods by standing trains. Three years later, the CPR decided to get rid of that second crossing, but the people of Olds were not happy about this.
On May 1907, section men arrived from Red Deer in the night to remove the crossing but people in town prevented this from happening. A few nights later, another attempt was made and this one was foiled as well.
Then, on June 3, 1907, Mayor Dean received a call that a train had left Calgary, coming to Olds, with eight cars of gravel and 50 men. Among them were CPR detectives and 12 police armed with guns. Dean consulted with his council and they decided to fight this action and 20 men were sworn in as special constables to prevent disorder. Word spread around town and before long, 500 people were around the tracks waiting to see what trouble transpired. Several carried handguns and shotguns.
At noon on June 3, the mayor met the train at Olds. The superintendent stated that the crossing was to be closed at once, but the mayor stated that the crossing was built with the CPR’s permission and that they would fight to preserve what was the property of Olds. It was decided that they would sit down for lunch but only a few minutes after the men sat down for lunch, word came that citizens of the town were fighting with the 50 workmen. Two special constables were attempting to arrest the superintendent, and the workmen were wielding their shovels and pickaxes like weapons.
The police then ordered the townspeople to disperse or he would give the order to shoot. The mayor, seeing the danger, ordered the citizens to leave the right away.
One of the most notable aspects of Olds is Olds College, which has a long and interesting history within the community. It was very early in the history of Alberta that the idea of Schools of Agriculture began to take hold. This was because of the influx of immigrants arriving in the community, bringing with them farming techniques that were not always a good fit for the soil of Alberta.
The Alberta Government would set up demonstration farms to teach people the best methods for farming in Alberta. The Minister of Agriculture, Duncan Marshall, farmed near Olds so it was no surprise when Olds was chosen as a site for a demonstration farm. The Alberta Government then began to build Schools of Agriculture on the demonstration farms, with Olds, Vermilion and Claresholm receiving the first schools. Of all the schools of agriculture, Olds is the only one that has been operating continuously since its inception.
In 1912, construction started on the school buildings on the demonstration farm, with the school opening on Nov. 21, 1913. The opening of the school was a big event for Alberta. Attendees at the opening ceremony included the Lt. Governor and MP Frank Oliver.
A few weeks later, a fire broke out in the school on Dec. 9, but townspeople responded quickly with a bucket brigade. Damage was reported at $2,000, although the $40,000 school of agriculture was saved.
Many were excited in the community as it was felt the school would give the community an excellent boost. Since that year, the school has continued to operate. It has also served other purposes in the community. During the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19, the school operated as a hospital rather than a place of teaching, as an emergency measure to deal with the pandemic.
In 1962, the school became the Olds Agricultural and Vocational College. In 1970, it became Olds College, with W.J. Elliott serving as the first principal. In 1973, the name was changed to Olds Regional College, but it was still referred to as Olds College.
Today, Olds College has an academic staff of 108, and an enrolment of 1,500 students.
Bergen Rocks Sculpture Garden
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.