For centuries, the Indigenous lived in the area of Spruce Grove, moving through with the seasons depending on the game that was in the area. The Cree occupied much of the land, as did the Sarcee people long before Europeans began to arrive.
As explorers began to migrate to the west in search of new places for forts to expand the fur trade, many Indigenous would come with them, including with Alexander Mackenzie, who had traveled through the area on his quest to find a path to the Pacific.
Some of the Iroquois would come out west including a man named Louis Calihoo, who came out west with his brother and their families in the 1820s while he was working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Some stories say that Louis, also known as Yellowhead, had come west to escape assassination at the hands of Americans who were offering bounties on the Iroquois. Michel Calihoo, the son of Louis, would become the leader of his nation in the area, and the Michel Indian Reserve would be named after him, which was located just north of Spruce Grove. The reserve was 100 square kilometres before a portion was put up for sale in 1928. In 1958, the rest of the reservation was discontinued after the band was enfranchised under Section 112 of the Indian Act, which was later repealed for being discriminatory. The Michel Band was the first in Canada to enfranchise under the Act. There is a call now for the 700-plus former members of the reserve to be reinstated under the Act.
Through the years, Indigenous artifacts have been found including arrowheads, flints and much more.
Founding Of The Community
As settlers arrived in the area, they began to settle in the area north of what would eventually be Spruce Grove. At the time, there was no railroad for the settlers to use, so they had to travel to Edmonton to ship their goods.
The start of the community would begin when a Roman Catholic Church was built at the corner of current Century Road and Highway 16. Soon, other buildings began to spring up around this church including a hotel, a bar, a general store and several homes.
Nearby to the village in 1906, a new community was springing up called Spruce Grove Centre, but that would not last long before it too was gone.
The settlement began to grow enough that on March 14, 1907, it became a village but it would not last. By 1916, the community had seen its population fall for several years until it only had 47 peole, and it once again became a hamlet.
In August of 1908, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway grade came through and the rails were added soon after. A railway station was built just west of the community and it was the placement of the station that would have an influence on where the permanent location of Spruce Grove would be. In 1912, the railway company surveyed a location north of the highway for the permanent location of Spruce Grove.
Before long, the residents of the old townsite realized that they would need to move the entire town. On July 26, 1912, the hotel was moved to the new town location, while several other buildings were moved. Other buildings were dismantled and used to build new buildings within the permanent townsite but some remained in their original location. The Metcalfe General Store was left standing in its original spot and by 1922, it was being used to store hay before it was demolished for good.
Over the coming years, Spruce Grove would continue to grow thanks to its location next to Edmonton. As a bedroom community, it would become a village almost 40 years after it had dissolved its village status originally, on Jan. 1, 1955. On Jan. 1, 1971, the Village of Spruce Grove became a town and on March 1, 1986, the town became a city. Today, 34,000 people live in Spruce Grove and it is the ninth largest city in Alberta.
The Spanish Flu And Polio
The Spanish Flu was one of the worst pandemics in history, claiming millions of lives, including 50,000 in Canada alone. Spruce Grove was not immune from this outbreak. On Oct. 9, 1918, the epidemic reached Edmonton and by Oct. 21, there were 500 cases. By the end of the month, the city had 7,000 cases. It would reach Spruce Grove around the same time, and all the schools were closed including the large two-room schoolhouse. That school was quickly turned into a medical headquarters. Older school girls would get rooms ready by scrubbing the walls and floors with a disinfected solution. Various ladies groups would also help out at the school with caring for the sick.
A temporary phone was installed at the school and cots were set up in one of the rooms for the doctors, nurses and drivers who were working constantly.
The flu would eventually burn itself out in the area, even as many residents took homemade remedies that came from their homelands, including eating bulbous plants. By the end of January, many schools would open. The Spruce Grove school would continue to remain closed to students as it operated as an emergency depot. The school would finally re-open in early spring.
The Spanish Flu wasn’t the only epidemic that Spruce Grove had to deal with. Polio would rear its ugly head in the community in 1927, infecting several young people, including a two-year-old girl who suddenly fell down screaming when she was playing. The diagnosis was polio and a quarantine sign was soon hung on the home of the family.
Small epidemics would occur through the years, but one of the worst was in 1943 when the schools around Spruce Grove closed from September to October. To make up for lost time, several schools would operate into July the next year. Throughout Spruce Grove, gatherings were discouraged.
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The 1958 Elevator Fire
Spruce Grove, unlike many other communities, does not have a large history of terrible fires but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. In this episode, I will cover two that had an impact on the community.
On June 18, 1958, flames tore through two of the grain elevators, as well as the annex connected to one of the elevators. The Spruce Grove fire department and the Stony Plain fire department both raced to fight the flames and traffic on Highway 16A was detoured so that fire hoses could be strung across the highway.
The fire was first seen around 5:15 a.m. by a trucker driving through the town and by 5:40 a.m., one third of the elevators had been burned away. At this point, one side of the west elevator collapsed into the other elevator as the buildings were only a few feet apart. At the time of the fire, the elevators contained about 90,000 bushels of grain and 100 people gathered around to watch the fire.
Thankfully, a north wind pushed the flames away from the community itself, sparing many buildings. At the nearby train station, one employee spent the day wetting down the shingles to prevent the fire from spreading towards it.
Cecil Ennis, who had worked for the Alberta Wheat Pool for 31 years, arrived soon after the fire was reported and ran into the building, saving some delivery permits for farmers, but most papers and documents were lost, as was all of the grain. One of the elevators was one of the oldest west of Edmonton, built in 1917. The other elevator was much newer, built in 1953. A subsequent investigation found that the fire likely started in the old elevator,
The 1941 Fire
Another terrible fire to strike the village happened on July 23, 1941. At around 5:30 p.m., a fire swept through the business district of the village, destroying the Ted Lentz garage, a popular café and the Kelly general store. All three buildings were burned to the ground, while a two-storey brick building was heavily damaged. It was a building valued at $3,500 and the damages totaled $2,000. The fire also left three families homeless.
The fire was bad enough that five Edmonton firefighters under Fire Chief Macgregor came out to aid the Spruce Grove fire department in their fight. In order to fight the fire, a huge bucket brigade was created that hauled hundreds of pails of water from the wells to be poured on the fire.
One of the reasons that the fire was able to destroy three entire buildings was that Spruce Grove was one of the few towns around Edmonton that had not agreed to receive service from the Edmonton fire department. Thankfully, the Edmonton fire department still came to help.
The fire had started in the garage of Ted Lentz when there was an explosion in two car loads of binder twine. Lentz was thrown against the wall and flames began to shoot up around him.
Roughly 50 cars that were driving through the community also stopped on the highway and then began to help in any way that they could.
The Moonshine Industry
When someone thinks of Moonshine, they probably think of Appalachia and rum runners in the 1930s, but Spruce Grove also had its own thriving moonshine industry, at least for awhile. One story tells of a farmer who lived north of Spruce Grove and had a still that he used to make his own moonshine. One day it exploded and blew him out the window in the process.
Another farmer nearby also wanted to make his own moonshine. To do so he went down into his well and cut away part of the wood cribbing, where he dug a room. In this cave, he rigged up a pipe into the water tank heater above ground, so that smoke would go into the water heater. If anyone saw the smoke, they would assume that it was a fire in the heater of the tank to warm the water for the cattle. The one thing he didn’t count on was his hired man. The man knew about the still and after the two men got into an argument, the hired man went to the police and told them about the still. The farmer was promptly arrested in the process.
Smuggling was also a profitable pastime during the prohibition years of Alberta. Liquor could be brought in from Saskatchewan in 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic. The station agent would develop his own system that if the name on the permit for the alcohol was wrong, as some names were misspelled, he would not allow the person to have the alcohol. He then kept it for himself and sold it for a high price. It is estimated that in the process, he sold 200 bottles.
Sometimes moonshine was just found out in the areas around Spruce Grove. One time, men were working along the road allowance near the village and burning brush. Behind a tree, they found a jug of moonshine and they thought about drinking it but decided that it was likely poisoned in some way. They decided to throw it into the burning brush. When they did, it exploded and burned rapidly, which showed the men that it was likely pure alcohol and it was better they didn’t drink it.
A Visit From The PM
Spruce Grove has not had many visits from big names in politics, but one that visited twice was Joe Clark, even though he only served as prime minister for nine months.
His first visit to the area would be in August of 1979 when he came out for the Bust Out ’79 Rodeo, which featured 400 cowboys and $50,000 in prizes. He would come out briefly for the rodeo, taking part in a motorcade at the Lion’s Club rodeo where many in the crowd cheered, but a few booed, even if they were drowned out. An aide to the prime minister would say, quote:
“Arena crowds always boo politicians.”
The next visit came only six months later, but was much less of a joyous occasion for the prime minister. After voting in the 1980 federal election on Feb. 18 in Jasper, he would then travel to Spruce Grove to hold court in Spruce Grove to watch the results come in.
Unfortunately, it was not a time to celebrate for Joe Clark, who would see his time as prime minister come to an end in a bitter defeat to the Liberals and Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Spruce Grove has a history of creating great athletes, including gold medalist Jennifer Heil, but the most famous is without a doubt Grant Fuhr. Born on Sept. 28, 1962, he was adopted by Betty Wheeler and Robert Fuhr and raised in the community. Throughout the 1970s, he would play minor hockey in the community and in 1981, he led the Victoria Cougars of the WHL to the league championship and a trip to the Memorial Cup. On June 10, 1981, Fuhr was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers.
For the next ten seasons, Fuhr would become a major component of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty that would cruise to five Stanley Cups in seven years, including four Stanley Cups in five years. Throughout the 1990s, following a trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Fuhr would play for a variety of organizations and would mentor a young Dominik Hasek during his time with the Buffalo Sabres.
On Sept. 6, 2000, Fuhr would announce his retirement from the NHL. Over the course of his career, he would play in six All-Star Games, and win the Vezina Trophy as the top goalie in the NHL in 1988. In 1998, he was ranked as the 70th greatest player in NHL history by The Hockey News, and his #31 was retired by the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 9, 2003. That same year, he became the first black NHL player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was also the first black NHL player to win the Stanley Cup, which he did five times. Fuhr also won the Canada Cup twice, in 1984 and 1987.
During his career, Fuhr would also set several records including most assists and points by a goaltender with 61, the longest unbeaten streak by a goaltender from the start of the season with 23, the most assists in a single season by a goaltender with 14, the most games played by a goaltender in a single season with 79 and the most consecutive appearances in a single season by a goaltender with 76. In his 868 games in the NHL, he would record 403 wins, 295 losses and 114 ties.