When Europeans arrived in the area, the first Indigenous they met were the Blackfoot and the Tsuut’ina people, who were once part of the Beaver Indigenous before they migrated south in the 1700s.The first written record of the Indigenous in the area came in the 1730s as fur traders and explorers like Anthony Henday came through.
Around this same time, the Cree were starting to migrate in but by 1808, the area between the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers was controlled by the Blackfoot. One reason for so many nations occupying the area at various times was the fact that the bison were so abundant.
By the 1830s, the Blackfoot would begin to migrate to the south and the Cree would begin to occupy more of the land around what would one day be Ponoka.
In 1870, the Indigenous in the area were hit by a terrible smallpox epidemic that left hundreds dead. Many fled to Fort Edmonton to escape the death toll.
In 1877, Treaty 6 was signed and today, Ponoka sits on treaty land.
Founding Of The Town
As with so many other places in the prairies, Ponoka gets its start thanks to the railroad. The Calgary to Edmonton line would be built in 1891, with the first train running on July 15. The first mention of the future community of Ponoka would be in the Edmonton Bulletin on June 13 of that year. It was stated quote:
“On Monday last rails were laid and goods delivered at the 14th siding, a short distance this side of Battle River, where the second station north of Red Deer will be placed.”
That stop along the rail line would become Ponoka. Work crews would soon arrive, and begin to build a station at the spot. The first train would stop at that spot on July 27, 1891. That first train had 36 passengers when it left Calgary, 24 of which did not go farther than Red Deer, leaving only 12 people to look over and see where Ponoka would one day be.
Soon after, the sidings earned names and No. 14 became Ponoka, which is apparently the Blackfoot word for elk.
The first school would be built, operating out of a log home, in 1896, with ten children attending.
From here, Ponoka would slowly grow as lots were sold, the townsite was laid out and buildings began to pop up. On Oct. 19, 1900, the hamlet of Ponoka became the Village of Ponoka. Four years later almost to the day, the community became the Town of Ponoka. The first mayor of the community would be John D. MacGillivaray, who would see the community grow and would live to the age of 102. Around this time, the community was in need of a proper school and a four-room school was built to accommodate the growing population.
In between those two events, Ponoka would suffer a terrible fire when three prominent businesses were burned to the ground. The L.B. Matuisch store began to burn due to faulty stove pipes, which then spread to the Hurtz Barber Shop and on to the post office, resulting in $16,000 in damages, or $372,000 today.
When the telephone line was built between Calgary and Edmonton, the first pole was set up across the street from the Royal Hotel in Ponoka in 1903.
Worlds Largest Horse and Saddle Bronc Rider
One of the most noticeable features of Ponoka is the world’s largest saddle bronc and rider, called The Legacy, which is located in the Lion’s Centennial Park. Built in 2004 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ponoka, the monument was dedicated to the strength of the pioneer families and founding individuals of the community. It also celebrates the legacy of the Ponoka Stampede, something I will get to later in this episode.
The project was commissioned by the Ponoka Lions Club, at a cost of $80,000. The statue rises to 32 feet, including the base height of 11 feet. Constructed of birchwood, steel and urethane foam, it is encased in fiberglass and weighs 1,600 pounds.
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The Calgary Stampede may be more famous, but the Ponoka Stampede is one of the most important stampedes not only in Alberta, but Canada as well. It is also one of the oldest stampedes in the province.
The Ponoka Sports Association was formed around 1920 with the first stampede being used to raise funds in the community. By 1936, the stampede had grown to be a two day event, held over the Dominion Day long weekend. This is considered to be the inception of the Ponoka Stampede.
The first stampede was led by a man named George MacKeddie, who was known for being rough and tough and one of the greatest cowboys in the province. A veteran of the North West Mounted Police, whom he joined in 16, and the First World War, he would win the Alberta Bronc Busting Championshi in 1922 despite breaking both wrists the previous day. His rodeo career ended in 1923 while taking a car load of horses to Ontario. After roping a colt, MacKeddie’s horse planted its feet and the colt bolted, causing his wrist to be caught in the rope. His hand was so severely damaged it had to be amputated. He would later work to build the Alaska Highway and passed away in 1945.
The stampede of 1936 had an admission of 25 cents and featured bareback riding, wild cow milking, pony races, Roman races and more. Prize money was as low as 50 cents and as high as six dollars, which is quite good considering it was the Heart of the Great Depression. Cliff Vold would win the bronc riding championship and earned that prize of six dollars. He would live until the age of 91 and died on July 30, 2006 as the last remaining charter member of the group that founded the stampede.
By 1941, chuckwagon races were added to the rodeo weekend.
This rodeo that attracted 3,000 people initially is now one of the top five rodeos in the world for payouts and prize money rises to over $800,000. It routinely brings in as many as 80,000 fans over the course of its rodeo week.
Fort Ostell Museum
On June 25, 1967, the Fort Ostell Museum Society was founded, taking its name from the fort built near Ponoka during the North West Resistance of 1885. In order to secure the area, an Alberta Field Force of 462 men under Captain John Ostell, built a fortification on the Battle River, naming the fort after their commanding officer.
After the resistance ended in May of 1885, the life of Fort Ostell would come to an end. It would only serve as a military post from May 9 to June 27, 1885. The fort is long gone but it lives on in the museum that bears its name.
The museum society would open its museum in 1981 and today it houses artifacts from the history of the community dating back to before Europeans arrived. In 2004, as part of Ponoka’s Centennial, it added artifacts from the Alberta Mental Hospital Museum and it now has one of the few collections of mental hospitals in Canada.
In all, the facility has 10,000 artifacts and several exhibits for you to explore the history of the area.
Community Rest Room
It may seem odd to go into a rest room that is a historical site, but that is the case with the Community Rest Room in Ponoka. Built in 1929, this simple concrete building was a sign of the changing times in Alberta. At the time it was built, businesses tended to cater to men, and the bathrooms inside were typically for men only. As a result of this, the Women’s Institutes of Alberta created these washrooms that also included a sitting room, play area for children and a small library. The structure was built for $5,107, and it was paid off in only four years. It was a welcome change for the women who often had to sit outside the pool hall or bar while they waited for their spouse to leave. The rest room was often under the care of a matron, who ensured that everything that was needed was on hand in the premises.
The facility also provided another important community role for women, it gave them a place to meet, socialize and organize. This allowed them to begin to play an increasingly important role in the province, as more women were elected to municipal and provincial governments.
On the top floor were apartments, which were used by the matron and any unmarried women who were working in town.
One of the most important buildings in the history of Ponoka is the Alberta Hospital Building No. 1, located just to the southeast of the community. Built between 1908 and 1912, the hospital served as the place where those who suffered with mental illness were housed in the 20th century. Prior to this, anyone deemed to be mentally disabled was sent to Brandon, Manitoba for treatment. As Alberta’s population was rising with new immigrants though, the need for a facility in Alberta became apparent.
On Aug. 1, 1908, work began on the new three-storey building that would serve as the first mental health institution in Alberta history. The entire facility was built of fireproof materials as it was in an isolated location and prairie fires were not uncommon. The rural area of Ponoka was chosen as it was felt that fresh air and immersion in the natural world would help the patients.
The Alberta Hospital for the Insane, as it was known, would open on July 4, 1911 with 16 cases admitted during the first month. Construction would continue on the building until 1912. The number of cases in the facility continued to rise, including 164 cases transferred from Brandon. The facility would be used throughout the 20th century and would eventually become known as the Provincial Mental Health Hospital. At the time of its construction, it had room for 150 patients and also had a water tower, reservoir, farm and homes for doctors and nurses.
Over the years, the number of patients at the facility would fluctuate, as would its methods. In 1940, the first movies were displayed for the patients at the facility, and in 1942 the first Prisoner of War was admitted, followed by others. By VE Day, six Prisoners of War were housed in the facility. That same year, lobotomies would be conducted for the first time.
With expansions, the hospital would house 1,600 people in the 1950s, with a staff of 450. The farm at the hospital had also become one of the largest in the province, with large herds of livestock, a colony of bees, 100 acres of potatoes and 10,000 chickens. In 1953, the farm produced 779,785 pounds of milk, 4,925 quarts of cream, 402,000 dozen eggs, 31,199 pounds of poultry and 122,489 pounds of pork.
The hospital would remain open until 2002 when it was closed and replaced with a modern facility that could house 330 beds and 1,000 staff, including 20 doctors and 200 nurses. Today, the facility is now the Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury and is a nationally renown centre for the treatment of brain damage.