The community of Drayton Valley is unique among the towns that I have looked at on this podcast. While some towns have at least a century of history behind them, Drayton Valley is relatively new, only becoming a village in 1953. As a result, this will be a shorter episode than usual.
Of course, as with every place in Canada, the true history of the community and its era goes back many centuries.
For centuries, long before any European ever set foot in Canada, the land around Drayton Valley was used by the Indigenous as they hunted game and gathered food through the seasons. The land was primarily the domain of the Tsuut’tina people, but as the years went on and Europeans pushed in from the east, the Cree would begin to settle in the area along with the Metis.
While traders and explorers would move through the area occasionally, the first confirmed European to reach the area of Drayton Valley was David Thompson, the celebrated explorer who at the time was working for the North West Company. He would come through in the autumn of 1810 while traveling down the Pembina River. There is a great deal of mystery surrounding Thompson at this time, as he recorded very little in his diary from September to October, which was highly unusual for him. This is likely due to poor relations with the local Indigenous and the difficulty in getting through the region for Thompson.
The first settlers began to arrive in the early 20th century in 1907, working as farmers, lumbermen and trappers in the district. At the time, no road to Edmonton and the North Saskatchewan River existed and the entire area was very isolated. Lumbermen would haul felled trees to the river and send them down the North Saskatchewan to Edmonton for processing.
The first known homesteaders in the area were William and Dora Drake and their child Dolly. They lived near where the community now sits.
Around this time, a small settlement sprang up in the river valley and had the name of Powerhouse. This name was chosen because the land syndicate that owned most of the land in the area had plans to build a dam south of Drayton Valley in the 1910s but the First World War ended that project.
The Drakes ran the first post office in the area but Powerhouse was already a name elsewhere, so they chose the name Drayton Valley by taking the first part of their name, adding ton to it and then Valley.
The community would later move up from the river valley to where the town now sits. During this time, Drayton Valley was mostly made up of two churches, a post office and a school, with little else.
Even small towns are not free of crime though. The first murder in the history of Drayton Valley would occur on May 27, 1922, and it was all over a borrowed suitcase. John Bosserman had borrowed a suitcase from Joe Starling. Some time later, Starling decided to pay a visit to Bosserman. He would arrive at his cabin where Bosserman was outside with his two sons. After talking about the weather and other items, Starling asked for the suitcase.
Bosserman stated, quote:
“You can have the suitcase when you bring back my broad axe.”
Starling then asked for the three dollars he had given Bosserman to transport some furniture, but which had not been carried out. Bosserman threatened to shoot Starling and said he did not owe him any money.
Starling, a First World War veteran, then left and told his brother in law, Lewis Davies, about the encounter and Davies suggested they return the next evening. Bosserman was not home and Bosserman’s wife stated that their son had been sent to Starling’s place to return the suitcase, and Starling gave her the axe he had borrowed.
The next day, May 27, Starling again went to Bosserman’s home to get the suitcase that had not been returned, as he needed it because he was going out for work. When he and Davies knocked on the door, Bosserman told them to quote:
“Clear out or I’ll blow your brains out.”
Davies rushed in and with his hands raised said he didn’t want any shooting. Bossermen then hit Davies in the head with the rifle and fired a bullet into his head.
Starling soon fled and came back with a group of men to arrest Bosserman, who stated that he was temporarily insane and that Davies was going to stab him with the knife that was on his belt. On Oct. 4, 1922, Bosserman was sentenced to 20 years in prison, which he would serve in Prince Albert.
Bosserman’s family were soon shunned by the community and forced to move away.
In 1934, one local family had a scare when they looked up to see a meteor streaking in bright flames through the sky. Not realizing what it was, they were terrified and would spend the next two hours in their basement, believing that the world was going to end. The meteor had streaked across the three western provinces and the state of Montana before crashing somewhere in North America.
Drayton Valley would continue on and in the 1930s, the community had 30 lumber camps but the population still remained less than 100 people. During this time, locals and workers would come out to have events whenever they could. One example came in May of 1940 when lumberjacks from five local lumber camps held a boxing tournament to celebrate Victoria Day. As well, four teams played baseball to the delight of the locals who came out to celebrate the day.
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By 1945, timber harvesting had cut down most of the forests in the area and farming would become the new industry in the area. By this point, 50 people lived in the community.
Everything would change for Drayton Valley with the discovery of the Pembina Oil Field.
This oil field was discovered in 1953 and would soon prove to be one of the largest and most prolific conventional oil fields in the entire province. Named for the Pembina River, the oil field taps the Cretaceous formations in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. When Mobil Oil decided to start drilling for oil in the region on Feb. 23, 1953, it would spark an investment boom that would bring in a staggering $900 million in investment.
It was believed at this time that oil was located about 5,300 feet below the ground so a drill stem test was carried out. When they drilled, nothing flowed to the surface. They would continue drilling down 6,000, then 7,000 and finally to 9,425 feet with still no oil yet. The drillers decided to try a new technique called sand fracturing, which pumped 3,000 pounds of sand into the well at a pressure of 1,800 pounds per square inch. This created hair line fractures in the rock.
This technique had never been successful in Canada but on June 10, 1953, the well began to produce 72 barrels per day and would eventually max out at 285 barrels per day. The oil boom in Drayton Valley had begun.
In 1953, Drayton Valley had a population of 50 people but within one year of the discovery of the oil, its population ballooned to 2,000. People lived anywhere they could, in trailer parks, shacks and tents.
With the sudden growth, the sleepy hamlet quickly became a very different. The Wildcat Café was infamous in the region, with its women servers who were rumoured to be prostitutes and the all-night drinking sessions of new arrivals.
On March 1, 1954, the Drayton Valley Townsite Act was passed by the Alberta Government to create conditions to plan out the town of Drayton Valley. One part of the act prevented land speculation. Anyone who bought land was required to immediately obtain a development permit for the property and to also pay sewer and water charges.
In May of that year, $500,000 worth of building permits were issued, which included a new hotel valued at $250,000. As well, two reservoirs were built, totally 240,000 gallons.
In 1956, the community became a village and on March 4, 1957, the first elections of town council were held and Robert Clarkson became the first mayor.
Without a doubt, one of the more interesting items to be found in Drayton Valley is Paul Bunyan’s bowling ball. This ball is a spherical boulder that was discovered in the ground of a farm in 1998. The ball weighs an immense 36,500 pounds. So what is it? Likely it was used by the lumber crews of the area decades previous in a method of lumbering called bowling ball lumbering. These balls were sent down hills, crashing into trees and snapping them down, allowing for easy harvesting. Many companies used them as they would save time and money for the company.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Drayton Valley, then you should head over to the Drayton Valley Museum. This museum features 5,000 historical artifacts that explore the culture and development of Drayton Valley and the surrounding area. Some of the items located on the museum grounds include the All-Saints Anglican Church, which was the first church built in Drayton Valley, outdoor machinery used by farmers over the years, a skid shack used by a local oil worker in 1961 and the Eldorado School, which was built in 1915 and was the first school in the area.