Long before Europeans arrived in the area, the land was occupied by the Blackfoot people, who moved through the landscape following the immense bison herds that dominated the land. As the 1800s progressed, the bison herds began to dwindle until they were finally gone for good by the 1870s. With the loss of the bison, the Indigenous were pushed to reserves by the federal government through treaty negotiations.
Today, Oyen is on Treaty 6 land. That treaty was signed in 1876.
At the turn of the 20th century, there was little around Oyen. The land had seen the demise of the bison, the Indigenous were pushed to reserves and a new wave of settlers were starting to arrive.
In 1908, a man by the name of Andrew Oyen decided he wanted to try his hand at homesteading. Walking all the way from Spokane, Washington, he picked up a homestead but had to return to America as he had no real shelter beyond a tent and thew winters in the area can be harsh. He would arrive back in the spring of 1909 and settle into his new home, on his new land.
In 1911, a man named Billy Bishop, and no not the famous person of that name, established a stopping place for travelers. He would have a tiny store and a blacksmith shop and on his land he would try to build up a new community of Bishopburg.
Unfortunately for Bishop, the railroad had other ideas when it did not purchase his land. Instead, the Canadian Northern Railway chose to purchase land from Andrew Oyen for the new townsite. By the fall of 1912, the railway would arrive in Oyen, and on Jan. 17, 1913, Oyen became a village. The name of Bishopburg never took off, and instead Oyen was chosen to honour the man whose land became a townsite.
It did not take long for the community to begin to grow and by 1915, there were 225 people living in Oyen, which had several businesses and three grain elevators along the rail line.
One man to arrive in the district slightly before Oyen was Wstern Ostrander. He not only would see the town spring up, and the area grow with settlers, but he would also live to within one year of man landing on the moon.
Reaching 100 years of age is a huge achievement. While we have more Centenarians than ever before, that wasn’t always the case. For a community to have a resident hit 100, that is a big deal and Oyen had just that in 1965 when Ostrander celebrated his 104th birthday in the community. One of the oldest men in Canada at the time, he was described as incredibly fit and well, and still enjoyed long walks in the community. As it turned out, he would live until the age of 106 when he passed away at the Calgary Bow View Nursing Home on Jan. 8, 1968 in Calgary. He had come to the Oyen district in 1909 and lived there for nearly 60 years until he moved to Calgary in the last year of his life.
When the Spanish Flu hit the area in 1918, Oyen would be hit especially hard. To stem the spread of the terrible disease that would go on to kill 50,000 Canadians, the entire community would shut itself off from the rest of the world. Oyen banned all track going into and out of the community and tickets would be issued to anyone who violated the town quarantine.
The first school in the area was Feadview School, built near the village in 1912. The classroom of the school was quickly too small with 30 students sitting in the school by 1915.
A new school was built in 1915, costing $6,000, or $149,557 today. Work on the school began early in September of 1915 but there was a problem. The board had not received authorization for the plans from the Minister of Education for the province. The Minister refused to approve the debenture, and with that school construction stopped completely. The board was completely fired in 1916 and the whole matter went to before the court the following year. The ratepayers of Oyen then decided to cut their losses and borrow $4,000 to construct a new building on a different piece of land. The other, half finished school would sit there for several years until it was torn down. Finally, the new school was finished and everyone was happy with it, calling it one of the most up-to-date schools in the province.
Then, three days after it opened, on March 11, 1918, smoke began to pour out of the building. Believed to have started in the furnaces, the flames quickly spread through the school. What made it worse was that this was going to be the first day of school for students in the area. Within two hours, the school was gone, and the saga of having a school continued for the people of Oyen. The residents didn’t just give up though. The students would do their schooling at the Methodist Church, and through another loan and hard work, a new school would open in mid-December 1918. That school stands to this day in the community.
In the mid-1920s, Oyen would suffer one of the worst events in its history, a terrible fire that nearly destroyed the entire town.
It was on Jan. 22, 1927 when a fire started between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. that day, wiping out nearly the entire business district of the community. Firefighters and volunteers all worked hard to save what they could and they would successfully save the railway station, thanks to some help from the local train crews as well. The fire is believed to have started in the attic of a general store but the cause of the fire was never found. The fire quickly began to spread, eventually burning through five buildings on the westside of main street, and then several more along the street. In the fire, the town lost a café, a butcher, a general store, a dental office, the post office, a hardware store and a general store. A water shortage didn’t help matters for the firefighters who were doing their best to combat the flames. Volunteers also helped get items out of the buildings that were in danger, saving a great deal of stock and other important items from the businesses that would eventually succumb to the flames. By 11:30 a.m., the fire was out and roughly $100,000 in damages would be reported, amounting to $1.5 million today. As with most places, people picked up the pieces and got back down to work. By the end of the year, a new hardware store would open, along with a new hospital and several other businesses that rose from the ashes. The loss of several buildings also helped other businesses expand including the hotel and the electric light plant, greatly helping the community grow as a result. The town was aided by a huge crop that year, which helped boost spirits and bring a lot of money into the community as a result.
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In 1962, Melody Davidson would be born in Coronation but by the time she was in grade 3, she was living in Oyen with her family. After attending Red Deer College and then going to the U of A, she would begin to coach her brother’s hockey team in 1978, and then started coaching women’s hockey in 1989. She would lead Team Alberta at the 1991, 1995 and 1999 Canada Winter Games. She then took over as the assistant coach of the Canadian national women’s hockey team at the 2002 Winter Olympics. The team would win gold and Davidson would begin coaching at Cornell. In 2006, she would become the head coach of the Canadian women’s team, helping them win the gold medal once again. In 2010, she again won another gold medal with the team. For her success as a coach on the national stage, she was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, and the Olympic Hall of Fame.
In the summer of 1968, a terrible storm descended upon the community. The storm hit on June 25, 1968 that started with a light rain shower but soon developed into a significant storm with severe lightning. The lightning would strike several places in the community, including the swimming pool where the motor was damaged. The damage was so severe on the pool that it had to be closed for five days as a result.
In August of 2013, the community celebrated its 100th anniversary with the unveiling of a beautiful centennial clock. This legacy project was created to serve as a reminder of the history of the community and the pioneers who helped make the community what it is today. The clock is actually quite tall, and has become a landmark for the community in a very short amount of time.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Oyen, then I encourage you to check out the Oyen Crossroads Museum. This museum consists of nine buildings that all have specific themes to highlight the history of the area through the artifacts housed inside. It even has an escape room to try out. At the museum you will find the old Westside School, a 1917 farmhouse that was built near Sibbald, Alberta, the Ukrainian Catholic Church built in 1914, Benton Hall that was once a one-room schoolhouse during the early-1900s, a 1935 Blacksmith shop, a cooking car from the railroad in the 1920s, and a machinery shed that features a Model T Ford, a 1928 Hart-Parr and more.