When settlers arrived in the area of Brooks, they found a land that had been occupied by the Indigenous, specifically the Blackfoot, for centuries prior. Many of the paths used by those early settlers had been forged by generations of Indigenous who had walked through the area from the area that would be Montana, up into central Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The settlers also found many artifacts of those long-gone days, including arrowheads and bleached bison bones. The bison were an important part of the culture of the Blackfoot, until they were wiped out by Canadians and Americans by the 1870s. The entire area that would be Brooks was actually a bison hunting ground for the Indigenous.
In the area of the Dunbar Ranch, glimpses into the past could be found in things such as the creation of a stone man, that was 35 feet long and 15 feet wide at the arms. This site was one of only four found in western Canada at the time.
Today, Brooks sits on Treaty 7 land.
At this point, homesteaders began to arrive in the area of Brooks. Around this same time, the Canadian Pacific Railroad would be built through, which brought even more settlers into the area, but no settlement sprang up. There were several ranches in the area that all did quite well.
One of those ranchers, or at least someone who wanted to own a ranch, was Lord D.J. Beresford. He was told of the good ranchland in the area, and he became interested in seeing it for himself. At the time, he owned and lived at a ranch in Mexico, which was a haven for outlaws from the United States. A lover of a good time, he was often in the tavern more often than he was working on his ranch. He would come to Canada by train with 70 horses, ranch equipment and two trainloads of Mexican steers to begin to create a new ranch in the young country. He would establish The Mexico Ranch, and a man by the name of Happy Jack Jackson would serve as the foreman of that ranch. The ranch consisted of two log houses. One for the men who worked the ranch and one for Beresford. In the log house of Beresford, there was a mahogany bed and dresser, and the cowboys began to call it the Blue Parlor because of the chinaware that was used by Beresford. Other ranches would spring up including The Quail Ranch and the P.K. Ranch.
One of the most famous men to have a ranch in the area was George Lane, who owned the George Lane Ranch. His ranch was massive, covering an area from Bassano to Alderson and it would be because of Lane that the CPR would build stockyards in the area to handle the growing number of cattle being shipped. In 1912, he would help to find the Calgary Stampede. He had also served as the foreman of the Bar U Ranch, which he would purchase for $250,000, and he even served for one month in the Alberta Legislature.
While the railroad had come through in 1883, and the stockyard had been built in 1902, there was still little more than a railway siding in the area. Then, a man named Ernest Cooker decided to build a store and stopping place for riders to rest at while shipping their cattle. He and his wife would become the first true citizens of what would become Brooks. The community had no name and with the need for a post office, a name had to be chosen.
In 1904, through a Canada Post contest, the area was named after Noel Edgell Brooks, who was the Canadian Pacific Railway Divisional Engineer from Calgary. He had been asked to send in his name as a possible name for the community.
During these early years, Brooks was a rough place, and it was not uncommon to have some residents treat it like it was a town in the Wild West. E.J. Hawkins was one such man. He was a one-armed station agent who would occasionally go on a drunk bender and during those times he would not answer telegraphs or the phone at the station. He was even known to take a shot at anyone who came to the station when he was drinking. Trains would simply go past the community during these times. Eventually, the Superintendent had to come to Brooks and he threatened Hawkins with a gun, but Hawkins wouldn’t let him into the station. That night, Hawkins disappeared into the night and was never heard from in the area again.
Around the same time that Brooks was beginning to grow, one of the worst winters in living memory would hit the region. It was the winter of 1906-07 and it was one that nearly ended several ranches. The winter came in cold and stormy, and even some farms that had ensured they had 700 tons of hay found it was not enough to get them from November to April. The ground was soon covered in two feet of snow and blizzards howled as the cattle began to drift with the wind, becoming lost in the landscape, often falling over steep cutbanks. Several ranches suffered terribly. The P and K Ranch lost 2,000 head of cattle alone. A neighbour named Gregory found 115 cattle from the ranch had come to his homestead and died at a shack. Another homestead found 115 dead cattle in a large pile. The Beresford Ranch did not suffer as bad, having sent its cattle out before winter set in and protecting its older cattle in shelters. Even when spring came, it was a depressing state of affairs, seeing dead cattle throughout the landscape and floating down the river as the ice began to melt. Through the landscape, fires could be seen as ranchers burned their dead cattle as the flies in the area were becoming tormenting clouds as the weather warmed.
As for Brooks during this terrible winter, it only had nine people and they all made it through the winter, and the community would again continue to grow. From here, the community would begin to grow, starting out as a hamlet and eventually becoming a village on July 14, 1910. The CPR also placed ads in Canada and American newspapers to bring people to the region to buy up land that was, at the time, owned by the CPR.
In 1909, a man named Dr. Barnum Brown came to the area to investigate a story he heard of unusual bones that were found. The pioneers of the district had found these bones and did not know what they were. Brown would investigate and within a few months, he would state, quote:
“In a few months we had a regular Noah’s Ark and almost everything we brought to light was new to science.”
Within four years, 18 complete skeletons of dinosaurs had been found. This would spark the beginning of the exploration of dinosaur fossils that would centre on the Drumheller area to this day.
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As Brooks began to grow, it would be hit by a terrible fire in 1913. The fire began on the block between Centre Street and First Street, and it destroyed several buildings in the area. The fire had started at 10 p.m. on Sept. 18, but there was no fire apparatus for fighting the fire, so chemical was borrowed from the CPR headquarters. An office, warehouse, farm machinery store, café, three Chinese laundries, and several other buildings were lost. One of the worst aspects of the fire was that it hit the town hall, which did not have a fireproof safe. Taxpayers who did not keep their receipts soon found out that they had to pay their taxes all over again as a result. A lot of suspicion fell on the secretary-treasurer over the matter but in the end, nothing was proven. The end cost of the fire was estimated to be $50,000, which would amount to $1.2 million today. For C.L. Bambrick, the fire was especially bad as he let his insurance expire only days earlier, having planned to send a cheque to renew the insurance but he would forget to.
In 1912, construction would begin on one of the most important structures not only in Brooks, but the entire area. With the area being quite dry, there was a need to bring in irrigation to help the farmers and ranchers who had bought land and now found that it was not the easiest place to grow crops. Hugh Muckleston, the Assistant Chief Engineer for the CPR envisioned a Brooks Aqueduct, which would be made of reinforced Portland Cement with an open flume, rather than an earthen filled canal. A company out of Vancouver was hired and the construction of the canal would take two years to complete, costing $700,000, which would amount to $16.5 million today. The aqueduct officially opened in 1915 and at the time it was claimed to be the largest concrete structure in existence. It ran for 3.1 kilometres in length, with its flume mounted on 20-metre-high columns, 1,030 in total. Over the next 30 years, the aqueduct would be improved on and refurbished by the CPR to improve on it as the population of the area grew. With a running capacity of 900 cubic feet per second of water, it provided irrigation to 113,000 hectares of land and helped fuel a whole new growth of settlement in the area. The aqueduct would be replaced with a more modern system in 1979, 65 years after it had begun operation. In 1983, it was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada, and in 2000 it became an Alberta Historic Site.
In 1911, the fourth Duke of Sutherland would buy 6,800 acres of land just north of Brooks to begin dry farming operations and the aqueduct would help him achieve that goal. The Duke then prepared ready-made farms for the settlers and he planed to bring out tenants from his farms in Sutherlandshire. There was anger in Scotland on the belief that he was trying to depopulate Scotland by taking the best farmers to Canada. As a result of this, none of the initial farmers he brought over were Scottish, and most were English. A school was built on the land and settlers began to settle on these new ready-made farms. The construction of all of these ready-made farms was overseen by the CPR and in all, 30 families were brought over to the district to farm on these lands. The main residence on the land was built by the CPR for the Duke to use when he came from Scotland to view his new farm estate. It was an impressive bungalow with a sizeable living room, two fireplaces, arched doorways, double doors in the lobby and much more. A four-acre garden was also built. When the Duke would not be at this residence, it was occupied by the Estate Manager.
Sadly, the Duke would only make one visit to the property before he died in 1913 in Scotland. Once he had died, the Sutherland family lost all interest in the project, and a series of managers oversaw the project with little input from across the Atlantic Ocean. By 1915, thanks to the Brooks Aqueduct, 5,000 acres of land irrigated, along with 1,000 acres that was not irrigated. The entire estate would continue to operate well for 20 years but with absentee landlords and The Great Depression, the estate was divided. As for the bungalow and the land it sat on, it went into private hands in 1936. You can still visit this property, now called the Duke of Sutherland Site Complex. Today, the entire property is a Provincial Historic Resource.
When the Second World War broke out, one family in the Brooks area was especially invested. W.H. Gray Brooks and his wife Helen had seven sons, five of which went to serve in the war, and all in different units. One son, Ken, was serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force, as was another son Ted. Bob, who was the twin of Ted, would serve with the South Alberta Regiment, and Bill was a member of the SAR, which was a non-permanent force out of Medicine Hat, and he would join the Royal Canadian Air Force. Donald, the eldest son, was a first-class signaler, and the youngest son, 13-year-old Walter, was a colonel in the Canadian Kids Foreign Legion. Dick, another son, did not enlist as he was playing hockey at the time and was an outstanding player who was better served delighting fans on the ice. Thankfully, none of the sons would die in the war. The daughter of the family, Helen, had also won a beauty contest and was representing Canada in a movie about the war in Los Angeles.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Brooks, then the best place to go is the Brooks and District Museum. The museum first opened in 1974, and since then has been presenting the long history of the Brooks area to generations of individuals. A tour of the museum includes several buildings on its grounds. There is the replica of the 1912 Brooks Bulletin building, a garage that includes a 1931 Model A, the Kitchener School that was built in 1911 and operated until 1961 when it was closed and became a community hall. There is also the Seventh Day Adventist Church, built in 1919, a caboose that was used for decades before it came to the museum, the Duchess Train Station built in 1914 and much more including a blacksmith shop, a 1903 oil rig and even Cory the dinosaur.