Before Europeans arrived on the shores of Canada, the area that would one day be Devon was occupied by the Indigenous, specifically the Stoney Cree and the Blackfoot.
For centuries, they would migrate through the area as the bison moved across the landscape, providing the Indigenous with nearly everything they needed.
As homesteaders began to arrive, Devon the Indigenous would slowly decline in numbers. Today, Devon sits on Treaty 6 land.
Unlike many communities I have covered here, the story of Devon begins rather later in Canada’s history. In fact, it was not until 1948 that the community was born.
The community owes its entire existence to something that happened earlier in the year, the Leduc #1 oil strike.
In 1936, the first major crude oil discovery would happen in Turner Valley at a depth of two kilometres, the deepest well in Alberta at that time. By 1942, the oil field reached its peak production of 10 million barrels and had the distinction of being the largest oil field in the British Empire.
That original oil discovery in 1914 would result in oil companies spending $150 million over the course of 30 years, amounting to about $2.2 billion today. No major reserves were found and the provincial government was forced to start issues tax relief for oil companies to encourage further exploration.
After a strike in Turner Valley in 1936, oil companies flooded into Alberta looking for crude. One company was Imperial Oil, who drilled 133 wells with no success.
The geologists who worked for the company believed that greater reserves could be found at deeper depths and they convinced the company to do one more drilling effort. The board of directors agreed and Wildcat No. 134 was drilled as a last ditch effort.
The company then purchased 200,000 acres of land southwest of Edmonton and began to survey the best area to drill. They came up with two candidate areas. One was one near Pigeon Lake, while the other was near Leduc. The team chose Leduc because it was closer to major roadways. This was a good decision because the Pigeon Lake well was later dug and proved to be a dry well.
On the farmstead of Mike Turta, a drilling site was chosen. Turta did not have drilling rights so Imperial Oil paid him $250 to lease his land, or $3,515 per year today. This well would be the only one within 80 kilometres, and would be dug to a depth of 2,100 metres.
Drilling would begin on Nov. 20, 1946 but only small traces of oil and natural gas were found going down to 1,200 metres. Drilling would pass the Mesozoic depth and indications were that there was large quantities of natural gas and a bit of oil. When drilling passed the Paleozoic Era and into the Devonian Era, tests showed promising results at 1,536 metres.
On Feb. 3, 1947, a test sent a geyser of oil shooting up past half the height of the drilling derrick.
With that, Imperial Oil knew there was oil to be found at this location. Vern Hunter, the lead of the drilling team, was asked by the company when they expected him to hit pay dirt with the well. He would say,
Shortly after 4 p.m., the wellhead was cleared and the 500 people who had gathered and braved the cold, saw Leduc No. 1 spray oil into the air. The youngest member of the drilling crew was given the honour of flaring the well.
This discovery was huge for Canada. At the time, the country only produced about 21,000 barrels per day and that mostly came from Turner Valley. In contrast, the country was consuming about 210,000 barrels a day. In Alberta, production was 7.7 million barrels per year from 416 wells and 90 percent of the oil needed by Canada was imported from the United States.
The discovery would lead to a huge increase in the estimates of how much oil was actually in western Canada. In 1946, it was believed that there were 72 million recoverable barrels of oil in western Canada. By 1957, that estimate had been increased to three billion and today it is believed that there are 77 billion barrels of oil in conventional reserves in western Canada.
Leduc No. 1 would continue to operate for almost three decades until 1974. By that point, it had produced 317,000 barrels of oil and 323 million cubic feet of natural gas.
Today, the Leduc No. 1 and Leduc-Woodland oil field are designated as a National Historic Site, and the Leduc #1 Energy Discovery Centre opened in 1997 next to Devon, to feature exhibits about the oil industry, as well as artifacts and equipment from the early days.
On Nov. 27, 1948, the community of Devon sprang up on the open prairie. Imperial Oil had actually paid $24,000 for a quarter section of land near the North Saskatchewan River, just north of Leduc #1. Within 10 months, a modern $2 million community with 600 residents was bustling in the area.
Mrs. V. Hunter, an early resident, would state quote:
The town would be home to the Imperial Oil workers and the company wanted to make sure the community was well-planned. Devon is also the first Canadian community to be approved by a regional planning commission.
As for its name, well that is an easy one. It is named for the Devonian formation, which the Leduc #1 tapped into, and that formation is named for Devon, England.
Around the same time that Devon was being built, the Atlantic No. 3 well suddenly burst into flames on March 8, 1948. The well would continue to burn for four days before it was capped. By that point, it had sent 75,000 barrels of oil and millions of cubic feet of natural gas 150 feet into the air. The fire was visible from Edmonton. The well was plugged but that created a new problem, causing huge gas pressures to develop 300 feet below the surface, which then cracked through the ground and came out at surface faults. These built up and on May 7, oil was forced out, covering 40 acres around the well-head. The Alberta government ordered the entire site shut down on May 12, so that resources could be put forward to reduce the fire hazard. Tank cars were then brought in, and 12,000 barrels of oil per day were hauled away to be taken to refineries.
Finally, the lake was drained off but 10 acres was still seeing oil rising, equaling 6,000 to 12,000 barrels per day.
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Finally, on Sept. 7, six months after the entire situation began, experts and government officials were able to finally stop the oil seeping to the ground.
In January of 1950, Devon was incorporated as a village and in March of that same year, it became a town. Today, Devon is called Canada’s Model Town due to its planned nature.
Nearby to Devon is one of the most beautiful spots in the entire area, the University of Alberta Botanic Garden.
First established in 1959, the garden was built on donated land and since then it has continued to expand and improve. Today, the gardens cover 80 acres of a 12,000 year-old sand dune shoreline that existed along the long-gone Lake Edmonton. There is also another 160 acres of natural areas. In the gardens you will find the Tropical Showhouse with butterflies, temperate and arid showhouses, extensive alpine, herb, lilac and rose collections, an Indigenous garden and the Kurimoto Japanese Garden. There is also a beautiful Islamic garden on the grounds, first planted in 2018.
If you would like to learn more about Devon’s history, you can visit the Devon Historical Museum, which opened its doors in 2016. Today, the community has several old photos, sports equipment and uniforms, as well as other artifacts from the town’s history, that can be browsed. As well, it also features a very rare silver collection.