The History of Picture Butte

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CraigBaird

Long ago, before Europeans ever arrived in the area, the Blackfoot and their precursor cultures lived on the land that covered the area of Picture Butte. At the time, the bison stretched across the horizon and were an integral part of the culture of the Blackfoot.

As time went on, and Europeans started to arrive from the East, the Metis and Cree would be pushed into the Blackfoot territory at Picture Butte, which created conflicts. In fact, at Indian Battle Park in nearby Lethbridge, the last Indigenous battle in Canadian history took place between the Cree and Blackfoot, in the Battle of Belly River in the 1870s.

Today, the entire area sits on Treaty 7 land, which was signed at Blackfoot Crossing on Sept. 22, 1877.

The Indigenous history of the area is showcased at the nearby Ross Archaeological Site, which is a prehistoric site with multiple buried campsite occupations in a section of 200 metres long and four metres deep. As well, there are several cultural materials that have been found at the site that show at least six occupations dating as far back as 1400 AD. Many of the artifacts collected at the site are now at the Royal Alberta Museum.

Archeological excavations started in 1957 and continued until 1980. During that time, shell and bone beads, stone and bone tools, pottery, pendants, buffalo stones and fragmented animal bone were all found. Activities at the site included animal butchering, meat roasting, tool manufacturing, grease preparation and more. Due to the deep historical nature of the site, it was made a Provincial Heritage Site in 1981.

The formation of Picture Butte owes its existence thanks to the growth in homesteading in the early 20th century. At the time, the land was dry and farming was difficult but a massive engineering project throughout the 1910s and into the 1920s, would change that. The irrigation system set up in southern Alberta would turn formally arid land into lush green land that was perfect for growing crops.

For Picture Butte, the arrival of the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation System in 1923 would be the first event to spur on development of the future community. The system Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District was founded in 1919, financed through a bond issue by the Alberta Government. Unlike other systems, it operated as a district from its inception. The Lethbridge Northern Irrigation System runs for 650 kilometres in total and provides irrigation to nearly 50,000 hectares of land. Among all of the irrigation systems in southern Alberta, it is the fifth largest. The construction of this system also helped to provide employment to many men who came to the area. Some of those men fell in love with the landscape and would choose to stay. When the system first went live, it cost $5.25 per acre for water, or $85. That was no small amount, and of the $500,000 expected, only $13,000 came in from ratepayers. The price was soon lowered to accommodate farmers who did not have that kind of money.

In 1925, the CPR arrived in the area, and that would be the second big catalyst for the creation of Picture Butte. When the railroad arrived, so too did roads to the new community, along with Turin and Iron Springs.

Soon after the railroad arrived in 1926, the Picture Butte post office would be created. As for how the name came about, it was named for a prominence that was southeast of town. Unfortunately, over time, due to the soil of the prominence being used for street improvements, highway construction and a dyke on the picture Butte Lake Reservoir, by 1947 it no longer existed. While the prominence is gone, it lives on in the name of the community.

By the 1930s, Picture Butte was being called the Iowa of Alberta for its thriving livestock industry. In 1938, 3,500 cattle and 20,000 lambs were being fed at the feedlots in Picture Butte through the winter. The total value of the cattle and lambs feeding at lots in Picture Butte that winter was $350,000, or $6.4 million. That is no small number considering it was still The Great Depression. The feed lots were a major source of revenue for Picture Butte. Some of the lots, built using 100,000 feet of lumber, could hold 1,000 cattle at a time. The role of Picture Butte in livestock feeding continues to this day, with several massive lots that accommodate thousands of head of livestock. For that reason, Picture Butte is known as the Livestock Feeding Capital of Canada.

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One of the biggest events in the early history of the community was the construction of the sugar factory in 1935. Construction on the beet sugar factory began on May 15 of that year, and Picture Butte was chosen over many other sites due to its adequate and convenient drainage, its railway facilities and fuel close at hand. The fact that there were several beet crops in the area also played into the decision. This factory was no small building. Its construction would cost $1.5 million, or $30 million today. Construction would continue throughout the year, and farmers seeing the opportunity, would increase local sugar beet acreage by 6,000 acres, a 40 per cent increase over 1936. Another plus of the factory was that during the Depression, it provided employment for 300 people, and would employ 200 people while it was running. Officially completed on Oct. 5, 1936, the opening of the plant was a major event for the area. Several Canadian Sugar Factories executives came out for the opening. Sadly, the opening was a solemn affair as a worker, Thorald Dewey of Cardston, had died only three days previous while working on the factory. The sugar plant would continue to operate until 1978, when it closed for good, severely impacting the economy of the town for a time. Like with many small towns though, resilience paid off and the town continued on. By 1991, the community had annexed 165 acres of land, greatly increasing its size in the process.

By 1943, the community had grown enough to become a village, and by 1961, thanks to further growth, it was a town with a population of 978, a number that has now doubled.

The prosperity of Picture Butte was seen when it built a new high school in 1950, costing $150,000, or $1.7 million. I don’t often include the history of building a school, unless it was very early on, but I found that this was an excellent story of community spirit. For years, the community had needed a new school as the high school. To accommodate the growing population, up until the Second World War, five one-room schoolhouses were dragged into the community to become part of the high school. These buildings were used for shop, home economics and as classrooms, but they were hard to heat, had poor lighting and were generally not great for school. Finally, in 1947 plans were drawn up for the new school, and construction began in 1948 after the community began to rally together to pressure the government. When the school officially opened in 1950, the entire community came out to celebrate.

If you want to learn more about the history of Picture Butte, then visit the pioneer village of Coyote Flats. This village includes three houses, a train station, garage, post office, school, church, butcher shop, fire station and even a NWMP Outpost Jail that you can tour as you relive what life was like decades ago. In addition to those buildings, the Prairie Tractor and Engine Museum, located on the same site, features an array of antique tractors and farming equipment that have been restored and operate in parades to this day.

Prairie Tractor And Engine Museum

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