Before Europeans ever set foot in the region that would be Barrhead, it was home to the Indigenous, specifically the Cree, who lived across the land for eons. There is evidence of the Cree living in the area for over 5,000 years.
During those centuries, the Indigenous would have also come across the Vega Sand Hills. Today, the Vega Sand Hills are protected as a unique dune formation that offers miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
That way of life would begin to change during the late-1700s and early-1800 as fur traders and explorers came through the area. In 1810, David Thompson explored an Indigenous trail in the area, which would connect the North Saskatchewan with Athabasca Pass. It was on this trail that a letter would be sent from British Columbia to Montreal in 1811, the first letter ever sent between the two locations.
At first, it was a trickle of people, but before long more would be arriving.
In 1824 the original Indigenous trail would become a pack trail when it was cut from Fort Assiniboine to Fort Edmonton, going just to the east of the present location of Barrhead. With that trail, pack trains would pass through on a regular basis with as many as 75 horses and riders passing each day.
It was not until 1898 that the area that would be Barrhead really started to spring up and it was all thanks to the Klondike Gold Rush.
The Grizzly Trail follows the current path of Highway 33, and it followed the Klondike Trail, which many prospectors took after leaving Edmonton, going up to the Peace River region and beyond. Three kilometres to the north of the present community, there was a stopping spot for the Klondikers to rest before going on ahead. That Klondike Trail Viewpoint can still be seen to this day, located at Two Mile Corner at the intersection of Highways 18 and 33. A visit there will allow you to see what the early Klondikers saw as they prepared to find their fortunes to the north. You can also take the Klondike Ferry across the Athabasca River. While ferries were very common in Alberta for decades due to the lack of bridges, only seven remain, including this one at Barrhead that operates from April to October.
From this point, the community would start to grow as travelers fell in love of the area and decided to set down roots.
The area around the community would continue to grow once the townsite was founded. A post office named Paddle River would be established just to the south of the town on the farm of Ted Speck. Not long after setting up the post office, Ted and his brother Fred would build a bridge across the river and start operating a sawmill. By 1909, a hall was built where school was conducted, and a blacksmith would arrive in 1909. In 1913, the Anglican Church would be built, remaining outside of town until 1928.
At this time, the Paddle River Co-operative Society opened a store and then began to construct a building that would be used for community gatherings. An application was put forward for a post office and the name of Barrhead was suggested to honour the home of James McGuire, Barrhead, Scotland.
Today, we often think of celebrating Canada Day on July 1 without a thought, but in the early history of Barrhead, there was a bit of a dust-up over which date to hold the annual picnic. One group with strong ties to eastern Canada and the United Kingdom wanted to host the picnic on July 1, while the American settlers wanted to host it on July 4. To accommodate everyone, it was decided to host the picnic on alternating dates each year. One year would be on July 1, the next on July 4. Unfortunately, one year and despite the agreement, both flags were put up the flag pole, with one of the flags flying higher than the other, which was seen as a great insult. A flag fight then ensued, with each side trying to keep their flag higher than the other flag. This was accomplished because the flag pole was just a tree, allowing each side to go higher and higher. Someone then decided to solve the issue by getting a flag pole, putting his flag on it and then nailing it to the tree. This move resulted in both sides nearly coming to blows over the matter. In the end, the picnic was cancelled and the following year, it was decided that no flags would be flown.
In 1915, there would be a unique custody case in Barrhead and it was all over a moose. A Mr. Finsted decided that he would raise a moose calf on his property but one day when he came home he found that the calf was missing. He immediately went to the Royal North West Mounted Police, who went out to look for the thieves. As it turned out, several locals had spoken to the game warden who had picked up the moose. As he was driving the moose towards the wilderness, he was suddenly arrested by the police and charged with theft. While the community awaited trail, the moose was cared for by the Munsterman family. In the end, Finsted lost his case and the game warden took the moose to Buffalo National Park near Wainwright, to live out its days.
It would take another decade before the community of Barrhead really started to grow though. It was in 1927 that the Northern Alberta Railroad decided to bring its Pembina Valley branch line to the area. The people who lived in the area suddenly realized they needed to move their homes to get to where the railroad was going to go through. Along with homes, there was the post office and a few small stores that all had to move at the same time.
The arrival of the railroad caused a huge increase in construction and residents, resulting in Barrhead becoming a village on Nov. 14, 1927. Within months, the community had an elevator, hardware store, feed barn, the Bank of Montreal and a drug store. The Home Elevator was the first building to be built in the new community of Barrhead.
The Edmonton Journal would report on May 20, 1927, quote:
“Spring is the season for growth and although many farmers in the district consider this a particularly backward year from an agricultural standpoint, there are few who are not surprised at the rapid growth of the new town of Barrhead.”
A school was built in 1928, followed by a high school in 1929. An eight-bed hospital was also built around this same time.
From there, the community would continue to grow until it became one of the most important trading centres north of Edmonton.
In 1938, a huge forest fire would erupt in the area, running along a 15-mile front that destroyed several homes as it burned through. A total of 500 men were sent out to fight the forest fire that was moving quickly thanks to winds that were moving at about 25 miles per hour, thankfully pushing the fire away from Barrhead in the process. Smaller fires had been burning for about two weeks, mostly clearing fires, before they merged into the one large fire that threatened the landscape. There were no losses of life but several vehicle accidents would occur when motorists slowed down to look at the growing column of smoke.
On Nov. 26, 1946, Barrhead officially became a town.
Two years before Barrhead became a town, it found itself in real danger when the Paddle and Pembina Rivers rose well above their banks, flooding out the entire area but thankfully not hitting the community itself. The flood was bad enough that it took out a two mile stretch of railroad between Manola and Barrhead, washing out the railroad embankment completely, leaving the tracks and ties hanging loose with nothing underneath but 15 feet of water. A Mr. Roberts would say going over the track was, quote:
“like going over a suspension bridge.”
Roads were also washed out, as were crops, several rural homes and livestock, causing an enormous financial cost to the area, but thankfully no loss of life. The Alberta Livestock Co-operative Limited would raise money for those who were impacted by the flooding.
You can still see glimpses of the past of Barrhead by visiting Elevator Road, which has some of the last remaining grain elevators in Central Alberta. These elevators have stood for many decades and are a great link to the prosperous agricultural past of the community.
When you visit Barrhead, make sure you check out the official mascot, the Great Blue Heron. The heron is often seen in the lakes around Barrhead so it was a natural fit for the mascot. Built in 1984 out of rebar, wire mesh and concrete, it stands at eight feet high and sits on a four foot high pedestal. The bird is nicknamed, Aaron the Blue Heron.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Barrhead, then there is no better place to go than the Barrhead Centennial Museum. In the museum, you will find artifacts from the past of Barrhead, including from the churches, community halls, schools, businesses and more. Some of the stories from the past of the community that I covered in this episode came from the museum’s archives.