During the pre-colonial era, before Europeans had ever reached the shores of Canada, the land that would be Nanton was occupied by the Blackfoot and their predecessors. For the Blackfoot, the bison were a vital part of their culture, not only providing food but many of the supplies and materials they used throughout their lives.
The large bison herds would dominate the landscape for centuries before they were nearly wiped out in the late-1800s. It was around this time that settlers began to arrive in the area to build up homesteads.
Today, Nanton sits on Treaty 7 land, signed in 1877 nearby to where the community is today, at Blackfoot Crossing.
At first, pioneers were settling in the area around the late-1800s and into the early-1900s to take advantage of the excellent ranching and farmland, as well as its proximity to Calgary and the Canadian Pacific Railway.
By February 1903, the community was starting to spring up where previously there was little more than cattle ranches. In the early part of that year, two small buildings were built, beginning with the H.M. Shaw store, followed by the Auditorium Hotel. Before long, a butcher shop and grocery was established and the community began to grow.
On June 22, 1903, Nanton became a village, getting its name from Sir Augustus Nanton, who directed firms that offered financing for farms and ranches throughout the west, helping to increase settlement throughout the future provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The first overseer of the community would be J.M. Bender.
By 1906, the community had reached a population of between 400 and 500 people. One newspaper report from July of 1906 stated that 23 carloads of settlers effects were unloaded at Nanton in one week, showing the increasing number of settlers arriving in the community. By this point, the community was bringing in everything that it needed to be a modern community including sidewalks, a fire brigade, a well to supply water to the community and much more. Two elevators that had a capacity of 30,000 bushels each were also erected over the previous two years in Nanton. Four churches had also been built, offering services to Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican congregations. That same year, work was beginning to erect a new school, at a cost of $8,000, or about $200,000 today. The new school would be a four-room brick school similar to the Victoria School that served Calgary. A new school was vitally needed, with 120 students attending a two room schoolhouse at the time.
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Also in 1906, in the area of Willow Creek, the MacEwan Schoolhouse would be built. The land was donated by George Blake, and upon its completion there was a choice between naming it for Blake or for John MacEwan, an early homesteader. A coin toss resulted in the schoolhouse being named for MacEwan. In 1907, school classes opened and its role as a schoolhouse began. Eventually though, as with all one-room schoolhouses, those days came to an end. The MacEwan Schoolhouse wouldn’t disappear though. Today, it sits in Nanton where it is the Nanton Visitor Information Centre, and it can be visited anytime you go through the community.
On Aug. 9, 1907, Nanton would officially take the next step and become a town.
Two years after Nanton became a town, the Canadian Bank of Commerce Bank Manager’s House was constructed. This house, was built in the Craftman’s style home that was popular at the time. The Canadian Bank of Commerce opened a branch in Nanton on Oct. 12, 1904, and two years later, C.F.A. Gregory came out from Barrie, Ontario to serve as manager. It was he who had this house built. He would live in the house until 1911 when he was transferred out to Winnipeg. At that point, he sold the home to the bank and it would serve as the home of each bank manager until the mid-1970s.This beautiful home stands to this day and while it is a private home, you can still take a walk through this wonderful community and see the outside of the home, which truly stands out in Nanton. In May of 2012, the home became a Provincial Historic Resource.
On Feb. 9, 1924, Nanton would be struck by one of its worst disasters when an early morning fire originated at the rear of the Nanton Grocery and quickly spread out of control. Before firefighters could respond, the fire had spread throughout the building and all the contents were lost inside. Before long, the fire was beginning to spread to buildings along the street.
When the fire alarm started waking up residents, many came to see what they could do to help. Telephone exchange operators also began calling farmers in the surrounding countryside, many of whom came in to help as well. Fire fighters and equipment were also called for from High River and Calgary, but they would arrive too late to save many of the buildings. The citizens of Nanton did what they could to slow the fire from spreading until more help could arrive. At the same time, other residents began to save as much stock from the buildings along the street as they could to mitigate the financial cost of the fire for the building owners.
By the time the fire was out, a block of buildings had been destroyed. The buildings lost to the fire included the Nanton Grocery, Nanton Bakery, Byler’s Meat Market, Malley Hardware, three vacant buildings, the Paris Cafe and a grocery store. All but the hardware store were owned by Shaw and Cooper of Nanton. The total cost of the blaze was estimated to be $60,000, or nearly $1 million today.
On May 16, 1938, a man named Jim Coutts, the grandson of the first elevator agent in Nanton’s history, was born in nearby High River. He would grow up in Nanton and earn a law degree from the University of Alberta and an MBA from Harvard Business School. From 1963 to 1966, he was a secretary to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, and then from 1975 to 1981, he was the principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. After leaving politics, he would enter the business world and become a philanthropist in his home province of Alberta. In 2001, he was awarded the Order of Canada for his contribution to law, politics and his donations. Part of his donations was a quarter section of land on the more than century old property that was owned by Coutt’s grandfather. This section of land included the original homestead, extensive gardens and restored outbuildings. That property was then turned into the Coutts Centre for Western Canadian Heritage in 2011. The homestead includes the home built in 1904 and features the Nanton sign that was the one to hang on the very first CPR station in the community. The chicken house was built in the 1900s before it was renovated into a guesthouse in 1996, and the writers cabin was turned into a cute little spot after serving as a granary for many years. Today, the entire property preserves and celebrates the diverse heritage of the Canadian west. Coutts would pass away only a few years later on Dec. 31, 2013 but his legacy lives on through the centre.
By the 1960s, Nanton was quickly making a name for itself as Tap Town. On April 22, 1964, the Calgary Herald published a story stating that the best drinking water in the world could be found in the Town of the Tap, Nanton. This was because of the water that was pumped to a spot near the main highway from 13 springs in the Porcupine Hills. This spot resulted in thousands of people stopping there on a regular basis through the year to take advantage of the drinking water, which quickly turned it into Nanton’s main tourist attraction. Around this time, Nanton had over 1,000 people and the people who stopped in town brought with them a huge amount of revenue through the food they bought, the shops they stopped at and the gas they bought for their vehicles. This water was also one of the first to be bottled and sold in Canada, and that would lead directly to the creation of the Nanton Water & Soda Limited company, which is still a business in the community to this day.
In 1985, the Nanton Lancaster Society was formed with the goal of preserving the Avro Lancaster FM159 that had been on display in Nanton since 1960. The plane was one of only 17 left in the world at the time and it was used in the area during the Second World War during the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. In 1986, the society began to display the aircraft as a museum. That year, the Lancaster had gone through a full restoration with all four engines operational.
In 1991, a building was completed to house the plane and the Bomber Command Museum of Canada was born. From there, things began to grow. Since 1991, the museum has expanded three times in 1998, 2002 and 2007 and now includes several planes, a library, a restoration shop and a gift shop. Currently, the museum houses 18 planes, and five vehicles from the Second World War. The museum is currently restoring a Mosquito RS700 for display and working with Halifax 57 Rescue to recover a Handley Page Halifax HR871 from off the coast of Sweden, which will be displayed in the museum once it is restored. This would make the Bomber Command Museum one of only four museums in the entire world to have such a plane on display. The museum also features a flight simulator, a Cessna Crane Simulator, and airplane tours and engine runs. I have visited this museum before and it is truly one of the best museums out there if you have an interest in the Second World War and aviation.
Around 2001, as most of the grain elevators in Alberta were coming down, Nanton made a choice to buck that trend. With the final elevator row of the community in danger of being demolished, the citizens of the community decided to preserve this part of its history instead and they would form the Save One campaign. For the next three years, with the danger of demolition ever present, the members of the Save One Historical Society gained full title to the land and the buildings. Not only did they save one of the elevators, they saved all three through countless volunteer hours and work. They then got to work repairing and restoring the elevators, including painting the Alberta Wheat Pool elevator back to its original green, and the Pioneer elevator back to its original orange and yellow. Today, the history of the Nanton elevators and the agricultural history of the community is celebrated in those elevators as part of the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre. The Pioneer Grain Elevator is especially historic, having been built in 1929 by the Independent Grain Company Limited.
The history of Nanton is not only present in the various buildings and museums in the community, but in the many antique shops that are found there as well. I used to live in High River and I made many trips to Nanton where I not only enjoyed some wonderful candy at the famous Nanton Candy Store, but I picked up many antiques in the various antique shops of the community, including my prized vinyl copy of Abbey Road. If you want to hold history in your hands, visit Nanton and the many wonderful antique shops.
Another great place to learn about the history of southern Alberta is the Museum of Miniatures, which was established in 2001 in Cardston by Captain Roy Wittman and his wife Carol. The miniatures depict not only scenes from the Old West, but also of jungles, dinosaurs, lakes, mountains, ranching, covered wagons, farming and much more. The entire museum was moved to Nanton in 2010 and can be visited for a unique view of history.