Before Europeans came through the area, people like Anthony Henday, the land that would become Duchess was occupied by the Indigenous, specifically the Blackfoot. For the Blackfoot that occupied the area, the bison were an incredibly important part of their culture. From providing food and clothing, as well as materials for a variety of other uses, the Blackfoot would follow the bison through the region, hunting them in great hunts. This way of life would last for centuries until the Indigenous began to be pushed away from their traditional lands with the arrival of new settlers from the east in the late-19th and early-20th century.
Before Duchess had begun to spring up as a community near Calgary, a man would move to the area and become an Alberta legend, John Ware.
John Ware was born into slavery on a plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina. When slavery was outlawed, Ware was in his early 20s and made the decision to travel to Texas so he could learn how to be a rancher and gain the skills of a cowboy. Thanks to his tall and muscular frame, he was hired to work his way up to Canada driving cattle from Texas to Montana, and then further on to what would one day be Alberta. This would make him one of the first black men to come to Alberta, when he helped drive the herd of 3,000 cattle into the future province.
Of course, there was still racist at the time and Ware was given the toughest horse to ride, and the most difficult tasks. His ability to do the challenges with success and humour quickly earned him the respect of the other men.
His move into Alberta came thanks to Tom Lynch in southern Idaho in 1882. Lynch had recently purchased that 3,000 head of cattle and he was looking for men to drive them up to his ranch. The drive began in May and ended in September at the Bar U Ranch. Ware began to work at the legendary Bar U Ranch, before he decided to start his own ranch near the Red Deer River.
It did not take him long to earn the respect of everyone who worked with him, but his nickname sadly reflected the times. It was a nickname I won’t repeat here.
In May of 1885, the Macleod Gazette out of Fort MacLeod would state, “John is not only one of the best natured and most obliging fellows in the country, but he is one of the shrewdest cow men, and the man is considered pretty lucky who has him to look after his interest. The horse is not running on the prairie which John cannot ride.”
This glowing description of Ware was written during a huge roundup that consisted of 100 riders, 500 horses and 15 chuck wagons. Also on that round-up was Edward Hills, who was an English gentleman that wrote back to England stating of Ware, “the best rough rider in the North-West”, while also praising his personal kindness.
On May 25 of 1885, Ware registered his brand as 9999, which would eventually be 999 in 1898.
In 1892, he would marry Mildred Lewis, daughter of a black homesteader in the area. They were married in the First Baptist Church of Calgary. The Calgary Tribune at the time reported its “heartfelt congratulations” noting that “probably no man in the district has a greater number of warm personal friends than the groom.”
By 1900, at the age of 55, he and his wife had five children on their ranch and they made the decision to move to the Calgary area, in the area of Duchess. Ware brought 300 cattle with him and apparently as logs came down the river, he would lasso the logs and haul them ashore. When was able to get enough logs, he built the house. This may seem far fetched but there is actually a picture of this in the Duchess local history book. The logs were apparently from an aborted log boom owned by the Eau Claire Lumber Company upstream. His wife and children lived in Calgary while he built their new home.
In 1902, their new home was destroyed by a flood so he rebuilt on higher ground with the new house overlooking the stream, which today is called Ware Creek.
In a story from Janet Ware, she remembered her father fondly and their time at the ranch well.
“One day Father and I started out on horseback for Eide’s place, which was across the river. We got to the river and into Eide’s boat, which was on our bank. However the current was too strong for us and we found ourselves beached on the same side of the river, nearly a mile downstream. Father pulled the boat back with his saddle horse and then we returned home, somewhat frustrated.”
Sadly, in 1905, his wife Mildred died from pneumonia. Ware, only a few months later, was riding a horse when it tripped in a badger hole, falling on Ware and breaking his neck.
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The funeral for Ware was one of the largest ever for the early years of Calgary.
As the years have gone on, Ware has gained a folk hero status because of his contribution to Alberta culture. It was said that he was the one to introduce steer wrestling to the area, which is now one of the most popular rodeo events in the Calgary Stampede. Several landmarks are named for him including John Ware Ridge, Mount Ware and the aforementioned Ware Creek. John Ware Junior High School is named for him, as is the John Ware building at SAIT Polytechnic. In 1958, the log cabin that served as the family home in the last years of Ware’s life was relocated to the Red Deer River valley and was completely restored. One interesting story as related by Janet Ware was that when they moved the house in 1954 to its new location, they found Mildred’s long lost wedding ring under the floor boards of the cabin.
In 1911, the fourth Duke of Sutherland would buy 6,800 acres of land just south of Duchess 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 planned 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 widespread irrigation projects, 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.
The community would form in 1911 and would be named for the Duchess of Connaught, the wife of the Duke of Connaught, who at the time was the Governor General of Canada. The first postmaster for the new post office of Duchess would be William Galloway.
The first church to be built in the community was the Mennonite Church, with H.B. Ramer serving as the first resident minister. The first general store to appear was owned by Chester Marshall.
The railroad would arrive in the area in 1914, greatly spurring on development. One year later, the irrigation project to bring water to the area finished as well and this allowed most of the farms in the Duchess area to settle. Most of those early farmers were Mennonites and Lutherans who had come from Pennsylvania, Kansas and Colorado.
The community would build its first school in 1918, to serve the growing number of students who were starting to attend.
In 1919, a CPR branch line would be built from Duchess, north to a distance of 50 kilometres, costing $427,000 per 1.5 kilometres.
The community had prospered enough in its first decade that the decision was made to move from being a hamlet, and instead become a village in 1921.
By the time 1921 came along, the community was growing at such a fast rate that there was a need to increase the size of the school due to an influx of students. The school board was forced to lease the upper floor of the Davis building that was over the post office to increase the accommodation for students. The original school, which by this point was only a few years old, would be used for the junior grades, while the senior grades would attend school above the post office.
The same year that Duchess went from being a hamlet, to a village, one of the first orders of business for the community was to get a loan and debentures secured so that fire equipment could be bought.
Tragedy would strike in the community the year it became a village when local constable Frank Sissons, who was a member of the provincial police force, was shot by Arthur Brooks, an inspector for the department of neglected children. The incident was a complete accident. Both men were examining the rifle when it suddenly went off, killing Sissons instantly.
In 1924, Duchess would go through a terrible disaster when a fire erupted in the business district on April 11. The fire would completely gut the general store and hardware store next to it. Due to a shortage of water in the village, the fire could not be brough under control in time and it would end up doing $30,000 in damages, nearly $500,000 today. Unfortunately, less than one-third of that was covered by insurance, and $13,000 stock was completely destroyed.
In 1947, another fire would hit the community when on Dec. 5, a fire burned through the alfalfa mill in the community to the ground. The plant at the time was full of alfalfa hay. At 8:40 p.m. on that day, an alarm was sounded and employees quickly saved the records and tools from the office prior to the arrival of the fire crews that brought two small chemical tanks to fight the fire. Thankfully, there was little wind so no other buildings were in danger, nor any of the nearby elevators. The fire destroyed 200 tons of alfalfa hay and put 10 people out of work.
In 1955, Duchess would celebrate when a brand new school was built. The event was conducted as part of the Golden Jubilee of Alberta and Mayor Paul Bartlett would be the master of ceremonies, and would cut the ribbon on the new school, while the local air cadets raised the flag at the school.