The land that would one day be Wetaskiwin has long been the home of the Cree and the Blackfoot and it would play a very important role in their history.
Habitation in the area by the Indigenous dates back at least 8,000 years and broken tools, bones and other artifacts have been found in the area. The hills around Wetaskiwin provided early hunters with the ability to track game throughout the region from an excellent vantage point. Moose, beaver, wolf and bison were all hunted in the area.
This made the region highly prized among the Indigenous and that could lead to conflict. By the early 1800s, with impact of Europeans changing the cultural lines and territories of the Indigenous, conflict erupted between the Cree of northern Alberta and the Blackfoot of the south.
According to oral histories, around 1867, Chief Little Bear of the Cree and Chief Buffalo Child of the Blackfoot were both doing reconnaissance in the area prior to a battle when they happened to arrive at the top of a hill at the same time. According to the history of Wetaskiwin, it states quote:
“These two proud warriors, faced streaked with ochre and vermilion war paint, evenly matched in build and weight as strong as the young poplar trees around them.”
The two men began to fight each other but were evenly matched and eventually grew tired. According to the stories, they then smoked a common pipe together and soon pledged friendship and peace. Both chiefs then went back to their people and summoned a council. On the spot where the two chiefs fought, four Blackfoot chiefs and six Cree chiefs smoked a peace pipe, promising peace and friendship.
The area gained the name of Wetaskiwin Spatinow, meaning Place Where Peace Was Made.
Six decades later in 1927, a peace cairn was erected as a memorial to the two groups that made peace. School children brought rocks from the hills overlooking Wetaskiwin to build the cairn, which was dedicated on July 2, 1927. In 1980, the cairn was moved to Centennial Park and in July 2006, it was moved to the Visitor Info Centre.
During the 1885 Rebellion, Major General Thomas Bland Strange oversaw defending the Alberta District of the North-West Territories and keeping the peace in the area. In order to do this, he created three very small forts, also known as block houses. There was Fort Normandeau at Red Deer, Fort Ostell in Ponoka and Fort Ethier, located north of Wetaskiwin. Fort Ethier was then built on the farm of Lucas in order to protect the people of the area and keep the First Nations people in the area from joining in the rebellion.
When it was built, the fort site consisted of a blockhouse, a palisade, trenches and some of the buildings already on the farm of Lucas. The fort featured three loopholes, or gun points, on various elevations, as well as a pyramid roof that was crowned by a flagpole. Blockhouse B is still standing, the only piece of the former fort that still survives. Building A was the barracks, while Building C was the interpreter’s house. Building D was the stables and Building E was the home of Lucas.
While the fort was built, the peace was never broken in the area and the fort was never attacked. The Indigenous people in the area never attempted to join the rebellion and once the danger was over, the fort was abandoned in June of 1885.
On Dec. 18, 1997, the fort was made a historic site.
In 1891, the railroad was put down from Calgary to Strathcona, just on the other side of the river from Edmonton. One of the spots along the way was called Siding 16. This would be the start of Wetaskiwin.
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One year later, Wetaskiwin was surveyed and the townsite was sub-divided. Before long the community had its first business, a post office, a hotel and a railway station. Two years later, the first school was built and by 1900, Wetaskiwin was a village.
The community would continue to grow in size and by 1902, it was large enough to be a town. Only four years later, its prime location had brought enough settlers to the area for it to gain the title of a city.
Only a few weeks after the Frank Slide, one of the worst fires in the history of small towns in Alberta would occur in the brand-new community of Wetaskiwin. It was on June 22, 1903, at 2:30 a.m. when a fire started in the ladies’ dressing room at the Heric Opera House on Railway Street East. The cause was never known but it was first noticed by Mr. D. Williams, who was the manager of the Clara Hammer Opera Company and saw the fire in the reflection of the Criterion Hotel. He ran into the opera house to save props and wardrobes until he was forced to flee because of the intense heat. The company would lose everything, including all its jewelry, with only three small trunks saved.
Strong winds in the evening blew the fire northwest, resulting the fire leaping a vacant lot and hitting the Criterion Hotel. The hotel was quickly on fire and spreading to the livery stable but thankfully the horses were saved before the livery burned down. At the Driard Hotel, those in the hotel began to clear out their possessions, while Shell and Sebastian of the Driard Barber Shop were able to save their mirrors and chairs but lost all their razors.
The town fire brigade did their best, but the fire crossed over Pearce Street and in less than 20 minutes the John West store was burned to the ground. The fire would continue to move south in the community, burning down a real estate office and the law office. The fire would then reach the Nils Schmidt liquor store, which was made of brick, which stopped the fire and allowed the brigade to get the fire under control after several hours.
While the fire was under control, several buildings were emptied of everything that the owners could in case the fire spread. Adding insult to injury, it had begun to rain, which was good to fight the fire but bad for all the possessions and items now out in the street.
By the end of it, the fire had destroyed $200,000 in goods and buildings, with John West losing $65,000 alone, including his buildings and contents. The dressmaking parlor of Mrs. Huckell lost $30,000, half of which was covered by insurance. The Wetaskiwin Band lost all their instruments, and 60 people had lost their jobs because the businesses they worked at had burned to the ground.
While no humans perished in the fire, two cats and two owls died.
One of the most recognizable and historically important buildings in Wetaskiwin is the courthouse building. With a history dating back over 100 years, it has become an important historic landmark in the community.
Due to its proximity to Edmonton and the Canadian Pacific Railway, Wetaskiwin was chosen as a judicial court district.
Work soon began on the new courthouse that was designed by A.M. Jeffers shortly after his appointment as the Provincial Architect. Jeffers had experience in the United States with courthouse design and had designed several courthouses by this point throughout Western Canada. The Wetaskiwin Courthouse was one of seven new courthouses built in Alberta between 1906 to 1912.
Work on the courthouse would begin in 1907 according to the datestone on the building that has the provincial crest on it. Over the next two years, work would continue on the building until it was completed in 1909.
When it was completed, the two-storey building featured a seven-bay façade and a main entrance that is defined by round-arched doorway with sandstone keystone, gable projecting hood mould supported by sandstone brackets.
The Wetaskiwin Courthouse would provide several important functions of the area. The basement was used by the local police service and included holding cells and the main floor was provided for the sheriff and the court administration, while a large courtroom and ancillary spaces were located on the upper level.
The first trial was held in the building in 1908, one year before it officially opened.
The cannons out front of the building are German field cannons captured by the Allies during the First World War, which were given to Wetaskiwin in gratitude for the support provided by the community to the war effort.
Today, the courthouse is considered to be the best preserved and least altered of all the courthouses built during that initial phase of building in the province.
On March 15, 1977, the courthouse became a Provincial Historic Resource. On June 11, 2007, the courthouse became a National Historic Site of Canada.
During the building boom of 1906 and 1907, another structure would be built that would become a defining part of Wetaskiwin to this day. It was in that time when the water tower was built. Originally painted black, it held enough water on average to fill a 25-metre public swimming pool, with a capacity of 454,609 litres of water. Standing at 150 feet tall, it is only of only 36 water towers remaining in Alberta, with only half of those retaining its original function like the Wetaskiwin water tower does. The water tower would become such an important part of the community that even today it is part of the town crest. In 2006, the structure was threatened with demolition, but it was saved and completely restored at a cost of $1.9 million. Today, it remains the oldest functioning water tower in Canada.
A lot of famous people have come from Wetaskiwin and in this episode, I’ve decided to focus on a man named Jackson Davies. Born on March 17, 1950, in Wetaskiwin, he would go on to act in over 160 stage shows throughout Canada, while appearing on over 300 television shows and 30 movies. By far, his most famous role was as RCMP Constable John Constable on the classic Canadian television show, The Beachcombers. He would appear on the show for 117 episodes, from 1975 until its end and then in revivals in the 21st century. I did an episode on The Beachcombers in 2020 and interviewed Jackson for it. You can find a link to the episode in the transcript for this episode on my website:
If you would like to learn more about Wetaskiwin, you have plenty of museums to choose from. First, you have the Wetaskiwin Heritage Museum, which has existed since 1986 and features several exhibits that highlight the history of the area. There is the Children’s Legacy Centre where children can handle artifacts as they explore through the school, general store and country home. On the main floor, the Women of Aspenland exhibit honours the accomplishments of local women, while on the second floor there are exhibits to honour the early businesses of the community, as well as the men and women who served during the war years. There is a display that showcases the history of Wetaskiwin’s hospitals, its 28 churches and a Hutterite exhibit. There are also exhibits that look at the lives of Chinese and Swedish immigrants to the area. If you like dinosaurs, then the second floor also has dinosaur fossils, an authentic tipi, a fur trading post and more.
The Alberta Central Railway Museum is located just to the southeast of the city, and it features a scaled down version of the 1907 Canadian Pacific Railway depot. The depot includes a waiting room, baggage room and telegraph office, as well as exhibits and artifacts. There are also locomotives, a sleeper car, a passenger car, cabooses, freight cars and more. A model train layout of the original Wetaskiwin railyard is on display. You can also explore an original 1906 Alberta Grain Company elevator, which is the second oldest grain elevator in the province.
The biggest museum is the Reynolds-Alberta Museum, which is located on an 89-hectare property that includes the main museum building, an aviation display hangar and Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame. The museum has 6,600 agricultural, industrial and transportation artifacts. The museum was first established in 1992 and has only grown since then. The main museum is 101,000 square feet and features displays that look at life in Alberta from the 1890s to today. There are exhibits that include a 1911 automobile assembly line, a 1920s grain elevator, a service station from the 1930s and a 1950s drive-in theatre. The museum also has farm equipment from the early 20th century, and it has over 537 cars, motorcycles and trucks, with some of the vehicles dating back to 1913. The museum also has one of the two Mclughlin-Buick automobiles used by the Royal Family during their 1939 Royal Tour of Canada. There are also 135 aircraft at the museum, making it the second largest collection of airplanes in Canada after the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Wetaskiwin, you can take the Downtown Walking Tour, which follows the history of the city through the buildings from its early years. Brochures are available online, at the museum and at the visitor’s information centre.