There was a time when millions of bison roamed through the area that would eventually be Taber. Following those bison were the Indigenous, specifically the Blackfoot, who hunted the animals that were a critical part of their culture and survival. Other Indigenous groups that were found in the area included the Sarcee or Athabaskan people, as well as the Stoney-Nakoda or Rocky Mountain Sioux.
Many archeological discoveries have been made in the Taber area, including extinct bison, Indigenous artifacts and one that made nationwide news in 1961, but I will get to that one later.
In 1877, the land that Taber occupies would become part of the territory covered by Treaty 7.
For years, Taber was known simply as Tank No. 77, as it was the spot used by the railway to fill its locomotives with water to cool them on their journeys through the country. There were homesteaders in the area, but no real community settlement.
What would be Taber began to appear in 1903 when Mormon settlers from the United States decided to establish a hamlet at the tank. Slowly, this little community would grow and in 1907, a post office was established, and a name was needed. The Canadian Pacific Railway named the hamlet Tabor. As for why that name came about, there are two theories. The first is that it was named after Mount Tabor in the Holy Land. Another origin for the name comes from the first part of the word tabernacle, which was used by the Mormon settlers in the area. This origin is likely as the next station down the line was called Elcan, which is nacle spelled backwards. Those two together creates tabernacle.
In 1912, construction would begin on the Canadian Bank of Commerce building in Taber, which was built in a similar style to eight other banks built by the company in Alberta around the same time. The first bank in Taber was the Eastern Townships Bank in 1906, and that would be amalgamated into the Canadian Bank of Commerce in 1912. While it is no longer used as a bank, the building still stands to this day and is one of the most beautiful brick buildings found in the community. In 1981, the building would be designated as a Provincial Historic Resource.
In 1917, Taber would donate land to the Government of Alberta in order to construct a courthouse. J.B. Allan, the provincial architect would draw up the initial plans but those would be revised before construction began. In 1918, work began to build the courthouse, and Taber was the first sub-jurisdiction in the province to get a courthouse. After the courthouse was built, it would operate as a sub-judicial district until 1936. After, the courthouse was still used as a district court. In 1953, the Town of Taber acquired the courthouse for use as a town hall. It also served as the location for provincial departments, community group meeting place and even the school district offices. In 2013, the courthouse would be designated as a Provincial Historic Place thanks to its impact on the history of the area.
The community would grow slowly until the 1920s when coal mining began in the vicinity of Taber. This coal was mined and then shipped to Medicine Hat on the steamers that navigated the Oldman River, and then by a narrow-gauge railway. In 1921, the Regal Collieries would auction off one of their mines in the area and it was purchased for about $75,000, which today would be $1.1 million. This showed just how strong the interest was in the area for mining, something that would help fuel the economy of Taber during the first part of the decade.
The mining history of Taber would be important to its development, but it would not last long. By the end of the decade, mining near Taber had decreased heavily.
In 1921, a unique story out of Taber ran in newspapers across Canada. It was on July 7, 1921, a man with a wooden leg had spent too much of the evening drinking and began attacking people with his wooden leg on the street. When the police arrived, he had his leg put back on and he was sent to spend the night in jail, but he wasn’t done with his shenanigans. Determined to get out of his cell, he began to smash the furniture in it with his wooden leg as his cell companion stayed out of the way to prevent from getting hurt. The one-legged man then made wedges from the pieces of wood and drove them between the door and the wall in the attempt to make the door open, but he was unable to. He then smashed a hole in the wall and began shoving boards of wood through onto the man in the other cell who was sleeping at the time. Eventually, the man’s wooden leg was smashed to pieces. The police had to stand guard all night and had to use a metal bar to pry the door open the next day due to the wooden wedges the man had put in the door. The man would be charged with drunkenness, resisting an officer and damaging property. The damage was put at about $10, or $150 today, and 100 board feet of lumber was needed to repair all the damages.
On July 10, 1928, Taber would unveil its memorial to the soldiers who died from the community in the First World War. In the area, 1,500 men answered the call of joining the war effort and signed up, with 25 never returning home from the trenches. The memorial, which stands to this day, was sculpted in Italy and shipped out to Taber once it was finished. At the base of the memorial stands captured German guns that were given to the Taber district for its work in raising funds for the war effort. The total cost of the memorial was $25,000, or $392,000 today. On hand for the unveiling was Senator W.A. Buchanan, as well as Simon Cook, the son of W.R. Cook, who died in the First World War and was listed on the memorial.
After mining dropped off, there was a worry that the community would fade but thankfully the immense irrigation projects in the area would bring new life to Taber and would help to initiate a whole new growth to the economy. The Taber Barnwell Irrigation District would provide 14 tons of beets per acre by the mid-1930s, but more on the sugar beet industry later.
There was also a thriving farming industry thanks to corn and sugar beets, many livestock operations and more. The honey industry was also large in the area and the Taber Creamery provided extra employment during The Great Depression when times were tough.
In 1936, the community made news with its slogan of self-help, and its ability to be one of the most prosperous communities in Western Canada during a time when many were struggling to survive. During The Great Depression, the community redoubled its efforts to make the farmers of the district self-sustaining. This began with developing the sugar beet industry. The community then had a cannery built to provide extra employment, as well as a flour mill to process the grain grown in the district. The cannery was able to produce 130 carloads of canned products for the Prairie market by the mid-1930s. Canning crops were grown on 1,100 acres in the area, with another 400 acres devoted to seed peas. Corn crops began to be grown in the district during The Great Depression, which would have a major impact on Taber all the way up to today. This was thanks to tests done on the soil that found Taber would be perfect for corn growth. The process for growing corn in the area began with a Mr. Sundal, who started the crop on his property in 1934. By 1935, he was shipping 47.5 bushels of corn to the United States. By the following year, 29 Taber farmers were growing corn to take advantage of this new market.
The sugar beet harvesting would play a role in the Second World War when Taber was chosen as a location for a Japanese Internment Camp. The Japanese Canadians were forced to work on sugar beet lands, harvesting the beets in what was essentially slave labour. This was after they had been removed from their homes in British Columbia and sent to the interior of the Country. The use of Japanese Canadians was supported by sugar beet producers as well. On March 3, 1944, the Lethbridge Herald reported quote:
“Informed that many Japanese laborers were being drawn away from beet work to other kinds of farm work or industry, despite the fact that they were brought to southern Alberta primarily to help the sugar beet industry, the meeting gave its support to the central board in pressing the government or any authority who has charge of such labour to have all Japanese labour frozen to the beet industry for the period of the war.”
In all, roughly 3,000 Japanese Canadians were forced to move to work camps in southern Alberta during the war. It would be decades before they would receive a formal apology from the Canadian government. I looked at Japanese Internment on my podcast in 2020 and you can find the episode on my website or in the transcript of this episode:
After the war, sugar beets continued to be the main industry of Taber and that would lead to the building of the Alberta Sugar Company plant in the community, the only sugar factory in Alberta and the largest employer in Taber. By 1952, the structure was producing nearly 50 million pounds of sugar over the course of only three months of that year. The factory, which was built in 1950, still operates in Taber to this day and is one of several food processing companies in the town including Frito-Lay.
Another crop would become popular around this time in Taber, corn. If you live in Western Canada, you know all about Taber corn and many people wait for the day when trucks show up in parking lots selling the corn because it is considered to be some of the best corn in Canada and even North America. It is said to be the sweetest and most tender corn available. Of course, Taber corn is so famous that it has led to counterfeit Taber corn being sold. As far away as Washington and throughout Western Canada, people will advertise they are selling Taber corn but in fact it is not corn from the community. This eventually led to a licence number being used to ensure that the Taber corn being sold was really from Taber.
Corn would eventually become such an important part of Taber’s image that Cornfest was created, which is an annual festival that includes a midway and performers. Held each August, it is the largest free family festival in Western Canada and there are many corn-based activities including corn tasting and corn stuffing. Corn stuffing involves two people, one wearing large overalls, and the other person stuffs as much corn as they can in the overalls. The team with the most corn in the coveralls within an allotted time wins. It should come as no surprise then that Taber bills itself as the Corn Capital of Canada. When you go to Taber, you will also see a giant corn stalk, which is the World’s Largest Corn Stalk. Built in 1994, it stands at 36 feet tall and is a great place for a quick photo for Instagram.
In 1961, Taber would make news across Canada with what was called the Taber Child, a discovery made by Dr. Archie Stalker in the glacial deposits along the east bank of the Oldman River. Stalker, a geologist, was surveying in the area when he saw a handful of bones sticking out of the sandy bank. He assumed they were the bones of a small animal, and he would bag the skeleton and dispatched them to Ottawa. In Ottawa, Wann Langston recognized that it was the skull and parts of a shoulder of a nine-month-old child and the bones were aged to between 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, far beyond anything found in the Western Hemisphere before. The discovery would touch off a controversary that would last for decades. Many scientists questioned how a body could have turned up from so long ago, considering it was believed at the time humans only arrived in North America around 12,000 years ago.
Dr. Richard Forbis, with the University of Calgary would say quote:
Dr. C.S. Churcher, a paleontologist would add quote:
“The simplest solution is often the best”
Both men believed that the body would have floated down a river at some point, resting where it was found.
The bones were too small and fragile to be carbon dated, which meant that the location of the body within the geological strata had to be used to guess its age.
Subsequent excavations at the site failed to recover anymore bones. That being said, two recent analyses using a measurement of bone protein and dating using new accelerator radiocarbon techniques, place the bone fragments at roughly 4,000 years old, well within the established time frame of the Indigenous occupying the Canadian Prairies.
If you would like to learn more about Taber, you can visit the Taber Irrigation Impact Museum. This museum focuses on the impact of irrigation on Taber’s development and showcases irrigation systems and the process of early labor-intensive methods of growing crops in the area. The historic exhibits change three times a year, and the museum features many artifacts related to agriculture, including old farming equipment such as tractors.