In Alberta, there are few places with as much history as the Municipal District of Willow Creek. Located in southwestern Alberta, with an area that covers 4,558 square kilometres, there is a lot of history in there.
Before Europeans arrived in the area, and even before the Indigenous began to establish unique cultures there, something would happen that can still be seen to this day in the district.
About 12,000 to 17,000 years ago, a huge landslide occurred in the Rocky Mountains at what we call Mount Edith Cavell today, which deposited millions of tons of quartz rock onto the top of a glacier. That glacier would slowly move and become part of a massive ice sheet that covered Alberta. These boulders would be transported hundreds of kilometres, from the Jasper area, all the way down to where the MD of Willow Creek is today. Then, the glaciers and ice sheets started to melt as the last ice age came to an end and as they did, the various boulders would be dropped along the way, creating the Foothills Erratic Train. This train stretches 930 kilometres long and only 22 kilometres wide and it goes right through the MD of Willow Creek. The boulders range in size from one foot to dozens of feet in length. The most famous cluster of these rocks in the municipal district is the Hetherington Erratics Field, located 17 kilometres south-west of Fort Macleod. On this 58 hectare piece of land, there is a large collection of glacial erratics clustered in the area. This field of erratics was created as the Foothills Erratic Train narrowed from several kilometres to only one kilometre in width, creating a glacial bottleneck. The area contains about 12 large erratics with polished corners due to bison, and later cattle, using the stones to rub and clear away old hair and remove pests.
Centuries after the rocks fell, the Indigenous would begin to arrive in the area and the erratics served as an important marker for the Indigenous, and even became part of their legends. The Indigenous would develop into several cultures, with the most famous being the Blackfoot, who occupied the land for centuries and helped to create one of its most famous sites, Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.
Located just to the west of Fort Macleod, this bison jump had been used for at least 6,000 years by the Indigenous people of the area to kill bison by driving them off the 36 foot cliff. With no horses, the Indigenous would drive the bison from a grazing area three kilometres away using drive lines that were lined by cairns and Indigenous dressed as coyotes and wolves, who would guide the bison into the drive lanes. The bison would then go off the cliff, where the injured bison could be killed with ease. The jump was used for so long that the bone deposits at the bottom are 39 feet deep. The carcasses of the bison would then be taken a harvesting camp. This jump allowed the local Indigenous to get everything they needed including food and supplies, which then gave them more leisure time through the year and that led to a complex culture developing with artistic and spiritual pursuits.
The Blackfoot called the site Estipah-skikikini-kots and the name comes from the legend of a young Blackfoot man who wanted to watch the bison plunge off the cliff from below, but he was buried underneath the animals. When he was found later, he was dead and his head was smashed in.
Head-Smashed In Buffalo Jump would be abandoned in the 19th century and in 1968 it became a National Historic Site, and then a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. Today, the site has a large museum devoted not only to the site, but the Blackfoot culture. The museum features five levels that depict the ecology, mythology, lifestyle and technology of the Blackfoot.
One of the biggest events for the early history of what would be Willow Creek was the arrival of the North West Mounted Police. In 1874, the famous March West took place when 275 new recruits came out to what would eventually be Alberta. That journey would lead the founding of Fort Macleod on Oct. 18, 1874. This fort, which measured 230 feet by 230 feet, was established to be the headquarters of the North West Mounted Police in 1876. With the establishment of the fort, guardrooms, stores and a hospital will spring up as well. The original fort was established along a peninsula along the Oldman River, but would move to the present location of the current town in 1884.
The Town of Fort Macleod grew up around the fort and when the railroad came through, settlers came in to begin to take advantage of the fertile land that was perfect for ranching.
The history of the North West Mounted Police and their role in establishing the Canadian West from Fort Macleod is celebrated at the Museum of the North West Mounted Police. This museum includes eight buildings and over 9,000 artifacts from the early days of the force, and the Indigenous who occupied the area. The museum is a complete recreation of the original fort that was built in 1874. Opened in 1957, the museum would begin to host performances of the NWMP Musical Ride in 1973. If you would like to learn more about the history of Fort Macleod and its historical buildings, you can also get a self-guided walking tour brochure from the museum that will guide you through the community.
Just prior to the arrival of the North West Mounted Police, a small property near to Claresholm would be established and it would become an important part in the early history of the area. The Leavings at Willow Creek, which sits on 30 hectares, helped a lot of travelers who came through the area on their way to places like Fort Calgary, prior to the arrival of the railroad. This property, established in the mid-1870s, provided a stopping house that was owned and operated by former buffalo hunter and whiskey trader, Henry Kountz. In 1882, J.R. Craig, the manager of the New Oxley Ranch that stretched for 200,000 acres, bought the stopping house and it became the ranch headquarters. By 1885, the buildings on the property were expanded as the ranch itself expanded. A post office would also be established there. From 1886 to 1903, the North West Mounted Police would take advantage of the location by manning an outpost at the site, and sending patrols out through the Porcupine Hills from the location. Once the Calgary and Edmonton Railway was built, the importance of the stopping house decreased.
You can still visit this site, which became a Provincial Historic Resource in 2006, and visit the house and stable that are among the oldest structures still in existence in southern Alberta, and one of the rare surviving bits of evidence of a NWMP outpost.
By February 1903, the community of Nanton 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.
Stavely would start up around the same time as Nanton, becoming a village on Oct. 16, 1903. Named for Alexander Stavely Hill, who was the managing director of the Oxley Ranching Company, the Canadian Pacific Railway gave life to the community and helped it grow to become a town on May 25, 1912.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Stavely, you can visit the Stavely and District Museum, which has several exhibits including a general store, an old kitchen, a beauty parlor, school, as well as exhibits that highlight sporting and military history of the area. There is also a pioneer home that depicts family artifacts, and a 1903 Altman Taylor Threshing Machine is on display outside the museum.
The first recorded permanent settler in the area of Claresholm was Henry Kountz, who came from Pennsylvania around 1870. At the time, he made his living as a bison hunter and the Indigenous called him Lone Bull, because he always hunted alone.
Originally, the location was a spot for steam engines to stop in order to take on water along the Canadian Pacific Railway line along the Macleod Trail. The first trains arrived in the area in 1891, with the first station consisting of just a box car. It would not be until 1895 that a proper building was built. For ranchers, the railroad stopping point was a perfect place to take their cattle for shipping elsewhere on the continent.
Slowly, people would begin to arrive, with the first being William Moffat, who came from Pilot Mound, Manitoba with 10 carloads of lumber. Not only was he the first resident of Claresholm, but he would be the first mayor and eventually the first MLA for the area.
On May 30, 1903, the Village of Claresholm was established. During that first year, the community had a lumber yard, post office, hardware store and two hotels. Two years later on Aug. 31, 1905, it had become a town. Interestingly, this was the last official act of the territorial government because the next day, Alberta was born. A big part of this sudden growth is thanks to a man named Ole Amundsen, who arrived in 1902 from Norway via North Dakota, bringing with him many early settlers of a Norwegian heritage. For where the name comes from, as with many prairie communities, it takes its name from a prominent citizen. In this case, it was a woman named Clare. Although, there is also the claim that it was named by John Niblock, the superintendent of the CPR between Medicine Hat and Calgary, who named it after his wife, who was back home in Medicine Hat, named Clare.
Many rural towns have wonderful museums and Claresholm is no exception. Through the museum, you will be able to relieve the history of the area starting with the pre-contact Blackfoot culture, to the arrival of the railway, to the ranchers who lived around Claresholm, all the way up to today.
The museum itself was established in 1969 and is located in the CPR train station, a building I will speak about later. Within the station you will find a station agent’s office, an exhibit dedicated to the hospitals of Claresholm, as well as one for Louise McKinney, more on her later.
The exhibit hall, which is 8,000 square feet, features exhibits that highlight the Indigenous history of the area, the North West Mounted Police and the ranching history. There is also a blacksmith shop, telephone office, general store, a 1930s house, a land agent office, newspaper office, barber shop, and displays honouring the military, churches, firefighters and farmers of the area.
Venturing outside the museum, there is a 1903 school house, a 1920s log cabin, a CPR caboose and a CPR speeder car that is brough out for the summer season.
The museum is open in the spring and summer, and admission is free, but donations are always accepted.
One of the most significant events for Claresholm was the outbreak of the Second World War. Under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, Base 15 Service Flying Training School was operated from June 9, 1941, to March 1945 in Claresholm.
The first commanding officer of the base was Wing Commander Campbell and by Aug. 16, 1941, the first class of students had completed their training and were ready to receive their wings. At this ceremony, Lt. Governor J.E. Bowlen would attend for the special day, as would the mayor of Claresholm. Many people from town came to see the big event.
On Oct. 15, 1941, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor came to the base for a visit and to complete an inspection. The Duke presented wings to the graduating class of Course 34 and he told the pilots he appreciated their hard work.
On Feb. 23, 1942, the Women’s Division of the Air Force arrived, and soon after the No. 2 Flying Instructors School was established.
The training school was not without accidents. The most notable happened when two pilots were flying a Crane. The plane suddenly had engine failure and dove into the barracks block, crashing through the roof of the barracks and landing on top of the bunks. Thankfully, it only pinned down one man who was sleeping. The man who had been on the top bunk had gone to the washroom, likely saving his life. As for the man who was trapped under the plane, he escaped mostly unharmed.
Another big visit came to the base in May of 1942 when her Royal Highness Princess Alice and His Excellency the Earl of Athlone, visited the station and inspected the guard of honour.
The final event of the flying training school happened on March 29, 1945, when Courses 121 and 122 received their wings, amounting to 122 airmen.
Pilots would return to the base in 1951 when it was used to train pilots for the Korean War, operating as No. 3 Flight Training School, while also training NATO pilots. This new facility had 1,100 personnel with 140 housing units on the base, as well as a school for 250 children. Orrin Matson served as the principal of that school. As well, a grocery store, two churches and barber shop built. The first class at the base would graduate, consisting of 30 pilots, on March 8, 1952. The first NATO personnel class graduated on Oct. 22, 1952.
The base would close on Aug. 25, 1958, and the hangars were converted into industrial use. A part of the base would eventually operate as the Claresholm Industrial Airport.
By far, the most famous resident to come from Claresholm was Louise McKinney, who would make her mark as one of the Famous Five, among other major accomplishments. Originally born in Frankville, Ontario in 1868, she originally wanted to be a doctor but the circumstances of the time prevented this, so she trained as a teacher. After teaching in Ontario and North Dakota, where she met her husband, James. She would move to Claresholm with him in 1903, just as the community was starting to grow. A devout Christian with her husband, they would help build the village’s Methodist Church. She would also organize the Ladies Aid within the church. The home of McKinney and her husband would serve as a center for church life and the couple were always helping needy families in the area.
Helping to organize the local temperance groups, she would gain prominence throughout the next decade and in 1917 became the first woman elected to the Alberta Legislature, and the first woman elected to a legislature in the entire British Empire. The man she defeated in the election was William Moffatt, the first resident and first mayor of Claresholm. In her capacity as an MLA, she would work to improve the legal status of widows and separated wives, getting the Dower Act bill drafted and passed in the Legislature. Serving until 1921, she would continue to advocate for women’s suffrage and temperance. It was in her role of women’s suffrage that she became involved in the Persons Case as one of the Famous Five. The case would lead to a constitutional ruling that established the right of women to be appointed to the Senate and legally recognized as persons under the British North America Act. The ruling also meant that women could no longer be denied rights based on a narrow interpretation of the law. Soon after the legendary ruling, Louise McKinney would organize a reading club in Claresholm with Florence Gray, and McKinney was elected as the first president of the Women’s Reading Club.
She would be made the Vice-President of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of Alberta and became the first woman to have her portrait painted and hung in the Legislative Building in Edmonton.
Two years after the successful resolution of the Persons Case, McKinney became ill while attending a convention in Toronto and would pass away upon her return to Claresholm on July 10, 1931. Her husband died the next year. In 1939, she was recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance. In Claresholm, a plaque honours her at the post office, and the Persons Case was recognized as a Historic Event in 1997. Statues of McKinney also exist in several places including Calgary and on Parliament Hill itself. In 2009, McKinney, along with the other four on the women, were made honorary senators.
Another place in Willow Creek that helped the war effort was RCAF Station Macleod, which operated from December 1940 to November 17, 1944. It was there that pilots from across the British Commonwealth would be trained to fly as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Program. It was also at that base that a very important Canadian’s father would work.
On Nov. 7, 1943, one of the most celebrated musicians in history was born in Fort Macleod. Joni Mitchell, the daughter of Myrtle and William Anderson spent her early life in the community where her father was a Royal Canadian Air Force flight lieutenant was an instructor at RCAF Station Fort Macleod. Mitchell would go on to win nine Grammy Awards, be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and sell seven million albums. AllMusic Magazine would say of her quote:
“When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century.”
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.