The area that current Innisfail sits on was for centuries occupied by the Blackfoot. Hunting vast herds of bison through the landscape, the Blackfoot became the dominant culture on the Canadian Plains but that would begin to change as Europeans pushed from the east. Eventually, the Cree and the Metis would soon come into the area, creating conflict for the dwindling resources such as the bison.
The first known European to come to the area was Anthony Henday, who arrived in October 1754 while traveling from York Factory to meet with the Blackfoot and set up a trading network with them.
Believing the Blackfoot had said no but without a definite answer, Henday returned to York Factory but after him many more fur traders would come out to future Alberta and the future area of Innisfail.
It would be another century before settlement started to come to the Innisfail area. Reverend John McDougall would come through the area and he would help to develop a trail from Fort Edmonton to Banff. This trail would go right through where Innisfail is located now. For many years, Innisfail was known as Poplar Grove due to its natural beauty.
Another trail, called the Wolf’s Track by the Indigenous, would be developed for use by stage coaches and freight wagons, running from Fort Calgary to Fort Edmonton. For the next couple decades, new settlers to future Alberta would use this trail and stopping houses began to appear on the trail.
One stopping house was called The Spruces, operated by the Brown Brothers and Sandy Fraser. Isabelle Brown is also believed to be the first European woman to settle in the area. Others would come between 1884 and 1887, becoming the first settlers to the Innisfail area.
Settlement would not be fast for Innisfail during the 1880s but in 1891, the railroad was built between Strathcona to the north and Calgary to the south. This would cause a huge spur in development as Innisfail was a stop along the track.
It was also around this time that Innisfail first began to appear in print. The name of the community comes from the Irish name for Ireland, Inis Fail, which means Isle of Destiny.
The Manitoba Free Press would write quote:
“Station houses have been built at distances of 18 miles, the names of the stations being Airdrie, Carstairs, Olds, Innisfail and Red Deer…Previously to this spring, this section of country has been practically unknown but a number of settlers, including several families from Dakota have recently taken up homesteads near the railway, particularly near Innisfail.”
By the end of the year, the telegraph had been installed at the Innisfail station.
The Calgary Weekly Herald would write of Innisfail quote:
“Innisfail, 76 miles north of Calgary on the C & E Railway, formerly known as Poplar Grove, is the first point of any special importance reached going northward and is without doubt destined to be a large centre for trade, being a very desirable location from the fact of its natural scenery, which is not surpassed by any townsite on the CPR system.”
G.W. West would set up the first general store to serve passengers who stopped in the area the same year the railroad arrived.
The year of 1893 was a transformative one for the community. This was shown in one story in the Calgary Weekly Herald on March 22, 1893. It states quote:
“Mr. Dixon has opened up a butcher shop on the Edmonton trail at Innisfail this week and by present appearances should do a good trade being on the main trail in one of the best positions of the town. Mr. Charles Ross has been doing good business in land deals lately. Mr. John Smith has opened up his new premises as a saddle and harness maker.”
The article would continue, highlighting the progress of Innisfail, stating quote:
“To show the progress of Innisfail as a town we may mention that visitors are surprised on entering Mr. Thomas Detlors store on the Edmonton Trail, to find a large stock of dry goods and boots and shoes, comprising a stock which many towns ten times the size of Innisfail would envy.”
In 1893, Dr. Henry George would also settle in Innisfail, and build a house called Lindum Lodge. This building would become a major historical landmark for Innisfail. Dr. George and his wife Barbara would live in the house for many years and become important members of Innisfail. Dr. George had been an assistant surgeon with the North West Mounted Police and at one point even tended to Chief Crowfoot himself. Within the province, Dr. George was instrumental in setting up the Territorial Natural History Society, the North West Entomological Society and the Alberta Natural History Society. Within his home, he kept many natural and cultural artifacts that he had accumulated through the years. In 1905, he opened the Dr. George Natural History Museum, which was the first museum in Alberta to be found outside the national parks. Barbara George was also a well-regarded artist in Alberta and was an authority on the identification of flowers in Alberta. From 1907 to 1921, she would serve on the executive committee of the Alberta Natural History Society. The couple would leave the area in 1907 when Dr. George moved his practice to Red Deer. In 1977, their house was made a Provincial Historic Resource and today it houses a museum that highlights the lives of the couple, but also the history of the Innisfail area.
In 1900, Innisfail became a village with a bank, two hotels, three cafes, an opera house and a western store. The Calgary Herald reported quote:
“Innisfail has been making great strides as far as settlement is concerned and as a commercial centre for a large district it draws quite a number of drummers and other visitors.”
George E. Bryan would be elected as the first overseer of the village.
Four years later, the community had grain elevators, several hotels, many stores and a growing number of newly built homes. The Manitoba Free Press would report quote:
“The town is well and solidly built and many of the private houses are handsome in design and finish, while the business houses for the most part are large and commodious, carrying immense stocks for supply the needs of all incoming settlers, and the many farmers already established in this flourishing centre.
At the time, Innisfail was the largest dairy centre in the Northwest Territories, of which Alberta was still part of. The Innisfail Union Butter and Cheese Manufacturing Company was located in the community and had outputted 761,263 pounds of butter since its formation in 1897. In 1902, Innisfail had an output of 141,879 pounds, 25 per cent more than the next closest community, Yorkton. The next year, that output was 163,911 pounds.
The community also had some pride in 1904 when the Innisfail Curling Club rink won the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company Cup in a win over Wetaskiwin. The Calgary Herald reported quote:
“In the Calgary Brewing cup competition, the rinks of Raymer, McLean and Pearson were the victors against those of Mercer, Emery and McDonald respectively.”
By the 1930s, Innisfail was growing quickly. The Calgary Herald would report quote:
“Within the last decade or so, a number of new buildings have been erected, outstanding among them being the Province building, Royal Theatre, Lennox building, addition to the hospital and addition to the Innisfail Hotel. New residences have also been built.”
In the 1960s, Innisfail would begin to expand quickly thanks to the oil industry in the area that was thriving. Two multi-million dollar petroleum industry plants were established just south of Innisfail, and a $6 million oil refinery was only 10 kilometres away. The Red Deer Advocate reported on July 20, 1960 quote:
“Innisfail now is enjoying the sharpest growing pains since the days in 1882 when it was known as Poplar Grove, a favourite camping place for teams on the freighting trail between Calgary and Edmonton.”
The population of the community quickly grew to 1,900 and the town was thriving with 50 new houses built in 1959 alone. Harry Little, the town secretary treasurer since 1945, stated quote:
“This was a regular shot in the arm for Innisfail. As a result, Innisfail now is experience the biggest building boom in its history and the town is moving right ahead.”
Three years later, the community was still growing. Construction was hitting $1 million and the population was pushing 2,400, a sharp rise from the 1,417 who lived in Innisfail only a decade earlier.
If you would like to learn more about Innisfail, you can visit the Innisfail Historical Village. The village was started in 1970 thanks to a donation of The Spruces, the original stopping house that was built before Innisfail was even created. The building was donated by the W. Gibson family and today it remains the only original stopping house between Calgary and Edmonton.
The village today is made up of 18 buildings, across two acres of land. Each of these buildings are furnished to interpret the history of the area up to the 1930s. There is also a large display of antique farm machinery.
If learning about animals is more your thing, you can visit the Discovery Wildlife Park. This park not only provides an opportunity for people to learn about wildlife directly, but the revenue from guests coming to the park goes straight to caring for the animals by providing them with housing, food and medical care. The goal of the park is to provide visitors with the opportunity to bond with animals and have a positive experience. The park also promotes conservation and has an extensive recycling program in place. Jack Hanna, the world renown wildlife conservationist visited the park in August of 2009. He was so impressed with the park he would dedicate an entire episode of his show, Jack Hanna’s Into The Wild, to talk about the park and what it does for animals. The park also features the world’s largest animatronic bear. It is 10,000 pounds and when it stands up, it is 20 feet high.