For the Indigenous, the area of future Onoway was an important place because of the large lake found only a few kilometres away from the present townsite. The lake, now called Lac Ste. Anne, was called Wakamne by the Nakota Sioux and Manitou Sakhahigan (SAK HA HEE GAN) by the Cree. The names mean God’s Lake and Lake of the Spirit respectively.
The Indigenous would hunt bison in the area of the lake, and legends stated there was a large serpent that lived in the lake. When it moved, it would create dangerous currents that could cause a canoe to capsize. Oral stories tell of how young people would go out into the lake in a canoe and look down into the clear water to the bottom to see if they could see the creature.
When Europeans arrived in the area, they would rename the lake Devil’s Lake, due to a mistranslation from the Cree name. For the Cree, it was a sacred place.
In 1842, Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault, a missionary, arrived at the lake and saw that it would make a good mission location. He would bless it in 1844 and rename it Lac Ste. Anne to honour the grandmother of Jesus. At the time, there were about 30 French Metis families living in the area around the lake. At the mission, the missionaries would teach about the church and also show locals how to farm. At the time, the bison were declining and the missionaries wanted to make the Metis into farmers. By 1859, the mission had 17 cows, 15 horses, 10 dogs, 10 cats and a large garden. That same year, three Grey Nuns were welcomed into the mission where they learned the Cree language and started a school. Eventually, the mission would have over 2,000 people living at it. It would have a Hudson’s Bay Company post, a school, an orphanage, a North West Mounted Police barracks, a dance hall, a post office, a saloon, hotels and several stores.
In 1889, a priest named Lestanc would organize the first pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne to honour Saint Anne on her feast day of July 26. By 1926, the pilgrimage had attracted 5,500 people. The pilgrimage continues to this day, with pilgrims coming from across North America and often walking several kilometres bare-foot as a penance to witness or be part of the miracle of healing. At the pilgrimage site, there is also a display of crutches and canes that have been left behind by the pilgrims. Today, upwards of 40,000 people attend the pilgrimage and it is the largest event of its kind in North America.
In 2004, the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage was declared a National Historic Site of Canada.
For several years, the area of Onoway was only sparsely populated by settlers. After a survey was done in the area, settlement would increase and in 1904, a post office was built. Run by W.P. Beupre, a proposal was put forward to name the community after him. Since there was already a town by that name, the residents decided to translate his last name into English. In English, it means fair field, or lush meadow. They then translated that into Cree, and the name Onoway was chosen. Beupre would serve as the postmaster for 32 years, longer than anyone else in the community’s history.
A school was built and opened on Sept. 1, 1905, the same day that Alberta became a province. The first store was built in 1906, close to Lac Ste. Anne.
It would not be until 1910 that a railway subdivision branch junction was built in the area, about 2.5 kilometres away from the current townsite. Interest in development quickly grew and lots were surveyed and buildings were built in the hopes that when the railway was built from that junction, it would go through the growing site.
As we have seen so many times with small town histories, the railroad typically does what it wants to do. Instead of building through the community, where land prices were high, the company instead built to the east of the post office. The rail line would go through that area in 1911, and a hamlet was surveyed soon after.
The Edmonton News-Plaindealer would report quote:
Onoway quickly began to spring up, with 20 acres of land being bought by the CNR to sell to new residents. The same year the railroad arrived, a $15,000 hotel was completed. Today, that hotel would cost about $400,000.
It was also believed a large field of coal was present four kilometres north of Onoway and there were plans to install a $100,000 plant, which would employ 200 to 500 miners.
An Anglican Church was built in 1913, which would operate until 1937. The Standard Bank of Canada would arrive in the community in 1919.
The new location didn’t matter much to new residents, as they began to flock to the community. By 1923, Onoway had 100 people and residents petitioned to have their hamlet turned into a village. In June of that year, the request was approved.
In the 1920s, a two-storey stone building was built near Onoway. The home, which stands out thanks to its use of fieldstone on its exterior, three stone chimneys and intersecting roof ridges. The home was built by Thomas Sharman, who was an Irish farmer and stonemason who took up a homestead in 1903. Clearing his land of stones, he decided to make use of the large collection and started to build a home with the help of his son and neighbours. This would become the Sharman House. The building still stands to this day and sets itself apart on the landscape. In 2007, thanks to its historic nature, it was named a Provincial Heritage Site. Today, it is the Old Stone House Tea House and can be visited for a good tea and nice meal.
In 1943, a train would derail near Onoway, dumping its load of tools and equipment to be used in building a bridge. These items were mostly owned by the railroad but some in the community saw an opportunity. Ten men and three teenagers went to the derailment and began picking up the cargo and taking it home for themselves. Among the items stolen were mattresses, lumber, coal, tools, equipment and groceries. All 13 individuals would be fined a total of $932, amounting to about $14,500 today. If anyone was unable to pay the fine, they would be spending two weeks in jail. Three men, who stole the most, were told if they didn’t pay their fines, they would spend between three and five months in jail.
On May 18, 1949, a terrible fire erupted in Onoway that would burn through the business section. To this day, it remains the worst fire in the town’s history. The fire wiped out most of a business block and forced 12 people from their homes. Everyone in the community was awoken thanks to a man honking his car horn after he saw the fire.
Mrs. Matyba, the wife of the butcher, would state quote:
Gillian Sloboda, wife of the cafe owner, grabbed what she could before fleeing the flames. She would say quote:
“We had just gone to bed when I heard a crackle. We both tore into the kitchen and saw the whole place ablaze. We just grabbed some clothes and ran. My husband went back to try to save more and then he had to smash a window and leap to save his life.”
Art Wismer would lose his small home. He had only filled out the insurance form the previous day and it would unfortunately be some of the outgoing mail that was destroyed in the fire.
No one was injured thankfully but several people had to jump from the upper floor windows of their homes to escape the flames. In all, the fire caused $60,000 in damages, amounting to $700,000 today. In order to fight the fire, nearly everyone in the community came out to form a bucket brigade. One building gutted was the post office, but thankfully nearly all of the mail had already been distributed before the fire hit.
If you would like to learn more about Onoway and its history, then you can visit the Onoway Museum. The museum is located in the Old Brick School, which was built in 1921. Originally just a two-room school, it would slowly expand and became the Onoway Elementary School with a student population of 430. After the school was closed in 2007, it was given new life as the Onoway Museum. At the museum, you can learn about the history of the community and the school. The four classrooms now features exhibits and recreations of a school room, a country home, main street and community life. The museum officially opened on June 6, 2008.