The History Of Lacombe

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CraigBaird

While the Lacombe area began to be settled in the late-19th century, it was for millennia occupied by the Indigenous. There were many culture groups who lived on the land but the most famous, and most recent, were the Blackfoot. For the Blackfoot, the area of Lacombe was just part of a huge territory that stretched across the Canadian Prairies and into the northern United States.

The bison were an important part of the lives of the Blackfoot, and they would follow the bison through the region for centuries. Unfortunately, the bison herds began to decline as the 19th century wore on. Eventually, the Indigenous would be forced to sign treaties and move to reserves to keep from starving.

Today, Lacombe sits on Treaty 6 land.

In 1880, the first land surveys were conducted in Lacombe and within three years, Ed Barnett arrived. Barnett was a former member of the North-West Mounted Police who had met with Chief Sitting Bull at one point. He would become the first settler in the Lacombe area, and he would create a stopping house on land given to him for his service with the police. This stopping house sat along the Calgary-Edmonton Trail, which would prove to be fortunate for Barnett and Lacombe.

Soon after he arrived, his family and friends came out from Ontario to take up land as well. Before long, his stopping house had gained the name of Barnett’s Siding.

Eight years after Barnett arrived, the Canadian Pacific Railway came through, connecting Calgary to Strathcona, just south of Edmonton. With the railroad arriving, the community quickly began to grow. By 1893, downtown blocks and lots for homes were surveyed. Three years later, Lacombe was a village and in 1902, it became a town.

As for the name, where does that come from?

The name comes from a Father Albert Lacombe. Father Lacombe was a French-Canadian Roman Catholic missionary who would live with the Cree and the Blackfoot. Not only did he help bring peace between the two Indigenous nations, but he would also negotiate the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway through Blackfoot territory and he kept Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot out of the North West Resistance in 1885.

When it came time to name the community, the decision was made to honour Father Lacombe, who was still alive at the time, by naming the community for him. Lacombe would live until Dec. 12, 1916, long enough to see the community that had his name become a prosperous location.

Eventually, Lacombe would be recognized for being one of the best mixed farming communities in Canada. The Edmonton Journal would write in 1928, quote:

“The statement that there is no better soil is no exaggeration. The soil in central Alberta is suitable for any type of diversified farming.”

It was this excellent farming location that led the Lacombe Board of Trade to create the Agricultural Experimental Station outside the community in 1907 through the provincial government. Lacombe was one of the first locations in the province to have an experimental station. The first superintendent of the station would be G.H. Hutton, who would serve until 1919. At the time, the station had 40 acres of seeded plots, testing existing varieties of cereals, field peas, red clover, alfalfa and various root crops.

In later years, the station would experiment in replication, crop rotations and bee breeding.

The station exists to this day, employing dozens of people who manage hundreds of hectares of land.

While many communities are policed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Lacombe is unique in that it has its own police force. This is unusual for a community of its size, but the Lacombe Police Service has played an important role in Lacombe’s history. Founded in 1900, it is one of the oldest municipal police departments in Alberta. The police force continues to exist to this day in the community.

In 1900, a young man was born in Lacombe named Roland Michener to Senator Edward Michener and his wife Mary. He would grow up in the community and go on to attend the University of Alberta and then Oxford, where he played on a hockey team with his lifelong friend Lester B. Pearson. After returning to Canada, he would practice law in Toronto. Michener would attempt to enter both Ontario provincial and Canadian federal politics but was never elected. In 1964, Pearson, now the Prime Minister of Canada, made Michener the High Commissioner to India. Six months later, he became Canada’s first ambassador to Nepal. On March 29, 1967, Michener was appointed on the advice of his friend Pearson, to be the Governor General of Canada. As Governor General, he would open Expo 67, help celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Confederation and meet with dignitaries as they came to Canada. During his time as Governor General, he would also deal with the October Crisis in 1970 when the FLQ kidnapped government officials and planned to kidnap Michener and have him bound to a chair on television after they took over a CBC station. Thankfully, that never happened. Michener was one of the first recipients of the Order of Canada. On Jan. 14, 1974, his time as Governor General came to an end. He would pass away on Aug. 6, 1991. 

In 1902, work began on a building in Lacombe that was modelled after the iconic Fuller Building in New York. This building, called the Flat Iron Building, was constructed over the course of two years, until it opened in 1904 as the home of the Merchants Bank of Canada. Today, this is one of only two remaining buildings of this type in all of Alberta, and it is the oldest building of its type in Western Canada. The Bank of Montreal would operate out of the building after taking it over in 1922, until 1967. Today, the building is one of the most prominent buildings in Lacombe and a landmark of Central Alberta. In 1990, it was made a Provincial Historic Resource.

In 1908, construction began on a new church to accommodate the growing number of residents in Lacombe. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, which would replace the first church built in 1895, would open on Jan. 31, 1909, was one of the largest buildings in the community at the time. The building would cost $12,315 to build, which was no small amount at the time. Built with red brick, the building has only been slightly altered since its original construction. In 1922, the Methodist and Presbyterian congregations would unite, and the church became the St. Andrew’s United Church. The church continues to stand to this day and in 2014 was made a Municipal Heritage Resource.

In 1921, Lacombe would make history when it elected the first woman to the Alberta Legislature, Irene Parlby.

Born in London England in 1868, Parlby came to Canada in 1896 and by 1913 she would found the first women’s local of the United Farmers of Alberta. Her work with the organization helped to raise her profile across the province. Upon joining the Legislature in the Lacombe Riding, she would remain an MLA for the next 14 years. During that time, she was appointed as a minister without a portfolio, making her the first woman cabinet minister in Alberta history.

Her most famous role in women’s rights would come as a member of the Famous Five, who took the issue of women being qualified persons to the highest court in the country. The group would win that case and help change women’s rights forever. Soon after its judgement, the first woman, Cairine Wilson, would sit on the Canadian Senate.

Throughout her life, Parlby was an advocate for rural Canadian women and children, and she pushed for public health care services and municipal hospitals.

She would pass away on July 12, 1965, in Red Deer, the last of the Famous Five.

In 2009, Parlby and the other members of the Famous Five were named Canada’s first honorary senators. A mural of Parlby also exists in Edmonton.

In 1966, Parlby was recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada and the plaque honouring that can be found in Alix.

By the 1930s, while many communities were having a difficult time making ends meet, Lacombe became the only Canadian town to pay cash for a modern sewer system. The Edmonton Journal would write quote:

“Payment for the sewer system was made possible by the sale of the town’s electric light plant to the Calgary Power company some months ago.”

Also in 1930, an unfortunate incident would in Lacombe. It was on May 21 when Fred Doberstein was kidnapped by several men who accused him of sleeping with several women in the town. Seven masked men, who stated they were members of the Klu Klux Klan, took Doberstein 15 kilometres outside of town where they poured tar over him and covered him in feathers. The Edmonton Journal would write quote:

“This is the first affair of this kind in this district and probably Alberta.”

Doberstein would say quote:

“They threatened to throw me in the lake and then string me up. I was frightened and have no idea why they were treating me so. I struggled as much as I could, but there were enough of them to hold me pretty still.”

Once he promised he would take a train south and never come back, they let him go and he began to wander back into town. Several men would be arrested for the incident. A few of the men were local farmers who had joined up with the Red Deer chapter of the Klu Klux Klan.

In 2019, Lacombe would put itself on the map with the world’s largest fishing lure. The lure, which sits at Len Thompson Pond, is painted in the favourite pattern of Len Thompson. Thompson was the owner of Thompson-Pallister Bait Company, which has operated for almost 100 years. It was started by Thompson in 1929 when he lived in Saskatchewan but has been located in Lacombe for over 60 years. The lure is 40 feet long, far longer than the previous record holder which was only 15 feet long. I have been to this lure, and it is quite massive and great for a photo opportunity.

If you would like to learn more about Lacombe, then check out the Lacombe Museum. The Lacombe and District Historical Society was formed as the Maski-pitoon Historical Society on May 5, 1971, as a way to purchase the birthplace of Roland Michener. The site was purchased in 1972 and over the course of the next 13 years restoration work was conducted.

The Michener House, as it is known now known, was built in 1894 and would be expanded on several times between 1918 and 1940. Originally an early church building in the community, it is the oldest remaining structure in the community today. It was this building where Michener would be born in 1900. His father, Edward, was the reverend at the church.

The heritage site would expand over the years to include a learning garden that looked at 4,000 years of Central Alberta history and development. In 1991, the society would purchase and restore the Lacombe Blacksmith Shop, which to this day is the oldest operational blacksmith shop in the entire province. The blacksmith shop had been built by A.F. Weddle between 1902 and 1903 at a cost of $1,325. The building would go through several owners and in 1939, it would be a welding shop, which it would remain as until 1991 when the society bought the building. The blacksmith shop sits on its original plot of land to this day. Within the shop, the original fixtures and artifacts from the blacksmith shop are now on display, along with machinery and much more.

Within the museum, you will find hundreds of items from the history of the community, detailing everything from the early history of the Indigenous, to settlement, to the rapidly changing community of the 20th century.

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