Located to the northeast of Calgary, in south-central Alberta, Starland County was the home of the Blackfoot for centuries. For the Blackfoot, the bison were an extremely important part of their culture and they would follow the herds through the region to harvest them for food, supplies and more.
As settlers began to move into the area in the late-19th century, the Indigenous would see the bison herds disappear. Eventually, the Blackfoot and other Indigenous groups signed Treaty 7 in 1877, ceding their land to the Canadian government.
Within Starland County, there is a beautiful landscape called Horsethief Canyon. This canyon, which is located along the Red Deer River, has the distinctive features of badlands that are found throughout the region and make for excellent picture opportunities. As for the name, that comes from the fact that it was where a thriving illegal horse trade network could be found in the late-19th century and early-20th century. Horses were smuggled in from the United States, and brought to the canyon where they were hidden to ensure the smugglers were not found by authorities.
On maps and in tourist information books, Horsethief is one word, but on a wooden sign near the canyon, it is two words, lending credence to the story of the name origin.
Rowley was formed as a small community in 1912 when the railroad was built through the area. Homesteaders began to arrive, finding land for themselves in the area and the community quickly began to grow. Through the railroad, everything from goods, passengers and mail started to arrive. Rowley actually served as the postal hub for the area, taking mail to settlers south of Stettler and north of Drumheller.
Also in 1912, Craigmyle formed. It was named by the Canadian Pacific Railway. It is believed that the name comes from a Scottish estate but the concrete origin is not known. Despite being named in 1912, it would not be until 1914 that the railroad would first arrive in the community.
Also formed around this time was Rumsey. Nearby to the community is one of the largest remaining tracts of northern fescue grassland in the entire world. Peter Fidler, the celebrated explorer, was known to have come through the area and commented on the thousands of bison in the area and the Blackfoot who were hunting the beasts.
In 1914, Delia Davis and her husband Alan Davis started a small store that catered to the growing number of residents who were arriving in the area. In honour of his wife, the local post office was named Delia for her. While the post office was named for her, the village that sprang up around the post office was named Highland. That name only lasted from 1914 to 1915 before the name of the community was changed to Delia.
Delia is notable for something that happened in 1920, but its start began four years earlier when Alberta had granted women the right to vote and sit in the Legislature. The members of the Delia Women’s Institute wanted to get a woman to run for council. On December 11, 1919, Violet Barss was one of three people elected to the council. The announcement of her victory resulted in a spontaneous parade in the streets of Delia.
Barss had come to Delia in 1912 with her husband, who worked as a carpenter in the community. At first, she wasn’t interested in sitting on council as this newspaper story relates quote:
“There was a talk on getting a woman to stand for the village council. Mrs. Barss was proposed but she thought she had quite enough on her hands at present, where upon some of the ladies present offered to take over some of her lighter tasks so as to enable her to grapple with a work so eminently suited to her. She deferred her decision till the next day.”
In January 1920, Barss was chosen as the new reeve, serving until 1922.
The Delia Times would report in 1921 quote:
“A pioneer in any field is always interesting but a pioneer woman-reeve of the splendid type of woman Mrs. Barss represents reflects credit on the entire womanhood of Canada. She has the right idea that the franchise to vote is a trust as well as a right.”
Barss would continue to make history after her time as reeve as well. She would sit on the Board of Governors of the University of Alberta from 1923 to 1940, she was the convenor of the immigration committee of the Provincial Women’s Institute, and she sat on an advisory committee on immigrant women’s issues for the Minister of Agriculture. Within Delia, she served as a nurse and helped many people through sickness over the years, including during the Spanish Flu. For her decades of service to the community, she was presented with a silver cup in 1936. This was no small honour considering it was the heart of The Great Depression.
Around the same time Delia was formed as a community, Morrin also sprang up but it did so under the name of Blooming Prairie. Before long, the name was changed to Morrin in honour of the engineer of the first train to arrive in the community. It was under that name that the village would be incorporated on April 16, 1920.
Munson would begin around 1911, becoming a village on May 5, 1911.
In 1913, the Bleriot ferry would be constructed to cross the Red Deer River from Starland County to Kneehill County. Originally, it was called the Munson Ferry, the name would be changed to Bleriot Ferry to honour Louis Bleriot, a celebrated Canadian aviator and brother of the first ferry operator.
The ferry continues to operate to this day and is one of the last remaining cable ferries in all of Alberta. It is definitely worth the trip to experience crossing a river as was once done a century ago.
During the First World War, Munson was the site of a Ukrainian Canadian internment camp where anyone deemed an enemy alien was housed. Those who were kept at the camp were put to work on the railway. At the camp, the structures were simply railway cars that had been set up. Unlike other internment camps, the one in Starland County was set up late in the war, on Oct. 13, 1918. The camp was only open for a brief period of time before it was moved to Eaton, Saskatchewan on Feb. 25, 1919, although some sources say March 21, 1919.
The time the camp was open unfortunately coincided with the Spanish Flu. One of the men in the camp would die of the disease in November of 1918.
Most of the internees were Ukrainian-Canadians who were forced off their land simply because they had immigrated from a country that was allied with the Germans in the war. Rather than be identified as Ukrainians, the newspapers simply called them Austrians and Germans. At the camp, there was a total of 63 internees.
The Kingston British Whig would report quote:
“As these men are interned as undesirables, the popular feeling is that they should be deported as soon as the internment camps are broken up.”
In 1912, the Municipal District of Morrin No. 277 was created and that same year the name would change to the Municipal District of Starland No. 277. In 1998, the name officially changed to Starland County.
Sod houses were an important part of homesteading during the early 20th century in future Starland County. Due to the fact that the houses were built using sod, none remain. Most would disappear within a couple years.
To honour the pioneers who made those houses, some places have worked to recreate them. In Morrin, you can find one of those houses. In 1980, as a way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Alberta, a sod house was built in the community and it continues to stand to this day.
The sod came from the farm of Vance Montgomery, and it was his wife who was credited with coming up with the idea. Vance would say quote:
“We didn’t have a clue about how to build it but we got some book and read up on how the pioneers did it.”
Bob Shiels would say quote:
“I didn’t meet anyone who once had lived in a sod house, but I talked to several who knew someone who knew someone else who once had occupied such a dwelling.”
In all, it took about 30 volunteers to build the sod house. Doug Grenville would say quote:
“There was no campaign. People just started bringing things in. It is amazing how it all came together.”
The sod house would differ somewhat from the sod houses of a century ago. First, there was more sturdy lumber used, the windows were double-paned and waterproof planks were used under the sod on the roof to prevent it from leaking.
Grenville would suggest the idea of renting it out for $35 per night. He would say quote:
“People never get a chance to spend a night in a sod house. We could rent it out. I don’t suppose it would ever happen but it might.”
A popular stopping place for tourists, the house had stood for 29 years when it was finally time to fix it up as it was showing its age. The project to fix up the house would cost upwards of $20,000 in 2009 and the construction would remain similar to the original house and more modern construction and restoration techniques would be used to ensure the house could stand for several more decades. One of the more interesting aspects of this restoration was that the volunteers were made up children and families of the original people who constructed the house in 1980.
By the 1930s, many communities in Central and Southern Alberta were starting to feel the effects of The Great Depression. One of the hardest hit communities was Rowley. By the 1930s, a few hundred people called the community home but a slow decline would begin throughout the decade.
By the 1970s, the community was full of empty houses and empty businesses and only a few dozen people remained.
It was in that decade that everything began to change. No, there wasn’t a sudden population boom in Rowley, but the locals decided that their community would not go quietly into the night. Thus began the story of the ghost town that survived and became a thriving tourist stop. Before I begin with talking about this community’s amazing work to preserve its legacy, I want to mention I have visited Rowley and it is one of the best ghost towns I have ever seen. So much is preserved and you can spend a few hours exploring the community.
One night in the 1970s, the liquor supply in the community was dwindling as the residents had a party. They found a solution by breaking into an old boarded up saloon. As they entered the saloon for their B&E Party, the locals cleaned up the bar and immediately renamed the business Sam’s Saloon after a local who was well respected. It was at that party that the locals decided they would spruce up the community and make it a heritage stop.
Since then, a community association was formed and they meet on the last Saturday of every month to maintain the aging buildings. Through the summer, they will hold pizza and beer fundraisers and other events to raise money to keep the buildings from falling apart. This effort has worked. Before Covid-19, the community would sometimes boast upwards of 700 people for a party on the streets of the community, in the community hall, saloon and pool hall. It should be noted that the population of the community by this point was less than 10. Along with fundraisers, the community has collected over $600,000 in grants to improve its tourism. Within the museum you can visit the old train station, the school house and the store that are populated by mannequins dressed in period clothing from the 1920s during the boom years of Rowley. The museum houses many artifacts from the community and the area, dating back to the 1800s.
The rebuild of Rowley has had other benefits and those came in the form of movies. In 1988, Bye Bye Blues was filmed there. Other films to shoot in the area and in the town include The Magic of Ordinary Days and Legends Of The Fall. This would lead to the refurbishment of several buildings. While the buildings are refurbished, they are mostly just for looking at now. Lucille Hampton, a resident in the 1980s and postmistress, would say quote:
“Everything’s just to look at around here. There’s nothing that’s real.”
Within Rowley, the grain elevators still stand as well. Grain elevators have disappeared across the prairie landscape but Rowley has preserved its elevators as part of its efforts to keep its past alive. The Rowley Grain Elevator Row includes three elevators, an engine shed, two office buildings and a fuel shed. The elevators were built between 1917 and 1932, handling tens of thousands of bushels of crops. By the late-1980s, the elevators were no longer used as the rail line was rerouted and farmers transported their grain elsewhere. Rather than tear down the elevators, they continued to stand and that benefits the community to this day. The United Grain Growers elevator is the oldest known example of an elevator constructed by the United Grain Growers in Alberta. The Searle Grain Company Grain Elevator is also the oldest known example of an elevator constructed by that company in Alberta. Due to the heritage of the elevators and the work to restore them, the entire elevator row was made a Provincial Historic Resource in 2010.
The purchase of the elevators and the stationmaster’s house cost the town $3 to buy, but $100,000 to refurbish including with new roofs.
John Schmidt of the Calgary Herald would write of Rowley quote:
“There are a couple of dozen communities like Rowley, which have been created by a continued decline in the farm population. However, it could prove a great fun for those left in the community to keep it alive with a bit of imagination and community spirit.”
A great way to explore the natural beauty of Starland County is to visit the Michichi Creek Boardwalk. This interpretive trail consists of raised decking, shale paths and a grassed walkway maintained by the county. The trail will educate you on the importance of the Red Deer River Watershed. Along the way, you will find year-round wetland areas that were created by beaver dams, providing a habitat for many birds, fish and mammals. The trail runs for one kilometre and features 11 educational signs that highlight the history of the local dam, as well as the flora, fauna, soils, geology and more.
If you would like to learn more about the history of the district, then a great place to check out is the Delia Museum and Grist Mill. This museum was built in 1913 and served as a school for the children of the area. After its time as a school was finished, it would eventually begin a new life as a museum. Within the museum, you will be able to explore hundreds of local artifacts that highlight the history of the area. Next to the museum, there is the only New Ideal of Branfor Goold, Shapley and Company grist mill of its type in all of Western Canada. The mill is powered by the wind, which allows for the collection of water, grinding grain and even cutting lumber.