The Blackfoot were the primary Indigenous group that occupied the area that would become Carstairs. Long before Europeans ever arrived, the Indigenous would hunt bison in the area, harvest supplies, trade and move through as they followed the herds and the seasons.
The importance of the Carstairs area can be seen in what is now called The Ancient Trail, also known as the Old North Trail or Wolf Track, went through the area. Along the creek beds in the area, rock formations have been found and these were resting and stopping sites for the Indigenous as they moved up and down the corridor depending on the time of year.
The first bit of settlement in the area would be the Sam Scarlett Ranch, which was located near the Calgary-Edmonton Trail and the Rosebud River.
In 1890, when the first telegraph line was built between Calgary and Edmonton, followed soon after by the railroad, employees of the railroad started to live in the area.
Before long, settlers started to arrive in large numbers. The train station, little more than a box car, was the first building in Carstairs and one of the only buildings for a time. Mr. E.W. Stone would become the first citizen and business owner of Carstairs, and three years later Mr. W. McCrimmon became the first baby born in the community.
By 1901, the community was growing rapidly with a new barn, stores and a school.
In the area, various organizations reorganized themselves into the Soldiers of the Soil and spent the entire spring of 1918 planting every square inch of soil to help the war effort. One example of this was a Red Cross garden plot that was laid down in Carstairs. In the town, boys began to work the summer months for the Soldiers of the Soil.
Overall, Carstairs was heavily involved in the war effort during the First World War. The Canadian Patriotic Fund had a chapter set up in the community and store owners in the community pledged to donate five per cent from all grocery sales and 10 per cent from all other sales to the fund. The community would also host various social gatherings to aid the fund. One box social raised $208, or $4,500 today, while an auction of boxed lunches prepared by a Mrs. U. Brown raised $70 for the fund. The United Farmers Association held a concert and raised $215, and a group of girls created a Valentine’s Day dinner, raising $170 in the process. All of this allowed for the raising of $2,156 in 1917, amounting to $38,500 today.
A Mrs. Lucas would form a chapter of the Ladies Patriotic Society in Carstairs. The first fundraiser for the organization included an auction for a $30 rug with tickets costing 25 cents. This fundraiser allowed the group to order $100 worth of material to be sewn from the Red Cross. The group also sent $25 to the Belgium Relief Fund. A Mrs. King, a local teacher, collected $1.60 from her students to give to the organization to buy Christmas presents for the soldiers. In its first year, the chapter of the organization was able to purchase 84 packages of tobacco, six boxes of chocolates, five boxes of gum and one box of pipes to send to the soldiers.
A chapter of the Soldiers Aid Society in the community was able to sew 635 articles, 36 bottle covers, 40 nurse aprons, 22 personal property bags, 178 handkerchiefs, 72 towels, 32 many tailed bandages, six-day sheets, four pairs of pajamas, four bed jackets, 12 surgical caps and 32 surgical stockings.
After the war, when prohibition came into place, Cardston found a way around it. In the community, there was something known as bee wine, which was available after the First World War during Prohibition. It was made from a packet of white pills called bees, which were placed in a quart sealer, three-quarters full of water and a bit of molasses, honey or prune juice. The pills sank to the bottom and as they swelled, a bubble began to appear on the pill. The pill then rose to the top where the bubble burst and the pill sank. This process was repeated over and over for three weeks. Once the pills had broken in half, the wine was ready, and the pills were strained out. In that same community, there were Dry Squads of police officers that would destroy stills and alcohol when they found them. Often, the alcohol would never be destroyed, but would end up being sold by members of the Dry Squad to family members and friends.
By the 1920s, the community was booming. Wheat crops were averaging 38 bushels per acre, while oats were averaging 70 bushels. In the year 1923 alone, 231 cars of livestock were shipped out of the community. H.C. Beckner, manager of the Carstairs Co-operative Association stated quote:
“I believe that we can handle 90 per cent of the shipping of this district.”
Carstairs was also dominating in sports, including winning the Intermediate Hockey Championship of Alberta in 1919. Its baseball team was winning league champions as well.
In 1942, Carstairs decided to help like it had in the previous war. While money and supplies would go to local organizations to help Canadian soldiers, the community actually set itself apart by helping the Russians as well.
The Canadian Aid to Russia Fund were surprised when they received a cheque from the Carstairs and District Emergency Fund for $750, the largest donation the organization had ever received to that point. That amount of money would be about $13,000 today.
John Ure of the Carstairs and District Emergency Fund would state quote:
“When the war started, we realized that many demands for worthy causes would be made upon us. Conditions were good so we stepped out and raised a pool of money. When appeals come up, we make a donation right out of the pool without canvassing.”
The organization had also donated $500 to the Queen’s Canadian Fund for British Air Raid Victims, $500 for the War Services Campaign and $200 to Greek relief.
In 1950, Carstairs came together to build a new arena for the residents to enjoy. The arena would cost $38,000 to build, about $469,000 today. The amazing thing about this building, which took three years to construct, was that residents were able to pay it off completely in a short period of time. As well, costs were kept down by having 30 volunteers from the community work on the structure under the supervision of a contractor from Calgary. The proposal to build the community arena came along in 1945, and the town council would begin work to get the structure built.
In the community, you will find a cairn that is dedicated to Dr. Henry Wise Wood. This cairn was built in 1959 to honour the settler who also served as the president of the United Farmers of Alberta from 1916 to 1931 and the chairman of the Alberta Wheat Pool from 1923 to 1937. The plaque on the cairn states quote:
“Philosopher and farm leader. He won from the people he served confidence, esteem and devotion seldom earned by leaders of men.”
Born in Missouri, Wood received his education at Christian University at Canton, Missouri. He would then go into farming and in 1905 Wood had come to come to Canada to start a new life in the Carstairs area to start a farm. He would say of Alberta quote:
“I think Alberta, my adopted province, is the finest in the world. Western Canada is one of the richest areas in the world.”
He would be offered the post of premier of Alberta in 1921 but he turned it down so he could continue farming. He would pass away on June 10, 1941. In 1951, he was inducted into the Alberta Agricultural Hall of Fame and his portrait hangs at the Legislature in Edmonton.
In 1960, the growth of prosperity of Carstairs was assured thanks to the construction of a $3.7 million gas processing plant. Over 200 people came out to see the structure opened. At full capacity, it would provide 50 million cubic feet of gas per day to the Alberta Gas Trunk Line Company.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Carstairs, then you should check out the Carstairs Heritage Centre. The goal of the centre and museum is to collect, preserve, record and interpret objects and materials relevant to the history of the area, from the years of the Indigenous to the present day. Not only a museum, it also serves as the community’s visitor information centre. The Carstairs and District Historical Society itself was formed in 1986 with the goal of turning the Knox Presbyterian Church into a community museum. Over time, that goal was achieved as the church is now home to art exhibits, local history exhibits, a temporary exhibition place and a multi-purpose place. Also on the grounds you will find three carriage houses with displays, the McCaig homesteader house and the historic gardens of the museum.