Historic Walking Tour
Life in Okotoks
Growing up in an Alberta town
This project is a partnership with the Okotoks Museum.
1. Home on the Prairies
Okotoks was one of the few communities in Alberta that was settled by Europeans before the arrival of the railway. The settlers were attracted by the fantastic agricultural potential of the surrounding land, the clean and beautiful Sheep River, and the close proximity to Calgary. As Okotoks-raised historian Lewis Thomas put it, "Okotoks could, more justly than many of its prairie sisters, be described as a 'pretty' town."xx2 One further advantage of Okotoks favourable location was easy access to vast supplies of timber. On much of the Canadian prairie timber is a rare and precious commodity, so in most places the first wave of settlers in the 1870s and 1880s built their homes out of the closest material to hand: sod. The first settlers of Okotoks were fortunately able to float as much timber as they needed down the Sheep River. Settlers here made their homes from wood from the very beginning, even if the homes were initially relatively primitive designs. In 1886 there were already 20 homes in Okotoks, though the railway wouldn't arrive for another five years.xx3 When the railway did arrive in 1891 it brought in a new influx of settlers, almost exclusively English-speakers from Eastern Canada and the United Kingdom, who had very specific ideas about the kinds of homes they wanted to live in: ones that looked very much like those where they'd come from. The railway allowed Okotokians to keep up to date on the latest home design trends sweeping Eastern Canada, the 'old country', and increasingly, the United States. People were "attracted by the models of domestic architecture portrayed in widely circulated magazines, newspapers, and house pattern books. These designs had the authority of being new, fashionable, and accepted by the dominant cultural group in society."xx4 The railway provided rapid communication with the outside world and "the frontier was obliterated by the spell of the current metropolitan fashions."xx5 As a result the homes in Okotoks came to look very much like those built most other places in Canada at the time.
2. Keeping the Faith
Presbyterianism was particularly popular in Okotoks. At least part of the reason was proselytizing efforts of men like the larger-than-life 'Cowboy Preacher' Reverend Angus Robertson. He established the first Presbyterian congregation in southern Alberta at Medicine Hat in 1883 and began crisscrossing the province on horseback, ministering to congregants and winning converts while wearing a stetson and six-shooter. He held many services in Okotoks in those early days and appealed to the frontiersman outlook of the pioneers.xx1 By 1901 the Presbyterian congregation was by far the largest in Okotoks; over 40% of the population. Lewis Thomas explains how it represented "a cross-section not only of the town but of the surrounding countryside." "It included the doctor, the editor of the newspaper and an Englishman, of genteel antecedents and some substance, who carried an increasing responsibility for the direction of the affairs of the town on the basis of sheer character and his conviction of the individual's responsibility for the welfare of his fellow men. Some of the merchants also attended, bank employees and teachers came and went, but in the church and its organizations many of the most faithful supporters were drawn from less prestigious occupations."xx2 The congregations often competed with each other for converts, and the scenes of intensive small town gossip. "There was some consternation," writes Thomas "when an Anglican soprano yielded to the allurements" of a better choir in a neighbouring church. "Or a well-off Presbyterian from the country appeared with suspicious frequency at St. Peters's [Anglican church]."xx3 Yet these differences were mostly cosmetic. For instance, in 1917 the Methodist and Presbyterian churches amalgamated into the United Church. The two churches in Okotoks were the first in Canada to do so, showing just how tightly knit Okotoks was.xx4
3. Building a School System
The first teacher was the 17-year-old Julia Short, who later recalled the sparse amenities, and had to set the children to work cutting firewood, drawing water from the well, and scrubbing the muddy floors. The kids had to walk great distances from distant farmsteads ('uphill both ways', as the saying goes). The luckier ones came on horseback. Great snowdrifts and freezing conditions meant the school closed during the winter. By 1900 the town's population had grown enough to warrant a new building, and the handsome brick Lower School was constructed on this spot, teaching kids from Grade 1 to 11. Most of the kids came from England and Scotland, so classes were taught in English, and some sermons were given in Gaelic as well. Attendance standards were quite different back then, since many kids were taken out of school to help their parents on the farmstead during the summer. This meant education was a lot less comprehensive than it is today. As one scholar writes, "In the first decades of the province, few students progressed to secondary school. A student's education was considered adequate if he or she mastered the "3 Rs"—reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, the equivalent of Grade 6–8. Attending high school was still a rarity."xx1 The town soon outgrew the Lower School, so the Upper School was built atop the bluff just in front of you. Ecole Okotoks Junior High is still on that spot today, though the old brick building was torn down in 1970 and replaced with a more modern one.
4. Okotoks at War
Though the two world wars were fought an ocean away, they still had a profound impact on Okotoks. In 1914 the vast majority of settlers in Okotoks--and across Alberta--were born in Britain or the children of British immigrants and fiercely loyal to the British Empire of which Canada was a part. When Britain (and therefore Canada) declared war on the Central Powers in August 1914, thousands rushed to enlist. Few could have known what they were getting into. As Lewis Thomas notes, "As in other areas with a preponderance of British-oriented young men of military age, enlistments and casualty rates were equally high."xx1 As the town emptied of young men, many of whom would never return, the women left behind yearned to do their bit to help the war effort, forming a Red Cross Society that raised funds and supplies for the troops. Nevertheless the war's cost in both lives and lost potential in Okotoks was extraordinary. Thomas continues, "Certainly the Okotoks of 1920 was a shadow of the optimistic and bustling town of the first decade... The price in social dislocation paid by the youthful communities of the west in the aftermath of 1914 has seldom been accurately calculated or even adequately described."xx2 When another even greater world war erupted just 21 years later, the people of Okotoks once again answered the call. 141 men enlisted in the army, navy, and air force, while 11 women like Myrtle Robinson enlisted in the WRENS or the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Of that total, 15 never returned.xx3 At home Okotokians once again all pitched in to do their bit. When the call went out for scrap metal to make munitions, the townspeople raised 19 train cars of it. They donated several tons of clothes to help those in other Allied nations devastated by the war. They founded a Blood Clinic and a Red Cross Society that made regular donations. Nine Victory Bond campaigns raised over $1.5 million from Okotokians, or over $2.2 billion in today's money. On January 7, 1946 an event was held at the Willingdon Hotel to celebrate the return of the town's war veterans. The mayor delivered a message, saying "As you have been prepared to fight and risk your lives to establish Victory and a Lasting Peace, let me express the hope that you will be equally determined to put forward every effort to see that this Peace has not been won in vain."xx4
5. Feeding the Family
In the home women were expected to do the cooking, cleaning, and child raising, while men brought home the money to pay for it all. Yet, a singular reading of womens' lives on the prairies often ignores the small economies that were important for sustaining families. Women and children would engage in all kinds of labour that contributed to the family's livelihood.xx1 For example, looking back on his childhood in Okotoks, a man reminisces about his childhood summer job at the local Wentworth's grocery store. "[I] did spend two summer holidays and weekends working for Cliff Wentworth in his grocery store. With the money I saved from this job, I bought my first bicycle which I was mighty proud of."xx2 Another example comes from a discussion of selling home-made butter in exchange for groceries in the early 1900s. "How well we remember the aroma of her freshly baked bread," writes Lillian Hogge. "Once or twice a week [mom] baked ten or twelve loaves. All of our butter was churned. She sold some butter to 'Pamments General Store', and in return got groceries, etc. Every summer 250-300 quarts of fruit were canned as well as many quarts of meat, jams, jelly and pickles. Much of the fruit that was canned was saskatoons, strawberries and raspberries that we picked in the fields, also lots of jam from chokecherries."xx3 Ads in old cookbooks give another glimpse into women's lives and interests: alongside recipes for preparing cabbage, beans, beets, and dry goods, there are advertisements for fertilizers and farming equipment. Women on prairie farms such as Okotoks would have been highly involved in the running of the farm.xx4 Grocery stores like John Shields were therefore critical spots in town, not only for women maintaining their homes, but where they could sell their own home-made goods. In Eastern Canada in the early 20th century, markets well stocked with fresh fruit, vegetables, and meats meant people had a diverse diet. In prairie towns like Okotoks this was not the case. The harsh prairie environment meant farmers had to be exceptionally self sufficient, growing the vast majority of fresh foods they required. Grocery stores focused on carrying the mainstays such as 'sow bosom' a type of salt fat pork that lasted over the long cold winters.xx5
6. Church and Community
In the early part of the 20th St. Peter's Anglican church was a pillar of the community. Katherine Downey commented on her fathers involvement not just in the church but in the community of Okotoks as a whole: "During their many years in Okotoks both of my parents entered wholeheartedly into the life of the community. They were members of St. Peter's Anglican Church, where my sister and I were baptized, confirmed, and married. Although not a communicant, my father was an active churchman, serving as secretary-treasurer and vestryman for a number of years, and acting as perpetual advisor in the matter of church finance. He was also secretary-treasurer of the town, mayor, and president of the Board of Trade. A life member of Corinthian Lodge he was, on two occasions, Master." xx1 As a part of a small community, for families of Okotoks, the house of worship was secondary, and often less important than other obligations. Members of St. Peter's were also masons, belonged to the Women's Auxiliary, or participated in other community activities. Activities and community events that were covered by the two religious groups rarely had any interfaith fighting, and as a community, everyone sought to get along. The community was largely homogenous, meaning that differences in worship were relatively minor. As the 20th century progressed onwards, religious organizations came to have less of a hold on day to day life, but members of St Peter's Anglican was still a part of the community. In the 1950s, R. M. Pow talks about his place in Okotoks: "I was active in the business life of the town, and served a term as president of the Okotoks Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture. I was treasurer of the Canadian Red Cross Society, Okotoks branch, for ten years. Our family was active in St. Peter's Church. I served on the Vestry for a number of years; Kate was active in the Women's Auxiliary. I was also treasurer for some years and served as People's and Rector's Warden." xx2 In 1992 the parish moved to another location, yet the building that was constructed in the early 20th century still remains home to community programs. It now serves as a dance hall.
Built in the early 20th century, the home we see here is one of many heritage homes around Okotoks, and especially on this street. The Hamiltons who built it had been homesteaders here since the late 1800s. When Europeans began settling in Okotoks, the first homes they built were geared towards the basic necessities of survival. They were usually simple wooden log houses or shacks. The Calgary Herald in 1897 refers to houses from France as voluptuous, and English homes as refined, but the Albertan log cabin was "simple, happy, and contented" xx1 Nevertheless, hygiene was an ongoing issue. Combined with an absence of garbage disposal, running water, and electricity, the lifestyle of the people who lived in these homes was very different from ours indeed. As one observer noted, "Every backyard and cespool affords fruitful soil for the cultivation of disease germs. Wells are placed injudiciously, the water supply becomes tainted and typhoid appears on the scene"xx2 As these families became established and achieved something akin to middle class status, they began replacing these primitive dwellings with homes like the one you see before you here. Homes like this were not just a necessity to provide comfort and hygiene, but an engine of stability in the community. At the same time, wood homes that were being built were typically in one of three styles: a bungalow with low slanting roofs and a wide porch, or a victorian home with classic ornamentation and a tall gabled roof, or perhaps a foursquare where the plan is a four by four. Homes like the one pictured above, with a little bit of Victorian flare on the outer balcony dotted the Okotoks landscape. For the Okotoks gentlemen at the end of the Victorian Era, homeownership was the ultimate goal, as it would grant them not only security, but privacy. An advertisement for homes in a Calgary newspaper in 1911 captured the spirit of the time: "try, try, economize, save, deprive yourself of luxuries and pleasures and rich garments in order to obtain this home, because the joy, comfort and feeling of independence you will realize later in life will repay you well for all your sacrifice."xx3
8. The Linehams
Born in 1857 in Upper Canada, John Lineham's family originated from Yorkshire in England. As a young man he worked on the railway in Manitoba, and then made his way west in search of opportunity. He first set down roots in Calgary, and then established his lumber mill in Okotoks in 1891, which was initially meant to supply his Calgary construction projects, but became an important supplier for the railway. It wasn't until 1894 following his marriage that John Lineham would settle in Okotoks. Lineham's lumber mill was a critical source of income for the town, and the major source of wage based employment until the First World War. The wood was renowned across Alberta, and helped build many towns across the province in this period. In addition to lumber, Lineham and his brother were also purveyors of beef, keeping both Hereford and Shorthair cattle on a 6,000 hectare ranch near Sheep Creek. Lineham was also a formative figure in the history of Alberta oil: he partnered with two businessmen to try drilling by modern day Waterton Lakes National Park in one of the province's first oil projects. While the enterprise only lasted from 1901 to 1904, its pioneering nature made Lineham a historic name in oil too.xx1 John Lineham's community involvement extended to political leadership, where he served as mayor of Okotoks from 1909 to 1911. The Lineham families impact is fondly displayed in Okotoks not only in Elma St., where the Lineham residence sits, but also Elizabeth St., and Lineham St. Outside of Okotoks, Lineham's name is commemorated in a creek, a chain of lakes and a mountain.xx2
9. Building Community
Orangemen, an Irish loyalist society that came across with the news waves of immigrants was one of the largest organisations that aimed to support and settle early pioneers, and later work on both community and social support. "The first Orangemen's Hall was moved into Okotoks in 1890. In 1891 Jack Shields led the first Orange Parade in Alberta through the town. Members wore orange sashes and badges with orange ribbons, or black for funerals," recounts one Okotoks resident.xx1 Halls such as the Orangemen's not only provided meeting space for its members, but places for the community as a whole. Vera Martin recalls how the Orangemen's hall provided a source of joy and community spirit during the otherwise harsh Depression. "During the depression years one of the highlights of the winter was going to dances at different neighbors' homes, Bird's barn, Cameron Coulee School, and the Orangemen's Hall in Okotoks. We always had good times at these dances and usually travelled by sleigh and horses."xx2 The masons were another organisation that began in Okotoks in 1891, with the opening of the first lodge. Freemasonry is one of the oldest fraternal societies in Canada, coming over with British soldiers in the early 1800s. In Okotoks history many of the significant members of the town were masons, and deeply involved in community building. The story of V.E. Hessell is one such story: "Mr. Hessell was described as being strict but honest in his dealings. He worked long hours, especially during the Depression. At that time, he set up a fund to provide meals for "drifters". He was Worshipful Master of the Corinthian Lodge in 1929, later served as a member of the Grand Lodge, and was a thirty-second degree Mason. He was twice Mayor of Okotoks, serving in 1922 and again in 1942-43."xx3 Women's organisations in Okotoks were notably absent in the early days of the town, but grew rapidly from the 1920s. In addition to the Legions Ladies Auxiliary, there was the Handicraft Guild, Rockettes, Farm Women, the Eastern Star, and Women's Institute. These were places where women could share knowledge and socialize with other women, and help the community in the same way the men's fraternal organisations had done earlier. Mary Bailey's recounting of the Rockettes highlights how important social organisations were for women in Okotoks: "The club had been organized to ease the isolation of farm women, chiefly those with young children, who came along to brighten our meetings. We welcomed new brides, and transient farm women; and enjoyed the children but missed them when they went off to school. Our circle of friends stretched and strengthened by the informal attitude of the members. We didn't mind dropping our dignity if the others laughed. The men folk jeered, and had pressing work on the back forty when we visited their farms."xx4
10. Cross-section of the World
From its early days as a 20 house settlement on Sheep Creek in 1882, to a modern day population of nearly 28,000, Okotoks has seen dramatic changes.xx1 When examining the two photos above, the differences are palpable. Cars crowd the main road today, though over a century ago they were a novelty, and horses were the main form of transport. The empty landscape behind the couple is now filled with businesses. The street is notably paved. The farm in the backdrop is no longer there, and the skyline is dotted with power lines. Look a bit further though and the continuities from that time are everywhere. Organisations like the Masons, and the Legion Ladies Auxiliary are alive and well in Okotoks. The homes of John Lineham, and the Smith House are still standing, a testament to the tenacity of early architecture. The street layout hasn't changed. As Dallas Bannister Wright writes in the town's history book, Okotoks: A Century of Memories: "In retrospect, I see Okotoks as a cross section of the world at large. Found there were comedy, tragedy, wealth, poverty, jealousy, generosity, class distinction, a little vice, even a little scandal, but a great deal of neighborliness and kindness -- each person made to feel a member of that large Okotoks family."xx2
1. Home on the Prairies
1. D. Wetherell & I. Kmet, Homes in Alberta: Buildings, Trends, and Design, 1870-1967, (Edmonton: University Alberta Press, 1991), 60.
2. Lewis G. Thomas, "Okotoks: From Trading Post to Suburb," Urban History Review. Vol 8: No 2, October 1979, 7.
3. Thomas, 9.
4. Wetherell & Kmet, 60.
5. Wetherell & Kmet, 60.
2. Keeping the Faith
1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, A Century of Memories: Okotoks and District, 1883-1983 (Okotoks: Okotoks and District Historical Society, 1983), 32.
2. Thomas, 19.
3. Thomas, 20.
4. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 8.
3. Building a School System
1. The Alberta Teachers' Association, "The Founding of Alberta," online.
4. Okotoks at War
1. Thomas, 13.
2. Thomas, 12.
3. University of Alberta Libraries, "Souvenir presented to those men and women of Okotoks and district who served in the Armed Forces during World War II," (Peel's Prairie Provinces, 1946), online.
4. University of Alberta Libraries, online.
5. Feeding the Family
1. C.R. Comacchio, The infinite bonds of family: Domesticity in Canada, 1850-1940 (Vol. 4), (University of Toronto Press, 1999), 34.
2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 173.
3. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 296.
4. K. Kowalchuk, Community cookbooks in the prairies, Cuizine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures/Cuizine: revue des cultures culinaires au Canada, (2013), 4(1).
5. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 79.
6. Church and Community
1. Thomas, 25.
2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 193.
3. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 506.
1. D. Wetherell & I. Kmet, 51.
2. D. Wetherell & I. Kmet, 40.
3. D. Wetherell & I. Kmet, 47.
8. The Linehams
1. Henry C. Klassen, “LINEHAM, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003), online.
2. Klassen, online.
9. Building Community
1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 695.
2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 636.
3. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 286.
4. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 706.
10. Cross-section of the World
1. Town of Okotoks, "2018 Census," online.
2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 2.