Historic Walking Tour

The Sheep River

The Land and the People

Top Gallery Photo Sample

& On This Spot Enterprises

The Sheep River has always been a crucial ecological landmark, not just for the residents of Okotoks, but for the Indigenous people that have lived on this land for thousands of years. Follow along as we take you on a tour along the banks of the Sheep River and learn about its ecology and history. We will see how people have relied on the river for thousands of years, and how it has shaped the lives of the citizens of Okotoks. The tour starts at Southridge Drive, where we introduce the history of the Sheep River, and the importance of this river crossing to the Plains FIrst Nations. From there, we travel along the Sheep River pathway, moving from the history of Indigenous land use to the changes brought about by the signing of Treaty 7 and the settling of Okotoks. Walking alongside the river, we'll see how the citizens of Okotoks relied on the river for work and recreation. Stops focus on the industry of John Lineham's Mill, as well as swimming, fishing and the importance of berries in lean times. We conclude the tour the way it began, focusing on the Indigenous connection to the land. The last stop tells the story of the cottonwoods that line the banks of the Sheep River and their role as burial trees for the Blackfoot.

This project is a partnership with the Okotoks Museum.

1. An Ancient Crossing


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

early 1900s

A view of the Sheep River, and Okotoks beyond. The Blackfoot people called this river 'Eetookiap', their word for sheep, and a reference to the bighorn sheep found at the river's headwaters in the Rockies. This spot you're standing at now was a ford shallow enough for the great herds of bison to cross. The Blackfoot peoples followed their herds, and so came frequently to this spot.

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The Sheep River begins high in the Rocky Mountains at Mount Rae, and winds 107 km across the prairies before joining the High River, which ultimately flows into Hudson Bay. Today the Sheep River provides drinking water for three towns (Black Diamond, Turner Valley, and Okotoks) and passes through the Sheep River Provincial Park, a popular camping and fishing destination. xx1 For thousands of years before European colonization, Indigenous peoples including the Blackfoot (Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani), Cree, and Nakoda-Stoney peoples lived a nomadic lifestyle that revolved around the great herds of bison. As they tracked the herds across the prairies, they followed them across two key fords along the Sheep River. One was located right on this spot, by the modern day Northridge traffic Bridge. We still travel the routes of the bison some 300 years later. Finding one's way across the vast and often featureless expanses of prairie was no easy task, and the Indigenous peoples relied on the few natural landmarks to guide the way. One such landmark was a huge glacial erratic deposited about 8 km east of Okotoks during the last Ice Age. Weighing in at 16,500 tons, the Okotoks Big Rock, as it is now known, is the size of a three storey apartment building. In the Blackfoot language 'Okatok' means Big Rock.xx2 This glacial erratic is how the town of Okotoks got its name.

2. Dispossession of the Indigenous


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

1963

A photo of the Sheep River at its spring high-water levels, overlooked by the McCabe elevator in the background. The same forces that drew the Indigenous peoples here also made it an attractive spot for European settlers, who would forever change the land and those who called it home.

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At the beginning of the 19th century European settlers were well established in eastern Canada, and by the mid 1800s had begun to push westwards in search of farmland and new possibilities. By the 1870s, the Indigenous peoples who called Alberta home encountered a growing stream of European ranchers, homesteaders, whiskey traders, and North West Mounted Policemen. These new arrivals wasted little time hunting the massive herds of buffalo to the brink of extinction. Samuel Livingstone, a trader and adventurer who would settle in Okotoks, remembered killing his last buffalo about a mile north of the future town in 1879. After that they were gone. For the Plains First Nations, the death of the bison herds meant catastrophic famine. Their society fatally weakened by hunger and European diseases, they came to the negotiating table with the young Canadian government. They were promised shared hunting lands, mutually beneficial trade agreements, and food, and so Chief Crow Foot signed Treaty 7 in 1877, confining his people to reserves while relinquishing their land and almost all their political and civil rights. The Canadian Government did not intend to fulfill their obligations under the treaty--meagre as they were. During a House of Commons debate in 1882 about the cost of feeding the reserves, Father of Confederation Prime Minister John A. Macdonald stood and said "I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole … are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense." Over a third of the Plains First Nations who resettled on the reservations died between 1880 and 1885.xx2 With the extinction of the bison and the removal of indigenous peoples, European settlers made quick work of changing the landscape into a home for their families. In 1882, the first of the settlers had arrived, and the opening of the Lineham sawmill in 1891 saw the beginnings of the town taking shape.xx1

3. Walking the Riverbank


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Okotoks Archives F113f1p36 & On This Spot Enterprises

1913

The above photo shows two women taking a stroll alongside the river, hats and dresses protecting them from the sun. In both summer and winter the river was a place for recreation, whether it was bathing and swimming in the summer, or skating and curling in the winter.

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From the early days of settlement, Sheep River was the town's focal point. Not only was it an important economic tool but it was also a spot for fun and recreation. In the early parts of the twentieth century, the summer months would see the rivers banks teeming with families and children, a cool spot for swimming. In the colder months, skating and curling were popular pastimes. Grace and Joyce Brown reminisce about growing up beside the Sheep River: "Because we lived so close to the river, we were all taught to swim at an early age. As with every family in Okotoks, the river was our playground, winter and summer. Our nearest neighbors were Granny and Grace Rowles, and our "buddies" were the Goulds, the Leonard sisters, the Birkett brothers, and the Blunderfields. We rafted on the river, skated in winter, and went skiing on the hills; also, five cents spent at Wentworth's grocery store bought an untold number of goodies." xx1 Yet, the conservative dress of the two women in the image above are the reminder that while leisure activities such as swimming have not changed since those days, how we (and especially women) dress when doing them has. In the early part of the 20th century, womens bathing costumes were much like the dresses pictured above, concealing and covering. Immodesty was a problem, one that was a finable offence. In Okotoks, the immodesty of swimmers in Sheep River was so common that it made the local newspaper. A reporter in the Okotoks Observer on August 6th 1914 stresses how important the coverage of skin was: "All this summer, bathers both men and women have been taking advantage of the cool pools in Sheep Creek and there has possibly been far more swimming than ever before. But many have appeared to disregard the fact that bathing suits are fashionable in certain sections of the globe, and the RNWMP have intimated to The Observer that hereafter a charge of indecent exposure will be laid, and pressed, against anyone, man, woman or child, caught bathing while unprovided with a proper and sufficient bathing costume."xx2 The fact that the newspaper considered it important enough to publish this article only a couple days after Canada joined Britain in the First World War, shows just how seriously this matter was taken. How people engaged in winter time activities in this early period were similarly different. For example, during the early twentieth century, skating was one of the few acceptable outdoor winter activities women could undertake. Evelyn Johnson remarked on the sometimes dangerous nature of skating: "We used to go and tell our parents we were going skating on Sunday afternoon. We’d go down the river and skate to Black Diamond and back. I can remember coasting across and hearing it hollow underneath. They never knew that. The river was deeper, but you wouldn’t drown. You might get wet, but I don’t think you’d get drowned… at least I hope not!"xx3 There was no women's hockey team at the time, though one of the few women's curling teams in Alberta was formed in nearby Banff in 1912.xx4

4. The Log Drivers


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

1911

This photo shows a little Mary Daggett sitting atop a post alongside the mill pond. The pond is jam-packed with logs that have been floated down during the annual spring log drive, awaiting processing in the mill. While the river was essential to Okotokians as a source of clean water and fresh fish, it also played a crucial role as a highway for logs felled in the foothills upriver. The Lineham Mill established on this spot in 1891 was the lynchpin of the town's early economy.

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In early 20th Century Canada logging was a seasonal occupation that was fundamental to the formation of many towns. Sawmills required a source of running water, preferably one that was straight and calm so that logs could be moved significant distances in the great log drives.xx1 In Okotoks, preparations for the logging season began in late fall, when the river froze and the loggers men built their camps in the mountains. Once winter arrived, they would begin felling trees, continuing until the first thaw in early spring. When the river completely thawed, teams of drivers would begin the arduous six week log drive down the river towards the mill. Elma Lineham recorded a history of the logging industry in Okotoks. She was the daughter of John Lineham, founder of the Lineham Mill, and widely considered the Father of Okotoks. "My Father obtained timber rights on the Sheep Creek River and the Highwood River and established lumber mills in Okotoks and High River in 1891-92. Lineham Lumber Company mill was completed in 1891, the first big run of logs came down in 1892. Lumbering was the main industry in Okotoks for the next twenty-five years. "Logging was done as in Eastern Canada--cutting logs in the winter and floating them down the rivers in the spring to the mills, when the rivers were high or in freshette. Tent camps were established along the route. Chinese cooks were there to look after the inner man. "My sister Bess and I used to be taken up to these camps by my Father and the Chinese cook put on a real feast for the 'Boss's girls.' It was fun watching the log jams being sent on their way. The lumberjacks worked with caulked boots and peevies - it was interesting seeing how agile they were, leaping from the moving logs. The logging in the winter was done by oxen in the woods. Each year the logging camps were moved higher into the mountains. The men were housed in log bunk houses, only the roofs were lumber and for many years roofless cabins could be seen on the river banks. They were roofless because lumber for the roofs was scarce. As the camps moved and new bunkhouses were built, they were roofed with the used lumber. Most of the roads up into the mountains were originally built by the Lineham Lumber Company."xx2 During the log drive, the teams that made up the drivers were as important as the route itself, and teams would include at least one skilled veteran to tutor greenhorn drivers. W. Herron, an Okotoks resident, was a noted expert driver.xx3 Log driving required men with elevated balance and agility as they hopped from one bobbing and rolling log to the next. People loved to watch the drivers in action, and Dallas Wright recalls how "The log drive was an important event in the Spring of every year. Everyone went to the river to see this and one enterprising young minister once used the occasion to hold a Camp Meeting at the River Drivers' Camp."xx4

5. Learning to Fish


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

1912

In this photo Libbie Henderson is fishing in one of the shallow pools of the Sheep River. In the early settlements of Okotoks, one of the major draws of the river was the excellent fishing that could be found along the banks. The Sheep River continues to be a hugely popular fishing destination today.

* * *

This shallow stretch of the river had been used for fishing by the First Nations for centuries, and continued to be popular after the founding of Okotoks. The river was home to many kinds of fish, including trout and mountain whitefish, who spawn and migrate throughout the river. Jackie King recalled learning to fish here: "My brother Egerton Warren was born in Okotoks in 1919. Sheep Creek was a natural fishing hole and my brother learned the art of catching trout at an early age. His love for the sport has continued and he has caught many large fish in different parts of the world, but I venture to say that his early years were the most exciting. He would take me with him to the creek. Mr. Thompson would provide me with a hook from his hardware store; Egerton would cut a willow branch and with string from Mr. Hicks' store, I too became a fisherman."xx1 The river and associated waterways provided enough to help feed the residents. "Philip became an ardent fisherman and hunter and knew every inch of the Highwood and Sheep Rivers. He took Robie when he was five years old to fish at Barrett's bridge. They hitched Beatrice's riding horse, Dick, to the buggy to take them to the fishing spots and on more than one occasion returned home with a washtub full of fish for less than an hour's fishing. Later Philip introduced Gerald to the sport. Philip, his brothers, and cousins enjoyed fishing and camping trips up the Highwood. Xx2

6. Childhood on the Riverbank


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

1912

Another photo of Libbie Henderson enjoying a day on the Sheep River. The river is associated with all kinds of memories, whether in picking berries for the Stampede or learning to swim. The river features front and centre in the memories of many residents.

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For generations of kids in Okotoks, the river was their playground, and where most grew up swimming, skating, fishing, picking berries. Berry picking was a way for children to make a little bit of pocket money. Rhoda Kopas's children would pick berries to help make enough to attend the Calgary stampede: 'The children walked two miles to school in all weather. The highlight of the year for the children was the Calgary Stampede. Through the year they collected gopher tails (2¢ each) and beer bottles along the highway. They picked saskatoons and raspberries, and any money they received as gifts was all pooled together and spent at the Stampede. Families would gather together by the river for a picnic lunch and the children were turned loose to enjoy themselves. All would meet later at the Ferris wheel." xx1 In the early 1900s, a five pound pail was worth around 25 cents, about 3 dollars today, and children would horde their hard earned cash for sweets.xx2 Childhoods on the banks of the river are a common theme interwoven into the stories of residents recorded in the Okotoks community history book, Century of Memories: "The summers found us all picking saskatoons by the tubs full. Those, along with rhubarb, were what fruit we had. I remember the community picnics at Mundells and Mildred (Rimmer) Gough's birthday on the longest day of the year, June 21. We would ride, and play for hours along Sheep Creek or on the Big Rock." xx3 While many of the residents recalled playing along the banks, others remember helping out on the farm, and driving herds of cattle over the river fords. "In the early thirties, Dad used to winter cattle from the foothills. It was mostly Walter Phillips stock from Kew. I usually trailed these cattle down in December, and took them back in the spring. There was always one old cow that would take the lead which would help to string them out, making the trailing easier. My sister Mildred would often meet me at Sheep Creek and help me across. Sometimes the river was frozen over and very slippery, so Dad would take the team and sleigh and scatter manure making the crossing easier. The cattle pastured on the stubble and straw stacks. In those days there was a lot of grain went into the stacks when they threshed, which made the feed better than baled straw from the combines today. The stacks also made good shelter. It was my job to check the cattle regularly to see that they had water and salt and that all was well."xx4

7. A Lifeline in Hard Times


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

1910-1915

Growing up along the banks of the Sheep River, almost all of the residents have clear memories of picking berries, whether it be chokecherries or saskatoons, both of which grew in abundance. Throughout the 20th century, children would pick berries for preservation, to be made into jams and preserves, or to be sold. Berry picking was not just the sole job of children, everyone in the community would pick berries, and they were critical in lean times.

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In the early 1900s, many of the women preserved the saskatoons and other wild berries to provide sugary spreads into the winter. A memory from the Noble family recalls how hard Laura would work to preserve food of the early days: "As fall approached the 'early-days' farmers made extensive preparations for a winter that might include extended periods of isolation. Robert and Laura exchanged wheat for groceries in large quantities; a hundred pounds of brown sugar, two hundred pounds of white sugar, dried apples and prunes in twenty-five pound boxes, sacks of rice, tapioca, and dried beans, probably ten or twelve hundred-pound sacks of flour as well as large quantities of oatmeal, cornmeal, and cracked wheat. Pigs were butchered, hams and bacon cured in a smokehouse and fresh pork partly cooked and packed in large crocks covered with rendered lard, and stored in the cellar for winter use. Both butter and eggs were preserved in water glass. They would keep fresh for months if stored in a cool place. Many garden root vegetables were stored in the Noble's root house; cabbage provided crocks of sauerkraut and vinegar was made from apple parings and wild fruit. The wild fruit was plentiful and in the summer Laura preserved saskatoons, gooseberries, rasp-berries, and strawberries to provide winter treats for her family."xx1 During the Great Depression, when many families struggled to feed themselves, unemployment was high and crops were scarce. Saskatoonberries and other wild berries were a critical food source. Ruth Hamilton remembers how many berries her family picked during those years: "With the big depression in full swing all ways and means of putting food on the table were fully considered. We all picked saskatoons, Dad, Mom, Uncle Bill and us kids, by the washtub, boiler, milk buckets, and syrup pails full. Charlie and Thelma have to be the champion berry pickers of all time. 'Could they strip a tree!' One summer Mom put down nearly three hundred quarts of saskatoons. It seemed as though she spent most of the summer sitting on our shady veranda cleaning berries. It was a good way of socializing though, as every one who passed our gate stopped to visit or came and sat in the shade, and while chatting, cleaned a few berries. There was no money for anything that wasn't vitally important during those depression years so all of the young people created their own amusement. In summer we lived at the river, swimming; and in winter, we skated on it. We played ball in the vacant lots. Popular games were Run Sheep Run, Pump Pump Pull Away, Kick the Can, and Anti-I-Over."xx2 During the Second World War when rationing once again squeezed food supplies, berries again became an important part of Okotokians' diets. Saskatoonberries acted as a natural sweetener in the absence of sugar, which was rationed to 200 grams per adult per week.xx3 While traditionally preserved as a jam with sugar, women across the country and at Okotoks learned to preserve berries without that critical ingredient. "I remember the fall of 1942 being an exceptionally good berry year. The wild fruit trees were laden. Jack and Don Anderson picked saskatoons down near the railway bridge east of the town. They came home with a baby's zinc bath tub almost full of berries. It was in the war years then and sugar was rationed. The Canadian Western Natural Gas Company's home economics department instructed us homemakers on how to preserve the berries without using sugar or water. I canned so many saskatoons that I was making saskatoon pies years after the war was over and plenty of sugar was again available. The preserving method we had been taught during those war years was very successful."xx4

8. The Unpredictable River


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

Taken in the early 20th century the above photograph captures two women seeking to cross the river at a low point. For all the benefits the Sheep River provided, it was not without its dangers. Flooding was--and is--frequent, and severe floods have often wrought havoc on Okotoks.

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Occurring all throughout the 20th century to the present day, floods have taken a heavy toll in property, and on some occasions, lives. The floods of 1902, 1915, and 1932 were especially damaging, and were imprinted on the memories of Okotokians. In 1902, the flood destroyed the sole bridge over the river, leaving residents unable to cross. Elma Lineham remembered the destruction of the family coop most clearly: "1902, I think, was the year of a very bad flood in both rivers. Our house in Okotoks was partly washed away. All the logs went down and had to be salvaged from as far away as the Little Bow River. We kids, our cousins - Minnie, Bill, baby George; and Bess and I were all locked up in Uncle Will Lineham's house which was on higher ground than ours. My most vivid memory was of our chicken house floating down the river with all the chickens on the ridgepole. The bridge over the river was washed out."xx1 The 1915 flood was similarly destructive, ripping up the sidewalks of the town and drowning a man. As a child, Ruth Hamilton recalled how the rapid rise of the waters caught them off guard: "Waking up in the dark of night with a foot of water in our bedroom. My Dad and Mom putting us kids, Charlie, Thelma and me under a tarp in the wagon and the horse splashing through the water on the way to Grandad Foran's farm, away from the flood."xx2 As the Okotoks Review wrote in 1915: "A relic of the flood is seen in the quantities of loose sidewalk floating around in the west end. The Council have put men to work however repairing and generally fixing things up, including the culvert beside the rink which was washed out. The road on the other aide of the new bridge was badly damaged and the park on both sides was under water." xx4 Milicent Sanderman summed up how surprising the floods at Sheep River had been for the residents, when she recalled the 1932 flood: "Unless it is seen, it is almost impossible to imagine how our ever faithful Sheep Creek can flood."xx3 The floods have always been triggered by melting snow in the mountains, followed by rains that last for days. Such wet conditions mean that the river supersides the banks. Countermeasures such as sandbags, pumps, siphons, and filters can ameliorate the damage, but frequently there hasn't been enough advance warning to make them effective. Okotokians have had to learn how to rebuild and move forward.

9. The Power of Nature


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

1902

In the above picture, the 1902 flood has overtaken the banks of the river, and as you can see in the far right corner, come up to the side of the house. Throughout the history of Okotoks, the river has been a safe crossing space, a source of prosperity, a lifeline in times of hardship, and a danger not to be taken lightly. For the Plains First Nations, this area on the banks of the Sheep River remains a sacred place. The Big Rock from which Okotoks derives its name, was a landmark, steeped in myth and legend, and the trees around you were used by the Indigenous to carry out their ancient burial practices.

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In Blackfoot culture, the dead had to be laid to rest in a manner that would allow the spirit to safely leave the body. Burials in deep graves, as is common European practice, would hinder a soul's ability to reach the afterlife. Instead the dead were exposed to the air. This was achieved through tree burials. Friends and relatives of the deceased would build a platform between two of the cottonwood trees high off the ground, and the body would be placed on the platform. In doing so, the spirit could return to the open air, and the sky. Designated as historical trees in 2007, the cottonwoods on both sides of the River have been recognized as a heritage site for the town of Okotoks. The connection between life and death for the Blackfoot people is evident: at the spot where the herds of bison crossed from one bank to another, so too could humans pass from this life to the next. Here at the end of our tour is a good time to stop and reflect on the long ancient history of this place, and the many generations who have been drawn here to the banks of the Sheep River.


Endnotes

1. An Ancient Crossing

1. Force, S.A.F.R.T., 2014. Southern Alberta Flood Recovery Task Force Flood Mitigation Measures for the Bow River, Elbow River and Oldman River Basins Volume 1–Summary Recommendations Report.

2. "Okotoks Erratic - 'Big Rock', Government of Alberta Website, online.

2. Dispossession of the Indigenous

1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, A Century of Memories: Okotoks and District, 1883-1983 (Okotoks: Okotoks and District Historical Society, 1983), 6.

2. Tristin Hopper, "Here is what Sir John A. Macdonald did to Indigenous people," National Post, August 28, 2018.

3. Walking the Riverbank

1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 135.

2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 325.

3. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 282.

4. M.A. Hall, Immodest and Sensational: 150 Years of Canadian Women in Sports, (James Lorimer & Company. 2008), 24.

4. The Log Drivers

1. Graeme Wynn, "Timber Trade History," The Canadian Encyclopedia, July 26, 2013, online.

2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 362.

3. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 282.

4. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 645.

5. Learning to Fish

1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 347.

2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 516.

6. Childhood on the Riverbank

1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 353.

2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 339.

3. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 463.

4. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 497.

7. A Lifeline in Hard Times

1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 467.

2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 331.

3. CBC Kids, "Did you know we had to ration food during the war?" online.

4. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 97.

8. The Unpredictable River

1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 362.

2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 332.

3. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 62-63.

4. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 62.


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