Historic Walking Tour

Working in Okotoks

The Jobs, Industries, and Characters

Top Gallery Photo Sample

& On This Spot Enterprises

When Okotoks opened to European settlement with the arrival of the railway in the 1890s, hundreds of immigrants were drawn to this spot alongside the Sheep River. They were drawn by the jobs and opportunities presented by the new industries that grew up here, such as the sawmills, the ranches, and the brickworks. Just as important were the merchants who established shops that provided Okotokians with all the goods and services that made daily life possible. This tour we will look at some of these jobs and industries, and some of the prominent figures who helped build Okotoks. This tour is a short walk that begins just by the Okotoks Museum on North Railway St., the site of the old railway station. From there we'll walk west along Elizabeth Street towards the historic downtown. Finally we'll walk to the edge of the Sheep River where the sawmill once stood, and and reflect on how the jobs people do in Okotoks have changed. The land on which you'll be walking is the traditional territory of the People of Treaty 7 which includes the Blackfoot Confederacy comprised of the Siksika, Piikani and Kainai First Nations, as well as the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region 3.

This project is a partnership with the Okotoks Museum.

1. Okotoks Gets Its Start


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

1909

This is Okotoks Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) station. This is an appropriate place to start this tour because it's where most settlers in Okotoks first set foot when they arrived here seeking out a new life. In an era before widespread car ownership and highways, the train station became Okotoks gateway to the outside world. The original station on this spot was completed in 1892, but burned down in 1928 and was replaced with the somewhat different station you see today. This station continued in its intended role until the 1970s when passenger rail service was suspended. Given the building's historic importance, the Okotoks Arts Council and Town of Okotoks worked together to preserve the station and turn it into an art gallery, a purpose it continues to fulfill today.

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Many Alberta towns began as planned communities by railway companies. They'd choose a spot for a town along the line's route, lay out a street grid, set aside land for public buildings, and begin selling plots of land in the town and surrounding areas. Okotoks was different: it predated the railway. It was located on the Macleod Trail, a muddy track connecting Calgary and the North West Mounted Police detachment at Fort Macleod. Stagecoaches making the three-day journey from Calgary usually made it as far as Okotoks in a single day and stopped here for the night before fording the river in the morning. This was an obvious business opportunity, and in 1882 the one of the first two pioneers to settle in Okotoks, Kenneth Cameron, built a stopping house--a kind of inn--for the stagecoach passengers resting during their long, bumpy journeys. More settlers were drawn to the site by its natural beauty, proximity to Calgary, and access to a supply of fresh, clean water. By 1887 Okotoks had 20 homesteads, two stopping houses, and Herb Bowen's General Store, which we will see at the next stop.xx1 The Sheep Creek also provided easy access to timber in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, which could be cut and floated downstream. In the 1880s Donald Morrison and John Lineham (more about him later) established sawmills in Okotoks. These mills would become the backbone of Okotoks economy for the next 25 years.xx2 Thus, when the CPR laid the Calgary to Fort Macleod line through Okotoks in 1891 the community was already fairly established. The mills were even able to supply the railway with ties to speed construction. This meant the railways and their affiliated land speculators had far less control over the community's early development than many other towns on the Canadian prairies. This can be seen in the street layout, which doesn't quite conform to the standard grid pattern that is the hallmark of railway towns: the slanted main street follows the route of the old Macleod Trail and there are many dead-end residential streets. It can also be seen in the names of the streets, which are named for those first pioneers and their families (Lineham, Elma, McRae, Daggett) rather than for railway men and realtors. As the historian Lewis Thomas puts it, "Okotoks, almost alone among the towns along the Calgary and Edmonton Railway, does not have streets consecrated to those tutelary spirits of land speculation, Osler, Hammond and Nanton."xx3 Nevertheless the arrival of the railway was a watershed moment in the town's history. As Okotoks historian Kathy Coutts explains, "The train station connected local residents with the rest of the world. It brought mail, it brought new residents, visitors, investors, connected communities, and brought convenience."xx4 The day-long journey to Calgary was suddenly reduced to an hour, and serviced by four passenger trains a day.xx5 The opening of the railway started Okotoks on the journey from a cluster of log cabins and stagecoach inns to a thriving town.

2. The Postal Service


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

Several people on horseback pose for a photo in front of the Post Office. The building behind it is home to the Star Restaurant, one of Okotoks first restaurants. John Paterson--who also ran the Paterson and Sons General Store a couple doors down--was postmaster until his son George succeeded him in 1909. George served as postmaster until his death in 1942, and was an important figure in the community; he also did a stint as mayor in 1906. Among the first services to appear in prairie towns were general stores and post offices. Their impact went far beyond the bounds of the town itself. Those living and working in the surrounding region--the farmers, ranchers, loggers, miners, and later oil field workers--relied on these services too, and frequently visited Okotoks to trade, send and receive mail, and purchase the necessities of life.

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The Sheep Creek Post Office was established in the mid-1880s and operated out of MacMillan's stopping place along the Macleod Trail. The first postmasters were usually local business owners who took on the job as a side-gig. As Okotoks grew the post office was renamed and relocated to the store pictured above in 1887, which was then owned by Herb Bowen but taken over by John Paterson a few years later.xx1 Mail came and went by train, so it's hardly surprising that the post office was right across the street from the station. To our 21st Century eyes, regular mail service by rail might seem a preposterously slow way to communicate--we often call it snail mail after all--but to the early settlers of Okotoks and its environs, it was a breathtaking revolution in the speed of communication. Now the settlers could cheaply send packages in a matter of days or weeks to their friends and family in Eastern Canada and the United Kingdom. Compare that to the expensive and months long stagecoach mail that came before. A telegraph line was laid early on too, giving the near instant communication we're used to today, though sending messages with it was expensive. Telephones wouldn't be introduced for another 20 years. Regular mail service was an antidote to the oppressive isolation experienced by many of those early pioneers, especially those settled on rural farmsteads. It also gave them access to consumer goods not available in the local general store or hardware store thanks to the burgeoning mail-order retailers. Mail-order delivery is a business that has exploded in recent years with the rise of online giants like Amazon and Ebay, but it is by no means a new idea. In fact it was a key part of life for the prairie pioneers. Department stores like Eaton's, Simpson's, and Sears provided catalogues that covered every conceivable need, including clothes, cooking utensils, household appliances, and even entire prefabricated houses (some assembly required). Geraldine Stewart, the daughter of farmers who settled just outside of Okotoks, recalls how "shopping was conducted in a very different way in those days": "Articles were ordered from T. Eaton Co., Winnipeg, and Simpson's in Regina. Whoever in the community happened to be going to town stopped at each neighbor's house along the way and picked up the cream, eggs, grocery list and letter to the mail order companies. In town they took the cream and eggs to the creamery, cashed the cheque, but kept the stubs to show there was no cheating, picked up the groceries, sent the money orders and came back in the evening to drop off the proper items at the respective houses along with the correct change. This procedure was considered only ordinary neighborliness, in fact it was almost by way of an insult if the current traveller passed by the gate without stopping to shout, 'Want anything from town?'"xx2

3. Making Ends Meet


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

1906

Another view of the commercial buildings on North Railway Street, showing several horse buggies parked on the street. The two storey brick building at centre right is the Wentworth General Store, which was a hub of community activity. In the 1890s and early 1900s Okotoks drew in many entrepreneurs who set up a diverse array of businesses to cater to the needs of the growing population. In a few short years the town boasted hardware stores, dry goods dealers, clothing stores, shoemakers, grocery stores, butchers, bakers, a watchmaker, and a barber--to name a few. And of course there were a whole range of businesses oriented to providing the equipment and horses needed by the local farmers.

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In small towns like Okotoks the general store provided many of the necessities of daily life. Wentworth's, for instance, carried "everything from china to dry goods to groceries to hardware to writing paper and tricycles." In an age before modern refrigeration, ice cut straight from the Sheep River and stored in sawdust in the "ice house" was available for sale as well. The shopping experience was quite different from what most of us are used to today: A customer would go up to the counter and present their shopping list to a clerk, who would gather everything up from behind the counter. This was an intensely social experience, and Jack Wentworth claimed to know 75% of his customers by their first name. An article about Wentworth's from 1961 waxed nostalgic about the decline of this style of shopping in favour of the customer wandering up and down aisles we all know today: "Once you step inside and look along its shelf-bordered length of 140 feet, with the five clerks bustling about between counters, you realize how anti-social is the shopping cart."xx1 While businesses like Wentworth's General Store were able to continue largely unchanged for decades, other entrepreneurs were forced to creatively rebrand repeatedly in search of a market niche. One such entrepreneur was O.L. Pyatt, who established a barber shop and tobacco store in 1906 in the building that now houses Vivid Computers, just behind where you are standing. Pyatt was continually expanding his line of products and services to make ends meet. Within a year, he added public baths – 4 for a dollar – to his shop. He then added a bowling alley in the building just to the west. This venture didn’t catch on in Okotoks and he soon turned the bowling alley into a shooting range. Pyatt also operated a free employment office from his shop matching those looking for work with farmers or businessmen needing labour. Small town shopkeepers like Pyatt and Wentworth were known and fondly remembered by Okotokians who lived at that time, and left a huge impact on the community.

4. Building in Brick


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Okotoks Archives F100f1p1 & On This Spot Enterprises

1911

The Dutch photojournalist John Vanderpant standing in front of his photography studio that was located in this building, the McLeod Block. In most Alberta towns the first commercial buildings to go up were usually cheap, flimsy, and made of wood. As soon as possible though, they were replaced by "substantial brick structures that reflected at once the affluence and the aspirations of their builders."xx1 These brick blocks didn't just confer prestige on the town, they were also less likely to burn down. This was an important consideration as fires were frequent, especially in Okotoks. According to one Okotoks resident "probably no Alberta town suffered more by fire."xx2 Unfortunately even these brick buildings weren't entirely fireproof: and one winter night in 1914 the Mcleod Block too went up in flames, taking Vanderpant's studio and possessions with it. As the unlucky man stood in the snow helplessly watching the conflagration consume his livelihood, he did what any good photojournalist would do and photographed the fire. These photos can be viewed in the app's Nearby section.

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The period from the late 1890s to about the outbreak of the First World War was one of nearly uninterrupted economic and demographic expansion in the Canadian West--one that has never been equalled before or since. This Western Boom spawned wild optimism and extravagant predictions about the future trajectory of the young nation: "it seemed not only probable but inevitable that as the nineteenth century had been the century of the United States so the twentieth would be the century of Canada."xx3 Okotokians were clearly swept up in the excitement. In 1907 the Okotoks Board of Trade released a booklet promoting investment and immigration to the town titled "Okotoks: the Eldorado of South Alberta." Eldorado, the mythical lost city of gold, was chosen as a nickname because of the apparently inexhaustible yields of golden wheat from the surrounding fields. "Okotoks," it reads, "is about sixteen years old, and until the past five or six years did not show any unusual activity... With the advance of immigration, however, the brave little town took new life, and... has steadily but surely forged ahead to its present position, which warrants it in being confident of becoming one of the leading towns of Sunny Alberta." The booklet extolls opportunities not just for new businesses, but for workers as well. "Okotoks offers good wages to labourers and tradesmen of almost any kind, laborers getting from $2.00 to $3.50 per day," or about $60 to $80 a day in today's money and skilled workmen $3.50 to $5.00." That's a range of about $55 to $110 a day in today's money, competitive for the time. "No need to be idle here. At least 300 men are needed now for quarry work, brickyards, building, lumbering, farming, railroads, construction, etc."xx4 It lists dozens of businesses established by local entrepreneurs, and boasts that "a large number of these Men [at the time the most entrepreneurs were men] occupy brick buildings, which testify to the substantial character of the town."xx5 The Mcleod Block was one such building.

5. Prairie Banks


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

1912

This photo shows local notables standing in front of the Stockton Block. They include John Lineham, widely known as the 'Father of Okotoks' (third from left), and Dr. Fred Stockton, the town's first doctor and mayor, and for whom the building is named (left of centre with arms crossed). The Block was completed in 1903 and housed Dr. Stockton's medical practice, a drug store, and of course Okotoks only bank, the Union Bank. As in most prairie towns in this period, the Union Bank played an essential role in the community's survival by making capital from Eastern Canada available to local entrepreneurs and new immigrants. Credit extended by the Union Bank was especially crucial to the survival of local farmers and ranchers, who were often a drought or an early frost away from financial ruin. This economic system delivered prosperity in the good years, but its near total dependence on investors from outside Alberta was a great weakness--as Okotokians discovered during the Great Depression.

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Settling in a new town and buying land, building a home, or starting a business are all very expensive undertakings. Many of these early pioneers arrived with big dreams, but empty pockets. How were they to realize their dreams? This is where banks like the Winnipeg-based Union Bank came in. They extended low interest loans to entrepreneurs, allowing them to jumpstart all sorts of new businesses. Once these businesses were established, the entrepreneurs might take out new loans to expand, which might draw more people to the community looking for work, who might take out loans of their own to start their own businesses, starting the cycle anew. This model was extremely effective in the years of the Western Canadian Boom before World War I, when Okotoks grew from a few dozen inhabitants to at least 500 (the town optimistically claimed 1,000, but the 1911 census only counted 516).xx1 However, during economic downturns the prairie banks became the sole lifeline that separated many businesses and farmers from financial ruin. This was especially important in Okotoks, since it "had an exceedingly vulnerable economic infrastructure," that depended on a continuous influx of outside capital. As the historian Lewis G. Thomas puts it, "its industries, its lumber mill, the flourishing brickworks at Sandstone... all depended upon a buoyant construction industry."xx2 If a business or farmer had a bad year or two, then the bank could step in and loan them enough money to get back on their feet. But what would happen if the flow of outside investment froze up and the bank itself ran out of money? Then Okotoks would be in deep trouble. That happened with the outbreak of the First World War. The Union Bank was funded by investors in Eastern Canada and the United Kingdom, and they quickly redirected their funds to the war effort, depriving Okotoks farmers and townsfolk of desperately needed credit. Five years of war came close to bankrupting both Canada and the British Empire. When the conflict finally came to an end, the economic damage to Okotoks was substantial--to say nothing of the human toll. Thomas surveyed the damage: "The Okotoks of 1920 was a shadow of the optimistic and bustling town of the first decade [of the 1900s]." He continued, "The lumber mill had closed, the brickworks at Sandstone was falling into decay. No one worked the quarries. The flour mill survived for a time, but it was not rebuilt after its destruction by fire. There was one doctor where there had been three... Many of the stores had closed, especially those that had attempted a specialized trade. The skating rink, the most ambitious civic enterprise of the pre-war years, still stood but even its roof soon collapsed under the weight of an exceptionally heavy snow."xx3 The town's fortunes slowly recovered through the 1920s, thanks in part to ongoing development of the Turner Valley oil fields, but any optimism was short-lived. The Great Depression of the 1930s was coupled in southern Alberta with a historically unprecedented drought known as the Dust Bowl. Farmers had to watch helplessly as fierce winds blew away their parched topsoil--and by extension their livelihoods. Even in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, the scale of this economic calamity can be difficult for us to grasp today. Gladys Bird graduated high school in Okotoks during the 'dirty thirties', and recalled how "there were no government or bank loans or grants for anything." She had dreams to become a school teacher, but she "and many others had to give up our hopes and find whatever employment was available."xx4 Gladys succeeded in landing a clerk job, but many others were not so lucky: "Those looking for work had to travel by 'riding the rails' on freight cars, eating and sleeping in the 'jungles' of the dump yards or gravel pits, or in whatever shelter they could find. If they could not find work, they would chop wood or do some other small job in return for a meal or a lunch, or simply beg for something to eat." The Depression made many realize how precarious life could become if banks and the financial system they represented were all that determined whether people in a town like Okotoks would be prosperous or impoverished. Caving to popular pressure, both federal and provincial governments finally responded by dramatically expanding their role in the economy, and creating a social welfare system to shield Canadians from the worst excesses of the free market.

6. The Oil Age


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Okotoks Archives F7f1p48 & On This Spot Enterprises

1914

A tractor on McRae Street pulls four wagons laden with wooden planks bound for the oil and gas fields in the Turner Valley. The 1914 discovery of oil and gas at Black Diamond in the Turner Valley, about 20 km west of Okotoks, was a momentous event in the province's history, inaugurating the 'Turner Valley Era' of Alberta's petroleum industry. It all started when William Stewart Herron, an Okotoks rancher, discovered a gas seep on the banks of the Sheep River. Exploratory drilling began soon after, and on May 14, they hit black gold. For the next 30 years the Turner Valley would be the most productive oil and gas field in the British Empire.xx1 Okotoks had the nearest railway station to Turner Valley, and so became the staging ground for development of the field. Soon after the discovery Okotoks was crowded with oil workers, businessmen, and shipments of equipment like the one you see here, all headed west.

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Today, our society's reliance on oil is so heavily ingrained that it can be easy to forget that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of the 1800s oil--especially whale oil--was used for lighting lamps, but relatively little else; coal was the primary fuel of the early Industrial Revolution. But when internal combustion engines and automobiles were invented and refined in Europe and America in the late 1800s, oil's time had come. In August 1903 the first automobile was seen in Alberta, and it was considered a strong enough novelty to be worthy of news coverage. The Eye Opener, a Calgary newspaper, took a dig at Okotoks writing: "Billy Cochrane of High River has introduced the first automobile into Alberta. High River is the pioneer of progress. Okotoks still clings to the Red River cart."xx2 Okotoks wouldn't stay a laggard for long in this economic and technological revolution. Instead, she soon found herself thrust to the centre of it. William Stewart Herron was born in Ontario in 1870, and spent some time in Pennsylvania's oil fields where he developed an interest in petroleum geology. In 1905 Herron and his wife purchased a ranch near Okotoks and started a variety of small business ventures. He investigated some gas seeps along the Sheep Creek, and believed they hinted at a substantial oil and gas field beneath the surface. He began buying up the surrounding land and approached Calgary financiers and oil men to partner with. The result was the formation of the Calgary Petroleum Products Company in 1911, "the first corporate entity capable of investigating petroleum prospects in the Alberta foothills."xx3 Drilling finally began in 1913, and continued for a long time with little success. Then on May 14, 1914, a new era in Alberta's development began. "Oil Shoots Sixty Feet in the Air," read the excited headline of the Red Deer News. "Flow so great that drillers have to suspend operations."xx4 "A frenzy of speculation immediately overtook Calgary," writes one historian. "Working out of makeshift brokerage offices, promoters hawked the dozens of new oil companies that had sprung up."xx5 Okotoks too transformed radically overnight, and the streets filled with equipment and oil workers making the trek to the Turner Valley. Unfortunately this boom was short-lived; three months later the First World War started, and Canadian society radically reorientated its priorities from economic growth to total war, and the development of the Turner Valley ground to an almost complete halt. After the war, drilling in the Turner Valley slowly ticked up again. "Although this was good for business in [Okotoks] and provided employment for its young men, and husbands of some of its young women, it offered nothing like the stimulus provided to Alberta by the Leduc discoveries of 1947."xx6 Nevertheless, the Turner Valley was the first significant producing oil field in Alberta, and Okotoks played an important part in that story.

7. Remittance Men


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Okotoks Archives F1f2p10 & On This Spot Enterprises

1905

Here we see the Grand Central Hotel along with a variety of men and women who have stopped to pose for a photo. When this hotel opened in 1905 it boasted top-of-the-line amenities, including over 40 rooms, a large dining room, billiard room, bar, and a showroom for salesmen to show off their wares. The hotel proved so popular that a large expansion was needed just a year after opening.xx1 The success of the Grand Central helped shift the town's commercial centre of gravity a few blocks west from the area around the station. The hotel survives today, in heavily modified form, as the Royal Duke. In those days hotels played an important role in the community: after all, the first two businesses in Okotoks were stopping houses--hotels of a sort. People in Alberta moved around a lot more, as the book Century of Memories explains: “There were steady boarders and many people who stopped over night or just for a meal. Many rested on their way to a new home.”xx4 One such boarder was Dr. Ardiel, who took advantage of the hotel’s convenient stables to ride around Okotoks carrying out house calls.

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There were two other hotels in Okotoks, the Royal Hotel and the Alberta Hotel, which were both located near the station. It just so happened these hotels were the only places in town that served alcohol, so they became social hubs, and inevitably attracted some interesting characters. After a big night at the Grand Central's bar, a man given the pseudonym Mr. Smith reached his limit, and had to be taken to bed. Unfortunately he was a loyal boarder at one of the other hotels and refused to spend the night at the Grand Central. So he was put in a wheelbarrow and taken to his favourite hotel, where he slept it off in the lobby. Only in the morning did he discover he had forgotten his false teeth at the Grand Central, much to everyone's amusement.xx3 The bars were also frequented by an all but forgotten stock character from this period of Canadian history: the remittance man. In the British aristocracy it was always the oldest son who inherited and ran a family's estate. This left the younger sons with a lot of money and little to do, a volatile and potentially embarrassing combination. Parents often "found it more convenient to ship them off to some remote space in the colonies and maintain them there than attempt to curb their perverse ways at home."xx4 Since many of these men were raised on romantic notions of the Wild West, a large number decided to move to Alberta to become cowboys. The land around Okotoks was perfect for raising horses, so a number of remittance men bought huge ranches in the area and tried to make a go of it. After a hard days work on the ranch, they'd often appear in the hotel bars in full cowboy regalia that struck an odd contrast with their stuffy upper class English accents. Unfortunately it quickly became evident that they were "often well educated by English standards, but quite helpless when it came to life in the Canadian West."xx5 Okotoks resident Bernice Barrett recalls how these remittance men--"often the problem sons of rich families"--could be found in the Grand Central's bar. "Some of these men had land in the foothills and came to town for company. One wrote home to say he was doing fine, and that he had a ranch with two thousands head of gophers." Perhaps two thousand gophers (and no horses) sounded like an impressive accomplishment to an English earl who had no idea what a ranch was.xx6 Fortunately for the remittance men, failure at ranching could be remedied by writing home and requesting more money--remittances--from their blue-blooded families. A series of letters by a fictional remittance man named Albert Buzzard Cholomondeley of Skookingham (or Bertie for short) wrote to his father appeared in the Calgary Eye-Opener between 1902 and 1904. Each was an increasingly preposterous appeal for more money. For example, in one letter he told his father he married a Metis woman and needed another thousand pounds "with which to start afresh... and forgo the pleasure of a trip home." Then “in subsequent letters he announces that his wife is dying; then is dead; that he is sentenced to be hanged as a murderer; and that he has decided to run for parliament on the prohibition ticket.”xx7 His thinly veiled threats to return home to his horrified father ensured the remittances kept flowing. Bertie "enjoyed immense popularity with the people of Alberta, and his fame 'spread throughout the Chinook Belt.'"xx8 The stereotype of the remittance man was so widely held that many people apparently believed Bertie was a real person and wrote letters to the Eye-Opener complaining about his poor treatment by the paper's editors. The remittance men became the butt of many jokes, and a part of early Alberta humour. But as the 20th Century wore on they blended in to Alberta society, and memory of them has since faded.

8. The Lineham Sawmill


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Okotoks Archives & On This Spot Enterprises

1892-1916

The Lineham Lumber Company sawmill operated from 1892 to 1916, and was the town's first major industry. It would put Okotoks on the map and draw in more workers to the fledgling village. The mill was located where the Okotoks Library is today. Established by John Lineham, the company was the main employer in Okotoks for almost 25 years. Lineham’s sawmill and logging camps provided work for over 100 men, producing about 30,000 board feet a day.xx1 Along with being Okotoks top employer, John Lineham was active in politics and served two terms as Okotoks mayor, beginning in 1909.xx2

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Lineham purchased timber rights high in the Foothills, adjacent to the Sheep River. Spruce, fir and pine were cut through the winter and then floated downstream during the spring run-off to a large millpond in front of the mill. There they were processed into railway ties and construction materials like shiplap and shingles, and fence posts. Being a lumberjack, log driver, or a labourer at the sawmill was of course dangerous work: “Injury and death could occur at any time and in myriad forms, including being hit by a wayward tree or infamous widow-maker (i.e., a broken limb hanging freely in a tree), or being crushed by a log that unexpectedly fell from its pile.”xx3 Many of the pioneers would move repeatedly across the prairies from job to job before becoming established. Many who came to Okotoks carried on elsewhere, and those who stayed in Okotoks worked various jobs to make ends meet--in the sawmill, on the railway, in the mines, or on the ranch. Unfortunately the First World War's economic impact was devastating to Lineham's sawmill, and by 1916 it had shut down. It would not reopen in downtown Okotoks and in the 1930s the decaying buildings were torn down to make way for an arena.

9. Bushels and Thoroughbreds


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Okotoks Archives F29s14f12p3 & On This Spot Enterprises

A late photo of a freight train passing by Okotoks elevator row, a daily occurrence throughout much of Okotoks history. The grain elevators once dominated the town's skyline, a towering reminder of the huge role farming played in the local economy. As a brochure produced by the Okotoks Board of Trade in 1907 claimed, "Okotoks is the centre of one of the most fertile stretches in the West. Nowhere is the rich, black loam more productive, and nowhere is the climate more temperate in the winter months." The land was so fertile that the District's farmers in 1906 achieved remarkable yields of 40 bushels of wheat per acre on average.xx1 Today, after a century of technological and agricultural advancement, Alberta's average per acre wheat yields have only marginally improved to 50 bushels.xx2 But farming wasn't what made Okotoks famous: "If there is any one thing for which the District of Okotoks can justly and proudly claim the palm from the whole of Western Canada, it is for her horses--not one kind but for all kinds."xx3

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In the early 1900s the farms of the Okotoks District strained to meet the soaring demand. Barley was wanted by the breweries in Calgary. Oats needed in the lumbering areas in the Alberta Foothills and in BC. And of course the population centres of Eastern Canada had an insatiable appetite for wheat. Storing that wheat as they awaited freight cars was what these elevators were for. Most of the District's most productive farms were to the east of the town, and in those days farmers relied upon horses for pulling the ploughs in the fields and the wagons that brought their goods to market. Everyone needed horses. It's no surprise then that horse-breeding would become important here. In fact Okotoks played a central role in the development of that fundamental aspect of Alberta's culture. In 1885 a group of English gentlemen with a taste for fine horses and fox-hunting purchased a mammoth 66,000 acre block of land just west of Okotoks, calling it the Quorn Ranch.xx4 They wanted to breed the finest horses in the world and sell them to the British Army. They certainly picked good land to do it on. In 1887, Canada's chief veterinary inspector visited the area and was deeply impressed, writing "Probably no better horse-breeding country exists in the British Empire than the district of Alberta."xx5 The Quorn Ranch started importing "super-quality" thoroughbred stallions from England. One named Eaglesplume "became one of the most well-known early names in western thoroughbred racing and breeding history." Eaglesplume sired May W in 1894, who has since been considered "the greatest thoroughbred raised in Canada."xx6 The obsession with quality on the Quorn Ranch even extended to the "specially imported long-legged hunting hounds," though as there were no foxes in Alberta, the ranch's guests had to make do with hunting coyotes.xx7 The Quorn maintained a focus on entertaining upper class English guests and remittance men, who "came west to 'do' a season on the range and learn about ranching--preferably in the comfort of a good chair on the manager's verandah. Entertaining these visitors in the elaborate fashion to which they were accustomed was a drain on the ranch's resources."xx8 In the end the British Army didn't end up buying the Quorn's horses, and the ranch struggled financially; in 1906 the entire enterprise collapsed. Nevertheless the Quorn had established the District's impeccable reputation for horse-breeding. Many other breeders set up ranches in the area, drawing from the enviable stock left by the Quorn, and raising horses not just for racing and hunting, but hauling and farm work. In 1906 horses from Okotoks won 2/3 of the prizes at the Calgary Stallion Show.xx9 Nevertheless the horse's dominance of the prairies was drawing to a close as cars, trucks, and tractors replaced them in their many functions. "The gentlemanly settlers" who ran the horse ranches "were still gratifying this passion for horseflesh in the 1920s and 1930s in spite of the painful indications that they were waging a losing fight against the realities of the marketplace."xx10 Ultimately it was a losing battle. Today horse-breeding still occurs on a small scale in the Okotoks District, and farming remains an important part of the economy, but its importance has been eclipsed by other sectors. The empty field where the grain elevators once stood is a solitary reminder of Okotoks economic evolution over the past century.

10. The Changing Economy


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Okotoks Archives F1f4p2 & On This Spot Enterprises

A gruff-looking work crew at Lineham's sawmill poses for a portrait in front of the main mill building that once stood where the library stands today. Okotoks has come a long way in the century since this photo was taken. After the Second World War the town's population stabilized around 800, but the dramatically increasing popularity of cars had several effects: People could easily commute from Okotoks to their jobs in Calgary, and also to job sites on the outskirts of town.

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As the sawmills, flour mill, brick yard, and the town's other early industries started shutting their doors starting in the 1920s, one might be tempted to think the town had entered a sustained economic downturn. In fact the opposite was true: After World War II the town's population had rebounded from its 1920s lows, and life was beginning to return to normal after 30 years of upheaval. A portentous event was the connection of Okotoks to Calgary by highway in 1954. This development meant people could drive on their own time to the metropolis. This meant an influx of Calgarians settling in Okotoks and driving to work every day. All these long distance commuters perturbed Okotoks municipal leaders, and "Town officials continue to encourage local industry lest the community be dubbed 'The Bedroom of Calgary.'"xx1 Their plan quickly bore fruit. Since large industries no longer had to be near to where people lived, the dying industries by the downtown were replaced with new ones a short drive from downtown. In 1959 a Texasgulf sulphur plant was opened just east of downtown. Mocoat Fibre Glass was another major employer that followed in the 1970s. When the Town of Okotoks celebrated its 100th birthday in 2004, the population stood at 12,187, a gigantic leap from just a few decades before. Since then it has remained one of the fastest communities in Canada, and more than doubled its population again by 2014, to 27,331.xx2 Most of these people have moved into rapidly expanding suburbs north of downtown, and on the south side of the Sheep River. Whereas in the pioneer era both the commercial and industrial heartlands of town were centralized in the historic downtown, they've both now moved. The commercial centre of gravity has moved to south of the river to Southridge Drive, while the industrial park is to the east on the north side of the river. Yet despite the economic changes, the fires, and the ravages of time, many heritage buildings in the downtown have been well preserved, and the area continues to attract tourists and shoppers to the vibrant businesses.


Endnotes

1. Okotoks Gets Its Start

1. Lewis G. Thomas, "Okotoks: From Trading Post to Suburb," Urban History Review. Vol 8: No 2, October 1979, 9.

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

3. Thomas, 10.

4. Krista Conrad, "Rail played integral role in Okotoks history," Okotoks Today. May 16, 2018, online.

5. Okotoks Board of Trade, Okotoks: The Eldorado of South Alberta, (Calgary: Hammond Lithographing Company, 1907), 5.

2. The Postal Service

1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 6.

2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 238.

3. Making Ends Meet

1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 668.

4. Building in Brick

1. Thomas, 12.

2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 2.

3. Thomas, 10.

4. Okotoks Board of Trade, 5.

5. Okotoks Board of Trade, 8.

5. Prairie Banks

1. Thomas, 12.

2. Thomas, 11.

3. Thomas, 13.

4. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 113.

6. The Oil Age

1. Town of Turner Valley, "Turner Valley Gas Plant," turnervalley.ca, online.

2. James G. MacGregor, A History of Alberta: Revised Edition, (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1981), 180.

3. David Breen, "Heron, William Stewart," Dictionary of Canadian Biography, online.

4. Red Deer News, "OIL STRUCK AT CALGARY," May 20, 1914, page 4, online.

5. Breen, online.

6. Thomas, 13.

7. Remittance Men

1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 12.

2. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 13.

3. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 14.

4. Loretta Faith Balisch, "Scrub Growth: Canadian Humour to 1912--An Exploration," Graduate Thesis, (St. John's: Memorial University, 1994), 374.

5. Balisch, 375.

6. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 13.

7. Balisch, 374.

8. Balisch, 375.

8. The Lineham Sawmill

1. Okotoks and District Historical Society, 6.

2. Henry Klassen, "Lineham, John," Dictionary of Canadian Biography, online.

3. Mark Kuhlberg. "Lumberjacks," The Canadian Encyclopedia, online.

9. Bushels and Thoroughbreds

1. Okotoks Board of Trade, 5.

2. Statistics Canada, "Production of principal field crops, July 2019," online.

3. Okotoks Board of Trade, 20.

4. Edward Brado, Cattle Kingdom: Early Ranching in Alberta, (Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 2004), 136.

5. John Blue, Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical, (1924), online.

6. Lindsay Ward, "The Early Days of the thoroughbred in Southern Alberta," Canadian Thoroughbred Magazine. March 3, 2017, online.

7. Brado, 138.

8. Brado, 138.

9. Okotoks Board of Trade, 16.

10. Thomas, 10.

10. The Changing Economy

1. "Our Historic Past," Town of Okotoks, online.

2. Town of Okotoks.


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