Bismarck was the early frontier between Rimbey and Ponoka

This week's Reflections looks at the early days of Bismarck between Ponoka and Rimbey.

The ‘good old boys’ from the Bismarck district north west of Ponoka poise in front of the first gas-thrashing outfit in the area in 1913. Shown sitting on the tractor are (left to right) Paul Nagel

It was in the early 1900s that the very motivated Gehrke Brothers, Charley, Julius and August arrived in the rugged countryside a half a dozen miles west and north of Ponoka to establish their new homesteads. Thanks to the early encouragement of the always congenial Charlie Gehrke and his brother, settlers poured into the district from 1902 to 1904, all eager to accept the immediate gift of $10 cash that had been promised to immigrants who were willing to settle and work the land.

Charlie would also purchase a half section of land from the Canadian Pacific Railway, which he sold to Mr. C.R. Kirk in 1902 and would later become the location of the first Post Office and General Store in the busy new district of Bismarck. From the beginning, it was a friendly stopping and shopping place for the many settlers living in the vast area to the west, who travelled by oxen and horse teams, had to stop along the way to open and close 22 cattle gates as well as cross the Battle River, and depending on the conditions, it would quite often take up to a week to make that arduous trip into Ponoka. In 1902, the hardy folks of the west country grew tired of waiting for the government to build them a bridge, so they went out and did it themselves. To keep up with the rapid growth of the Bismarck district, a saw mill was erected on the Kirk place and operated by a Mr. Converse, and then the Bismarck U.F.A. local was formed in 1915 to serve the very active and productive district farmers.

The first Bismarck School District was organized in 1903-1904, and finally after long delays dealing with the authorities in Regina, the tiny country school was built by Julius Gehrke and Willam Jacobus on the N.W. 8-43-27-W4th, which was located on an historical spot 13 miles west and two miles north of Ponoka. Hundreds of district children from three family generations were taught the three R’s and much more at that cozy Bismarck School, which closed in 1953 when the Crestomere School was opened. One of the first stipulations of the early school was that the children of new settlers who had arrived in the district from the United States had to start in Grade 1, regardless of their age. The teachers, many of whom lived at the school, were paid between $400 and $600 a year, but if the board couldn’t collect enough taxes to keep the school open, it had to be closed until they could. Among the first early families who homesteaded in the Bismarck district were the Tiltgens, the Hagemans, the McFetridges, the Gunthers, the Kerbers, the Cissells, the Jacobuses, the Jensens, the McClaflins, Harold Luce, the Hemeyers, the Nagels and countless others on through the decades and generations.

The family of Henry Nagel Sr.

During the winter of 1902 Mr. Henry Nagel was living near the west coast of Oregon when he read an article in the local paper that would completely change his life and that of many others. The advertisement (likely placed by the Gehrke Brothers) was encouraging settlers to come to western Alberta, where there was fertile homestead land available. It also explained that Charlie Gehrke was organizing the first Lutheran Church Congregation in the Bismarck district, and this was likely the primary interest for Nagel to make the move.

It would be in April of 1902 that he arrived in Ponoka with his bride of three months, and the couple were immediately whisked out west to the friendly Gehrke homestead. It was in that pristine countryside that they would set up their first house-keeping together in a small tent, from where Henry would scout around for suitable land to file on, and eventually chose the S.W. 12-43-28-W4th about 15 miles west of the Village of Ponoka. He would now bravely set out with sincere fortitude and clear foresight to clear this land, and over the years, would transform it into one of the finest model mixed farms in the district. Along the way seven children were born, including Paul, Carl, William, Fred, Henry, Hannah and Elizabeth, several who settled and raised their families in Alberta and B.C., while Henry, Hannah, and Elizabeth resided in this area for many years. Henry Nagel Jr. married Sarah Duel, and they farmed the home place for many years, while Henry also did custom threshing throughout the district, and they would also be blessed with four children, Ronnie, Kay, Ann, and Bert. Ronnie Nagel was married to Beatrice Bengston, they lived on the farm, Ronnie drove a Crestomere School bus, and together they raised five sons, Bernie, Lorne, Barry, Andy, and Daren, and many of the Nagel generations and their neighbours have proudly carried on their family traditions to this day.

In the Crestomere/Sylvan Heights Heritage History Book, Elizabeth fondly recalls that it was not always hard work out there on the Nagel homestead. There were many lively gatherings among the neighbours and at the popular ‘Gerhke Hall’, with the winter months spent visiting and playing cards, and the mid-summer highlight included the annual picnic, where excitement always ran high over tug-of-war contests, foot and sack races, horseshoe games and lots of good food. In the 20s, Miss Abercrombie, one of the school teachers, had a vintage Roadster car, and always cut ‘quite a dash’ throughout the district. They never forgot one very wet summer when the Battle River flooded over the road and caused a washout, and the day that their father was heading home from town with treats and three kegs for the picnic, the wagon tipped over and everything was washed downstream. Only one keg of beer was recovered, but everyone pitched in for treats at the local store, and all was well. So many changes have come about through the years, but the true word heard in the Sunday service held at the church on the hill will always be the same for countless families, neighbours, friends, and visitors to the Bismarck district.


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