Reflections of Ponoka: Even in the toughest days, there were good times

I spent quite a few hours last week relaxing on the couch and browsing through our Ponoka and district history books to try and visualize

One of the many early 19th century stills that were situated in the countryside in and around Ponoka is operated by a hardy crew of moonshiners. These large ‘back alley stills’ could be quickly set up in urban areas

I spent quite a few hours last week relaxing on the couch and browsing through our Ponoka and district history books to try and visualize that even in the toughest times and challenges through the decades our hardy forefathers somehow always found ways to seek out the good times along with a little humour. This week’s Reflections page is dedicated to those countless families and unique characters for combining their amazing skills, tenacity, and keen sense of fun with work and play as they strived to make our Province and community a great place to live, both yesterday and today.

A long shopping trip

Many a time in the early 19th century the men who had settled in the districts in this area would have to walk into Ponoka or Wetaskiwin for sugar, flour, salt, and other supplies. The tough trip would take up to two days through all terrain and weather conditions, but on many occasions they would take their only pair of shoes or boots off to save leather, but would put them back on when they reached town. A special treat during this early shopping spree might be a plug of tobacco, some new material for the ladies, and a little candy for the children.

One of our first entrepreneurs

Julius Schultz settled in the Red Deer Lake district in 1895 and became naturalized by 1898. This energetic gentleman loved hunting, and once paid $300.00 for a pair of fine greyhounds to hunt coyotes. The congenial Schultz later purchased a team of purebred Belgian horses, hitched them up to a wagon, and when he wasn’t hauling lumber, he would chauffeur doctors, cattle buyers, police, and bill collectors all over the countryside for a fee.

His business expanded quickly, and included purchasing land and farm machinery to break and plant, and also shipped his fine horses all over western Canada, which made him a very rich man.

Payback on Halloween

In the early 1930’s one of our prominent district farmers was always bragging about his wealth and of being somewhat superior to his neighbours. Payback came on a dark Halloween night when some of the young lads snuck onto his farm, put heavy logging harnesses on his cows, rode his precious untouchable stallion, flattened his truck tires, and tossed a ball of binder twine down his well.

Not being wanting to be too nasty they tied the end of the twine to the pump handle, and one could only imagine his anger next morning as he pulled the wet twine out hand over hand. By the way, in those days the binder twine came in an eight pound ball, which contained 600 feet of twine to the lineal pound.

Those noisy cars got the girls

Before the arrival of the Model T the old reliable horse and buggy/wagon was the most reliable source of transportation and courting. As far back as 1914, when that first fancy Ford arrived on the scene, they not only speeded up the method of travel, but they were also used as ‘girl catchers’, but unfortunately got stuck in the mud quite often or conveniently ‘ran out of gas.’ All through our years of growing up we realized that having a hot set of wheels offered a great advantage to getting a date, but once the young men settled down and got married, they usually traded in their fancy cars for a truck.

Getting together on the weekends

There was always lots of work and chores to take care of during the week, but on the weekend’s families and folks of all ages tried to come together for various social events such as sleigh rides, dances, picnics, rodeos and fairs, as well as games of ball and soccer. Many a tiny community hall or school was utilized for countless year round events, including weddings, funerals, Christmas concerts, meetings, and of course church services. A real treat would be a trip into Ponoka for shopping or trading, and maybe even an opportunity to go to a Minstrel Show, wrestling or boxing match, black and white movie, the Stampede, or a baseball or hockey game.

People were extremely poor in those early days, and had to make use of everything available just to survive. In many cases all sorts of family clothes were made out of the used, but very sturdy flour, sugar, and oatmeal bags. These creations would include undergarments, bloomers, and dresses, all of course magically sewn together in colors and patterns by mothers and daughters. Fashion was not the word then, just warm and strong outfits to suit all work and weather conditions.

The grand old saga of the moonshiners

Many rugged and colorful tales are told of the wily moonshiners who used to set up their illegal stills in and around this area during the 1920’s-30s and beyond. They would bootleg their potent products throughout the countryside and at special events, hiding the XXX jugs in many caches to avoid being caught by the North West Mounted Police. Charges could include fines of $100 or jail, and although the hooch making equipment was destroyed, it didn’t keep them out of business for very long.

They claim that it was not very good whiskey, but after handing out a few free samples the customer list would grow quickly. A lot of the moonshine was stored in cream cans, and peddled usually after dark in the back of wagons and later cars. A classic early 1940’s story tells of young Paul Christiansen, an honours chemistry student at Ponoka Composite, who found a way to make alcohol in his basement lab, then constructed a nifty two-story still in his back yard in town. Later as a bomber pilot Paul flew 37 missions behind enemy lines during the Second World War.

Thanks for all your great story ideas and pictures, and please watch for more great tales and photos of our amazing past in future editions of your Ponoka News.