This amazing photo was taken in 1905 and shows the Canadian Pacific Railway main line at the new Town of Ponoka

Thomas McKelvey was a big part of Ponoka’s first building boom

Looking at Ponoka's building boom with help from Thomas McKelvey in this week's Reflections.

In the most humble beginnings of our community and surrounding rural districts many hardy pioneer families were arriving from near and distant locations to establish their new homes and occupations, while facing countless challenges in the heart of the lush and rugged prairies.

Land and wild game was in abundance, and it was there at the turn of the 19th century that our villages, towns, cities, and counties began to grow and flourish.

Preparing the lumber that would build a nation

Thomas McKelvey, who would likely be recognized as one of early Alberta’s first real ‘entrepreneurs’ became engaged in the wood and building construction business in Strathcona (now south Edmonton) at the turn of the century. After purchasing one of the several sawmills located along the Battle River in 1901 he settled in Ponoka with his wife and family in 1902.

In those early years the settlement of the urban and rural areas grew at a torrid pace, which would result in an overwhelming building boom as hundreds of new pioneer families began to construct their new homes, barns, businesses, schools, churches, and whatever else that was needed to create and establish their homesteads and communities and progress into the future. From the thousands of acres of forests that thrived throughout the area the prime and mature trees were cut and sent to the mills to be fashioned into the various sizes of lumber from 16 inches to two feet in diameter that was in so much demand. A steady flow of spruce and pine logs were sent down the Battle River from Pigeon Lake, with the huge jams arriving night and day at the CPR dam below the tracks at Ponoka, where they were sent down the chutes to the massive A.B. Rowley and Blain-McKelvey saw-mills, who at peak production would cut and stock-pile over 20,000 board feet every day.

With the building business growing at a rapid pace Thomas McKelvey (the lumber King) decided to expand his lucrative business operations by establishing retail lumber yards in Leduc, Wetaskiwin, Camrose, Bawlf, and Lacombe, which would employ over 240 men during the booming years. Never a person to be idle McKelvey also designed and built a number of the first prominent buildings in Ponoka, including our initial Town Hall, which at the time was compared in excellence to any in the province. He would also construct our community’s first massive grain elevator along the Canadian Pacific Railway siding, which he operated for a few years and then sold it to Brakeman and Kerr, a grain buying firm from Edmonton. The very ambitious, likeable, and highly respected gentleman and his family lived in Ponoka for over 40 years, during which time he would serve on the town council and the local school board, as well as on numerous committees whose goals were to improve and promote the economic, social, and recreational life for the citizens of the growing town and districts.

While penning his family history for the Ponoka Panorama, Percy McKelvey vividly recalled arriving in Ponoka as a six-year-old with his parents in 1902. After finishing his schooling Percy met and married Mary Elizabeth Steadman in 1920, and they were later blessed with four sons, Ronald, Stanley, Morley, and Kendall. Mary enjoyed teaching two school terms in Ponoka, while Percy quickly followed the always active and entrepreneurial footsteps of his father, becoming involved in several lines of business, including accounting and auditing, wholesale and retail distribution of oil and gas products, garage and automobile dealerships, retail lumber and coal business, in real estate, and as a resident Manager for Imperial Oil until his retirement in 1953. Just like his father Thomas, Percy and his wife and family also became very active in the community, with Percy also getting involved in Municipal and Provincial politics (town councillor and mayor as well as MLA in 1939), and assisted with the formation of our very first Chamber of Commerce.

Along the way Percy McKelvey also became intensely interested in competitive team sports, participating in hockey, soccer, baseball, and field sports in his younger years, and then later in the promotion and coaching of Ponoka’s highly skilled early senior baseball and Intermediate B Hockey teams, who would win many championships throughout Alberta and beyond. Percy and Mary spent most of their very active lives living Ponoka, always enjoying visiting families, relatives, and friends, as well as proudly carrying on the long-standing and dedicated tradition of the McKelvey family, which has also extended through many generations.