Submitted by Kevin Lavelle
Hans Christiansen was a well known home builder for many years in and around the Ponoka area during the early part of the 20th century. Many of the homes he built are still standing and evidence of his craftsmanship remains to this day. He built homes, schools and carried out substantial renovations to several homes and businesses during his career. He also built custom cabinetry, furniture and completed much of the interior finishing work on many of his projects.
Despite the Great Depression of the 1930s and the onset of the Second World War, Hans was never unemployed and rarely missed a day of work during his entire life.
Hans was born in Denmark in 1889. As a youth he developed a lung condition that necessitated a move to a drier climate. At the age of 18 in 1908, he and his two brothers, Kris and Victor, decided to cross the pond and take up residence in the United States. They worked in lumber camps and farms throughout Minnesota and Iowa and would attend night school to learn to speak and write English. Among other courses taken at that time, two of note included “physical” culture and mechanical drawing. At one point, Hans received a postcard from one of his colleagues in the lumber camps asking the question, ‘Did you see the comet?’ Of course, this was referring to Halley’s Comet, which could be seen with the naked eye streaking through the skies in 1910, the same one that re-appeared in 1986.
Eventually Hans enrolled in Grandview College in Des Moines, Iowa where he learned the carpentry trade and features of other trades as well. Soon it was time to head north and Hans decided to move to Saskatchewan and Alberta where for a few years he worked at odd jobs fine tuning his trade. In the meantime, Elise Dorothea Madsen, Hans’ future bride, and her mother, were preparing themselves to come to Canada from Denmark; they finally emigrated in 1913. They brought with them two large trunks to carry their luggage, both of which remained in their home in Ponoka until the house was sold in 2004. One of those trunks now resides with one of the grandsons who lives in British Columbia.
Hans married Elise in 1917 and they took up residence in Moose Jaw, Sask. but had to leave shortly thereafter because of poor water supply. Kris, Hans’ brother, had already married Anna, Elise’s sister, a few years earlier, and they took up residence in Iowa. Hans found out that land was available for $10 an acre near Boyle, Alberta, so he and Elise moved there in 1918. Their first child, Olga, was born on the homestead that year, but it was a harsh existence and Elise made that fact well known to Hans in no uncertain terms. They moved to Ponoka the following year where Hans purchased three residential lots on 51st Avenue.
Being recently arrived immigrants, life continued to be somewhat harsh in Ponoka, but Hans was able to make a crucial breakthrough early on. He was able to obtain employment as a bricklayer at the new provincial mental hospital that was being constructed on the outskirts of town. Hans worked for four years, from 1920-24, working 12 hours a day, six days a week, with one paid holiday per year, that being Christmas Day. Hans walked to work nearly every morning and on the single day off each week, he managed to develop a passion for gardening that would stick with him the rest of his life. Many pictures of the flower gardens, fruit trees and vegetables that he grew on one of the vacant lots can be found in the assorted family photo albums that attest to his love for gardening.
The years working at the hospital put Hans on a firm financial footing, which was a good thing: two more children arrived, Esther in 1920 and Paul in 1922, but also Hans was able to go into the construction business for himself. In addition, he was able to start construction of his own home in 1921, one that would take up much of his spare time with full exterior and finishing work taking nearly a decade to complete. Elise’s mother came to live with the family in 1922 where she remained working in tandem with her daughter raising the children until her death in 1929. More children followed, Mary arrived on a cold winter day in early 1925, Harold followed in 1927 and little Elmer was born in 1931.
Hans built many small to medium-sized homes for the times. The first home he built was in 1925 and was located immediately across the back alley from his own home. The house had no running water or toilet and it was put up for sale for $600. But the local residents of the day thought that Hans would have to get his money out of it quickly to survive, so they tried to purchase it from him in the $300 to $400 range. However, Hans refused to sell it at a fire sale price, so he rented it out for several years before it eventually sold in a fairer market.
Another one of the first included Waldren’s home which was on the edge of town at the time just north of the water tower. Dr. Byers lived in that home many years later. Also constructed during that time period was the Cerveny home and Dick Thompson’s home at the north end of town. A large addition was built onto the Bird home as well. Hans also built the homes for Kofoed, a fellow Danish immigrant, and DeWilde, a fellow from Belgium. Kofoed’s home had running water and cost $4,500 to build. Both of these gentlemen ran for mayor of the Town of Ponoka in the 1930s and word has it that it was a spirited rivalry.
On the north corner of DeWilde’s home near the United Church, was another home that Hans built. The fellow’s wife came from a prominent family in Edmonton and the wife’s father gave specific instructions with respect to the construction of the new home. He came directly to Hans because he was told that Hans would give the fairest estimate and the best constructed home for the money in all of Ponoka. Hans ended up having to charge $5 for the building estimate since a fellow had recently taken one of Hans’ estimates to another builder who followed it and built his home for the same price. Of course, the $5 fee was refundable if the client wanted Hans to build the home. Hans’ estimating skills proved invaluable; he was the town assessor for many years.
Other homes built by Hans included those of the Granlund (originally built for the Stuarts), Backus, Longman, Creighton and Seversen families (which was close to John Gordon’s house on the south side near the Anglican Church). Of note, Hans also built the Finkle home; he was the CPR Station master in Ponoka in the 1930’s. One of the schools Hans constructed was the Bluffton School just northwest of Rimbey, a school in which he drafted the plans and built the entire structure. Hans donated the plants and trees that provided the landscaping in and around the Bluffton School. When the principal drove up to Hans’ home in a car to pick up all the plants and trees, he soon realized that he did not have the vehicle for the job, but quickly returned with a rather large flat deck truck to carry away all of the greenery.
A letter was found that was written by Olga to her father. It speaks to a trip that Hans made back to Denmark for a visit to his extended family in the early spring of 1930. The letter is dated Feb. 14 and reference is made to Valentine’s Day and that she was thinking of her father very much. Later on that year at the age of 12, there was a pet dog in the neighbourhood that had its leg broken. Olga could be heard to say, “Take that dog to my dad, he can fix anything!”
During his lifetime, Hans purchased and owned three Ford pickup trucks from Skinner Ford in Ponoka. It is believed that the first one was a 1929 closed cab Model A pickup truck. Hans managed to pick up a couple of discarded car seats from the dump and temporarily install them in the back of the pickup to take Elise and the kids out on fair weather days. The second vehicle was probably purchased just after the end of the Second World War, while the third one was a 1959 pastel blue and white F-47 model. Hans may have purchased a minivan to carry around Elise and the six children, but they hadn’t been invented yet.
The Second World War changed everything for most people, including Hans Christiansen. He was no longer able to stay in business for himself due to construction supply shortages and rationing. Fortunately, one of his steady clients from the pre-war era was the Ponoka School Division, and they readily hired him in 1940. Hans was primarily involved in construction activities as building supervisor. The Sylvan Heights School was one of the schools constructed about this time. He also supervised the construction of the Mecca Glen School.
There were many other school-related construction projects with Hans’ involvement during the post-war construction boom. Finally, at 70 years of age in 1959, Hans retired from the school division, but he stayed busy in the construction end of things and he was able to devote more time to gardening as well as seriously entertaining the grandchildren who numbered 16 by the early 1960s.
Hans died in Ponoka on March 5, 1967, leaving behind a legacy that survives to this day. Elise lived in various nursing homes after that until her death in August, 1984 just short of her 96th birthday. Both are buried in the family plot in the Forest Home Cemetery in Ponoka. She somehow looked after family business without ever speaking or writing English. Olga and Paul both died in 2004. Paul is buried in the Field of Honour at the Ponoka cemetery having won the Distinguished Flying Cross for service in the Royal Canadian Air Force in Europe during the Second World War. Harold signed up in the RCAF in early 1945 and completed basic training only to be told that the war had just ended. He died in Calgary in 2008. Esther lives in Edmonton, Mary resides near one of her daughters in Regina, Sask. and Elmer still resides in his own home in Peachland, B.C.
Disclaimer: While every effort was made to verify names and dates in the article above, there may remain the occasional inaccuracy as a result. Our apology if this is in fact the case.