Ponoka was truly a part of the wild-wild west

‘Go west young man’ was the exciting invitation extended at the beginning of the 19th century and hundreds of hardy pioneers would pack up their families and worldly belongings and venture into the fertile prairies in search of new opportunity and adventure.

Was this the classic robbery and shootout that occurred at the Bank of Commerce corner one morning many decades ago? Whatever the case

Was this the classic robbery and shootout that occurred at the Bank of Commerce corner one morning many decades ago? Whatever the case

‘Go west young man’ was the exciting invitation extended at the beginning of the 19th century and hundreds of hardy pioneers would pack up their families and worldly belongings and venture into the fertile prairies in search of new opportunity and adventure. Ponoka and the Central Alberta area was a focal point of the invasion and the growth pattern between 1900 and 1930 was overwhelming. The tiny village next to Canadian Pacific Railway Siding 14 became the new Town of Ponoka in 1904 and has never looked back, while always excelling in a keen reputation of success and great hospitality.

Of course everyone had to work very hard in those early settlement days as they built their homes, fashioned their livelihood and raised their very large families. On the other side of the coin our first citizens always found some time to play and celebrate hard in many ways, whether it be a community picnic, wedding, game of sports, dance, concert, carnival, or a trip into town to pick up supplies. Along the way many wild and wonderful stories have been told about the characters, the events and the camaraderie of our community and the surrounding districts, and I am pleased to pass just a few of them on to you-all.

*In the beginning our robust town featured three fine hotels; the Leland built in 1900, the Royal in 1901, and the Alberta Temperance, which lasted from 1900 to 1920 before burning to the ground. As well as fine rooms and full course meals for fewer than 25 cents, the Leland and the Royal offered taverns and billiard rooms, while the Temperance catered to teetotalers and less-rowdy crowds. It was nothing to see the hitching rails packed with horses and buggies, especially on weekends, fairs, and sale days. Other fine restaurants and stores were always popping up all over town to serve every need.

*As the CPR main line was being built by hundreds of labourers and monster machines at the turn of the century, the only transportation route was along the rugged Calgary/Edmonton trail by stagecoach, horseback, or covered wagon. Stops in Ponoka were usually made at the Bank of Commerce, where passengers were exchanged, as well as the drop off the mail, supplies, and area payrolls. Word has it that early one morning the Stage Coach was held up by a band of masked bandits, but after only a few shots were fired, the guards foiled the snatch and run, the jail was full, and a party followed. One never really knew just who might come in on the high-noon train or stage?

*In July 1912 a CPR train traveling to Red Deer with five brass bands derailed just south of Ponoka. As the shaken but uninjured passengers made their way back to town the usual western hospitality greeted them and offered food and shelter for the night. The musicians chose instead to make a party/holiday out of the situation, setting their instruments up in front of the train station and playing a glorious non-stop concert. As the 10 p.m. closing time for the taverns approached a Royal Proclamation was quickly drawn up by town officials in the name of the King to keep the local pubs open to accommodate the special guests until 6:30 a.m. Needless to say the best Scotch was put on sale at 15 cents a glass and a good time was had by all.

*On many occasions in those early years hundreds of Indians and their families from the Hobbema reserves would come into town on horseback and buggies to purchase supplies with their treaty money, as well as barter with their furs and delicate handmade wares and exquisite furs. All the citizens looked forward to these annual friendly and peaceful powwows, which also included traditional costumes and dancing on the Ponoka streets, or at their massive campground of teepees in the Battle River valley.

*The Elks Hall on Chipman Avenue was the community centre for many years, hosting Saturday night dances and all sorts of shindigs for the whole family. Over at the Empress Theatre they would host silent movies, as well as weekly Minstrel shows, entertainment and real life boxing and wrestling matches. Webb Frizzell of nearby Lacombe was one of the rugged little men who fought here and held the Canadian Championship for many years.

*During prohibition in the United States from 1920 to 33 it has been told that a notorious gang of Al Capone’s hoods were on the run from the Chicago Police and Texas Rangers. They would stop in Ponoka in their shiny black limousine for supplies, then supposedly headed west headed for the riches of the great white north. Their fancy car was found many years later in a haystack just outside of town, but there was no sign of those machine gun toting thugs.

*In the roaring ‘20s and beyond there has been mention that many of the highrollers from town and throughout the province would take over the upstairs rooms of the Leland Hotel for their non-stop no-limit poker games and parties. There were local lads like my former workmate and friend Gord who used to run errands for those gamblers. They were always awed and very polite, as the tiny rooms were filled with the smoke of expensive cigars and surrounded by fancy dressed ladies, while perched on top of the tables covered with money and chips were several pearl-handled pistols.

*Following that mystery I have been asked many times if there really was a tunnel running under the Royal Hotel and over to the Leland? Was it used to hide the ‘good stuff’ during the Canadian Prohibition period from 1917 to 1919, or as a quick escape route from our Town Police or the disgruntled wives of those who had over-indulged just a little?

*Our fairs, rodeos and circuses began in the early 1900s along Railway Street, and then later moved up to the present Ponoka Stampede grounds. Early beginnings of rodeo, horse races, farm hockey, baseball and other events were a way of life out at Ferrybank, Home Glen, Crestomere, Asker and on and on! Believe it or not in the glory days of senior hockey our Ponoka Stampeders would attract 4,700 fans for a game in the arena when our population was only 3,000.

Although a few things have changed a little our great town will always have that glorious traditional reputation of being rootin-tootin and full of friendly hospitality and family fun! Try to take a little time to stroll around the community, read the plaques on the many historic buildings and visit the Fort Ostell Museum. If only those rustic walls could talk, what a story they would tell.

Then if you may dare, why not shake your family a tree a little, and maybe, just maybe you might find that you are related to one of those great characters of our fabulous history, then perhaps you could pass it on to me for another great story?