The present Ponoka Town Hall at 5102-48th Avenue was officially opened in 1963 and since that time it has been a beehive of municipal activity, including ever-changing councils, staff, and challenges.
But today, we are going to turn back the pages more than 100 years and chat about our community’s first historic Town Hall that also served the many business functions of a new town, as well as being the centre for a number of glitzy social activities.
When Ponoka officially became a town in 1904, the need for a town centre to look after all the legal and municipal government activities required to run a quickly growing community became the priority of the day. The construction of the magnificent two-storey brick structure at the corner of 5101-50th Avenue was completed in 1908 and it immediately became the headquarters of the fire department, town staff and council chambers, police department and magistrate, the jail, the dogcatcher, and rooms for meetings and social events.
A classic bell in the belfry on the top of the roof would summon the volunteer fire department, as well as ring in the curfew or inform residents of other community emergencies or celebrations.
On any given day or night, seven days of the week, this early ‘heart of the town’ was likely playing host to a red hot meeting in council chambers, a concert in the large upstairs hall, a fire practice, and countless other functions. Meanwhile, downstairs in the lock-up there could be any number of prisoners, including gamblers, cattle rustlers, or the town drunk.
Back in the days prior to the First World War and before the Empress Theatre, the upper floor of the town hall was Ponoka’s only stage for live shows, featuring travelling vaudeville, musical comedies, and stock companies from throughout the world.
Entrance to this second-storey hall was by means of a wide flight of stairs starting on the east side of the building, then there was a ticket wicket at the top of the stairs, followed by exquisite swinging doors leading into the theatre, and separate cloakrooms for ladies and gentleman on either side. Needless to say, the place was packed for every occasion, with the town and rural folks arriving in their finest for the elite occasion.
If people of today may be under the impression that these early citizens of Ponoka town and country wore homespuns or maybe buckskins, you would have received quite a jolt if you had attended one of these early shows. Many of the women in the audience had moved here from the big Eastern Canada cities, the USA or the United Kingdom, and all of them had kept their finery tucked away in their trunks and were desperate for opportunity to show them off
Not for just the ordinary performances, but for the classic shows and fancy dress balls, they would appear in their splendid ostrich feather boas, puffy evening gowns, opera cloaks, and any number of outrageous hats. Of course, the men were always front and centre also, handsomely attired in perfect evening dress of tux and tails, white tie, silk hat, and highly shined shoes.
Once or twice a year, the Ponoka High School was permitted to hold a party dance in the ‘Town Hall hall’ as it was always known. The girls brought sandwiches and cake, while the boys rustled up a reasonably clean wash boiler, chipped in to buy coffee and sugar, and then brewed it up over kerosene stove. They always relied on the country kids to bring the real cream. Music was provided by what was loosely called a piano that the council could never afford to tune over all the years it would serve as the entertainment. The boys and girls always arrived separately to the party, and went home the same way, and any boy openly dating a girl would surely have been ridiculed right out of town in those good old days.
Probably the most brilliant and interesting of the various affairs held in that great old hall was the banquet tendered to the Alberta cabinet and entire legislature on the evening of March 2, 1908. Four tables ran the entire length of the hall, adorned by real linen cloth, sparkling silver, and best dinnerware (mostly borrowed), Mrs. George Sellers, the wife of the co-owner of the Leland Hotel, was the caterer, and waiters were recruited from the young men around town. Distinguished guests arrived by train or buggy all day, and were joined at the 8 p.m. seating by the town council, board of trade, businessmen, and farmers. In those days there was absolutely no hesitancy about liquor, and the Scotch, champagne, coffee and cigars went well at this posh once in a lifetime Ponoka event. Everyone must have had a great time, as the party lasted for 6½ hours.
As always it was business as usual the next morning at the old Town Hall, possibly a council meeting, the magistrate was in town, or the firemen were polishing their brass. When the building was demolished in 1963, the event drew a large crowd, a few tears were shed, and the great memories of its unique personality would last for decades into the future of our great community.