Reflections of Ponoka: Emil and Anna Hoybak’s Asker family included 15 children!

In the late 1800s, thousands of individuals and families left their homelands and travelled by steamship

This early Hoybak family picture includes parents Emil and Anna

This early Hoybak family picture includes parents Emil and Anna

By Mike Rainone and Percy Johansen

In the late 1800s, thousands of individuals and families left their homelands and travelled by steamship half way round the world in search of exciting new opportunities in the United States and Canada.  They could only bring along a few of their most precious belongings on that long and rugged trip, and on arrival, found humble shelter in the newly established towns and villages of this promised land, and then bravely ventured out to seek new homesteads and occupations.

Emil Hoybak was born in Asker, Norway nearly the lovely Oslo Fjord in December 1864, and as a lover of the sea, he became a keen sailor. As a very young man, he immigrated to the United States, settling near Oakes, North Dakota, where he homesteaded, later meeting Anna Grenbeck, who had immigrated there from Skjotte, Norway with her widowed mother and family. Anna and Emil were married on March 19, 1897, and after farming for a year in Oakes, the drought was too much, and they headed for Canada with their infant daughter Eva.

They made the long trip across country by train with all their settler effects, and were forced stop in Wetaskiwin because the Battle River was in flood. From there, they crossed the Samson Indian Reservation and forded the river at a shallower spot, and then slowly made their way into the Ponoka district. In 1898, the little family filed on a homestead in the Asker district on the N.E. of 4-43-23-W4th, which was located about one mile north of where the Mecca Glen School is now located. For a while they stayed with O.C. Ravnsborg, who was the first settler to arrive in the area in 1895, and was a key figure in the initial settlement of the Asker district.  One day while Emil was busy cutting logs to build their future family home, Anna was walking across the Andrew Vold homestead, picked up buffalo skull, and placed it where she wanted their first cabin to be built.

Over the years Emil and Anna worked very hard on their two quarters of land, later purchased the land across the road from Magnus Anderson, and then in 1905 built a lovely new home to accommodate their close and growing family, which would eventually reach 15 children. Along the way, they diligently worked together with the neighbours and keenly shouldered their fair share of the ambitious day to day pioneering, contributions, and plans for the ongoing needs of the fast growing country community of Asker. Emil and Anna were always faithful supporters of both the Asker Church and the Asker School, faithfully walking two miles to Sunday school, where Anna taught for many years, with the girls always looking very sharp in their white starched dresses and bonnets. Along with tending to her own large family, Mrs. Hoybak also became an amazing seamstress, as well as being very capable and willing to take care of the sick in the district, assisting with the birth of many babies over the years in a caring and compassionate manner. Mr. Lovig was always a good neighbour of the Hoybak family, and made Anna a spinning wheel, on which she would spin the raw wool, and then in the evenings could sit in her favourite chair and knit the mittens, socks, stockings, vests and sweaters to clothe her large and growing family. Percy Johansen, who is the oldest grandchild on both sides of the family at 86, fondly recalls that grandma was also a wonderful cook and baker, and Norman Vold once told him that when she got down to 20 loaves of bread, she would get busy and bake another 40 on the big wood stove the very next day. There were always up to seven of the Hoybak children going to school at the same time, so one can only imagine how many sandwiches had to be made in the morning, and thank goodness they always had a huge garden. The children also picked lots of wild fruit to preserve for the long winter, learned how to hunt, and milked many cows in the summer around the old windmill. Percy will never forget those annual family Christmas Eve parties at Gramma’s and Grandpa’s big house, where over 30 people showed up to celebrate, and usually all stayed overnight.

In those early days the Hoybaks and many other district families had to travel to Wetaskiwin for provisions, groceries, medical supplies, and mail, and then in the fall, Emil would take a wagon box full of wheat to be ground into flour. Most of these trips to the north would take two days, as long as the weather co-operated and the Battle River wasn’t in flood. As well as handling the daily and seasonal chores on the farm, Emil also worked on the construction of the first Asker to Ponoka corduroy trail, often having to use the big logs they cut at Nelson Lake to go across the many areas of muskeg. He also served on the Asker School Board for many years, but always found time to teach the boys to become very capable horsemen and farmers.

Emil and Anna Hoybak lived in the Asker district for 42 years, then built a new home in Ponoka and retired. They later moved to B.C., where Emil passed away in 1948 at the age of 84, after which Anna moved into a home near her son’s in Surrey and passed away in 1958. Over the years, the couple had been blessed with 26 grandchildren. Their active life had been built on the strong faith and heritage of the Christian religion, as well as a great appreciation of the countless loyal friends and neighbours, with whom they helped to build the proud Asker community together. A gala Hoybak Centennial Reunion was hosted in Asker in 1998, during which Carl Hoybak presented a delightful and colorful history. Grandson David Hoybak owns the original Ponoka homestead, has received a historical certificate from the Alberta government, and the longstanding Hoybak family tradition still carries on.