Reflections of Ponoka: From the Dakotas to a new life on the prairies

At the turn of the century, a wave of immigrants from South Dakota converged into the rich new land west of Ponoka

A 1952 photo of the first Dakota Community Centre

A 1952 photo of the first Dakota Community Centre

At the turn of the century, a wave of immigrants from South Dakota converged into the rich new land west of Ponoka, which was at that time a small village known as a part of the vast North-West Territories. In May of 1900, Eben Olmstead and David Wing decided to go to look at some land in this area. They were so impressed by what they saw that they immediately filed on homesteads for themselves, as well as one each for Frank Cissell, Corliss Wing, Allan Olmstead, and Joe Allen. This would be the humble beginnings of the area west of Ponoka that would soon become the popular and flourishing Dakota district.

In the late summer, the Olmsteads and Corlis Wing would move their families into Ponoka in what was known in those early days as the settler’s train, which featured one car for women and one for men, with the elder Olmstead looking after both. Their machinery and stock came on the same train under the care of Mr. Wing and the other men, with some willing help from the young lads. There was also a second train, with Mr. Sanford Allison as the only man on board with the Cissells and the Kilroys, with the rest of the group comprised of 15 women and 25 children. All the food had to be brought along on the long and arduous trip, as money was very scarce, and when they finally arrived in Ponoka in October 1900, a small shack was built for the women and children to live in during the winter. It was later moved out to the Eb Olmstead farm, then to the Nerius Cissell homestead, and eventually became the living room of Lawrence McClaflin’s home.

The men of the district then went to work cutting logs on the spot, and put up small houses and barns on their new homesteads. The Wings and the Olmsteads moved out to Dakota in the early winter, while Frank Cissell moved into the town house. Hattie Wing was the first white woman to cross the Battle River near Ferrybank, and when the Cissells moved out in the spring of 1901 the river was flooded and the bridge was floating. They bravely took their families over in boats, swam with the horses, and floated the wagons across, while young Jack Lee swam out to examine the bridge and help with the stock. In the spring that followed, many of the horses died of swamp fever and more were bought from the nearby Indians, there were a few Holstein cows, and the heel flies were a horrible problem. Other hardy pioneer families followed the Indian trails over the high land to reach their new farms, and it would take two or three days to make the trip to Ponoka for supplies, crossing the Battle River and having to open and close 27 gates along the way.

As the population grew quickly in the Dakota district, there would be many children who would be in need of a school. With the permission of the government and the co-operation and hard work of the families, the first Dakota School was completed in 1902, painted a bright red, and became a most colorful and busy landmark until it was rebuilt in 1938. For many years, the school became the heart of the Dakota district, was used for church, funeral services, and many other family activities. It was closed in June 1954, the children were bused to Crestomere, and the popular landmark eventually became Harry Miller’s granary.

Out there in that vibrant farming district 15 miles west of Ponoka, there was always lots of work and chores to be done, but the families were always looking for and organizing countless social and recreational activities for all ages. In January 1952, the members of the Dakota Farmers’ Union decided to build a community sports centre, which would consist of a curling rink and an outdoor skating rink. On February 20, 1952, the Dakota Recreation Club was formed and endorsed by the overwhelming ideas and support of the entire district as to its ongoing use, then, and long into the future. Over $3000 was raised by loans and donations, two local farmers provided 35,000 feet of lumber and skidded it to the new sight, where sawing, planing, and construction started after the spring work, and was completed, mostly by volunteers. Donations and encouragement for the project also came from the residents of the Town of Ponoka and other districts, and it would be completed just in time for the grand opening and a gala fun-for-all night early in 1953.

In the beginning, the centre featured men, women, mixed, and family curling, and attracted up to 36 rinks for annual bonspiels. On the brightly lit outdoor rink, there were countless games of skating, broomball, and hockey for the small-fry, then on most events, everyone gathered together for treats, games, and socializing beside the hot-stove. There was a refreshment booth that sold just about everything, which helped to realize a healthy profit, and allowed the club to pay for their first set of curling rocks, then later purchase 16 sets of new 40 pound rocks for $1000. Additions of a balcony and a full-time caretaker took place in the second summer, with many other exciting events such as picnics, ball tournaments, reunions, and on and on arranged for the centre throughout the year, and attracting visitors and revellers from far and wide.

The new Dakota Community Centre quickly became a popular year round haven of activity, and it had come into being simply because the dedicated men and women of the district wanted it, and came together to make it all happen for the pleasure and joy of ongoing generations of the Dakota district for many decades. All those countless successes and milestones of the family generations of the Dakota District can now be enjoyed by popping in and browsing through their history book at the Fort Ostell Museum.