Reflections of Ponoka: Our first pioneers built Ponoka from the wilderness

When our first hardy settlers arrived from many distant locations at Siding 14 in Ponoka late in the 19th century

Ponoka’s first lumber and implement business was established by W.R. Courtright in 1900 on Chipman Avenue

Ponoka’s first lumber and implement business was established by W.R. Courtright in 1900 on Chipman Avenue

By Mike Rainone and Dr. John Graham

When our first hardy settlers arrived from many distant locations at Siding 14 in Ponoka late in the 19th century they received a warm welcome at the large brown Canadian Pacific Railway station, then looked out upon a few dirt streets and wooden buildings, all completely surrounded by lush forests in all directions. The station had been built in 1892-93 while surveyors were marking the path and countless work crews were busy laying the steel tracks for the historical first Edmonton to Calgary railway.

In many ways that rugged train depot was the heart of the growing village and districts of Ponoka. The massive steam-driven trains rumbled into the station daily from north and south, bringing countless new settler families, visitors and the vital supplies that would be delivered by dray to new sites where our first homes and businesses were established. Freight cars full of furniture, livestock, and other precious household belongings were loaded onto waiting horse drawn wagons and transported out into the rural districts, where numerous homesteads and farms were being carved out of the vast virgin countryside.

By 1895 the Ponoka station was a beehive of activity, serving as the home of our first agent, Mr. T.J. West and his family, as well as a dozen men from the railway section crew, and a caretaker who looked after the big windmill that pumped water from the Battle River dam (now a provincial historical site) up to the tall wooden tower beside the track. When the line got busier as many as three or four trains a day were welcomed at the station, where they unloaded their precious cargo, as well as filling up with water and wood for their trip to Edmonton in the north, or to Red Deer and Calgary to the south. These were the humble beginnings of the rapid settlement of our town and surrounding districts in the early 20th century, which through the years has been complemented and carried on for many decades by the ongoing generations and the countless newcomers, all who have continued to bring success and growth to the Ponoka district.

The W.L. Steele and W.R. Courtright families

William L. Steele, at age 10, and his brother, George, 12, first arrived in Canada from London, England as orphans in 1878. They were part of a group of 53 children organized by Annie MacPherson Homes, and were all sent to farms in the Galt, Ont. area. Will was not well treated, and both brothers would soon relocate to Exeter, Neb., where Will later met and married Clara Courtright, a teacher.

Mr. and Mrs. W.R. Courtright and their son Leonard, 16, immigrated to Ponoka in the fall of 1899. They were also accompanied by three daughters and their families, including the W.N. Shafts, who homesteaded in the Seafield district until 1913, Ina Henton in Paradise Valley, and later Mr. and Mrs. W.L. Steele. The Courtrights set up one of the first lumber and implement businesses on Chipman Avenue at the turn of the century, and built the first frame home in the Village of Ponoka on Donald Avenue. W.R. Courtright, who was a member of Ponoka’s first town council in 1904, later purchased the Deering Machinery and Wawanesa Insurance Agencies in partnership with Leonard.

After his father’s death in 1909, Leonard B. Courtright carried on the family’s proud business tradition by expanding into the hardware business, and erecting a fine new building, which he operated until 1920, sold to the Marshall Wells chain and left Ponoka for the last time.

Mr. and Mrs. W. L. Steele decided to come to Ponoka to join the in-laws in February 1900, and homesteaded on a farm that was later owned by George Rees. In 1909 they moved into town to take over the lumber and implement business established by his late father-in-law, W.R. Courtright. The following year he purchased the palatial McKinnell home on Donald (51st) Avenue, which would remain as the family residence for almost 50 years.

With the Town of Ponoka and surrounding districts enjoying a great building boom in those early 1900s, Steele operated his successful W.L. Steele Lumber and implement business for many years, later expanding into Donald Avenue, but being forced to sell to the Revelstoke Sawmill Company due to ill health in 1922. The Chipman Avenue portion was sold in 1926 and became the popular Club Cafe, while one of the lots over on Donald Avenue was sold to the Ponoka Co-operative Association in the 1940s for the location of a new shopping centre.

Mr. and Mrs. Steele were able to enjoy their retirement years, and with the help of their son cleared part of the half section of land next to his original homestead. In 1924 he was able to travel back to London, England to establish contact with his family members and then returned to Ponoka area where he lived until his death in 1947, while his wife Clara died in 1958. The five children of William and Clara Steele were: Mrs. Melvin Graham of Ponoka, Ethel (Mrs. George Biddle) of Victoria, B.C., Mrs. W.F. Roberts (Ruth) of Calgary, and sons Donald E. Steele of Winnipeg, and W.E. Steele of Edmonton. Mrs. Graham had a step-daughter, Mrs. Dorothy Milner of Victoria, B.C. , a son, John in Vernon, B.C., and a son, Allan in Ponoka.

In future editions of Reflections and Remember When in your Ponoka News we will continue to salute our early pioneer families, individuals, entrepreneurs, and business owners. If you have a story idea or photos for this feature page please phone Mike at 403-341-5750 or leave a message at the Ponoka News office down on historical old Chipman Avenue.