Reflections of Ponoka: Remembering the tales and characters of our colorful past

When I visit the Fort Ostell Museum each week, I love to browse through the rooms full of the treasures of our proud and colorful past

Billy Basilek was raised in Ponoka in the 1930s and 40s

Billy Basilek was raised in Ponoka in the 1930s and 40s

When I visit the Fort Ostell Museum each week, I love to browse through the rooms full of the treasures of our proud and colorful past, as well as flip through the tattered old pictures and pages of history books and newspapers that vividly introduce us to the great stories and characters, as well as the countless challenges, hardships, and successes that were the humble beginnings of our heritage. It is always a real treat to be able to pass on some of these delightful gems of our past to our readers each week in the Reflections/Remember When? feature page in your Ponoka News.

William (Billy) Basilek

Young Billy grew up in the north end of Ponoka through the 1930s and 40s, living with his mother and grandparents. His grandfather was a machinist. As a youngster going to school Billy learned to make just about anything with his hands, and always had a great sense of adventure — quite often on the mischievous side.

In his early teens Billy became a total radio nut and somehow managed to create his own shortwave radio and transmitter unit out of discarded parts that he found around town. There were two exciting versions of an airplane episode that the ingenious young Basilek became involved in during the early part of the Second World War, probably around 1941. While transmitting out of his backyard from his homemade transmitter, Billy actually talked down an American military aircraft into a forced landing in Walter Larsen’s pasture land just north of town, while the other version claimed that the downed plane was a Harvard trainer from the Penhold Airbase.

Fortunately, Billy was only a juvenile when this incident occurred, or he may have been charged with hindering the war effort. Instead, the authorities confiscated all his radio and transmitter equipment and despite a severe reprimand from the home front, Billy continued his fun-spree of electronic inventions and gadgets. When he was old enough, Basilek joined the Canadian Merchant Navy as a radio technician (of course), and eventually became a wireless technician first class. He would survive two of his ships being torpedoed by the enemy, then after the war Billy moved to Vancouver and operated a successful salvage yard for many years.

The Hollycoff family

Countless tales have been told about the many colorful Russian families, some related to royalty, who immigrated to Alberta and settled on their homesteads northwest of Ponoka in the early 1900s. The Hollycoffs were an industrious family, with the husband working as an accomplished blacksmith in Ponoka, while his wife, said to be a big and strong woman, took care of most everything else around the farm.

Midwifery was also among her many accomplishments, and she was in attendance when Margaret Slater was born in a little partially floored loghouse belonging to Jack Baar. Mrs. Hollycoff, who also tended to a family of four, was also in demand as a yanker of teeth for those folks who could not stand the aching any longer. The family also made their own charcoal down on the homestead, placing good sound wood in a shallow pit with enough dry material to make the kind of fire they wanted, then throwing soil over the pit to extinguish the flames, but retaining the heat so that the charcoal could be removed in a few days. This charcoal was excellent for blacksmith fires, and was sold in both Lacombe and Ponoka. The Hollycoffs sold their farm to Hans Baker in 1903, then moved to town and later left the district.

Peter Nash

Early Ponoka residents always remembered a smallish and delightful Englishman, who faithfully pushed a wooden cart around town on Sundays, while serving as the street cleaner, and being paid a couple of hundred dollars a year by the town council.

Peter Nash always kept the bustling town clean and tidy and would always be seen on many occasions appearing at ladies’ community tea and bake sales. He always showed up just as each event was closing, and the kindly ladies, feeling sorry for the poor little gentleman, were pleased to give him all their left over sandwiches and cakes to take to this tiny house. The popular Mr. Nash died in December 1962, and a local policeman and representative of an Edmonton trust company went through his neat one room residence in the north end of town for the purposes of taking inventory and locating a last will and testament.

During the process they would find many years of magazines and while checking each and every one of them, discovered they contained one or more stock or share certificates, all registered in Mr. Nash’s name. Then down in the basement hidden in a pile of potatoes were located numerous match boxes, each containing coins and bills wedged inside.

Yes, Peter’s original will was also located in that house, hidden among his pristine cowboy record collection. Everyone in the community was pleased to learn, that contrary to local opinion, the kindly and diminutive Englishman was not a destitute person and Peter Nash had left his $500,000 estate to the University of Alberta, earmarked for medical research.

Watch Reflections for more stories and tributes to our community and districts through the years, and if you have ideas and photos please give me a call at 403-341-5750, or leave a message at the Ponoka News. Thank you for all your kindly assistance and support.