Reflections of Ponoka: The amazing change from horsepower, to steam, to gasoline

While we cruise in the controlled environment of our fast and fancy rides along our highways and by-ways

Grace Hayhurst

Grace Hayhurst

While we cruise in the controlled environment of our fast and fancy rides along our highways and by-ways listening to our stereos and enjoying the scenery, we never imagine the hardships and challenges our early pioneers would face but somehow survived with the primitive methods of transportation and tools available so many decades ago.

When this area opened up for settlement in the late 1800s, the overwhelming task of carving out their new homes, farms, businesses and communities was achieved mostly by manual labour, with some help from the pulling power of horses and oxen and the first steam powered machinery.

In the lives of average people, there is little doubt the automobile was the most revolutionary invention in the history of transportation since the wheel. The basic premise of the early planning of the modern auto or horseless carriage was to simply choose a wheeled vehicle from the many early types typically being pulled by horses or oxen, then add a motor and create a self-propelled personal transportation vehicle to suit everyone’s needs.

Believe it or not it was first attempted in 1771 when Frenchman Nicholas Cugnot produced a three-wheeled steam powered vehicle but it travelled only 2-3 mph, was too cumbersome, and was unable to keep with the old reliable horse-drawn buggies. The milestone vehicle was built in Germany in 1889 by Daimler and Maybach, was powered by a 1.5 hp two cylinder gasoline engine, had a four-speed transmission and reached speeds of 10 mph. The first automobile to be produced in quantity was the 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile built by Ransom E. Olds, but it would be Henry Ford who would introduce the world’s first modern industrial automobile production assembly line in Detroit, Mich. in 1908.

After building his first gasoline-powered car in 1896, he began mass production of his Model T Ford in 1908, and by 1927 more than 18 million of these popular family vehicles had rolled off the line. Although William Crapo Durant, who founded General Motors in 1908, had realized a profit of $9 million in only a few years producing the classy Cadillac-Buick-Olds-Oakland vehicles and hopped up race cars, an economic crunch would soon set in and auto sales would drop drastically. The brilliant Mr. Ford managed to survive by dropping the prices of his Model T from $850 in 1908 to $600 in 1912, and to $290 with his cheapest Universal four-seater car in 1924, but the Wall Street crash in 1929 would bring everything to a crushing economical halt for more than a devastating decade.

The arrival of the auto in Ponoka

It was the good old reliable horse and buggy, along with the heavy and powerful steam-operated tractors and threshing machines that complemented most of transportation and farm work at the turn of the century here on the rugged prairies. When Ponoka became a town in 1904 and the county districts flourished with the sudden influx of new families and businesses, it would result in ongoing successes and a thriving community that began to enjoy countless amenities, including the exciting beginnings and progress of the new automotive and mechanical era.

• As the automotive industry boomed in the United States, the glitzy new vehicles were also shipped into Canada in great numbers by train, where proud new owners could pick them up at the stations or would visit the nearby dealerships to make their choices. Progress is always great but it was surely sad for some to see those smoky and friendly old community livery stables eventually being replaced by the garages and dealers who would sell and service this sudden automotive revolution of the metal monsters.

• In town and out in the districts many early 20th century families, individuals and businesses would enhance their busy lifestyles by adding an automobile to their day to day active calendar or work and play.

One of the first owners of a fancy auto in the Ponoka district was W.A. Martin, who loved to show off his solid-tired Model T Ford, a real beauty that featured all-draft ventilation, acetylene lamps, running boards and a convertible top. Frank and Guy Newton of the Scott district acquired cars big enough to pack their entire big families into for trips to church, picnics, the lake and even to town. Walter Gee of Grand Meadow owned the first classy 1914 Overland, Fenn Robinson of Popular Forest had a new Ford Coupe, complete with running boards and a rumble seat, and there would many others. Trucks also began arriving on the scene, with some used in the 1909 and ongoing construction of the massive Provincial Mental Hospital, while others were skillfully transformed into school buses, ambulances, delivery vans and so much more.

• One could only imagine those early days during a special event or visit to town. Chipman Avenue would be packed with many noisy, smoking vehicles, with horns blaring, searching for an angle parking spot, while the horses and carts tied up at the hitching rails next to the hotels would certainly not be happy with the racket from this new invasion of motormania. Those early vehicles had to be started with a crank, which must have been hard on the body, until self starters were added in 1910 and then when batteries were added you had to bring them into the house to keep them warm in the winter.

• Many of our roads in those days were only trails, usually covered with dirt and a little gravel, and likely very dusty when they became invaded by all sorts of cars. Of course along the way they got stuck in the mud, the floods and the snow, but then again a friendly farmer would usually come along and fill up their over-heated radiators with water or empty tanks with gas, and pull them out of trouble with his trusty team or tractor. With no white lines and few cops you can be sure there were lots of speed demons and all kinds of fender-benders way back then, and although it must have been wild and fun, I am kind of glad that I didn’t get behind the wheel of my first old “honey wagon” until mid-century.