Reflections of Ponoka: The long and colorful history of our Ponoka bands

Ponoka and districts have always had the long and proud tradition of ‘striking up the band’ for countless occasions over the years.

Here is a 1970s photo of the Ponoka School Band under the direction of Mr. Victor Wright. Shown in the back row from left to right: Richard Piercy

Here is a 1970s photo of the Ponoka School Band under the direction of Mr. Victor Wright. Shown in the back row from left to right: Richard Piercy

By Mike Rainone and Jack Spink

In the early settlement of our community and surrounding districts, many great stories are told of the small but spirited bands who travelled around the rugged area bringing the joy of music to countless events where families and friends had gathered together to take a break from their gruelling work schedules. From the early 1900s, the popular social and recreational events that everyone enjoyed included district picnics, ball games, dances, rodeos, fairs, weddings and countless other occasions, to which many folks always managed to bring along their instruments, struck up a tune, and got the whole family involved for a few delightful hours of fun, which soon became a proud and spirited community tradition.

The first mention of an official, organized Ponoka Town Band was around 1910-1912 when a gentleman from the Hazel Hill district just west of town fondly known as ‘farmer steel’ put together a small band consisting of men from around the district.  One of the first photos in the Ponoka Panorama history book featured a well dressed group of eight men with their brass instruments and set of drums, who loved to play for functions near and far whenever  invited. When this first group disbanded, former members Vern and Laren Smith reorganized another small orchestra, which became very popular, and throughout the 1920-30s, under the direction of Mr. Chris Smith grew into a very large and talented Ponoka Community Band.  One of the most delightful tales from  the colorful beginning of our ‘big band era’ in Ponoka  occurred in 1910 when a CPR train packed with bands and revellers from Edmonton on the way to a rally in Red Deer derailed just outside of Ponoka  early one morning. The townsfolk responded quickly, rushing out quickly with horse drawn wagons and carts to pick up the stranded passengers, brought them into town, extended every hospitality, and offered their homes and hotels overnight until the cars were put back on the tracks.  It was truly a gala event, as the bars got permission to stay open, and the next morning the visitors showed their great appreciation by marching through the streets of the community and loudly presenting their musical skills before heading off the Red Deer.

The keen inspiration of music also spread to our local schools, and in the late 1930s a Glee Club and small orchestra were organized by a teacher, Miss Jean Knowlan.  In 1946, Principal Mr. Howard Larson encouraged the formation of a band program, which was soon a welcome addition to school dances, and at many events around the community. Over the years, many talented junior and senior high school students, under the direction of Mrs. Atha Topley, Robin Stuart and others, would present some delightful operettas and concerts with music and song. These energetic musical programs were offered to all the students of the elementary school by Mrs. Esther Johnson for many years. The community and districts always responded with great gusto to the school music and band programs, donating all sorts of instruments and funds, and inviting them to take part in many year-round activities. Heading into the 50s and 60s, the prestigious high school band received extra direction and leadership from Victor and Harry Wright, made numerous public appearances, and won countless awards at competitions and parades throughout the province.

In the mid 1970s, the Ponoka Composite High School Concert Band Director Mr. Lee McCullough decided that the group should make the transformation into a marching band.  Jack Spink, winner of an annual Harry Wright Memorial Award, had spent a summer attending a junior band director’s course which Lee instructed. This young local musician was given the challenging task of taking over as the new drum major, as well as teaching the 50 or so band students from grades 8 to 12 how to march. Regular practices on the school soccer field went so well that McCullough formed a parents’ support group, entered the band into the Moose Jaw Kiwanis International Band Festival, where they proudly placed second, and then were honoured to march in several Ponoka Stampede parades.  That proud tradition of music has carried on at our Ponoka and district schools for many years.

Over the years many individuals and organizations rallied to keep a Ponoka Town Band going and growing. Some of the earlier promoters and leaders were Mr. O.B. Knipfel, Dr. Don Culham, George Gage, Tom Chandler of the P.M.H. staff, and Harry Wright. Around 1949-53, a teacher, Mr. Harold Brulhart was conducting a junior high boys’ band in the community, and also a trained a group of young ladies to serve as flashy majorettes, who would march regularly with the local bands. Many of our enthusiastic young musicians were thrilled to graduate into the senior town band over the years, and when the interested faded a little after the war, it was taken over by the experienced leadership of Mr. Cartwright and Mr. Harry Wright for the Royal Canadian Legion in Ponoka. David Spink fondly remembers that the group practised upstairs in the old town hall, and always looked forward to setting up behind the player’s box at every exciting home game of the Ponoka Stampeders senior hockey team at the old arena. When the local team scored, they played a rousing march, but if the opposition scored the band responded with the March of Saul, a funeral march. The old band also was an annual popular addition to many Ponoka Stampede parades, riding in a hayrack and presenting their music to huge crowds along the route.

The Legion  sponsored the organization of the first drum and bugle marching band in 1947, a few of the initial 12 members included Harry Anderson and Jack Twa on the snare drums and David Spink on the bass drum, and they played for Air Cadet Inspections and parades. Our present #65 Air Cadet squadron is revitalizing that same great music tradition by forming a new band, with practices held on Tuesday nights at the Cadet Hall. More on the band and all cadet programs are available by contacting Lt. Jeannie Mortenson or Tracey Fiedler at 403-783-4181.