As the automotive industry took off with great gusto going into the 1920s many new garages appeared on the bustling streets of Ponoka to sell and service the mad new rush of cars and trucks that were rolling in from all areas. This Skinner and Wilkinson Garage was on the corner of 48th Avenue and Railway Street and would serve the community for several decades. Photo courtesy of the Fort Ostell Museum

Reflections: The coming of the automobile created milestones and mayhem

Taking a look at how the automobile industry affected Ponoka back in the day

By Mike Rainone for the News

In those very progressive and exciting days after Ponoka became a town in 1904 the trends and atmosphere of the community became one of ongoing construction in all areas, the constant movement along the wooden sidewalks of busy families and visitors as well as the constant coming and going of horse drawn wagons and buggies out on the dusty streets.

Among the most distinctive sounds at that time included the regular arrivals of the smoky and noisy freight and passenger trains at the CPR station on 50th Street, the ringing of the church and school bells, the occasional sudden shrill warning from the emergency siren at the Town Hall, and the always eerie howl of the train whistle and the coyotes at night.

But that would all change around 1916 when the first glitzy and amazing automobile models began arriving on flat cars at the train station, which marked the noisy but thrilling beginning of a new era of travel in the rapidly growing urban and rural centres throughout our province and nation. Already in 1875, governments realized the growing need for more methods of quicker transportation as well as in the work force so they offered a $10,000 reward to those who could produce a practical substitute for horses and other animals. The first gasoline powered engine surfaced in 1885 and the Benz vehicle went into production, but in 1903 the Ford Motor Company unveiled the Model A and later the Model T, of which by 1927 would make up 15 million of the vehicles on the streets.

The transportation transformation

Very late in the 18th century livery stables and the skilled blacksmith/horseshoe makers were a vital part of the settlement in the west, serving and tending to the thousands of horses and rigs that were the only form of transportation in the early 1900s.

These powerful critters were also out on most days hooked up to the machinery for all the field work, as well as building new roads and so much more on a year-round basis.

To serve this rapidly growing demand many livery stables would become established in the new Town of Ponoka in 1904, and their services would include sheltering the buggies and team, as well as selling horses and harness. These busy Livery’s were also our community’s first ever ‘taxi service’ where you could hire a driver and team to take you to your destination for a nominal fee.

Those hardy blacksmiths were masters of shoeing all breeds of horses, as well as fashioning or repairing all sorts of wheels and accessories for wagons, buggies, along with so many new pieces of amazing equipment. Some of the first Ponoka livery stable owners included: Henry Myer, Scotty Muirhead, Larsen and Peterson, Henry Nelson, Sam Davies, and George Bowker, who was also the local undertaker, and offered a fashionable funeral service that included a horse-drawn hearse. With the arrival of the automobile most of the local liveries had closed their shops by 1915 and these premises were taken over by a host of new garages to serve the ever-growing and overwhelming needs heading into an obvious long, colourful, and very automated and fast and furious history. Here are some of the great highlights and tales of that fabulous era of early ‘road rage.’

• It was quite a sight to see those shiny new vehicles invading the then dusty, icy, wet, and muddy town and country roads full of very big pot-holes at speeds in excess of 15 km/h. With very few stop signs and the ‘rules of the road’ yet to be still learned there was quite a bit of vehicular mayhem at that time, including collisions, hitting the ditch, getting stuck, or just plain breaking down in the middle of no-where. As tow trucks hadn’t even been invented in that era it was always the trusty farmer or neighbour who would come to the rescue with horses or tractor day or night to help out. For those who lived out along the rough and narrow Calgary/Edmonton trail (now QE 2) they always kept very busy providing stranded motorists with fuel, food, water, and quite often lodging to those weary souls who had lost their way or blown a gasket.

• So many photos and tales are shown and told in our history books of families packing up a picnic lunch and going out and about in their fancy new cars, many with the top down on a sunny day. The make-shift parking lots and streets in both town and country were soon jam-packed with Model Ts for church, picnics, games of sports, rodeos, a show or concert, auctions, and countless other events all year round.

• All of those very early cars and trucks used only water in their radiators, as anti-freeze hadn’t even been thought of, but unfortunately the units would freeze-up long before it warmed up, and the new local garages had to nurse them back to running condition. In 1928 Longman’s Garage in Ponoka came up with the first ‘one-stop lube service’ for vehicles, which included fuel, oil change, grease job, windshield clean, and free air and water and in 1942 the first official tire shop called Red Head Service was opened. As the new models got fancier and faster there were many more fender benders, so George Loucks decided to open the first body shop in 1953 and made a fortune.

• The age-old art of ‘courting’ would take on a whole new approach with the arrival of the automobile, as the amorous gentleman would hop in their vehicles and proudly rumble right up to the front door to pick up their date, while the ladies would have a great new opportunity to dress up in their finest and cruise around the neighbourhood with their beaus. Running out of gas, having a flat tire, or getting stuck was never an excuse for getting home late in those days because it really did happen quite a lot.

As we jump forward to the fast and furious 21st century we now see thousands of cars and trucks traversing our highways and by-ways each and every hour on a hectic 24/7 pace. As we zoom into the challenging future we might ask where do we go from here and how many new buttons do we have to push to get there, but we must always strive along the way to take some precious time to slow down, stop, and then enjoy some fresh air and all the rest of nature’s magic.

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