In the early settlement of our town and districts, accommodations were humble, but they made do with what they had, lived off the land, and worked together and faced the supreme challenges to create the proud history and heritage that we all enjoy today. Photo courtesy of Lure of the Homestead

Reflections: Things weren’t easy when folks first moved to the Ponoka area

The humble homes have grown a lot since Ponoka folks first moved in

By Mike Rainone for the News

I have always really enjoyed browsing through our history books and local museum looking for the amazing stories and pictures of the colourful and rugged early development of our town and surrounding districts since the late 18th century.

Those pioneer families arrived here in great numbers from near and far and would face overwhelming hardships and challenges in an effort to establish their homes, farms, businesses, and livelihoods on the bountiful prairies that would become our Alberta.

The S. W. McCaughey family

The Samuel W. McCaughey family were among the first pioneers to settle in the Concord district east of Ponoka. Mr. and Mrs. McCaughey and their family of six arrived in Ponoka on April 21, 1901 in a blinding snowstorm after crossing three states by Prairie Schooner and the last few miles from the U.S. border by train. They had to hop the train because there was no feed for their horses while crossing the prairies during that season, but they finally made it with their sole possessions of four small horses, a saddle pony, and a 10 dollar bill.

At first they were somewhat disappointed with what they found, which had fallen short of what they expected and had been told by the promotional literature, which spoke of what was supposed to be the promise land for hopeful immigrants. With very little money in their pockets and a family to care for, times were tough for these early settlers, and locating and filing on a homestead was no easy task. In many cases the better homesteads closer to town had been filed on the year before, and with only rough trails and no roads or bridges to cross the many creeks they had to venture out many extra miles just to go a short distance as the crow would fly.

After considerable searching Mr. McCaughey filed on the west half of 16-42-24-W4, with the S.W. corner for himself as well as taking out a holding claim on the N.W. quarter for his son Roy, who would turn 18 in less than six months. The half section was covered with scrub popular and had to be cleared to get space enough to build a house. Shortly after their arrival McCaughey got a job breaking land for $3 an acre, and when he received $50 from the United States for the goods that they had left behind, he went out and bought his first cow for $45. Sam became widely known as a good stockman, and helped many a homesteader with their veterinary problems, and then each spring his services were also in demand as his supreme skills would allow him to take a bag of seed grain on his shoulders and knew exactly the right amount of seed to sew on each acre as he walked through the customer’s property.

The family finally raised enough money to build their first pioneer home along the Old Pioneer Trail, which stretched from Ponoka to Buffalo Lake to Red Willow and points east. Many of those early pioneers had not been able to get enough drinking water at that time as no wells were being drilled and what was needed all had to be dug by hand. In this matter the McCaugheys were able to dig a good well on their own, and welcomed neighbours and travellers to fill their barrels to take home as well as watering their horses and oxen. When they did start drilling wells for the farmers in the Concord district they had to go down 200 feet to hit water. From the vivid memories written in the Mecca Glen Memories history book of the McCaughey family they recalled that after having to put out a fire in their first humble tent dwelling with the wash water in the summer, the two adults and six children would spend their first Alberta winter in a 16 by 21 foot one and a half storey log house in the Concord district. Their long-standing generosity, support, and kindness to the well being and growth of the community was always outstanding, and when a family of four adults and four children arrived at their door with no place to stay, they took them in and would supply food and lodging for 16 folks for two months. Bears were always a real problem in those days but strength in numbers, lots of noise, and mother’s broom always sent them packing.

The McCaughey family home became a favourite stopping place for many people during those early years in the 1900s, many who stayed overnight, and although at times the fare was pretty skimpy, there was always boiled or fried fish, boiled rutabaga and bread without butter, and occasionally a treat of chicken. The McCaughey’s favourite saying to visitors was, ‘Take as you find us with no questions asked and you will always be welcome.’

Wild game was always plentiful, especially bush partridge and pintail grouse, and at that time Chain Lakes to the south abounded in fish. The early settlers that shipped horses into the area with them were hit very hard, as the animals were not climatized, had no feed but grass, and while they were worked so hard they were ravaged by hordes of mosquitoes and often died of swamp fever. In many cases the farmers had to buy oxen, but everyone would pair up their teams together to do the field work or go into Ponoka to buy supplies.

In those colourful early days the term ‘community spirit’ certainly prevailed in all areas of the town and surrounding districts, whether it was raising a new house or new barn, butchering, or assisting with the crops. Whatever assistance was needed by the neighbours and friends, they always very willingly came together and shared their expertise, love, and friendship.

Over the years the McCaughey family grew up and were able to make their own way, with some moving away from the district, while others have remained to carry on the proud family tradition on through the generations.

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