The OK Economy Grocery Store was the first tenant in the south-end bay of the new Ponoka Plaza Shopping Centre in 1968 and has been followed by many other businesses over the years, with all offering great services and friendship to thousands of Ponoka town and county residents and visitors to this day. Photo courtesy of the Fort Ostell Museum

Reflections: What 125 years of changes does to one street in Ponoka

This week in Reflections looks at Railway Street in downtown Ponoka

By Mike Rainone for the News

For those of us who had the great privilege of living in the Ponoka area in the 1950s and beyond we were witness to a milestone change in our long and colourful history when the classic old Canadian Pacific Railway Station on 50th Street was closed and replaced by a magnificent new shopping plaza in 1968.

The Railway Depot was the very first building in the tiny Village of Ponoka, built in 1891 upon the exciting and vital arrival of the Calgary/Edmonton line at Siding 14.

In the beginning the big brown wooden station was ‘the heart’ of the soon-to-be rapidly growing new Alberta town of Ponoka, and served three daily trains that brought a steady supply of freight, mail, and passengers to this thriving community. Residents would later welcome the massive grain elevators and other facilities along the spur line which served the farming community for countless decades. Over those colourful years of steady growth and modernization in this vibrant community and throughout the province so many new transportation routes and methods became available, and as the local rail passenger and freight arrivals declined the historical landmark was closed and demolished in 1968.

The Ponoka Plaza then and now

This fancy new addition to our ever-changing community landscape was part of an extensive redevelopment of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s trackside properties, and would serve as an improvement in road transportation in the area while moving into a new diminished role for smaller rail freight centres.

A transplant from suburbia, this classic strip mall represented a significant phase in commercial development and drive-through amenities with abundant angle parking right in front of the stores was a grand example of post war design that favoured uniformity and order and went hand-in-hand with increasing standardization going into the busy and promising future of the vibrant building industry.

At the completion of the plaza project in 1968 the initial tenants in the block-long building included McLeod’s, Fields, Jardines’ Jewellery, Sears, and OK Economy. A great deal of colourful history and ongoing changes have taken place along this busy Ponoka plaza shopping strip over the years, which along the way featured the addition of several unique family businesses in the smaller bays as well as bigger stores at either end, including the long-standing home of the popular Ponoka Bingo Centre, and others, many of which I can’t remember. Thousands of congenial staff members from these stores and their families have and always will make Ponoka and district their home over the years and as well as enjoying and contributing in so many ways to our friendly community.

Don Jardine was a former member of the prestigious Royal Canadian Air Force ‘143 Wing,’ a Typhoon fighter-bomber group, who, following his return from over seas would receive his discharge papers in 1945 and eventually settled in Ponoka in 1946. The trained instrument maker would open his first business here the same year, and Jardines’ Jewellery would proudly serve the community for several decades, during which Don and his wife Helen and family would become very involved in various local organizations, promotions, and activities. He also entered into several other local businesses over the years, and in 1968 would expand his busy Jewellery Store into a new home in the Ponoka Plaza.

The Canadian chain store operations of Macleod’s’ Hardware (1917), Fields (1950), and Simpsons-Sears (1953) would all set up shop in the new Ponoka plaza in 1968. They would all serve customers from Ponoka town and county for many years, but with future amalgamations and international closures Fields would cease operations here in 2012, Macleod’s was taken over by Cotter Canada in 1992 and closed many smaller stores, and Sears would eventually close their doors on Jan. 14, 2018. I was really fortunate to become very good friends with Les Martin, who was one of the original managers of the Macleod’s store, and along with his family enjoyed many active years in Ponoka and was an avid promoter of minor hockey.

OK Economy Grocery Stores were a part of the massive Loblaw Chain and made their appearance in town in 1968 as the first tenant in the large bay at the south end of the new Ponoka Plaza. Ponoka resident Kathy Andersen fondly remembers working at OK Economy in the early years with friendly staff members such as Esther Marcenick, Ruth Buchta, Danny Morrow, Ernie Liebel, Terry Kucey, Les Greipl, and Bob Duggan, and there would be so many others over the years to carry on the tradition. She recalled that everyone worked together as a strong team, had great staff parties, played lots of fun jokes on each other, and loved going across the street to the Royal Hotel for their morning coffee where they were always treated so well by a great waitress whose name was Vivian. The busy store would later relocate into a massive new building next to the Ponoka Stampede grounds, which became Extra Foods in 1982, and later became a part of the No-Frills franchises. Liquidation World would be the next tenant to locate in the south end location of the Ponoka plaza.

Fast forward to the 21 century and the Ponoka plaza strip is still a very vital part of the Ponoka business community, and present tenants include Shoppers Drug Mart, Pet Valu, the Liquor Depot, the Source, and Main Street Hardware. Along the way those big and very long freight trains still rumble along the tracks behind the shopping centre night and day, a grand tradition that has carried on in this location for the past 125 years, and have left many great memories of our colourful history and amazing growth.

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