In the year 1900, a weary but excited group of settlers of predominantly Welsh or Welsh origin began arriving in the lush and rolling tree-lined countryside located eight to 12 miles east of the tiny new Village of Ponoka with the sole and vital purpose of establishing a new life on the prairies of Alberta. The rapidly growing Welsh settlement was soon given the name of Wood River, which was likely derived from the long flowing stands of huge and magnificent trees and brush that covered the area in every direction.
With the petition for the first Post Office approved at the F.J. Bullock residence in August of 1903, many more families continued to move into the Wood River district, which would soon include the three school districts of Climax, Magic and Eureka. It was never really known for sure if credit can be given to Owen Williams for being the first settler in the Wood River district, but it was Mr. J. J. Nelson who had purchased land in the Magic district before 1900, and then filed on a homestead just north of a typical pristine parkland lake that would be officially known as Nelson Lake. In 1901, the big influx of immigrant families and individuals continued and included Mr. and Mrs. J. F. Bullock, an American carpenter Bob Bunn, an American bachelor John H. Jones, Reverend D.L. Hughes, William M. and Frank James, Mr. and Mrs. Carl Morris, the Williams family of six and many more, realizing a total of 125 by 1910, and not slowing down for many decades.
When those first Welsh pioneers arrived, the land was mostly covered with timber and brush, which required much hard work to clear and break, and on which they would patiently build their homes and farms, erect their fences, plant their crops, pasture their livestock and raise their large families, while facing countless challenges from ever changing weather, illnesses and nature’s year round wrath along the way. Of course, in those days they did not have the heavy machinery that we are blessed with today for clearing and harvesting, with all that gruelling work being done by with the trusty axe as the main tool. Plowing the virgin soil was done by trusty horsepower, while one of those early homesteaders was a real character by the name of Gomer Jenkins, who owned the first team of powerful oxen. During the very early years, the roads were non-existent, with only narrow trails zigzagging across the wild and untamed countryside and going around the countless sloughs and massive stands of timber. They had to carry an axe and a shovel wherever they went, and the arduous trip into Ponoka for supplies or trading would take many long hours, but those first homesteaders bravely responded by donating many hours of their time, efforts, ideas to clear the way through the bush and to build their unique corduroy roads over the large areas of mud and muskeg. They also helped to organize and form the area municipalities, who would eventually provide the funding, the machinery, and the labour to construct the much needed roads and bridges, as well as provide assistance to an ever growing rural population.
Some of the initial milestones in the Wood River district were the completion of the first Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church of Magic next to the school, the addition of the Wood River Welsh Church in 1914, and the construction of the very popular Wood River Community Hall in 1918. Reverend D.L. Hughes was the first pastor in the Wood River area, and faithfully led the Sunday worship services, while officiating at marriages, baptisms, funerals and other events while setting the stage for many more ministers and congregations to grow and thrive over the years. The Wood River Community Hall instantly became the ‘heart of the district’ while hosting year round social and family events for all occasions, including dances, fundraisers, box socials, ball and soccer games, picnics, meetings, concerts and on and on. Bob Bunn was a congenial gentleman and talented violinist who built a hall on his farm and played host to many dances and special events, which often lasted well into the wee hours on the weekends with visitors always welcome.
It was in the early 20s that the strong Eureka and Magic soccer teams joined forces and the name Wood River was chosen for the talented new side which continued to proudly wear the colors of the symbolic Welsh dragon. This powerful and popular team stayed together until the mid 50s, playing throughout central Alberta against teams from Penhold, Red Deer, Wetaskiwin, the Provincial Mental Hospital at Ponoka and others, while winning countless provincial championships and tournaments along the way. Also outstanding among the many superb and longstanding contributions of the very active Wood River district has been the Wood River Festival. A great deal of hard work and dedication was required for over five decades to encourage and provide a unique opportunity for thousands of Ponoka and district school children to participate in a friendly competition that featured musical instruments, singing as soloists or in a group or choir, as well as reciting prose and poetry. The delightful festival which drew very large crowds was hosted at the Wood River Community Centre until it was dismantled in 1957 was held twice in Ponoka and then went to the Mecca Glen School and continued until it was sadly cancelled in the 1990s. In the earlier years, the Wood River Singers were in no small way famous for their vocal abilities, while the delightful singing meetings such as the traditional Gymanfa Ganu and Welsh Festivals will always be a prominent part of Canadian culture and influence for young and old.
In retrospect, the present residents and past generations of the vibrant Wood River district can feel with justifiable pride that this longstanding Welsh settlement located just a few miles east of Ponoka has and will always contribute a great deal to the environment and the ongoing successes of not only to their immediate community, but also to the cities, towns and rural and urban communities throughout the province of Alberta.