Once the New Year’s Eve celebrations of Dec. 31, 1899 had been completed in and around the Village of Ponoka next to Siding 14 on the new Edmonton/Calgary Railway line the 20th century had arrived and countless settler families were seeking to start a new life on the rugged prairies. Our first local pioneers likely felt a little sympathy for these hardy newcomers, as they also knew what it was like to leave their former homelands, and that their new neighbours would face two or three years of tremendous challenges and hard work before they could firmly establish their claim on new homesteads, businesses, and livelihoods. This early settlement was only the humble beginnings of a powerful story that had began to develop many years before with the grueling travels, efforts, determination, and mapping by the famous explorers and missionaries, as well as the wanderings, early settlements, and discoveries of the hardy First Nation tribes and fur traders. Along the way they would all play their vital and dedicated rolls in opening up new lands and exciting opportunities for the future of countless generations to come.
It was said that by the end of June 1900 no less than 309 hardy people with 30 carloads of their worldly belongings had arrived at the Ponoka station. They were quick to announce their desire to seek out a piece of the lush prairie land, to take advantage of the new opportunities that they had been promised by the government, and to secure employment in and around this new thriving and welcoming community. This week’s Reflections in your Ponoka News will feature some of the countless challenges, successes, memories, and milestones that our Pioneer families and individuals faced and successfully survived, and then just kept right on growing during that exciting and colorful 20th century story and beyond.
It seemed during that era to be an unwritten law of the frontier that upon the heels of settlement would mark the arrival of a weekly newspaper to keep everyone informed, and in Ponoka it would be the Herald, which was first published on August 27, 1900 by W.D. Pitcairn and would faithfully serve the town and county for close to 100 years. Some of the other vital milestones and achievements realized over those rugged first early years included: the coming of the Edmonton/Calgary Railroad, the first in 1903 of what would later become a busy row of ten massive grain elevators, the opening of our Provincial Mental Hospital in 1912, the first Ponoka Stampede in 1936, our town’s first general hospital and arena in 1947, and so much more, and that is why I just keep writing these Reflections features.
Some of the other exciting firsts for the initial Ponoka settlement was the welcome of permanent medical services in 1900 courtesy of Dr. A. Drinnan, as well as a new metal railway bridge across the Battle River just south of town. There would also be a $23,000 construction boom during the year 1900 that included four dry goods and grocery stores, two hardware stores, two licensed hotels and one dry, two lumber yards, two livery stables, three implement dealers, two barber shops, three blacksmiths and a saddle shop, a restaurant, a meat market, a millenary store, a sawmill along the river, and offices for the newspaper, the undertaker, and the doctor, all to serve a fast growing population that had now reached 260 people.
As is always the case of new settlements politics would rear its ugly head in Ponoka in 1896 with the Liberals just defeating the Conservatives by 13 votes to 11 in the first election. In the next local election race in 1900 only 69 Ponoka citizens turned out to cast their ballots, but would show a slight trend towards Conservatism, giving 36 votes to Bennett and 33 for Oliver.
With much enthusiasm from the now over 600 residents of the local settlement and a lot of lobbying from the new Board of Trade Ponoka would finally be be granted town status on the historic day of October 15, 1904, and a gala celebration was held to the wee hours of the next morning. J.D. McGillivray was elected as Ponoka’s first mayor as well as a six-member council, and together they would rather hesitantly but methodically start to toddle along the path of progress, but striving to work together our leaders and citizens have gained steady momentum and many successes along the way, proudly gathering to celebrate our 50th and 100th anniversaries along the way.
Meanwhile as the town was quickly growing in all directions, families and citizens of all ages were blessed with many new businesses, industrial parks, schools, hospitals, excellent professional, recreational and social services and facilities, all set in an active family friendly community. Over all those colourful early years the vast surrounding rural areas the County of Ponoka would also experience amazing growth, welcoming hundreds of farm and ranch families and others to countless new opportunities and livelihoods, while avidly establishing the thriving districts of Asker, Bismarck, Sharphead, Wolfville, Water Glen, Brooks, Calumet, Concord, Lundgren, Arbor Park, Nebraska, Grand Meadow, Wood River, Eastside, Elkhorn, Hazel Hill, Scott, Dakota, Pleasant Hill, Dennis, Home Glen, Climax, Ferrybank, Bobtail, Morningside, and on and on.
On and on through the toughest hardships of weather, drought, fires, floods, the dirty 30s, and the war years these several generations of passionately determined farmers, ranchers, families, individuals, businesses, and leaders of both our Ponoka town and county have always managed to come together and proudly carry on the torch of growth, tradition, participation, and success that has been a legacy of citizens of all ages for well over a long and very colourful century.