He was a mechanic and a veterinarian’s assistant and worked on movie sets as part of the stunt team, but Ponoka residents probably know him best as the stagecoach driver for the Ponoka Stampede, leading the grand entry for 16 years.
Henry Fleck, who was a huge part of Ponoka in various ways throughout his life, passed away on Jan. 22, 2021.
But for all his talents and contributions, his family believes what he’d like to most be remembered as is simply a good horseman.
“The thing about Dad is he was a real promoter of horse action,” said Brent Fleck, Henry’s son, adding that could be rodeo, team roping, driving or anything in between.
Fleck lived in the Ponoka-area for most of his life.
Henry’s family settled on the George Fields Farm west of Ponoka when he was two years old.
They farmed there for a couple of years before purchasing the family farm on Dakota Road.
Henry completed Grades 1 to 5 at Dakota before transferring to Crestomere School for Grades 6 to 11.
In 1960 he enrolled at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary where he obtained his mechanics licence.
Henry and his wife Carol married in 1965 and moved onto an acreage north of Ponoka in 1966 after living in town for one year.
Henry was a self-taught expert on horse-drawn equipment.
It was one of his talents and passions, knowing how to hook almost anything to a team of horses, from buggies and carriages to farm equipment. He also knew how to restore and use all said equipment and modes of transport.
He was a skilled mechanic, but his first love was always working with horses and other animals on the farm.
Henry used his gift for working with animals to work as a veterinarian’s assistant for Doc Harbin from 1970 to ‘77. He put his knowledge of animals to good use and learned much more.
Around the time he worked at the clinic, he also participated in weekly team roping events at Em Pritchard’s arena.
After working at the clinic, he went on to work for the County of Ponoka as the supervisory mechanic, keeping the school buses running smoothly for 22 years.
During that same time period, he brought the Bowie Sawmill back to life with brother Joe Fleck.
After retiring from the county, Henry began a new exciting chapter as he joined the Ponoka Stampede Association (PSA) as the driver and custodian of their newly acquired turn-of-the-century Wells Fargo stagecoach.
For the next 16 years, he and Carol, along with Kevin, Ron and Joan Prediger and George and Vivian McCaughey would become strong ambassadors for the town and county of Ponoka and the PSA.
The group travelled all over central and southern Alberta with the stagecoach, promoting the Stampede and representing Ponoka, including taking part in Klondike Days in Edmonton and the Calgary Stampede parade.
He also drove a hearse carriage, taking the horsemen of central Alberta to their final resting places.
“Dad was very proud of the town and county of Ponoka and he would support the town and county in all kinds of endeavours,” said Brent Fleck of his father.
“He was pretty proud of the cowboy heritage of central Alberta.”
In his time as a stagecoach driver for the Stampede, Henry had many prominent passengers, including Premier Ralph Klein, country music star Keith Urban, and many other country artists who came to perform during Stampede week.
Henry was such an iconic figure of the Ponoka Stampede, in fact, that a mural of him and George McCaughey was painted by artist Ray Binder in the Stagecoach Saloon, in 2011 about a year after it was built.
The PSA awarded Henry with the Bill Kehler ring in 2013 in appreciation for his hard work promoting the Ponoka Stampede.
Although he was a longtime member of the PSA, he never served on the board, preferring to let others lead or attend meetings, and was happy to be the go-to-guy for all things horses.
His last year leading the charge at the Ponoka Stampede was in 2015 or 2016.
A community favourite provided by the Flecks was the winter-time sleigh rides Henry offered on their property, making it a popular venue for company Christmas parties each year, or a destination for 4-H and other service clubs.
Henry offered the rides at no, or low cost, usually just asking for the cover of feed for the horses.
He also built a coffee house onto his shop on the farm and was a near-constant host to friends stopping in for coffee, cake and a visit. The family says the Thursday afternoon coffee crowd is still welcome at the farm.
Many people may also fondly remember him simply as “Uncle Henry,” as he had a way of adopting people, whether they were blood relatives or not.
He was also involved in the town’s Family Day celebrations, giving sleigh rides around the pond and arena.
Henry would take a wagon and team of four horses pretty much anywhere they were needed, including movie sets. He worked on John Scott’s movie sets along with George McCaughey.
Whenever their was horse-action, such as crossing rivers or a town scene, Henry was there, and sometimes got to work as an extra when needed.
Some of the movies he was involved with include Hell on Wheels, Into the West, a story of Oregon Trail, Jesse James and September Dawn.
Though he didn’t realize it at the time, he even worked on a movie with famous director Steven Spielberg.
In 2016, due to complications from Type 1 diabetes, one of his legs had to be amputated below the knee.
He didn’t give up living life however, and worked on his dream of getting a four-up team of Fjord/quarter horse cross horses broke and ready to go that he bred and raised himself. He accomplished this in the final months of his life.
“We always worked as a team,” said Carol, Henry’s wife of 55 years.
She added that was true whether it was regarding raising their children, or accompanying each other on parades in the stagecoach.
“We discussed everything together as a team if we could.”
About the only time they weren’t together was when Henry was on the set of a movie, as Carol says that was pretty much the only aspect of his life where they weren’t side-by-side.
“It was the only thing in his life I didn’t have a part in,” she said.
Henry’s love for exploring the Rocky Mountains and eastern slopes from the back of a horse was also a big part of the family’s lives, as they spent most of their vacations doing just that.
“I always teased him that if he didn’t get out to the mountains at least twice a year that we couldn’t live with him,” said Carol, adding his trips were usually a couple of weeks long each time.
His family recalls how Henry and his wife would quietly and humbly serve the community.
“We just loved to do it … anything we could do to help people out, we did, whether it was for the community or friends,” said Carol.
“While each of us has our own special way of remembering Dad, if you asked him, I don’t think he would want to be remembered as a loving husband, dedicated father, generous father-in-law, loved grandfather, treasured uncle, favorite cousin or even as a true friend. Although he certainly was all of those things and more, I believe that Dad would prefer to simply be remembered as a damn good horseman.” — An excerpt for the eulogy for Henry written by his son Brent.
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