As covered in last months Advisor, the arrival of the railroad
resulted in a new layout for the town, and the building of several
new businesses. William Torgerson replaced his immovable log store
with a larger lumber store. As Jerry Graham relates in his Salute
to the Pioneers, Torgerson was a massive man, with a heart of
gold, who listened to more tales of woe and hard luck stories
than most men, but unlike most men, he usually did something,
or tried to do something. There was also Henry Stewards
Pool Room. Mr. Graham describes Henry Steward as a southern gentleman
from Texas and cautions that the pool game which went on
almost unceasingly was no place for beginners or even average
Nels Lyons also had a store in partnership with William Crasswell.
Nels was known as much for his business ability as for his sense
of humour. When liveryman Jim Hammond found a bone in some sausage
Nels had prepared, he made a great show of pinging it down on
his plate for the benefit of Nels and the others who were present.
Nels slowly commented, for all to hear you know, I could
have sworn I took the shoes off that horse before I put it through
Other businesses included the U.S. Café, Poon King Laundry,
Kallboms Butcher Shop, Curly Moores Pool Hall, Labelles
Store and Wongs Restaurant. Unfortunately, fire was not
long in destroying some of the newly built town. In 1922, a blaze
wiped out a good section of one side of a block of Main Street.
A bucket brigade did all as much as they could, saving Mr. Grahams
Imperial Bank at one end of the block, and the Whitecourt Hotel
and Wongs Restaurant at the other.
Shortly after the fire, the Imperial Bank closed its doors. Mr.
Graham did not seem that interested in keeping it open and accepted
a transfer to Edmonton. One can only wonder what conversations
banker Graham had had with his friend, staunch monetary reformer
John Leedy. At the 1921 U.F.A. convention, shortly before this
party formed the government of Alberta, Leedy had co-sponsored
a successful resolution with ex-American monetary reformer George
Bevington which called for the nationalization of Canadas
banking and credit system. As a matter of interest, the Bank of
Canada was nationalized in 1938, which made it possible for Canada
to fight WWII, after previously not having the money to feed its
population during the Great Depression.
Within two years, Jerry Graham had returned to Whitecourt and
went into private business. The bank building had been rented
by Don Underwood, who set up another pool hall. Further downtown
development included the building of a new livery barn in 1924
by Jim Hammond, with partner Herb Wilson. Ray Kimzey set up a
little blacksmith shop around 1925.
With the railroad finally in Whitecourt, the lumbering industry
in and around Whitecourt at last became big business. The Capitol
Lumber Co. was finally able to ship out its store of logs, but
it had been harmed by the railroad delays to the point where it
did not resume operations. Jim Miller continued his limited lumber
operation until the mid 1920s.
However, in 1922, James Millar came to Whitecourt to set up Western
Construction and Lumber Co. He had cutting rights to several provincial
timber berths and purchased land from the CNR at Millar Westerns
present location. This was the same land where early settler Frank
Selleck had driven in squatters stakes, when he arrived
with a railroad survey party way back in 1904.
Western hired some local people, and brought others to the area
to cut logs all winter and saw them in the old Capitol Mill for
the first two summers. This mill was powered by two traction steam
engines. During the winter of 1924-25, Western built a new mill
on its present site, and installed a stationary steam engine.
The company also opened a general store, where its employees could
obtain goods on credit. A private ferry was put in at the foot
of 47 Avenue or Millar Rd, so that Western could get supplies
to the various lumber camps north of the Athabasca in the summer.
Paul Linehan continued to operate the Allendale ferry across the
Western brought many new citizens to Whitecourt. Population increased
from 130 souls in the early 1920s to over 300 in winter
by the late 1920s. Jack Dahl arrived in 1923, with his millwright
friend who had been hired on at Western. Jack found employment
as his friends helper, before working his way up to become
a millwright himself. Wife Clara and two year old son Gilbert
arrived a few months after Jack. The Dahls had two more children
after coming to Whitecourt, Tina and John. John Dahl served as
Whitecourt Mayor and was instrumental in getting the history of
Whitecourt published. He is still active in the Whitecourt and
District Heritage Society.
Clyde Feero arrived from Sangudo, when his father landed a sawyer
position at Western. Clyde was still in high school, but was to
be another leader in developing Whitecourt, once he graduated.
Again, one can look at a map of Whitecourt, and see how streets
were named after these builders.
Other companies that sprang up in the lumber industry were the
McDonald Lumber Co. and the Whitecourt Lumber Company. The latter
was formed by locals William and John Torgerson, Jerry Graham
and former McDonald agent C. Greenwood, after McDonald ceased
operations around 1926. The Northwest Lumber Company operated
in the Greencourt area, and fought an unending battle to keep
its railroad tracks above the muskeg it had been built on. The
owner of this company, J. D. McArthur, only appeared on rare occasions,
but his visits were interesting in that he arrived in a private
luxurious railway car that had once been owned by U.S. President
Logging was very much a manual business when originally established
in the area. Skidding and hauling would be done over roads in
the winter, when the muskeg was frozen. Special ice ruts were
created in the roads by contraptions pulled by several teams of
horses. This helped keep horse drawn loads of lumber from going
off the road.
Camps would be constructed in the area to be logged, with wooden
buildings being put up. Sometimes a poolroom was among the temporary
structures set up. The logs were first pulled to a central area
by horse and chain. This would often be a hill or uppercut in
the road so that the logs could be easily rolled onto the sleds.
It wasnt until the late 20s that Western purchased
two big cats. They were used to both build roads and haul logs.
Policing was done by the Alberta Provincial Police (APP). As Jerry
Graham relates, an officer originally came out from Rochfort about
once a month, only to complain that he didnt know why he
bothered, since he was never needed. An exception involved WWI
veteran Sid Skogman, who was suffering from what we now call post-traumatic
stress. The term at the time was shell shock. As Sids
crazy bouts grew more frequent and bordered on violence,
the Rochfort constable came out to take Sid away for hospitalization
in Ponoka. Apparently, Sid was having a good day at the time of
his departure, with the result that he and the constable stopped
at Rochfort to take in a dance before continuing on to their destination.
In 1925, Ralph Crouch was posted to Whitecourt to open an A.P.P
station. A jail was established near the corner of 50th Street
and 52 Avenue. Mr. C.A. Stephens had resumed his duties as magistrate
after he had returned from WWI.
As stated earlier, Dr. Wellwood passed away in the early 1920s,
as a result of injuries suffered from a poison gas attack in the
WWI. Eventually, a delegate, Mr. O. G. Leary was sent to Edmonton
to appeal for a replacement doctor. The newly retired Dr. Barrow
and family responded, and set up a small office and dispensary
at the corner of Main and 52 Ave in 1925. Mrs. Barrow later recalled
in a letter that we at once loved Whitecourt with its beautiful
scenery, wild flows and fruit.
In the early 1920s the odd car began to appear. Ray Kimzey
brought a used 1916 Model T Ford in 1921, and apparently used
it in a record breaking trip to Edmonton which only took seven
hours. Because of the poor state of the roads, the cars were parked
in winter, and often during the summers as well, when it was wet.
William Governlock, with his wife and sons, Stan and Tom, were
the first settlers to arrive by car when they came to Whitecourt
Some mechanization became taking place in farming, with crude
steam powered threshers appearing. Three or four men were required
to operate the machine. The threshers would be hauled from farm
to farm, everyone pitching in and helping one another. The technology
improved in the late 20s when threshing machines with self
feeders and straw blowers became available.
There was one crop failure in the area due to drought in 1922,
when only one third of the regular crop was harvested. This was
in marked contrast to southwest Alberta, where the dirty
thirties came early. The drought had been building for some
years in this historically dry area. Along with the credit situation,
sawflies, wheat rust, cutworms many settlers found the going so
rough that in one area, Tilly East, the population shrank from
2,380 farm families to less than 500.
The Drought Relief Act of 1922 helped some farmers stave off foreclosure,
but many lost all they had worked so hard for. There was a movement
for a provincial bank, but a study by the U.F.A. determined it
to be legally insuperable due to the Canadian Bank
Act of 1871. Local Leedy had already broke with the U.F.A. in
1921, over its failure to implement policies that would more markedly
improve the financial condition of the farmers. It is worth noting
that the populism concepts brought north of the U.S.
border by those such as Leedy continue to reverberate in Alberta
politics today, leading to significant western alienation from
federal government policies.
Along with forest fires, floods also threatened the settlers on
a fairly regular basis. In 1926, a tragedy occurred when an entire
family perished in the Athabasca River overflow. Chris Presthlien,
his wife and their four children all drowned while attempting
to reach higher ground, down near present day Graham Acres. Ironically,
the homestead they left remained above water.
In 1922 a new two room school was built to replace the log building
put up in 1912. This school, with many additions, is the Central
School in Whitecourt today. When Evelyn Merrifield Gunderson arrived
to teach in 1925 she wrote there were a total of twenty-five
children in each room. Most children, especially the boys,
quit school after reaching the age of 15. Evelyn also recalled
having to thaw out the frozen bottles of ink every morning in
With the influx of more settlers, the desire for church buildings
grew. As Virginia Byfield wrote the glue that bound together
Alberta society in the 1920s
was in fact the Christian
religion. A small Catholic church went up on the north side
of 49 Street and 52 Avenue. In 1926, a United Church was completed
to the point it could be used. Construction was finished in 1927,
with the first baptism being Roy Merrifield on July 25, 1928.
The structure is still sound today and is used as a rooming house.
Social life in the 1920s continued much as before. There
were frequent all night dances, along with picnics and social
gatherings. A hockey team was formed in the early 20s, with
an outdoor ice surface maintained by volunteers where the fire
hall now stands. A ball team took over in summer, many of the
players being the same. The Homesteaders Guide reported
on one ball game: After the game, horse racing was indulged
in and the evening and most of the night was spent in dancing.
For the ladies basketball was the biggest team sport, although
Joan Barrow and Dolly Torgerson Graham also played on the hockey
team with the men. Tennis was popular as well, with Whitecourt
generally holding the district silverware from the contests. Dog
races were a feature of most picnics, made the more interesting
by placing all shapes and sizes of dogs in the same race. The
Great War Veterans Association (GWVA) looked after the establishment
of a ball diamond and race track facilities near present day Central
School. In 1927, the GWVA became the 44th Branch of the newly
formed Canadian Legion.
The downtown business section continued to grow between 1925 and
1928. The Harrop hotel was sold and turned into a store by the
Traxlers. However, in the summer of 1928, another big fire occurred
in downtown Whitecourt. In his memoirs, local Fred Harrison related
that one Saturday night we were dancing the farewell dance
at midnight when someone opened the door and yelled town
on fire at the store. Fred goes on to say the fire
burned the store, the pool room, an empty store and a restaurant
before we got it stopped. There was a lot of ammunition in the
store and it was going off like firecrackers. The frequency
and seriousness of fires in earlier days can give one an appreciation
for advances in modern fire protection and construction codes.
After the fire, the poolroom was rebuilt on its original site.
Jerry Graham took over the post office savings bank, land agency
and Imperial oil agency, which he ran from the back of the Whitecourt
Lumber Store. In 1927, the Tim Selleck family moved back to Whitecourt
so that the boys, Frank and Ted, could take their high school.
In 1929, the Sellecks started a milk delivery business to complement
their farming income. Milk was 6 cents a quart delivered, or 25
cents for six quarts if picked up.
At the end of the 1920s, Whitecourt could be said to have
met the challenges caused by land, weather and the oft-delayed
railroad, to grow and prosper. The future looked bright, with
the U.F.A. government using the leverage of its Progressives allies
in Parliament to get legislation passed on December 14, 1929 that
gave Alberta control over its natural resources. However, the
celebration over the anticipated prosperity was short-lived, as
the effects of the Great Depression began to be felt.