1918 - 1921

After World War One, Whitecourt started to receive an influx of returning soldiers and other veterans who opted to take advantage of The Soldier Settlement Loan Act. This federal legislation provided funds for veterans wishing to purchase land. They arrived by the various arduous ways to Whitecourt as described in last month’s Advisor. Despite a promise by Alberta premier Arthur L. Sifton to have the railroad to Whitecourt by 1917, there was still no steel.

In 1919, Capitol Lumber arrived on the scene, building a mill near the junction of Beaver Creek and the MacLeod River. James Miller preceded J. W. Millar, and also set up a sawmill, a little further up the MacLeod. At last it seemed the Whitecourt lumber industry was going to move beyond the small, sometimes portable sawmills, operated by locals such as John Leedy and Dave Wartman.

In 1919, the Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern Railways merged and became the Canadian National Railway. In August 1919, about 100 cars of steel and construction material were delivered to Sangudo. At last work began on laying the steel to Whitecourt. Because of the delay, all the road bed which had been so carefully prepared five years previous had to be redone.

The winter of 1919-1920 was the hardest one on record since 1907. This and the stalled railroad made it tough going for both of the new lumber businesses. After operating for a year, the Capitol lumber company ceased operations and let its store of logs sit in behind a dam built at the creek mouth, to wait for the train. Miller continued to struggle along, with limited work.

Bud and Pete Cochrane had just arrived in the fall of 1919, with a large number of animals from their Nevada ranch. They could only watch helplessly as the long cold winter drove the price of both oats and hay to astronomical levels. Pioneer and erstwhile populist governor of Kansas, John Leedy, also made the point that the financial policies coming out of Eastern Canada proved deadly for many small farmers wishing to retain more of their crops. He published his research in a 40 page tract published in 1920 entitled What’s the Matter with Canada.

As stated previously, Leedy, did not meet with electoral success in Canada. However, he used his position as vice-president of the United Farmers of Alberta (U.F.A.) to lend his political expertise to the farmers and others. At the end of 1918, Leedy presented the U.F.A. board with three options. They could: eschew direct political action and operate as an interest group; become a politically involved lobby group; or they could commerce independent political activity. As historian Karel Bicha writes “without a doubt the decision of the U.F.A. board in January 1919, to commence independent political activity,…owed much to Leedy’s stimulus”. Bicha also writes that a rift in the new U.F.A. movement “with potentially crippling implications, was blunted by a faction that looked to Leedy for leadership.”

The U.F.A. formed the government of Alberta in 1921 and governed until 1935, when the even more radical Alberta Social Credit Party came to power. Leedy did not hang around to wield the levers of power, finding the U.F.A. had watered down its policies too much towards the mainstream. Still, the U.F.A. kept this Whitecourt pioneer on the membership roll until his death, and as late as 1934, when Leedy was 84 years old, sought his advice on banking reform.
In any case, the Cochrane brothers saw the price of the cattle drop from $100 to $25, which put paid to their plan of developing a ranch in the area. Long time resident Frank Chaisson also felt the bite of the weather and the credit situation, losing his cattle business. The Cochane brothers looked for alternatives and did manage to put several of their horses to work on the construction of the railroad grade.

One of the settlers to come to the area in 1919 was Leo Baxter, who had heard that Axel Olson had caught eighty trout in the Beaver Creek. That was enough for this ardent fisherman to pull up stakes and come to Whitecourt, where he settled near the banks of the Beaver. The first thing Leo did was cast his line and land a beautiful bull trout ‘minnow’, weighing a good two and a half pounds. He proudly took his catch to the kitchen at Olsen’s Hotel, where he was staying, anticipating a great breakfast the next day. However, early risers at the Hotel made short work of the fish, leaving poor Leo with egg on his plate, and his smiling face, when they joked about it years later with him.

Other settlers to move to Whitecourt in 1919 included Mr. and Mrs. George Jackson, who came straight from Toronto. George was a veteran who had taken advantage of The Soldier Settlement Loan Act to become the proverbial fish out of water in the backwoods of Whitecourt. As daughter Peggy Jackson Plummer relates, “neither one of them knew which end of the cow was which”. Mrs. Jackson gamely put up with quips from the local bachelors on such topics as her gardening and cooking. She even followed most of their instructions on how to make bread, before hiding the results of her failed experience in the outdoor privy. Later she found out, when great blooms of bread dough came up through the seat, that bread should not be put in a cool place to make it rise, and that yeast was something to be used sparingly. The Jacksons moved to B.C. for a respite for a year, before moving back and becoming long term residents.

Tom Stewart with his wife Olive came out from Edmonton that year, along with their sons, to work for the Miller and company sawmill outfit. Tom was in his late 60’s, having originally come to Alberta in 1881 from Vancouver. His family endured a three month pack saddle odyssey over the Mountains. Olive ran Whitecourt’s first real milk route, using a horse and buggy in summer and a cutter in winter.
During the summer of 1919, both the Bank of Commerce and the Imperial Bank became interested in setting up branches in Whitecourt and Rochfort. A flip of the coin resulted in the Imperial getting Whitecourt and its future partner, the Commerce, getting Rochfort as a new location. This flip of fate resulted in Mr. John “Jerry” Graham, a WWI vet, engaging in a futile search of the railroad schedules for the site of his new Imperial Bank post in Whitecourt, Alberta. He finally ran into someone who had been through here, and was informed to take the train to Sangudo, and ‘drive’ in for 50 miles. In 1920, driving was distinct from ‘motoring’ in that it involved a horse and buggy or sled. Picking up a suitcase of cash at Sangudo, Jerry jumped on a cutter. He caught sight of the railroad construction crew, nearing the location of present day Mayerthorpe, before running into Pat Hardy at Greencourt. Pat accompanied Jerry on a sled for his final leg of the journey.

In any case, Jerry Graham opened Whitecourt’s first bank. He also wrote a piece called ‘Sagitiwa to Whitecourt – A Salute to the Pioneers’, which describes many of the other characters who arrived in Whitecourt around this time, as well as earlier arrivals. Jerry Graham ended up marrying a local, Dolly Torgerson, and becoming a long time resident of Whitecourt, active in many businesses.

It should be noted that historian Karel Bicha, in his article on John Leedy, seems to have let his limited understanding of monetary reform lead him to class Leedy as having the reputation of being “mediocre” and being a person of “limited intellect”. This is nonsense, according to both Leedy’s accomplishments, and according to what Jerry Graham wrote regarding the defining characteristics of early settlers. Banker Graham described Leedy as a “highly intelligent man with an extremely ready wit”. Moveover, his place was described “as a far cry from what the homesteaders were accustomed to, but no homesteader felt out of place or ill at ease there”, such was the hospitality of the Leedy family.

Bicha also wrote that “Albertans were capable in placing their faith in more bizarre economic panaceas (than Leedy’s)” in reference to the eventually election of the Alberta Social Credit Party. This can be contrasted with what might be deemed a more mature analysis by eminent Albertan historian James H. Gray. Gray states Socred Premier “Aberhart was jeered for promising everybody twenty-five dollars a month. Yet within ten years of his first term, the federal government introduced the "baby bonus", which provided five dollars a month for each child. Since the average family then had between four and five children, this amounted to approximately the same sum... Aberhart said there was within the country sufficient wealth to put all our farms and resources back to work. He was absolutely right as the ensuing Second World War would swiftly prove. So no, the Alberta insurrectionists of the 1930's were not fools. They were merely, perhaps, a little premature."

The Advisor is in the process of obtaining more research material, with the goal of further rebutting the negative description of Leedy by Bicha, which resides in the Alberta historical archives. With the few pieces of source material now on hand, Leedy appears as an outstanding individual, who exemplified the concept of service above self. He gave up the trappings of his governor’s office to administrators, to sit out in the reception area where the electorate came in. He also reworked the Kansas national guard so that the troops could vote for their leaders and withstood intense pressure ensuring that a battalion drawn from the black community was led by black officers in the Spanish American war of 1898. Even this last accomplishment was dismissed by historian Bicha as a crass political ploy on Leedy’s part, although Leedy predictably lost support for having such a stance in favour of individual rights in 1898. In any case, it will be shown in a future article that it is quite possible that the negative characteristics attributed to Leedy might actually be a reflection of Bicha’s very limited understanding about the ideas put forward by Leedy.

The Wagoners, father Frank, mother Anna, and seven children came up from Nebraska in the spring of 1920. They eventually settled on the Mink Creek flats, which gave its name to today’s Mink Creek Road. This road is located two short blocks from Wagoner Crescent. During the next four years, the Wagoners had four more children, while clearing the land and building up their homestead.

1920 saw the birth of Blue Ridge. The railroad track was being laid north of the tiny hamlet of Lonira. You can see Lonira Road just northwest of Cottonwood Corners. Store owner John Watson decided to move his business north to be near the railroad and opened a road. Because the area was covered with blueberries that summer, the name Blue Ridge was coined by John. Long time residents such as ‘blueberry lips’ Norma would seem to attest to this fact.

Several of the erstwhile soldiers in the area got together and formed a district local of the Great War Veteran’s Association (GWVA), which was the forerunner of the Canadian Legion. The meeting minutes of January 1921 detail their plans to build the original legion hall. The first fund raiser was a bit of fiasco, with the comment made that “it was suggested in some quarters that the quality of the home brew interfered to some extent with the business ability of the picnic committee”. Future endeavours were more successful.

Early in the spring of 1921, the Canadian Northern Town Properties Company Limited sent in a crew to survey the townsite they had purchased in 1912. They determined a the new layout for the streets, to account for the location of the railroad. Several buildings, including the hotels, were moved by stump puller and stone boat. The log buildings couldn’t be moved and were dismantled. The business people affected quickly erected new lumber buildings to get ready for the railway.

A station house and water tank were built and in December 1921 the first train whistled into Whitecourt. The engineer was Dan Powers, who with his wife Margeret, became an integral part of the Whitecourt community. It was still a full day to get to Edmonton by train, but this was a big improvement over the three days it took when the steel ended in Sangudo, which in itself was an improvement over the four week trip from Edmonton Mr. and Mrs. Walter White made in 1908.