The past where we live
Strathcona County - A rich and plentiful country
Strathcona County has long been a place treasured for its rich resources. From before European contact to today, the area has been shaped and reshaped by the ebb and flow of a local economy driven by natural resources: furs, coal, soil and oil. These resources acted like a magnet, drawing people here.
And as settlers came, they developed industries – including timber and dairy, which evolved over time to meet the needs of a growing and changing population
Our story begins with furs ...
Flash back 12,000 years, and this landscape is being sculpted by retreating glaciers, leaving behind an elevated area of uneven “knob and kettle” terrain amidst a fertile plain.
Animals, birds and fish find shelter, water and food in this unique landscape.
First Peoples follow the animals. Having thrived on the land for centuries, the Cree call this place amiskwaciy, or Beaver Hills.
In 1795, this same abundance prompts the Montreal-based North West Company to build Fort Augustus across from what is now Fort Saskatchewan. As clerk Duncan McGillivray puts it:
“This is described to be a rich and plentiful country abounding with all kinds of animals, especially Beavers and Otters...”
By 1826, Edmonton House is one of the most important posts in the West. Indigenous peoples from the North Saskatchewan River watershed meet to trade furs for guns, food and other goods.
On the north bank, the fort hugs the river, an essential highway for moving furs east. . . and supplies west.
French voyageurs powering the heavy-laden canoes measure their progress in pipes—the distance travelled between smoke breaks. Their naming of this landscape is equally apt: as viewed from the northeast, “la Grande Pointe” or the long point.
The rash of hunting takes its toll; by the mid-1800s, buffalo herds on the prairies are diminishing at an alarming rate.
As the fur trade comes to a close, rumours circulate about gold, drawing interest from prospectors across the North American West.
Thomas Clover arrives in 1859, following tales of nuggets to be found in the North Saskatchewan River.
His sweet spot for gold is soon known as Clover’s Bar.
While Tom Clover pushes on in 1866, his name stays behind. Over time, the district between the river and Beaver Hills becomes Clover Bar.
The same glacial forces that create the region’s knob and kettle terrain also leave behind expansive fields of fertile soil -- especially at the edges of the Beaver Hills, in Clover Bar. These fertile fields soon advance a robust agricultural economy that supports successful farms and flourishing communities.
Enticed by government offers of land in the newly formed North-West Territories, settlers begin arriving in the 1880s.
Among the first, Richard Phillip Ottewell homesteads in Clover Bar -- and promptly harvests more than 100 bushels of oats to the acre. A bumper crop!
News travels fast. By the 1890s, Clover Bar’s rich soil is nearly all claimed, and communities are springing up farther afield.
Settlers hail from the British Isles and Europe … Others come from closer to home, including Eastern Canada and the United States. Métis families already here take up land claims as well.
In 1892, hundreds from Parry Sound, Ontario follow Thomas Pearce, who years later as an agent of the CPR, is credited with coining the term Sunny Alberta.
Many homesteaders raise a mix of hogs, chickens, cattle, grain and gardens.
Buffeted by drought, weeds, early frosts and coyotes, they band together to raise barns, build roads and fences, and drive cattle to community pastures.
Some supplement their income running sawmills and threshing crews, building roads … and mining coal.
Indeed, numerous coal mines take root in the early 1900s, fuelling furnaces and later powering trains. The entire region’s most productive coal seam is named Clover Bar, a nod to the black riches embedded here.
Devastating wildfires prompt the federal government to set aside the Beaver Hills Timber Reserve, Alberta’s first, in 1892. Mildred Stefiszyn (stef-i-zin) recalls:
The reserve is later renamed the Cooking Lake Forest Reserve. In time, it is reduced in size and expanded in scope to include wildlife protection and a shared grazing pasture.
Rail by rail, connections by train improve, a boon for development. Stations and freight stops attract grain elevators, general stores, post offices, lumber yards, schools and churches, fuelling growth.
With population in the region growing fast, demand for milk, butter and cheese shoots skyward.
Dairy herds begin expanding, making good use of the area’s abundant pastureland. This region, especially around Colchester and Salisbury, becomes known as “the dairy shed of Edmonton.”
After doubling between 1939 and 1960, the number of dairy producers begins to shrink. Many farmers focus on grain … some sell their land.
The current chapter of our history opens with the February 13, 1947 discovery of oil at Leduc Number 1, just a few kilometres away. What better place than here in Strathcona County to refine and manufacture that oil?
Imperial Oil is the first to come, transplanting a refinery from Whitehorse in 1948. Three years later, British American Oil builds another refinery nearby. Together they create the nucleus of Refinery Row.
Today, dozens of petrochemical companies dot the landscape in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland.
Home to 75 per cent of western Canada’s refining capacity, they contribute to a strong tax base . . . and provide jobs for thousands within Strathcona County borders and beyond.
Rich, too, in natural heritage
Much has changed since the riches of this region brought earlier peoples here. Trade in furs, coal and timber has given way to oil and industry; agriculture has transitioned from smaller family farms to larger operations.
Through it all, Strathcona County has stayed true to its rural roots. Thanks to careful conservation in the Beaver Hills, now a UNESCO biosphere reserve, the beauty that once prompted early 20th-century vacationers to hop the train to Cooking Lake remains largely intact -- right at our doorstep, for all to enjoy.
It’s a rich natural heritage … that offers a quiet refuge for reflection and renewal. … Perhaps the most cherished of all resources, these riches of nature create a sense of place that keeps calling us back.