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The Start of Penhold

The turn of the century was an exciting time for Central Alberta. Hundreds of new settlers flooded into the area seeking homesteads and the start of new lives. Others moved to the fledging communities along the Calgary-Edmonton Railroad, hoping to establish thriving new businesses with the burgeoning local populations.

The remarkable weather of those years bolstered the boom. The climate became warm and wet, giving the countryside a lush, green, almost steamy appearance. Farmers were generally able to commence seeding in the first or second week of April. Harvest, however, was somewhat of a challenge with the rank growth conditions. The winters were generally free from snow. In the winter of 1903-04, there was green grass growing at Christmas time, and some local farmers were gathering hay in January.

The settlement of Penhold shared in the good times. Originally started as the ninth siding along the C & E rail line, a nucleus of a hamlet had developed by the end of the 1900's with a school, post office and a couple of dwelling houses. In the spring of 1900, George Fleming built a new store and post office building. Over the next three years, other stores, two lumber yards, an implement dealership, two churches, a creamery, hotel, bank, doctor's office, livery, blacksmith shop, restaurant, chopping mill and a newspaper were establishment in the community.

Two incidents indicate the excitement and wide-eyed optimism of those times at Penhold. In February 1900, when the Penhold (Fairland) School District advertised for a new school teacher, the trustees received one hundred applications. In March 1903, the newly-formed Penhold Improvement Company intimated that it was involved in the settlement of three thousand German families from the United States to Penhold and other points in Central Alberta.

It was in this heady atmosphere that a small group of local residents decided to pursue incorporation of the hamlet. A public meeting was held on January 12, 1904 at the school house. A petition for incorporation was signed and forwarded to the Territorial Government. One of the key backers of the move was Thomas P. Malone, an ambitious young merchant, formerly from Regina, who had purchased the Harrison Brothers store in Penhold in December 1902.

Unfortunately, Mr. Malone did not have much support from the other businessmen in the community. On January 15th, thirteen men signed a counter petition to the Territorial Government demanding that incorporation not proceed. The grounds for the protest were that the January 12th meeting had not been properly advertised and that the hamlet only had thirteen dwellings instead of the fifteen required by law for village status. More importantly, the protesters worried about the consequences with local taxes.

Considerable wrangling followed. However, the proponents of incorporation by means of maps and lists of residents finally convinced the government authorities that the hamlet did meet the statutory requirements of becoming a village. Consequently, on March 14, 1904, the Territorial Lieutenant Governor issued an order that Penhold would officially become a village days thirty later and would include the whole of Section 36, Township 38 Range 28, West of the Fourth Meridian.

Despite their unhappiness with the government's decision, the dissidents decided to close ranks with the rest of the community and proceed with the creation of the village. The election of the first Village council was set for May 16, 1904. There was, however, some confusion as to what al l would be involved. Thomas Malone, as the local returning officer, wrote the government to ask if there would be any elected officials other than the Village overseer, what would his duties be, who was eligible to vote in the election, how much would the new situation increase taxation and what salaries would be paid to the overseer and the returning officer.

Eventually, all the questions were answered and the technicalities worked out. In a spirit of free and open democracy, a written record was kept, not only of each voter, but al so of how that voter had cast his ballot. Two men were nominated for the position of overseer---Herman (Henry) Emmerich of the Farmers' Store and Norman Stewart, a local implement, lumber and hardware merchant. Henry Emmerich won the contest six votes to five with Norman Stewart's ballot being one of those cast in favour of Mr. Emmerich.

Unfortunately, matters did not proceed very smoothly in the following months. While the Village celebrated its new incorporated status with a civic holiday on June 17, 1904, dissatisfaction and controversy soon followed. Some did not appreciate the new, higher rates of taxation. Others protested the cost of constructing Penhold's first wooden sidewalk from the Wilson Brothers' corner to the Stewart Brothers' implement building. A proposal was made that a by-law be passed compelling ratepayers to build and maintain sidewalks at their own expense, where necessary.

By the fall of 1904, Mr. Emmerich had decided not to continue as overseer. A new election was held on December 12th with Norman Stewart being the unanimous choice. An indication of lingering controversy appears in a letter sent to the Territorial Government by the Village in March 1905. It stated, in part: "The former overseer c1aims to have forwarded to you a11 of these {legal} papers. He does not seem disposed, however, to help us make out the {annual] returns in duplicate so we have filled some out as best we could from books and papers that were turned over some time ago.”

The following years proved less eventful. The Village Council felt minimal government was best and passed only two by-laws in ten years. Although taxes were set at three to five mills, the low rate of expenditure and the use of other revenue sources such as dog licenses meant that even though annual income was less than $500, the Village always remained in a surplus budget position with no debt and more than $100 in the bank.

In 1907, Amos Strong became the Village overseer, but did not remain in the position long. In 1908, Charles Wilson became reeve, with William Spruhan and Frank Newl and as the fellow councillors. The latter became reeve in 1909 and continued in that position until just before the First World War.

Meanwhile, Norman Stewart assumed the positions of overseer, secretary treasurer and Village constable from 1907 to 1913 at a salary of $30 per year, plus 2.5% of these taxes he was able to collect.

Perhaps the only ripples in those quiet years came in the form of stern warnings from the Provincial Government about the safe-keeping of the Village’s official records. The Department of Municipal Affairs prophetically wrote that better arrangements should be made “as soon as possible as if such records were burned, the Village would stand considerable loss which could not be made good in any way.”

In 1914, the relatively contented state of affairs for the Village came to an abrupt halt. The Provincial Government brought in a new “single-tax” system. The new methods of setting the local assessment and collecting the taxes caused considerable discontent. The Village Council formally asked for permission to continue with the old system, but the Provincial Government replied that these new rules would work much better.

Matters came to a head at the Court of Revision hearings on September 7, 1914. A local ratepayer, A.D. McKenzie, not only protested against his assessment. He also challenged the legality of the Village councillors to hold their positions on the grounds that, while they were school ratepayers, they were not municipal ratepayers because they did not own any property in the Village. The secretary-treasurer W.T. Lee checked the legislation and reluctantly agreed with Mr. McKenzie. The entire Village council had to resign.

Mr. Lee immediately wrote to the Department of Municipal Affairs. He pointed out that he had to cajole the outgoing councillors to let their names stand for nomination, and he did not know of any property holders in the Village who would be willing to run to replace them. He also pointed out that the setting of the annual assessment was now several months past due, and that he was not even sure if he could legally continue as secretary-treasurer.

The Department told Mr. Lee that if he had not been fired by the Council before they resigned, he would remain in his position. The government officials insisted that the new tax and assessment system proceed. They also directed Mr. Lee to hold an election for new councillors.

The result was a disaster. Only one person showed up on nomination day. The two names he submitted were for people ineligible to hold office---one because he was seriously in arrears on his taxes and the other because he did not have residency. Mr. Lee consequently asked the Department to appoint a new council.

The new assessment went no better. Some local businessmen decided not to cooperate, in particular the local hotel operator who claimed he had only $50 worth of property. The Department sent an inspector to help sort matters out. However, he soon found to his horror that for several years the Village Council had been collecting taxes against personal property and improvements and not just real estate. This was completely beyond the law and the expectation was that new complaints would be lodged by irate taxpayers.

Surprisingly, no sustained protests were made. As well, the Department decided to reappoint J.H. Brown, J.M. Hart and N.F. Jensen as the Council, even though they were either leaseholders or foreign citizens. In the view of the authorities, they were still the best people available for the job, and besides, the local ratepayers had elected them in the previous election.

Nevertheless, by the end of the term, none of the Councillors nor anyone else for that matter were willing to stand for election. In fact, not a single person showed up at the Village's annual meeting other than the secretary-treasurer, W.T. Lee. Another meeting was called at the direction of the Provincial Government, but again no one showed up.

After considerable arm-twisting by both Mr. Lee and the Department of Municipal Affairs, J.M. Hart agreed to be appointed as the Village reeve and sole councillor. As the local aversion to holding public office continued for some years, Mr. Hart reluctantly allowed himself to be re-appointed reeve in 1916, 1917 and 1918.

Despite the apathy and seeming near collapse of local government, the Village fared quite well. Mr. Hart and Mr. Lee kept matters much as they had been before. Although they only collected $300 to $350 in taxes and fees each year, they spent much less. The Village bank account soon grew to the equivalent of one year's taxes.

Unfortunately, at the end of the First World War in January 1919, Village affairs again fell into turmoil. A.W. Walker had come forward and agreed to run for reeve. Unfortunately, at the same time the Provincial government imposed a supplementary tax which caused a new set of disagreements and controversies. Mr. Lee had collected $14.76 for the provincial levy, but the Department thought that they were owed at least $47. At any rate, Mr. Lee did not feel any great rush to send the government their money. A series of lengthy and pointed letters were exchanged. Fortunately for the Village, both Mr. Walker and Mr. Lee decided to press on and continue in their positions.

Unfortunately, the official records for the next several years are very spotty, as the Village files were destroyed in a couple of fires. Despite the lack of information, it appears that the Village maintained its long-standing policies of minimal government, surplus budgets and no debt.

An exception occurred in 1923. The Council passed its fourth bylaw in twenty years in order to control animals running at large in the Village. There was an additional jolt that year when the hospital bill for a poor local young woman total led 60% of the Village's annual revenue. The Village Council protested vehemently, but the Provincial Government informed them that they were still legally obligated to pay on behalf of the indigent resident.

Another big change came in 1928 when the Village Council agreed to a franchise arrangement with Calgary Power to provide the community with electricity. However, the biggest changes followed the construction of the Penhold airport in the late 1930's and the outbreak of the Second World War.

In 1947, Penhold became the smallest village in Canada to install its own water and sewer system. In the next few years, the population more than doubled to 400. The Village's assessment rose to half a million dollars, which even with inflation was a big jump from the $30,000 recorded at the start of the First World War. However, with the increased demands of public expenditure such as local improvements and grants to community clubs, the mill rate for Village purpose rose to just over 14 mills.

In the 1970's, Penhold's population soared to more than 1000. In the fall of 1980, the community was changed from a village to a town. While the following years brought both setbacks and successes, the Town of Penhold has continued to grow into a clean, modern and family-orientated community which attracts new residents from all across Central Alberta and the rest of Canada. Penhold is rapidly living up to its motto The Home of Future Generations.

Written by Michael Dawe

Red Deer & District Archives

September 1996