Oldest town in southern Alberta marks 150 years

The oldest community in southern Alberta is marking a significant event this weekend — 150 years since the North West Mounted Police trekked across the prairies to stop the American whisky trade.

The police founded Fort Macleod in 1874, and in the process, opened up the region to settlement.

The town that sprang up around the fort is located about 150 kilometres south of Calgary.

Anniversary celebrations include a new pro rodeo, country music concert, free food, bouncy castles, virtual reality history tours on Main Street, a Blackfoot princess pageant at the Fort Museum and much more.

"It's a fantastic milestone for the town to hit 150 years. So we're very excited to be celebrating that," said Liisa Gillingham, one of the organizers.

The party kicks off the 150th celebration with a drone show at the arena Friday night. To read more about all the activities planned, scroll down to the bottom of this story.

Town with a dramatic story

Fort Macleod has been the site of many Hollywood film productions, and its story has enough twists and quirks to make a good plot line of its own.

Christopher Richmond-Krahn is collections manager at the Fort Museum, which was built in 1956 as a replica of the original fort.

In his view, the march west was one of the most dramatic moments in local history. Nearly three hundred men in red serge coats riding across the Prairies — with weak horses and meagre supplies, struggling across land stripped of resources by wildfire or bison migration.

"One of my favourite stories is from Colonel French, who was leading the march west at the time, and he recounts how they had to use essentially muddy water for tea," said Richmond-Krahn.

Christopher Richmond Krahn is collections manager at The Fort Museum in Fort Macleod and says working with local elders to better understand the Indigenous experience after the North West Mounted Police came west has been emotional.
Christopher Richmond-Krahn is collections manager at the Fort Museum in Fort Macleod. He says it's been emotional working with local elders to better understand the Indigenous experience after the North West Mounted Police came west. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

But they survived. The troops arrived in what is now Lethbridge to find Fort Whoop-Up, a key site for the American whisky traders, virtually abandoned. Then they continued west and built Fort Macleod on the Old Man River.

The town sprang up around the police outpost and grew quickly. The railroad came through and people believed this would be the centre of the new west. They built gorgeous brick buildings along Main Street and the town took out a large loan to support the growth.

Then building virtually stopped when the First World War broke out. The town ran into financial trouble in 1924, and as a condition of the bailout loan, it promised not to take on any major new projects for 50 years.

It was a strange blessing, says Belinda Crowson, president of the Lethbridge Historical Society. Because of that crisis, Fort Macleod's Main Street was preserved to the extent that it is now, one of only two designated as provincial historic sites in Alberta.

"They have an amazing Main Street," said Crowson. "But they got it sort of accidentally.

"When other communities were building new buildings in the '50s and '60s, [Fort Macleod] maintained a lot of those historic buildings partly for financial reasons. Today, they're benefiting and they look brilliant."

The other part of the story

For years, the march west was told only as a heroic story. The whisky traders had been selling something called "firewater" — it would include "tomatoes, strychnine, red ink and a bit of alcohol, causing a lot of destruction," said Richmond-Krahn.

The NWMP came to stop that. That did happen, but the story is more complex.

For the Blackfoot people, the establishment of the fort was followed by a treaty signing. Within decades, it was illegal for Blackfoot members to leave their reserve without authorization. That was a criminal offence, and the stockades were in Fort Macleod.

"The history didn't start out on a good note," said Mike Bruised Head, who also goes by his Blackfoot name, Ninna Piiksii.

"Those were the starvation times because we weren't allowed to hunt deer off the reserve and the buffalo were almost extinct."

Bruised Head is a Blackfoot elder who lives on the Blood reserve, just south of town, and is chair of the Kainai Board of Education. He said attitudes did change slowly.

At first, the Blackfoot people were asked to leave Fort Macleod as soon as they were finished their trading, Bruised Head said. They couldn't eat in the restaurants. Then the rodeo started, and the Blackfoot would camp along the river during the fair. That helped associate the town with something other than police.

A bigger shift came when some Indigenous children started attending school in Fort Macleod in the 1950s and 1960s. Some residential schools were still operating, others were closing. It meant Indigenous students and their white peers were finally sharing a classroom.

"Those were interesting dynamics. There was still a little bit of racism, but the students slowly started understanding each other."

He said some became "darn good friends" and the students slowly took down the walls.

Now at the Fort Museum, Richmond-Krahn and others are trying to ensure the whole complexity of the story is told.

"Meeting with elders and hearing the original stories that they have of the North West Mounted Police marching west has been an honour and also very eye-opening," he said.

"Last summer, we were blessed with a Blackfoot naming ceremony.… And we have been working with elders searching out different projects we can do to especially enhance our Blackfoot gallery, but also just kind of create a more holistic approach to our storytelling here at the museum."

Summer students perform a version of the musical ride at The Fort Museum in Fort Macleod, Alta. It's a staple at the southern Alberta museum and will be performed on Canada Day for the 150th anniversary of the founding of the fort.
Summer students perform a version of the musical ride at the Fort Museum in Fort Macleod. It's a staple at the southern Alberta museum and will be performed on Canada Day for the 150th anniversary of the founding of the fort. (The Fort Museum)

A new energy in the business community

Today, the population in Fort Macleod is roughly 3,000. But its Main Street has dozens of independent shops and there's construction all around. Highway 2 runs through it and it's near the junction with Highway 3, so it pulls in tourist traffic from all directions.

Business along its downtown commercial strip took off again about a decade ago, said Josh Beusekom, the owner of Next Home and Garden. That's about the time he opened his business, gambling on the local economy when he was just out of post-secondary school.

"We've seen a huge shift in terms of even the business mindset, with Main Street filling up with businesses, and our commercial industrial core massively expanding. It was about 40 per cent filled 10 years ago, and there's really next to no lots available there at all today."

Younger families are now staying, he noted.

"It seems like the energy is here. Even with the demographic mix that we serve, it seems there's a young demographic from 20 to 40 that seems to be very, very prominent," he said. "You can see that they're investing roots in a small town rather than a big city."

Josh Beusekom, the owner of Next Home and Gardens on Fort Macleod's Main Street, says he sees many young families in his store as well as seniors. That's a sign to him that people are staying in town more than they used to.
Josh Beusekom, the owner of Next Home and Gardens on Main Street, says he sees many young families in his store as well as seniors. That's an indication to him that people are staying in town more than they used to. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Along the historic strip, there are only two empty bays, and several stores have extra incubator spaces for small retailers inside them. They have a new bakery and cafe, and at the west end, several local investors are putting millions into renovating the historic Queen's Hotel into a boutique hotel, said Fort Macleod Mayor Brent Feyter.

The town is also seeing its first multifamily residential development with four nine-unit buildings.

Over the past couple of years, the town made the news for events that drove people apart. Its Empress Theatre was vandalized during a drag event.

But the town council is trying to stress belonging. They're trying to build better relationships with the surrounding Indigenous communities, said Feyter, and much of the growth is coming from local residents reinvesting here.

That's Feyter's dream for the next decade, he said.

"There's enough negativity everywhere in the world to go around for everyone. But how can we in a positive way say, 'OK, what can we do?'"

Bruised Head said he has also noticed a change. It's still not perfect.

"There's some really good and really bad attitudes," he said.

"They're very friendly people, the merchants. Most of them in Fort Macleod. It has come a long way."

Vancouver-based country band Washboard Union is nominated for the 2019 Juno for breakthrough group of the year.
Vancouver-based country band Washboard Union will perform in Fort Macleod on Saturday. (Submitted by Warner Canada)

An open invitation to a major party 

The festivities started Tuesday with the first pro rodeo in Fort Macleod in 40 years. And there are events planned right through Canada Day.

Gillingham was on the organizing committee. She met CBC News at the town office, and when she tried to list all the events, she ran out of breath.

Here are a few highlights:

Main Street — This will be a hot spot for the party on Friday and Saturday with free popcorn and other food, multiple live performances of dance and singing.

There are also virtual reality tours being put on by Lethbridge Polytechnic. Visitors can don headsets to see what the buildings and the strip would have looked like decades ago.

Party in the Park — This is at the elementary school on Saturday, with a petting zoo, dunk tank, obstacle courses, bumper balls and multiple bouncy houses for kids. There's also a free barbecue.

Country music concert — The town had already sold 1,100 tickets for this outdoor concert by Wednesday, but tickets are also available for $20 at the gates, cash only, said Gillingham. It runs Saturday afternoon and evening, featuring The Washboard Union, Kalsey Kulyk, Eric Ethridge and Raquel Cole.

Centennial singers — Members of the older generation in Fort Macleod used to sing and perform together regularly. This group revived their choir for the weekend even though their conductor is now in her 90s, said Gillingham. They'll be performing at the United Church on Saturday afternoon.

The Fort Museum — On Canada Day, many of the activities are at the Fort Museum. There's a Blackfoot Princess pageant, the musical ride and cannon demonstrations.

A full itinerary is available on the Fort Macleod town website and in the Fort Macleod Gazette.