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THE COUNTY OF ATHABASCA No. 12
Excerpts taken from the "Story of Rural Municipal Government in Alberta 1909 to 1983" by the Association of the Municipal Districts and Counties
Contributed for use in Alberta Digital Archives by Darlene Homme.
The County of Athabasca No. 12 is situated between townships 62 and 69, ranges 17 to 25,
west of the 4th meridian. The land area within the county is 1,137,752 acres with
approximately 4,394 kilometers of local roads and 224 kilometres of secondary roads, and
an area of approximately 2,000 square miles.
The Athabasca River runs through the northern part of the county, and many lakes with
excellent fishing are located in the area. Big game is abundant throughout the county.
The economy of the county is based primarily upon mixed farming, although mineral
resources, gas fields and lumbering are important.
The county was formed in January, 1959, combining the M.D. of Athabasca No. 103 and
the Athabasca School Division No. 42. Previous to this, the M.D. of Athabasca was
incorporated by the consolidation of the M.D. of Cartier No. 637, M.D. of Nelson
No. 638, M.D. of Grosmont No. 668, parts of the M.D's of Tawatinaw and Westlock and
ID's No. 102 and No. 122.
During these times municipal offices were in various places throughout the county;
places such as Athabasca, Tawatinaw, Meanook, Boyle, etc. Many reeves and councillors
served these smaller districts as well as the larger ones. Councillors are too numerous
to mention, but each supplied his knowledge, time and a great deal of energy to provide
local government to the residents of the area.
The larger municipality, M.D. of Athabasca No. 103, was formed in 1947 with offices in
Meanook. Two reeves who served the M.D. were Messrs. Aloisio and Breckenridge. Both
gentlemen provided the area with over 25 years of service. Mr. Aloisio served 32 years
along with being a member of the legislative assembly.
Many others served the area as reeve, previous to the formation of the larger
municipality, such as Messrs. Anderson, Smith, Jack, Aloisio, Meyers, Wilt, Olson,
Redden, Minns and Curtis.
In 1945-1946 things started to move in the rural municipality as far as road building
was concerned. The M.D's of Nelson, Cartier and Grosmont co-operated in the purchase
of a Caterpillar R60 gas tractor and Letourneau scraper in order to build a standard
of road required. Each M.D. was allocated a number of hours in which to operate the
unit. Roads were getting their first taste of gravel. The gravel was loaded out of the
pits with fresnos pulled by horses and then loaded onto loadlifters, deposited into
trucks and spread on the roads. Graders of all types were pulled by tractors and
horses and operated by gears, motors and mainly muscles. Ratepayers were allowed
to do various types of roadwork to pay their rates or taxes. Assessing was done by
bicycle, horseback and automobile. Since this time, many miles of road have been
constructed and graveled with the ultimate in construction and earthmoving equipment.
In 1959 when the county was formed, administrative offices were at Meanook and Colinton.
It was decided that a central location should be provided so a large school from Perryvale
was moved to Athabasca for the county office, and is still used for administrative offices
to this date.
Athabasca in the early days was known as Athabasca Landing. "Athabasca" is a Cree Indian
word meaning "a place where there are reeds". The area played an important part in the
early history of Canada's northwest. David Thompson, the noted explorer, surveyor and
trader, passed through Athabasca in 1799.
In 1848 the Hudson's Bay Company established a post at Athabasca Landing as a
distribution centre rather than a trading post. Supplies were freighted overland
and stored at the post during the winter to await the opening of navigation in
the spring. Flatboats carried cargoes to Lake Athabasca, thence up the Peace River
to the northwest or up the Slave River to the far north. The Hudson's Bay Company
operated a fleet of sternwheeler steamboats, and the Northern Transportation Company
also operated a fleet of sternwheeler boats between Grouard, on Lesser Slave Lake,
and the Grand Rapids, approximately 125 miles downstream from Athabasca.
With the arrival of the settlers, schools and churches were built. The Anglican Diocese
of Athabasca was formed in 1874, with the Right Reverend W C. Bombas as the first Bishop.
St. Matthew's, the first church, was opened on June 1, 1894, and two hostels were erected
by the church to accommodate rural students. Reverend Father Beaudry took charge in 1905,
and the following year built a small church. Methodist Church missionaries were active in
the early 1900's, but it was not until prior to World War I that a church was constructed.
In 1904 the name of the town was changed to Athabasca. It was incorporated as a village
on May 18, 1905, and as a town on September 11, 1911.
Hamlets which dotted the county during these days were Rochester, Perryvale, Colinton
and Meanook along the Landing Trail, and Ellscott, Boyle, Grassland and Atmore along
the Lac La Biche Trail and other trails leading north.
Many tales are told of the endless wagon trains which plodded along the Landing Trail
with numerous hills, creeks, stopping houses and hazards along the way.
Many homesteaders first arrived prior to 1905. French, Scots, English, Ukrainians,
Germans, Negroes (from the U.S.A.) and various other nationalities followed. They
carved their farms out of a wilderness filled with muskeg, buckskin, spruce and
poplar. Many hours, days and months were spent providing shelter for themselves and
their livestock. This was not unique to this area. What fortitude, ambition and
strength it must have taken.
Drainage ditches were dug by hand in order to drain some of the sloughs and muskegs.
Delegation upon delegation was sent to Edmonton to attempt to secure grants and monies
in order to keep local government alive and flourishing within the smaller rural
The Athabasca School Division was formed in 1938, and 86 school districts were
officially absorbed to form the first division. Several other districts were added
to the list in 1939, and some were transferred in 1944 to form the Lac La Biche
School Division No. 51. It would take many pages to review the history of these
smaller school districts, many of them being formed in 1908.
In his annual report to the ratepayers in 1939, Mr. Edwin Parr, Chairman of the
School Board, made the following observations:
* Teachers' salaries for 143 teachers were $30,789.59.
* Buildings were in a dilapidated condition.
* Teachers were being paid regularly.
* Repairs had been made to over 40 schools.
* Twelve schools were being operated in temporary buildings, and many others
* There were still 47 log school houses.
* One-third of the pupils sat on homemade desks, many not fit for use.
The following are further extracts from later reports.
1941: 100 school rooms still in operation of which 79 are one-room, 8 are
two-room and 2 are three-room schools. Difficulty in securing teachers.
The total enrolment was 2,516.
1942: Volunteer labor from the people can be a very valuable assistance in
keeping the schools operating in good condition.
1943: The Department of Education pays isolation bonuses ranging from
$100.00 to $200.00. The minimum salary is $900.00 per year.
Centralization occurred when seven districts were combined to alleviate
the teacher shortage.
1948: 10th Annual Report - comparisons between 1939 and 1948 - 1939
- 99 rooms in operation. Salary bill: $64,000.00; average annual salary:
$750.00; conveyance for one month: $20.00; grant from Department of
Education: $69,000.00; 64 high school students. 1948 - 80 rooms in
operation. Salary bill: $144,000.00; average annual salary: $2,142.00; 19
buses in operation; grant from Department of Education: $180,000.0; 200
high school students.
1949: Teachers' salary schedule referred to the Board of Arbitration for
Construction began on Edwin Parr High School in Athabasca. Some of the school
superintendent reports contain interesting highlights as follows:
J. J. LeBlanc (1923-1929): "Many of the settlers came from areas where regular yearly
schools were in operation. As soon as they were settled on the land, they took early
action to organize into school units."
W. H. Swift (1930-1935): "The Athabasca Inspectorate was one of infinite variety.
I remember my years there with much nostalgia. The Inspector of Schools saw and
participated in the establishment of education in and throughout Alberta. He saw its
transformation from a simple pioneer service into one of complexity and sophistication."
Eric Hodgson (1941-1948): "With the large number of schools and the shortage of
teachers, I decided to introduce a bus system. This movement necessitated the
holding of many meetings with much opposition from parents. When Dr. Swift came up
one time, I took him out to visit some of the schools. When we would come to a hole,
he was the one that got out to sound the depth and decide whether we could get
through or not."
B. Facey (1948-1952): "The Division, of course, was far from wealthy, and although
some of the centralized schools were of sound frame construction, many log schools
were still in use, although some were covered with siding. Not a single school in
the area, even the Town of Athabasca, had inside toilet facilities. The result was
the construction of some of the largest privies I've ever seen in my life. I remember
travelling up river on the Athabasca ice on a one-way road, the only means of access
to one new school district north of Larvert, and also ploughing mud, mud, mud on
many occasions. Then for relaxation, the eight and one-half miles from my office in
the provincial building in Athabasca to the divisional office in a converted one-room
school building in Colinton consisting primarily of forty-three curves and seventeen
bridges. To get to Mercury or Richmond Park, one patiently waited for the ferry across
the river connecting with some fairly well maintained roads under the jurisdiction of
a capable French-Canadian councillor. I remember one local trustees' convention which
filled the hall at Meanook. All school buildings had been built from current revenue
and the main issue of the afternoon was a debate on my proposition that it was now
time to begin the construction of better quality school buildings financed by debenture.
After much discussion and a close vote, the meeting recommended the continuation of
a pay-as-you-go policy. Probably the most important development during my years in
Athabasca Division, when about twenty-one rooms were closed, was the continuing
centralization of school facilities at Athabasca, Boyle, Colinton, Perryvale, Rochester
and Smith. Getting somewhat larger groups of pupils in a centre resulted in long-term
improved educational opportunity for many children in this area."
C. G. Merkley (1952-1954): "Much controversy was held concerning the merits of rural
centralization as opposed to bussing students to the larger towns. Many a heated
meeting debated the placement of schools. The closing of the small schools produced
some of the most controversial reasoning ever recorded. Schools with historical
background such as George Lake, Laura, Silver Fox, Forfar, Toles and many others
will always be remembered by students and parents who pioneered in these areas
and who, through diligent labor, provided the initial educational facilities for
many prominent Albertans. One of the treasured memories of the two years spent in
the Athabasca area was the calibre of people contacted. In no other place have there
been citizens who were more ready, willing and able to "call a spade a spade", but in
no other place were the people more helpful after an issue had been resolved, more kind
to strangers or more dedicated in making their part of Alberta a choice land for
families to mature. Surely the saying of the pioneers, "that anyone who drinks the
water of the Athabasca River will always have a warm spot in his heart for the
Athabasca area", has been proved to be true on countless occasions."
The 1950's and 1960's were marked by increasing activity within the county for
natural gas wells resulting in population growth.
The 1970's saw a decline in this activity and the school population started a slow
but steady decline. In the early 1980's the population basically stabilized, but
the school population continued to decline along with the national trend toward
The early 1980's also were marked by the province's decision to locate Athabasca
University in the area - a decision made following extensive lobbying and
submissions from all local municipalities and many community organizations. Site
work on the university was started early in 1983.
The county's population took a 10% jump to more than 5,900 in the 1981 Federal
census, but the municipality lost considerable assessment area early in 1983 when
six new summer villages were incorporated around Baptiste, Island and Skeleton lakes.
In the mid 1970's the county assumed operation of a co-operative natural
gas distribution system basically covering the eastern half of the jurisdiction.
In 1982, faced with mounting system deficits, the county sold the system to a
private company providing some relief to local ratepayers.
The late 1970's saw the county participate in major funding of an indoor swimming
pool and a performing arts centre in the Town of Athabasca, and the provision
of artificial ice in the arena in the Village of Boyle.
Progress also was made in the provision of water and sewer systems in the hamlets of
Grassland, Colinton and Rochester.
In education, major renovations were completed at the Smith and Rochester schools in
1982 with large modernization grants provided by Alberta Education. A similar
upgrading at Edwin Parr Composite High School in the Town of Athabasca was delayed
pending the allocation of provincial funds. The two modernization projects were
completed at a cost of about $2.5 million.
Three of the six schools in the jurisdiction approved plans to become designated
as community schools in 1982-83.
The 1 970's and early 1980's saw considerable emphasis on the area's primary industry
with the Agricultural Service Board mounting one of the province's largest and most
The start of 1983 also saw work commence on a new $14 million municipal hospital
to replace the building destroyed by fire in October 1980.
It is difficult to record the various events, personalities and places in a short
essay. A definition of history in a dictionary states, "to decorate with a historical
record". To decorate personalities involved in the total system would be an endless
People such as reeves, councillors, school trustees, agriculturists, engineers,
teachers, superintendents, maintenance personnel, janitors, students, grader
operators, school bus drivers, ratepayers, to name a few, have all contributed.
To decorate events, school openings, bridge openings, new roads, gravelled roads,
centralizations, annual meetings, council and school board meetings, to name a
few, would be an endless list. To decorate places such as the Landing Trail,
Peace River Trail, Athabasca River, hamlets and school districts would again
be an endless list.