What makes a place?
I realize it’s such a broad question, but it’s something I find myself wondering all the time. Out of countless places on earth, why does someone pick here to live? What motivates us to move from one place to another? And why do some areas become thriving to the point of becoming monsters, while others struggle or even wither away? There is no simple answer to these questions, but a good way to approach this is to look at industry- we live in areas that provide us with a means of survival. This explains much of the history surrounding Fish Creek and the Deep South communities. The industry has changed a great deal over time, through primary-resource based industry, to a service-based one, to a world where work and home lives are again becoming integrated. But it all comes back to finding a way to live. And it starts with the land.
“Henceforth it will glory in the classic name of Midnapore…Even since our last visit we saw signs of decided improvement. We must congratulate the settlers on the good taste displayed in the choice of location. . . . In this neighbourhood wild fruits such as raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries are found in abundance.”- Article about residents in the Fish Creek valley, from The Calgary Herald, December 19, 1883”
In the Fish Creek valley, there were a few different ways groups lived off the land. The earliest users of the land were of course First Nations tribes; Fish Creek Park is rich in archaeological sites, with evidence of buffalo pounds, jumps, and teepee rings harkening back to a time when buffalo were everywhere in this part of the world, and people’s survival was dependant on them. Though the details of how they lived are unfortunately scarce, it appears the area was used by Indigenous people into the mid-1700s. After their departure, it was untouched for over a century, until the first European settlers arrived in the Fish Creek valley, to live off nature in a different way. Coal mining was one of the earliest primary industries in the area, with light operations in the west side of Fish Creek in the late 19th century and early 20th century, operated by the Beubeau and Shaw families, though details are unclear. Later, there were several gravel pits in the area: one in what is now the southwest Midnapore business park, another just south of the Lacombe Home owned by the Sisters of Providence who ran the Lacombe Home, and a third that was operated by Lafarge in the Bow River Valley until 1998 before becoming the Lafarge Meadows park. However the most significant primary industry in Midnapore, which dominated the area for a century, was agriculture. And it began with the area’s first settler, John Glenn.
“I like the climate better than any I have found between the Atlantic and the Pacific; the Rio Grande and the Peace, over all of which territory I have travelled. There is everything in the country a settler can desire.”- John Glenn (1834-1886), reflecting on settling in Fish Creek.
I love this quote. It also sums up the story of John Glenn pretty well- he and his wife Adelaide ultimately settled in Fish Creek, initially near where the creek meets the Bow River. Like so many settlers at the time they were looking for good land to farm on. Judging from the legacy they left in this area, it was very good land. The Glenns notably built the first irrigation ditch in the province, utilizing the Fish Creek to grow wheat in the valley. And when you pull at the threads of their story, the full agricultural legacy of the valley is revealed. Perhaps the most notable part of their story is the rich history found on the site of their second home, a little further upstream. This site was purchased in 1879 by the federal government to become Indian Supply Farm No. 24, as part of a program to help the First Nations, now living on reserves, to run farms (there is something ironic and sad about that, seeing as how the valley had nourished them only a few generations before). The program was poorly run and the site was sold in 1882 to a land holder. In 1892 it was purchased by local cattleman and philanthropist William Roper Hull and became the Bow Valley Ranche. Hull continued to utilize irrigation and the crops grown were renowned for their size, with grain reaching an average size of two metres and yearly yields of 1200 tons. Hull was more famous for his ranching however, and the site was primarily used for cattle holding. This continued with local icon Pat Burns who took over the site in 1910; his massive ranching empire at its height stretched from downtown Calgary to the Montana border, and most of what is now Midnapore, Sundance and Chaparral, at least, was at one time ranchland owned by the Burns family. According to staff at Fish Creek Park, some ranching operations continued in the valley into the 1980s.
As for the Glenns, they moved even further upstream in 1879, to a site in what is now Fish Creek Park’s Glennfield area, near the “cheesehuts” just east of Macleod Trail. John Glenn passed away in 1886 from pneumonia, caught following a dispute with his driver while travelling between Midnapore and Calgary. He left behind 6 children. Adelaide remarried the next year and stayed on the property until 1912, becoming renowned as “the midwife of Midnapore”. She too succumbed to pneumonia in 1940. As for this house, their third in the area, it was later used for Burns’ gardener before being moved northwest of the valley, becoming a home for the owners of the Mayhew Nursery. This nursery provided trees for countless homes in the Calgary area, and the site of it is still marked by a few Chinese elm trees on the west side of Cantrell Drive, south of Cantree Road in Canyon Meadows.
Apart from the small Midnapore townsite and the ranchland in the east, most of the Fish Creek area consisted of small farmsites, not unlike the initial settlement of the Glenn family. This trend continued up until annexation and development in the late 1970s. One significant exception to this was the Shaw family, who became neighbours to the Glenns in 1883, settling in the Fish Creek valley just west of Macleod trail. They initially left their comfortable home in Kent, England with a plan to settle in Peace River. But upon seeing Fish Creek they were convinced to stay. Once their large collection of supplies caught up to them, they established the first secondary industry in the province, a woollen mill.
Shaw Woollen Mill, circa 1908-10. Glenbow Archives NA-44-2. Built circa 1889, goods from the Mill were sold by family matriarch Helen Shaw at a store on Calgary’s Stephen Avenue. The store was called “Midnapore Woollen Mills” and offered high-quality blankets, tweeds and shirts, very popular during the Klondike Gold Rush. The store was located in a small building previously on the site of the Norman Block, today occupied by Winners. The mill burned down in the late 1910s or early 1920s; I’ve never been able to identify a clear date. The area was later utilized for M&S Paving (“Macrae & Shaw”), manufacturing cement. The Shaw’s Paradise Grove, a local park, was also located around the old homestead site, where farming also continued into the 1970s.
Woollen Mill Sculpture (“Cairn”) in Fish Creek Park, dedicated in 1983 to commemorate the centennial of the Shaw Family arriving in Canada. Samuel William and Helen Maria Shaw brought 8 children from England and had one more in Canada; at the time of Helen’s death in 1941 she had 29 grandchildren and 69 great-grandchildren. Due to the massive size of the family, along with their influence, sooner or later, nearly everyone in Midnapore was a Shaw. The sculpture is meant to mark the location of the mill, though its exact location is unclear as there are no remains of it.
Does any of that make sense? Beyond the idea of a huge family deciding to abandon a comfortable life to run a mill in the wilderness, which is amazing, it’s strange to think that the first manufacturing in the province started in Fish Creek. I have questioned the claim, which I am repeating from The Spirit of the Old West document prepared by Fish Creek Provincial Park. However considering how young Alberta is, having only been settled in the late 19th century and only becoming a province in 1905, it actually seems reasonable. But it’s still hard to comprehend in light of the area’s small industrial legacy. Even in the past, when there was more domestic manufacturing, the area never really lived up to its early industrial ambitions. Maybe it was a victim of circumstance, with the chaos that would take over the world in the early 20th century. More immediately there was Calgary, the ever-expanding giant to the north that was roughly the same age as Midnapore -the NWMP established Fort Calgary earlier, but with John Glenn arriving in 1873, Midnapore was actually settled first. While Calgary quickly became dominated by urban pursuits such as the railway, construction and oil, Midnapore remained strongly connected to the rural lifestyle and farming.
“ In recent years Midnapore has been relatively quiet. The hotel is no longer there, there is no grocery store or livery stable. There is a welding shop, several lumber yards, three motels and three trailer sales shops….” -from the 1975 Midnapore I Design Brief
Watkins Machine Shop, in 2013. Built by machinist Floyd Watkins shortly after World War 2, machine work at the shop continued with his son Bud until the BSE Crisis in 2003 slowed demand for his work building supplies for ranching and feedlots. Some off-roaders also used Watkins services for their vehicles, and spoke very highly of the level of service provided. Today the shop is used for Watkins’ landscaping business and hobbies. A very special thanks to Bud and co-worker Vinnie for spending an afternoon with me in 2015 showing me around the shop and discussing its history.
There was industry in the townsite besides farming…it’s just that most of it made use of or directly related to farming. The grain elevators most obviously, while the Lacombe Home initially emphasized farming. After World War 2, Watkins Machine Shop was largely committed to making machines for ranching and feedlots, and I imagine the Elko Welding shop located on the NW corner of James McKevitt and Millrise Boulevard had similar clients. Some other notable examples of industry and manufacturing in the area was Cap’s Art Works (a lawn ornament manufacturer and retailer at the south end of the community near Macleod Trail and Shawnessy Boulevard), as well as ceramics and glass blowing manufacturers at the Lacombe Home site from the 1980s through to the 2010s.
Road-side Service Sign at 148 Ave SE and Macleod Trail, 2017. Note the arrow pointing north, indicating a gas station; there is no gas station in that direction today, but at one time there were actually two: The Midnapore Motors Service Station(Later Texaco) and BA (Later Union Oil), across from Totem (now Rona). The area also had Fish Creek Service Station, where Greengate is, and the Esso, located on the site of Humpty’s restaurant, across Macleod Trail. The Esso was the spot for youth in the area to meet up on Friday night to figure out what was going on that weekend. All of these stations gradually closed from the 1970s through the 1980s.
Fish Creek Service Station circa early 1930s. This service station was opened by Joe Fachini and his son Mario about 1925, and remained in the family until 1975, when Golden Acres (later Greengate) was built on the site. At one time the busiest gas station in Alberta, the service station had a very good reputation with customers. It was at various times an Esso, Mohawk and BA, depending on who was supplying the gas. Photo courtesy of the Fachini/Lee/Michaud family.
Young Marjorie “Marge” Fachini in a car for the Fish Creek Service Station, circa early 1930s; note the 6-digit phone number for the station at the front of the car. Later, in 1949, Marge would later marry Ted Lee, and they owned a large property west of Midnapore. At one time, the service station also had 22 cabins on site. Photo courtesy of the Fachini/Lee/Michaud family.
Sign along Macleod Trail north of Midlake Boulevard, indicating a turn off for gas stations and lodgings, in 2017. Again, there are no lodgings in that area today, but at one time there was three: the large B Bar D (“B-D”) Cabins site, where the EMS station (formerly Southgate Chevrolet) is located today; the Wheel-Inn bungalow camp where Midnapore Tireland is; and the L&M Motel, near Rocky Mountain Powerhouse. All of these businesses closed by the late 1980s.
Apart from agriculture, the majority of the industry in the Midnapore area was based in amenities for locals and roadside travellers, in particular gas stations and motels, surely convenient for travellers into Calgary. But a grocery store became less viable as the years moved on and the city moved closer. Some of the gas stations and hotels sold small items (i.e. “a coke for 5 cents”), but it was understood that when you actually needed groceries, you headed “into town”.
“Midnapore at present contains a number of incompatible uses such as lumber yards, veterinary clinics, dog kennels, and scrap yards within its residential districts. The Community Association has voiced strong opposition to these. They should gradually be replaced with more compatible uses as the design brief concepts are implemented.”- From the 1975 Midnapore I Design Brief
Shaw Road looking South from 146 Ave SE, circa 1970s, from the 1975 Midnapore I Design Brief. Picture are Watkins Machine Shop (left, beside flatbed truck), Texaco Station (Right, beside dumptruck- “T” from sign visible) and Shaw Construction (with steeped roof visible). Not visible is Fasoli Industries (trailer servicing) which was further right/north of the Shaw Construction building.
The few other industries in the area, such as the lumber yards, trailer sales shops and scrap yard likely thrived off being in a low-rent, low property tax area outside the city proper, and could be profitable because of it. A good way to think of old Midnapore is to imagine a fairly typical small town: very loose zoning, blurred lines between industrial and residential, “buildings and sites… found in every state of upkeep and disrepair” according to the Midnapore I Design Brief, and in every location to boot. So when the area was annexed in 1961, and prepped for development in the late 1970s, there was a question of how to move forward, and decisions had to be made about what would be kept and what would be lost.
“The existing industrial land uses in the vicinity of Macleod Trail and 146 Avenue South should be treated as non-conforming and gradually phased out”- 1975 Midnapore I Design Brief
Shaw Post Office and General Store, circa 1910; note small sign at left of photo showing direction to Calgary. This building was located across Macleod Trail from St. Paul’s Anglican Church. The post office played a key role in the development of Midnapore. In addition to the most common story of how the area got its name, from a misplaced letter bound for Midnapore, India, local pioneer S.W. Shaw was the town’s first postmaster , and the area also served as a postal hub. The post office later moved behind Watkins Machine Shop, then west of the Rona site, then south of it, then to Midnapore Mall, then to the old 7-11 in Midnapore, before moving to the Shoppers in Millrise. The old post office above stayed in possession of the Shaw family. Vivian Gough, legendary Midnapore Grain Elevator operator and known colloquially as “Grandpa” to all the kids in Midnapore in his later years, lived in a house just north of the post office building, and had several garages north of the house. All of these buildings were demolished to make way for the Macleod Trail expansion in the late 1970s.
The real lynchpin for developing the Midnapore area was the expansion of roads, most importantly Macleod Trail, which was designated an expressway south of Anderson Road. In addition to replacing the bridge across Fish Creek, Macleod was widened to the city limits at 162 Ave in the late 1970s. This unfortunately required cutting down most of the poplar trees that had been planted by Pat Burns along Macleod decades earlier, leading this section of highway to be nicknamed “The Burns Trail”. And since the Midnapore townsite hugged the highway it was inevitable that even more would be lost, with 146 Ave as the focal point due to the small right-of-ways around it. North of the road, broad support for preserving St. Patrick’s and St. Paul’s Churches meant the old Shaw Store and Gough property to the west were demolished, with some garages moved. South of 146th, with the train tracks so close to the highway and still serving two working, historic elevators, it was the row of industrial buildings and the old two-storey Shaw home to the east along Shaw Road that were demolished. In addition, a large Standard Propane tank and filling station south of the elevators was shut down, deemed too high-risk in an area that was going to see its population boom from a few hundred to over 40, 000 in a few short years.
Macleod Trail between 146 Ave and 153 Ave (Midlake Boulevard). Note the numerous changes between 1978 (left) and 1982(centre). The area as it looks circa 2017 is on the right. Photo credits left to right: 1978 and 1982 aerial photos, Kenting Earth Sciences; 2017 Satellite Photo from Google Maps.
Meanwhile, the roads in the communities were altered too; 146th became a cul-de-sac to the east of Macleod Trail and Shaw Road was cut off south of 149th. Access was reduced on both sides of Macleod, no doubt making the remaining motels and gas stations less viable; they would all be gone in a few years. Lots were re-plotted- Totem opened up and expanded, then expanded again, removing homes, a gas station and the post office in the process. Southgate Chevrolet took over a massive plot of land west of Bannister, taking a large section of Shaw Road, along with sites that had the B Bar D cabins, other homes and small businesses. With so much industry removed, the roadside businesses made uneconomical, and the adjacent farmland developed into residential, it was obvious that the industry of the Midnapore area was going to change yet again. The old community was mangled into a Procrustean bed, with big plans on the horizon for the new one, which was now truly part of The City of Calgary.
Article continued in Industry-The Business Park