Visiting Alberta’s Past :
From Celebration to Oblivion
by John Althouse
“…the prairie was forever, with its wind whispering through the long, dead grasses, through the long and endless silence.” ~ W.O. Mitchell, Who Has Seen the Wind (1947)
One hundred years ago, there was a great celebration in the place that had been called Carlstadt. (That settlement had originally been named Langevin.) The summer of 1915 seems like a rather strange time for a celebration as WW I, the Great War, raged on in Europe. By July 1915, it had already endured beyond the very short time that many had foreseen. Yet, there was a celebration here, and that celebration was being held for what might be considered patriotic reasons. The reason for this celebration was a name-change dictated by the times. The name “Carlstadt” was simply regarded as being too German to remain in use during a time when Canada was engaged in a war with Germany.
A more patriotic name was needed, and “Alderson” was selected to honour the British Lieutenant General Sir Edwin Alderson, who had been placed in command of the Canadian Expeditionary Force for the early years of the war. General Alderson remains at best as an obscure footnote in many histories about the war, if he is mentioned at all. His name was certainly regarded as patriotic, though, and appropriate for a tribute during this time of period. The name change of the village name became official on July 1st, 1915 but the celebrations to mark this change were delayed until July 12th.
The Alderson News of July 1, 1915 provided a full page ad detailing the events for “Alderson’s Celebrating Day.” This special day consisted of baseball and football games, a tug-of-war, a number of track and field events. There were competitions for both children and adults (men’s and ladies’). Novelty events including a sack race, a wheel barrow race, and three-legged race. Prizes were awarded for a number of special distinctions: the best dozen buns, the best layer cake, the most comical outfit, the person driving the longest distance, ‘the mother bringing the largest family to sports,’ and ‘the man bringing the largest number in a load to town.’ The day concluded with a ‘big dance’ and the awarding of prizes. There were events to interest a broad and varied cross-section of the village and area population. The important event of the name change was marked with all the enthusiasm, pomp, and ceremony that a small prairie village could muster during war time.
This important event merited detailed coverage in the local newspaper. So, on July1st, the name on the masthead of the paper was dutifully changed from The Carlstadt News to The Alderson News.This moniker would continue to adorn the top of paper until give July 25th, 1918 when the newspaper ceased publication, a mere three years after the name change and about four months prior to the end of the Great War, which had generated the name change of the village.
In 1915, Alderson was a significant village located at 20-15-10W4. It was a station on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) main line between Medicine Hat and Brooks, about 20 km southwest of Suffield. It was on a major highway. In 1916, it boasted a population of 250. It had a number of substantial businesses including three insurance offices; real estate and loans businesses; two dry goods and general stores; three lumberyards; two farm implement dealers; two hardware stores; two pool halls; a drug store; a meat market; a bakery; and a Union Bank. There was also a two-room school, four grain elevators, a railway station, and five hotels, including the imposing three-story Carlstadt Hotel.
The area economy was sound for a time at least. In 1915-16, 679 000 bushels of grain were shipped through the Alderson elevators, however, by 1919-20, only 9 000 bushels were shipped from them. Drought took a heavy toll on the area. Other troubles commonly faced by prairie farms were also experienced throughout the area around Alderson. The 1931 census showed the population of the village had declined to 81 people. The settlement successfully acted to have its designation as a village rescinded on January 31, 1936.
Today the site is essentially vacant. Little remains to attest that a settlement of any sort was ever present. The people are gone, and the prairie grass has invaded the area obscuring any of the traces that hint of human habitation. A few traces of foundations can be seen crouching in the tall grasses, a little of the flotsam and jetsam of daily life can be observed here and there. Former streets can be seen as faint tracks through the taller vegetation. Even the once formidable Railway Avenue consists of gravelled traces passing through the prairie grass.
Ironically, the name Carlstadt appears not to have totally died. A map search can take one to the site of the “Carlstadt Cemetery” not the “Alderson Cemetery” although the latter name is also used. Historic memory can indeed be fickle. The cemetery is a respectful distance from the village site between RR 104 and RR 105 and about 1 mile south of Twp Rd 154. Several tombstones are still there; one even sported a bouquet of flowers. Some of these stones are now barely legible. This cemetery is recorded as having 31 burials. Some of the bodies buried here, however, have been moved to other cemeteries in communities that are still occupied. The cemetery in Alderson is lovingly maintained by the Rotary Club of Redcliff.
A journey to this site is a small adventure. You leave the relative security of the paved highway and head across the rolling rangeland over gravel roads for about five kilometres. If you do not do your homework, this destination can easily be missed. Once there, the experience of standing at this site is unique. The scene is extremely peaceful. This is a place where you can readily gather your thoughts. Surrounding you, there is the constant rush of the wind passing through the blades of long prairie grasses, perhaps the haunting call of a solitary meadowlark, or off in the distance the muted lowing of cattle. All is in harmony here; nature has retaken what man once rashly attempted to tame. This peace and tranquility is only periodically and briefly shattered by the whistle of one of the many freight trains that pass this abandoned site daily.
Few who pass likely realized that a once-vital community was located here, a place where people lived out every aspect of daily life and, on special occasions like the day of July 12th one century ago took time to stop to celebrate who they were and what then was so very important to them. On that day, they did something very human for a few hours that allowed them to abandon the problems of wartime, and any personal struggles, and for a time simply celebrate, have fun, and socialize. For those people, Alderson was the place they called home. It was the place where they planned to create their futures.
All that is now gone. What once engendered intense emotions are now largely forgotten. The village has vanished as have most traces of it including its new name, which was chosen in a moment of patriotic zeal. Modern maps and gazetteers offer only blank spaces denoting emptiness where its name once appeared.
Originally appeared in Relatively Speaking, v.43 #3 (Aug 2015)