Shedding Light on the Family Tree: The Heart of Community


The 21st in a series of posts about my family tree
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: Yearbook

Yearbooks ~ a compendium of memories. Many sweet; some less savoury. Lives lived. Hairstyles regretted. Old friends remembered. A trove of family pride and potential embarrassment for the entertainment of generations to follow.

Simply put, yearbooks are by nature historical recollections and reflections and not necessarily restricted to memories gathered at the end of a school year. There are no scholastic yearbooks in our family archives, however we are blessed instead with two hefty documented histories of Westlock District and Sunniebend, Alberta. These dense tomes were created for posterity by pioneer descendants, including granny Alice (Gordon) McDonall who contributed reflections of her family’s homesteading days.

Memories of Pibroch, Sunniebend, Linaria, Shoal Creek, Alberta: People Sharing Life’s Success 1900-1984 (hereafter referred to as Memories of Sunniebend) is a chronicle of the pioneer families who homesteaded and developed the area into one of Alberta’s most prosperous farming communities. 80 Years of Progress, also published in 1984, is a record of the pioneer days of Westlock District of which Sunniebend and neighbouring communities were a part.

Pioneers pulling together

In these wilds of northern Alberta where my Scottish great grandfather, William Alexander Gordon, and his wife, Jane (Robson) Gordon, landed in April 1927 with their family of six children ranging in age from five years to 17, (soon to be joined by their 23-year-old daughter who came in from Toronto), they drew on every last ounce of everything they had to tame the large, mostly unbroken, acreage received through the Soldiers’ Settlement Board. They became part of a multi-cultural community of fellow immigrants looking for opportunity and a new life. Given the rugged and sometimes savage nature of the environment everyone quickly learned that in order to survive, and ultimately thrive, they would need to work together.

These wonderfully fertile historical resources ably illustrate, through images and words, the camaraderie, cooperation and community spirit that permeated the social fabric of this pioneer area. It was a spirit that persisted well after the original settlers left or passed away.

Treasured tomes from our Gordon family archives

It’s impossible, of course, to share everything learned in this limited space, so the focus will be on a building that became the heart of this convivial community ~ the Sunniebend Community Hall. Most references are from Memories of Sunniebend.

Raising a community

On the shores of the winding Pembina River some 10 miles north of Westlock (an additional 50 miles to Edmonton) was a wild, wooded place with potential for fertile, arable land. In the early 1900s the first settlers began to filter in, reshaping the area over time into productive farmland. In 1905, one of the first pioneers, Samuel Fee, named the area Sunniebend for the bright shine of the sun upon the bends of the water. And so, a pioneer farming community was born.

It was a rough, and by no means ready, wilderness. In the beginning provisions were hard to come by. Edmonton, the closest city, was several hours away by horse and wagon. The trip was difficult and infrequently made.

“Settlers went to the city for their semi-annual supply of groceries. It was just too bad for the cook if she forgot to mark down the coffee on her grocery order as they would just have to wait another six months before she could get it.”

Memories of Sunniebend, p. 277

Local politics and the heart of a community

Source: Memories of Sunniebend

The United Farmers of Alberta (U.F.A.) was an early political organization that pre-dated Social Credit. Sunniebend formed its own Local and early settlers, my Gordon great grandparents included, were eager participants. Memories of Sunniebend includes the minutes of their meetings ~ a fun and fascinating read. It’s a fun exercise to locate committee member names on the school district map (right) to see where each lived in relation to one another.

Much of the discussion for the period 1929 to 1934 revolved around the building of the much anticipated Sunniebend Community Hall. The footnotes are also quite amusing.

Officers of Sunniebend Local for 1929:
President: Wm Gordon; Vice President: P. Pettit; Secretary Treasurer: G.W. Plain; Directors elected
H. Fulcher, J.R. Plain, O.P. Adair, W. Smart and R. James.
Footnote ~ the night was cold but the election was hot and the coffee was good.

March 16, 1929
Report of Membership Drive Committee. L. Short for east, no members. O.P was a delinquent and Smart reported 1 new member for north. In west, committee fell down, Gordon reported prospects of one member in south.
Moved by F. Adair and E. Laun the directors bring in report re: building community hall at next regular meeting.
P.S. Mr. F.W. Adair was very roughly handled by some of the more warlike ladies.
P.P.S A collection of $1.05 was taken to aid the financially embarrassed secretary.

December 7, 1929
Although the minutes are short and cold the discussion on the Wheat Pool was hot and long.
Sec. – G. Plain

January 10, 1931
An Alberta Prohibition Petition favouring abolition of beer parlours was brought before the Local for members to sign.

May 30, 1931
The secretary presented a petition for World Disarmament, from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which was signed by all present.

September 26, 1931
It was suggested that this Local go to the annual meeting of the Pibroch Municipality, urging the Municipal Council for the utmost economy to bring down taxes during these times of depression.

February 27, 1932
Moved by W. Gordon, seconded by O.P. Adair that steps be taken to purchase 15 acres of the school section for a picnic grounds.

April 30, 1932
The meeting finally decided unanimously in favor of the N.E. Corner of Forrest Adair’s quarter section as a site for the hall N.E. 9-61-27-W4.
The committee reported and offered the following suggestions: that the hall be built on a concrete foundation, elevator style 36 feet by 50 feet – 10 feet wall with the point in view to build on a stage on the end and a kitchen and cloakroom on the one side, and also suggested that owing to the great width of the building to consider a hip roof.

November 26, 1932
Moved by C. Antonson, seconded by O.P. Adair that we go ahead and build the hall as soon as finances permit.

April 16, 1933
A report was given by Social Committee, Mr. Gordon regarding our picnic and our opening dance of the hall. The date was set at June 16.
R. James moved that the price of admission to our dance be 25 cents each, over 14 years of age and supper free. Door keepers at the dance H. Scott and W. Smart. Arrangements for supper were left in the hands of the U.F.W.A. (United Farmers Women of Alberta)
It has been suggested by Mr. Scott and W. Gordon that the Local should pay Mr. Antonson’s hospital bill accrued through an accident on the hall, but owing to our financial difficulties the motion be kept in mind until some later meeting.

[NB Mr. Antonson severed a finger while milling wood.]

June 19, 1933
Report of the Dance on the 16th showed a gross proceed of $60.81.

July 1, 1933
Moved by W. Smart and O.P. Adair that a vote of thanks be given to Mr. Antonson for the use of his piano at our opening dance.

October 27, 1934
Moved by E. Bergdahl, seconded by W. Gordon, O.P. Adair be instructed to get nails and paper for the hall. Moved by W. Gordon, seconded by C. Antonson that we go ahead with the hall and finish it.

Memories of Sunniebend
Sunniebend Hall, the heart of the community
Source: Memories of Sunniebend

My great grandfather would have been involved at the U.F.A. until 1937 when the family sold the farm and retired to Edmonton.

There was a sister organization, the United Farmers Women of Alberta, (U.F.W.A.), which complemented the work of the U.F.A. Minutes from its meetings are also included in the community chronicle.

There’s a flavour of care and camaraderie demonstrated that’s both heartwarming and light-hearted. Little wonder granny Alice returned to the Westlock District to rebuild her life after her marriage ended.

October 5, 1927
Moved by Mrs. Pettit, seconded by Mrs. Antonson that we get up a petition against the bar at Pibroch.

November 16, 1927
Moved by Mrs. Short, seconded by Mrs. Smart that we organize a Sunday School.

March 14, 1928
Moved by Mrs. Antonson, seconded by Mrs. Gordon that we allow this bill of goods purchased for Bazaar. Bill for material $21.13 and 25 cents for postal note.

September 28, 1928
Each member present gave a short note on “The part of Farm Life we dislike and how we overcame it.” [Note that many of these women would have moved from the city and farm life would have been completely foreign to them.]

October 28, 1928
Moved by Mrs. Gordon, seconded by Mrs. Grasby that we have a whist drive a the bazaar.

Moved by Mrs. Wyatt, second by Mrs. Grasby that we have a shower for Hilda (Gordon) Beach at Mrs. Gordon’s on January 16, 1929

July 29, 1931
Mrs. Smart gave a paper on Women’s Financial Rights. A lively discussion followed.

February 24, 1932
Meeting was opened with a song by Misses Ina and Alice Gordon. [My great aunt and granny]

May 11, 1932
A report was given by the delegate, Mrs. Wyatt about the joint meeting of the U.F.A. and the U.F.W.A. locals about the hall. The hall was discussed by the members and a motion by Mrs. Gordon, seconded by Mrs. Antonson that the money for the building fund be placed in the bank in the current account but only to be used for the hall. We have $17.46 on hand as proceeds from the play and supper at Dapp.

December 14, 1932
Motion by Mrs. F. Adair we accept pig donated by Mr. Johnston, to buy accordion for Mr. Gordon to be raffled at Xmas Tree – tickets 10 cents

Motion by Mrs. Antonson, seconded by Mrs. Scott that we have opening dance on 16th of June. Each lady to bring two cakes. Each member to make a batch of doughnuts for dance (opening of the new hall.)

Memories of Sunniebend

The eventual emergence of the Social Credit Party saw a decline in the membership of the U.F.A. which dissolved at Sunniebend, January 13, 1941.

“The accomplishments of this organization did much to help the farming community. It also united the people and created a community spirit that made the district an enjoyable place to live.”

Memories of Sunniebend

William Alexander Gordon was more than a political figure in Sunniebend ~ he played a pivotal role in the community’s social/entertainment life as well. There are many references to that effect, including the following:

“When we first moved to Sunniebend we held our concerts, socials, dances, etc. in the schoolhouse, prior to building the community hall. That hall was our pride and joy. What good times we all had there. At our first dances, Mr. Gordon was our sole musician. He would play his accordion, dance after dance, until the wee hours of the morning. That must have taken a lot of energy but he seemed to enjoy it as much as we did.”

Audrey Young, Memories of Sunniebend, p. 410

“ … In 1922 our School House was built, so that gave us a place to have social functions. We always looked forward to the old fashioned Christmas Concerts with a tree and candy bags; box socials where the lady packed a box with lunch. And it was auctioned. Whoever bought the box, ate lunch with the lady who packed that certain lunch. There were whist drives and on February 19, [1928] we held our first oyster supper, and the highlight was when Bill Gordon brought his accordion and played all night while we danced. Little Joe Wilton would accompany him on “The Bones”. Those days dances lasted ’til 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. We danced to their music I the school house until final the hall as built. … On June 16, 1933 the hall was completed and we had our first dance with Mrs. LeBeaus’ orchestra playing. Up until this time Bill Gordon had been our only source music. We think he was quite relieved when he didn’t have to carry the whole load.

Hazel Goodman, Helen Williams, Doreen Sexty, Memories of Sunniebend (p. 434)

A Final Word

William and Jane Gordon
Source: Family Archives

There’s so much these community chronicles (84-year books) tell us about the pioneering days and the people who made the community so functional and dynamic. Granny Alice was always proud of her Sunniebend roots. I remember her sharing this pride and love of community with my brother and I when we lived with her in 1969/70, and thereafter during summer vacations. Of course, as children we could only absorb so many of granny’s wonderful stories, yet I remember clearly her enthusiasm as we’d head out on Sunday afternoon drives to her old stomping grounds. As we travelled through she’d point and say, “There’s Sunniebend Community Hall where we danced til all hours of the night,” or “here’s our farm where I rode my horse, Fanny,” or she’d show us where O.P. Adair, or Antonsons, or Pettits, et al, lived. We’d follow her gaze with wide-eyed wonder, but of course the significance of it all was lost on us.

When I look back through the mature eyes of one who is better acquainted with the world and understands just how difficult it is to build a nurturing, supportive community I appreciate just what an accomplishment it was for that tiny, ethnically diverse group to pull together so effectively. These compendiums full of stories, personal accounts, and evocative images bring it all to life while deepening my appreciation for my Scottish great grandparents who for a decade played an integral part.

Perhaps the following sentiment says it best …

“Sunniebend years, depression years, happy years, that I look back on with nostalgia and which left me with a heritage of unforgettable memories and lifetime friends down through the ever-changing years.”

Pauline (Wyatt) Edgely, Memories of Sunniebend, p. 408

I know granny Alice would have felt the same, and because Sunniebend was special to her it is special to us.

Sadly, Sunniebend Community Hall was demolished in 1971. ❦

~*~

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2022 … Aimwell CreativeWorks


2 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: The Heart of Community

  1. I like your take on “yearbook”, not just because it is unique. The nostalgia and good humor of what you present gives a real sense of the place and the people. Just as a yearbook should. Thanks for sharing.

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