Flanked by the Bow River to the north, the Elbow River to the south, clear views of the Rockies to the west and Calgary to its east – the lands now known as “Springbank” have had a rich natural and archeological history.
It’s the place where the prairies start to form into the foothills before they transition into some of the most spectacular mountains in the world. A fertile fusion of several terrain systems, the land offered the nutritious mixed grasses and the warm Chinook winds that would ultimately make it the perfect place for ranching, the industry which made it famous.
Fort Calgary was established 1875 by the new NWMP to deter the whisky trade and American invaders, but it was the arrival of Canadian Pacific Railway that really put the area on the map. The romance and ruggedness of cattle ranching attracted would-be cowboys and settlers from around the world, including names well known to us now — The Copithornes , The Cochranes, and The Burns.
The men with the foresight to import the first small herd of cattle to the general area were the missionaries at Morley, John and George McDougall in 1873. The following year the NWMP arrived with its own 240 head of oxen and cattle. Word spread that open range was available and “ranching” per se started when several members of the force resigned their commissions to set up their own operations. The close involvement with the Force in the development of southwest Alberta is understood to be the main factor in the peaceful growth of the area.
Around 1876, settlers and homesteaders first started to enter the Springbank area, following an amendment to the Dominion Land Act. Oxcart and rail brought such an immediate surge of settlers, enough had arrived in the first year to justify the formation of the Calgary Agricultural Society.
By 1881, to encourage investment in cattle, the Government offered lease land up to 100,000 acres per ranch at a cost 1 cent per acre per year. In order to hold their leases, nascent ranchers were obligated to raise a minimum of one head per 10 acres or 10,000 head per lease. In contrast to the low cost open range model used in Texas, these Canadian Ranches were high cost / high quality operations that were capital intensive. Most of the financing originated in eastern Canada and the United Kingdom. By 1885, four companies controlled over 1,000,000 acres in the greater area and made their owners and the location famous.
Homesteading was still the order of the day and families built their first shelters wherever they felt at home – even if they were on land leased by the ranching companies. While Springbank never had a central town, as Cochrane developed, it was nonetheless a tight community.
The pioneer could not rest long without provision for Church and School. In spring of 1887, Thomas Young donated land both for a school and for a church. John Healy, John Cowan, James Martin and the Young brothers met at the home of William Mickle — first of all – to choose a name for the community’s school district. Because the valley was fed by two large springs from the hill to the east, the name of “Spring Bank” was chosen. They agreed to use the two-worded name “Spring Bank” to distinguish the area from Springbank, Ontario. For a number of years the name Spring Bank appears in the records. In more recent times, the two words became combined. (In 1918 it became the Municipal District of Springbank.)
In June, 1887 W.I. Gibson convened a meeting to discuss the formation of the school district. The new Board could not wait for all the legal formalities before commencing their activities. They petitioned the Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Territories for the establishment of a School District then immediately gathered all the neighbors together, went into the woods, cut trees, hauled them to the school site and built a school house.
On July 3, 1887 Miss Lottie Cowan, teacher, opened the school with an enrollment of 10 children. It wasn’t until 1903 that a new larger frame house was built on the same spot as the little log school.
The Springbank district was also home to one of the earliest congregations. James and William Young, brothers who homesteaded in 1886, had been opening their homes to interested neighbours and welcomed both laymen and ministers on horseback to the pulpit. Services were held in the log school after it was built in 1887 and by 1894 the district population had grown enough to warrant construction of a permanent building.
Because the settlers were of mixed faiths, the church was named Springbank Union Church and the services were conducted for the followers of the Church of England, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations. The church was built of logs by volunteers. It has remained a focus of community religious and social life, through changes in affiliation and developments to its physical structure, continue right through to present day.
Another industry Springbank gained a reputation for was milk production. Stability for dairy farmers west of Calgary was welcomed when Ebenezer Healy built the first cheese factory in Springbank in 1888. By 1890, 3000 lbs of milk per day were required, reflecting a substantial infusion of cash into the community. In that year 10 tons of cheese were produced. Unfortunately there was no steady market for cheese and the operation closed in 1896.
Other cheese factories in the area fell victim to the same marketing problem, even though they were turning out excellent chesses. Ebenezer Healy shipped a sample to the Chicago fair and won a prize, as did the Robinson Brothers with an entry at the Toronto Exhibition.
Together, from homesteaders to Ranching Barons, teachers to cheese makers, the people of Springbank worked hard to build a community life. Social gatherings were held in homes and barns, and even out on lawns for picnics and polo matches. Families pulled together and used the land to feed, clothe and house themselves, build a thriving commerce, and stuck together when times got tough.
The Springbank settlers are among the founders of this province’s great ranching tradition, whose stories and experiences deserve to be preserved and passed down through the generations.
(Thank you to “Chaps & Chinooks” as well as “Acres & Empires: A History of the M.D. of Rocky View” for some of the source material of this historical content.)