One of the very first settlers in the Red Deer area and one of the most colorful, was the man who ran the first ferry across the Red Deer River at the original Red Deer Crossing settlement, Sage Bannerman.
Sage Bannerman was born in Helmsdale, Sutherlandshire, Scotland in 1836. In the early 1850’s he emigrated to Canada. He worked in the lumber business at Renfrew Ontario. In 1865, he married Christina MacKay, a member of one of the oldest pioneer families at Embro, near Woodstock Ontario.
In 1878, Sage decided to try his prospects in Western Canada. He initially went to Winnipeg, but in 1881, moved to Calgary, shortly before the arrival of the C.P.R. Three of his brothers, William, James and Joseph also settled there. William became Calgary’s first postmaster, James became the first president of the Calgary Board of Trade and Joseph represented East Calgary in the Northwest Territories Legislature.
In 1883, Sage decided to move north to the Red Deer area. Because the Dominion Land surveys had not been done for the district yet, he bought Addison McPherson’s squatter’s holdings at the Red Deer Crossing.
Unfortunately, this was later to cause Sage a great deal of legal difficulty.
While the general rule was that squatter’s land rights took precedence if they predated the survey, it turned out that McPherson’s holdings had been sold by the Federal Government to the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company as part of a sale of 115,000 acres in the area. The Federal Government was loath to deal with its mistakes. It took a number of years before a legal settlement was reached. Eventually, Sage was given clear title to his land and buildings, but only on the north side of the river.
Meanwhile, in 1884, Sage secured a license to operate a ferry from the Territorial Government. Despite his Scottish background, he dubbed the craft “The Irish Washerwoman”.
In 1885, when the Riel Rebellion broke out, Sage refused to go south to the safety of Calgary with the other settlers. Instead, he stayed to guard his home, farm and ferry.
When the Canadian army arrived at the end of April, the river was in full flood. Sage’s ferry had been damaged by the ice. The soldiers helped to rebuild the craft, but while crossing the river, the ferry cable broke. The ferry with its load of ammunition and a field gun, went careening down the river. It was salvaged not far from the present site of Red Deer.
Sage was a very hospitable person. His home became one of the favorite stopping houses along the Calgary-Edmonton Trail. In 1887, when the Presbyterian Missionary Society sent a young student, William Neilly, to serve the district, Sage provided him with a small shack near the river to use as a residence and as a mission school for the settlement’s children.
In October 1890, Sage’s wife Christina, with sons William and Lloyd and daughters Barbara and Annetta, came west from Ontario where the children had remained to attend school. They were reunited with Sage and oldest son Jim at the Crossing farm.
The Bannermans were staunch Presbyterians and their home became a centre for the local church and missionaries. In 1898, the Bannermans were generous supporters of the construction of the first Presbyterian church in the fledgling village of Red Deer.
In 1905, Sage made a brief foray into politics and attempted to secure the Liberal nomination to run in Alberta’s first provincial election. He lost out to John T. Moore, managing director of the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company, who won the Red Deer seat in the general election.
Christina became seriously ill in 1909. She passed away in March 1910 and was buried in the Red Deer Cemetery. Sage then moved to Calgary to live with one of his brothers. He passed away at the home of his son Lloyd in Calgary on November 1, 1913.
Michael Dawe is a Red Deer historian and his column appears on Wednesdays.