Photo courtesy of Red Deer Archives The Penhold Memorial Hall, seen in 1920, was built with the leadership of the Women’s Institute, a group of approximately 40 members.

Michael Dawe: Penhold was quick to honour those who served their country

Another Remembrance Day has passed. It is a time to remember and honour those who have served and, in particular, those who lost their lives during times of war or peacekeeping missions.

The time and date of Remembrance Day observances are based on when the Armistice ended the First World War in 1918 – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

The war had been a searing experience for central Alberta. More than 850 young men of Red Deer and district had gone to serve “King and Country.”

Of those, 118 lost their lives. Many of those who returned had suffered wounds to their bodies and their minds and/or were suffering from significant illness.

Moreover, the economy was shattered in the aftermath of the war. Local unemployment soared to nearly 25 per cent.

Many businesses went bankrupt, or else quietly closed their doors. Local farmers suffered from a sharp decline in the prices for their produce and livestock. There were also poor harvests due to dry conditions and an early onset of winter.

Nevertheless, despite the hard times and general lack of money, there was a strong push to create suitable memorials for those who had served, and those who had lost their lives, in the Great War.

The first local community to create a major memorial was the Village of Penhold.

The leadership came from the Penhold Women’s Institute, a group of approximately 40 women dedicated to charitable work and the general betterment of the community.

The proposal to build a memorial hall was approved by the institute at a meeting March 6, 1919. Land was purchased from Mr. Carswell for $75. However, this was soon exchanged for two lots on Fleming Avenue that belonged to the Penhold local of the United Farmers of Alberta.

A public meeting was held April 3, 1919, to confirm general community support for the project. That support was readily offered.

A decision was made to make the hall 30-foot by 50-foot in size, with a 16-foot by 24-foot basement. It was also agreed the hall become a multi-use community gathering space, as well as a community gymnasium.

Costs for the building were then determined to be $6,000 to $7,000. However, even before the April 3 public meeting, donations were made toward the project.

Several farmers volunteered to begin hauling gravel to the building site. Students at the rural Fairlands School organized a concert, with the proceeds going to the hall fund.

As the spring progressed, many other fundraisers were held, while many people stepped forward with donations of cash, materials and/or volunteer labour.

A special management committee was set up to oversee the building of the hall. In the late spring of 1919, construction work commenced with excavation of the basement, followed by the installation of the concrete foundations.

Construction work proceeded at a rapid pace. By mid-October, the building was virtually completed. A Thanksgiving supper and Halloween masquerade ball were organized for the official opening Oct. 31, 1919.

The grand opening was a huge success. More than 225 people showed up, which meant most people in the village and surrounding district attended. There were two sittings for the Thanksgiving supper.

More than 40 local veterans were treated as special guests. The Great War Veterans Association Orchestra from Red Deer provided the musical entertainment for the masquerade ball.

Work then began on paying down the $3,500 still owing on the project. With the hall quickly becoming a hub of activity for the community, people continued to donate generously in terms of cash and volunteer time.

A special feature for the hall was added in 1920. A large curtain was commissioned for the stage. Once finished, it depicted the scene of the ruined cathedral in Albert, France.

The work was done by Arthur England and Harold Haste, two local veterans. The curtain is now considered a national treasure and is housed in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Meanwhile, over the past 100 years, the Memorial Hall has continued to be a community hub and valued local landmark.

On Friday, a special event to mark the centennial and legacy of the hall was held with noted local philanthropist and historian Stewart Ford as the key speaker.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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