Audrey Turner in her Highland outfit in 1925. (Red Deer Archives photo)

Audrey Turner in her Highland outfit in 1925. (Red Deer Archives photo)

Michael Dawe: Scots played a key role in first settlement of Red Deer

Yesterday, Nov. 30, was St. Andrew’s Day. According to the New Testament, St. Andrew was a fisherman and brother of St. Peter, who became one of the apostles. He is the patron saint of Scotland. St. Andrew’s Day is a public holiday there.

Although arguably there are more people in Central Alberta of Scottish descent than Irish, locally there is little or no attention paid anymore to St. Andrew’s Day in comparison to St. Patrick’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland.

Also, ironically the history of Scots in this region is very deep. Some of the very first explorers and fur traders were Scots with names like MacKenzie, MacDonald, McTavish, and McGillivray. These hardy frontiersmen even provided the name for the region. They found that the elk of the Central Alberta parklands looked a lot like the red deer of Scotland. Hence, they dubbed the district “red deer country,” while the First Nations had used the names of waskasoo and ponoka.

Scots played a key role in the first settlement of Red Deer. Addison McPherson was probably the first person to build a residence (shack) at the Red Deer River Crossing. Robert McClellan built a stopping house at the Crossing which was later converted into Fort Normandeau during the Riel Rebellion of 1885. Sage Bannerman ran the ferry across the river, which he curiously named the Irish Washerwoman.

In 1882, Roderick, David and Benjamin McKenzie, with their families, came out from the Red River colony in Manitoba and established farms on the east side of the current City of Red Deer. These hardworking, capable and creative settlers brought in the district’s first threshing machine and sawmill outfit. In 1883, they hosted the first formal church service in Central Alberta with Rev. A.B. Baird, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary, officiating.

In 1894, the McKenzies built the first traffic bridge across the Red Deer River. Although they did not have any formal training, they built quite a serviceable bridge. Five years later, the government engineers built a replacement bridge. It washed out a few months later with the spring flood.

Meanwhile, the Calgary-Edmonton Railway was constructed through the district in 1890-1891. The head of the company was Sir James Ross. Consequently, Red Deer’s main street was named after him. Two other key officials were Sir William MacKenzie and Sir Donald Mann. What are now 49 (MacKenzie) Avenue, and 49 (Mann) Street were named after these two men. Other original street names in the townsite honoured such Scots as Morrison, Alexander, Stewart, McLeod and Douglas.

After the townsite was created, the Scots literally helped to build the community. Shortly after the turn of the last century, the Great West Lumber Company was established and operated a large sawmill where Bower Ponds are located today. The managers of this large operation were members of the McKenzie/Fallow family. At one point, the Great West Lumber Company was producing millions of metres of lumber and employed more than 200 men.

One of the McKenzies, Allan, went into partnership with Hugh Baird in a contracting business. The firm of Baird and McKenzie constructed a large number of residences and commercial buildings in Red Deer and surrounding communities.

In 1913, the Scots of Red Deer got together and organized the St. Andrew’s Society. This group held highly successful St. Andrew’s Day and Robbie Burns Night celebrations in the community for a great many years. These celebrations particularly flourished in the years between the First and the Second World Wars.

The St. Andrew’s Day festivities waned around the time of the Second World War, although Burns Night in January is still a cause for local celebration.

There are some churches in Central Alberta named after St. Andrew – the United Church in Lacombe, the Presbyterian in Innisfail and the Presbyterian Church in West Park in Red Deer.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.