INDIGENOUS and PIONEER FAMILIES WERE THE FIRST MIDNAPORE RESIDENTS
Midnapore, was once a much more important community in the area’s scheme of things than it is today. At one time it was a popular stopping point on the pioneer trail between Fort Calgary and outposts to the south. As well, it was the location of Alberta’s very first manufacturing industry – a woolen mill that turned out products of such high quality that even today some of the families in the area warm their beds with blankets from its looms.
Back in the early Eighteen Seventies, before Calgary was even a Mounted Police outpost, a prospector cum buffalo hunter named John Glenn became the first man to claim land along the banks of Fish Creek, where previously only First Nations people had lived. Glenn established himself in a log house near the creek at an opportune fording place and began cultivating the land. Much more at home with a prospector’s pick (he had followed the gold trail throughout much of the west) or the buffalo hunter’s rifle than with a plow, Glenn nevertheless became the first person in southern Alberta to grow vegetables.
He proved his adaptability to his newfound occupation by becoming, in 1879 (seven years after his arrival in Midnapore) the first to irrigate land in what would later become the Province of Alberta. Glenn diverted the water of Fish Creek through about half a mile of ditch to irrigate a 15-acre plot of vegetables. Part of Glenn’s land later became the site of the two small churches that face the highway in Midnapore – St. Patrick’s and St. Paul’s. Glenn himself donated the land for the Anglican Church and his son Patrick gave the land for the Catholic Church.
Glenn, the first white Catholic resident of the area, also became, by virtue of the convenience of his house to the trail, the first postmaster in the district, which was then known as Fish Creek. Being illiterate, the task didn’t sit too easily on his shoulders so he divested himself of the job at the first opportunity – and at the same time named the town.
It happened one day when he and another well-known pioneer in the area, Samuel W. Shaw, were chatting as Glenn sorted the mail. He came across a letter addressed to the postmaster of Midnapore. Jocularly he passed it on to Shaw, saying, “This is one for you”. The letter, as it turned out, was meant for Midnapore, India, but by accepting it, Shaw appears to have accepted the title of postmaster of Fish Creek. Then, because another Fish Creek, in Saskatchewan, was attracting a lot of attention as the result of the Riel Rebellion, it was decided Alberta’s Fish Creek needed a new name. Shaw and Glenn, being the main, if not the only, residents of the community, immediately decided Midnapore was good enough for them, and Midnapore it became. The name, incidentally, is apparently East Indian for `good crossing`.
From that one incident it is obvious life in the old days was a great deal less complicated than it is now. Which was probably the result of people having more important things – like survival – to worry about then than they do now.
The experience of the Shaw family, who immigrated from England in 1884, is probably as indicative of what the early lifestyle in Midnapore was like as anything.
A man who obviously meant to be prepared for a new life in the new world, Shaw trained some of his offspring in the cobbler’s art and others in weaving before leaving England. He purchased equipment for both a woolen mill and a shoemaker’s shop, and then added (probably in the hope they would be useful and profitable in his new home) telegraphic equipment, cameras and photographic supplies, 16 guns and a steel trunk full of gunpowder.
The family arrived in Winnipeg by the fairly conventional means of boat and train. There they purchased four teams of oxen and enough food for two years. Leaving the mill equipment in Winnipeg, the family then entrained again for Swift Current, which was, at that time, the western terminus of the still building Canadian Pacific railroad. The Shaws loaded their possessions and eight children on ox-drawn Red River Carts and a covered Conestoga wagon and set out across the trackless prairie for Fort Calgary, with only a compass to guide them. It took them a month at 10 to 15 miles a day to reach the Fort during which time the family reported, undoubtedly to its patriarch’s great relief, the presence of many buffalo and antelope but no indigenous people.
Shaw had planned to continue north to the Peace River area, but a chance meeting with Glenn in Calgary changed all that. Calgary at that time was little more than the Mounted Police fort surrounded by a few log cabins, a Hudson’s Bay Company post and another store, all scattered along a few dirt streets. But Glenn apparently convinced Shaw of the area’s potential as a place to homestead. Shortly thereafter Shaw settled at Fish Creek on a half section of land pre-empted from Glenn. The rest of the summer was spent in a tent while the family readied a 20 by 30 foot log cabin capped by a sod roof.
In 1889 Shaw had his woolen mill equipment brought out from Winnipeg (the railway now reached the entire distance) and set about establishing the Shaw Woolen Co. as the first manufacturing business in the region. Calgary would have been the site of the mill, except that Shaw was unable to talk town council into giving him a two-year tax exemption, so he decided instead to erect it on his own property in Midnapore, where the exemption was automatic. Soon western Canada’s first mill was turning out high quality cloth made from the wool of Alberta sheep. Blankets from the extra large looms of the mill were readily recognized everywhere because they were both longer and wider than the usual size.
Real entrepreneurs, the family wasn’t content with just one business. Mrs. Shaw opened the first haberdashery in Calgary, from which she tailored men’s suits made of Shaw cloth. Her husband established Midnapore’s first general store and, unofficially the town’s first pharmacy, with medicines brought from England. He also wired the family’s various buildings for telegraph and later, when some family members moved to Calgary, connected the city and town for the first time, although the lines were all private ones.
Shaw, an Anglican played the organ at St. Paul’s. He played at St. Patrick’s too, but the Catholics were charged 10 cents a year. He wanted to have a cash arrangement so he could always be fired or quit, depending on who wanted rid of the other. Before the church was built, the pioneer played for services held at the police barracks on a piano brought from a nearby saloon by wheelbarrow.
The Midnapore area was notably proud of its ranching heritage, and some of the largest ranches around were located within a day’s ride of the community. Among them was one of the biggest, owned by one of Calgary’s most illustrious figures of the early days. The Bow Valley Ranch was organized in 1873 as a government farm, but was later taken over by Patrick Burns, later Senator Burns, a man who had much influence on the development not only of Calgary but also of Alberta and Western Canada.
Under Burn’s supervision, the ranch was expanded so that at one time it extended up the Bow River a full ten miles from Midnapore. Burns, about whom several books could be written, was a devout Catholic and the man who donated the 200 acres of land on which the Lacombe Home was built. He was also the originator of a financial empire built around beef and was responsible for planting, in 1917, the row of poplars – 1,850 of them – that beautify the highway entrance to Midnapore (and Calgary) from the south.
A favourite parish story tells of the day Pat Burns hired a man to paint St. Patrick’s. Looking across at the neighbouring Anglican Church, Burns told the painter “might as well do that one too” – thus beginning a practice that carried on for years.
Where proud historic traditions are concerned, Midnapore then, takes a back seat to no community. A truly western pioneer community that reportedly reached a population of 600, the town was annexed by Calgary in 1962, thus foiling the predictions of some early settlers who, before the turn of the century, figured it was a cinch to outpace its northern neighbour in terms of growth.
With the annexation of Midnapore into the City of Calgary boundaries in 1962 came the developers, purchasing farms and land to build houses. As homes were completed families moved in, which brought an upsurge in the population of the area. This trend continued and by 1979, when Father Rigby came to St. Patrick’s Parish as Pastor, he came with the knowledge that a larger church was needed to provide for the spiritual needs of the Catholic families who had taken up residence in the surrounding area. Prior to the appointment of Father Rigby, former Pastors, Father Jack Kirley (1970 – 1977), and Father Denis Fleming (1977 – 1979), were eventually celebrating four Masses each weekend to accommodate the increase of St. Patrick’s congregation: 5pm on Saturdays, 9am, 10:30am and 12 noon on Sundays.
During the time of Fathers Kirley and Fleming there was talk of a new church being built, and the need for it, but no plans made. In 1979 the Sisters of Providence provided the parish with three acres of unserviced land on the west side of the Macleod Trail.
For the first year as Pastor of St. Patrick’s, Father Rigby continued with four weekend Masses in the Church. Midnapore continued to grow. Homes were being built to the south and to the west bringing in more people, not only Catholics but other denominations too. A public school was built. Masses at the Church were becoming so over-crowded that it was decided to rent the gymnasium at the school for the 11am Mass to relieve the pressure. In the meantime committees were formed amongst the members of the congregation and social events were planned to raise funds toward the erection of a larger church. It was decided that the original church property should be sold to aid the new venture.