The museum began with a small display that was set up for the annual fair. This was very popular and discussions began to use those items as the nucleus for a local museum. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) station, which closed in 1965, was leased for a small sum and items were gathered to display some of Claresholm’s early history. Although passenger train service continued until 1971, the unused station was acquired by the Town of Claresholm in 1965 for the Museum. The Claresholm & District Museum officially opened in 1969 and has been serving our community and visitors ever since.
The Canadian Pacific Railway station at Claresholm has been an important part of our community for over 100 years! The station was originally part of Calgary’s 9th Avenue and Center Street CPR depot, which was built in 1886. In 1910 the CPR decided that Calgary needed a larger station so the 9th Ave. sandstone station was carefully dismantled, block by block, and half of the reclaimed blocks were used to build our station here in Claresholm (and the other blocks were used to build a station in High River which is now the Museum of the Highwood). The station opened in May of 1912 and operated as a train station until it closed in 1965. Several uses were proposed for the building, including conversion to a public library, but in 1969 the Claresholm & District Museum was formed and took up residence in the station. Today it still houses the Museum as well as the Visitor Information Centre.
This impressive structure has not lost any of its former grandeur and we remain dedicated to its preservation. To acknowledge its special history and to preserve the character of its distinctive sandstone architecture, the station was designated as a Provincial Historic Resource in November 2004.
For more than five decades our railway station supported the residents of Claresholm and the surrounding district. Thousands of people depended on the station, including early settlers, business people and travellers. Locals who served in the First World War and the Second World War were wished their farewells from the station platform. Upon their return they arrived at the station to be welcomed by the local band and friends and family. Between 1941 and 1945, as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, groups of young people from England, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada arrived at the station to train as pilots at the airport five kilometres west of Claresholm (No. 15 Service Flying Training School). Every few weeks a new cohort arrived as the graduating cohort left. The station also provided permanent air force personnel with a link to family and friends in others parts of Canada. With the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945, the activity at the station decreased and the station closed. Activity at the station increased again in 1951 when the airport was put into service as a training school for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations, including England, France, Holland and Canada. Once again the station was a very busy place and this level of activity lasted until the airport closed in 1958. By that time cars and trucks had changed the way that people travelled, leading to decreased reliance on the train. In 1965 the CPR decided to close the station. It was a sombre day for the residents of Claresholm and the surrounding region; the station had become an institution that was central to the community.
Claresholm began as a siding when a railway line was constructed between Calgary and Macleod in 1891. At least since the 1880s the lush grasslands had drawn ranchers to the region. The new railway provided the ranchers with a convenient means to ship their cattle from Claresholm to markets elsewhere. The railway brought people and the siding provided the nucleus for the town. In response to an extensive advertising campaign by the federal government and the CPR, settlers began to move into the region. Hundreds of families arrived in the region, coming from North Dakota, Minnesota, Oregon and also from Eastern Canada. They came for the homestead land and the promise of a better life for themselves and their children. A large contingent of early settlers to Claresholm were of Norwegian heritage due to the arrival of Ole Amundsen in 1902 who came from Norway via North Dakota. He encouraged other Norwegians to come to the area by acting as a land agent and traveling back to North Dakota and later sent by the CPR to Norway to promote the area for others to come. People came from many different places and soon businesses flourished, providing the services needed in the area. Claresholm grew rapidly and was incorporated on August 31, 1905.
After its incorporation, Claresholm became an important agricultural service centre, and it remains so today. The community also provides a wide range of retail, professional and government services. Its location on Highway No. 2, between Calgary and Lethbridge, places it on the major transportation corridor and makes it an attractive community for business and industry.
Louise McKinney, a Claresholm resident, was a life-long champion of women’s welfare. Louise and her husband James came to Claresholm in 1903. She was very active in the community, helping to get a Methodist Church built in Claresholm. She was also an organizer for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Western Canada and served as president of the Alberta WCTU from 1908 – 1930s. Always interested in the welfare of women and children, Mrs. McKinney naturally took an interest in politics. McKinney was involved in winning women the right to vote in Alberta in 1916. In May 1917 she allowed her name to be put forward at a nomination meeting for the Non-Partisan League, a group with no affiliation to any of the established parties.
On Election Day Mrs. McKinney was elected to be the new representative from Claresholm, and in doing so became the first woman to sit in a legislature in the British Empire. Soon she became known as one of the most able debaters in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly. One of her major projects was to improve the antiquated legal status of widows and separated wives. With the help of Mrs. Henrietta Muir Edwards of Macleod, a bill was drafted and passed to become the Dower Act, one of Alberta’s most progressive laws.
Defeated in her second election, Mrs. McKinney was satisfied to retire from active politics. However, she continued to be actively involved in her community, her church, and with the WCTU. She and her husband supported the Church Union Movement, and she was a delegate to the final Methodist General Conference in 1925, after which she attended the first General Council of the United Church of Canada. She signed the Basis of Union as one of the commissioners, the only woman from western Canada to do so.
In August 1927, Mrs. McKinney joined Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung and Irene Parlby to sign a petition to ask “whether the Canadian Government had the power to appoint a female to the Senate, and if it didn’t, what might be done” (p. 45, The Famous Five by Nancy Millar). When their petition was denied, these women appealed the decision to the British Privy Council, the highest court of appeal for Canada under the British North America Act. On October 18, 1929, the decision was handed down that women were persons, according to the British North America Act, and therefore could be appointed to the Senate.
In June 1931, Mrs. McKinney attended the national WCTU conference in Toronto. As acting president, she chaired many of the sessions. At the conference she was elected first vice president of the World WCTU.
While in Toronto, Mrs. McKinney became ill. Returning home, her condition worsened, and she died on July 10, 1931. At her funeral on July 15, over 100 WCTU members from all over Canada sat as a block in the packed church.
In 1938 a plaque honouring her achievements was unveiled in the hall next to the Senate Chamber in Ottawa. On June 13, 1947 a memorial plaque to Louise McKinney was placed on the front of the post office in Claresholm. On August 14, 1980 a Remembrance Cairn was unveiled at the Claresholm Museum, and in 1990 the museum gardens were named the Louise McKinney Memorial Gardens.
The Famous Five Foundation commissioned a sculpture to honor the five Alberta women who fought to have women recognized as persons. The sculpture, which depicted the five women celebrating their success, was unveiled at Olympic Plaza in downtown Calgary on October 18, 1999. In 2000 a replica was unveiled in Ottawa. The Famous Five were also honored on the fifty dollar bill in 2004.
In 1941 Claresholm was selected as a site for a Service Flying Training School (SFTS), a flight school stabled under the auspices of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Construction began in October 1940. Five large hangers were erected along with all the necessary buildings needed to support the school. Given the wartime context, there was considerable pressure to have the airport operational as soon as possible. As an example of how quickly the construction progressed, on March 25, 1941, the Bennett & White Construction Company raised the fabricated framework of a standard size hanger in just 7 hours 45 minutes.
Operations started on June 9, 1941 with a class of about forty young Canadian men arriving to train. The first commanding officer was Wing Commander Hugh Campbell. As a Service Flying Training School, advanced flying was taught using the twin-engine Avro-Anson and the Cesna Crane. The training course provided 75 to100 hours of flying and included night flying, navigational flight and advanced aerobatics; all of this was combined with a comprehensive ground school course. Many of the graduates became bomber pilots overseas, while some remained to serve as instructors. Aircraft in the sky soon became a common sight in the Claresholm region and by early 1942 the school had a fleet of 47 Avro Ansons and 70 Cessna Cranes.
A new class graduated about every four weeks. On October 5, 1941 the Duke and Duchess of Windsor toured the facilities and, after receiving the Royal Salute from the paraded station personnel, the Duke presented the flying badges to the third graduating class. A routine was soon established and students arrived from the United States, England, New Zealand, and Australia, although the majority of students were from Canada.
On February 23, 1942 a party of 62 of the RCAF Women’s Division arrived in Claresholm, having completed their training in eastern Canada. Their duties included serving as cooks, clerk accountants, telephone operators and motor transport drivers. The Women’s Division was led by Assistant Section Officer Elizabeth Bie and Sergeant Margaret Sanderson.
In May of 1943 The Earl of Athlone, Governor General of Canada, and his wife, Princess Alice, visited the No. 15 Service Flying Training School. After a tour of the school and lunch at the Officer’s mess, the Governor General presented to the graduates of Course 74 their flying badges.
Over time the course syllabus became more rigorous and, as a result, the graduating classes were increasingly more skilled. The No. 15 SFTS also evolved to meet the changing needs of the front. The permanent staff at the School were aware that their efforts were integral to the war effort. As Wing Commander Kennedy regularly reminded the graduating classes, “The staff of these schools are the main stay of our continued war effort in the air, and they deserve our full measure of recognition and praise for their efforts.” At the same time that the training at the School became more rigorous, the capacity of the School also increased. To illustrate, by January of 1944 there were 126 Staff Officers, 5 WD Officers, 722 Airmen, 204 WD Airwomen, 296 Trainees, 10 Service Personnel and 75 civilians. The infrastructure was also expanded and two more hangars were added, existing building were improved, and a bowling alley was added to provide residents with entertainment.
On March 29th, 1945 the final graduating Courses, 121 and 122, received their wings. In total, the No. 15 SFTS graduated thirty-five classes of trained pilots. The No. 15 SFTS officially closed on August 10, 1945. In the four years that it was operation between 1941 and 1945, about 2000 young men received their pilot’s wings at RCAF Station Claresholm.
The years after World War II did not bring the peace the world hoped for. On July 1, 1951 the former No. 15 SFTS re-opened as No. 3 FTS with the express purpose of training pilots as part of the larger North Atlantic Treaty Organization initiative. The advance party arrived on June 18, 1951 under Squadron Leader A. Morrison. Temporary command was assumed by Squadron Leader T. W. O’Brien on July 3, 1951. In mid-August Group Captain Sampson was appointed commanding officer.
On September 10, 1951, Group Captain D. G. Price took over as Commanding Officer. Members of the Claresholm Town Council, civic leaders and other prominent citizens attended a reception at the Officer’s mess to welcome the new commanding officer.
The first group of flight cadets arrived during the latter part of August. Twenty-five Canadian cadets were already at Claresholm when the 25 English cadets arrived from London, Ontario where they had completed the initial portion of their training. Their new home was Barrack Block No. 14, joining the Canadian cadets already in residence. The Station was still being restored to operational levels, so this first Course had to cope with limited facilities and a flying field in disrepair.
Flying training started during the second week of September. Since the apron and runways needed work, the cadets initially used the airfield at Fort Macleod for take-offs and landings. Soon the conditions at No. 3 FTS improved and the cadets worked hard to master flying the Harvard aircraft.
On October 12, a public reception honoring the personnel of No. 3 FTS was held in the auditorium of the Claresholm High School. The local residents and guests from the RCAF who filled the auditorium enjoyed a variety show followed by refreshments. Group Captain Price expressed thanks to Claresholm for the warm welcome.
The second intake of Canadian and Royal Air Force cadets, 30 Course, 2 Squadron, arrived in early November 1951. The cadets quickly settled into the training routine. For the first two weeks at Claresholm the cadets attended daily ground school. They then spent 28 weeks training, with half of each day devoted to ground school and the other half to flying. In the last segment of their course they spent the full day flying.
The first class to graduate from No. 3 FTS received their wings May 8, 1952. This was the first graduating class of a NATO course from any RCAF Flying Training School. To mark the significance of this graduation, RCAF Headquarters in Ottawa assigned Air Commodore W. W. Brown, C. D. to present the pilot’s wings. Pilot Officer Rhind of Scotland received the Honor Scroll for obtaining the highest marks in the school. Pilot Officer Glover of Red Deer, Alberta received the Siddley trophy for highest marks in flying. Every six weeks a new cohort arrived and the previous cohort graduated.
The No. 3 FTS was a substantial operation. Personnel at the station numbered 1100, including civilian members. There were 140 houses at the base and those who did not qualify for housing lived in Claresholm. There was also an eight-room school at the base for the children. It was named the Howsam School to honour Air Vice Marshall Howsam. The Howsam School had a staff of ten teachers responsible for providing instruction to approximately 250 students from kindergarten through grade eight. The older students were bussed to the Claresholm High School. The primary expense, however, were the 95 Harvard aircraft that cost $7,000,000.
The first class containing continental European students graduated October 22,1952. The graduates represented the French Air Force, the Netherlands Air Force, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force. Air Commodore J. G. Kerr presented the graduates with their wings. Of note, Air Commodore Kerr was the first Commanding Officer at No.15 SFTS Claresholm in 1941. The students of Course 38 who received their wings on December 3, 1952 had the honor of being the last class to graduate from RCAF Station Claresholm. Further courses would complete their training here and leave for advanced training in other parts of Canada.
By the summer of 1957 the final intakes of students under the original NATO program arrived and The No. 3 FTS officially closed August 25, 1958.
Today the seven hangars, fire hall, seven-bay garage, most of the streets, and some of the steelox housing units remain at the site. Several businesses and industries operate at the site, with some of the hangers serving industrial purposes. Part of the taxi strip and the runways are used by the Town of Claresholm as the Municipality’s local airport. There is a monument, commemorating the history of the site, on the south side of the entrance road near the site of the water treatment plant. The airport is 5 kilometers (3 miles) west of Claresholm on Highway # 520.