A LOOK BACK AT SOME OF THE EARLY BUSINESSES IN BEAVER MINES
by Farley Wuth, Curator,
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Copyright, Pincher Creek & District Historical Society
History buffs from southwestern Alberta will recall the importance of the coal mining industry in terms of the history of Beaver Mines, the picturesque settlement situated some eleven miles west of Pincher Creek that now serves as a local ranching and tourist centre. Peak production was reached in the years immediately prior to the First World War. Shipping links with the outside world were provided by the Kootenay and Alberta Railway, made notorious by its two wooden trestles spanning Mill Creek and Lang’s Coulee. This article provides a look at a few of those pioneer businesses that operated during Beaver Mines’ early history.
The consortium that mined the coal at Beaver Mines was known as the Western Coal and Coke Company. During the 1914 calendar year, it was operating two mines in the area. The first was adjacent the settlement itself where it found a coal seam measuring over seven feet across and which plunged into the ground at a thirty-degree angle. Two additional yet smaller seams were located further underground. Across the Beaver Creek valley were located in four different seams 27 feet of coal. This is where the second mine operated by the Company was located. In 1914, the Manager of the Western Coal and Coke Co. was Samuel McVicar, and Norman Morrison served at its Chief Clerk. David Muir served as the pit boss. A large number of miners were employed in the two mines over the years, most of who resided in small cottages in Beaver Mines itself.
BRANCH STORE OF T. LEBEL AND COMPANY
This coal mining settlement is fondly remembered by locals for its variety of businesses during the pioneer era. Near the centre of town was the general mercantile operated by Timothee Lebel and Company. This Pincher Creek based firm had been established in this old ranching town back in 1884 by one of the area’s premier French-Canadian businessmen, Timothee Lebel who worked in partnership with the NWMP veteran Charles Kettles. In 1900, the flourishing business was housed in a newly constructed three story stone structure at what was then the corner of Main Street and Christie Avenue. This place of commerce was doing so well that within a few years two branch stores were established, one at Brocket on the Piikani First Nation’s Reserve, and the second at Beaver Mines. This latter store did particularly well prior to the First World War due to Lebel’s astute business sense. Beaver Mines shoppers were able to access the same goods as their Pincher Creek counterparts as Lebel ensured that items in the larger store were shipped out to this coal mining settlement whenever an order was placed. The use of the Kootenay and Alberta Railway facilitated the transportation of such goods between the two communities.
SUCCESS OF THE BALLANTYNE GENERAL STORE
A second store, a favorite amongst Beaver Mines locals, was well stocked with a variety of groceries, clothing and some hardware merchandize. The Ballantyne General Store, owned and operated by husband and wife George and Sarah, was a local landmark for several decades. Even after the downturn in the local coal mining industry, the store continued to be well patronized by area ranchers. Part of the store’s success was due to the Post Office for Beaver Mines being located there. But a larger part of the ongoing venture was the Ballantyne Family itself, well respected for its local community spirit. George, who was of Scottish ancestry and was born in Quebec in April 1871, and his wife Sarah were continuously involved in the activities of this coal mining turned ranching settlement, and their efforts were well appreciated by community members. Archival photos of the Ballantyne Store show that it was a large, two-story structure that faced to the east. Prior to its conversion into a store, it had been used as a rooming house, a favorite place for accommodating some of the local coal miners. A supply shed with its own entrance was attached to its north side, and living quarters were provided upstairs. A wooden boardwalk adorned the street side of the building.
BLACKSMITHS AND SHOE REPAIR SHOPS
One of the early commercial ventures in Beaver Mines was Edward D. Picard’s Blacksmith Shop. He operated his shop, which included wheelwright as well as shoe repair work, in a large two-story brick building near the centre of the community. A large freight door adorned the front, through which Picard and his customers could move in wagon wheels, axles, and mining or farm tools that needed repairs. Most of this work was completed in the main floor shop or in the yard outside. Some of his quality tools, a stand and four lasts which were used for mending the work boots of local miners and ranchers, are now on exhibit at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village. From the building’s second floor, which likely doubled as Picard’s living quarters, flew a patriotic flag. Local folklore indicates that business was particularly brisk during those few short years up to World War One.
Edward Picard, his wife Rose and their five children resided on a homestead on Section 23, T6, R2, West of the Fifth Meridian. This was just over a mile northeast of the settlement of Beaver Mines and was immediately south of the South Fork of the Oldman River.
A second shoe maker whose business operated in Beaver Mines in 1914 was that of John L. Huff. The family also ranched in the foothills nearly two miles southwest of the community. Some two years later, Mr. and Mrs. Huff moved to California. Mrs. Huff, whose maiden name was Stumphey, had a brother who also homesteaded in the Beaver Mines area.
THE ECONOMIC CYCLES OF THE BEAVER MINES HOTEL
One of the most intriguing local businesses was that of the Beaver Mines Hotel, considered by many pioneers to be the centre of the community. Its highest business success rate came during the boom years of the Western Coal and Coke Company, the operator of the two local coal mines. When production was near full capacity, extra coal miners were brought in to work at the mines. Many of the younger and single fellows resided at the Hotel during their employment underground. Some accommodation competition was received from a boarding house operated by Mrs. George Jarrad.
Insights into some of the hotel’s commercial history can be attained from the early assessment roles of the Beaver Mines School District No. 3134 which date from 1914 through 1930. The Beaver Mines School had a student enrollment from 1914 to 1922 and 1928 to 1955 but closed for six years during the 1920s. The nearby Coalfields School had more students and a lengthier history. According to these old school records, now housed in the Archives of the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village, the Beaver Mines Hotel had an assessed real estate value of 10,000 dollars in 1915, and paid fifty dollars in school taxes that year. Both the property value and taxes remained the same the following year. Some six years later, in 1922, the hotel’s property value had decreased to 3200 dollars and its current year’s taxes had decreased to less than 45 dollars. By 1927, a further five years later, the hotel’s real estate value had plundered further to $1700, and its school taxes were assessed at six dollars and ninety-five cents. The hotel’s 1929 property assessment remained the same but the school taxes had increased to $13.60. The steady decrease in the property values of the Beaver Mines Hotel over this decade and a half indicate the decreasing fortunes in the coal mining industry of this settlement. There was less coal extraction following the First World War, and commercial outlets such as the hotel were having a difficult time in maintaining previous business levels.
EARLY BUSINESSES REFLECTED THE NATURE OF PIONEER COAL MINING
Livery stables did a strong trade in Beaver Mines during the World War One era. One was operated by Harry Graham as early as 1914. Three years previous, the nearly twenty-one years old Graham was based with a Pincher Creek livery stable. He was born in the United States and had immigrated to Canada in 1903. A second Beaver Mines blacksmith shop was owned by Dominic J. Cyr who with his wife, the former Marion Vroom, resided in Beaver Mines from 1910 to 1915. For several years Dominic and his brother Theodule also operated a butcher shop there. Nearby, a bakery and restaurant were operated by Mrs. Donald Ross whose commercial outlet was a hit with local coal mining families. Her husband, a trapper, is said to have had a cabin adjacent to the South Branch of the South Fork of the Oldman River, not too far from Beaver Mines Lake. Game that he had access to in the wilds was harvested for use in the restaurant.
Two early Beaver Mines pioneers, Michael F. Torpy and Earnest Cameron, were business partners. By 1914, the pair had established a pool room and picture show parlour, both popular with local coal miners. Torpy also served as the Beaver Mines Postmaster prior to George Ballentyne taking over the contract shortly after the Great War. Cameron came from a local family whose members included Mr. and Mrs. William Cameron. The latter homesteaded in the nearby Gladstone Valley as of 1907. William Cameron was the first teacher at the Coalfields School, starting his three years stint when the school, which still stands, opened in 1912. His wife, an accomplished musician, assisted at the Beaver Mines theatre playing the piano when the silent movie reels rolled.
One businessman directly connected with the coal mines at Beaver Mines was that of Herman Hollenbreck. Arriving in this mining settlement in 1912, he was awarded a contract to freight mine timbers to the Western Coal and Coal Co. operations. The timbers may have been secured from a homesteaded he filed on the following year, a quarter which was located on the South Fork at a point four miles north of Beaver Mines. They had a large family of a dozen children, at least two of who, Wiley and Clarence, attended classes at the Coalfields School situated a mile or two east of the settlement.
Coal mining and ranching indeed were the economic background to these Beaver Mines businesses.