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by Farley Wuth, Curator,
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Copyright, Pincher Creek & District Historical Society

Many an eager pioneer, more often than not a booster of his or her own settlement, saw the growth of that settlement reflected in its business development. Most early settlers were truly pleased to have frontier commercial outlets set up shop in their pioneer villages and towns scattered across the Canadian Prairies. Such was the case with the commercial workings of the Cowley Branch of the Union Bank of Canada, established early in the Village’s history.

Nationally, the history of the Union Bank of Canada can be traced back to 1865, two years before Confederation, when it was established with a head office in Quebec City. Nearly half a century later the Bank’s head office was moved to Winnipeg to reflect the growth that it had witnessed in Western Canada, some of which was due to the immigration and agricultural boom this region of the country had gone through since 1896.

Although the district’s ranching history dates back to the early 1880s, Cowley’s development as a settlement actually started with the arrival of the construction of the Crowsnest Branch of the CPR in 1897-98. With the strategically placed siding there, Cowley grew as a marketing and distribution centre for the local ranching and farming industry with such gusto that, according to NWMP reports, it took some of the commercial growth away from its neighbor, Pincher Creek.

The Cowley Branch of the Union Bank of Canada was established as the settlement’s first banking institution back in 1906, the same year that the community was established as a Village. Initially it was housed in a small wooden building in Cowley’s commercial district. Within a brief five year span, it was relocated to a much larger structure. A generation and a half later locals recalled that the bank’s successor had a building being a two-story frame structure. The bank occupied the main floor and faced to the north. Three large windows adorned the west wall. Upstairs, there was a well-maintained apartment that the bank rented out. Mrs. Landry was one of the well-respected tenants.

Local expansions of the Union Bank were reflective both of additional banking services it was offering as well as the growth in the volume of local business. Immigrants, many of them homesteaders, farmers and business people, were pouring into different southwestern Alberta settlements.

The Cowley Branch made efforts to win the banking trade of local ranchers and farmers. As early as 1908 ranchers from north of Cowley held accounts there. Loans were diplomatically handled by bank officials who wanted both the money paid back but also wishing to financially assist the local agricultural industry, the backbone of the economy. A decade later, in 1918, the bank placed an advertisement with The Pincher Creek Echo asserting “the Union Bank of Canada is prepared to make loans to good farmers on reasonable terms, to purchase cattle for feeding or breeding purposes. It is in the best interests of farmers to increase their herds”.

Thanks to the ranching history research taken on by Mrs. Emma Lynch-Staunton some 65 years ago, accompanied by local newspaper accounts of the era, Mr. Canby Urson Reese has been identified as the first Manager of Cowley’s Union bank. On Wednesday, October 16th 1907 he was united in marriage with Audrey Parlett in a small ceremony held in Winnipeg. The happy couple returned to Cowley via train whereupon the Bank’s staff presented their Manager with a leather easy chair. Canby and Audrey Parlett took up residence in Mr. C. B. Miller’s residence in Cowley. In mid-August 1908 they were blessed with the birth of their first son.

In May, 1912 Reece was succeeded as Manager by F. H. Fraser, a well-liked fellow who for the previous two years had been the Accountant with the Macleod Branch of the Union Bank. There he was an active member of the Macleod Hockey Team, and his teammates threw him a farewell party upon his departure from this NWMP town. During August of that year, Fraser was awarded his annual vacation and G. R. Van Dusen took over his duties on a temporary basis. By 1918 a Mr. R. E. Morrow was serving as the Bank’s Manager.

One of the individuals associated with the early history of the bank of whom we do know more was that of Walter Mitham. Thanks go out to his grandson, Peter Mitham, who sifted through his grandparents’ correspondence of over a decade that described in detail the early years surrounding the senior family member’s lengthy banking career. Arriving in Canada shortly before the eve of the First World War, the then 22-year-old Walter Mitham took on a job as an auditor with the Union Bank. He was transferred to the Pincher Creek branch in 1914 and then to the nearby Cowley branch some three years later. According to his grandson’s research, Mitham had a sympathetic ear for the local ranchers and farmers who often were short of readily available hard cash. As an auditor, he knew the Bank had to be a profitable business, but he realized that the Bank would need the business of the agricultural community in order to succeed.

Walter Mitham remained with the Cowley Branch of the Union Bank of Canada until he married in 1922. His bride was none other than Irene Hyde, the daughter of Pincher Creek’s own Henry and Emma M. (Chrisholm) Hyde. Local history buffs will recall that Mitham’s new father-in-law had long been the Manager of the Pincher Creek branch of the Union Bank. He started in this position in 1898, but had offered independent banking services as early as 1889. Interested in community affairs, Hyde served as Pincher Creek’s Mayor from 1917 to 1920. Mitham’s own auditing career continued with the head office of the Bank and its successor, located in Montreal.

The early chronicles of the Union Bank’s Cowley Branch did bespeak of interesting pioneer times.

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