Memories exchanged, friendships renewed

Benalto celebrated 100 years since settlement

100 years - Members of Benalto Royal Purple served birthday cake during Centennial celebrations Saturday afternoon. They included Margaret Walker

100 years - Members of Benalto Royal Purple served birthday cake during Centennial celebrations Saturday afternoon. They included Margaret Walker

People travelled from far and near to tell stories, renew acquaintances and celebrate an important milestone in Benalto’s history — 100 years.

Also part of the weekend’s events was the 76th anniversary of Benalto School which included a reunion, tours of the school and a program by current students at the grandstand Friday afternoon.

For many the highlight of the weekend was the opportunity to visit with friends from years ago or neighbours who still live in the area.

Two years in the planning, the Centennial was certainly a resounding success according to organizers and those who attended.

The program by students last Friday afternoon included a trip down memory lane as they sang songs from the past seven and a half decades. Among their selections were Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Do Re Mi, Puff The Magic Dragon and I’d Like to Teach The World to Sing. Others included the Ghostbusters theme song, Hakuna Matata and I Believe.

Of course there was lots of time for food to satisfy the crowd in attendance with lunches and suppers on the schedule.

Saturday night’s catered dinner was sold out with 300 people attending.

The official part of the weekend took place Saturday morning with dignitaries welcomed to the stage and given an opportunity to speak.

Besides the dignitaries, other special guests included Brenda and Grant Cupples who last year donated the Benalto train station back to the community and Dale and Bill Speight who donated land on Railway Avenue which will become the community park where the station will stand.

“The station will become a gathering place, a museum and year-round recreation centre for youths and adults alike,” said emcee Dave More.

“100 years is quite an achievement for any community,” he noted.

“The ebb and flow of time etches a character into people and places and Benalto has seen its share of changes over ten decades. And as much as we are gathered to celebrate the past we are every bit as excited about the future of Benalto.

“The return of the train station is symbolic as it signifies a revival, a return to roots, but also a new beginning. We see evidence in that with the new homes in town, the recent opening of Carvella CafŽ down through the woods along the old railway line.

“The opening last year of a new water treatment reservoir provided by Red Deer County and other levels of government shows a faith in the future of Benalto and area.

“At special gatherings like this we are grateful for the foundation our past has built for us and excited at what is yet to arise upon that foundation,” More stated.

A time capsule was buried by Benalto Booster Club in 1955 and opened in 1994. Then another was buried and opened recently. A new time capsule is being prepared, said More. That will be fitted into the train station foundation to hold the next stage of the community’s history. Items from the previous capsules were displayed during the weekend.

MP Earl Dreeshen talked about the fascinating stories of pioneer families and entrepreneurs who settled in Benalto; the farming and ranching community which was fueled by hard work and perseverance. The Benalto Stampede, vibrant 4-H clubs, and a great volunteer base which made things happen, have contributed to the community’s rich history, he noted.

A highlight of the ceremony was the historical narration of Benalto’s last 100 years provided by historian and storyteller Michael Dawe. He was accompanied by the H. J. Cody band which interspersed his comments with songs relevant to the decades he highlighted. Their first number was Danny Boy.

Dawe has a special connection to Benalto, he said. His grandfather came to Central Alberta as a civil engineer and surveyor for the Central Alberta Railway. “He would have been one of the very first people to walk on what would become the townsite of Benalto.”

But his commentary went back to Evarts, a community everyone was sure the railway would build through. When the railway went further north, it wasn’t long before merchants and residents moved to the railway.

Just as the railway was finished World War I broke out and “the world changed very dramatically”. Out of 4,000-5,000 people in the region west of Red Deer nearly 1,000 enlisted and several hundred never came home.

The war effort needed horses and there was a great need for food so agricultural service areas like Benalto thrived, Dawe said.

Then in the aftermath of the war, there was hard times, drought and prices crashed.

“Benalto was a place where there was plenty of spirit. They started the Stampede in 1913 and some of the best cowboys of the west competed in Benalto.”

The only year the community put off holding the Stampede was 1932 during the height of the depression and drought.

Dawe talked about temperance rules in place with beer of two per cent or less in terms of alcohol served. “Today we continue that tradition, we call it American beer,” he joked.

1938 saw a new school built in the community. Then the second world war started.

The late 1940s and 1950s were exciting times with lots of changes. One of those was school consolidations, although Benalto was not affected. To make consolidations work, better roads were needed. Highway 11 was gravelled. And the number of kids increased. “When all those people came back from war, they renewed their spousal relationships.”

Through the 1950s and 1960s the oil and gas industry began to flourish. The Eckville field and other major fields became busy and the hotel was always full.

The agricultural industry was also doing well.

Dawe continued his narration through the technology changes of the 1970s — telephones you could carry with you that weighed 6 pounds.

The 1980s were challenging times for Benalto. The railway shut down and grain elevators, those prairie sentinels, began to disappear. The hotel burned down and main street was not as busy as it had been.

But Countryside Meadows Estate was started. The Presbyterian Church was sold.

So much has changed over 100 years, he said. Before the railway, it took 4-5 days to make it to Red Deer. There was huge backbreaking work clearing land. Telephone lines were run on fence posts because they couldn’t afford telephone poles.

Through it all, though, there was a sense of neighbourliness, a willingness to help. And it continues to be one of the best agricultural paradises in the world.

“Probably the best is yet to come,” he concluded.

At the end of the morning presentation, 100 balloons were released into the air.

The afternoon featured birthday cake served by Royal Purple members. There were also displays to view, people to visit and memories to exchange. The day continued through the evening with a catered dinner followed by a program on the stage by Pat Meyers and Impact Dancers, and then a dance on the hard packed ground. Fireworks lit the sky at dark.

Sunday’s events included a breakfast, memorial service, lunch and dog agility show.

See many more photos of the celebrations in this week’s paper.