The Community Builders Committee aims to preserve and showcase our town's history by sharing the stories of those who were crucial in it's development through locally crafted monuments. We look forward to expanding the monument program and continuing to share insight on the significant "builders" of Stettler.
Do you know an individual, current or historical, the fits the title of 'Community Builder?' Fill out our Nomination Form at the bottom of this page!
Below, you can find in-depth information on our current honourees. Biographies are kindly provided by Carson Ellis of Our Town Stettler.
Before coming to Stettler in 1954, Clark Burlingham already was a well-known and successful member of the sports and recreation community. He'd also had a distinguished career in the RCAF during the 40's.
Clark Burlingham was born in Battleford Saskatchewan in 1916. His father served in WWI and served for many years as the court clerk in Battleford.
Clark's sports career started in the early 1930's, starting with the Saskatoon Wesley's, and then became goalie for the Battleford Millers. During his time in Battleford, Clark would graduate from the Battleford Collegiate Institute. After the 1934/35 season, the Millers would sail to Japan to take part in a series of exhibition games in Japan. They are noted as being the first Canadian Team to do so. They sailed out of Vancouver on March 2 1935 and arrived in Yokohama on March 15.
The team returned at the end of April and by mid-May, Burlingham was in Yorkton to play goal for the Yorkton Terriers. In 1936, he moved to Sudbury Ontario where he continued to play hockey.
Burlingham would take a 3 month course as a radio technician a McMaster University in Ontario. After enlisting in the RCAF in the early part of 1941, he was commissioned as a pilot officer. During his time in the air force, he was stationed in England and would be a flight lieutenant, in command of 3 planes tasked with hunting and destroying German submarines.
Burlingham incurred an injury during his service, which would prevent him from continuing to reach his potential as an NHL goalie (as many people had expected of him). However, he would continue to be an active member of the sports community.
When the Burlinghams came to Eston, Saskatchewan in 1947, Clark worked for the Town as Recreation Director. When he first arrived, the Eston Lions Club was working with Burlingham's office to create a Pee Wee hockey league. The league would have 3 teams in the first season, and would cover the cost of Sox, jerseys and other necessary equipment; however, plates would be required to provide sticks and skates. In the next season, there would be 5 teams and by the start of hockey season 1950, the league would host 9 teams.
In a 1953 article in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, they referred to the recreation program in Eston as a 'model' for similar municipalities. Burlingham was sure to note a large reason for the program's success was massive municipal and community support, with many clubs funding programs and teams, and the municipal government giving the hockey league free use of the local rink 3 nights a week. The article stated that the town of 1,500 residents had 240 people enrolled in the program, with activities such as Ping Pong, tennis, badminton, hockey, and figure skating.
Clark would also travel across the province upon request. He would visit other communities to consult on how to develop their recreation programs. Clark's wife Emig (also recorded as Emyg) also worked for the program, supervising the arts and crafts aspects. Their sons Garth and David, and daughter Gayla were enrolled in many of the sports programs that the recreation board offered.
The Burlingham family came to Stettler in 1954 and Clark would hold the same position on the Stettler Council as he had in Eston. Burlingham was always looking forward, motivated largely for his understanding that he had survived the war, while plenty of good men did not. He came to Stettler with the intention of continuing to be the best Recreation Director he could be. His mission in Stettler was comprised of 3 main goals. Enjoyment, participation and the continuous improvement of the first 2 aspects. Burlingham worked to improve community participation in sports and recreation programs.
During his time as Recreation Director for the town, Burlingham began many practices and programs that were new for municipalities, even in the larger centres. At one point, the Alberta Deputy Minister of Recreation and Health would send people to shadow Clark to see how he operated. He was also invited to speak on his programs and consult like he had in Saskatchewan. The Deputy Minister and other municipal officers would even try to entice Burlingham to higher profile positions and communities. Despite their efforts, Burlingham enjoyed working and living in Stettler, and would politely rebuff their offers.
Clark was known as an outgoing ambassador for the Town of Stettler. During his travels in both his capacity as Recreation Director or just his travels around the province, he was known for singing the praises for the people and opportunities of the district. He spoke so highly of Stettler and area that people would often travel to the community to experience it for themselves.
Burlingham was a gifted leader and coach. He was known for being a skilled communicator and was often able to form connections with the youth who were involved with the Recreation department's programs. This ability to connect and motivate the community's youth was a vital tool for Burlingham. It not only benefitted him in his role in the community, but it helped him connect with players and helped them to achieve their true potential.
After 10 years as Recreation Director, Burlingham resigned his post. However, he was doing so to take charge of the bowling alley and recreation centre that was opening in the community. In this capacity, he was able to continue enhancing recreation for the community. In a newspaper article in 1966 about him, Burlingham was asked if there was anything wrong with the youth of the time, to which he answered confidently that he did not think so. He said that there was a lot going on in the world and growing up was difficult. He said the main cause of the perceived problems with the youth, was a breakdown in communication between them and their parents. He explained that one of his goals at the Recreation Centre was to help families to bond while they visited the facility, and hopefully be able to communicate and work together. He felt families that were able to communicate, bridged the generational gap. He also believed that successful players were created by good facilities and resources, and not so much by 'winning at all cost' mantras many people believed were important.
During his stint at the recreation centre, Burlingham would be injured while working with the pin setting machine. Clark's arm was badly injured and people remember him traveling to the hospital in the pickup truck of one of the patrons at the facility. He would end up losing his arm but was noted as being back at work rather quickly and did not let his loss of limb, slow him down at all.
Clark was active in provincial programs as well as local sports. In 1962, he was voted in as first Vice President of the Northern Alberta Baseball Association. In 1957, he was appointed Head Coach of the Canadian Olympic Trainning Plan coaching clinic.
Locally he was appointed President of the Stettler Legion in 1961. In 1963, he ran as the Liberal representative in the area. Burlingham's 1,056 votes lost out to Norris' 3,,048. He also ran unsuccessfully for town council in 1965.
During his time in Stettler, Burlingham coached teams to 3 consecutive provincial midget hockey championships, as well as similar feats in baseball. He was also credited as helping several local hockey players reach the upper teir of their sports, as well other sports, including record-setting athletes in track and field.
Clark and Emig, who helped with local programs in Stettler, like she had in Eston, left for Saskatoon in 1977. Although they were well loved by the community, and reciprocated the feeling, his 'always looking forward' views on life found him unable to pass up a.lucrative position as General Manager for A.A. Murphy and Sons.
In October 1987, Clark and Emig celebrated 50 years of marriage.
Clark passed away I November of 1992 at the age of 76. His mark on the communities he lived in, still clearly visible today.
Fred Theodore Colley is noted as coming to Stettler on the first freight train into Stettler. Born in Iowa in 1880, Fred Colley apprenticed as a blacksmith at the age of 19. Eventually, he would manage a lumber yard in North Dakota. In 1905, he heard about the rail line extending from Lacombe to the west and was quick to cash in on new opportunities. He had a load of BC Lumber brought on on some of those first freight cars into the new townsite and opened a lumber yard on Main Street. His early operation was in partnership with investors in America but after a few years, he would buy out the American investors. He would continue running Acorn Lumber Yard with his brother, Otto Colley. Otto would eventually open a branch of the company in Castor and the Colley Brothers would expand their reputations in the rapidly growing district.
In 1906, Fred briefly returned to the US where he was married. He came back to Stettler and would soon bring his new bride to reside on a property just north of town. Over the years, Fred Colley was active in a rather common practice of buying undeveloped homesteads and building them up with the basic buildings, then selling them to new arrivals in the area.
In addition to the many homes and businesses he was involved in constructing, he would also build Colley Hall. Colley Hall would often act as a community center for small events. He would also build the brick structure on Main Street that would be the Case I/H dealer for several years.
Colley's community involvement would also leave a lasting impression on the district. He was one of the early organizers of the original Agricultural Society in 1907, and would be a huge supporter of the Society and all ag-related groups. He was also a charter member of both the Board of Trade and the Stettler Rotary Club. Both of which he was an active member in, often representing Stettler at Provincial and National meetings.
In his 1959 obituary, it was noted that the local baseball organization had benefited greatly from his efforts with the local leagues. He was also a well known owner of quality trotting and race horses.
The Colley's were active in church affairs as well. Fred's lumber yard was the source of materials for the Methodist church, which was the town's first church and sat where the Royal Bank of Canada now sits. Later when the United Church congregation was formed with the merging of Methodist and Presbyterian members in 1925, Fred Colley would sit on the board that was responsible with the election of the current United Church building. He would also lead the Masons from their space on Main Street, to the United Church in August 1927 to take part in placing items in the time capsule that was placed in the church cornerstone.
Commonly referred to as Fritz, Colley's name would be used in naming a new school house south of Stettler. Fritzhill School was established in 1911. Whether the hill was named after Fritz Colley or if the hill was named after the school is unclear, but Colley would be closely associated with the school for many years. The school burned down in the 40's and was replaced after a few weeks with the Wellsburg school being moved onto the site. After Fritzhill School was closed, the Lone Tree school was added to the Wellsburg school to form the Fritzhill Community Centre.
The Poon Family
Enduring the federal Chinese Exclusion Act even after thousands died in building the trans-continental CPR railway, Jun Wah Poon persevered in staying in this area serving as a dishwasher and launderer. In 1909, the Chinese community raised the $1000 head tax required to bring to Stettler Yick Fong (Sam) Poon and his cousin Yick Poon, who had to leave behind his young wife, a daughter, and infant son. By 1920, Yick’s 13 year-old son Thing Gue “Harry” Poon joined them.
Renting the Botha Hotel, they started “City Meats.” In 1928, Yick had the opportunity to rent a restaurant on Main Street in Stettler, so the Poons left Botha and started the Club Café. The Poon family would come to eventually own the building, and would operate out of it for many years. Still, because of the Asian Exclusion Act, Yick’s wife and daughter were prevented from coming to Canada. The court challenge in 1924 now meant that Chinese men were to be recognized as “normal citizens of Canada.”
On Sunday February 22, 1942, Harry married Star Way of Lethbridge. They were married in Star’s hometown of Lethbridge Alberta, but were to reside in Stettler. Both Harry and his wife Star were active and very popular members of the community for many years. Harry and Star would also have six children who would be just as active as their parents in many regards.
Yick Poon would unfortunately die suddenly of a heart attack. The elder of the family was working at Club Cafe which he owned and operated with his son Harry at the time of his passing.
Harry Poon would be elected to Town Council in 1954. One of four candidates on the ballot at the time, he would be nominated to fill a vacancy along with John Ware. At the time of his election, Harry received a telegram from the Chinese Consul General of Canada, congratulating him on his victory. In the telegram, it was noted that the Consul General’s office was of the understanding that Mr. Poon was the only Chinese person holding office on a Town Council in Canada at that time. This detail would be mentioned, years later, at the Poon's going away party, but incorrectly describe him as the first Chinese person in Canada to hold a civic office. A mistake that would be repeated in other articles about Harry.
Upon taking office in 1954, Harry, who was a well-known hockey fan and sat on the local Hockey Committee for many years, was instrumental in starting the town’s Recreation Commission. He would campaign his fellow councillors to bring in former Canadian Hockey star, Clark Burlingham from Saskatchewan. Burlingham, another Community Builders recipient, was instrumental in building the recreation program back in Eston, Saskatchewan and would establish a recreation program in Stettler that was often used as the model in communities all across the province, including Edmonton.
In 1956, an article written about Mr. & Mrs. Poon noted that the 45 year old man had built a personal and professional career that anyone could be proud of. During the 1950’s alone, Harry Poon would sit on local committees as secretary-treasurer for the town’s Hockey Program, as well as hold the role as one of the local representatives for the Central Alberta Hockey League. Harry Poon would also be part of the executive committee of the Stettler Board of Trade and Agriculture. He was also a member of Kinsmen. His position on Council would also see him hold the role as Director of the Stettler Civil Defence. Even when the article was being written about him, the journalist who wrote it had a hard time getting together with the Poons as they were working to organize a sports banquet at the former Community Hall (Super Fluity.)
Star was also an active community member. She was an avid bowler and represented Stettler at several provincial tournaments, even at a national level. She coached youth bowlers, and was part of the local bowling leagues for several age groups. Star would be one of the founding members of the Stettler Handicraft Guild. Much like her husband who sat on the local Kinsmen Club, Star sat on the local Kinettes Club.
Both her and Harry were key players in the activities of the Stettler United Church. They even hosted a Chinese buffet as a fundraiser for the church, with proceeds from the event going towards the church’s building fund.
The Poons were locally active with the Alberta Chinese Benevolent Society. Their work with the organization saw them helping newly arrived Chinese immigrants settle into Canadian life by helping them navigate the immigration system, and any other ways necessary.
The Club Cafe was a popular and much loved business in Stettler. For many years it was the home of the Star Bowladrome. The couple would also mark their 14th wedding anniversary by opening the Star Room - a large banquet area in the restaurant that would fill a missing service in the community for social events and special occasions.
In September of 1969, a large event was held in the High School Auditorium. The special gathering of people from all across the district and beyond was to say goodbye to the Poon Family. Harry and Star had decided to retire to Vancouver. Former Mayor Walter Kloepfer spoke on behalf of Mayor Sloan, introducing the members of the Poon family to the guests of the evening. Songs were performed by local solo artists, as well as the Stettler Harmonettes which Star was involved in creating. Poems were performed and speeches were made, summarizing the extensive history of the Poons in the community. Minister of Industry Russell Patrick was on hand for the event. Patrick had attended school with Harry, and the two had stayed in touch over the years.
Following his death in 1984, Harry requested that he be cremated and his ashes spread on his mother’s grave in China so at last, they could finally be together. Presentations were made by The Stettler Board of Trade and Agricultural Society as well as the Recreation Commission, and both the Masonic Lodge and Order of the Eastern Star.
The Poons would continue working with the Chinese Benevolent Society while in Vancouver.
At the time of this writing, Star Poon was still alive, and living in a retirement home in Vancouver, having turned 100 in May 2022.
William Brigham Gray was born in 1856 in Beverley, England. He joined the British Navy in 1871/72. After training he served in the Mediterranean Fleet, traveling as far as Turkey. After his term in the navy ended in 1877, he served in a British militia and is believed to have reached the rank of corporal.
Gray came to Canada in 1883, landing in Winnipeg. Shortly after arriving in Canada, he traveled west to the end of the steel which was Calgary. Upon his arrival, Gray purchased lots on the Bow River, but would sell them before they had accrued any real value. It is believed while in the southern region, he served with a volunteer home guard during the North West Rebellion.
Starting around 1884, Gray had started working on the Cochrane Ranch in Mitford. This would be the first of several ranches in southern Alberta. William Gray was known during his ranch days, for wearing buckskin clothing, and earned the moniker of Buckskin Billy.
In April of 1893, Gray would marry Maggie McCullen of Spring Bank. The Grays would soon move to a ranch at Morningside, located north of Lacombe. While there William hauled freight for Fletcher Hutchison. Hutchison operated a trading post at Lamerton, which was located north of what would eventually become Mirror. Gray hauled freight from Lacombe to Hutchison’s Lamerton operation. They would move to the area that would become Alix by 1898.
While in the Alix area, they ran the Haunted Lakes Ranch. At the time, there were no towns east of Lacombe, and only a few farms and settlments. While in the Haunted Lakes area the Grays became friends with Edward Barnett. Barnett had come west with the North West Mounted Police, and after his term was up would purchase much of the land that is now downtown Lacombe. He would eventually end up in the Liberal area.
The Grays once again moved to Bollocksville which was located north of the Red Deer River. They lived in and operated the Bollocksville stopping house. William was the first postmaster in the area, while Maggie would run the general store. Both of which were in the stopping house. Bollocksville was a common stopping place for pioneers moving east from the Olds/Innisfail region, and would host Bruce Ewing and family before they carried on to their homestead south of what would become Erskine. In addition to their duties at the stopping house, the Grays would own cattle, and between 1904 and 1907, trademark both the TM brand and the 7g brand.
With the Bollocksville stopping house being a main hub in the area, and with his experience in the military, MLA Peter Talbot who represented the Lacombe region, nominated William Gray for Justice of the Peace. At the time the area was part of the Northwest Territories. Gray was sworn in at Lamerton in June of 1904. His first case was a gentleman who had neglected to fight a prairie fire, and was fined $1, which was most likely a heavy sum at the time. Gray had no formal legal training, and quickly went about requesting reference materials for the criminal codes from the territorial government in Regina.
When the province of Alberta was formed in 1905, the only real change was Justices of the Peace reported to Edmonton, and fines were sent there instead of Regina. In October of 1905, William Gray was authorized to issue marriage licenses. By this time, he had 5 kids (Daisy, Nellie, Emannual ‘Manny’ & Joe) and the extra income was helpful.
Bollocksville showed no signs of growth from a stopping house, with a few homesteaders in the area, so in 1906 the Grays sold the stopping house. The Grays came to the newly formed Stettler townsite in May of 1906, at the time Stettler was barely 6 months old.
THE GRAYS COME TO STETTLER
Upon arriving in Stettler, Gray was still a Justice of the Peace, and held the position of official auditor. He was also appointed as the Dominion Lands agent. The townsite was created by the Canadian Pacific railroad, and Carl Stettler was the CP lands agent who was responsible for selling all the lands around the railway’s right of way. William Gray was responsible for selling the government-owned lands that didn’t fall under the railroad’s territory. In the first year, Gray would process approximately 400 homesteads a month, and was known to work 18-hour days. In 1908, Gray’s office had processed over twice as many homesteads as any sub-agency in Alberta.
In addition to his government roles, William Gray was a real estate agent and sold insurance. He also wasn’t the kind that just sat behind a desk and would often venture out into the district to collect crop samples for display at his office for potential settlers, and clientele. Gray operated his lands office, and private business out of a two-story building on main street. He shared the building with H.T Harding who was one of the first lawyers in the area and a member of town council early on.
In 1907 Gray became a process issuer and was also listed as a commissioner for taking affidavits. By 1910 he would also be listed as the Registrar of Vital Statistics, and by 1917 he was appointed as Notary Public.
WILLIAM GRAY IN POLITICS
Gray was a staunch Liberal and was a key player in the early days of the Liberal Party in the Stettler district. He was noted as being one of 70 guests at a dinner at the National Hotel with Senator Talbot and MLA William Puffer and MP Dr. McIntyre as guests. When the local Liberal committee was formed, Gray was elected to position of secretary-treasurer.
An active member of the community, William Gray was part of the committee that worked to develop the early days of the Stettler’s fire prevention practices. As part of the committee, he would travel to other communities such as Olds, and Strathcona to assess their fire prevention methods. The committee would soon get a Waterbury gasoline fire engine brought to Stettler to help the volunteer fire brigade. Gray would also be noted as the first person to alert the occupants of the Alberta Hotel of a growing fire on the side of the building. He would be on hand to fight the blaze that would destroy both the Alberta Hotel and the original Royal hotel. He was also a key witness in the investigation and subsequent insurance company’s investigation into the cause of the fire.
THE GREAT WAR
On August 16, 1914, Britain would declare war on Germany. By this time the former seaman was too old to reenlist, but with his experience and his positions with the government, made him an ideal recruiting officer for the region. Gray’s first recruiting efforts would be to recruit eligible men from the district to join the 181st Battalion. The minimum amount he was requested to gather for service for the 181st was 60, and by 1916 he had recruited over 80. In addition to the 181st, Gray would recruit soldiers from the area for the 151st, the 8th and the 89th. He would also recruit from the area for the Princess Patricia’s.
While serving overseas, many soldiers from the district would keep in touch with Gray. William would often be apprised of the situation on the front from letters from those he recruited, often being told of the status of others from the district.
By February of 1917, the Stettler Independent had stated that Gray and approximately 40 others from the district had expressed interest in forming a volunteer militia. However nothing else was ever reported on the efforts.
Over the several decades of his career in insurance and real estate, William Gray would partner with a variety of businessmen in the district.
One of the first was a man named J.A McArthur. McArthur owned property in the Bashaw area, and in early 1911 was noted as manager of Crown Lumber in Stettler. Some time around 1911/1912 he partnered with Gray. Gray and McArthur advertised real estate, fire, life and stock insurance.
By 1912, William Gray would be partnered with M.C White and by September 1912, Gray and White would advertise they were opening an office in Big Valley. Sometime around 1913 Gray had moved his business out of his former Dominion Lands office that he would continue to own, and would move into a newer brick building on the corner of Main and Alberta (50th) avenue. The firm would also take on Wawanesa insurance.
In the same year, Botha farmer John A. Thompson bought an interest in the firm, and the company would be known as Gray & White & Company. Mr. Thompson took special interest in the loan and real estate aspects of the business.
Mr. White would soon move to Vancouver but would work with his partners back in Stettler for land sales, and would occasionally travel to Stettler with potential land buyers.
In 1915 William Gray was part of Gray and Neeland and Co. But by 1919 Gray’s business was simply W.B. Gray and Co. He moved again one door north to a former barber shop. The firm’s portfolio at the time was noted as holding the town’s $5,000 insurance policy on the pumping and electrical station.
1923 was a strange year for William Gray. He had again partnered with J.A McArthur who had been listed as an insurance agent on his own in 1914. The firm again moved, but this time they moved to the back of the building where Gray had originally operated his office. The building was located next to McGillivray and Co, and would be roughly the north portion of what is now John’s.
By this time Gray was appointed as Police Magistrate in addition to his other government titles which he held. As an auditor, Gray spent much of his time doing auditor work for Stettler, Erskine, Big Valley, and the municipal districts of Waverly and Dublin, and others. By this time William Gray was in his 70’s
As Police Magistrate, Gray was often involved in assessing criminal activity to determine if it would be passed on to the proper courts, or in many cases, would act as judge over smaller issues. Gray was part of the William Lennox murder in 1912, and eventually assessed that the evidence against the original suspect was insufficient. He would also reside over cases stemming from the Spanish Influenza epidemic when it came to Stettler. Health regulations at the time required masks to be worn in public, and Gray and other magistrates were responsible for cases of those who wouldn’t follow the mask laws, and would either issue fines, or hard labour sentences.
By 1939, William Gray would claim to be the oldest police magistrate in the province. William Gray would retire from his positions in the 1940s after a 40 year career as a government official.
THE GRAY MUSEUM
During their time in Stettler, the Grays would reside in a couple different homes, before finally purchasing 10 acres north of the CP railroad. The two-storey home would become a private museum for Gray’s array of collections.
William had been collecting things since before coming to Canada. During his time in the Navy, he had acquired a Turkish slipper that he brought to Canada. He also owned several Roman-era artifacts his dad had acquired from archeological sites. He also owned items found at the site of one of the largest battles from 1513 when the English army defeated Scotland.
Judge Gray’s collection of animal heads included elk, antelope and buffalo which were mounted to the walls of the front two rooms of the house. Glass display cabinets would display his collection of reptiles, rodents and birds. Other cabinets had drawers that displayed even more artifacts. One drawer held over 80 eggs of various types, while the rest of the drawers displayed fresh water shells, rocks, and petrified wood.
The expansive collection ranged from items gifted to him from those who had served during the Great War and sent him things found in battlefields such as shell casings, and German helmets, to weapons that included revolvers found near Pincher Creek among the remains of whiskey smugglers, to a six-foot-barreled buffalo rifle. His weapons collection would also include Mexican thumb daggers and Gurka knives.
Gray’s coin collection would surpass 700 pieces. Some of the more noteworthy pieces were 5-Franc coin from 1728, as well as coins from ancient Rome and Greece.
Gray was also fascinated by other cultures. He had an extensive collection of Asian pieces that included carvings of brass Buddhas and opium pipes.
William was also known to have a profound respect for indigenous cultures in North America. He found many aspects of their daily lives and traditions interesting, and his collection reflected this. He had several arrow heads he had been gifted and gathered on his own. He was often known to help people educate people on arrowheads they would find and bring for his review. He also had several items that were noted as being possessions of the legendary chief Sitting Bull.
Gray’s collection also included live animals. He was one of the first people known to have captured and deodorized skunks for domestic ownership. He would own a variety of other animals over the years including several generations of wild geese, a magpie that was known to have an extensive vocabulary, raccoons, and is thought to have been the first in the province to successfully breed porcupines in captivity.
His most famous pets would be a variety of bear breeds over the years. This would include a black bear in Gray’s later years that was prone to slipping free from his restraints and wandering across the tracks into town. Although nobody was ever injured from the escaped animal, after it had happened a few times local officials pressured Judge Gray to get rid of the animal that was making the citizens uncomfortable. In 1932, the bear was donated to the Calgary Zoo.
Despite the variety of hats worn by William Gray, the 1930’s were a difficult time for him.
With the federal government transferring natural resources control to the provinces, the Dominion Land agencies were closed. With the depression of the era, real estate had dropped almost completely, and it was during this time Gray would get out of both insurance and real estate. Gray still held his Police Magistrate title, and operated out of an office at the Stettler courthouse.
Much of his land would be seized during the 30’s for taxes he owed on the property, a common occurrence for many during the time. In 1934 William’s wife Maggie passed away. This would be followed two years later by the passing of his wife Daisy.
In 1943 he moved in with his daughter Nellie and her husband Lew Jones. By this time William’s son Manny had moved his family into the former family home. Gray would live in his daughter’s home for the rest of his life.
As William Gray had gotten older, and had less energy, he had dispersed his live animal collection. Many of his animals would go to zoos and would be key parts of nature preserves that were just starting. His collection had drawn profound interest from all across the country, and was a subject of much discussion for preservation groups, and historical societies all across the province. Finally in 1946, the province purchased Gray’s museum, and moved it to Edmonton.
Judge William Gray passed away in 1946. His obituary in the Calgary Herald noted that Stettler had lost its oldest citizen and the province had lost one of the few remaining colourful characters of the early days. Gray had been a member of the Stettler Elks, and Oddfellows clubs. At the time of his passing, he had 13 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren.
The Willis Family
The Willis Family have been active community members and business leaders in the Stettler area for many generations.
Charles Lavalle Willis came to Stettler in 1908, when he purchased the Stettler Independent newspaper business from Will Godson. Willis was born in 1874 in Seaforth, Ontario. He would graduate from the University of Toronto, earning a BA and MA in mathematics and going on to teach mathematics for a few years before starting a weekly newspaper in Sydney, Manitoba around 1905. During his time in Manitoba, Willis would see an ad from Will Godson of Stettler who was looking to sell his newspaper, the Stettler Independent, in Stettler. Charles Willis would take control of the Stettler Independent on June 15, 1908.
His stewardship of the local paper was quick to hit a snag when the bulk of the downtown business district caught fire in October of that year. In the end, 20 businesses in the downtown area would be destroyed by fire. Although The Independent was not located on Main Street, it was a time of turmoil for many readers. However, Charles moved quickly during the early days of the town rebuilding itself. He purchased a lot on the north side of Alberta Avenue, putting his operation closer to the middle of the business district.
Under Charles Willis’ guidance, the weekly paper became a top-performer, often operating equipment that would easily allow it to be a daily paper. The Independent had the latest printing equipment and was recognized by many in the newspaper industry. When the Independent purchased a Linotype machine in 1916, it was one of the first rural papers in Western Canada to own one. The large machine used a keyboard to stamp letters into paper strips, which were then cast with hot metal and the newspaper was printed off the finished product. Although a single mistake required the entire row to be reprinted, the machine replaced the tedious task of placing each individual letter.
Another fire took place in October of 1952, which would burn down the Independent building. Even with water and fire-damaged equipment, the Stettler Independent didn’t miss an issue and new equipment was purchased that would again put the paper at the top of the industry.
Outside of the newspaper business, Charles was an active member of the community. He was a member of the school board from 1912 until 1952, holding several positions during that time. He was also active in the church and was in the choir for many years, serving as choirmaster for several years.
Charles would serve as president of both the Rotary and the Stettler Board of Trade. He was also a long-time member of the curling club and an avid golfer. He sat on the local golf course board for several years and was honorary president of the Alberta Senior Golf Association. Willis would also play an important part in securing Stettler’s long-term success….
The Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) was planning to construct a line from Vegreville to Calgary. The southbound rail line would open Stettler up to all new possibilities. Community leaders as well as those with the Board of Trade were concerned when they discovered that the CNoR planned to miss Stettler by approximately 8 miles. This would give another community a chance to grow and compete with Stettler. A group of citizens that included Willis and MLA R.L. Shaw would begin campaigning government officials both provincially and federally to have them persuade the railway to run their line through Stettler. Their efforts were successful with news of the southbound rail line coming through Stettler, being announced in 1909.
Charles Willis was active until his death in May of 1956. In June of 1956, the Stettler School board announced that they would begin to award 5 $100 scholarships to Stettler High School students who earned high marks in university entrance exams. The chairman of the board explained that the scholarships would be named after Willis who was known for his interest in improving education for those in the area and was known across the nation for his thought-provoking editorials.
Roy Ward Willis was born in Stettler on December 16, 1916. Roy W. Willis started working for his dad at age 12, taking over the Stettler Independent in 1956 after graduating from the University of Alberta.
Roy joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and served in the Second World War. During his time in the Air Force, he achieved the rank of Flight Sergeant.
In 1956, Willis was an executive member of the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association. He was also elected as the Stettler Liberal Provincial Constituency President that year. Like his father, Roy was constantly striving to provide the community with the best local paper possible. In 1952, the Independent purchased the Cox-O-Type Automatic press from the Grand Prairie Herald. This major purchase would keep the family-run business able to keep up with a growing community. In October 1958, Roy was elected President of the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association. At the time, the Association had 67 member newspapers. Willis had been with the Association for many years and advocated for the industry.
In 1956, the Stettler Board of Trade awarded Roy Willis with the Citizen of the Year award. At the time, Willis was a member of the Stettler School Board, Vice-President of the Rotary, and Past-President of the Board of Trade. Willis was described as his usual humble self when he accepted the award, noting it was odd for so many people to seem happy to see a newspaper editor. Willis noted: “Show me an editor who everybody loves, and I’ll show you an editor who is doing a darn poor job.” One of the many reasons that Willis was chosen as Citizen of the Year was his dedicated efforts as chairman of the planning committee for Stettler’s 50th Anniversary. He would also be Chairman for the planning committees of the 60th and 75th anniversary celebrations, and was chairman of the committee of Stettler’s first Town and County Fair.
Willis was known as a great orator and often spoke at community events and special occasions; a trait he also used over the years while representing the newspaper industry on both the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association and the Canadian Weekly Newspapers Association. He believed in the well-being of heritage and conservation and gave oral histories of the community as community groups, and organizations marked their anniversaries.
On the pages of the Independent, the paper’s motto: ‘Independent but never neutral’, was unquestionably obvious in the editorial pages of the paper. Roy’s writing was known to be as in-depth and thought-provoking as his father’s. Roy was known by his colleagues to be the sort of man who calls a spade a spade and was frequently referenced in articles about farming, politics, and everything in between in daily papers all around the province.
Roy passed away in August of 2008. Although not actively a part of the newspaper which was being operated by his sons Robert and Allen Willis, he did submit editorials for publication from time to time.