In October of 1754, explorer Anthony Henday, the first European to visit the Blackfoot natives on the western prairies, camped near the present site of Innisfail. Henday had travelled to the prairies seeking trade with the Blackfoot. Another early visitor to the area was Reverend John McDougall who developed a trail from Fort Edmonton to his mission church at Morley. This path in the 1870s wound through what is now the Innisfail district. Other early visitors were the men of the Palliser Survey Expedition. The Palliser crews measured Western Canada's systems of land sections and road grids. Poplar Grove was described by Captain John Palliser on one of his many expeditions as "one of the three best areas on the Canadian plains for planting and agriculture." The appearance of Poplar Grove was picturesque with thick poplar trees, stretches of prairie, heavy grass and rolling hills. There was also an abundance of wildlife such as prairie chickens, partridge and ducks.
The early history of Innisfail dates back to 1882 when only a few men had ventured to establish themselves along the trail area between Calgary and Edmonton. This old aboriginal trail was called "Wolf's Track" and the area was known as Poplar Grove. It became a well-known camping place for "freighters" because of the ample supplies of water, fuel and grass. Many people considered it a popular location for homesteading and many families chose the area for settlement. In the 1880s, stopping houses began to appear on the trail.
The Riel Rebellion in 1885 hampered settlement into Innisfail to some extent. In 1886, land immediately south of Innisfail was settled by two Americans, Arthur Content and Napoleon Remillard. They had journeyed from Montana to Alberta and settled on land south of Poplar Grove. There was no railway at this time, but a few houses were scattered along the trail for the convenience of the stagecoaches. In 1890, the railway reached Poplar Grove and by 1891, scheduled trains began running for the Canadian Pacific Railway. A road was also extended from Red Deer to Edmonton (Strathcona). By this time, most of the land had been taken up as homesteads. Business and professional men began to establish structures such as a hotel, drug store, general store and a lawyer's office.
One of the first settlers near Poplar Grove was Sandy Fraser. A stopping place was built by Jack and Ed Miller. These houses provided food and rest to area visitors. Others then came and squatted where conditions looked the most favourable. Isabella Sinclair, then "Miss Brown," was the first European woman to settle with her two brothers on the banks of the Red Deer River just west of the present site of Innisfail. People named Fraser, Quesnel, McCormach, West, Edwards, Rogers, Brown, Miller, Moore, Constantine, Varty, Dodd, Bill Kemp and Stiles are greatly responsible for the growth of Innisfail. These settlers along with a few Métis and aboriginals constituted the first settlement of Poplar Grove. By this time, the Canadian Pacific Railway had renamed Poplar Grove to Innisfail.
In 1891 the first post office was opened by Norman Stiles. For the first year mail was dropped off at Remillards stopping house until Mr. Stiles completed construction on the post office building in 1892. The first school building was opened and classes commenced with Miss L. Short as the teacher for the entire student body: nine pupils. She was hired for a nine-month year at $50 per month and the trustees decided to make the necessary furnishings for the school. Before the school building was completed, classes were held in a rental facility. The year 1892 also saw the construction of both St. Mark's Anglican church and the Presbyterian church.
The name of Innisfail is derived from an island in Loch ("lake" in English) Awe, Argylshire County, Scotland. The origin and meaning of the word goes back over 2,500 years to Celtic tribes. When the Celts lived in present-day England they suffered persecution largely as a result of their unique language. When they learned of an almost uninhabited island to the west of England, they believed it to be the Isle of Destiny. In the Celtic language, "Isle of Destiny" was pronounced "Innisfail." In fact, the original name of Ireland was Innisfail. Over the years there have been many versions of this particular name including Innisvville, Innisfree and Innishail. On November 20, 1903 the town of Innisfail was incorporated.
Information provided by Stan Snideman, local Innisfail historian
Transportation in the early days was made by Red River carts, freighters, or by stagecoach. Many people travelled the distance between Calgary and Innisfail by foot. Money was scarce and most of the trading for supplies and equipment was done by barter. There were also few doctors available for the public. One of the first doctors to the area, Dr. Henry George, arrived in the region in 1893 and used his home, "Lindum Lodge," as a hospital for very sick patients. It was not until 1915 that any consideration was given to the establishment of a hospital. Mrs. Barbara George later designed the original crest for the Province of Alberta and the original crest for the County of Strathcona. The house was later purchased by William and Katy Kemp. Mrs. Kemp later converted the house into a boarding house to support her family.
There were also environmental drawbacks to the area, such as prairie fires, which burned out many homesteads completely. It was necessary to plow fire guards 14 feet (4.3 metres) wide to protect homes. WWI took its toll on Innisfail as many local men enlisted in the 187th battalion of the Canadian infantry.
The first industry in Innisfail was the Alberta Lumber Company of Montreal, which opened a mill in 1882 near the present site of Innisfail. During 1895, J.R. Moore opened the first Co-operative Creamery, which was followed by a flour mill and brick manufacturing plant. During the boom era, the Innisfail business sector expanded substantially with the construction of a wallboard manufacturing company and an outfit that manufactured movable partitions for buildings.
In the early years, Innisfail also served as a major centre for one of Canada's finest agricultural regions. The region possessed larger amounts of beef cattle than most other areas in Canada and owed this to the fact that the farmers around Innisfail practiced mixed farming and did not experience crop failures as often as their peers elsewhere in the country. There were also large feed mixing plants constructed to supply the needs of the farmers and livestock dealers. Innisfail was also noted for its successes in livestock marketing as livestock receipts provided an important cash income for farmers in the area.
The discovery of oil and gas in the region changed the way of life for many people in the Innisfail region. As oil rig derricks began to appear, they loomed skyward in the centre of rich pastures of land, forever changing the landscape. The town of Innisfail has grown from a rural farming community into a bustling resource town. Many oil workers now reside in and around Innnisfail as Shell Canada, Ltd. built refineries and a gas scrubbing plant near the town.
WWII and After
As WWII started in Europe, over 60 local Innisfail men joined the Calgary Highlanders, a military regiment, while others enlisted in various divisions of the Canadian Army, Navy and Air Force. Many of these local men became pilots and were trained at the Commonwealth Air Training Centre at Bowden. The Centre was located in what is now the Bowden Institution. Over the years, many pilots, from all over the world, were trained at the Bowden facility.
The war affected everyone and, as a result, the public was encouraged to purchase war bonds. The money used to purchase the war bonds was actually a loan, given to the government in order to help them to finance the war effort abroad. Living conditions during the war years were difficult as everyone did their part - food, gasoline and many other everyday items were rationed during this period. Following the war, those who lost their lives in the first and second world wars were recorded on the Innisfail and District honour roll.
The 1950s in Innisfail witnessed the arrival of the oil and gas era with exploration, drilling and the eventual construction of a gas processing plant and a refinery. These events created a small boom in the housing industry in the region, as many oil and gas industry workers began to move their families to Innisfail to be closer to work.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s the local economy received another boost with the centralization of schools. All remaining rural schools were closed and students were now bused in to Innisfail. As a result of this consolidation, there was a large influx of people to the town including students, parents and teachers.
Information provided by Stan Snideman, local Innisfail historian.
Present-Day Innisfail - "Pride in our Past and Faith in Our Future"
The town of Innisfail is located in a picturesque corner of the province. The Rocky mountains are to the west and there are many farms in the surrounding area. Red Deer is approximately 20 minutes away and Calgary is approximately one hour away. The town also boasts an outstanding volunteer base which supports many of the activities and functions that take place in the community throughout the year.
With a a population of approximately 7,000, Innisfail is home to several large and small industries and businesses that span the entire spectrum of manufacturing. The town is also a major service centre for Western Canada's agricultural region. Many of the major grain companies operate large elevators in the Innisfail area. Like many smaller centres in the province, the oil and gas industry has also contributed to the local economy, providing many jobs for local residents and adding to the prosperity and quality of life in the region. Another major business is the Innisfail Auction Market which auctions off some $50-60 million worth of livestock each year.
Heritage Trails #276 Collections: Dr. Henry George Of Innisfail
One of the earliest museums in Alberta belonged to Dr. Henry George of Innisfail. Learn about his eclectic ways as he would stop to pick of artifacts on his way to help his patients.
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Some local attractions in the region include a historical village where one can learn more about the history of the region. One such attraction is the Dr.George/Kemp House built in 1893. Dr. Henry and Mrs. Barbara George established the first museum in the region. Currently, the museum features a variety of natural history collections. Other attractions include the Destiny Trails, which provide many opportunities for fitness and enjoyment, the Anthony Henday campground, which provides a place for travellers to stay while visiting the town and Napoleon and Dodds Lake provide ample opportunities to view local wildlife. Throughout the year Innisfail hosts events such as the Innisfail Professional Rodeo and the Innisfail Rodeo Parade.
Innisfail also features many recreational facilities such as a twin arena, four-sheet curling rink, an indoor swimming pool, a golf course, ball diamonds and soccer pitches. There are also tennis courts, horseshoe pitches and many other facilities.