Airdrie’s main street circa 1904, when the city was little more than a tiny speck along the Calgary-Edmonton railway route. Courtesy Nose Creek Valley Museum

The king’s height

Airdrie’s history is full of colourful people and interesting stories

When R.J. Hawkey arrived in the region of the Airdrie Station House along the Calgary to Edmonton railway, he became one of the first private land owners in the fledgling community.

Hawkey decided to build a school on some of his land, and set himself up as Airdrie’s first teacher.

One semester in 1906, the school hosted a fundraising event – a box social with lunches made by single women and auctioned off to the local bachelors.

The young men fancied sharing lunch with a pretty girl, “and if you were courting someone, you had to make sure to buy her lunch,” said Laurie Harvey, curator of the Nose Creek Valley Museum in Airdrie.

Harvey says the money raised went to buy a bell, which hung in the school from 1907 to 1957, and is now on display at the museum.

Later, Hawkey would open a bake shop, run a dairy and serve as mayor – an impressive list of accomplishments that Harvey says was standard fare for Airdrie pioneers.

She adds that William Edwards, the community’s first doctor, not only looked after residents’ health for more than 30 years, but opened an ice cream and fountain shop, ran a supply store and drug store, and raised a herd of Holstein cattle on his farm.

“When Dr. Edwards arrived in 1907, Airdrie was just a dot. There was hardly anything here,” she said. “You might be the doctor, but if you see something that needs to be done, you do it. That was the attitude.”

Harvey says the history of Airdrie is full of colourful people and interesting stories, including that of the Airdrie Hotel.

Built as a boarding house, in 1904 the hotel added a “beverage” room that attracted visitors from the surrounding countryside until prohibition in 1916 shut down liquor service.

In 1918, the hotel became a temporary hospital during the Spanish Influenza epidemic, and later became a social gathering place for out-of-towners once again, due to more drinking restrictions.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, people came to the Airdrie Hotel as couples because they could sit in the same room and have drinks, whereas in Calgary they were segregated,” said Harvey.

“When Dr. Edwards arrived in 1907, Airdrie was just a dot. There was hardly anything here. You might be the doctor, but if you see something that needs to be done, you do it. That was the attitude.” – Doug Kelly, author and former developer

She says she encourages Airdrie residents, especially recent arrivals to the city, to learn more about the early pioneers.

According to City of Airdrie census data, the population as of 2017 reached 64,922. Only 40 years ago, in 1977, Airdrie was still a sleepy community of 2,265 residents.

Doug Kelly, a former developer and author of several books on the history of land development in Alberta, says circumstances in the late 1970s resulted in a boom for Airdrie and similar communities.

“There’s two words that describe the growth of all these bedroom communities: price advantage,” said Kelly. “The fact that homebuyers could travel the extra 10 or 15 kilometres and get the same house for $10,000 dollars cheaper than they could in Calgary.

“And the reason for the price differential was the land. It cost the same to build a house in Airdrie as it did in, say, Beddington, but the lot was $10,000 cheaper.”

Kelly was working in development in Calgary at time, and recalls that things “were getting way out of whack by 1978 and 1979,” when the price per acre of city land reached $100,000.

He says developers began looking in outlying areas and started snapping up land in Airdrie for only $22,000 an acre.

Kelly says while the recession in the 1980s slowed growth in Airdrie for a brief time, the trend was established, and Airdrie now has the population base and the amenities of a sizable city.

Notable dates in Airdrie History

1899: Airdrie Station House built for the Calgary-Edmonton railway

1901: A.E. Bowers builds the first house in Airdrie

1909: Airdrie incorporated as a village with 250 residents

1928: Electricity arrives in the community

1959: Airdrie’s iconic water tower, the Horton Watersphere, is built

1985: Airdrie is incorporated as Alberta’s 14th city

1996: The city launches its signature Festival of Lights display

2008: Construction begins on Genesis Pace recreation and wellness centre

2008: The Airdrie Hotel, later known as the Old Hotel, is torn down

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