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The Independent remembers Stettler Alberta Avenue Fire: 70 years later

The blaze destroyed two businesses and killed one person
The Stettler Independent was started in 1906 on a lot on what is now 51 St. (Photo submitted)

By Carson Ellis

When Will Godson first started the Stettler Independent in 1906, he had different expectations for the growth of the community.

Canadian Pacific had designed both Main Street and Alberta (50th) Avenue of their new town site to be wider than the rest of the town’s streets and avenues. This was to promote the two thoroughfares to be the ‘heart’ of the business district of the community.

Mr. Godson had predicted that much of the businesses would spread west from Main Street, before they expanded south. With this prediction, he purchased the lot for his new newspaper on Taylor (51) Street. Unfortunately, Canadian Pacific’s design worked as they had hoped, and businesses were largely established down Main Street, and Taylor was largely relegated to residential construction.

In October of 1908, a fire started in one of the buildings on the north side of Alberta Avenue. This blaze quickly spread along Alberta Avenue towards Main Street, and quickly made its way down the west side of Main Street.

After the fire that would destroy approximately 20 businesses, and take the life of one Stettler resident, many businesses either moved on or relocated.

By this time, Godson had sold the newspaper to Charles Willis. Willis purchased the lot that the Grand Union hotel had previously occupied on the north side of Alberta Avenue. He then constructed a large, ornate building that sat on the west side of the alley way. Here he was able to run his successful local paper for many years.

In the chilly, early morning hours of October 3, 1952, smoke and flames were noticed coming from the Stettler Garage.

An early report said that it was Frank Costigan and his wife who noticed the blaze, while another source credited Ward Averill with reporting the fire.

Mrs. E. Hanson and her four children, Mr. & Mrs. F. Watson and their two children Mrs. F. Gabriel and her infant son all lived above the garage.

Mr. Gordon Gleaves and his daughter Vera Gleaves also lived in one of the apartments above the Stettler Independent.

Vera rushed to try and wake her deaf father so they could escape the growing fire, however she was unable to get him safely out. Vera managed to escape but suffered what were described as superficial burns.

The escaping residents were quickly met by local residents who provided them support and blankets as they were all in their sleep attire.

All those who survived the early morning fire lost all their possessions. A few days later, a shower was held for the families who had lost everything at the Community Hall.

They were provided with clothing, and housewares to help them start again. It was noted at the time some of them were having a hard time finding new housing as the town was in the middle of an oil boom and housing was limited.

Fire Chief Pat Chapman and the Stettler Fire Brigade were quick to arrive on the scene.

Shortly after their arrival, they decided that the garage buildings were essentially lost, and the priority of the evening became containing the fire from spreading. It was later found that high winds that night would carry burning cinders up to three blocks away, but no other fires were started.

Heat from the blaze had also cracked windows on the buildings on the south side of the street.

The fire was successfully contained, and practically extinguished by 5 a.m. that morning, having been spotted, and eliminated, within two hours time. The total value of the fire was put around $150,000.

In the basement of the Independent building was the printing center of the local paper. The heart of the printing operation included a Linotype machine which had been purchased in 1916. There was also a printing press which was noted as being recently purchased at the time, and a machine that folded the pages accordingly. Although this equipment was pretty much saved, it was badly water damaged, and rather useless initially.

Even with damaged equipment, a burnt down office, and temporary location, the Independent still put out an issue the following deadline. The Independent would take up offices in the O.R. Wilson building on the east side of Main

The funeral service for Gordon Gleaves took place a few days later at the Anglican Church. Mr. and Mrs. Gleaves had come from England in 1916 and had lived in Stettler since that time. Mr. Gleaves was survived by his sons Gordon Jr. and Steven. Also his three daughters Mrs. Doris Gordon, Mrs. Winnifred Boyd, and Vera Gleave.

After the fire, the Independent would rebuild on the Alberta Avenue lot, although the building was notably less ornate than the previous structure. Their printing center would receive a major upgrade, including type casters, automatic job presses and an engraver allowing the paper to print photographs. The Independent would carry on in their rebuilt Alberta Avenue location for many years before finally moving to main street where they continue to operate.

Vera Gleaves was just one of the survivors of the 1952 fire which destroyed the Stettler Independent at its location on Alberta Avenue. (Photo submitted)
The rebuilt Independent was less ornate than it’s previous version. (Photo submitted)