A carved bench created by Ryan Cook of Saw Valley Carvers is a commemoration of Canada’s 150th and incorporates the heritage of the Bezanson community. Each of the six pieces of the bench has a picture of historical significance to Bezanson.
The pictures include a farmer plowing his field with his horses and a farmer working his field with a tractor. These pictures link the agricultural aspect of present day Bezanson to the history of Bezanson in the early years.
The Glen Leslie Church was built in 1915 and services were held there from 1915 to 1964. The church was restored in 2015 and it remains one of the few structures from prior to 1920, making it an integral part of Bezanson’s history.
The Smoky River bank was home to The Grande Prairie Ski Club prior to 1960. In the 70s the Bezanson Community reopened the hill and it operated for a decade or more.
Kleskun Hills is depicted on another piece of the bench. This Alberta Park has been the discovery point of many dinosaur fossils and is home to an abundance of history from the Bezanson area.
In 1914, the original Townsite of Bezanson was thriving and growing. At this time there was a jewellery store, a harness repair shop, a post office and two general stores. Carved on the bench is Hall & Leonard’s Store. This shows that Bezanson began with entrepreneurs and this innovation is still keeping the community alive today.
The bench is going to be placed in front of the Bezanson Regional Community Cultural Center after construction is completed in summer of 2018. The bench will symbolize the past and a tree planted in the middle will represent the new beginnings of the community. The history depicted on this bench will not only remind the viewers where the community of Bezanson came from, but also where the community is going in the future.
The 100th anniversary of the commencement of WWI along with the 75th anniversary of the commencement WWII represents an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on the country’s proud military history. Both conflicts are among the most important chapters in world history, touching the lives of countless families and communities across Canada. We must ensure that those who served and those who continue to serve our county in an effort to uphold the values of freedom and peace, are honored. The sacrifices and contributions of the veterans are never to be forgotten.
My family was one of the many Canadian families who certainly felt the aftermath of the war on a personal level. My great grandfather, David Johnston had four of his six sons join the forces in WWI. One was a prisoner of war for 3 years, another son died and is buried in a Belgium cemetery. His youngest son attempted to enlist but was rejected due to poor eyesight. The family felt blessed that three of the four came home. My father, Willis David Johnston (named after his uncle who died in WWI) enlisted in WWII thereby continuing the family history of military service.
The oldest son, Hugh “Norman” was recruited by the Edmonton 101st Fusiliers “D” Company in August, 1914. He was subsequently taken to Valcarier, Quebec where he was transferred to the 9th Battalion. He sailed aboard the S.S. Zealand and arrived in Plymouth, England in October 1914. As the 9th Battalion had been dispersed, he was transferred to the 3rd Battalion. After four months of training, the 1st Canadian Division crossed the Bristol Channel to France in February 1915. On April 22, 1915, Norman was at the front for the “Second Battle of Ypres”. The Germans, in an effort to eliminate the salient, released 160 tons of chlorine gas which drifted into the French and British trenches. The Canadians were the only division that was able to hold the line. On April 23, 1915, Norman suffered a gunshot wound to the left chest area, fracturing a rib and perforating the left lung. From there he was taken prisoner and transferred to a POW camp in Stendal, Germany. Camp life was documented as very harsh with shortages of food and illnesses being rampart. Once armistice was declared, Norman was a repatriated prisoner of war and arrived in England on January 2, 1919 following which he sailed for Canada and was discharged in Edmonton in April 1919. Norman received the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Norman passed away on August 8, 1942 at the age of 53 from heart failure and is buried in the military section of the Edmonton Cemetery. Unfortunately there are no pictures of Norman in uniform – possibility due to the fact he was a prisoner of war.
The 2nd oldest son, Willis David was also recruited by the 101st Edmonton Fusiliers in August, 1914. He was sent to Valcartier, Quebec where he was transferred to the 9th Battalion. He sailed on the S.S. Zealand and arrived in Plymouth, England in October 1914. Following which he was transferred to 1st Field Butchery CASC, arrived in France and began front-line service. He was appointed to the rank of Corporal in May 1915. In 1918-1919, a flu pandemic known as the “Spanish Flu” crossed Europe. The close, troop-quarters increased the soldiers’ susceptibility to the disease. Willis was listed as “dangerously ill” in his service records and passed away on January 3, 1919 at the age of 27. He is buried in the Kortrijk (St. Jan) Communal Cemetery in Belgium – an area that was under German control at one time during the war. The family of Cpl. Willis Johnston subsequently received a scroll and note of gratitude from King George of England. Willis’ name is listed in the “Book of Remembrance” which has a record of all the Canadian and other forces of the British Empire that gave their lives in the Great War. Willis received the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal and a sports medal that must have been issued by his unit. In November 2007, the Canadian Fallen Heroes Foundation, whose mandate was to memorialize the lives of those who were lost in WWI, presented a framed picture of Willis complete with a biography to his great grand-niece, Wanda Zenner. The picture is proudly displayed at the Bezanson Legion.
The 4th oldest son, William Earl, enlisted on March 13, 1916 in Edmonton with the 194th Battalion. He arrived in England aboard the S.S. Olympic in November 1916. In February 1917 he was transferred to the 2nd Battalion Canadian Machine Gunners Corps and served in France. Upon demobilization, Earl was discharged in Toronto in May 1919. He received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Earl died on June 9, 1942 at the age of 47 from heart failure in Los Angeles, California. His body was cremated with the ashes being interned in his mother’s plot (Jane Anne Johnston) in the Maitland Cemetery, Goderich, Ontario.
My grandfather, Charles Bell, the 3rd oldest son enlisted with the 48th Highlanders in May 1917. He was transferred to the 5th Res. Battallion Central Ontario Division. He arrived in England aboard the S.S. Scotian in December and subsequently sent to France. He was discharged on demobilization in Toronto in June 1920. Charles received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. He passed away on April 8, 1966 at the age of 72 and is buried in the Goodwin Cemetery.
The youngest son, Elmer attempted to enlist in March 1918, stating it was his 19th birthday however that would only have been his 17th birthday. Unfortunately the medical board had to reject his application as he had a defect in one of his eyes. He passed away at the age of 80 and is buried in the Whittier Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.
The April 2nd, 1918 issue of the Grande Prairie Herald reported:
“One point of patriotism that should not be overlooked is that shown by a young man from Glen Leslie who came in on March 30th his 19th birthday and offered his services to the country. After signing up it was learned that he had one brother a prisoner of war in Germany and three others fighting in the trenches at the present time. On going before the medical board it was discovered he had a slight defect in one of his eyes. The boy left the medical board broken hearted. This shows the true patriotic spirit of some farmers’ sons in comparison with others who are using any old subterfuge in evading their duty”.
Another article of interest was published in the July 13, 1915 issue of the Grande Prairie Herald:
Dances in Bezanson were quite common before the 2000s. They happened regularly, and people from all over the Peace Country joined the locals in the entertainment. There was always a crowd for the local orchestras. One of the first orchestras was the “Eastland” orchestra which consisted of Norman Greenwood, Al Alderman, and Mrs. Charlie (Marie) Johnson. They held “box socials” at the hall as well which was when the girls made beautiful boxes that were auctioned off. Whoever bid the most would get the box and also get the opportunity to eat the midnight lunch that was inside the box, with the girl who made the box. They held masquerade balls where all the women would dress in the most beautiful, elegant gowns but no one could distinguish who was who because of the masks they wore! Along with the masquerade balls, they held threshers’ dances for the beginning of a new season. After the first hall had burned, the community had the new hall built and ready for the next New Years so they could enjoy the orchestra and the dance.
The new hall is currently still being used for celebrations to this day. Although it has gone through many modifications, this hall is still the same entertainment center that it once was. It does not host as many family dances as it used to, but it hosts many weddings and events year long. It happens to be booked solid on weekends throughout the summer. The celebrations keep continuing in what has hosted these dances for many years. Did you know that if you look up in the center of the dance floor that there is a significant piece of history? If you are to look, you will see a moon and some stars on the roof. These were used during the Moonlight Waltz dance. At this time, the lights would be turned off, and the moon and stars would light up, but just for this dance. The lights would not be turned off at any other time. It is crazy how easily these artifacts can be missed! The current hall was also used as a movie theatre for many years! Bezanson continues celebrating in this great hall and will continue for many years to come!
In the 1950’s the area in Bezanson was thriving and it’s student population growing. In 1955, in true Bezanson spirit, farmers of the Bezanson district gathered together on their own time to build a teacherage to attract new teachers to the area. In 1957 the County School Committee, having finally acceded to the ratepayers requests to move to “centralization of schools” in the district, opened the brand new 4 room “Bezanson School” with running water, lighting, and even a science lab.
Mr. Andruski, Superintendent of Schools at that time, was quoted as saying:
“A good building alone is not going to provide a good education itself. We must have dedicated teachers and co-operation of parents.”
“Credit for this school goes to the parents and citizens of Bezanson – only because you have given your support to the County and School Committee as a whole.” (Herald Tribune – Oct 25, 1957)
Many of our Grandparents and our parents were the pioneers, the builders of our community, our consolidated school, our Memorial Hall, our BEZANSON! They set the bar high many years ago, but here we are 60 years later, a community of dedicated volunteers, committed parents and teachers, powerful community builders, still as strong as ever!
And so August 26 & 27/2017 we “Celebrate Bezanson” – the past, the present, and the future!
Ancel Maynard Bezanson was a tireless adventurer, promoter and pioneer of the Peace River region. His travels in the Northwest part of Alberta were documented, and then published in an effort to promote the Peace Region to potential settlers. His descriptions of the vast agricultural areas and immense opportunities that awaited new settlers helped to bring people from all over the world to our region. Bezanson’s first book The Peace River Trail was published in 1907 by the Edmonton Journal and sold over 5000 copies. His second book, Looking Ahead in the Peace Country – Building of a City was published in 1914 and described in detail the plans for his town site and the fruitful region of Northwest Alberta.
In anticipation of the Canadian Northern railway crossing on the Big Smoky River, Bezanson incorporated and developed a town site on the banks of the river. This town site was located approximately 12 kilometers southeast of the present day hamlet of Bezanson. Not only was the potential railway crossing an ideal location for a city, but the banks of the river provided a good place for a ferry crossing as well. Transportation routes were vitally important to the growth and development of the West, and providing services and stopping points along the routes played an important part in this growth.
Development of Bezanson’s town site was swift and plans included building many businesses, wide streets and even installing streetcars. It was a grand vision and the first few years saw many businesses erected including stables, rooming houses and even a jewelry store. The Herald had noted that in 1915 the town site of Bezanson had as many or more buildings than Grande Prairie. Unfortunately, the building and construction of the town site fizzled out when it was decided to re-route the railway in to Grande Prairie from the north via Rycroft.
By 1917 with the news that the railway was not crossing at Bezanson most residents moved on, A.M. Bezanson himself enlisting in the Army
Medical Corps, and what was left behind was only the footprints of the townsite buildings. In 1926, the logs from the Presbyterian Church at the townsite were purchased by and moved to build a store at the present day Bezanson hamlet.
The area of the original Bezanson townsite was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 1986. The park at the Old Bezanson Townsite, complete with log buildings, a playground and a monument to recognize the pioneer women of the Peace, was first opened in 1988 after a team of volunteers helped to create a lasting historic reminder of the community’s past. Since this time, the park has largely been overseen by the Bezanson Agricultural Society. In recent years in an effort to re-vitalize the park, the Old Bezanson Townsite Committee has played an important role in replacing historic signage and promoting the history of the townsite and the community of Bezanson.
Today the park is managed by a partnership between the Bezanson Agricultural Society, the County of Grande Prairie No. 1, and the Old Bezanson Townsite Committee. In the summer of 2014, The Old Bezanson Townsite Park played host to the 100th anniversary celebration of the community of Bezanson. A few hundred attendees spent a beautiful August afternoon celebrating the opening of the new playground, a roast beef on a bun luncheon, horse-drawn wagon rides, children games and speeches from dignitaries. The celebration was organized by volunteers from the Bezanson Agricultural Society and Old Bezanson Townsite Committee, and with the support the County of Grande Prairie’s 100th Year Anniversary grant.
In anticipation of the upcoming Celebrate Bezanson homecoming in August 2017, members of the Old Bezanson Townsite committee will be submitting historical vignettes of the Bezanson community, from its origins on the banks of the Smoky River to its current location in the hamlet. Our hope is that we as a committee, will not only be able to present the history of our community and region, but we will also inspire our community members to take an active interest in the roots of our community.