A look back at Lacombe’s musical legacy

Gladstone George Hall Hutton, the first superintendent of the Dominion experiment station at Lacombe, was a man of extraordinary vision


Gladstone George Hall Hutton, the first superintendent of the Dominion experiment station at Lacombe, was a man of extraordinary vision and energy.

He saw Lacombe as a future city and initiated many of the early developments. He directed the affairs of the station from 1907 to 1918 and throughout this period was an exceptionally strong voice in the shaping of the community.

He purchased land in the vicinity, selling it to individuals he persuaded to share his vision and turning development over to them.

One example was the Lacombe Nursery.

Hutton shared his vision of a nursery with Caldwell whom he had hired as gardener for the Station, and thus was born, in 1913, the nursery operated by Caldwell and his partner Mitchell.

Their search for a manager took them to the federal government’s forestry station at Indian Head, Saskatchewan where they immediately hired J.N.B. McDonald to operate their new business.

McDonald, an inspector for the federal government’s prairie tree planting division, had been a resident of Indian Head since 1908.

Here he had taken violin lessons from Prof. M.M. Touche, the much respected leader of musical activities in that community.

Thus when McDonald moved to Lacombe to take charge of the Mitchell-Caldwell nursery he tried to persuade Touche to follow.

Success was not immediate but in August of 1919 musical leadership of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church was placed on a professional basis by the engagement of Touche as organist and choir master at a salary of $400 per annum.

The written contract stipulated that he put on at least two public concerts during the first winter with proceeds going to the church.

It also stipulated that he provide all music except hymnaries and would pay the wages of any accompanist he might engage on occasions when he could not fill the dual role.

He was quickly immersed in developing an orchestra, organizing and leading choirs for the church, giving music lessons and arranging community concerts that featured both his orchestra and his choirs.

The latter under his leadership won considerable fame for the community at the provincial music competitions held at Calgary and Edmonton.

Touche was a man of rare musical skill and dedication which became evident during his first six months at Lacombe.

He gave music lessons, violin, piano and voice; he organized a youth orchestra and filled the dual role of conductor and organist for two choirs, junior and senior.

His public concerts ranged from sacred to secular – the latter including such items as the operetta Trial by Jury by Gilbert and Sullivan and featured both his string orchestra and his choirs.

In March 1921, Touche wrote the board requesting a raise stating, “I have performed all tasks set forth in my contract in addition I have paid the evening organist $2.50 per Sunday since last September and given lessons of equal value to the morning organist.

“This plus increases in board of $15 per month is the basis for requesting the church engage an organist for both services leaving me free to direct both choirs and use my voice and violin since I cannot gauge choir performance when playing the organ, nor can I maintain discipline over the juniors when they know I am obliged to sit at the organ.

“If I am to proceed please arrange that I am free of both choirs for July and August, work to recommence September 1.”

In 1923 he requested an increase in salary of $20-$25 per month. In their motion granting this request it was stated that “This session will stipulate in writing what is required of the choirs and we insist that Mrs. F.H. Reed be pianist for the evening service.”

His request was granted and he continued to serve the congregation until he retired June 1928. He retired to the west coast, returning each summer to a cottage he owned at Gull Lake.

He did not want nor could he afford a car so his annual pilgrimage to Lacombe was made by bicycle; surely a singular feat in the era.

People today might say that riding a bicycle from Vancouver to Lacombe is no great feat.

A lot of people do it. But picture if you can the nature of the road he traveled. It was not paved. At best it would have been coarse gravel.

There was no Roger’s Pass. Instead there was the Big Bend Highway which headed west at Golden to get around the head of the mighty Columbia River before turning back to Revelstoke.

As for the bicycle, one needs only to contemplate riding a single speed, narrowrimmed, leather-seated antique bicycle of the 1920s instead of today’s version fitted with multiple gears and cushioned seats.

The contributions he made to the musical fabric of Lacombe were not limited to his choirs and the huge library of choral music he purchased for St. Andrew’s.

His first pupil on the violin, McDonald, earned distinction as a virtuoso ‘fiddler’ reputedly winning every fiddle contest he entered.

In 1938, at age 68, he won for the third time the Inskip Cup emblematic of fiddling supremacy in Central Alberta. Twenty-five fiddlers competed in this event before an audience of 700.

McDonald came to Lacombe to manage the Mitchell-Caldwell nursery but very soon he was the owner.

McDonald Nurseries quickly established a Canada-wide reputation for the excellence of its products and its landscaping services, a reputation that endured for almost three-quarters of a century.