A look at local politics in the pioneer years

Peter Talbot was Lacombe’s first politician. He came from Ontario in 1890 to teach school at Macleod, Alberta.


Peter Talbot was Lacombe’s first politician. He came from Ontario in 1890 to teach school at Macleod, Alberta.

Two years later he moved to Lacombe as principal of the pioneer Nelson school. Here he claimed a homestead, established a herd of purebred Shorthorn cattle, gained regional prominence as a promoter of cattle improvement, and in 1902 was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories.

In 1904, he was elected to the Canadian House of Commons as the Liberal representative for the riding of Strathcona.

When Alberta became a province in 1905 he was appointed to the Senate representing the senatorial division of Alberta and the time had come to elect the individuals to form the fledgling legislature of this infant province.

There were only two parties, Liberal and Conservative. Those elected would designate where the seat of government would be located; here too there were only two viable choices – Calgary or Edmonton. The rivalry was fierce. The Lacombe constituency nominated Andrew Gilmour as its Conservative contender; Bill Puffer won the nomination for the Liberal party. Both men were well known livestock dealers in the region, Puffer since 1895 and Gilmour since 1897.

Homesteaders guarded their franchise most seriously.

One pioneer related the story of his rivalry with his neighbour, a man of the opposite political stripe. Every meeting, usually across the fence as they rested their teams harnessed to the farm implements appropriate to the season, featured political arguments. The intensity of those debates escalated as voting day drew near, each hoping to convert their neighbour and thereby protect their own vote.

That was vital for they farmed 11 miles from town and to walk that distance while horses rested after their long day in the field was not an enticing prospect. So they made a pact. Since each vote would merely cancel the other they would both forego their franchise.

But the narrator harbored doubts about his neighbour. He tuned his ear to proceedings next door and late in the day decided his neighbour had been less than sincere, so he turned his team into the pasture and hoofed it into town. It was as he feared. In the twilight on the last mile into town he met his neighbour, homeward bound.

Electioneering was an arduous process in those early days.

Serious candidates and their constituents put a great deal of stock in personal contact. This meant hundreds of miles on the campaign trail each election, miles covered by shanks mare, by horseback or by buggy, the only modes of transportation available in the years before roads and automobiles and modern communications existed.

It was hard on the candidates but it had its advantages. There was none of the false glamour of the makeup room, no TV prompting or the other gadgets employed today to make a weak candidate appear knowledgeable, eloquent and able.

Each candidate had to stand on their own two feet, selling self and party on the basis of face to face presentations. As a voter you got what you saw and heard.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Sometimes a candidate would travel with his opponent, perhaps for companionship on the long drive, perhaps to reduce costs, or perhaps because they both wanted the last buggy or cutter available from the local livery. On such occasions enough heat might be generated during the ride that they would not feel the cold of the evening or the chill of the hall not yet warmed by the fire in the old stove.

Indeed they might have had to light that fire themselves after they arrived at their destination.

Mr. Puffer had a favourite story about his years as a politician, one that resulted from the traveling arrangement with his political opponent. On one occasion his companion of several previous trips was indisposed for a scheduled meeting. Mr. Puffer rose to the challenge. Having heard his opponent’s speech several times in the past weeks he undertook to deliver it himself.

With eloquence he demolished himself as the sitting member and the party he represented.

No possible good he said could come on re-electing him to the house for another term. Having completed this speech he then delivered his own in which he defended his actions and those of his party.

He won the election and old-timers said this incident brought him votes he might not otherwise have received. Politics was obviously fun in those days. Libel, the bane of every public figure today did not appear to cross their minds. Speech was truly free. Looking back on those times one pioneer said, “People stood up for something in those days and were not ashamed of it. They had convictions and did not hesitate to stand up and be counted.

Our parents read widely on the current issues and political questions of the day. We discussed these matters at home and encouraged our family to participate.

Today it seems impossible to ever know the real truth of any issue and everyone is too engrossed in their own affairs to take time for serious political debate.”

The first item of business for the neophyte politicians was choosing the site for the seat of government. Each member had hopes for their own riding but realistically there were only two choices, Calgary or Edmonton.

In the jockeying for position Puffer saw his opportunity. He would support the Edmonton bid provided that its proponents would support Lacombe’s bid to the federal government for the proposed Experimental Farm. And so the die was cast; Edmonton got the Legislative Building and Lacombe got the Experiment Station!


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