While many pioneers experienced the transformation of a raw frontier to an agricultural heartland, Carl Englebert (Bert) Fors was one of the few to provide an excellent visual record of that historic change.
A young Swedish immigrant to West Central Alberta, Bert Fors had the remarkable talent of taking first-class photographs of his family, friends and the rapidly changing community around him in the early part of the last century.
Bert Fors was born in Sweden in April 1889. In the early 1890’s, he and his parents, Carl Fors and Martha Valinder, emigrated to Alberta and homesteaded in the Burnt Lake district between Red Deer and Sylvan Lake.
The area had plentiful water, wonderful pasturage and many trees, which made it attractive to Scandinavians, who were familiar with this kind of countryside. With the large number of Swedish immigrants in the area, the federal government sometimes referred to the district as Swea Colony.
The Fors built a log cabin. The family soon began to grow with the addition of Selma in 1895, Ada in 1900 and William in 1902.
With the family growing and the farm becoming more established, the Fors constructed a larger home. It had a brick chimney and fireplace, built by A.G. Lindholm, who had worked at the Piper’s Brickyard in Red Deer and later started his own small brickyard at Burnt Lake.
Many of the Swedish families raised sheep. Martha carded and spun fine yarn that was later woven, with a homemade loom, into clothing, as well as bats for quilts.
Dairying was also a major part of the local farming community, largely because the land was low and wet, making it difficult to grow much grain. The establishment of a skimming station in the nearby hamlet of Stockholm, followed by the construction of a cheese factory, was a big boost to the dairy farmers.
The Swedes of Burnt Lake were very religious. The tiny hamlet of Stockholm had three churches – Lutheran, Swedish Baptist and Mission Friends. The Fors family was steadfast members of the Lutheran Church.
When Bert turned 18, he decided to strike out on his own and take out his own homestead. As the good land around Burnt Lake was already claimed, he headed west to the New Hill area, which was originally called Nya Bachen by the Swedish settlers in the district.
To supplement his income, Bert worked at the Piper’s Brickyard and then on the construction of the Alberta Central Railway. He also worked on local road projects, often to help pay his taxes.
In 1915, Bert bought land from the CPR in the Centreville district and moved his tiny house from New Hill to his new farm. His father bought an adjacent quarter. His sister Ada and her husband Eric Bergstrom (formerly of New Hill) also acquired an adjacent farm in the early 1920’s.
In addition to his photography, Bert loved growing things. He experimented with all kinds of vegetables and fruit trees. He was also a noted accordion player.
Bert Fors passed away in October 1968 at the age of 79. As he had no children, his sister Ada saved his plate glass negatives and deposited many of them in the Red Deer and District Archives. Later, the Bergstrom family donated the other surviving glass negatives, to ensure that a more complete record of Bert’s work was preserved.
The Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery, working in cooperation with the Red Deer Archives and the Fors/Bergstrom family, has assembled an excellent exhibition of Bert Fors’ work. The images in the forthcoming display provide wonderful portraits of the first homes, farms and clothing styles, particularly of the Scandinavian settlements of West Central Alberta.
Nya Bachen – The New Land will open at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery on October 29, 2010 and will run until the end of the year. For more information, contact the Museum at 403-309-8405.