Frontier areas are notorious for attracting rough and tumble and/or eccentric characters. The pioneer days of Central Alberta were no exception.
One of the most famous and controversial of those early characters was Lewis Martin Sage.
Sage was born in 1847 near Duluth, Minnesota. He worked in the lumbering industry. In 1886, he moved north to Alberta from Minneapolis with A.O. Hoyt of the Alberta Lumber Company.
The Company had plans to build a large sawmill near the confluence of the Red Deer and Little Red Deer Rivers.
Sage’s job was to help select the site for the mill, haul the machinery up from Calgary and begin work on the foundations for the buildings.
He also worked with N.B. Evarts of the Alberta and Athabasca Railway Company, which was planning to construct a rail line from Calgary to Edmonton.
Sage helped convince the railway company that the best place to cross the Red Deer River was near the site of the proposed Alberta Lumber mill.
Sage was quick to see the enormous profit potentials created by these two big projects. Hence, in June 1887, he secured a homestead on the north side of the Red Deer River, directly across from the Alberta Lumber mill site.
Sage actively promoted his grand plans.
He dubbed his property ‘Cash City’, the future urban hub of Central Alberta.
He opened a store and post office as the beginnings of this new ‘metropolis’.
Sage had grand plans, but he wasn’t a very good businessman. He got into a bitter feud with the Alberta Lumber Company and they let him go. He retaliated by circulating a petition on behalf of the MacKenzie brothers of Red Deer.
They were trying to keep their sawmill open, but were being blocked from getting adequate timber permits by the more politically powerful Alberta Lumber Company.
Sage acquired the ferry that the MacKenzies had been operating across the Red Deer River near the mouth of the Blindman.
This time, it was the Alberta Lumber Company that retaliated. They refused to give any landing rights to the ferry on the south side of the River. Sage had to abandon the venture.
Meanwhile, the grand plans for the Alberta Lumber Company never amounted to much beyond the construction of an interim mill.
Bad forest fires swept through the area, wiping out several of the Company’s timber leases. The planned Alberta and Athabasca Railroad never materialized.
Only the Calgary Edmonton Railway Company line was ever built, crossing the river where the City of Red Deer is located today.
As time went on, Sage fell deeper and deeper into debt. The hamlet of Cash City never amounted to more than Sage’s own cabin, store and post office.
In March 1891 the Federal Government revoked the authorization for the Cash City post office, probably because Sage had been dipping into the postal receipts.
Sage tried freighting for a while and then opened a livery barn in the new hamlet of Red Deer. His business skills did not improve.
He spent a lot of time fighting with his many creditors.
Sage had a notoriously bad temper and was frequently violent. He was almost continuously in trouble with the law.
Sage became so bitter and violent that the local police became somewhat afraid of him. There was even a rumour that Sage had killed his own son while still at Cash City. However, it is also possible that Sage had a bad fight with his son and that the younger Sage had merely left the area, instead of being murdered and left in some sort of unmarked grave.
Eventually, the years caught up with Lewis Sage. He ended up a frail elderly man in Innisfail. However, his fiery spirit and hatred of authority never dimmed. When a kindly local preacher went to see him just before he died, Sage allegedly said “Well, I always knew I would end up in hell, but it looks like I am going to get there before you do”.
Sage died in June 1925.
He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Innisfail Cemetery.