Remembering local pioneers the Harbison Brothers

Pioneer life in western Canadian was a very challenging experience. Conditions were primitive – at times even brutal and life-threatening.

Among the pioneers in Central Alberta, who were beset by tragedy in the early years, were the Harbisons – Jack, Joseph (Jr.) and Samuel.

Harbisons were originally from Newry, Ireland. Their mother Annie passed away in 1877 after giving birth to the youngest boy Samuel. In 1885, Joseph Sr. decided to emigrate to Canada with his six children.

They took up residence in Hamilton, Ontario.

One of the older boys, Jack, soon decided to try his luck on the Canadian prairies. He worked his way west on the Canadian Pacific Railway, ultimately ending up in Alberta. Jack started a ranch near Penhold.

Joe Jr., although he was only 15, went west in 1887 and initially worked in lumber camps near Revelstoke and Golden.

Later, Joe moved to Alberta and joined Jack at his Penhold ranch.

By the mid-1890s, the Harbison brothers had built up a herd of more than 400 cattle.

They became two of the earliest ranchers to range cattle in the rich grasslands east of the Red Deer River.

Joe eventually acquired land southeast of Stettler, where strong flowing springs ensured a reliable supply of water for the livestock.

The winter of 1896-97 was a harsh one and food ran short.

Joe headed back to the Red Deer/Penhold area for supplies. On the return journey, he became snow blind and was then caught in a terrific blizzard.

He only survived by digging a shelter for himself in a snowdrift. When he made it back to his ranch, he found 20 starving people waiting for him. They had been surviving on a bit of muskrat meat while he was gone.

In 1900, the youngest brother Samuel came out from Hamilton to join Jack and Joe. He first went to Penhold and then out to Joe’s ranch.

On Sept. 23rd, 1900, Joe decided to go to a nearby ranch belonging to the Whiteside family, who were old friends from Penhold. Samuel set off for another nearby ranch, the Royal, where he hoped to locate some cattle which had strayed.

As the day progressed, one of the worst fall blizzards in Alberta’s history struck. It was such a massive gale that local news reports referred to it as a ‘Texas Storm’.

One of the trains on the rail line between Calgary and Red Deer got stuck for several hours in a massive snow drift. Coulees across Central Alberta were filled with snow.

It soon became apparent that Samuel had been lost in the storm. As soon as they were able, Joe and Ed Whiteside went out, with some other neighbours, to search for Sam. They were unsuccessful.

Sam’s body was eventually found in January in a clump of willows. He had dismounted from his horse in the storm, taken his saddle off for a pillow and wrapped himself in a blanket. Tragically, he soon froze to death.

The horse had gotten tangled up in its tether, fallen to the ground and frozen to death as well. Sam was brought back to Penhold and then buried in the Innisfail cemetery.

Jack had married Christina Johnson in April 1894, but she passed away on Aug. 16th, 1902. He then married Mary Elizabeth Wilson in August 1903. They lost a baby boy in February 1905 and then Mary died in April at the age of 22.

Jack went into a number of business ventures including a livery barn, a butcher shop in Penhold and then the Royal Hotel in Innisfail.

In 1906, he married Grace Hawkins and went out to Marion Lake (south of Botha) to join Joe.

However, 1906-07 was another brutal winter.

Joe subsequently moved back to Central Alberta, eventually buying a hotel in Olds. Jack passed away in 1918 at the age of 49. Grace passed away in 1969 and is buried by Jack in the Innisfail cemetery.

Meanwhile, Joe married Edna Olive from south of Stettler in 1908. They were successful ranchers and became very active in the community. They had six children – David, Josephine, Mary, Joe, Betty and Jeanne. Joe passed away in 1939 and Edna in 1959.

Members of the Harbison family still live in Central Alberta.

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