One of the most remarkable of Red Deer’s pioneer families is also one of the oldest.
The McKenzie family came to Red Deer from the Red River country of southern Manitoba more than 130 years ago.
The McKenzies were a very old fur trade family before their arrival in Central Alberta. Their father, Captain David McKenzie, worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Columbia River country.
Their mother, Mathilde Bruce, was a native of the Red River settlement.
In the spring of 1882, Roderick McKenzie, with other family members including Magnus Brown and William Beauchemin, came out from Headingly, Manitoba to settle along the Red Deer River, between the mouths of Waskasoo Creek and the Blindman River.
Although their first winter was a hard one, with the cold claiming several of their cattle, they went back to Manitoba and returned with eight families of relatives and friends.
The trip was an epic one.
They traveled more than 1,600 km (1000 miles) cross-country, with no roads to follow or bridges to cross.
They brought with them with several cartloads of household effects, supplies, a steam boiler and engine, a threshing machine and a complete sawmill outfit.
A later group made a similar trip, but in the middle of a bitterly cold winter.
The McKenzies and the other Headingly settlers planted their crops and built up their livestock herds.
In order to make some cash income, they put their sawmill into operation and began selling lumber to the other settlers for $35 per 1,000 ft.
When Fort Normandeau was built during the Riel Rebellion in the spring of 1885, they sold supplies and provisions, first to the soldiers and later to the North West Mounted Police after the police took over the fort.
The spot where the old Calgary-Edmonton Trail crossed the Blindman River was notorious as a dangerous ford.
Consequently, the McKenzies created a new secondary trail, dubbed the McKenzie Trail, to the mouth of the Blindman where they built a ferry.
The McKenzies were devoutly religious.
In 1883, Roderick McKenzie hosted Rev. A.B. Baird, a Presbyterian minister. The first formal church service in Central Alberta was conducted in the McKenzie home.
On May 1, 1887, the McKenzies invited Rev. Edward K. Matheson, an Anglican missionary and an old friend from the Red River, to hold a service. Nearly 50 people attended and 15 took communion.
The next day, Roderick McKenzie led the organization of an Anglican congregation. Church wardens and vestrymen were elected. It was a remarkable instance of a group of Métis settlers organizing a grass-roots congregation.
The fledgling congregation was able to persuade Bishop Cyprian Pinkham to periodically send Rev. Edward Paske-Smith to minister to the group. Paske-Smith was later replaced by Rev. Henry Collier who took up residence in the community.
Rev. Collier also opened a school by the McKenzie’s farm.
Unfortunately, the McKenzies, and many others, found out that they had settled on land that the federal government had sold to the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company.
Although they had legitimate legal claims, by way of squatters’ rights, the government was oblivious to their petitions and protests.
Finally, in 1890, they gave up in disgust and moved north to Beaver Lake, near the current town of Tofield.
The McKenzies did make a return trip to Red Deer.
In 1894, David and Roderick got the contract to build the first traffic bridge across the river.
Although they did not have formal training, they built quite a serviceable bridge. Five years later, government engineers built a replacement bridge. It washed out a few months later with the spring flood.