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Grande Prairie – Celebrating a Storied Past

By Karen Bass

People love a good story, and though we go through our days without paying much attention, they surround us. Traces of stories are often found in place names. In 1881 the Hudson’s Bay Company established “La Grand Prairie” northwest of the present city. Thirty-three years later, on April 30, 1914, the province incorporated the village of Grande Prairie.

One-hundred years of steady, and often rapid growth, has given the city something to celebrate. Helen Rice, chair of the 100th Anniversary Committee, paraphrases former Alberta Lieutenant Governor, Grant MacEwan saying, “How can you build a future if you don’t consider the past?” The committee plans to do that and acknowledges the city’s growth is due in part to capitalizing on its well-positioned geography to become the primary service centre for the whole south Peace Country. For that reason the County of Grande Prairie was invited to take part in celebration planning.

Many stories of Grande Prairie’s past are intricately tied to the surrounding area. O’Brien Park, south of the city, was named after Dr. Lewis O’Brien. He and his wife arrived in 1918, in the midst of the Spanish Flu epidemic, to work at the tiny mission hospital (with one nurse and one aide). He made rural house calls when needed, and his tireless promotion resulted in a modern municipal hospital opening its doors in 1929, something the whole area has benefitted from for decades.

As Dr. O’Brien did, Rice notes that people banded together to build the city, one milestone at a time. “We don’t celebrate our unique attributes enough,” Rice says, as she points out that Grande Prairie was home to the first female city clerk in the province, Tish Saunders.

Rice’s voice brims with enthusiasm as she reels off tales of other prominent Grande Prairie residents who contributed to the community, highlighting independence and a can-do attitude. People such as Margaret Bowes, who sweetly offered to drive then Minister of Social Services & Community Health, Bob Bogle, to the airport after he refused to fund or even tour Odyssey House. Once he was in the car, she engaged the power locks, looked him in the eye, and told him he wasn’t going to the airport until he toured the women’s shelter. Odyssey House got its funding.

That tenacity is part of what Grande Prairie is celebrating through a multitude of events planned for the year. As Mayor Bill Given notes, with the large influx of newcomers the anniversary celebration is a prime opportunity to show them that the city does indeed have a rich history in which everyone can take pride. He says, “The celebrations allow us to showcase the community and the individuals whose unique contributions made Grande Prairie what it is today: a growing and vibrant city.”

Many Grande Prairie groups are incorporating the anniversary theme into their events, others are hosting activities specifically for the centennial, and the city’s planning committee is coordinating these events as well as hosting their own. A project combining past and present will see a series of plaques put up on historical sites, each one with a computerized code that, when scanned, takes you to a website with the location’s full history. And one of the year’s highlights will be the Homecoming in August, where you know a lot of tales will be swapped.

In the end, the committee’s theme, “Celebrating Success” is all about sharing the stories of people who settled in Grande Prairie, who made a difference whether large or small, and in so doing helped to build a village into a city.

The City of Grande Prairie celebrates its centenary in 2014! To mark the milestone, the City has planned over 300 special events and activities throughout the year and invites everyone to join in the festivities. imageDESIGN is proud to work with the City to create a dynamic campaign for the year of celebration which mixes the old with the new. Find out more about the 100th Anniversary celebration

Contributor: Karen Bass

Karen Bass loves stories. To date, she has written four novels for teenagers. When she isn’t weaving her own tales she enjoys listening to and writing about the stories of Grande Prairie and area people. You can learn more about her writing at