BONNYVILLE – “On the 16th Day of February 1948, the Village of Bonnyville was proclaimed a town,” reads council meeting minutes archived by town hall.
Just six days after the growing community of Bonnyville transitioned from a village to a town, six councillors and a mayor were elected on Feb. 23, 1948.
The town’s first council included Josephat M. Hamel, Lucien Hetu, B.J. Dessureau, Elphege Ouimet, Romeo Genereux and Irvin Baril.
A lot has changed since then, and mostly for the better, Ray Prevost tells Lakeland This Week.
Born four years before the village was officially deemed a town, Prevost is well known in the community.
“I was born in Bonnyville at the St. Louis Hospital in 1944, but I didn't move to town until 1952,” explains Prevost. “The changes have been, I mean, enormous over the years.”
From health to education, to industry and recreation, from boom to bust, the face of Main Street is ever-changing, he says. When reflecting on the past, it can be difficult to say what has changed – because so much of it has changed.
Back in 1948, the town’s population was about 1,100. Today, about 6,500 people call the Town of Bonnyville home.
“We have gained so many things, but we lost things in the process too,” Prevost says, looking back.
Located within the town was industry ranging from a creamery, a hatchery, a refinery, even an egg grading station.
“Believe it or not, there was a John Deere Dealership exactly where Nelson lumber used to be,” he adds, noting that several implement dealers that once set up shop have since vanished.
Over time, the industries that have fed into the town’s economy have shifted. Now oil and gas are a big driver. A tree nursery is also a relatively new addition to local industry, Prevost points out.
In the last 75 years, the town has grown from having one school to eight schools, from having two small hospitals, Duclos and St. Louis, to one large, centralized facility, the Bonnyville Healthcare Centre.
“St. Louis [Hospital] had underwent substantial renovations in ‘54 and later on, but nothing compared to what we have today and the services that are provided at the Bonnyville hospital,” describes Prevost, adding that it wasn’t until the 60s that seniors' lodging and eventually Extendicare was built in the community.
When it comes to recreation in the community, the town truly shows its growth and transformation.
“When I moved to town, we only had an outdoor rink,” he says. Eventually the Agriplex would be constructed, and the outdoor rink would become an indoor arena, paving the way for Bonnyville and District Centennial Centre (C2).
Officially opening in the fall of 2007, the C2 is expected to grow again to include a brand-new aquatics centre in the coming years based on current plans.
Even things like soccer fields, baseball diamonds and Walsh Field have changed the fabric of the community over the decades. But that is not to say things haven’t also been lost over the years.
"We lost things like the theatre and the drive-in, the bowling alley and things like that have went by the wayside,” reflects Prevost, noting it is the natural progression of things.
“So, changes? Oh boy, it’s been 75 years of changes.”
Sparking new life to old stories
Prevost, a former Town councillor who also spent time as mayor, feeds his love of local history by searching through archives at the Bonnyville Nouvelle. He revisits the past and sparks new life to old stories he digs up and shares online.
“I've had nothing but positive comments about it and it creates conversation. And I think it's important that you understand something about your past,” he says, reflecting on his historical deep dives.
“Your history is always valuable... We should know something about the past. The people that have helped make the community what it is. A lot of people who should have been recognized over the years never were.”
He says the stories he comes across in the yellowed pages of the past news articles are “the little stories that you tend to forget.”
While Prevost committed to only sharing good news from the past, he says there were definitely lessons learned.
Reflecting on his time in council, he says “When we were talking about the future of Bonnyville and what we should do, we were always a little cautious because we live in a boom-and-bust society. The dollars are there today, but will they be there in the future?”
These decisions, made around council tables, business boardrooms and family kitchen tables, are in part what shaped the Bonnyville community.
“But we've done pretty well,” he says. “The Town of Bonnyville has done extremely well for the population that it has if you look at facilities and amenities that we have.”
So, how has the small but mighty Bonnyville community continued to strive through both the prosperous and hard times? “Well, there's one word that comes to mind – generosity,” Prevost says.
“The hospital gala is coming up pretty soon, which is a reminder of that word: generosity. We started the hospital gala with nothing. We went to 10 businesses they gave us $2,000 each. That was seed money and everything else that we've raised, in the millions of dollars... that was all done through donations.”
Generosity, he says, is what built the first arena, the rodeo grounds and so much more. “It was built on volunteer labour.”
“I remember being at the Town office and a little old lady... she had to be about 81 or 83 years old, came in to donate $50 to the splash park. She wasn't going to use a splash park, but she felt that it was a good thing,” he says.
Both small and large acts of generosity are why the town is surviving, says Prevost.
“Look at the ball diamonds, was it not for Mr. Jim [Church] that built the last two diamonds?” he points out.
“Lots of things in Bonnyville were built and became a reality as a result of the generosity of the people that live here. And I think through the tough times, the people that cared for the community stepped up to the plate.”
Prevost, who is technically older than the town itself, has big dreams for the small northern Alberta community.
“What do I hope it becomes? I would like it to remain the nice warm community that it is. I don't know that I want to become a city status,” he says. “People know people... It will grow a little bit, but I don't want it to lose that connection that we have with the rest of the community.”