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Rural Routes: Athabasca

Figure 1: Athabasca (Visit Athabasca, 2020)

Athabasca is a small town on Highway 2, located approximately 145 kilometres north of Edmonton. It was first named Athabasca Landing when it was incorporated as a village in 1905 and later shortened to Athabasca in 1913. Athabasca Landing was developed as a transshipment point and a gateway to the North, which led to a surge in population (Johnson, 1986).

On October 19, 1911, Athabasca Landing was proclaimed a town, which “in important respects, symbolized Athabasca’s transition from a frontier society largely based on the fur trade to a largely British based colonial settler society based on agriculture and industry” (Johnson, 1986).

Figure 2: Threshing Machine (Photo # 00776: Athabasca Archives, 1925)

The homesteading boom was between the years 1909 and 1914. At least 1,500 settlers and their families, a population of around 5,000, moved into the Athabasca area. Homesteaders were required to clear their land and produce crops under the Dominion Land Act (Johnson, 1986). For a while, Athabasca was known as the “growing capital of the northwest” due to its hot and fairly dry conditions. Evidently, an appearance of late springs and early fall frost proved undesirable growing conditions. It became apparent that the Athabasca farming land was for skilled and fortunate farmers. This required the farmers to be innovative and turn to mixed farming, which consists of growing crops and raising livestock.

Figure 3: Louis Menard's Fall Wheat Field (Photo # 01788: Athabasca Archives, 1909)

Athabasca is now known for having a diversified economy, which is advantageous in the changing economic conditions in today’s world. Two of its major employers are the craft mill (employing around 1,000 people) and the Athabasca University headquarters. There are also prominent ties to the oil and gas industry where Athabasca has a connection with key industry leaders, although this industry has taken the greatest hit as of late. Agriculture is still a strong industry today, found mostly in the rural outskirts. There is a combination of large family operations and corporation farms.

Figure 4: Robert Balay & His Friend’s Daughters (Balay, 2021)

The grain elevators, creamery, and railway may all be gone, but the memories are not forgotten. Robert Balay, a councillor from Athabasca, has shared some remembrance of his farming days. The Balay family has been in the county of Athabasca since Robert’s grandfather homesteaded in 1939. Robert’s father and uncle stayed true to the family’s “Agricultural Routes” and bought a farm of their own in 1976. The family continued farming here until Robert left the farm in 1999. Just like farmers in the early 1900s, the Balays found it most successful to practice mixed farming.

His recollections showcase memories of “freedom at a young age,” where life was slower and simpler. He spoke fondly of harvest and calving season—both representing “new births” and “growth.” He shared a vivid memory of the young cows playing in the snow as cow checks were performed in the cold, winter air. There were months where neighbours all worked together; the camaraderie will not be forgotten. At the end of the day, farming was prideful for Robert; looking back he is appreciative and proud of his “Agriculture Routes” and will cherish all of his memories.

Figure 5: Robert Balay & Grandaughters (Balay, 2021)

It’s conversations like these that showcase Athabasca’s connection to agriculture from the past to the present. There are still family farms surrounding Athabasca today where children are experiencing a lifestyle similar to Robert’s memories, and where neighbours are working together come harvest, sharing meals in the field to celebrate a job well done.


Balay, R. (2021, January). Councillor . (R. Williamson, Interviewer)

Johnson, G. (1986). Why Athabasca? Retrieved from Athabasca Heritage Society:

Photo # 00776. (1925). Threshing Machine. Retrieved from Athabasca Archives:

Photo # 01788. (1909). Louis Menard's Fall Wheat Field. Retrieved from Athabasca Archives:

Visit Athabasca. (2020). Retrieved from


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