On this adventure we explore a forgotten community, Comrey Alberta, deep in the sparsely populated and seldom visited southeast corner of the province. This is surely the most lonely and remote frontier Connie and I have ever visited. The sense of isolation on visiting these vast open spaces is simply overwhelming, almost to the point of it being uncomfortable in fact, and I for one don’t know how the old pioneers handled it without losing their minds. They must have been people of strong character to live in is such an out of the way place.
There never very much in Comrey. Think of it more as a centre or reference point for a large district, then a true town. Even so, there is a number of interesting old buildings and the like to be found in the area. On this visit we explored the old school/church/community centre, the cemetery, and the remains of several old farms. I am sure there is more to see (reason to return) as we only ventured down a couple roads.
On this trip we were joined by fellow history buffs Jason and Rebecca Sailer, our guides this day. Thanks, we had a blast hanging with you two. It was they who suggested this as a destination. I was admittedly a bit unsure given that the area was never heavily populated and was worried there would be little to see. And in a way that was indeed true, but we did find, here and there, was wonderful. Jason and Rebecca also supplied some pics to this article.
Comrey was established around 1910. Few people lived in the area, outside a small first nation’s population prior to that time and even after settlement the number of people here was never that great. If the place had a heyday, it was the period 1910-1920s. Many people moved away after that time and today there are only a few scattered farms here and there.
While a town may have been planned – and this author has even seen a map showing a proposed railway to the community – nothing really came of it. A school was built in 1910, which I guess would be considered the true centre of the Comrey region. The land on which it sits was donated by a local farmer, Mr Roen, who’s old house we’ll be visiting later this same trip.
This school also filled in as the local church at times. A couple times in its history it closed for extended periods due to a lack of students. The final time was in the late 1950s. Afterwards the building was then used as a community centre and it hosted various events over the years.
Based upon photos and old records found while researching this article, anywhere from six to perhaps fifteen students, of all ages, attended classes. As was typical any grades needed were taught. I understand the teacher did not live on the property but rather boarded with a local farmer. Most remote schools like this had a high turn over rate of teachers, as could be expected given the tough conditions.
It’s not known when the last event was held here, but I’d guess it’s been a while. Some old documents were found inside (the door is unlocked – if you visit close it on leaving) including an award certificate from 1934, an old receipt book from Bollinger’s Store in nearby Manyberries (their phone number was a single digit!) and a calendar from 1973, too covered in bird poop to shoot. Also scattered about were some old school chairs. Hanging in the windows were some curtains that I am certain my mom had.
The back room of the building is not original and was added at some point, probably around the time it became a community centre. The reason I’m guessing this is that it contains a kitchen which would be needed for such a venue. Behind the building is the “office”. These crude biffies remind us that indoor plumbing in the old days, especially so in rural areas like this, simply did not exist. Image the fun in using it on a blustery cold day?
Just down the road from the school and on the opposite side is the Comrey Cemetery. Most of the people interned here died long ago and there are few modern era graves seen.
Further down the road is a small farm. This was Mr Roen’s place, a Norwegian fellow who donated the land to the school. Always a bachelor he lived in this small building from around 1910 to 1947 when illness forced him to move away to Medicine Hat. As far as we know based on our research, no one lived in it afterwards. That means it’s been forgotten for well over sixty years! As is usual with abandoned farms, the building is leaning and sagging and lacks windows, is covered in bird poop, and is full of junk – stuff like old tires, papers of all kind, and broken plaster. An old stove is a nice find whicg I bet it came in handy on a cold Comrey winter. A few modern grainiers are on the property, plus one old horse shed. Some old tack was found inside the latter.
Found near the house was the usual assortment of farm implements and the like. A long parallel row of evenly spaced pipes jutting out of the ground struck me as odd. I wonder what the story behind them is?
Not far way is an old barn, all that remains of the Larsen farm established in around 1910. Later it was owned by Olson/Sipe and later Sipe all by himself. Larsen and Sipe were Americans while Olson was from Sweden. The farm, as they often do, had its ups and downs and was finally abandoned in the 1940s. A picture from 1916 shows the entire farm, but with a different barn, suggesting this one was added after that time.
The building has a false front and given its position right beside the road makes one think it was perhaps used commercially, as say a livery stable. Businesses often had this style of front and were placed in such a way. We could find no mention of this in the history books, but information is scarce and spotty at best (see March 2015 update below). The building seems solid enough.
The next farm we found is located a couple sections away all be itself on a small rise. There is no road to it, so we hike in. This tiny, almost one-room-school looking structure originally belonged to a family called Olson, which came from Sweden via the US (it appears they are not related to the Olson spoken of earlier – this name was common in the area however). I find it strange that such a small dwelling, which looks much like a bachelor’s house, would be home to an entire family. There are only two rooms! Of course, information is so spotty that I might be interpreting it wrong and this building may have indeed belonged to someone else. Research continues.
Anyway, the Olsons quit the area in the early 1920s and moved to Wilson Siding near Lethbridge. Clearly someone used this house after they left, but who and for how long is unknown. Oddly, many purses and old dresses were scattered about the place. I did not venture inside as the entire floor was a wet mushy congealed mass of old papers and stuff. It did not look safe. Some old newspapers were seen in the goo, but were too faded to make anything out. Too bad, they could have provided some hints as to when the building was last lived in.
Presumably there was a barn and other support structures here, but no evidence could be found of them. With the house all by itself and its diminutive size, the broad expanse of plains spreading out in all directions, and the prominent Sweetgrass Hills of Montana in the southwest, all conspired to make the experience of visiting this lonely house a hard one to describe. It was powerful, emotional, almost frightening in way. It’s a feeling of isolation to the extreme. We might as well be on the moon. Then imagine it so long ago with no phones or cars? Chilling.
The name Comrey is acronym derived from the names of early settlers in the district.
So ends our visit. I’d love to return and explore more back roads in the area. I’ve seen a number of interesting looking buildings using Google Earth that I think need to be checked out. If you know anything about the community, or are related to someone who once lived there or live there yourself, we’d love to hear from you.
Update: March 2015. Thanks to Jason Sailer, who’s shed some light on that false-front building. Constructed in 1917, it was originally a fraternal hall in the nearby community of Pendant d’ Oreille, which closed in the mid-1920s and later moved here to be used as a barn. Photos have been found showing it while still at the original location.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: August, 2014.
Location: Middle of nowhere, AB.