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Amber Valley

Carothers Women and WagonsAmber Valley, originally known as Pine Creek until 1932, was first settled by Black families in 1910. Located 15 miles (24 kilometres) east of the town of Athabasca, the land of Amber Valley was covered in heavy brush and trees, and little of it was ideal for farming. Nevertheless, in 1910, about 40 Black families arrived there, optimistic about their new opportunity. Some of the earliest settlers were Jordan W. Murphy, his daughter Martha, and her husband Jefferson Davis Edwards.

In 1911, Parson Sneed, a clergyman and mason, recruited other families to settle in the area. Starting their tumultuous journey in Clearview, Oklahoma, a second group of Black immigrants was bound for Amber Valley.

Numbering about 150 and led by Sneed, these individuals were detained at the Emerson border crossing in Manitoba. Protests against Black immigration in Edmonton and Calgary had prompted the federal government to take action against Black immigration. Immigration officials issued rigorous medical examinations in an attempt to prove that Blacks were unfit for homesteading. Hoping the large sum of money would deter Blacks from entering Canada, immigration officials also raised the head tax for entry from $5 per person to $50 per person. Most of the settlers were relatively healthy and possessed additional funds, much to the chagrin of the border officials. As a result, the majority of those who made the trip were able to enter Canada.

The first institution built in Amber Valley was a one-room schoolhouse, built by settlers in 1913. Named for Nimrod Toles, who donated the land for the school, the Toles School was open for six months of the year, and school trustees were elected by members of the community. Toles School was rebuilt in 1932, and, in 1946, Keyes School was built.

Plaque on commemorative cairn at Amber ValleyIn addition to providing children with a rudimentary education, the Toles School, from the 1910s through to the early 1930s, was used for other functions as well. Most of the settlers who lived in Amber Valley belonged to different Christian denominations. As such, and so as not to exclude any particular denomination, no church was built. Instead, some congregations used the Toles School for their religious services, while others held services and Sunday school in private homes. In 1919, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was erected. The Amber Valley African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery was built in Amber Valley when Jordan Murphy donated two acres of his land to the project. In 1953, another church was built on the land of Willis Bowen.

The life of an Amber Valley homesteader was difficult. To “prove up” on a homestead, settlers had to clear and plough 30 acres (12 hectares) of land within three years, a nearly impossible task considering that the land was covered in trees and brush. To make matters more challenging, few settlers had more than an axe and a hoe to clear the land, and most of their houses were rather shoddy structures built of logs and plastered with clay, a material often prone to cracking. Settlers did not have experience building shelters conducive to the climate of northern Alberta. Wind and snow would blow through the cracks, substantially dropping the core temperature within the house.

Long winters ensured a short growing season. Homesteading in Amber Valley consisted largely of subsistence farming; settlers therefore needed to find work off the farm in order to afford tools, supplies, and supplementary food. Many of the male homesteaders left their families to find work during the long winter months. Many of Amber Valley’s settlers were hired to rebuild the town of Athabasca after much of it had tragically burned down in 1913. Amber Valley’s geographic proximity to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s freighting operations located in Athabasca meant that numerous Black settlers would haul a variety of goods—groceries, rifles, boilers, and so on—using mules and horses. When the freighting business started to move away from Athabasca, settlers turned to the railways for work—either in construction or as porters. Many of Amber Valley’s men worked as railroad porters. Long days, if not weeks, meant that they would seldom see their families while they worked on the railroad.

In spite of all the difficulties Amber Valley's farmers faced, the community prominently featured communal initiatives and a wealth of leisurely activities. The town was well known for its athletics. Boxing was popular and reflected a working-class mentality. Many Amber Valley boxers such as Clinton Murphy and Doug Harper went on to win provincial and national honours in the sport. The Amber Valley Baseball Team, founded by Jefferson Davis Edwards in 1926, was one of the best teams in Alberta from the 1920s to the 1940s. The team played professionally throughout the Prairies.

Aside from sports, Amber Valley also featured social clubs like the Good Community League, later known as the Pioneers Club. The Club was a volunteer organization dedicated to organizing leisure activities. In addition, Toles School hosted community-wide parties and dances throughout the year. The parties always featured musical entertainment which often included sing-alongs and a wide variety of musical instruments such as spoons, guitars, violins, and even washtubs.

The most popular event at Amber Valley was the annual July picnic. Jefferson Davis Edwards and Thomas Mapp organized the events and activities which attracted settlers from nearby towns and communities. There were events for every community member: foot races, games, greased pig chases, greased pole climbs, bronco and steer riding, horse racing, boxing, baseball games, and horse pulling contests. Some picnic attendees would bring their own home-brewed moonshine. At the end of the two-day picnic, a large dinner of fried chicken would be served, culminating with a festive dance at Toles School.

In the 1930s, the population of other Alberta Black settlements dwindled and communities almost disappeared; however, Amber Valley prospered well into the 1940s, by which time about 350 Black settlers lived there. Amber Valley, at its peak, was home to several businesses including a post office, the goodwill store, Carothers’ Store, Coleman’s Store, Murphy’s Store, and a gas station.

Eventually, the mechanization of farming in Canada would put most of the small Amber Valley farms out of business. Only those farms that could afford tractors would survive the 1940s. Also, much of the town’s youth enlisted to serve in the Canadian military forces during the Second World War. Upon returning to Canada, most of Amber Valley’s youth opted to stay in the cities, where there were educational and career opportunities aplenty.

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