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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Feature Article

56TH STREET

Written By: Michael Dawe
Published By: Red Deer Express
Article Used with permission. © Copyright Michael Dawe, 2008
2008-09-01

Between the First and Second World Wars, the population of Red Deer remained stagnant at somewhat less than 3000 residents. However, after the Second War, the community experienced a huge surge of growth - so rapid that by the late 1950’s, Red Deer was considered the fastest growing city in Canada.

While the boom and accompanying growth was wonderful, one of the consequences was that most of the old buildings in Red Deer were demolished and replaced with newer structures.

One exception to the loss of old homes and businesses is the 56th Street district, on the south side of the Red Deer River. Not only is it one of Red Deer’s oldest neighbourhoods. It is one where most of the original residences are still standing.

The origins of the district go back to 1901, the same year that Red Deer was incorporated as a town. Rev. Leonard Gaetz, who had moved to Brandon, Manitoba in 1895, to take a ministerial position there, moved back to Red Deer because of failing health. He decided to build a new cottage-sized house on the south side of the river, his original home on the north end of Gaetz Avenue having been purchased by his nephew and son-in-law, George Wilbert Smith.

Meanwhile, Leonard’s son, Halley Hamilton Gaetz, who had taken over ownership of much of the land on the south side of the river when Rev. Gaetz moved to Brandon, created a new subdivision in partnership with his father. The new subdivision extended from H.H. Gaetz’s house, on the south end of what is now the 49th Avenue traffic bridge, to Waskasoo Creek on the east and between the Red Deer River and Douglas (55th) Street.

The subdivision was named River Park. Consequently, what is now 48a Avenue was named River Avenue, what is now 56th Street was named Park Street and what is now 47a Avenue was named East Avenue.

Leonard Gaetz’s new home, which he dubbed Woodlea Cottage, was built on the western end of Park Street, where 4750 56th Street stands today. His eldest son Raymond, who was the first mayor of the Town of Red Deer, built a beautiful large new house which still stands at 4763 56th Street.

Leonard Gaetz had five daughters. When his younger daughters got married, he gave each of them a new house on Park Street as a wedding present. As a result, many in the community started referring to Park Street as "Son-in-law Avenue".

Leonard Gaetz’s generosity was not limited to his daughters. He had a large house (4751 56th Street) built which was first occupied by Fred and Annie L. Gaetz and later by Fred’s twin brother Jim Gaetz.

The new construction in the River Park subdivision was not limited to the Gaetz family. Among the first to build were William and Elsie Cassels who erected a brick house north of Park Street (5708 47a Avenue). They used the old bricks from their farmhouse in what is now the Vanier Woods subdivision. They dubbed their new home "Robinwold" because of the large numbers of robins in the trees around the house.

A number of Red Deer’s leading businessmen and professionals also decided to build homes in the new subdivision. One example was Hugh Murrin, a building products manufacturer, who built a beautiful new brick house on the north-west corner of Park Street and East Avenue, not only as a residence but also as an advertisement for the quality products his firm could provide.

Among the others who either built or purchased homes in the neighbourhood were several local banks wanting homes for their managers and most of Red Deer’s churches who found the area an ideal place to locate their manses.

56th Street and surrounding area remains a beautiful district with a strong sense of neighbourhood. Recently, one of the local residents, David Plumtree, painted a number of the old homes on the street and then turned those paintings into special edition sets of cards. Those card sets are almost sold out, only a short time after publication.

On Tuesday, September 23rd from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Red Deer Lodge Hotel, the City of Red Deer will be hosting a special information session on its historic sites inventory project. As one would expect, the River Park residences are prominently featured in that inventory project.

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