A Recorded History of the Sanctuary
The recorded history of the Gaetz Lakes Sanctuary extends nearly one hundred years. In January 1885, James and Elizabeth Wishart arrived from Poplar Point, Manitoba and squatted on what is now the southeast section of the Sanctuary. Their arrival in the community was particularly welcome since, according to the Calgary Bulletin at the time, “rumour hath it that two young ladies are with the party and the weatherworn bachelors are brightening up considerably."
The Wisharts’ stay was not a long one. After the end of the Riel Rebellion, during which period the family had baked and cooked for the soldiers of the 65th Battalion stationed at Fort Normandeau, the Wisharts decided to move to the Rosebud Creek area near Gleichen. They left behind a small log cabin on the bank above the two lakes and very little in the way of cleared land.
In the fall of 1885, John Jost Gaetz and his mother, Catherine Gaetz, arrived in Red Deer, and after spending the winter with the Leonard Gaetz family, moved into the cabin which had been built by the Wisharts. J.J. Gaetz applied for a homestead and pre-emption on what is now the south part of the Sanctuary and the Deerhome complex of the Michener Centre, while his mother applied in 1891 for a homestead on what is now the north end of the Sanctuary.
This latter action caused some controversy with the Department of the Interior as this quarter section had been reserved by the Department of Indian Affairs as a site for an Indian Industrial school. However, the Department of Indian Affairs, having secured another site four miles to the west on the north side of the Red Deer River Crossing, agreed to let the quarter be opened for homesteading. Mr. Jessup, the local land agent, recommended acceptance of Mrs. Gaetz’s application on the grounds that “her son J.J. Gaetz has homesteaded the south west quarter of the section and has effected considerable improvements, besides belonging to a class of settlers that are of importance to a young and growing town like Red Deer in the way of spending their money and employing labour in it.” Mr. Jessup added that if one of the competing applications made by three other individuals was accepted, “it is very doubtful that we shall gain a resident settler, my impression being that these applications have been made in a spirit of speculation.”
It is perhaps interesting at this point to note the comments made by J.R. Thompson, homestead inspector, in his report in 1897. He found that only twenty seven acres had been broken and that much of the land was “worth little for cultivation.” He offered the opinion that the land was “more valuable for timber and pasture land” and noted that there were thirty acres of poplar and spruce timber.
The Gaetzs were very generous, hospitable, and community-minded people and their home, which Mr. Gaetz had added on to after his marriage to Grace Elder in 1905, was a favourite gathering place for the people of Red Deer and district. The Gaetzs also had an appreciation for the beauty of nature and decided to neither cultivate nor log any more land around the two oxbow lakes and along the heavily timbered slopes. As was the case with their home, they welcomed others to enjoy this area and to use it as a place for recreation and fun.
As the town of Red Deer continued to grow and prosper, use of the Gaetz land increased. Skating parties and hockey games took place on the lakes in winter, while the neighbouring hillsides were used for sledding and tobogganing. In the warmer seasons, people came to the area to view the waterfowl on the lakes, hike along the various paths, or enjoy a picnic. In 1913, with the construction of the Alberta Ladies’ College on the hill to the south of the West Gaetz Lake, (now the ASH complex of the Michener Centre) the area become a favourite spot for the students and their friends.
The Alberta Natural History Society, (now called the Red Deer River Naturalists), which formed a Red Deer branch in 1906, also made the Gaetz land a favourite area for excursions. In the spring of 1922, the Society asked Mr. Gaetz to consider designating the west half of Section 22 (with exception of the five acres used by the Cemetery) as a bird sanctuary, and on March 22nd, Mr. Gaetz signed an agreement to do so. After a considerable amount of correspondence, the A.N.H.S., on May 23rd. 1923, made a formal application to the Commissioner of Canadian National Parks to have the land designated as a Federal Bird Sanctuary under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and placed under the supervision of the Department of Interior. On June 27th, 1924, Order-in-Council No. 1080 formally established the “Red Deer Bird Sanctuary” with the “killing, hunting, capturing, injury, taking or molesting of migratory game, migratory insectivorous, or migratory non game birds, or the taking, injuring, destruction or molestation of their nests or eggs” being prohibited. The Order-in-Council also stated the “the use of this area as a Sanctuary shall be secondary to its use for agricultural purposes”.
Mr. J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of National Parks, noted in a letter that “it is impossible, owning to the small appropriation available for bird protection matters, for this Branch to undertake any expenditure other than that necessary to supply posters.” He suggested in another letter that “the services of the members of your Society, who are Honorary Officers under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, should provide sufficient supervisory control, especially as the Sanctuary is a small, privately-owned area.”
Mr. Gaetz, together with the members of the Alberta Natural History Society, for many years worked hard to maintain and protect the Sanctuary. One particularly noteworthy friend of the Sanctuary was Red Deer’s distinguished naturalist and writer, Kerry Wood . Because of Mr. Wood’s tremendous talents, abilities and knowledge as well as the many hours he spent in the Sanctuary, he was appointed while in his early teens as a Dominion Migratory Bird Officer, thereby adding legal authority to his work in the Sanctuary. The fact that the Sanctuary has survived as a natural area is due in a very large part to the work and efforts of Mr. Wood.
The threats and disruptions to the Sanctuary have over the years been numerous despite its designation under the Federal Order-in-Council and the many efforts of people such as Mr. Gaetz, Mr. Wood and other members of the Alberta Natural History Society. After Mr. Gaetz’s sudden death from a heart attack on December 24th, 1937, the ownership of the Sanctuary was transferred to his wife, Grace. However, in 1938, when Mrs. Gaetz through Montreal Trust sold the land to the Provincial Department of Public Works, no conditions regarding the status of the land as a Sanctuary were attached to the transfer of title.
In late 1946, the Provincial Government ordered the logging of the spruce trees on the escarpment. Strong letters of protest were sent by the Alberta Natural History Society to various provincial officials. Dr. W.W. Cross, Minister of Public Health, wrote in reply that since the Provincial Government owned the property, it could do as it wished with trees. Fortunately, Red Deer City Council, the Board of Trade, service clubs and members of the public joined in the protest and the decision to cut the trees was rescinded.
On June 10th, 1950, a party of City workmen left a roadside fire unattended and sparks blew into a thick covering of poplar fluff causing a tremendous blaze. The Red Deer Fire Department came out and found “several fires burning at one time over several acres in the city limits and outside”. The fireman doused the fires along the edge of the roadway, but as it was decided that the main part of the Sanctuary was beyond the City’s jurisdiction, they spent the next two hours “holding the fire clear from the Cemetery”, before returning to the station. It was left to Mr. Wood and a few friends to control the remaining fires and flare-ups and save the Sanctuary woods from almost certain destruction.
As recounted in Kerry Wood’s excellent book, The Sanctuary, the fire served to renew efforts to have the legal protection of the Sanctuary restored. In the fall of 1950, jurisdiction for the area was transferred to the Provincial Parks Department and a Provincial Wildlife Park was established with the Alberta Natural History Society being responsible for maintenance and supervision. (Unfortunately, this never seems to have been implemented. The Province has lost all records of the event.)
Again, Mr. Wood, his family, and a few other interested individuals undertook the work of maintaining and enhancing the Sanctuary. Red Deer City Council in September 1950, made a grant of $50.00 to the A.N.H.S. to support this work, while the Provincial Government gave some assistance in fencing part of the area. Other groups and individuals also made donations. J.J. Gaetz’s widow, Mrs. Grace Welliver, passed away in 1953, and under the terms of her will, bequeathed $1,000 to the A.N.H.S. “to be spent on the Gaetz Lake Park as the officers of the Society in their sole discretion shall determine.”
Despite the creation of the Sanctuary as a Wildlife Park and the support given to its maintenance, problems and threats to its existence continued. In 1966, a proposal was made to convert the Sanctuary into an amusement park. Plans were drawn up to run a highway through the Sanctuary, and others wanted to convert the land to condominium townhouses. In the 1960s, a storm sewer from the Deerhome complex of Michener Centre created a large gully and caused severe silting of the East Gaetz Lake. Throughout the years, there have been proposals to “beautify” the area by clearing the underbrush or to “keep down the mosquitoes” by spraying insecticides or by draining the wet area. (The City’s mosquito-control biologist has determined that the Gaetz Lakes actually breed very few mosquitoes, largely because they never have been sprayed!)
Today, the Sanctuary is incorporated into Waskasoo Park. Hopefully, this will help to ensure its future preservation. However, the history of the Sanctuary reminds us of the need to continue to support and maintain this beautiful area in order to ensure that future generations will have the same opportunity to enjoy and use this area as we and our predecessors have had.