Who doesn’t love a ghost town? Everyone has their own reasons for being drawn to ghost towns and I’m no different. It’s not necessarily because the name suggests the presence of ghosts, but rather because the name suggests the presence of a village or town with buildings but no people. Many dystopian and apocalyptic themed movies were set in places that would aptly be described as ghost towns so perhaps Hollywood has romanticized the idea of such places. What would a person who is fascinated in ghost towns actually call themselves; Historian, Anthropologist, or maybe even Ghostbusters? I enjoy photographing and learning the history of ghost towns. Ghost towns also present unique photographic possibilities because of the old style buildings that are frozen in time. They allow the explorer to walk into another era as if time stood still. Of course some are in such bad shape that it’s hard to get that feeling of time travel but that’s why we keep on seeking them in hopes of finding the ultimate ghost town. There are actually quite a number of ghost towns in Alberta and many more in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. The problem is that most Alberta ghost towns are either touristy, in ruins, or in the deep south. So why am I rambling on about ghost towns? It’s because I found one. It’s called Northmark and is located in the Peace Country of Alberta near Woking which is between Spirit River and Sexsmith. For readers who are not familiar with Alberta, picture Edmonton which is near the geographic centre of the province and then go northwest for about five to six hours and you’ll be there.
In the summer of 2020 my wife and I hauled our little travel trailer up to the Peace River Country of Alberta. That’s the area of farms and prairies in the north where one would expect only trees and forestry. It has its own unique history of settlement and homesteading and was likely the last place in Canada where significant numbers of people could obtain land by developing a farm. We enjoyed it up there for a number of reasons not the least of which is the sense of discovery. It’s a part of the province that doesn’t see as many visitors as central and southern Alberta and that works for us. We set off with some locations of old schools to visit so we set our GPS on navigate and then just drove to old places that were new to us. That’s when the fun began.
As we were dutifully driving along, and following the instructions of the GPS, I spotted something from the corner of my eye and said, “we’ve got to stop here”. There were buildings like you would see at an old western style town partially covered by trees. I didn’t even know the name of this place until well after returning home and starting my research. So lets have a look and see what there is to see.
The above shows you Northmark much like I first saw it except that I was coming from the other direction. That large building could be just about anything. Maybe it was a blacksmith shop, or even a livery stable. It also looks very much like a community hall. I have yet to establish exactly what it was although I suspect that it was the service station and farm equipment dealer owned by the Jacobs family.
I peaked through the little windows of the big building but didn’t see anything inside that gave a suggestion as to what the building was used for.
From the back that big building is even harder to figure out because it is totally surrounded by trees. However in the centre of the image you can see the large doors similar to a barn’s doors and the larger windows on the west side (the building faces north).
Next to the large building that I first spotted, there was a more typical main street type building that is the Northmark General Store. You can just barely see the front with the squared off facade that is so typical of that era. The roof appears to be missing in the middle of the building behind the facade and then there is what appears to be another building, or two, attached to it at the very back. Now look at the black and white version shown below as it might offer some additional clarity.
I converted the above image of the general store to black and white to make it stand out against the trees a bit better. The idea was to add clarity to show that this is indeed the same building as the Northmark General store that is shown in the historic photo below. Notice how the facade looks and then note the absence of a roof over the central portion. You can clearly see a second or third roof in the back which matches the historic photo.
This winter image submitted by Rozpoznać Ken Sawicz shows the old building even more clearly as the green foliage is no longer hiding so much of the structure. It’s now unmistakable that the images are of the old Northmark General Store with other structures, including the house, attached behind it.
It took a lot of digging but there is no doubt now that the building hidden in the trees that has the squared off facade was in fact the Northmark General Store. The photo to the left and the history are from a book called Burnt Embers, A History of Woking and District in the Burnt River Valley.
The Burnt Embers book says that in 1931 Ted Baker opened Northmark’s first store and post office (it was a short distance from the site that I photographed). He and his wife Ruby only operated it until 1933 when they moved to Woking and opened a store there. In 1934 Ewald and Christine Jacobs moved from their Chinook Valley homestead to operate Ted Baker’s store. In 1934 the Jacobs built their own store approximately one section south which is the site that I photographed. In 1938 the Jacobs added a garage, service station with an oil shed with Massey Harris and Imperial Oil dealerships. It’s not entirely clear but the large building with the rounded facade that is featured in my first photographs above was probably the garage as it has large garage type doors on the front and back. In 1946 the Jacobs sold out to Allan and Grace Mortensen who were proprietors of the country store until 1954 when they moved to Woking. It was during the 12 years that the Mortensen’s owned the store that it also became the Northmark Post Office. Fred and Margaret Hess took over the Northmark businesses and ran them until they were closed, ostensibly permanently, in 1974. At that time the post office also closed and was not replaced. With no general store or post office the end had arrived for Northmark. The hamlet of Northmark was now the ghost town of Northmark.
I’m so glad that information such the history of the Northmark General Store and other Northmark places are preserved in archives.
I walked around to the back of the the Northmark General Store although it was tough moving through the thick growth of trees and shrubbery. On the far side of the building I spotted some windows and some drapery inside so it’s very likely that is is where the Jacobs had lived. I also spotted some red flowers that provided a break from the sea of verdant greens of the forest.
On the above image you can see the tiny windows with the curtains slightly open. I half expected to see somebody looking back at me (if you look at it long enough you might get the feeling you are being watched as well). This is a ghost town after all.
This image from the back of the Northmark General store makes it look just like any house from the 30s or 40s.
The image above is of yet another structure in Northmark but I don’t know what its purpose was. it could have been one of the businesses that the Jacobs operated but the book is silent about the purposes of the other buildings at the site. It does face the main road so this was no doubt a business of some sort. The entire front it open so either that whole wall just fell away and was removed, or it was mostly a window.
“We did all of our basic shopping at the general store and got our mail there. The Hess’s owned and managed the property then. Every item was handwritten on a small bill book, even the poundage of nails from the miscellaneous stock of hardware items in the back to the number of cans of beans from a shelf in the front. A small selection of clothing was even available-the essential rubber boots and work pants, maybe a flannel plaid shirt or two!! I remember many visits over coffee and goodies in the back living quarters with Mr and Mrs Hess. Many stories of the old country, Germany, where they were born. Gas could be obtained from an old pump in front. It was really quite amazing that most of the necessities of life could be gotten in such a remote little place”.Cheryl (see full comment below)
The old log cabins were probably the original homesteads of the Jacobs family. In the Peace County most of the homesteads were of log construction because there were more trees than sawmills.
I didn’t know it at the time that we were in the Northmark area but there was a school by the same name about 1 km west of the buildings that I photographed. There might be a school sign left but I highly doubt if the school building is still there. I looked it up in the very useful book, Pioneering With A Piece of Chalk, and found some interesting information. I also found the following text from the South Peace Regional Archives.
“Northmark School District No. 4431 was formed in 1930, and until the school was completed in 1932, classes were held in the Charles Michel home, with Mrs. (Fern) Michel teaching three days a week. The school opened in September 1932 with 12 students and Miss Edith Gibennus (Rye), teacher. In 1940, Northmark became a member in sub-division 2 of Spirit River School Division No. 47. In 1950 a new shed-type school (designed for combination with other schools during consolidation) replaced the first school, and in 1956 the school closed and the students were bussed to Woking. Teachers at Northmark from 1931-1956 were Miss Edith Gibennus, Miss Margaret Atkins, Miss Hilda Muttart, Miss Billie Ulmer, Miss Mary Golden (Rowe), Miss Mary Danchuck, Mrs. Gertrude Bryan, Grace Mortenson and Annie Rowe (supervisors), Mrs. Dixie Mitchell, Miss Doris Jordan (Toerper), Mr. Hugh McKenna, Mr. R.E. Parlee”.
The above excerpt from the The Burnt Embers book says that the school was moved to Grande Prairie. It was moved to the same property as the Grandview Motel and converted to a home. George Shofner lived in it while his son’s family ran the motel.
So now there is nothing left but some old buildings, a very brief history of the school, and a post with rusty barbed wire and an old rope that flaps in the wind. Oh and there may also be a ghost, because this is a ghost town.
This blog issue would not be possible without access to the resources of the South Peace Reginal Archives. That was my source for the information above and all of the historical photos. All current photos are mine. Finally I would like to acknowledge the valuable assistance of Jenna Armstrong, of Mighty Peace Tourism, who provided information on everything from where to park our trailer to camp, to where I can find some old structures to photograph.