In 1918, the Dominion government set up a Soldiers Settlement Board in order to secure employment for some of the vast number of soldiers expected to enter the workforce following their service in World War I. Through the Board, many veterans were encouraged to settle on the Battle River Prairie, about 75km north of Peace River. By 1921, the district had an estimated population of 500, while a tiny community called Battle River Prairie emerged off the Notikewin (formerly Battle) River. In 1924, the store and post office was re-named Notikewin and moved to the site of present day Notikewin, some 8km to the north.
For supplies, most of the first settlers on the Prairie used the facilities at Peace River. Commercial transportation on the River was common, while winter roads were opened for horse-drawn sleighs. One major concern, however, was medical. By the Public Health Nurses Act of 1919, visits were made by registered nurses with mobile clinics, but these could not accommodate emergency situations. Throughout the 1920s, therefore, a demand began to grow for a regular physician to be assigned to some point on the Prairie.
In 1928, the provincial government decided to sponsor a permanent nurse for the district, with Mary Little moving to Notikewin. In 1929, she was replaced by Dr. Mary Percy who was recruited from England. In 1931, Mary Percy married Frank Jackson and moved to Keg River. Several other nurses then followed until 1936, when Dr. Arthur Doidge became the first resident physician for the area.
The early 1930s had seen a continuing influx of settlers to the Prairie, many coming from the drought areas of southeastern Alberta. As a result, there was growing pressure for a hospital. Much of this came from the Women’s Missionary Society of the United Church of Canada, which began to collect promissory funds for a hospital in the area. The government agreed to contribute the same amount as the WMS and appoint a physician if the WMS would build the hospital. With support coming throughout the Prairie, sufficient funds were finally in place by the spring of 1936 to begin work on a facility large enough to serve the entire Prairie.
The site chosen for the hospital was on the bank of the Notikewin River, on the road midway between North Star and Notikewin. The land was donated by John Robertson. Work began that summer, with most of the labour and building supplies volunteered. The Chair of the Building Committee was H.A. Inglis, while construction of the balloon frame structure was supervised by W.D.C. Buchanan. Work continued throughout the winter, when possible, and into the following spring and summer. Finally, on 4 September 1937, the new eight bed Battle River Hospital was officially opened. It was an all inclusive facility, with space for an operating room, a waiting room, and a kitchen. Electricity was provided by an external Delco gas engine. The second floor was largely given over to living quarters for the three nurses, while Dr. Doidge lived in a separate cabin.
Serving a hinterland of about 4,500 people, the Battle River Hospital was reported by the WCS to have accommodated about 1,100 patients during its first five years of operation, in addition to many more out-patients. Over time, extra fixtures and equipment were added, most of them volunteered, such as a new X-Ray unit, installed in 1944. Also in 1944, a new three-room cottage was built for Dr. Doidge, who now had a wife, and, in 1945, a separate residence was built for the nurses. This allowed the second floor of the hospital to be made over into a nine-bed maternity hospital.
The small community growing up outside the hospital became known as Aurora. When the Mackenzie Highway was pushed through in 1947, Aurora became a government construction and maintenance center, quickly eclipsing both North Star and Notikewin in size. In 1951, it was incorporated as the Village of Manning with over 400 people. With continuing post war growth in the area, the old hospital was soon recognized to be too small for the district, and so, in 1955, a new municipal hospital was built. With this, the old hospital continued to serve the new one as an auxiliary until 1959, when it was purchased by Gertrude Dempsey. It then began to serve as a residence for children of broken homes, managed by June and Leonard Clare. In 1976, the Town of Manning purchased the property with the idea of retaining the building as a local historic site. It was then leased to several tenants until a hospital historical committee was formed, and work was begun on restoring and renovating the building. In 2009 the building was declared a Provincial Historic Resource.
Written by: David Leonard, Historian
Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Battle River Hospital in Manning. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Battle River Hospital.