Obadiah Place, Amber Valley: Commemorating African American Settlement in Alberta

Willis and Jeanie Bowen at Amber Valley, courtesy of the Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society.

Willis and Jeanie Bowen at Amber Valley, courtesy of the Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society.

In January of 2017 the Government of Alberta officially proclaimed February as Black History Month, recognizing the contributions people of African and Caribbean descent have made to the province. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Black History Month in Canada, a time to celebrate the history and achievements of black Canadians within Canada.

In the spirit of that announcement, RETROactive would like to feature one of Alberta’s historic places, which commemorates African American settlement. The Obadiah Place at Amber Valley was designated as a Provincial Historic Resource in 1990. The following information is adapted from the Alberta Register of Historic Places.

In 1911, a party of black Americans made their way from Oklahoma to seek a new life on lands north of Edmonton. Recent statehood for Oklahoma had brought with it restrictive ‘Jim Crow’ laws and many black Americans decided to seek their destiny elsewhere. Amid concerns expressed by the Edmonton Bulletin and the Edmonton Board of Trade about a mass influx of black settlers to western Canada, these families filed for homesteads on lands east of Athabasca Landing, near a locality soon to be known as Pine Creek, renamed Amber Valley in 1931. The settlement would eventually number some 300 people. Here, they farmed and, over the years, developed a strong sense of community. They became active in the social life of the district, particularly in sports, with the Amber Valley baseball team gaining province-wide recognition.

Baseball team, Amber Valley, Alberta ca. 1930. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives NA-704-6.

Baseball team, Amber Valley, Alberta ca. 1930. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives NA-704-6.

One of the early settlers to the district was Willis Reese Bowen. He was born in Butler County, Alabama in 1875, and was married to Jeanie Thigpen, the daughter of a Cherokee chief, in 1893. The couple soon moved to Texas, where Willis worked as a cowboy and from there to the Oklahoma Territory. Shortly after the institution of statehood in 1907, the family determined to seek a new life in Canada. Willis, Jeanie and their seven children first came to Saskatoon, and then moved with several other families to Vancouver in 1910. Three years later, Willis filed for a homestead on SW23 TP66 R20 W4. This was at the center of what would be the Amber Valley community, with the post office and later, a telephone located there. Here, the Bowens began to farm and raise 14 children. Willis would remain on the farm until 1970 when, at age 95, he retired to a nursing home in Athabasca. He would live to see his 100th birthday before passing away in 1975.

Historic aerial view of Bowen Farm at Amber Valley with Obadiah Place at far left. Source Unknown, Courtesy of the Historic Resources Management Branch, Alberta Culture and Tourism.

Historic aerial view of Bowen Farm at Amber Valley with Obadiah Place at far left. Source Unknown, Courtesy of the Historic Resources Management Branch, Alberta Culture and Tourism.

The Bowens’ seventh child was named Obadiah. He was born in Lincoln County, Oklahoma in 1907 and moved with his parents to Amber Valley. In 1936, Obadiah married Eva May Mapp, also of Amber Valley, in the Anglican Church in Athabasca. The couple went on to farm on the original Bowen homestead, as well as their own land, and raise six children. Obadiah became a recognized community leader and served as a pastor in the community’s interdenominational church. Built in 1953, on land donated by Obadiah, the church still stands one half mile from the Bowen house.

To accommodate his family, Obadiah had replaced his father’s log cabin in 1938 with a larger house, built under the direction of the community carpenter, Howard Hamilton. Though he would retire with the death of Eva in 1972, Obadiah would remain in this dwelling until moving to the Athabasca Parkland Lodge in 1996. The historical significance of this structure lies in its association with the Amber Valley settlement and two of its leading citizens. Though not an original homestead dwelling, this house is the oldest surviving structure in the community. Due to its size, it was frequently used for social gatherings.

Restored Obadiah Place, courtesy of the Historic Resources Management Branch, Alberta Culture and Tourism.

Restored Obadiah Place, courtesy of the Historic Resources Management Branch, Alberta Culture and Tourism.

Obadiah Place, registered in the Alberta Register of Historic Places, is a historically significant place due to its association with the African American settlement of the Amber Valley area of the County of Athabasca, and two of the community’s leading citizens Willis Reese Bowen and his son Obadiah. Obadiah Place is a vernacular wood, one and one-half storey, “square house” with four farm outbuildings and a phone booth located on a parcel of land on the Obadiah Bowen farm.

Information reproduced from Alberta Register of Historic Places: https://hermis.alberta.ca/ARHP/Details.aspx?DeptID=1&ObjectID=4665-0530

For previous RETROactive posts about Alberta’s Black heritage see Allan Rowe’s piece on African American Immigration to Alberta: https://albertashistoricplaces.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/african-american-immigration-to-alberta

and Ron Kelland’s piece “Naming and Renaming: The Place Names of John Ware”: https://albertashistoricplaces.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/naming-and-renaming-the-place-names-of-john-ware/

Written By: Peter Melnycky, Historian

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