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The Hamlet of Aetna

by Kelvin Jensen, James Hansen et al.
Chief Mountain Country" pages 53-56

The Hamlet of Aetna, Alberta, is located about five miles southeast of the Town of Cardston just east of Highway 501 on the south half of Section 23; T. 2; R. 25; west of 4. Snake Creek winds through the hamlet site. The rugged Rockies loom above the hill to the west; and the beautiful St. Mary (or St. Mary's) River valley lies two miles to the east. The original site of the community center was some two miles east on a rise of ground overlooking the river valley. An L.D.S. church house (also serving as a private school house, with Johnny Myer as the first teacher) was built on the original site in 1894, and was the community center even after it was moved to the new site in 1897.

Early settlers who preceded the Mormons in this area included a detachment of the North West Mounted Police across the river, the Colleses, the Shaws, the Harpers, the Perry brothers, and Percy Ashe.

By 1890 enough Mormon families had arrived in the area that they organized the "Snake Creek" Sunday School in the home of Joseph H. Ellison whose homestead straddled Snake Creek to the northeast of Aetna's present site. George M. Hudson, who lived a mile west of the present hamlet site, was the first superintendent of the Sunday School.

For the next four years church meetings were held in the homes of members, particularly in the elegant, three-story home of Richard Pilling Sr. on the St. Mary River bottom to the northeast.

In the spring of 1893 the Snake Creek Branch of the Cardston Ward was organized with Richard Pilling as the Branch Presiding Elder. On December 17 of that same year the organization was changed to a "ward", with Richard Pilling as the first Bishop, and Niels (or Neils) Hansen and John Pilling as his counselors. Thomas Owen King was the ward clerk; Joseph H. Ellison the superintendent of the Sunday School, with assistants Richard A. Pilling and George M. Hudson; and William Sheffield the ward chorister and choir leader.

At first the ward comprised 16 families-soon to be increased to 23, with a total head count of 119. Promi- nent family names besides those already mentioned in- clude Christian F. Jensen, John Gregson, George Bennett, Peter Skriver, John W. Woolf, Elias Pilling, Joseph Pilling, Hyrum Hansen, Ezra Hansen, James Kearl, Frank Bevans, and others.

It was in 1893 that the community was given its new name by John W. Taylor, an L.D.S general authority from Salt Lake City visiting in the area at the time. He was impressed by the shape of a hill-now locally known as "Buffalo Hill" just behind the present ranch home of Kelvin Jensen-as resembling that of Mt. Etna in Sicily. The present spelling is a modification of"Etna".

Early settlers in the Colles district east of the St. Mary River were counted on the Aetna Ward rolls until that district became the "East Aetna Branch" in 1897. There was also a "West Aetna Branch" in 1899 presided over by Homer Woolf whose homestead was about where the Don Forsyth ranch lies.

After the church house was moved to the present hamlet site in 1897, school was held in the home of George M. Hudson, where the first teacher was a Mr. Maxwell, followed by a Mr. A. McDonald. It was not long until a school house was built a block west of the church house on the east bank of Snake Creek. The Snake Creek Public School District No. 445 of the North West Territories was officially formed June 30, 1897.

An addition was made to the church at this time also making it the envy of other similar settlements. Naturally being well provided with church and school facilities the hamlet grew rapidly. Settlers bought lots in the village, built homes on them, and commuted to their farms for seasonal work. The religious, social recreational, and educational needs of their families were thus served for many years after 1897.

A modern, two-story church house was built in 1937 It contained chapel, classrooms, recreational hall, stage and kitchen. It served the ward for 35 years until they built again, this time with the Cardston Fourth Ward, on the southern outskirts of Cardston.

Richard Pilling Sr. presided over the Aetna Ward un- 1899. Succeeding Bishops were Niels Hansen, 1899- 1902; Nathan W. Tanner, 1902-1918; James Henry Tanner, 1918-1920; Andrew C. Jensen, 1920-1933; Ben H. May, 1933-1934; Christian Jensen, 1934-1946; Willis A. Pitcher, 1946-1950; Ora L. Jensen, 1950-1960; Harold L. Jensen, 1960- 1964; Dick Richards, 1964- 1972; L. George Cahoon, 1972-1073; and William J. Richards, 1973-present time (1978).

The old school, built on the east bank of Snake Creek, became a two-room school and served the aims of education as best it could until it was replaced by a newer structure built on the corner of the village square in the late 1930's/ The old, two-room shell still stands - a decaying monument to the laughter and tears of the youth of yesteryear. Its successor, with the coming of centralized schools, was ignobly dragged to Cardston and forced to pay homage to grander structures for generations yet to come.

Early houses and other buildings were built of log and rough-hewn planks brought from the mountains to the west. Some were later covered with siding or stucco, and still stand and are habitable. Others have been demolished to make room for modern structures. Only a few remain to weather and crumble to dust, but they have to be seen to be only partially appreciated.

The community of Aetna has always been a mixed farming district. Hence it welcomed the coming of irriga- tion in the 1940's. Livestock production has been a major part of its agricultural pursuits. The hamlet itself sup- ported a general store for over 30 years-the first being operated by Hyrum Hansen even before 1900. There was also a creamery in the early days operated by Mr. J. A Dangerfield. A post office, usually located in the general store, took care of the mail's services. Coal mines were opened up in the St. Mary River and Lee Creek valley by Lorenzo Hansen. The farmers more or less took care of their own blacksmithing needs or went to Cardston for them. Cardston has always been Aetna's chief source of supplies, and the main marketing center for its products. By 1900 Aetna's population was estimated to be 40 souls, and probably reached its peak by World War I.

In the past the community has sponsored many worthy endeavours, besides those associated with making a living. The menfolk have always supported athletics and achieved much success in wrestling, boxing, baseball and basketball. Choirs, bands, and orchestras were organized and furnished music for churches, dances, celebrations, and special occasions. Dramatics troupes staged many high calibre productions. Aetna's sons responded to their adopted country's call in both World Wars,-some of whom paid the supreme sacrifice. A number of prominent civil servants, churchmen, and educators have come out of Aetna.

Some descendants of its pioneer families still reside in Aetna, and carry on the traditions of that sturdy stock. Other descendants have gone far afield to stand in high places in their chosen professions.

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Mary Tollestrup