In the late 1960's, Wanham, Alberta had a problem. It was a remote farming village tucked away in the northwestern part of the province, and it was gently but surely fading into the past.
The last, sad edition of the town newspaper said as much, and all the visible signs were there. Families leaving, businesses closing (including the village's 40 year old sawmill) and even the threatened consolidation of the local high school with that of nearby Spirit River. Things looked terminal for the 300-person community, 320 miles northwest of Edmonton.
But then a curious thing took place. An accidental happening that led to a cohesive, organized and enthusiastic movement to save Wanham from slipping into obscurity.
Like every other human community, Wanham contained several organizations. Put together for a variety of purposes. One night two meetings were scheduled for the same place at the same time. That was the accident. And the same people showed up for both meetings. It was at that get-together the die-hard spirit of Wanham was born. In the form of the quickly-created Community of Co-operating Organizations (COCO), which in turn inspired an athletic, cultural, economic and social upheaval that has made this tiny farming community a very definite dot on the map.
Under COCO planning, the communities activities were co-coordinated, and with the focused goal and pooled energy this aroused, things began to happen. Improvements to recreational facilities were undertaken. New industry was planned and put into operation. Ideas began action, which in turn resulted in new ideas and so the snowball rolled.
Far and away the most successful and best-known COCO undertaking is the Wanham Plowing Match.
In the spring of 1971, the Wanham community's unique community organization known as COCO wasn't even a year old. The Community of Co-operating Organizations (COCO) was formed the previous late spring. Later when COCO became a registered organization it became known by its present name, The Community of Coordinating Organizations.
One day down at the Wanham Cafe, Mr. Innes was having a coffee with Wally Tansem (A driving force in the community). Mr. Innes mentioned that Wanham should have a plowing match. Others in the cafe gathered around the table and were somewhat startled and asked, "What's a plowing match?" As sometimes happens, the more discussed the more enthusiasm is gained for an idea.
Mr. Innes was born and raised on a farm in Ontario and as a young lad had often had a desire to plow in the plowing matches in Ontario. He had attended the Portage la Prairie Plowing Match in Manitoba, while there as a student minister in 1967. While plowing in his dad's fields at home he always took great pride in plowing straight and doing a good job. Out of all these things, the idea of having a plowing match for Wanham grew. From that coffee table that spring morning of '71', the idea took hold and with the help of people like Wally Tansem, Stan Sather and Denny Sather, the idea spread. More and more people thought the idea had merit. It was their hop that the vehicle of the Plowing Match could become the means of giving the Wanham community something to have pride in, something to raise money, something to draw people to Wanham and make Wanham a known community.
With the help of Wall, Stan and Denny, the idea was brought before a COCO general meeting. After giving some idea of the potential and what it would entail in regards to land site, facilities and costs, the idea became a reality and plans were laid for the first Plowing Match. Langnes Co-op Farm donated a sod field southwest of Wanham. The date was set for the Match. August 23rd and 24th. Sponsors were looked for to help with cost, so if it failed nothing would be lost. Ken traveled out to Edmonton to the Department of Agriculture to see what information and help they might give. Again the idea of the plowing match had to be sold. Later meetings in Edmonton resulted in the Department slowly getting behind the idea and also in financial support. The Department also supplied judges. Information from a booklet from the International Plowing Match hale in Lindsay, Ontario was used to put together rules, regulations and classes for that first Alberta Provincial Plowing Match.
There were many hurdles to overcome. Persuading farmers to participate, getting sponsors for the plowing events, and selling the idea to Machinery Dealers and others.
That first year, the events of the Queen of the Furrow and horseshoe pitching were incorporated.
That first plowing match saw the following individuals serving as Committee Chairmen under Mr. Innes were as follows:
Terry Leriger, Stan Sather, Wally Tansem, Sam Parlee, Earl Lang, Bill Feniak, Wayne Grusie, Bud Sather, Art Krefting, Dick Anderson, Faye Jacobsen, Alice Renner and Neil Paulovich.
Due to devotion and long hours spent in discussions, working out details and to their leadership along with the complete cooperation of the Wanham community, The Plowing Match was set to go.
Finally THE DAY arrived. It was cold and windy. So windy that the banner over the entrance was torn down. The Match was officially opened by the then Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta, Grant MacEwan.
Albert Leriger emerged as the first Alberta Champion plowman and Bill Klimko as Reserve Champion. Judy Podruzney was the first Queen of the Furrow.
Grant MacEwan gave a tremendous boost to the match. It was his words that certainly were an indication of the future success of the event.
I can't help but reflect upon one of my earlier trips to Wanham. It was a number of years ago. I do know at that time, when you mentioned Wanham, you were thinking of a depressed area. What I've seen today, the jaunt through the countryside and what you have done by way of community spirit and community effort is a transformation and a revelation that is just wonderful. I confess I don't know the whole story about COCO, but it is something that is homegrown and intensely original. My admiration reaches its peak when I see people do things such as you have done. You have something here that must
fill you with pride"
49 years later, here we are gearing up for another Plowing Match. We are still a small community fighting for survival and looking for a place on the map. We take great pride however, in our community, as seen by the die-hard commitment involved from all of those involved to host this 49th match. Many of those involved today helped plan, or attended as a young child, that very first match.