In the late 1960's, Wanham 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 addition of the town newspaper said as much, and all the visible signs were there. Families were leaving, businesses were closing (including the 40-year-old sawmill), even the threatened consolidation of the local high school with that of Spirit River more than 30 km away.
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 community, Wanham contained several organizations put together for a variety of purposes. One night two meetings were scheduled for the same time and place- that was the accident. However, the same people showed up for both meetings, and it was then, that the die-hard spirit of Wanham was born. The group quickly created C.O.C.O (Community of Co-Operating Organizations) which in turn inspired athletic, cultural, economic, and social upheaval that has made this tiny farming community a very definite dot on the map ever since.
Under COCO planning the community’s activities were coordinated and with the focused goal and pooled energy that this aroused thing began to happen!
Improvements to recreational facilities were undertaken, new industry was planned and put into action. Ideas began action, which in turn resulted in new ideas so the snowball rolled. In the spring of 1971, The Community of Cooperating Organizations became a registered organization known as The Community of Coordinating Organizations or as COCO today.
One day down at the Wanham Café, Mr. Innes mentioned that Wanham should have a plowing match. Others in the café gathered around the table (somewhat startled) and asked “what’s a plowing match?” As sometimes happens, the more it was discussed, the more enthusiasm was gained for the 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 dads’ 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 in Wanham grew.
From that coffee table that spring morning in 1971, 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 hope that the vehicle of the Wanham 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 Wally, Stan and Denny the idea brought before a COCO general meeting. After giving some thought to the potential and what it would entail in regards to land, site, facilities and costs the idea became a reality and the 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 23-24, 1971. Sponsors were sought after to help with the cost, so that 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 with financial support. The department also supplied judges. With information used from a booklet from the international Plowing Match in Lindsay, Ontario, the classes along with rules and regulations were put together for that first Alberta Provincial Plowing Match.
There were many hurdles to overcome. Persuading farmer to participate, getting sponsors for the plowing events, and even selling the idea to machinery dealers and others. That first Match saw the following individuals serving as committee chairman under Mr. Ken 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.
With the 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. It was 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 Champian. 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 that at that time when you mentioned Wanham you were thinking of a depressed area. I have seen today, the jaunt through the countryside and what you have done by the way of community spirit and community effort is a transformation and revelation that is just wonderful! I confess I don’t know the story behind 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.”
52 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 50th match. Many of those involved today helped plan, or attended as a young child, that very first match.