Social and Cultural Life
Quirky facts ….
Present-day Saskatchewan might have been part of a larger province called Buffalo, if the Laurier Liberal government in Ottawa had heeded Frederick Haultain (premier of the former North-West Territories 1897 to 1905).
Norman Falkner experimented with skating on one leg as a boy in Saskatoon. After losing a leg in France during World War I, he was sent to England to recover, where he perfected this skill on a nearby pond, this time for real – although he had to be shoved onto the ice for momentum. Back in Canada, he made headlines skating between periods at hockey games across the continent. Two newspaper photos and a film clip attest to his remarkable skill.
Saskatchewan’s only naval battle occurred when the Northcote, converted into a battleship and fortified with mattresses and planks, fired on the Metis at Batoche during the 1885 Resistance. The Metis disabled it by lowering the ferry cable in its path, slicing off the boat’s smokestacks, and setting fire to the deck.
A lighthouse in the middle of the prairie? Yes! It sits at Cochin atop Pirot Hill on the east shore of Jackfish Lake; it is 38 ft. high and 1,867 ft. above sea level. The light still works. Be prepared to climb 153 steps for the view.
A tumour in his pituitary gland caused Edouard Beauprέ, the “Willow Bunch Giant” to grow taller than eight feet (2.43 m.) The Barnum & Bailey circus engaged him as a freak. After four years he quit, but toured again at twenty-two to support his nineteen siblings. He died soon afterwards. His mummified body, long on display in Montreal, is now in Willow Bunch, and his statue stands in front of the local museum.
A homesick Finn who had lost his family, Tom Sukanen poured out his grief building an ocean-going ship at his farm near Macrorie. He intended to sail it down the Saskatchewan River to Hudson Bay and across the sea to Finland. How it would have fared with its soaring keel over the shifting sandbars of the river system is easy to guess. He couldn’t even get it to the river.
Angus Mowat, father of author Farley Mowat, in the 1930s used to row his canoe from the family’s summer campground upriver, to a spot on the riverbank in downtown Saskatoon. Locals gaped as he dramatically hefted the boat over his shoulders, marched up the embankment and carried it to the library a few blocks away, where he was head honcho.
Saskatchewan does not have Daylight Savings Time, as do other Canadian provinces, but remains all the year on Central Savings Time – almost as strange as Newfoundland.
Dick Assman, who had been working in several Petro-Canada stations in 1995, got his fifteen minutes of fame that July on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” where he good-naturedly put up with mockery about his odd surname. He was a nightly feature for about a month, and earned the nickname Assman the Gasman.
Goofs and gaffes that made history
Reports of their deaths were greatly exaggerated. When Theresa Gowanlock and Theresa Delaney were captured after the Frog Lake Massacre in 1885, telegraph messages flew to eastern newspapers, which blared the fake news that they had been violated and murdered. Actually, they were sheltered in the camp of Big Bear, and returned to the east unharmed.
The myth that the North West Resistance was a widespread Indian rebellion is largely untrue. A few militant warriors in the camp of Big Bear joined Riel’s Metis uprising, along with some others, but most of the First Nations remained loyal to their treaty promises.
Billy Silverwood set up a plant to bottle water from a natural stream on his farm north of Saskatoon. Unfortunately, it was on the slope below his horse barn.
After World War I, the federal government enacted the Soldier Settlement Plan to reward veterans with land. This myopic generosity did not include Indigenous veterans. To make it worse, much of the land was confiscated from reserves – 72,620 acres in fact.
Saskatoon’s Robert Murray, internationally renowned sculptor, was considered a giant in his field. But not in Saskatoon, where his metal “fountain” sculpture caused an uproar, and in Ottawa a furor erupted in Parliament over another sculpture, so he fled to New York and his career took off. By 1975 he had exhibited in New York, Montreal, and Paris. Take that, ye Philistines!
The planned demise of the Capitol Theatre in Saskatoon sparked overt protests from heritage enthusiasts, and the wrecking ball’s early morning destruction of it infuriated many more citizens. The exotic theatre had been one of the magnificent atmospheric movie palaces of the twenties. The Roxy Theatre, the “poor man’s Capitol Theatre” on 20th Street West, still hosts excellent film fare.
Among other changes to the social safety net, sweeping provincial budgetary cuts announced in spring 2017 threatened to deprive Saskatchewan’s book-starved small towns of their prized intra-library loan system, featuring an innovative, blended, province-wide catalogue. But librarians and other book-lovers staged a colossal silent “read-in” at government offices around the province, and the silent clamour prompted the Tories to withdrew the measure.
Saskatoon gave the concept of “scramble corners” at intersections for pedestrians a noble try, starting in the 1950s. Reportedly it was being tested in November of 1954. Then special enabling traffic lights at certain intersections were installed along 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue, 3rd Avenue, and College Drive so pedestrians could cross the intersection diagonally, and every other which way. But there were snags. For one thing, some said elderly people couldn’t make it across in time. (Outspoken citizen Harry Landa challenged a city councilor’s claim that it could be done on hands and knees, by attempting to crawl across. He didn’t make it, but Liberty Magazine made hay with the story.) The lights were hard to synchronize with lights at other intersections, and they slowed traffic. By 1983 there were only five such intersections left, and in the spring of 1986 the scramble corner concept was dumped for good.
Parties on board the steamboat Qu’Appelle were once a popular diversion on Last Mountain lake. Port Hyman, at the southern tip, was its main port of call.
[Northwest Resistance: Stonechild & Waiser, Loyal Till Death. Indigenous vets overlooked: Waiser, A New History, 258-9. Controversial sculpture Weekend Magazine 15 March 1975. Scramble corners: City of Saskatoon Archives, StarPhoenix November 1954]
Oft-laid plans and unintended consequences
We didn’t see THAT coming!
Although well-intentioned, Rev. Isaac Barr’s plan to bring almost two thousand settlers from England in 1903 was a fiasco. The ship was cramped, the train trip was a drag, and the wagons bogged down travelling to the colony. The Barr Colonists replaced Barr with Rev. George Exton Lloyd as leader, and called their city Lloydminster, not Barrminster.
In Regina, the Grand Trunk Railway (later absorbed by the CNR) in 1912 began building what was meant to be a towering hotel, the Chateau Qu’Appelle, but after the GTR went bankrupt in 1919 the project was dumped and the embarrassing structure dismantled.
A Chicago investor bought land from Billy Silverwood and sold plots for a huge industrial development to be called Factoria. Factories and a hotel went up there but the economy tanked in 1913 and the investors lost their shirts!
Prince Albert started building a hydro-electric dam downriver in 1909. The proposed La Colle Falls dam was meant to power the city, but all it lit up was financial alarm bells. The engineer who sold the plan to P.A. left the job to locals. Costs soared. Then the 1913 recession hit, the city almost went bankrupt, and the dam idea was tossed like a hot potato in 1913.
One reason for building the Saskatoon weir in 1935 where they did was to provide a long, deep water strip for float planes serving the northern lake country to land and take off. Because more powerful aircraft capable of using much shorter runways were built in World War II, the Saskatoon water strip was never used for this purpose.
The Louis Riel Coffee House, according to local legend, refused Joni Mitchell when she was a young neophyte folksinger. Later on, they realized their mistake, and brought her back.
Building a ski “mountain” beside Blackstrap Lake south of Saskatoon seemed like a good idea at the time. Many prairie people learned to ski there, but the windswept mound was so icy it was downright lethal and the chairlift machinery gradually broke down. Today the “Prairie Pimple” still pierces the horizon, but downhill skiing there is only a memory.
The City of Saskatoon leased an off-street parking lot at 22nd Street and 4th Avenue to a developer in 1965, who began building what was hyped as Canada’s first multi-story parking tree on it. Though construction ceased the following year, legal battles prevented the city from clearing unsightly remnants of the structure for another five years.
In the 1990s wild boars or feral pigs, which once roamed the American south and Hawaii mostly, were imported to Saskatchewan to try to diversify agriculture. Wouldn’t you know it, they escaped from their pens and now wreak havoc gobbling our vegetation, terrorizing livestock and spreading foul diseases like E-coli, foot-and-mouth disease and bovine TB. Even worse, these scourges can afflict humans too. These boars show up mostly in the eastern part of the province.
A $2.5 million mansion, built between Weldon and Kinistino — far from any cities — attracted worldwide attention in October 2018. The twelve-thousand-square foot house with seven bedrooms, a music room, fitness room, home theatre, infra-red sauna, swimming pool and multiple-car garage space was sold by auction for about a fifth of its assessed value.
[Wild boars: Canadian Geography, 15 November 2017; cbc.ca/news-canada/saskatoon/wildboar-sightings-map….. GTP bridge: Brennan, Regina: An Illustrated History, 110. Riddell, Regina from Pile o’ Bones to Queen City of the Plains, 87. $2.5 million dollar mansion, StarPhoenix 9 and 12 October 2018. Weir: Saskatoon History Review #25, 2012: 7-23]
Tough cookies overcoming adversity
Adversity could take the form of murderous enemies, intemperate weather or seemingly impossible feats:
Big Bear, chief of a large band of Crees, was born ugly, and when he was twelve he contracted smallpox, which left his face pockmarked. None of this stopped him. His warrior exploits were legendary. Once, he and two Cree companions were surrounded by multitudes of hostile Blackfoot, and battled for two days. The three were reported to have killed nineteen chiefs, before the Blackfoot beat a retreat.
Sir William F. Butler, author of The Great Lone Land, was an army officer sent on an official mission to observe conditions in the northwest. On his return trip from Edmonton in the dead of winter he mushed his way by dogsled all the way to Red River in 1871. His report called for a special police force for the West, and it came to be – the NWMP.
“Big Tom” Hourie, Scottish mixed-blood son of Peter Hourie, General Middleton’s interpreter, swam across the South Saskatchewan River in March, among the ice floes, to deliver a message for the general. For the rest of his short life he suffered respiratory problems, and died young. Other Houries lived long and prospered, and spread across the continent.
Early in 1891, Abe Evans and a woman passenger going from Moosomin to Cannington Manor ran into a blizzard. They sheltered under their overturned wagon for two days, then he left to seek help. After he had trudged sixty miles in snow, farmers found him in a haystack and thawed out his feet, which later had to be amputated — but he survived. His passenger didn’t.
American Harry Otterson came to the T-Down Bar ranch near Eastend in November 1906, just as that killer winter began. His account of cowboys surviving days and days of sub-zero blizzards on the range authenticates Wallace Stegner’s harrowing story of cowboys in a similar plight. They made it to safety, but many of their cattle didn’t. Thousands of cattle died that winter.
Marcel Chappuis, then of the Saskatchewan Provincial Police, was ordered to trek 433 kms. by dogsled from Ile a la Crosse to Fond du Lac, almost as far north as Uranium City on the shores of Lake Athabasca. Starting in February 1919, unable to scare up a guide or companion, he did it alone, and wowed his SPP mates.
Glecia Bear told of an incident involving two indigenous children aged eight and eleven who got lost in the forest in autumn’s chill and toughed it out for two and a half days, fearing nothing but cold and hunger, before encountering their rescuers.
Edouard Beauprέ, the Willow Bunch giant, was known to have picked up horses during his circus performances.
A challenging trip in winter on an unmarked northern trail is described in “Bombardier.” When their snow machine broke down in the northern bush in winter, it took sixteen hours and some twenty-five miles of walking through heavy snow for three intrepid Metis to reach safety.
Prospector and trapper Kathleen Rice lived in Saskatchewan for only about ten months, but she achieved the remarkable feat of living alone in the northern Manitoba bush for decades, making some important mineral discoveries. An island in Wekusko Lake bears her name.
Pilot James Price was flying through white-out from Fort McMurray to Uranium City in 1953 when his plane crashed. His three prospector passengers were sozzled, so when no help arrived, he set out alone for a nearby camp but missed it. It was minus thirty-seven degrees F. He fell into frigid water, lit a fire, and his clothes caught fire, but a man in a dogsled saw him and rescued him. Four days after the crash they picked up the three prospectors, who survived.
Dr. J.W.T Spinks, long-time president of the U of S, met Grey Owl and his wife Anahareo. On a camping trip with Dr. Thorvaldson, Dr. Spinks rode in a canoe with Anahareo to pick up a “chesterfield” sent from Waskesiu, for Grey Owl’s cabin. He was astonished when Anahareo singlehandedly picked up the sofa and laid it across the canoe.
Outstanding early farmer Seager Wheeler walked alongside his loaded wagon, all the way from Moose Jaw to the Saskatoon area, and then rode horseback the 120.7 kms (75 miles) to Humboldt in a single day. He hauled his first load of wheat from his then homestead at Clark’s Crossing to Saskatoon in midwinter, with the temperature at about minus 37 degrees C. (35 below zero Fahrenheit) and sold it for twenty-five cents a bushel.
Henry Winston (Harry) Jerome competed at the Olympics as a track and field runner. His grandfather John Howard, a railway porter, was “Canada’s top sprinter in 1910” and competed at the 1912 Summer Olympics. Harry’s sister Valerie competed at the 1960 Olympics. Born in Prince Albert, he moved to Vancouver at twelve. But he never won Olympic gold, thwarted by repeated injuries. In 1960 he tore a hamstring, and in 1962 he suffered a “full quadriceps tear.” Still he kept on running: in 1964 he won bronze at the Tokyo Olympiad, a gold at the 1966 Commonwealth Games, and scored many triumphs elsewhere. His sister said his worse obstacle – at that time – was being African-Canadian. He’s in the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and Canada’s Walk of Fame. Jerome earned a master’s degree in phys ed at the University of Oregon, and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1971.
[Big Bear: Dempsey, Big Bear: The End of Freedom, 37. Blizzard: Beck, Pioneers of Cannington Manor, 41. Two children: Glecia Bear, Two Little Girls Lost in the Bush. Bombardier: Kisiskaciwan, 177-181. Hourie: Millar, Saskatchewan Heroes & Rogues, chapter 3. Jerome: canadaswalkoffame.com, olympic.ca/team-canada. Otterson: Otterson ms. at Sask. Archives; Chappuis: Stewart & Hudson, Mahony’s Minute Men. Price: McIntyre, Uranium City, 42-45; Rice: Millar, Sask. Heroes & Rogues (chapter). Anahareo: Spinks, Two Blades of Grass, 47. Wheeler: Saskatchewan History (fall 1996) 19]
Evading the whisky-sniffers
Rum-runners’ and bootleggers’ favourite hiding spots
After 1910, evading the Saskatchewan Provincial Police in prohibition days called for ingenuity. Distilleries in the province could legally ship liquor out of the province, and before prohibition in the U.S. “rum-runners” could illegally import it. But even before 1910, there were bootleggers.
Mary (Molly) Smith, believed to be an ex-slave, lived in ranching country around 1880 and boosted her income by bootlegging. She fabricated an ingenious bustle and bra out of leather, with pockets roomy enough to hide bottles of firewater undetected, to sell to First Nations people. She was plump enough to carry it off, at least for a while, but she must have clinked and clanked a little when she moved..
The Saskatchewn Provincial Police sniffed out illegal stills in root cellars, wells, barns, cafes and billiard halls, and even in a church. Some rum-runners hid booze under loads of grain.
Doctors before 1919 could prescribe liquor for “medicinal purposes.” In January 1917 pharmacists prescribed 29,640 bottles of twelve and twenty-six ounces of liquor. After tighter laws in 1919 restricting amounts they could prescribe, it dropped to 7,126 eight-ounce bottles. Quite a drop!
When it was realized that vanilla contained more alcohol than in available beer, vanilla became unusually popular until it was outlawed except by prescription.
Others hid theirs in train wheels, which overheated and had to be abandoned by railway sidings whereupon illegal traffickers following the trains would grab the firewater and abscond with it.
Ingenious bootleggers are reported to have slit the bellies of butchered hogs being sent to market. and hidden bottles in them. At Cannington Manor imbibers stored their bottles of booze in a haystack outside the Mitre Hotel.
[Molly Smith: Donny White, The Advance 3 March 2015]. Haystack: Beck, Pioneers of Cannington Manor, 36]
Supposedly haunted places
An internet search and a book or two provide scads of reports of strange ghostly sights, especially in old buildings. These stories are about as easy to prove as UFOs but provoke much merriment and perhaps fright value at Hallowe’en. Tour guides love ‘em.
There are claims that Cannington Manor Historic Park is haunted by a woman dressed in 1880s fashion, who some say they’ve seen lurking in the doorway of one of the rebuilt structures.
In Prince Albert, a black shadow was reported to be wafting around a house and slipping through a wall like Casper the Friendly Ghost. The sound of boots clumping up the stairway spooked people too.
The ghost train of St. Louis is an ongoing mystery: a white light that suggested an onrushing train, plus a smaller crimson light, were reported. According to legend, a conductor had been decapitated while inspecting railway tracks. The white light was perceived as the locomotive’s headlight, and the red light as the conductor’s lantern.
A spectral woman in red was reportedly seen peering through café windows in Boomtown at the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, just as staff were closing up.
The now-demolished Hangar Building, the former vintage home of the Greystone Theatre on the U of S campus, supposedly housed a phantom, students claimed.
At Miskowewkwan First Nations Reserve, there reportedly have been sightings of a wraith-like child with long black hair, believed to be there to protect the residents.
At Cumberland House, a witness reported answering the door to find an old man asking where the respondent’s grandparents were; they had died twenty years earlier. The witness later discovered a photo of his grandfather with his cousin, who looked just like the old man at the door.
Government House in Regina is said to be haunted too, as unnerving footsteps can be heard and music boxes spontaneously starting up, uncranked.
In North Battleford, someone reported that their cat refused to go downstairs, after spooky “monkey-like hands” were seen scrabbling under a door leading to the basement.
In Moose Jaw someone out for a walk claimed to have seen an apparition of a child mumbling and sobbing, blood running down her neck, before she vanished.
Writers who attended certain workshops in the former sanitarium near Fort Qu’Appelle to this day still say there was a spirit that haunted the place. One group consulted a Ouija board and determined that an unhappy soul named Tom was angry that his wife, or someone else named Gertrude, had died from experiments there, and couldn’t rest. On of the poets placated the spirit, and it seemed to settle down.
In the Marr Residence, the former Teachers’ College and the Avenue Building in Saskatoon, strange apparitions and sounds have been reported.
[Writers: Lois Simmie, Finding My Way, 293-300. General: local hearsay, internet sources]
Baring it all
Even in strait-laced Saskatchewan, nudity has long been practiced for its shock value
In 1899 the Sons of Freedom sect of the Doukhobors paraded in the nude into Yorkton, to protest a government rule that they must register for homesteads and swear allegiance to the Queen – they associated such rules with conscription. They eventually left for the Kootenays in B.C.
Two Adamite gurus (originally pickpockets from Missouri), believing themselves to be Adam and Eve reincarnated, led cult followers in a nude parade in 1908 in Saskatchewan to show they were “without sin.”
Mooning was another form of partial nudity practiced in fun (usually out the windows of speeding cars, by sozzled male youths). It happened here too.
From the 1950s to the 1980s nude “Lady Godivas” provoked snickers on the U of S campus during Frosh Week. In 1960 “she” was a bewigged student on a hobby horse. The original was a pig on a frantic scramble through the Bowl.
A revered Saskatchewan poet led budding writers on skinny-dipping outings at Fort San, back in the 70s, or so the story goes. It is unlikely this high-spirited activity has died out, in general.
In the 1970s full-frontal nudity first appeared on the stage. A Saskatoon actor bravely bared his all at a performance of Equus at the Greystone Theatre. At The Credit Union Place (TCUP), then called the Centennial Auditorium, performers in Hair and O Calcutta! did the same.
In the 1970s, streaking was a fad throughout North America. It involved disrobing, followed by a mad dash in front of spectators. It happened at the U of S and other places.
Strait-laced people may frown on nudity in public places, but it seems they overlook skinny-dipping at a secluded beach. “Bare-ass Beach” was actually Paradise Beach just south of Saskatoon, where mostly younger people stripped down for a swim.
An obscure strip club opened its doors in the Codette Hotel bar near Nipawin in recent years, but only lasted briefly, as strait-laced, small-town Saskatchewan frowned on it. Now the club is just a museum. Strip clubs are nowadays limited to non-licensed watering holes.
“The Full Monty” was witnessed in a stage production at Persephone Theatre in May, 2010.
[Adamites: Saskatchewan History 23: 2 (spring 1970): 70-4. Szumigalski: local recollections. Lady Godiva: Green & White fall 2016: Nipawin strippers: Maclean’s Magazine 21 May 2015]
Customs and traditions
Many customs were imported from countries from which immigrants came; many were practised in other provinces as well. Some still survive.
In fur trading days, dueling was temprarily revived when Irishman Hector McNeil, a Nor’Wester, taunted James McVicar, an HBC man, to engage him in a duel with swords at Ile a la Crosse. McVicar received “only a flesh wound.” Presumably, McNeil got off scot free.
Cree bands had a system like martial law that prevailed in times of war. In peacetime the chief held sway as the political leader. Chiefs were usually older men, more likely to be pacifist. In wartime, aggression was prized, so hot-headed youths took command as warriors or “soldiers.” They had their own lodge, like a barracks.
In homesteading days and beyond, neighbours often gathered for jobs one couldn’t do alone, or to speed things up — like quilting, seeding, soap-making bees, house or barn raising. Not to be invited was a slight.
Dances took place in the tiniest of homes, or in railway stations or schools. Surprise parties were planned to take place in other people’s homes.
Before telephones, farm families would drop in at neighbours’ homes unannounced for a visit. If they lingered until meal-time they would be invited to dine with the host family.
Christmas celebrations were short on expensive presents but long on community spirit.
Early in the 20th century, taffy pulls, sleigh rides, hay rides, swimming in dugouts and creeks were popular diversions. Children’s games included skipping, marbles, jacks, prisoner’s base, hopscotch, hide-and-seek and softball.
Before indoor plumbing, rural people collected rainwater from their roofs in galvanized tubs and heated it on the stove. Starting with the littlest, the family took turns having Saturday baths. Often a curtain was rigged up for privacy.
Farm families suspended butter, milk and other perishable items in a pail down the well to keep them cool.
Collecting gopher tails for a ransom was a spring ritual for boys.
“Rubbering” (listening in) on other people’s conversations on rural party lines was an unofficial form of communication (and gossip).
From the 1920s on, for rural people an excursion into town on Saturday nights was a highly-anticipated treat. They shopped, gossiped, debated, shared yarns, politicked, courted. Others lounged in cars or strolled along the main street people-watching, then swarmed into the local cinema.
In pre-TV, pre-cinema, pre-digital-photo days, people gathered for the showing of lantern slides, often travelogues akin to “trip to Europe” presentations today. Sometimes they were information-rich, like a modern documentary.
Before we had fridges and freezers, householders bought sides of meat and stored them in rented lockers at a freezer storage facility. To keep smaller items cold at home, they had iceboxes with tiny freezer compartments, in which ice blocks bought from the iceman were stored to chill the unit.
In the days before plastic, produce was displayed in bins in the store, and shoppers put their purchases in boxes or paper bags. In a reversion to old ways, some modern householders, shunning plastic, store perishables in squares of beeswax-soaked cloth that sticks to itself and doesn’t leak.
In the 1940s and 1950s, university (and some high school) students used to join hands and “snake” their way around the downtown area, in and out of the bars that were forbidden to those under twenty-one. This snake dance was outlawed in 1962. Too bad.
Jellied salads were a staple of fall (or fowl) suppers, which still survive — sans the jelly — as fund-raisers presented by church groups. The suppers were perhaps the ancestors of the popular pot-luck dinners that still prevail.
In the 1950s, teenagers cruised up and down the main streets eyeing each others’ cars and occupants, stopping occasionally for root beer at a local car-hop.
Annual Louis Riel Day races in Saskatoon involved relays in boats across the river, a frantic` horseback dash, and jubilant joggers carrying torches to the finish line in a riverside park.
Currently, theatre-goers usually rise in unison to give every stage production a standing ovation, merited or not. But it boosts the egos of out-of-town performers not aware of this custom.
[Duel: Arthur, Saskatchewan History 1974 (vol. 27): 2: 4. Unexpected visits: Rollings-Magnusson, The Homesteaders, 138, 142. Hot-headed youths: Dempsey. Others: authors’ experiences. See Facebook page “You know you’re from Saskatoon SK if you remember ….”]
Bigamists, sanctioned and unsanctioned
In fur trade days, Hudson Bay Company traders sometimes took First Nations wives, who bore them children. This posed a problem when they brought English wives from the Old Country, and often the Indigenous family was cast aside – a Canadian version of the tragic Madame Butterfly story, except that the First Nations wives carried on regardless. A case in point was Sir George Simpson, who had at least eleven children by eight women, only one of whom was his legal wife.
In pre-contact days, Indigenous men – especially the chiefs – were permitted to have more than one wife. One man in the Cannington Manor area had four wives who did not get along well, and one is said to have bitten the nose off one of her rivals.
Renowned author, conservationists and imposter Archie Belaney (Grey Owl) was a bigamist and got away with it. He neglected to divorce his first wife before marrying three more. His first wife was Angele Egwuna (Anishinaabe), whom he married in 1910, and that marriage spawned a daughter, Agnes Belaney. His best-known partner was Anahareo, shown here.
The Mormon belief system permits men to have more than wife, which shocked Saskatchewan homesteaders.
And the one who ought to have committed bigamy rather than murdering his wife, disgraced Mountie John Wilson is one of Saskatchewan’s most famous murderers, thanks to Lois Simmie’s bestseller about him.
Legal sources list many cases of Saskies charged with bigamy. Sometimes they remarried in the mistaken belief that their spouse was dead. Others, not so much.
[First Nations chiefs: Beck, Pioneers of Cannington Manor, 58. Simmie, The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson]
To the manor born
Saskatchewan has been home to a surprising number of immigrants with claims to nobility. Many such tales are told in community histories. Akin to oral histories, they give voice to collective memory. But memory is capricious, as half-forgotten tales of lofty lineage percolate through generations. Scholarly accounts are more credible. Many chroniclers wrote that aristocrats thought life on the Canadian prairies would be a lark, but French nobility may have been fleeing political chaos at home. The self-indulgent lifestyles of aristocrats led to business fiascos, or so it is said. Most of them left.
Canon Adelbert J.L. Anson, second son of the Earl of Lichfield and an Oxford graduate, left England to become a roving missionary in Canada’s northwest. He ended up in Regina, where he became the first bishop of the Diocese of Assiniboia (later Qu’Appelle).
Anna Borkowski and her husband, former Russian conductor Jan Borkoswky, were living in Assiniboia and operating a tea-house in 1930 when teen-ager M.D. Roang worked for them. An astounding story emerged from their friendship. Anna claimed to be a second cousin to the tsar who was murdered in the Bolshevik revolution. When she was young, she said, Jan had rescued her when members of the royal family were being assassinated in a theatre. He hid her under the stage, and then took her home where he sheltered her in a locked room in his basement. Later he married her, smuggled her out of Russia, and brought her to Canada. True or not, it’s a story that could morph into a romantic movie.
Guy Armand Thomas de Cargouet, who claimed to be a French viscount, lived briefly by the Frenchman River west of Eastend in 1908. He was noted chiefly for the horses he raised, and his fondness for whiskey.
The renowned Sir John Pepys Lister-Kaye was the third Baronet of Oulds, Yorkshire. He arrived in Canada in 1884, having been a successful realtor in California. He launched the 76, a sprawling cattle company dotted along the CPR.
Lord Milton, William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam — son of the Earl of Fitzwilliam — spent at least a winter near Fort Carlton, hunting and trapping on an extended journey west from Red River in 1862 to the west coast. He is mentioned because he wrote a book that may have helped bring the west into Confederation.
The French counts of St. Hubert near Whitewood, led by Rudolph Meyer, immigrated in the 1880s to escape political turmoil in France. Some settled at “La Rolanderie” at St. Hubert. They included Count Yves de Roffignac, Count Jukes de Beaulaincourt, Count Joseph Pradel de Farquette, Count Paul de Beaudrap, Viscount Joseph de Lengle, Count Jean de Jumilhac (later Marquis of Richelieu), Count Henri de Soras, Viscount Alphonse de Seyssel, and others. De Beaudrap was probably the only one to remain on the prairies, although he returned to France for a while, and then came back to Canada and operated a ranch near Trochu, Alberta.
Also living in the Whitewood area was a man locally known as Baron de Brabant and his brother from Belgium. Arriving in May 1887, they fraternized with their co-linguists from France. They set up Bellevue Coffee Company, and dabbled in coffee production there. After their barn burned down they moved to Richelieu in 1888, but that barn burned down too. One source says he replaced the Count de Soras as his farm manager.
Another man, known as Le Baron de Salvaing de Boissieu, was not officially one of the French counts of St. Hubert, but his daughter Germaine de Boissieu was said to be the wife of the Count de Roffignac, a well-known member of the St. Hubert community.
Gerald, Bernard and Cecil Rice, grandsons of a Lord Monteagle, came to Canada and settled on Cottonwood Creek south of Pense near Regina around 1885. (One later became a British ambassador to the U.S.). They built a mansion, stables and blacksmith shop on their land. Only Gerald and his wife tarried for long – in their case, only a single generation.
Michael Sherbinin was said to be a Russian count who, like Tolstoy, admired the simple “peasant” life. As a member of the Protestant Religious Tract Society, he feared reprisals from Russian bigwigs. The Quakers brought him to Saskatchewan where he became a missionary and teacher, until Doukhbor leader Peter Verigin outlawed the school where the count was teaching, so Sherbinin left for Winnipeg.
A French immigrant named Phillippe Ferdinand was farming in the Saskatoon area when, some time after 1903, lawyers arrived in Saskatoon from France, searched out his house near Caswell Hill, and asked him to sign a form that would relinquish his claim to the French throne! Philippe’s father Henry was a “member of the Orleans branch of the House of Bourbon, but born, as they say, ‘on the wrong side of the blanket,’” wrote City of Saskatoon archivist Jeff O’Brien. Phillippe “would thus have been related to Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) who overthrew Charles X in 1830 and reigned until … 1848.” Henry was born in 1827 in Alsace-Lorraine, had fallen in love with a weaver’s daughter, and was promptly disinherited. The young lovers immigrated to Quebec, but ended up in Saskatoon. No record remains of this lofty lineage, but the story still survives as oral history.
The wealthy and noble Esterhazy family in Hungary did not recognize “Count Esterhazy” who claimed to be a member of their family. His real name was Johannes Packh. Still, he helped settle some thirty-five Hungarian families, and the community bears the name he coveted. Maybe that’s better than a coat of arms anyway.
Equally well known is Count Berthold von Imhoff of St. Walburg, said to be the son of Count Leopold and Rosana von Imhoff of Germany. He was famed for his paintings and murals depicting Christian scenes that grace churches throughout Saskatchewan and far beyond. Pope Pius XI awarded him a knighthood, the Order of St. Gregory.
Christian Uytendale, known locally as Baron de Bretton, homesteaded south of Percival near the Pipestone Valley (St. Hubert). A remarkable story appears in a document prepared for the National Historic Register in the U.S. Uytendale had sold his historic farm in Swift County, Minnesota and came to Canada with a niece and nephew. Though he didn’t appear in official records as a baron, someone at the Danish archives opined he might have been related to Lucas Uytendale, Baron de Bretton. Also known as Captain Kristian Uytendale (sometimes spelled Uyttendale), he died in 1912. He and his family are buried at Whitewood, except a supposed baroness who moved to B.C., but some sources say he never married. A mystery.
[Anson: Drake, Regina: The Queen City, 26. Borkowsky: M.D. Roang, ” Russian Royalty Settled in Small Prairie Town,” Western People 6 August 1967, 10. De Brabant: Kristian I.W. Sullivan thesis, The French Counts of St. Hubert: An Archaeological Exploration of Social Identity, U of S, 2009. De Cargouet: Ft. 15, chapter 5, Guy Armand Thomas de Cargouet, Tenaille collection, Sask. Archives Board. De Salvaing: Revue Historique vol. 10 no. 2 December 1999. Ferdinand: Jeff O’Brien, “The Man Who Could be King,” Sunday Sun, 2 February 2010. Lister-Kaye: McGowan, Grassland Settlers; Spencer, Lands, Brands and Hands of the 76 Ranch. Lord Milton: Dictionary of Canadian Biography online; Rice: Drake: Regina, the Queen City, 44; Sherbinin: A Thousand Miles of Prairie, 177. French counts: Sullivan thesis; photo from “Gallery of Portraits”, Revue Historique v. 10 no. 2 December 1999; Memories of St. Hubert, 1980. Uytendale: National Register of Historic Sites, U.S. Dept. of the Interior; display panel at Whitewood Museum]
Second sons and remittance men
Though not necessarily titled, some men benefitted from their parents’ wealth. Some had been banished, or left because as “second sons” they were denied large inheritances. Those supported by wealthy parents were called remittance men. Unused to physical labour, most of them were notoriously inept homesteaders.
Ernest, Billy and Bertie Beckton were banished to Canada where they settled at Cannington Manor. When they came into a fortune from mining shares in Spain, they bought a horse-breeding farm, built a twenty-six-room stone mansion with a bachelor’s wing and called it “Didsbury.” There was also a foreman’s house and stables for their race horses.
A towering twenty-room house (a mansion but for its plainness), near Cannington Manor, still stands on its sturdy stone foundation. The wealthy and cultured James Humphrys built the house in 1888 and his family lived in it until his death fifteen years later.
In 1904 Arthur Hewlett bought the Humphrys house; it is quite likely he was a remittance man. A bachelor not concerned about appearances, he stored grain and machinery in some of its rooms, until his English bride “Maisie” arrived and tidied it up. She wrote a spirited book about their life there.
One affluent Frenchman, Benjamin Limoges, built his nine thousand-square-foot mansion just outside Whitewood in 1885. It had seven staircases, forty-five windows and fifty doors, and still survives as an antiques shop.
Maple Creek attracted French plutocrats Jean and Dan Tenaille. Jean’s grand residence was near Maple Creek, while Dan’s was near Eastend. By 1903, at twenty-three, Dan had spent $60,000 on a lavish house with two storeys, a two-level veranda, French wallpaper and indoor plumbing. In 2018 Dan’s residence was being moved into Eastend to preserve it.
Another wealthy Frenchman, Guy Armand Thomas De Cargouet, arrived in 1902, and built a stone mansion west of Eastend, where he raised fine horses and lived the good life. He disappeared from the scene around 1908, possibly having lost his shirt in 1906, the disastrous winter when thousands of cattle perished on the ranges.
A group of English bachelors, possibly remittance men, immigrated to Wolseley in the early 20th century. One, Frank Vincent, became a local legend. He was a noted for his horsemanship and riding to hounds. He was postmaster from 1918 to around 1950.
Robert de Wolfe came from the wealthy French piano manufacturing company, Pleyel-Wolfe. He settled briefly at Whitewood, then moved to the Qu’Appelle Valley where he invested in a ranch.
[Beckton brothers: Zuehlke, Scoundrels, Dreamers and Second Sons 108, and Maisie Hewlett, A Too Short Yesterday, 64. Hewlett/ Humphrys house: panel at site. Tenaille brothers: Ladow, The Medicine Line; archivist Donny Cook. De Cargouet: Ladow; Wolseley: Bridging the Past, 487. De Wolfe: Whitewood Museum]
Fluffy and Mutt
Famous pets and other animals
Grey Owl/Archie Belaney’s fascination with beavers led him to cultivate a colony of them. Two of them, Jelly Roll and Rawhide, spawned a brood named Wakanee, Wakanoo, Silverbells and Buckshot. Some people claimed there was a beaver lodge in Belaney’s cabin.
Amos Kinsey tamed two bush elk in northern Ontario, and trained them to accept a harness and bridle, and pull a buggy — it was said. The fleet-footed creatures were a boon at Cannington Manor, from whence they conveyed ailing patients to Moosomin doctors in just an hour, while horses took a day, and oxen two or more.
Author Wallace Stegner adopted a crippled colt on the family farm. He nursed it lovingly, even convincing his father to have braces made for it. Mournfully he entrusted it to a local rancher for better care, not knowing it would be euthanized. He was devastated when he found its skinned body in the local dump.
A talking pet parrot named Victoria, owned by the family of Moose Jaw tycoon Wellington White, was renowned for squawking “rule Britannia.”
Farley Mowat’s dog Mutt was the subject of his book The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, with Mutt.
“Lady Victorine”, a purebred Barred Plymouth Rock hen, if not egg-zactly a pet, was widely acclaimed for her exuberant output in 1928 — 358 eggs in 365 days. Either the victim of avian flu, or students who roasted her for the annual engineers’ banquet, she disappeared the next year before fulfilling her genetic promise.
“Sergeant Bill”, a goat, was adopted as a mascot by the 5th Canadian Battalion, Saskatchewan Regiment in World War I. The soldiers smuggled him to France where they claimed he saved lives by butting them into a trench, for which they awarded him medals and a promotion. After he died he was stuffed and for years adorned the halls of the Saskatchewan legislative building.
Ed Price of Nipawin co-owned a pool hall on 1st Avenue, where his two tame bears roamed freely and around town as well. It is not known how local storekeepers felt about their furry guests.
A NWMP Constable named Hardy had a pet Canada goose that used to march on parade with the Mounties and at night acted as if he had been appointed a sentry.
“Scotty” was a border collie imported from Scotland in 1929 by sheep rancher Bill Martin. The award-winning dog – known for his surly, irascible character – efficiently rounded up the sheep. But he adored his human, the only person allowed to pet him.