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R.M. of Snipe Lake

Our Story:

A Concise History

The hill is visible for miles, its distinctive notch a landmark used by man through the centuries. To the southwest the many deep ravines twisting towards the river present a dramatic landscape. To the northeast a gently undulating plain, sloping south to the river, its west side marked by a ridge of grassed hills, its eastern boundaries marked by yet another ridge visible on the horizon. Early pioneers could stand on the height of land on either side of the defile, now known as ‘the Gap’, and see a tremendous stretch of grass unmarked by either buildings or trees. By the 1920’s it was possible to see seven towns and villages from the hill, their presence marked by that prairie icon, the elevator. However, this history must begin much before this time, as for thousands of years these rich grasslands have attracted animals. Sloughs and small lakes provided water in wet years, the river in times of drought. The river valley has provided shelter for nomadic hunters for at least eleven thousand years. Around seven thousand years ago a severe, long-lasting drought caused the large bison to begin to decline, to be replaced by the smaller plains bison, which we know as the buffalo. About the same time as the Greeks were building their amazing civilization, around twenty-five hundred years ago, things were also flourishing on the northern plains, as this area experienced a cool wet climatic period, the good grazing supporting thousands of animals. We find evidence of the people living in this paradise in the teepee rings dotting the surrounding hills, but few on the plain itself. The settlers no doubt dug out these circles of stone so their precious ploughshares would not be damaged. But perhaps these nomads just appreciated beauty more than we ever imagined, as almost all the camps we find were built on high promontories, with a good view and usually a breeze to help with the mosquitoes. Along the river (the word Saskatchewan meaning swift water in Cree), their lodges, the gaps in the stone rings still showing how they opened to the morning sun, were built on areas which must be called spectacular, with sweeping vistas down immense coulees to the water below.

Prior to the coming of the white man to North America, the native peoples of the area, primarily Cree and Blackfoot (who were so named because of their moccasins, black from soot of the many prairie fires) co-existed remarkably peacefully, trading and even going to war against common enemies, but after 1500 two things changed, the first being the introduction of the horse, which was almost the equivalent of the introduction of the airplane to later societies. Methods of hunting and warfare immediately changed and larger areas of territory could now be controlled.

RM of Snipe Lake #259

RM of Snipe Lake #259

A desire to acquire more of these animals, first introduced into this country by the Mandans from the Black Hills far to the southeast, led to endless thievery, which in turn led to more serious altercations. The second and more serious change was the introduction of various European diseases to a population with no immunity. The most vicious killer being smallpox. The Hudson’s Bay Company, which controlled all of Western Canada, took good care of their trappers, primarily Crees, and vaccinated them in 1837 against an epidemic. Suddenly the area between the two branches of the Saskatchewan became under populated as the Blackfoot inhabitants succumbed to the disease, as had the previous residents, the Gros Ventres, the remnants of which moved back south of the border in the late 1700’s. By 1886 the Cree had pushed to the Red Deer forks. The last major battle between the two took place near Lethbridge and although the Crees were defeated, the Blackfoot ceased to be a presence in Southwest Saskatchewan after this.

The Federal Government by 1886 had this area surveyed, the iron pegs in place. But for almost twenty years, the few inhabitants were ranchers headquartered along the river as most settlement was taking place closer to Regina, Saskatoon and along the Soo Line. However, as these areas filled and increased advertising by the Government and the Railroads both in Europe and the U.S.A. began to result in an increasing flow of newcomers, new areas of settlement became attractive. There were three main avenues available to acquire land at this time, the first being to homestead available land under the conditions set forth by the Dominion Land Act. Under this legislation, the applicant had to be a British Subject or declare his intention of becoming one. Upon payment of a $10 fee the new settler had to live on the homestead quarter for 6 months of the year and break up at least 10 acres a year. Early settler Hawten Sheasby wrote in the early 1950’s, “We had to win a bet with the Government, ten dollars against 160 acres of land that we would stay with it for three years. We did it and won and are still here.”

The amount of land available for homestead was decreased by two main factors, as the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had originally gained control of Western Canada under a Charter from King Charles the Second in 1670, was given title to all of section 8 and 3/4 of section 26 in each municipality in return for relinquishing this control. The Federal Government, knowing that transportation was to be a key factor in the success or failure of Western farming, negotiated with the Canadian Northern Railroad that in return for their providing rail service to the area they would be granted the odd numbered sections in townships 24, 25 and 26. These sections therefore couldn’t be homesteaded, but were instead sold to private land companies who then resold to investors and settlers.

There were a few other avenues available to acquire more land, as a homesteader could pre-empt another quarter section adjacent or close to his homestead for a fee of $3 per acre, and following a tradition that governments the world over have adopted (the Romans used it extensively) the Dominion Government issued script to veterans returning from various wars. Their reasons were the same as those of earlier civilizations, to fill up empty spaces, to reward those had survived the conflict and to keep the cities from being overrun by excess population. South African script was land, which had become available in half section blocks to volunteers of the South African (Boer) War. Much of this land found its way into the hands of speculators and also was resold, usually for about $2 per acre. This idea was used as recently as World War Two when land in this Municipality and Newcombe to the west was purchased by the Federal Government and made available to returning veterans.

Artwork Aug./04 WDM

Artwork Aug./04 WDM

Early land maps list, in a few cases, the words “Halfbreed Script” as the original owners. This term, now considered almost a racial slur, was how the Government of the day described these lands, granted as a result of the Riel Rebellion, and Metis unrest over land they had long considered to be theirs being given to incoming settlers. Realizing the justice of the Metis claims, script was issued, usually valued at $140 and it was transferable. The majority of this land also ended up listed with real estate companies.

Settlement occurred in two waves, the first beginning in about 1905, although prior to this time ranches along the river had been established. The Three Bar, on which three generations of the Davis family lived and now occupied by the Carter family; Larsons with headquarters at Larson’s Grove and a popular picnic site in later years, now home to the Moens; Wickeys, the cabin built in 1903 as headquarters for a horse ranch by Bob Davis and the first patent filed in the Municipality, and to the west, Kesslers, close to the site of the present ferry crossing.

Most settlers coming into the area in the years prior to the 1910 arrival of the railroad at Kindersley, made their way laboriously north from Swift Current on the Battleford Trail, crossing the river on the ice in the winter and by ferry during the summer months. Early spring would find hundreds of settlers, complete with oxen, horses, and wagons piled high with their possessions, camped on the south bank waiting for the ice to go out and the ferry to be put in service. In her history of the area, Vernette Armstrong let Jimmy Cook, coming from North Dakota in 1906, describe what awaited on the other side:

“The North bank was steep and so churned up with traffic that our horses were hard put to make the climb. The Battleford Trail was so deeply rutted from the Red River carts that when one set got too deep, the carters moved over one half width of the cart. The result was that the ruts were spread over ten rods in places.” One can only imagine what it would have been like when it was wet. At the top of the hills the trail forked, the Battleford Trail continuing north and the Red Deer Cart Trail turning northwest, winding along north of the river coulees, past Pioneer Gap and out of the Municipality to the west.

Early arrivals often hired ‘land locators’ to help them find a suitable homestead. William Kraft spoke of being assured that the land to the east was “too heavy and unfit for cultivation” and was strongly advised to settle on the lighter soils. This ground was much easier to plough and was close to both wood and water at the river, two commodities that were to be in great demand in future years.

Various types of shelters were constructed, ranging from using the sods turned over by the plough shares and piled against a frame of poles dragged from the river, to more refined dwellings made of shiplap, laboriously freighted in from Swift Current prior to 1910. Settlers, realizing how important their animals were to their welfare, usually built a good sod barn first, as they lived in a tent or under a wagon box through the first summer. This resulted in the animals being warm and comfortable in their well-insulated quarters, while the settler and his family shivered in their single ply wooden home. The trails to the river and its wood covered islands were well used as the old saying “10 miles from water and 40 miles from wood” was often not much of an exaggeration.

Water especially was to be a huge, and continuing, problem through the years. New arrivals when inquiring about water sources were often told you could either go to the river or start digging a well, and the distance to water was about the same in either case. Well digging seemed to be one of the major occupations of those who chose to spend the winter on the homestead. Some amazing depths were attained, often with very disappointing results. The Robertson brothers, Sandy and George, living west of Snipe Lake coulee, dug a well three feet square and 175 feet deep in the winter of 1909 and found a small supply of poor water which the cattle and horses would reject until desperate. On the other side of the lake, in the same winter, the Vignerons had more luck, going down 153 feet by hand before striking good water near the future site of McMorran, which was used by the community for years. Springs that were found were soon in heavy use. Snipe Lake coulee had at least three water sources and the roads to them, now seldom used, were busy with teams of oxen, horses and mules, pulling wagons loaded with barrels, or even the odd custom made wooden water tank. The Wells brothers, Lou and Art, on the east side of the lake, reported 42 teams in one day, hauling from the spring below their place in the dry year of 1910. All methods of loading were used from dipping to hand pumps operated by a long handle and mounted on the top of the tank.

Artwork Sept./04 WDM

Artwork Sept./04 WDM

A wet year would provide some relief from this endless long distance water hauling, as usually a slough could be found within reasonable distance. Wet years, however, brought mosquitoes, often covering the animals to the point that it was difficult to see the color of their hides. Their owners suffered as well, as no mosquito repellant was readily available until the 1950’s. It came as a shock to newcomers that they too were expected to drink from these ponds, in the edges of which one could easily see various kinds of aquatic life going about its daily business. No one who has ever had to drink boiled slough water regularly will ever forget its taste and even for those who had abstained before, strong tea became the drink of choice.

A second wave of settlers started to arrive in 1910, brought in by the efforts of the J.E. Martin Land Co. of Minneapolis. Martin, who had been active around Lang and Milestone, sent Chase Glidden, later to have the village named after him, to inspect the land chosen by the CNR in this area. Impressed, his favorable report started negotiations between the land company and the railroad, which resulted in Martin J.E. being, listed as original owner on much of the land in the R.M.

Martin began advertising heavily in the USA and parties of land seekers soon began arriving in Brock. Alex Morrice, an early arrival and pioneer business man, was spending the dry summer of 1910 breaking land for Harry Hunt, who owned land four miles north of Eston, later farmed by Don Conklin and more recently by the Thomes. In the 1950’s Mr. Morrice wrote,”…H. Hunt and J.E. Martin contracted with a company in Minneapolis to break so many acres at $3.50 an acre. Along came a Case steamer and a twelve bottom-breaking plow. I was delegated to haul coal from Brock with a four-horse tandem team… The big outfit started work on section 17-26-20, but when the plows were in the ground, the steamer stalled. We tried ten plows, then eight and at last six. This condition was not from a lack of power, but they could not keep water in the boiler owing to the alkali in the water, which I hauled from the spring at Snipe Lake…

…All that summer the Martin Land Company brought in prospective land buyers in a special railway coach. Their headquarters were at Hunt’s, as Mrs. Hunt was sister of L.L. McDonald, Martin’s right-hand man. They hired teams from Brock and Kindersley to do the driving, with headquarters at Hunt’s, who had only a small shack to live in and a small barn. The latter was the sleeping quarters for the land parties, with hay for mattresses and prairie wool for covers. Breakfast for twenty-five men was no small chore. However, one or two of the visitors would take over the preparation of the hot biscuits, pancakes, coffee and bacon – and they would all start out again. One lady from Iowa told me she liked the rolling prairie as the horses got a rest going down the hills…”.

Artwork II Sept./04 WDM

Artwork II Sept./04 WDM

The majority of these new arrivals were Americans, often well financed and familiar with farming as a way of life. The contrast between the two groups can perhaps best be illustrated by mentioning the Littlejohn family, who were to figure prominently in the history of Eston. John Littlejohn came from Glasgow in the spring of 1910, with his wife of 24 years and three daughters. None had ever lived on a farm before taking up residence on their homestead on w1/2 of 4-27-20, which fronts on the Correction Line and Highway 30. Life can only be described as grim, with the chickens freezing on their roosts, getting lost in blizzards, having their crops fail, hauling water by ox team from Snipe Lake on an almost daily basis, running out of wood and coal and getting down to the point where the only food left was a small keg of herring. With his oxen and single furrow plow, carefully modified at Alex Guthrie’s forge to turn the heavy virgin sod, John could plough a little over an acre on a long, tiring day. In 1911, the Speltz brothers arrived from Minnesota and became neighbors to the southeast. That year with their 30-60 Rumley Oil Pull, breaking plows, cook car, water wagon and fuel wagon they broke up 1200 acres of prairie. It must have been extremely disheartening.

The homesteaders, realizing that some form of local government was necessary to see about providing roads and education, elected a councillor from every division and on January 1910, the first meeting of Local Improvement District 259 was held at the Pomeroy residence On 2-26-20, now home to the Carters. At the March meeting, with the council containing familiar names like Banting, Cook and Massey, business was starting to be carried out, with the appointment of weed inspectors, setting a tax rate of 4 1/8 cents per acre, buying strychnine for “gopher destruction” if it “could be obtained on credit” and planning a road program. Roads were to be 12 feet wide and plowed 12 inches deep, well disced and stones picked. This would make a fine, and much needed, fire guard, but showed a lack of appreciation for the sticking qualities of the Scepter and Regina clays found in the region. It is interesting to note that some councillors walked to the meetings, as their only other means of transportation were their ox teams, which were notoriously slow. Oxen, which were not as particular about feed, were to remain a common source of power until about 1915 when most were replaced by horse teams, which remained very popular for work and transportation until the 1940’s.

Most absentee landlords and many of the settlers had their land broken and the harvests handled by custom operators, some local, some from outside the district. Harvest in particular was a time of stress for both the farmer and his wife, as they were responsible for supplying feed for the horses and in many cases feeding the harvest crews, which often contained over a dozen men. This could prove very expensive if it happened to rain, sometimes extending their stay for weeks. One man, “Moonlight Bob” Woods brought his threshing outfit up from North Dakota for several years before settling in the Plato district. He acquired his nickname because of his habit of working long into the night, the area around the separator lit by burning small piles of chaff and straw. Late one evening one of his crew, many of whom had come West on a $10 Harvest Excursion ticket, wrote “when are we going to get the 8 hour day?” on the back of a bundle wagon. He awoke the next morning to find written underneath, “when Moonlight Bob has passed away.”

The early days produced a fund of great stories. One can picture Jim Carruthers and J.J. Stevenson sitting together all night on the sidewalk in Swift Current, their hands on the land office door handle to ensure no one got ahead of them in the opening rush. Or Frank Dudley, manager of the 3 Bar, bringing his cook Donald Bell and a carefully covered crock of sourdough starter to Popes’ and staying for the afternoon instructing Mrs. Pope on its use. How unlike Hollywood’s version of the wild west. Or Claude Ausmus and two settlers from Tyner rafting lumber down the river from Medicine Hat on a five day cruise which turned into a twenty-five day nightmare of sandbars and rapids with a “knowledgeable river man” who was soon dubbed “Captain Cactus”, until at last they were hailed by the Kerr brothers, Earnest and Frank, who had spent the terrible winter of 1907 in a dugout burrowed into the river bank, close to wood and sheltered from the worst of the winter’s storms.

The country could be cruel, as after the huge fire in the fall of 1906, (these could sometimes be seen approaching for days, each night the flames getting a little closer on the horizon) destroyed all animal feed in its path, winter set in; months of endless blizzards and cold which decimated the animal population, both wild and tame, as the 3 Bar went into winter with over 2000 head, and only 700 survived. 1907 also took the life of R.N.W.M.P. Constable Powell who became lost in a blizzard while making his rounds checking on settlers and who spent his last hours burrowed into a straw stack listening to the wind raging in the darkness, until limbs frozen, all hope gone, his last move was to cock his service revolver and bring the tragedy to an end.

Histories can sometimes be accused of looking back in the past through a golden haze, but the 1930’s were a difficult period no matter how many good times were had. This area, unlike much of the rest of the western plains, seldom saw a complete crop failure, but the low yields combined with very depressed grain and livestock prices resulted in a shortage of cash, something the struggling Municipality desperately needed to fund schools and take care of various types of relief necessary. Farmers needed help acquiring feed for their animals, fuel for any tractors they might have, and in many cases, seed grain. The senior governments were slow to help and the Reeve and Councillors met several times a month trying to deal with requests for assistance. It must have been hard for those old pioneers who had faced the worst the country could throw at them, grasshoppers, gophers and the terrible winters, to now have to go before their councillor and ask for aid. In years to come, many of these men, most of whom made a success out of their farming enterprises, were known as being “tight fisted” or “close with a dollar”, as unable to forget, the thirties marked them for the rest of their lives.

As the years went by without much improvement, the R.M. was forced to hire a series of tax collectors in a desperate attempt to keep operating. Hiring strangers at first without much success, then local men, often former reeves who were much more sympathetic and understanding, but still able to keep a trickle of taxes coming in. The difficult thing about relief was that it eventually had to be repaid, whether the Municipality or the Province had extended it. Liens against grain sales and even land seizures and sales were used to try to get back some funds. These measures continued until after WW 11, often ending with some sort of negotiated settlement.

A few factors made the tough years a little more livable, one being that most farms were pretty well self-sufficient, having a few pigs, some chickens and a cow or two, making providing food for the table less of a problem. Some families made producing butter, eggs and various types of meat products for sale, often through Irwin’s or Larson and Beyer’s stores, a means of avoiding having to take government help. The fact that almost everyone, urban or rural was in the same predicament financially also helped, but perhaps one of the factors helping to ease the burden of worry most of all was the Doctor’s Agreement.

Medical care had always been a worry for early settlers. They were in a dangerous occupation and working with animals daily increased the chances of accident. Before 1910 getting a doctor meant somehow making the trip to Swift Current, something that could take months. Once the railroad was laid to Kindersley, medical aid could be had from both Kindersley and Brock, with Drs. Lord and McInnis making emergency calls. Many residents were getting by using some sort of self-help medical book such as “Dr. Chase’s Last Book of Remedies and Recipes” and many obstetrical cases were handled by midwives, Mrs. Vogel on the west side of the Lake and Mrs. Pope in Penkill. Council knew however, that in order to get a Doctor to practice in Eston, they were going to have to build a medical facility of some type. In 1915 serious discussions began and after exploring all available options it was decided that the RM and the Town of Eston would have to work together to build it themselves, with cost shared on 95% – 5% basis. Resident ratepayers were not to be charged except through general taxation, and Dr. McInnis, a fine surgeon, moved to Eston where he was to practice until 1930. The new facility and growing population attracted two men with very similar backgrounds to serve Eston and area. Dr. R.K. Johnston in 1929 and Dr. S.E. Holmes in 1930. Both had taught school to pay for their studies and both had served overseas in the horrible slaughter which was WW 1. Dr. Holmes, having been wounded, bore a stiff elbow as a constant reminder of that service. By the early 1930’s Council could see that providing some sort of medical care was a necessity, as many individuals just could not afford to pay as the depression dragged on. This led to the signing of the Doctors’ Agreement in January of 1934 in which Drs. Holmes and R.K. Johnston agreed to operate the hospital and to provide medical services to ratepayers of the area under contract with the R.M of Snipe Lake. This was to include emergency trips to the country, as in bad winters families often would make it to town only once or twice during the winter months – their entire social life centering around the home and the local school. This resulted in the Doctors getting to know the local dray personnel very well, as Nallys and the McAllister brothers did their best to get them through to the snow-bound farms using horses, railroad jiggers, trucks, snowmobiles and snow planes. For the next eighteen years the program worked very well from the RM’s point of view, relieving a burden of worry from ratepayers during extremely difficult times and the Doctors in turn were guaranteed a source of income in an era when many Professional men in rural areas were paid on a sporadic basis at best and often with farm produce. Every year the Doctors would present a report to the RM annual meeting and using 1947 as an example, showed the hospital was indeed a busy place, handling 289 medical cases, 55 major surgical operations, 46 minor surgical operations and 59 obstetrical cases. The report also stated that the Doctors were endeavoring to keep all children inoculated and vaccinated. In 1956, Dr Sam’s son, Dr Stewart Holmes, returned to Eston to go into practice with his father. As successive governments slowly began to centralize major medical procedures in the two major cities, Dr. Holmes’ talents as a skilled diagnostician became more and more valuable, as city colleagues, trusting his conclusions, often admitted patients without the waiting periods which are now common. At an age when many men spend a good deal of their time in an easy chair, “Dr. Stewart” still maintains a formidable schedule, with seldom an uninterrupted night’s rest. The community treasures him.

Artwork Dec./03 WDM

Artwork Dec./03 WDM

Settlers, whether from rural Europe or the U.S. farm states, brought with them a desire to continue part of their agrarian heritage, the fall fair. The Snipe Lake Agricultural Society was formed in 1916, funded in a large part by grants from the RM, and until 1938 was very active running a variety of agricultural programs ranging from annual camps for farm boys, to many types of crop and animal improvement courses. In 1929 it built a combination rink and agricultural building which was to be the hub of Eston’s winter activities until it was destroyed by fire in 1951. Early residents always mention the fairs with their horse races and ball games as a highlight of summer. The horse barns used as part of the fair were moved to the Eston Riverside Pool in the early 1950’s where they became change rooms and office for the new enterprise. Winter activities in the new building included general skating, which in a pre-TV era was very popular, curling bonspiels, which used both the curling ice and the skating ice surface, hockey games, and winter carnivals, at which the grace and beauty of the figure skaters was contrasted by a variety of elaborate skits, usually involving skating privies, exploding pianos or shotgun blasts followed by geese and coyotes tumbling from the rafters.

Baseball, from the times of earliest settlement, was the game of summer, played at every picnic, whether at Larson’s Grove, Prouse slough, or the neighbor’s down the road. Games between country schools were also common with players traveling by team and wagon in earlier days or in the back of someone’s grain truck by the 1940’s. Richlea in particular was a baseball powerhouse in early times as was Eston in later years, with the Ramblers traveling to tournaments in both Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Winter brought curling for most of the adult males and many ladies as well, with ingenious use being made of the railroads, as it was often possible to board a passing train, as they normally had a passenger car, go to the next village and curl a game before the train returned from dropping off box cars, and still be home in time for supper.

Hockey was the main passion of winter, with youngsters learning to stickhandle almost as soon as they could walk. These early years of constant practice and games between local teams produced many senior players that were very good, and rivalries between area towns such as Kerrobert and Wilkie lasted for years. However, for pure excitement nothing could surpass the games between Eston and Kindersley. This can perhaps be illustrated by mention of a final series game between the two when, score tied, seconds left to play, and with hundreds of fans encircling the ice, goal judges Russell Johnson and Romeo Lecuyer on their cat walks at either end of the rink, Russell bundled against the cold and Romeo huge in his buffalo coat, Herbie Stevenson scored the winning goal. As the crowd went wild with joy, his father Stevie turned to the 200 pound man standing beside him, picked him up, and holding him at arms-length over his head, shouted, “THAT’S MY BOY!”, thereby expressing the feelings of the entire crowd.

The middle years of the 20th century were good ones for the RM and its citizens. The 1930’s were over and the young men who had returned from WWII wanted nothing more than to raise their families in peace. They brought back with them a sense of exuberance, and this enthusiasm was like a tonic for the whole country. Some of these young veterans went to work for the RM, which at that time was running double shifts, building roads twenty-four hours a day in an effort to catch up to the increased demand for better farm access, work having been restricted by the economic conditions of the 1930’s and the lack of available labor during the War years. Starting in the 1920’s the RM usually provided a cook car for the road crews, and often a bunk car as well. In 1927 the RM even owned its own cow, which spent the summer on the construction sites, tethered in the road allowance grass beside the cook car, a ready source of milk and cream. The Municipality has always been one of the largest employers in the area. Until 1920 road construction and dam building were either handled by construction contractors or local farmers using their teams to pull the RM’s dump-wagons and graders. In the 1915 pay schedule for example, 1 man with a two-horse team was paid $5 for a nine-hour day. With a four-horse team the farmer could earn $8, a very welcome amount of off farm income. Horses were also used to pull scrapers, haul loads of culverts and pull road drags. As construction moved from division to division, farmers from the immediate area were hired to help, thus spreading available work around. In 1920 two major purchases were made, an Adams Leaning Wheel Grader for $2126.50 and an Aultman-Taylor 30-60 engine priced at $6630 plus $66.30 sales tax. In the spring of 1921 R.T. McCloskey was hired as the first road foreman. (A discussion arose in council in September of that year concerning the “breaking of Mr. McCloskey’s auto by our (the RM’s) workmen, who used the car without consent of Mr. McCloskey”. The matter was resolved by the offer of the men to pay $21 each to be deducted out of their wages). Others were hired to pull weeds and to disc weeds, a topic the RM was very sensitive about as even in the toughest years a weed inspector was hired. The concern about weeds also led to the operation of mobile seed cleaners. These were pulled from farm to farm cleaning grain throughout the winter and did so until the late 1940’s when a permanent cleaner was built on the RM property in Eston. Highway 44 was finally graveled in 1946 and the RM, responding to ratepayer requests, started a gravel program as well, going north from Snipe Lake using the now unheard of rate of 600 yards per mile; 300 spread and 300 in a windrow on the side of the road. The Department of Highways also used this technique, giving the young of the area an excuse for virtually any type of automobile accident. The report was usually the same, “we were going about 40 mph and hit a gravel ridge….”. This sometimes was believed by the local authorities, but almost never by one’s father.

February of 1946 brought the purchase of the Getty farm, W½ 20-25-20-3, to be used as an airport. Chemical weed control using sprayers also began in the late 40’s, and by the early 50’s the new airport (which has evolved into a 3000 foot paved strip with automatic lighting) was busy with spray planes, and Mother Nature co-operated, as the late 40’s and 50’s brought a series of wet years to the prairies. By the 1960’s the cook and bunk cars were pulled up beside the old RM shop, the men commuting to work by truck. The bunk car was still home to the bachelors on the crew, and all, married or single, had breakfast and the evening meal together until the cook car was sold in the early 70’s. The 1970’s brought change in road construction as well as the three Cat and scraper combinations which had built so many miles of grade in the previous years were replaced by rubber tired, twin engine earthmovers, a method of construction still used. With the addition of 6 and ½ townships to the original 12 upon the dissolution of the RM of Fairview in 1966, and it became necessary to increase the number of personnel. At present, in addition to two administrative staff, the RM has 12 employees during the construction season and among them are found truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, mechanics, and pest and weed control specialists. Many employees are qualified in a number of areas, as continued training is encouraged, and are capable of coping with any task the workday might bring.

John Littlejohn, who the RM had hired as an assessor, moved the first building to Eston in 1914, a granary, and became a storekeeper and first postmaster. As the mail and fresh groceries arrived from Brock on a Saturday, from its very beginning Eston was a Saturday night town, with stores, including the RM office, open until midnight and this was to continue until well into the 1950’s, although by then businesses were closing at 10 pm. Saturday night wasn’t like evening shopping today; it was the social event of the week, with families coming from miles around to park on Main Street and visit with friends and neighbors. It was going to a show at the theater (by the 50’s usually westerns or musicals) and meeting at the Great West Café for an ice cream treat or a piece of pie; Dad and the hired man stopping by the Pool Room for a game and perhaps a haircut (it was a big day in a boy’s life when Tony the barber felt that a board across the seat arms was no longer necessary and you were invited to sit on the seat itself). Stopping to visit John Lenz in his boot and harness making shop with its wonderful smells of leather, and polish and cigars and where, in the 1930’s John would make you a pair of handmade boots with a three year guarantee for $10; and for some the beer parlor had its attractions, as the area had more than its share of characters, who like condiments, gave the community a little spice; and it was when, particularly in the early years, the town was full of different accents; the soft burr of Scotland, the lilting brogue of the Irish along with the unmistakable sounds of England mixed with all the speech patterns of Europe joining the many regional accents of the United States including the lovely gentle drawl of Kentucky.

The mid-fifties also brought electricity to farms in the area. No longer were ladies judged by their peers on the cleanliness of their outhouses, and the refrigerator quickly replaced ice houses which in earlier years had provided winter employment for many, as the hospital, the hotel and the butcher shops, as well as many farms, all had to have large stores of ice blocks carefully covered in sawdust to provide ice for the summer months. The schools too were about to change as with the coming of the Larger School Units, the small country schools, which had numbered over twenty at one time, were phased out, to be replaced by busses. In previous years, young people often moved to town during the winter months to take their high school education, boarding with town residents, and often forming friendships which lasted for years. The closing of the small schools in many ways brought the pioneering era to an end, as people were now forced to come to town for the majority of their social life. The schools had been the center of their small communities, being used for card parties, dances, and often pot luck suppers organized by the local Homemakers Club. Many schools hosted Sunday services held by various denominations. In the early days of Penkill, sometimes three different ministers would preach and usually the congregation stayed for all three.

The 1960’s and 70’s saw the end of the party lines, beginning with the replacement of its distinctive hand-cranked wall telephones. These had provided service and entertainment for many through the years. The lines, originally built by at least six different local telephone companies, had more than once acted as a guide on a dark night, as the wind singing in the wires let travelers know they were still on the right path. The telephone companies and the small schools joined with the hospital in providing another peripheral service in that they all needed young ladies to operate, and many of these newcomers stayed to marry and become permanent members of the community.

The closing of the schools began a trend towards more centralizing of services in larger centers. Over the past thirty years the community has been fighting a continuous battle to retain hospital care, the elevator system, and even the railroad. The early settlers, many of whom had come from societies with a very distinct class system, were determined to create a model democracy in their new home, and they did. History had never produced anything like it. Almost everyone was involved in some manner, as the country schools, the telephone companies, some of the grain companies, the hospital, the Agriculture Society, the Town and RM councils all were run by elected boards and with the dissolution of these groups, society becomes the loser. Politics is a learned art and serving on the various local boards was sort of a training ground for Provincial or Federal politicians. Without these political “minor leagues” where aspiring politicians can learn such basic lessons as politeness, appreciating another’s opinion, and the ability to compromise, we run the risk of having good people intimidated by the thoughts of running for higher office, and having to draw our political leaders from a group of egoists more interested in self-aggrandizement and personal gain than any sort of public service.

The old saying, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” has proven itself again and again over the years. In the 1930’s Bill Hollar and Herman Larson started a small oil business in Eston which refined Oklahoma crude and employed 21 men in its peak years, and in the 1970’s two local men, Ron Butterly and Bill Stevenson along with another partner, started Allstate Grain, promoting production of canary seed and later lentils and by so doing were definitely responsible for changing the future of this area. Farmers were slowly weaned away from their dependence on cereal grains and flax and into the production of more exotic crops. The RM now has three-grain companies handling these non-traditional grains, one owned by primarily local shareholders and two family owned businesses. One of these, Agra Processing, has been cleaning and handling canary seed since it was first introduced into the area. Their heavy use of the railroad over the years caused them to spearhead the battle to retain the line. Over a period of several years, Glen Byrnes, his son-in-law Rob Lobdell and their families, with Bill Woods, or “Boxcar Willie” as he soon became known, as a motivational speaker, have managed to convince the CNR to stay and continue providing service; have convinced the community and others on the line to join an organization known a West Central Road and Rail, and have begun constructing a series of giant loading facilities resembling nothing more than 13th century French Cathedrals when viewed from the side. The facility in Eston handled over 2 million bushels of grain in last crop year. Old “Moonlight Bob” would be pleased.

Sir Christopher Wren, builder of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, had inscribed in the building “If you require a monument, look around you”, and it’s true, standing on the height of land at the Gap, listening to the breeze sighing through the prairie grass and with the clouds casting ever-changing patterns on the plain below, what could be a more fitting memorial to those pioneers who spent their lives attempting to build a better world? The elevators have come and gone and the villages and the rail lines which served them are only memories; gone too those years, when in fall evenings, the numbers of lights in the fields below seemed to equal those in the heavens above, each tiny light representing a combine crawling down the endless swaths in a race against the weather, its operator bundled against the cold, or an overloaded old truck grinding out through the stubble to the granaries in the yard. The bright lights and high pay of the cities empty the plains, as the era of the small farm seems to be coming to a close, but many of the ideas developed during hard pioneering years are still valid today. Working together to construct the new loading facility brings to mind projects former years; the hospitals, the Riverside Park, the Community Complex and the rather unique co-operation between Town and RM, in sharing costs of cemetery, clinic, economic development, recreation and fire department.

In these days of urban sprawl, when all the beautiful areas seem to be filling with people, our quiet country seems like an oasis. For those of us still connected with farming, going out on a fine May morning, with the dew on the fresh green grass and the smell of the newly turned earth full of promise, there could be few places on earth we would rather be, with caring neighbors, abundant wildlife, clear skies and clean fresh air. John Lenz, coming to the end of a very useful life, perhaps said it best, “I never became rich, but I really enjoyed life”. Like John and all those who have lived here through the centuries, loved the land, and enjoyed life, we too must treasure this place.


A Wheatland Heritage by E. Vernette Armstrong

Grass to Grain Snipe Lake District History

R.M. Records

Drawings and Text by:

Don Mooney
November 7, 2004

ADMINISTRATORS (Secretary-Treasurers)
Pomeroy, R.D. 1911-1911
Barkwell, M. 1912-1919
Swaffield, W.S. 1920-1933
Collins, R. 1933-1939
Fisher, A.G. 1940-1946
Dahl, W.L. 1946-1970
Fitzmaurice, K.J. 1970-1982
Allen, B.L. 1983-1996
Dale, C.D. 1996-

Banting, A.M. 1912-1912
Brownlee, W.A. 1913-1913
Campbell, J. 1914-1914
Thompson, A. 1915-1918
Hamilton, F.S. 1919-1925
Hartsook, R.E. 1926-1933
Hamilton, F.S. 1934-1934
Hodges, C.L. 1935-1937
McCloskey, R.T. 1938-1940
Millard, J.H. 1940-1940
Weis, E. 1941-1941
Johnston, L.H. 1942-1958
Hamilton, C.W. 1959-1962
Thompson, D.A. 1963-1966
Lonnberg, E.E. 1967-1978
Tunall, P.L. 1979-1982
Johnston, L.E. 1983-1992
Koester, T.A. 1993-

McCloskey, R.T. 1921-1923
Hamilton, R.D. 1924-1925
McCloskey, R.T. 1926-1926
Newport, Richard 1927-1930
Owens, Hayden 1936-1944
Calder, Wm 1945-1945
Owens, Hayden 1946-1948
Calder, Wm 1949-1953
Grimes, Joe 1954-1976
Beckstrand, Dennis 1976-1992
Ries, Ray 1992-


Barkwell, D. 1911-1911
Edwards, F. 1912-1912
Hall, G.H. 1913-1913
Beyer, R. 1914-1914
Wright, T.S. 1915-1916
Vien, A. 1917-1917
Millard, J.H. 1918-1919
Coleville, R. 1920-1925
Walper, E.W. 1926-1930
Carruthers, J.G. 1930-1934
Salkeld, D.G. 1935-1956
Ostevik, S. 1957-1962
Sheasby, E.A. 1963-1974
Tunall, P.L. 1975-1978
Secord, J.B. 1979-1984
Collinge, N.L. 1985-1992
Collins, K.R. 1993-2004

Trask, A.E. 1910-1910
Guthrie, G. 1911-1911
Truemner, E. 1912-1912
Trask, A.E. 1913-1913
Norris, J.G. 1914-1914
Tubman, T.A.H. 1915-1916
Deans, J.A. 1917-1917
Johnston, P.L. 1918-1919
McElroy, H.H. 1920-1921
Tubman, T.A.H. 1922-1925
Shea, C.T. 1926-1926
Hazard, G. 1927-1933
Shea, C.T. 1934-1934
Secondcost, R. 1934-1957
Jackson, E. 1958-1963
Shea, J.G. 1964-1979
Britton, W.L. 1980-1991
Krenz, G.H. 1992-1997
Bertram, J. 1998-1999
Fairs, F.I. 2000-

Kessler, F.H. 1910-1910
Campbell, J. 1911-1913
Wellbelove, J. 1914-1914
Hamilton, F.S. 1915-1918
McCloskey, R.T. 1919-1920
Hamilton, W.J. 1921-1927
Hamilton, A.S. 1928-1932
Johnston, L.H. 1933-1941
Johnston, R.A. 1942-1958
Irvine, W.A. 1959-1980
Koester, T.A. 1981-1992
Howe, G.W. 1993-2000
Johnston, B. 2001-

Banting, A.M. 1910-1911
McLean, W. 1912-1912
McCracken, S.J. 1913-1913
Nurse, R.R. 1914-1927
Pope, H. 1928-1929
Pollock, M.J. 1930-1935
Holland, W.G. 1936-1939
Pope, H. 1940-1941
McLean, R.J. 1942-1945
Whitwell, G.A. 1946-1947
Holben, J.F. 1948-1957
McLean, R.J. 1958-1961
Holben, G.E. 1962-1973
Rovey, C.A. 1974-1974
Williams, P.F. 1974-1980
Serfas, A.A. 1981-1989
McLean, R.B. 1990-

Cook, F.L. 1910-1910
Brownlee, W.A. 1912-1912
Cook, J.H. 1913-1913
Littlejohn, J. 1914-1914
Collinge, G. 1915-1917
Proudlove, D. 1918-1918
Evans, A.E. 1919-1919
Evans, C.W. 1920-1920
Weis, E. 1921-1940
Huckaby, M. 1940-1942
Vigneron, C.E. 1942-1950
Cook, J.H. 1951-1951
Lonnberg, E.E. 1952-1966
Adams, L.A. 1967-1969
Calder, W.G. 1970-1982
Massey, W.H. 1983-1994
Mooney, W.D. 1995-

Massey, W. 1910-1910
Swan, A. 1911-1912
Jorgensen, C. 1913-1913
Thompson, A. 1914-1914
Leach, P. 1915-1917
Graves, A. 1918-1919
Dean, S.E. 1920-1921
Hartsook, R.S. 1922-1925
Threlkeld, T. 1926-1926
Croner, E. 1927-1927
Morris, A. 1928-1929
Dean, S.E. 1930-1939
Swan, A. 1940-1949
Thompson, D.A. 1950-1962
Eichel, H.R. 1963-1973
Irwin, J.C. 1974-1979
Robertson, A.M. 1980-1985
Thompson, D.G. 1986-1991
Irwin, J.C. 1992-

Marjerison, J.D. 1966-1972
Carter, W.R. 1973-1980
Billett, H.J. 1981-1986
Burke, R.J. 1987-1987
Walker, W.O. 1987-1994
Gillies, A.L. 1995-2003
Parson, K. 2003-

Gray, F. 1966-1969
Mazzei, G. 1969-1979
Parson, A.R. 1980-1987
Salfi, A.D. 1988-