Old Wives Lake
There is a lake in Saskatchewan called Old Wives Lake. It’s a large lake by surface area, measuring about 14km east to west at its longest point (although it’s not at all deep). Slightly northeast of the centre of the lake is large island called Isle of Bays. Today’s blog post is not about that lake – although there are enough stories about the lake for a blog or even a book – it’s about the people and their schools near the lake.
Although I just said that this post is not about the lake, there are a couple of short stories about the lake from the local history book that I would like to share with you before we move on to the schools.
The first story is about a wild party house near the lake. The bartender from the ranch that hosted the parties joined a fishing trip to the Isle of Bays in Old Wives Lake. The story shows how rowdy and fleeting life in the early 20th century could be.
A man from the States by the name of Williams was perhaps the first settler in the western part of the area. He started the ranch where Charlie Pilotti lived, but had passed away before homesteading became general around 1910. His son, Si Williams, carried on and raised horses to sell to the homesteaders, and his home became a sort of hunting lodge to his many Moose Jaw friends. There were rumours of many wild parties in the old ranch house and Si had a real western way of waking his guests in the morning. He fired bullets into the ceiling and if the old ranch house still exists those bullet holes might still be found. Jim Dallas owned the Brunswick Hotel, corner of River St. and 1st. Ave. West, Moose Jaw, and his bartender would go to Si’s in the fall to hunt.
The island was a favourite place for hunters in those days, so they would row their boat, no outboard motors then, to the island. The last time they did this a strong north wind began to blow, strong enough that they could not make any headway towards home. The bartender started to shiver as it had turned quite cold. Si took off his coat to try to keep him from freezing. The wind was driving the boat to the south side of the lake which took all night. When they did reach the south shore it was too late as the bartender was dead. It was the only tragedy on the lake that I know of in our time except for a horse which drowned when it went through a crack in the ice. I think it belonged to Harvey Lloyd who homesteaded in the area.Thomas France (1891-1979) Rolling Hills Review, 1840-1980, page 286
The second story is about how the Old Wives Lake got its name. At least it’s one of the stories of how it got the name as there are others to choose from. As with most legends, it probaby contains some truth but the details got altered over time.
At Crestwynd, during 1955, on what was then #2 Highway, a roadside Historic Marker was erected bearing the words: “The body of water to the west OLD WIVES’ LAKE, named from an ancient Indian legend. A Cree hunting party had followed the buffalo into the Dirt Hills. Returning from the hunt, the party was surprised one evening near the lake by a large Blackfoot war party. After a quick skirmish in the dusk the Blackfoot retired to the hills to wait for dawn. The Cree hunters knew they were doomed and had resolved to die like true warriors when the old women suggested a plan. They would tend the campfires all night long while the others escaped in the darkness. The plan was adopted, and in the morning only their grey old scalps fell to the Blackfoot knives. On windy nights one can still hear the old wives’ laughter mocking the Blackfoot from an island in the lake.”W. H. Metcalf – Rolling Hills Review, 1840-1980, page 337
A much more likely origin of the name of “Old Wives Lake” was featured in May 9, 1964 edition of The Calgary Herald, page 51. It says, “Assiniboine Indians were retreating from Blackfoot enemies and stopped for a short rest beside the lake. Knowing the importance of speed in their flight, they resolved to abandoned the old women who were an impediment to progress. But the old women, still hoping to escape the cruel hands of their enemies, attempted to wade across the lake. It was a mistake; having misjudged the water’s depth, they all drowned. Thereafter it was called Old Wives Lake and it was long supposed the shrieks from spirits of the dead women could be heard over the water at night” (quote slightly changed for 21st terminology without altering the story). What I find most interesting is not the differences in these two stories, but rather the similarities. Given that this second version was from Calgary it must be the best one, just ask any Calgarian. For yet another version of the story, click on this link to a website that features a story more similar to the Metcalf version but a bit more polished.
The above images are from the local history book Rolling Hills Review, 1840-1980, page 301 and 281. The first image shows a truck in Old Wives Lake in 1960. Old Wives Lake is always shallow but not always safe. The second image is an old photo of Bay Island School but the date is not known.
Even More Interesting Information About Old Wives Lake – A plane Crash
I thought my story about Old Wives Lake was over but then I learned from a blog comment below that there were not one but two planes that crashed at Old Wives Lake. Actually they crashed into each other and then one plane ended up in the lake. You can listen to a video by Global news at this link Global News or read about it below:
In 1975, two Canadian Forces military training aircraft were involved in a mid-air collision over the lake which caused one of the aircraft to crash into it. The two pilots in this aircraft were able to parachute out and inflate emergency rubber dinghies enabling them to remain afloat until their rescue by a helicopter based out of CFB Moose Jaw.https://placeandsee.com/wiki/old-wives-lake?spmchkbj=spmprvbj3tuv
Interestingly, the above link also states that in each of 1937 and 1988 Old Wives Lake dried up completely. If it was truely dry it would have been interesting to explore and see what could be found at the bottom. You can also read about the plane crash in the Leader-Post Newspaper, May 2, 1975 by clicking on this link The Leader-Post – Google News Archive Search. My thanks to Dale Redekopp for this information about the plane crash.
Okay I said that this blog is about the schools so lets get on with the two schools that I visited. One was a planned visit and the other school was an accidental discovery.
Bay Island School 1919 – 1950
Bay Island School was named after Isle of Bays in the nearby Old Wives Lake. The school was built in 1919 and the first classes were taught by Sarah Stevens in 1920. The school was closed in November of 1950. At one point the school was used as a Catholic Church.
I can try and describe the lives of those who lived in the Old Wives area but it would be better to get that information first hand. Below is a poignant excerpt of the Olive family history by Ellen Jane (Olive) Blythe.
Sadie and Rita attended Bay Island School and were later moved to Old Wives School in the 1920’s. These were one-room schools with one teacher teaching multi-grades of around thirty to forty students. The school would close just before Christmas and open again in mid-February. We only had two weeks vacation in summer. I attended Old Wives School from about 1922 until 1927. We then moved to another farm north of our first farm nearer the highway across from Rose and Charlie Pate’s farm. I then attended Bay Island School until 1930. This was only a mile and one-half from home where as the Old Wives School was three and one-half miles away from our first home. We walked to and from in the summer and in winter we were sometimes driven by sleigh by an older brother or sister. We occasionally were caught in a sudden blizzard and were lucky to make it home. We missed a lot of school due to the severe winters.
I can remember when we had run out of coal and had to burn wheat in the stove for warmth as the weather was such that we couldn’t get to town.
The land was located one mile north of Old Wives Lake. A lot of the farm wasn’t fit for farming as there were several alkali sloughs and the land was very stony and sandy. We worked hard to make a living. He built the Ranch School at Lillestrom in the 1920’s. My brother, Harvey George, was born in the winter of 1923. He only lived seven weeks. There was no way we could buy a casket for him so my Dad had to make one out of lumber and my mother padded it with soft cotton and lined it with silk. That was a very sad time for us all. Then Mother and Dad had a very good neighbour and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. George Kenyon, who farmed about one mile and a half east of us, took him across the Old Wives Lake by horses and sled to Expanse for burial. Mrs. Kenyon had attended my mother at his birth.by ELLEN JANE (OLIVE) BLYTHE on the Olive Family – Rolling Hills Review, 1840-1980, page 291
In the above image, at the corner of the school, you can see a big rock. Strangely it wasn’t used as part of the foundation. I’m sure the reason why the school was built right next to that rock has long been forgotten.
In the above image, that dark blue strip to the left, between the farmers’ fields and the sky, is Old Wives Lake. It’s a very promanent landmark.
A Serendipitous Discovery of a Second School
I usually have locations already picked out when I go on a road trip for images. It’s certainly efficient to have those locations as it makes the most of my time. However the best sites are nearly always those that we come upon through a stroke of serendipity. That’s what happened when we left Bay Island School and started to drive back to where our trailer was parked. We took a circuitous route around the Old Wives Lake. The road deteriorated and a roadside sign warned us that the road is not maintained in the winter. It ceased being a gravel road to become a dirt road which would be impossible to drive on after a rain. Saskatchewan was experiencing a serious drought in 2021 mud was not a concern. However, the road continued to become narrower until it was just a single lane of ground that was only distinguishable as a road by the fact that there were no crops on it. We wondered if this would result in a very long drive back because even our GPS seemed to be lost. We drove around corners, up hills, and back down again. This is what we saw.
Windcrest School 1918-1948
At first I wasn’t even certain that this was a school but then, as we got closer, I saw the marker on the ground to the right of the building and that confirmed what was here. This school still stands on the site where it was built. It was owned by Cliff Fysh and used as a granary as of 1980, the year the the local history book cited below was published.
Mr. Hoffman was born in Sauk Center, Minnesota, in 1888. In 1907, at the age of eighteen, he came to Weyburn, Saskatchewan. He travelled from Weyburn, west of Assiniboia, to Valor where he settled. At this time a preemption came up and he went to Willow Bunch to file on it. There were no railways then so travel was hard and slow. In order to build a shack he had to go all the way to Weyburn to get lumber. These trips took four and a half days each and they had to make five trips. In the nighttime they had to sleep under the wagons.
In the early days the nearest doctor was at Willow Bunch and the Mounties came around every two weeks to see that the people were getting along alright. Their neighbor smashed his finger so Mr. Hoffman took him to the doctor in Willow Bunch and had it taken care of. This was 70 miles which is quite a way for a wagon in one day. It took two days to go to Moose Jaw. The first day they would make it to Old Wives Lake and to Moose Jaw the second.Author unknown (account of MR. AND MRS. FAY HOFFMAN) Rolling Hills Review, 1840-1980, page 449
The image below shows the school and the marker to the right. Proposed names for the district were “Hillsborough”, “Hillcrest”, and “Windcrest”, with the latter being chosen. The site for the proposed school was to be the centre of the school district. This proved to be on an unsuitable location on the side of a hill so it had to be moved a few “rods” north of the centre. At this point I had to look up “rod” to see if the term is really a recognized form of measurement or just a colloquial term in that era. To my surprise it is a real term for measurement. A website called Boating Geeks says that in the States it is defined as 16½ feet. I was not taught about “rods” in school. at least not that kind of rod.
On April 16,1918 Windcrest School opened its doors to eighteen students. Emeline Case was the first teacher.
Our discovery of Windcrest School was a special highlight of the day for me because of how remote it is. Clearly few people travel the single lane dirt road and pass by the school. In all but the driest weather the road would be impassible. This means there’s less chance of vandalism. The school itself was somewhat unique as it was built with interesting architectural features. You are now seeing a school that is seldom seen by anyone.
The school played a large part in the social life of the community with concerts, box socials, dances, and picnics held there. During the summer months it was used for church services and Sunday School. Whereas most school children looked forward to summer holidays, the pupils of Windcrest attended classes in the heat of the summer months. Their holidays were during the winter because of the difficulty in getting to school through the snow and cold.Author unknown. Rolling Hills Review, 1840-1980, page 436
Below are images of Windcrest school as it looks in 2021. The background is the same in all directions; rolling hills.
Let’s step inside and have a look around the old school. The well-weathered door looks like it is still the original from 1918 although further below you’ll see an older image showing the school with a porch.
Windcrest School seemed even smaller than Bay Island School. Those 18 students must have nearly filled this building. The old images below are from the local history book Rolling Hills Review, 1840-1980, page 432 and 438.
During the depression of 1930, (or the “Dirty 30’s” as the people called it then), the only telephones they had were the barb wire telephones. These telephones were the same as our modern day phones except in place of lines and poles they just used the barb wire fences. Mr. Hoffman said that when someone decided that they wanted to get together with their neighbors they would pick up the phone and ring an extra-long ring and everyone would answer. This method was also used for calling for help. When everyone had answered they would say “let’s all go to the lake for a picnic, bring the food you have already prepared”. Everyone would excitedly hang up the phone and gather up any food they could take, baseballs, a bat and they would all jump into their wagons and head for the lake. Once there, the adults would sit at a big long table and the children on the ground. After they had eaten they would go up onto the flats in the pasture and have a ballgame with everyone included. Then to end the evening they would all gather around a campfire and have a sing-song. Although Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman had a hard life, they did have a lot of real good times. Mr. Hoffman was 78 when he retired . He was the youngest of the family, having five older sisters.Author unknown (account of MR. AND MRS. FAY HOFFMAN) Rolling Hills Review, 1840-1980, page 450
As we departed from Windcrest School, the narrow road surprised us again by being lined with flowers. Most of them were on the east side of the road. There might have been a few on the west side but I don’t recall seeing any there.
The flowers, that I believe are prairie sunflowers, went on for quite a distance. I can’t remember seeing prairie sunflowers like this along the road in any of my other travels. They were a couple of meters deep and went on for several kilometers. It was an amazing site.
Dunkirk – Hillsborough Cemetery
After I finished taking a few pictures of the flowers we continued on our way back to where we camped with our trailer. This road wasn’t finished surprising us. I spotted another marker and stopped to read it. This one was for Dunkirk – Hillsborough Cemetery. There were only two gravestones and possibly one more that was very hard to read. I also saw a number of small concrete posts to indicate the presence of unmarked graves, which is very common in rural cemeteries. It’s very likely that there are many more unmarked graves here but possibly all records of interments are lost. I checked two websites to see if they had any record of this cemetery but I couldn’t find any. I created a record at the Find a Grave website and added four names. It’s easy to think that this cemetery was just for a couple of people who were down on their luck – perhaps by the Spanish Flu – and that their story ends here in this remote little known cemetery; but their stories didn’t end here.
The name of the marker to the right is Nels Peter Nelson, born 1887 and died 1922 at the age of 35. He came from Häggsjön, Jämtland in Sweden. He served in the USA military during WWI. I didn’t find his name in the local history books but it was my good fortune to hear from Marie Arvidsson. She said that Nels Peter Nelson was her great grandmother’s uncle from Sweden.
Nels Peter Nelson had a sister named Brita and she married Anders Granberg. They had eight children. The marker to the left is somewhat more confusing in part because it is for three children. It says Bertha Otto & Hilda Grandberg. Died 1914 & 1921, aged 10 years 4 years 5 months. It’s a bit hard to read but the years and names are fairly clear. Marie Arvidsson told me that there are three children buried at that site. I thought there were two because there are only two years given for the dates of death. Apparently two children died of diphtheria in the same year and approximately 4 days apart. They are all Grandbergs. Bertha Grandberg was 10 when she died. Otto Grandberg was 4 years old. Hilda Grandberg was just 5 months old. I am grateful to Marie Arvidsson from Sweden for sharing her research into this branch of her family that travelled to the Americas.
A chance discovery reveals that there is a family out there with links to the people buried here. It’s times like this that I just love writing these blogs.
All in all it was a very productive day. Not only was I able to find two schools and a cemetery, but more recently I was able to locate and read the local history book for this area. Now whenever I drive past Old Wives Lake I will think about the pioneers who called this land their home.
- “Rolling Hills Review, 1840-1980, Published 1980, The Crestwynd Community Club, Crestwynd, Saskatchewan. University of Calgary Digital Collection – Local Histories.
- “The Calgary Herald” page 51, Published May 9, 1964, article by Grant MacEwan
- For details on the aircraft that crashed in Old Wives Lake, see “The Leader-Post”, Regina, May 22, 1975
- If you would like to read more about Old Wives Lake and the reason for the name I suggest you read this newspaper article in the Leader-Post, Regina November 19, 1953.
- “United States, Veterans Administration Master Index, 1917-1940,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C3MS-ZSM7-V?cc=2968245 : 8 August 2019), > image 1 of 1; citing NARA microfilm publication 76193916 (St. Louis: National Archives and Records Administration, 1985). Used for information on Nels Peter Nelson.
- All colour images are by me, Glen Bowe, and in this case were taken in 2021.
Frank Korvenmaker has a number of copies of the book Legacy of Worship for sale. They retail at $40 (plus tax) in bookstores, if available. He is selling them at $25 (no tax), plus shipping, usually in the $15-$20 range. For any person or group wanting to buy books in bulk, he is selling them for $10 per book on orders of 10 copies or more. Pick-up of bulk orders may be arranged between the the buyer and Frank in Regina for those who may be passing through. Email Frank Korvenmaker at firstname.lastname@example.org for details and to discuss shipping. I receive no commission or other remuneration for assisting Frank to sell this book.
If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.