The southwest corner of Saskatchewan has experienced more than its fair share of ups and downs. As with most of Saskatchewan it was a busy area in the early century but then things changed. First there was the drought and depression that are better known as the Dirty Thirties. In the early forties, and especially after WWII, things started looking up for farm production and commodity prices but the young people started to leave the farms for the cities. Farms became bigger as new machinery replaced the team of oxen so fewer people were needed to run the farms. There were better jobs in the cities and and even in large towns so the population of rural areas dwindled in a trend that continues to this day. Even many of the smaller towns died out leaving little behind but the sidewalks and some old buildings. Lady Calamity was not done with southern Saskatchewan yet. The railroads closed all but the busiest lines and there was no recovery from that loss. In those days the railroad was as important as a highway or the internet is now.
The area I’m talking about is south and west of the Red Coat Trail, otherwise known as Highway 13. Photographers and explorers have their own name for Highway 13: The Ghost Town Trail. It is along this road, and certainly south of this road, that small communities could no longer survive without the railroad or the people who depended on the railroad. Rural schools and churches consolidated into larger schools and churches in these old towns but eventually these schools and churches closed down too.
The rural schools closed for a couple of reasons. With fewer people in the area there were naturally fewer school age children. The introduction of the school bus was the final nail in the coffin for many rural schools by making it cheaper to send children to more distant but larger schools. School divisions touted the benefits of the larger schools with teachers for each grade, and far less turnover of academic staff, but the local people still missed their schools. The little one room schoolhouses were either sold to nearby farmers for storage, converted to community centres, which only delayed the inevitable, or simply left to fend for themselves against the relentless prairie weather before being reclaimed by nature.
The fate of old churches was similar to that of the one room schoolhouses. The dwindling church congregations could no longer afford to maintain the church buildings or to pay a pastor’s salary. The countryside is now dotted with abandoned churches. Some fell into ruins and others were sold and repurposed, often only to be abandoned again. Strangely a few managed to hang on while adapting their weekly services to monthly services, followed by seasonal services and later to an annual service with occasional use for funerals. There are exceptions to everything so for any number of reasons certain congregations found the necessary funds to maintain their church buildings regardless of how infrequently, if ever, services were held. An example of that is White Valley Lutheran Church.
Some towns – not many but a few – also seemed to resist the trends as they reinvented themselves as distant outposts for the smaller populations that remained. Today’s blog is not really about those towns but it is about some of the people and places that were close to a town that has so far survived where others had failed. Shaunavon is one such town.
To find today’s blog post school and church you head to the middle of nowhere in southwest Saskatchewan and then turn down a few backroads until you reach a place that makes “the middle of nowhere” seem like a busy place. When you arrive you are in the country and you might find places like the White Valley Lutheran Church or Brownville School. That’s where we are heading with this blog post so prepare to get dusty as we start with the old church.
White Valley Lutheran Church
The White Valley Lutheran Church was formed in 1911 by the Norwegian settlers in this area. Services were initially held in the homes of the parishioners who owned homes with large enough rooms to hold the congregation of about thirteen families. One such house was a sod house; the only sod house that I’ve ever heard of being used for church services. That sod house belonged to John Borsheim and family. He was a Norwegian farmer who first settled in Minnesota before seeking his dreams in Canada in 1909. Four or five other families came with the Borsheims and these families helped each other build their homes and barns on their newly homesteaded land. John Borsheim was known to say, “we now belong to Canada and Canada now belongs to us.”
When the local school was built it doubled as a church until the funds were raised to build the church building. The deep southwest of Saskatchewan was booming and optimism ran high. Ben Strate donated some land for the church building. The land for the cemetery was donated by Louis Johnson and a smaller piece of land for the minister’s house came from G Jacobson and J Anderson. Apparently, after the minister’s house was no longer needed, it was bought by Louis Johnson (the fellow who donated the land for the cemetery) but it is empty now, if indeed it’s still standing. By 1928 the congregation had a church building. It was a very simple structure much in keeping with Lutheran traditions of austerity. Austerity didn’t mean cheap construction though as the church is still standing and likely looks much the same as it would have in 1928. This was primarily a Norwegian settlement so the services were initially in the Norwegian language until 1936 when English was used every third Sunday. Gradually English took over completely from Norwegian. In 1983 the church was formally recognized as a Municipal Historic Property (red text in my posts are website links).
Old buildings are by their very nature a little spooky. The above image seems to have an unexpected apparition in the right window. It’s probably just something sitting on the window sill. It could also be my wife.
Meanwhile Less Than 20km Northeast of the Church
It’s easy to romanticize the era as a time of working on the land, building a school and church alongside with neighbours who all shared the same joys and hardships. While that was true the settlers had more troubles than just the weather and the grasshoppers. The story below is an excerpt of a longer story about three brothers who started to ranch with only cows and oxen, one horse and a pony. Fred and Joe White just returned from picking up supplies with the ox cart and discovered that their new pony pulled out the stake it was tethered to and wandered off with the horse following it wherever it went. The oxen were too slow to be used to find the missing animals so Fred and Joe ended up searching on foot for their new horse and pony. They returned to the ranch at night without finding them. Fortunately a friend with a horse stopped in and agreed to look out for the missing horse and pony. He said he if he found the animals he would bring them back on his return trip. Find and return them he did but then the oxen had wandered off. It seems these brothers needed a fence more than a horse. Fred now had a pony to ride (I don’t know why he didn’t take the horse) and he left in search of the oxen. That’s where the quote below begins.
“The next day, Fred rode north to get back the oxen and cow which had strayed. Tom and I were around the shack when up rode two cowboys – the real article. Chaps, handkerchiefs, guns and all. The other pony was tied to the wagon. They looked at it and then rode over to Tom and I and one of them said,
‘That’s a good horse , will you sell it!’ Answer ‘No’.
‘Will you trade it?’ Answer ‘No’.
‘Well we’re going to take it anyway.’
One of them, a half-Indian, jumped off his pony and untied the horse. I was backing up to the shack where we had plenty of loaded rifles, when the other cowboy, still on his pony, said very quietly, ‘You stay right there’, and covered me with his six-gun. That revolver looked as big as a cannon and every chamber was loaded. I stayed right there. Next, the cowpunchers asked where the other horse was. We were getting a little mad now and to them to ‘go to H— and find it’. They rode away. We were scared to shoot at them because if we missed we figured they would take it out on Fred. They found Fred alright and told him to get off the horse. He told them to ‘go to blazes’ and stuck his heels in the pony’s side. They then threw a rope. Fred ducked to one side but the saddle turned and Fred fell. They then caught the horse, threw the saddle on the ground and hit south, giving our shack a very wide berth”.
“We then rode to town and reported the theft of the horses. Out rides a white whiskered Sargeant of the Mounties and a Constable. They got particulars, brands on the horses, and headed South. They came back and told us we had bought stolen horses and the fellows who had taken them from us were working for the owner. It seems this fellow who had sold them to the boys was a real commercial traveler. He would steal a bunch of horses in Canada, sell them in the States and then so as to make it really pay, would steal a bunch in the States and sell them in Canada. The Mounties finally got him and he spent quite a few years in jail.Quarter Stake Echoes, Area South of Shaunavon. Joe White, pages 439 and 440.
It seems that southern Saskatchewan was, at times, as wild as the American wild west, with revolvers, rifles, horse thieves, and classic lawmen.
The above story was about the White Brother’s Ranch which was not far from White Valley Lutheran Church (ignore the coincidence of “White” being in both names). Tom, Fred and Joe White – Englishmen – were in partnership for nearly 40 years. When they started out the three brothers had to share the one bed in their 12′ by 14′ shack. In 1951 the brothers sold the ranch to Willy Wright. You might think that I’m making a pun about the famous Orville and Wilbur Wright and a fellow in Saskatchewan named Wright with an aircraft but Willy Wright really did love airplanes. In 1970 he bought a Aronca Chief and a (Cessna) Cardinal. I don’t know what year of the Aronca Chief (possibly spelled Aeronca) that Willy bought, but they were built in Ohio between 1946 and 1951. Willy was very active in the flying club called, The Saskatchewan Flying Farmers. Who ever said that farmers led boring lives?
I couldn’t find the date that the White Valley Lutheran Church ended regular services. It could have been in the early 1980s when it received the historical resource designation. The church might still be in use every now and then so officially they might not have closed the church.
No date was found for the age of the above marker is but it points the way to places that played very significant roles in Canada’s history, both pertaining to the North West Mounted Police and enforcing our sovereignty over the USA. Perhaps the old church was at a crossroads for these trails.
The actual Wood Mountain Provincial Park is 200 km east of Shaunavon. This old marker points the way. According to the Saskatchewan Provincial Park website:
Wood Mountain Post was established as a North West Mounted Police (NWMP) post in 1874 to patrol the Canada/United States border and police whiskey traders, horse thieves and cattle rustlers.
The post rose to prominence in 1876, when Chief Sitting Bull and 5,000 members of the Sioux (Lakota) First Nation took refuge in Canada after the Battle of Little Bighorn.Saskatchewan Provincial Parks
Fort Walsh was declared a national historic site in 1926 because:
- the fort served from 1878-1882 as the headquarters of the North West Mounted Police;
- the fort played a key role in imposing Canadian law from 1875-1883, in implementing Canada’s Indian policy, and in supervising the Lakota who fled to Canada under Tantanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) after the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Brownville School wasn’t the nearest school to the White Valley Lutheran Church; that school was called Rhodes. It was, however, very close to White Valley Lutheran and likely the second closest school for children who lived near the church. In any case, Brownville School was still standing in 2021 and Rhodes was not so it’s Brownville that gets featured in my blog post.
According to the website for Canada’s Historic Resources, “Built in 1927, Brownville School #4677 is named after Charles Brown, a settler of the region who donated his land for the establishment of the school. Like most of the small one-and-two room schools built during this period, the structure features a rectangular plan, a distinct window wall and wood-frame construction. The property retains a high degree of historical integrity, visible in the form of the building, windows, interior trim and fixtures. After closing as a school, the property was used as a Community Centre.” Below is how it looked in 1930.
According to the local history book, Quarter Stake Echoes, this school was quite modern, having a full basement with a furnace. Also it had indoor toilets, which were a real luxury to rural children of the 20s. In 1956 electricity was put in and the telephone installed. The Brownville School closed in 1960, but clearly it was, and continues to be, watched over and maintained.
Few things say “middle of nowhere” quite like a little school on an open and empty prairie.
The school’s namesake, Charles Brown, came from Ontario to homestead in the White Valley of Saskatchewan. Mr Brown started with nothing and built up his farm, married and a family of five children. He was instrumental in getting the new school built. But then came the Dirty Thirties that caused many farmers to leave Saskatchewan including Charles Brown. They left in 1937. They drove to Ontario in a 1926 Dodge with a buggy in tow. Two of the younger girls were forced to sit on ten pound syrup pails for the whole journey. They ended up settling down in an area not far from where Charles was born in Ontario. Mr Brown died in 1972 at the age of 78. Several of the children returned to visit the Brownville School area and renew old acquaintances although none of them ever farmed again.
“Children stand up for our anthem, God Save The Queen.”
I didn’t attend a one room school but some things transcend time. Once such thing is that if you found yourself sitting in that chair in the corner, you were probably in trouble for doing something that you ought not have done.
When a school had a basement it typically meant that it also had a gravity fed furnace. They were huge furnaces with lots of ducting but these furnaces had no fan because there was no electricity. They relied on the principle of heat rising so they needed lots of vents for the heat to rise through. Whenever you see those big vents in the floor, walls or ceiling you can be sure that at one time there was a gravity fed furnace. These big furnaces were a huge improvement over the simple wood stove in the middle of the classroom.
It’s a Wrap
There you have it. Deep in southwest Saskatchewan we found many old schools, churches, ghost towns and other remnants of the early century. The two major centres are Shaunavon and Eastend. Apparently neither town got the memo that said they should be abandoned ghost towns. Instead they are slowly growing as services centres, especially for Albertans seeking a place where hotels and campgrounds have still have weekend vacancies and charge reasonable rates. I think that the future looks bright for this area: time will tell.
Thank you for stopping in to read my blog post.
- Quarter Stake Echoes, 1981, South Shaunavon History Club. This was the main source of information and old images.
- Canada’s Historic Places, website for White Valley Lutheran Church https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=2682
- Canada’s Historic Places, website for Brownville School https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=2915&pid=0
- Saskatchewan Provincial Parks – Wood Valley Provincial Park, website https://www.tourismsaskatchewan.com/provincialpark/314/wood-mountain-post-provincial-historic-park#sort=relevancy
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.