The area around Maidstone has been occupied by the Blackfoot for centuries, and then by the Metis and Cree as they began to move east following contact with Europeans through the 17th to 19th centuries. The Indigenous followed the bison through the area for the most part until the herds became decimated by over hunting by the Americans and Canadians.
One major aspect of the Indigenous history comes in the fact that Maidstone is in the area of where many of the major events of the 1885 North West Rebellion occurred, most notably the Battle of Cut Knife that occurred to the southeast of Maidstone. The battle is commemorated on the Poundmaker First Nation Reserve. The reserve itself was settled by Chief Poundmaker in the Autumn of 1879 and due to the government’s failure to fulfill treaty promises, he became active in Indigenous politics and represented the Cree at various meetings and as a spokesperson with the government.
In June of 1884, a Thirst Dance was held on the reserve to discuss the worsening situation of the Indigenous of the area. By the middle of the month, 2,000 people had gathered. The North West Mounted Police would come in and accuse an Indigenous man of a farm instructor but any violence was averted by the peacekeeping efforts of Poundmaker and Big Bear, both men I’ve done episodes on in the past on the podcast.
With the 1885 North West Rebellion, both Big Bear and Poundmaker would be tried for treason despite pushing for peace and not having an active role in the rebellion. For Poundmaker, it would not be until the 21st century when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pardoned Poundmaker.
The history of Poundmaker and the Battle of Cut Knife is celebrated southwest of Maidstone on the Poundmaker First Nation Reserve and at the Chief Poundmaker Historical Centre.
The Battle of Cut Knife
One of the most important battles in Canadian history took place not far from Maidstone and the battle site can be visited to this day. It was during the North West Rebellion of 1885 when the Metis under the leadership of Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel formed a provisional government and took controle of the area around Batoche, east of Maidstone. In response, the Government of Canada began to send troops out west to deal with the resistance.
At the same time, the Cree under the leadership of Chief Poundmaker, went into Battleford to lobby the Indian agent there for better supplies as many of the Cree were starving due to insufficient rations provided to them. The people in Battleford, misunderstanding the purpose of the visit, abandoned the town believing that the Cree were coming to attack, when in fact the Cree and Poundmaker were there to just obtain more food. The Indian Agent refused to leave Fort Battleford, letting Poundmaker wait for two days. Poundmaker and his people would eventually head back to their reserve.
The small police force at Fort Battleford then called on Major General Frederick Middleton, who had been sent to Saskatchewan with his force, to send reinforcements. A column of men were sent to Battleford under the leadership of Lt. Col. William Otter, consisting of over 750 men.
Upon arriving, Otter, pressured by the townspeople and his troops, decided to take actions. Going against his orders to stay in Battleford, he wired Lt. Governor Edgar Dewdney to get permission to, in his words, “punish Poundmaker”. Permission was granted and Otter left with 392 men to attack the Cree and Assiniboine at Cut Knife Hill.
Just after dawn on May 2, Otter and his force arrived and set up camp at a spot east of Cut Knife Creek. Not realizing he had to cross a creek, his men began to wade through, making enough noise that a man named Jacob With Long Hair would hear them and run back to camp to let the Cree and Assiniboine know what was happening. Col. Otter then set up two cannons and a gatling gun and began firing into the camp. Women and children ran for safety in the ravines and a group of Assiniboine warriors charged at Otter’s men to stop them from killing the women and children. A Cree war chief named Fine Day went to the top of Cut Knife Hill and began to direct the counterattack. Instead of having the Cree attack as one big group, he had the Cree attack in small groups. One group would run forward, attack the soldiers, then rush to the ravine before the soldiers could get them. As the soldiers were attacking those Cree, another small group would run out from the second ravine and attack from behind. As a result, Otter had no idea where the enemy was or how many there were.
After six hours, Otter was forced to withdraw and as the soldiers were fleeing across the marsh, Poundmaker’s fighters mounted horses to continue the attack. Poundmaker told them to let Otter’s men leave. As they greatly respected Poundmaker, they did not attack and this would prevent a slaughter of Otter’s troops as they fled.
Today, the battle site is a National Historic Site of Canada and also features the world’s largest tomahawk, as well as the Poundmaker Historic Centre and the Big Bear monument. A cairn is also located on Cut Knife Hill that overlooks the battle site.
It was also at this spot that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pardoned Chief Poundmaker.
Founding Of The Community
In the spring of 1903, the Barr Colony Expedition was moving through Saskatchewan after arriving in Saskatoon. The expedition was organized by a man named Isaac Barr who put out a call for English settlers and received 2,000 responses. It turned into one of the largest migrations of a single group of people in Canadian history but it was marred with poor management and issues related to weather, food and much more.
While the Barr Colonists would eventually get to their destination, which they named Lloydminster after Reverend George Lloyd who took over leadership of the people, many decided to leave the expedition along the way. Some of those people stopped in the area that would be Maidstone, the name coming from the Maidstone, Kent, England. They were far from the only new arrivals, with African American settlers coming from the United States and Mennonites arriving following the construction of the Canadian Northern Railway in 1905. That same year, the train station would be built at a cost of $3,000, or about $70,000 today.
In 1907, a man named John Henry Jack Wesson arrived and would go on to not only become the first president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, but also the president of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. I will talk more about him later.
From these early years, the community would begin to grow and prosper and by 1955 it was officially declared a town. Oil and gas would be discovered nearby in the 1970s, helping the community to grow and by 1981 it had reached 1,000 people.
The Shiloh People
One of the more interesting aspects of the Maidstone area are the aforementioned African American settlers who arrived in the area from Oklahoma in 1909. They would come together to create the first and only African American farming community in the province. They left Oklahoma that year because the Oklahoma merged with territory around it called Indian Territory, and the new government enacted segregation and laws aimed at preventing Black Americans from living their lives freely. Julius Caesar Lane, along with Joseph Mayes, led about 12 families out of Oklahoma towards the Eldon District. One person that came was Joseph’s wife Mattie Mayes, who had been born in Oklahoma in the 1860s as a slave and fled the bigotry and racism that was rampant in the United States at the time to try to live a better life in Canada. Mayes would go on to become a maternal figure in the colony, and served as a midwife for several years. The colony would prosper over the next decade with 75 families living in the colony by the late-1920s. As with so many places though, The Great Depression would hit it hard and as time went on the families would leave the area to live elsewhere hoping to find better opportunities.
All that remains of the community today is a log church called the Shiloh Baptist Church, which was built in 1911 and abandoned in 1940. Today, the church is now a Provincial Historic Site and also a museum. Next to the church is the only Black cemetery in the province. The cemetery holds 38 graves from the community, and was used from 1913 to 1945.
On the site you will find a large cairn that outlines some of the history of the colony, and the one-room log church that was made using hand-hewn poplar logs from the North Saskatchewan River, hauled to the area by ox cart. The original homemade benches are also still in the building.
The CNR Station
The train station was vital to every community that sprang up in the prairies. It was where new arrivals would step off the train ready to begin their new life in the community they had chosen to call home. Many of these train stations are long gone but not in Maidstone, where the original CNR train station still exists, housing the Maidstone and District Museum, which I will get to later.
The CNR station, constructed by the Canadian Northern Railway in 1905, featured areas for passengers, ticket sales, fuel storage, freight and even a residence for railway employees. The trains tation was operated by the CNR until 1918 when the station became part of Canadian Government Railways in 1923. The station continued to operate under that organization until rail passenger service was discontinued to Maidstone in 1977.
The building is designed in the style of a third-class station, which was typical for medium-sized towns at the time. The third-class station design includes a wood-frame, two-storey construction with a hip roof that has broad overhangs.
Today, the CNR station is one of the oldest buildings in the entire community, lending itself perfectly to being the museum for the community as well. The building was formerly recognized as a Municipal Heritage Property on Nov. 28, 1989.
Maidstone & District Museum
Located within the historic CNR train station you will find the Maidstone and District Museum, which is also a heritage village that houses 10 other buildings including a school, store, machinery shed, blacksmith shop and church. Within the museum you will also find artifacts from the area that have been gathered over the past century, as well as a 1950s station masters residence that includes a vintage wood stove, ice box and more.
Another great aspect of this museum is that it is located next to the Del Frari-Victoria Park, which contains walking trails, a playground, camping sites and a trout pond.
Fort Pitt Trail
If you travel just a few kilometres north of Maidstone along Highway 21, you will come to the historic Fort Pitt Trail, which linked Fort Pitt to the Battleford settlement during the late 1700s, as well as linking Fort Edmonton to the rest of the west.
The trail itself, which can be hard to find at times, has had many people travel it over the past 300 years and it also served as the construction and service route for the Dominion Telegraph Line. When that line was abandoned in the 1920s, the trail became obsolete as a new surveyed road plan was put into place. The trail can still be seen somewhat if you go northeast of Maidstone in the sandhills where you can find some traces of the trail. The trail is also being preserved, what is left of it, by the Midwest Archeology Society.
As for Fort Pitt, that is located about 45 minutes north east of Maidstone. Established in 1829 to act as a halfway point between Fort Edmonton and Fort Carlton, it played many important roles in Canada over the past 150 years including during the 1885 North West Rebellion and the signing of Treaty 6 by the Indigenous. The fort doesn’t exist anymore but there are archeological remains of two different posts and there is also interpretive plaques in Fort Pitt Provincial Park that highlights the history of the fort, as well as individuals such as Chief Big Bear.
Fort Pitt itself would close in 1890 after it was used less as a training hub, and more people began to move elsewhere in the area.
The fur trading history of the Maidstone area is quite strong. From the early explorers and traders who moved through the area, to the eventual posts that were set up, Maidstone had an abundance of traffic prior to the creation of Canada.
One such place, located just north of Maidstone on Highway 21, is Pine Island. This small island, which is in the Gully Creek of the North Saskatchewan River, was the site of at least five fur trading posts between 1785 and 1793, with the most well known being the Hudson Bay Company’s Manchester House. In 1786, the five companies operating just on this island were the Hudson’s Bay Company, the North West Company, as well as individuals backed by companies in Montreal and a man named Champagne, all of whom operating a fur trade business there. Competition in the area was very strong between the biggest fur trading companies on the continent, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, which would result in eventual armed conflict and the destruction of the forts in 1793.
The site itself, located on the island, is not accessible except in winter or by boat, but a large stone cairn and a plaque were put up in 1991 and provide a history of the island.
The island also played a part during the 1885 North West Rebellion. It was here that Inspector Francis Dickens and a contingent of North West Mounted Police spent two nights after they evacuated from Fort Pitt and were heading towards Fort Battleford. Also during the Rebellion, a steamship under the command of General Frederick Middleton stopped at the island, gathering wood for firewood and throwing confiscated weapons overboard into the river, where many still sit, in order to make room for more firewood.
I am going to close out this episode by talking about some of the notable individuals who have called the area of Maidstone home at least for a time.
The first is a man by the name of Augustus Frederick Lafosse Kenderdine. Born in 1870 in England, he would study art at the Manchester School of Art and spent time in Paris during the 1890s. He would eventually be inspired to move out to Canada and he became one of the first pioneers in the area. For the first decade of his time in Saskatchewan, he focused on farming but then turned the farm over to his son so he could go back to working on art. He wanted to spread his love of art to others and he would establish the Murray Point Art School at Emma Lake in 1935, which would bring in students from across Canada and eventually became the University Art Camp. Highly respected for his artistry by his peers and colleagues, his paintings would eventually find their way across. His work has appeared at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina and most notably, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. He was also the first Professor of Art at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. In 1991, the University of Saskatchewan named the Kenderdine Art Gallery in his honour.
In 1971, a memorial was erected to Kenderdine, which sits to this day on top of Pikes Peak Hill, located only 20 minutes northwest of Maidstone, where you can see the landscape and view that Kenderdine loved.
The next person was the previously mentioned John Henry Wesson, who had come to the area and would go on to be an influential farmer in the organizations I had mentioned. As was mentioned, he would be one of the first directors of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, serving as the vice president in 1931, and then becoming president in 1937 and holding office as president until 1960. His work to improve the quality of life for grain growers did not go unnoticed and in 1946 he was on the Kings Honor List and received the Commander of the British Empire. In 1961, he was given an honorary doctorate of law from the University of Saskatchewan. He would also lead the 1942 Farmers March on Ottawa protesting low prices for produce.
His citation from the University of Saskatchewan reads:
“His voice became the voice of prairie wheat farmers and upon occasions, the voice of the whole of Canadian agriculture. With purpose and dignity he spoke and was listened to, in provincial, national and international councils. Wherever the welfare of the Canadian farmer was discussed, John Wesson was to be found and the weight of his judgment and influence were felt.
He passed away in 1965. In 1973, he was inducted into the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame.
Arguably the most famous person to have called Maidstone home is the iconic Canadian musician Joni Mitchell. While she was born in Fort MacLeod, her family would around quite a bit to various bases after the Second World War as her father was a Royal Canadian Air Force Flight lieutenant and was an instructor of new pilots. She would first live in Maidstone for a time before moving to North Battleford and eventually settling in Saskatoon. Later in life, Mitchell would talk about living in Maidstone where she would lay in bed and watch the morning train go by.
Describing how the things she would see would become part of her lyric framework, she said in 1990, quote:
“My creative drive is based on a series of powerful images. The royal blue moment of morning, the fury of a hailstorm that I watched in wonder as it completely devastated a friend’s father who watched his crop, all his work, torn and shredded. The train rolling around the curve at Maidstone, with the sun flashing in deep pink from the elevator across the road. That is all part of me. I am a flatlander.”
She would pay homage to her former home in her song, Song For Sharon. Sharon was a friend of Mitchell’s in Maidstone who wanted to study voice and become a singer. Mitchell said she was the one planning to marry a farmer. In the end, Mitchell became the singer and Sharon married the farmer. In the seventh verse, she mentions Maidstone, which I will play here to close out the episode: