The History Of Spiritwood

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CraigBaird

Indigenous History

The Indigenous have lived in the area of Spiritwood for thousands of years, arriving as the glaciers began to disappear 10,000 years ago. The Cree and Blackfoot would move through the area, following the seasons and the bison herds that made up to the area until they were eventually hunted to near extinction by Canadians and Americans.

Today, the Witchekan Lake Indigenous Reserve is found just north of Spiritwood.  Originally, the reserve was much larger and encompassed the area of Spiritwood. Old iron stakes had been found in Spiritwood with I.R. stamped on them to identify the outer limits of the reserve. Today, the reserve occupies approximately 4,000 acres.

Spiritwood sits on Treaty 6 land.

Founding Of the Community

Like many communities in the prairies, the name for Spiritwood would come from another place, specifically, Spiritwood, North Dakota. As for how that community received its name, it seems to be a tragic story of a woman who drowned in a nearby lake and her spirit is said to wander the wooded areas nearby. The name was suggested by Robert Dumond, who had come from Spiritwood, North Dakota.

The first settlers to the area were the Lafleurs, which consisted of a father and four sons who settled near the highway around 1910. Soon after, settlement began to increase but at a relatively slow pace.

In 1912, the first post office in the area was opened. At the time, the chief industry for the small community was grain growing and the raising of livestock.

The community would grow slowly over the course of the next decade and a half, but in 1929, the community started to boom thanks to the arrival of the Canadian National Railway.

Elmer Thompson had the honour of driving in the last spike for the railroad and quickly, Spiritwood began to boom.

With the arrival of the railroad, the community quickly began to see its size increase. At its peak, the railroad was making three trips to Prince Albert and back, with residents able to go to the city and back in the same day.

On Oct. 1, 1935, the Village of Spiritwood as incorporated, with the first bylaw being the creation and purchase of a village seal. The village also purchased a Welcome To Spiritwood sign for $15. The first overseer for the town would be L. Permack.

In 1942, the first light plant was purchased for the community, which consisted of a 14-horsepower diesel engine. On its first Saturday, the engine powered the lights in the community but soon became a headache and was in need of constant repair.

On July 17, 1947, Premier Tommy Douglas, later to be called the Greatest Canadian, would cut the ribbon on the new 20-bed Spiritwood Union Hospital. This hospital was years in the making, beginning in 1944 when the Board of Trade took up the cause of getting a new hospital operating. The need for a new hospital was evident in the fact that 662 patients had been admitted into the 14-bed hospital over the past year, and 3,000 patient days had been septn in the first year alone. Doctors had to work under trying conditions but thanks to the efforts of the community, hardwork and cooperation, a new hospital was built for Spiritwood.

On Sept. 6, 1965, Spiritwood became a town and a special ceremony was held in the community. Several dignitaries came out including the MP and MLA for the area. In the parade to celebrate the big event, 1000 people came out to line Main Street and see the 35 floats go by. The first mayor for the community was J. Veillet, who served until 1967.

The 1946 Fire

Fire is no laughing matter, today nor decades ago. For many communities, a fire was a terrible danger that could wipe businesses off the map. While some communities only had small fires, and others had larger fires, Spiritwood did not escape the wrath of the flames.

It was on Nov. 19, 1946 when a fire destroyed six buildings in the downtown. Gone were the post office and café, a garage, a doctor’s office, a butcher and a lumberyard. Six months later, the power plant was destroyed in a fire.

To combat this danger, town council ordered that paintless frame buildings in the community be replaced with fireproof streamlined buildings. Thanks to that decision, many of the buildings from that time still stand to this day.

By August of 1947, many of the businesses that had been destroyed in a fire were back up and running, with beautiful new buildings for residents to visit.

The 1977 Fire

The 1946 fire was not the only fire to threaten the community. On May 7, 1977 at 2:30 a.m., three of the four elevators in the town were completely destroyed by fire. At the time, the elevators were full of grain, and the fire quickly spread to the stockyards and holding pens, destroying those structures and most of the elevator records, fertilizer and agricultural chemical.

The fire didn’t stop there though, as high winds caused many to not hear the siren. When the fire brigade was notified, they quickly rushed to deal with the fire. The heat was so intense from the fire that the firemen were unable to get close enough to fire to be effective. Flames were rising 100 feet in the air and as much as 45 kilometres away flames could be seen. Residents on the west side of town were told to be ready to evacuate their homes at any time as sparks were flying through town. Across the highway from the burning elevators, one home caught fire and while the home was saved, it suffered extensive damage. Throughout the town, residents used garden hoses to wet down houses. The fire was so strong, according to one firefighter, a sheet of sparks four kilometres long extended out from the fire.

The community quickly rallied, with the Co-op store becoming the base of operations and people preparing breakfasts for the firefighters and providing hot coffee.

Finally, at 7:30 a.m., the fire was out. Roughly 50 per cent of the grain could be salvaged thankfully, but damages were pegged at $2 million, or $8.5 million today.

The Russian Satellite

We don’t often think about things falling from the sky, except for meteors, and we certainly don’t think a piece of a satellite is going to land in the yard. That is exactly what happened in 1981 when a fuel tank off a Russian satellite survived re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and landed on the farm of Garry Robinson near Spiritwood.

At first, the family, which consisted of Joan and Gary Robinson, and their son Marty, did not know what the debris was. They had found it while checking the field and came across the object. It would take the Department of National Defence analyzing the piece and determining that it was an 11-inch spehere that used to be part of a satellite, but had amazingly survived re-entry.

Today, the piece sits in the Spiritwood museum.

The Spiritwood Arm-wrestling Club

I have looked at a lot of local histories during my time making podcasts, and I can honestly say that I have never come across a community that had not only an arm-wrestling club, but a successful one at that.

It was in March 1978 when the club was formed after Frank Schira had competed in Prince Albert at the first Saskatchewan Arm-wrestling Tournament. An organizational meeting was held and several people turned out. While it started small, the club grew to 28 paid members from Alberta and Saskatchewan and thanks to the success of the Spiritwood club, several other clubs would begin to appear across the province. In 1980, the Spiritwood Arm-wrestling club was voted the most active club in Canada and Frank received the Rookie Promoter of the Year award.

The club would win several awards and provincial titles, and five of its members would go on to compete in Reno, Nevada at the Can-Am Tournament in June of 1983. Soon after on Nov. 19 of that year, the club hosted the largest cash tournament in Canada.

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Spiritwood Museum

Located in a renovated farm house, the Spiritwood Museum is a unique museum when it comes to small town museums. The museum consists of three rooms that are designed to look like a home from the era of 1930 to 1955.

In the remaining rooms, artifacts from the social, business and family life of the community are found. The museum also showcases the agriculture used by the early residents decades ago, including vintage machinery. There is also an extensive showcase of Indigenous artifacts from the area, long before the arrival of Canadians and Europeans. There is also a veterinarian display, shop display, shoe making and watch display and a fire truck from the early days of the community.

A country one-room school is also on the site, as is the Trinity Bissell United Church, which was originally built in 1936 in Mildred, Saskatchewan. The Bissell Church is actually a unique place as it was built by a Mr. Bissell, who had invented and patented a plough, allowing him to have the money to build the church. It would move into Spiritwood in 1965 and its interior remains the same as it was when it was moved into Spiritwood. The church is also one of six of its type still existing in Canada.

Timberland School

Located near Spiritwood, the Timberland School was built in 1936 by local residents when the need for a school and community centre became apparent. As the only community structure around, it also served as the main gathering place for residents of the district.  It would operate until 1957 when it was closed. After its closure, the school was purchased by the community and turned into a community centre.

The structure still stands to this day and serves as an example of the type of school used by many districts in the prairies where all the students were taught in one large room. Within the school today, you can still see the flag pole, Timberland School No. 5080 over the entrance and the chalkboards on the wall where students learned history, math, English and more for over 20 years.

On Jan. 10, 1995, the school became a Municipal Heritage Property.

Mirror Lake School

Another school near to Spiritwood is Mirror Lake, which also dates to 1936 when it opened as a one room school house. The decision to organize a school district actually came in 1934 during a meeting at the home of W.B. Wasden. In order to fund the building of the school, ratepayers were charged six dollars per quarter in their assessment. If they could not pay, they needed to provide manual labour for the construction or 500 feet of lumber. In the school, the 45 desks were hand made by a local resident. The first teacher would be Mary Keith, supervising 46 students aged five to 16, half of whom never attended school before.

On the day the school opened, tragedy struck the district when a man who was digging a well was being lowered into the well by rope, when it suddenly went slack. Efforts were made to find the man, but by the time he did he was dead. It was believed that gas in the well had overcome him.

Like Timberland, it continued to operate until 1957 when it was closed due to falling enrolment, with Jack Marion serving as the final teacher. During the time it was open, the school was the primary educational centre for the area, and also a community centre. Its Christmas concerts, meetings and picnics were always a great time for residents to come together to meet and talk. Following the closure of the school, the local residents used the property for social functions and they would establish a community club to oversee the property.

On Feb. 14, 1995, the school became a Municipal Heritage Property.

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