The History Of Yorkton

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CraigBaird

The Indigenous

The Yorkton area has long been the home of the Plains Cree people, and then later the Saulteux people. Along the Little White Sand River and Yorkton Creek, there is archeological evidence that shows encampment sites and hunting activity dating back thousands of years in the area.

The area that would become Yorkton is situated in the semi-sheltered Aspen Parkland eco-region that provided a blend of protection from the open elements.

The nomadic hunting culture of the Indigenous meant that while they would often stay in the area, they would move on following the herds of bison over the landscape, before eventually moving back through over the years.

Founding of the Community

In 1882, the York Farmers Colonization Company was officially founded with the goal of creating colonies out west as the railroad began to move through, which would connect the country from ocean to ocean. The company had an initial capital of $300,000, which was the second smallest capital of all the colonization companies applying for land at the time.

On Feb. 11, 1882, the company applied for land from the Minister of the Interior. On May 11, a reply was given that they would be granted the lots of land they had requested, with only a few exemptions.

The company chose to call these townships York Colony and the first men to leave Ontario to settle this land were James Armstrong, J.J. Smith, W.F. Smith, and William MacFarline. The four men were soon joined by seven other men and they spent their summer clearing the land and building shelters for the winter. Only four men would stay for the winter, including James Armstrong, who would say quote:

“Alone, four of us lived together from November 2 until April without hearing or seeing anything to relieve the monotony or any communication with the outside world it could not be much worse to be in jail. We were 60 miles from any settler.”

From these four men, many others would follow as the colonization company began to advertise the land available.

The area would gain the name of York City in 1883, but soon after the name was changed to Yorkton since there was already a York City in Ontario. James Sharp would become the first postmaster for the community, while a Mr. Reaman would open the first general store and the first stopping house called Queen’s Hotel. A stone mill was also built, providing employment for several settlers. The company also paid men $25 for every 1,000 feet of lumber they could haul from Whitewood for the construction of the mill.

Unfortunately, the community would immediately hit problems when the proposed branch line off the main line did not come through the community. James Armstrong would blame the government as well for letting homesteaders abandon their plots around the community so they could be closer to the railroad. There were also bad crops throughout those early years and the Yorkton Farmers Colonization Company closed its doors in 1887.

By 1888, the consensus in Yorkton was that to survive, the community had to move. In 1890, the old townsite was abandoned and a new townsite along the Manitoba and North Western Railway Company line was built. Soon after, Yorkton quickly began to grow. Before long, there was a courthouse, feed stables, blacksmith shops, a creamery, two hotels, three general stores and a lumber yard. A newspaper, The Messenger, started up in 1892, lasting only through 12 issues before it folded.

On July 15, 1894, Yorkton became a village, and with new immigration policies in place, it quickly began to grow. In 1900, Yorkton became a town and on Feb. 1, 1928, it was the eighth city in the province of Saskatchewan. Today, Yorkton is the sixth largest city in Saskatchewan, behind Swift Current

Sir Wilfrid Laurier Visits

The importance of Yorkton was exemplified on July 20, 1910 when Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the longtime prime minister of Canada, arrived in Yorkton for a special event. In honour of his stopping in the community, a three-arch structure with a welcome note on it was built and put in front of the CPR station. A band from Langenburg was hired to play for the arrival of the prime minister.

Prior to arriving in Yorkton, he had made several stops in several Manitoba and Saskatchewan communities on that day. Each time he was greeted by huge crowds, just as he was in Yorkton.

Laurier would speak to the people of Yorkton from the rear of the train car, stating quote:

“Every dollar given to the railways is given for the purpose of getting a better price for the goods of the men who till the soil.”

He then did a tour of the local wheat fields and said he had seen nothing better during his tour of the Canadian West. In speaking to the crowd afterwards, he stated quote:

“I come from the eastern provinces where the British element is strongest and supreme, but here you have a more cosmopolitan people, and I am glad to see the British are willing to share whatever they have with their fellows. We recognize that we are all Canadians and that we should join together to build up our nation.”

The Saskatchewan Western Development Museum

One of the best places to visit in Yorkton if you have an interest in history is the Yorkton Branch of the Western Development Museum, which has branches throughout Saskatchewan.

In the Yorkton building, there are many interesting artifacts including a 1907 Maxwell Roadster that was given to a Mr. Skelton in 1915 in exchange for a saddle horse and pig, and which he would drive for eight years. There is also a Morris Rod Weeder, used by George Morris on his homestead throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

One of the most interesting parts of the museum is the Twin City 60 Monster Tractor, which is composed of steel and weights 28,000 pounds. It includes seven-foot drive wheels and a 60-horsepower engine.

Also included in the exhibit is a Yorkton Local History Exhibit, and an exhibit that celebrates 100 years of Saskatchewan history from 1905 to 2005, including recreations of Indigenous life, early settlers’ life, and the growth of the area throughout the 20th century.

A mural recreates the railway station scene of Yorkton in the early 20th century, and several showcase rooms highlight using artifacts the different cultures of the area including British, German, American and Ukrainian.

Yorkton Court House

The courthouse in Yorkton, which dates to 1919, is one of the most recognizable features of the community and one of its most stunning.

The building was designed by Maurice Sharon, who was the chief architect for the province from 1916 to 1930. The courthouse in Yorkton was built between 1919 and 1921 and it was the first to be designed by Sharon in the province. With such a large courthouse, it showed the importance of Yorkton in the area during those early years.

The building is clad in Tyndall Stone and Claybank brick, and the generous use of stone represents one of the last times a courthouse was built of stone rather than brick as became more common throughout the 1920s.

Due to its importance in the history of not only Yorkton, but also the entire area, the courthouse would be made a Provincial Historic Site on Feb. 15, 1988.

Yorkton Organic Milling Ltd.

Located in the downtown core of Yorkton, the Yorkton Organic Milling Property is one of the oldest structures in the community. In 1890, the brick-clad mill was built and eight years later it was moved to its present site so that it could be closer to the rail line. By 1900, the mill would expand with a new wood-crib building, followed by further expansions in the 1940s and 1950s, all of which remain to this day on the site.

The mill had been built by John Smith, one of the early businessmen, who also built the Yorkton Brick Company. He would sell the mill to Levi Beck, who would operate it under the name of Northern Star Flour until 1936 when he sold it to the Yorkton Milling Company.

The facility would continue to operate until 1989 when it was closed, but it remains a landmark in the community to this day. To that end, on May 12, 1997, it was made a Municipal Heritage Property. 

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A Fire Demo Turns Nearly Deadly

The Yorkton Volunteer Fire Brigade had been operating for several years when a mishap would occur in 1906 during a community fair when the fire department was putting on a display of its precision and teamwork.

Conducting a mock rescue, everything went awry when the fire engine broke down and the fly wheel flew off, which resulted in an intentionally set fire now burning without the fire department having the means to put it out.

The building that had been erected on the old fair grounds was the one burning, with a woman calling from the top floor in night attire for help, which was part of the plan and would have shown the fire department saving her. The woman was Hugh Furby dressed as a woman, and he now saw that the fire department was dealing with problems of its own and the flames were starting to creep up towards him.

The ladder company quickly grabbed a ladder from the cart that now had an axle broke and was sitting useless in a field. As they reached Furby, his night gown was now alight and he was quickly pulled from the building, saving his life.

Thankfully, while this incident nearly resulted in tragedy, no one was hurt, and the fire department learned an important lesson in ensuring training exercises go off without a hitch.

The Death of Constable Ralls

It was a day of mourning for Yorkton when on July 4, 1932, Constable Novakowski was on patrol between Yorkton and Foam Lake due to reports of breaking and entering. At 1:40 a.m. on July 5, he attempted to stop a car, but the driver instead tried to run the constable down, forcing him to jump to safety.

Constable Novakowski would give chase towards the car that matched the description of the vehicle that had been involved in the robberies. For the next hour, the Constable chased after the car, as the occupants fired their guns at him, to which Novakowski responded in kind.

After an hour, Novakowski stopped and notified Corporal Ralls at Foam Lake by telephone about the men coming towards the community. A half hour later, he was notified that Corporal Ralls had been shot and killed by the men in the vehicle. Every available man was sent out to the district to find the robbers turned murderers.

The three men were arrested at three different places, at three different times over the course of July 6 based on reports from residents. Mike and Bill Kurulak made confessions in which they stated they were in the car stopped by Corporal Ralls, but they said that Bill Miller, the third man who had been killed in a shootout by a Constable Parsons, was the one to kill the Corporal.

The two men were tried at the Yorkton Court and on Oct. 1, 1932, William was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, while Mike was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Yorkton Armoury

In the centre of Yorkton, you will find the Yorkton Armoury, a T-shaped two-storey building that is built from Claybank brick with stone and beautiful art deco details.

The structure was built in 1939 as the Department of Public Works was in the process of modernizing the country’s military, which began nationwide in 1936. The Yorkton Armoury is only one of three drill halls that were constructed by the department during this period.

Due to the historic associations of the building, its role in the area during the Second World War and its environmental and architectural value, the structure was made a recognized Federal Heritage Building on July 23, 1998.

Yorkton Navy and Air Force Veterans Building

On another military note in the community, we have the Army Navy and Air Force Veterans Building. The first building was built in 1909 by Franklin Collacott, who then built a second building next door in 1915, which housed the hardware store that he had inherited from his father Thomas, who was one of the first businessmen in the history of Yorkton. Over the years, the building has served many businesses, including Switzer’s shoe store and both buildings have become a recognizable feature of the community.

The buildings were constructed in a classical design using brick and stone and large street-level window openings, which showcase their role as prominent stores in Yorkton’s first mercantile district.

Due to their historic nature in the community, they were made Municipal Heritage Properties on Aug. 8, 2005.

Queen Elizabeth Arrives

It was a big day for the community when Queen Elizabeth II herself came by train to Yorkton on July 29, 1978 as part of a tour of the Canadian West in the leadup to the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. Accompanied by Prince Philip, when she arrived in the community, she disembarked on Broadway and took an open car to the Agriplex where she was presented with several gifts and was given the opportunity to cut the birthday cake for the community.

One issue when the Queen arrived was that the red carpet that was rolled out for the Royal Couple. First, the carpet was late in arriving at the Agriplex and then when it was unrolled it was far too long and would have been lumpy as a result. So, it was cut quickly to ensure that the Queen and Prince Philip did not trip walking into the building.

The mayor of Yorkton then pledged on behalf of Yorkton’s citizens allegiance to the Queen. Queen Elizabeth then met with several veterans of the First and Second World Wars, and several other residents who spent hours waiting to catch a glimpse of the Queen.

After the official ceremonies, the Queen traveled by closed car to the Yorkton airport and took a private plane to her next stop in Regina.

Hudson’s Bay Company Store

There was a time when the Hudson’s Bay Company was the most important company in Canada, right along with Eaton’s. To have a Hudson’s Bay Company store meant that a community was thriving, and Yorkton was one such community.

Today, you can see a glimpse of that past at the Hudson’s Bay Company Store located downtown in Yorkton, where it has stood since 1912 when it was first constructed.

The store represents a time when the company was transitioning from fur trading into a retail business in the early part of the 20th century. Built with brick and terra cotta clay, the store is one of the most recognizable buildings in the downtown core of the community.

For 40 years, this store was where residents went to get modern fashions, supplies, and much more for their day-to-day lives. It was eventually sold by the company in 1954, but it continues to serve as a retail location used by generations of Yorkton residents.

As a result of its long history, the building was made a Municipal Heritage Property on March 26, 1990.

Orkney Church

One of the oldest buildings in the area is the Orkney Church, which is seven kilometres northwest of Yorkton and has sat on the same plot of land since 1893. The process to build the church had begun in 1890 when several residents came together to build the new building that so many would use in the coming years. The cornerstone was laid down on June 10, 1893 by Reverend Frew, assisted by Reverend Hugh Hamilton. One year later to the day, the church held its dedication service.

Built by the Scottish homesteaders who settled in the area from the Orkney Islands, and to which they gave the church its name, the building is an excellent example of stonemasonry rather than a more common wood-frame construction. The church was used by those of the Presbyterian Faith, and a school was also constructed nearby with the same name. The nearby cemetery would be constructed in February 1896, with Ruth Watson Wiseman being the first person buried there.

Today, the property is a Municipal Heritage Property.

Vincent Massey Comes to Visit

Another big-name visitor came to Yorkton in years past, and this time it was not the Queen but her representative, the Governor General. Specifically, it was the first Canadian-born Governor General, Vincent Massey, who arrived in Yorkton on May 19, 1955. Thousands of people came out to meet the Governor General on a beautiful spring day, even climbing into trees to see him pass, or waving from their windows and cheering from the treetops.

His train had been delayed but he did not want to keep anyone waiting so he hopped in a car and drove down to Yorkton where he was met by the mayor and a guard of honour from the 53rd Regiment. He gave a welcome address and then attended the RCMP ball in the community where he was given, by some accounts, 100 presents. He also attended the inspection of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets in Yorkton, and an old friend. Ralph Hinde, who knew Massey 30 years previous, was on hand to meet with his friend once again. A parade was also held, and Massey shook hands with veterans and members of the St. John Ambulance Corps as well as school children. The final event of the day was the opening of the schedule of the Northeastern Saskatchewan Baseball League in a ceremony in Jubilee Park.

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