The verified history of the Indigenous in the Melita area goes back not just centuries, but thousands of years. There is evidence of prolonged habitation that dates back as far as 800 AD.
Located south of Melita, there are two very important sites in terms of Indigenous history. The first is the Brockinton National Historic Site of Canada. This site, on the east side of the Souris River, consists of a thin crescent-shaped strip of land that has shown three different periods of habitation by the Indigenous, dating from 800 AD to 1650 AD, just as the first Europeans began to arrive in the area. At this site, there is evidence of bison drives, Indigenous remains and traces of occupation. At the lowest level of the site, there is also evidence of a bison pound and processing camp. It is not known which Indigenous group used this processing camp, but it is believed to be the earliest occupiers of the site. In the oldest level, there is a huge array of tools and bones, as well as arrowheads. The top level and most recent period of habitation shows evidence of an unknown Plains Indigenous group who likely came up from the Dakotas. The fact that the site has three different periods of habitation, it allows modern historians to see the cultural changes that occurred over the course of almost 1,000 years. This site was made a National Historic Site in 1973.
Located nearby to the Brockinton site there is the Linear Mounds National Historic Site. This site consists of three burial mounds spread out over a large space of land. Dating from 900 AD to 1400 AD, the site contains complex constructions of soil, bone and other materials. The wealth of artifacts found in the area have helped researchers glimpse life on the Great Plains at this time, long before the arrival of Europeans.
The area around Melita was home to the Anishinaabe and the Oceti Sakowin, also known as the Sioux. In later years as fur traders arrived, a new culture, the Metis, would rise in the area. The Mandan, a tribe that primarily lived in the area of North Dakota, were also found in the area and would be the first to greet explorers who came to the area in the 1600s and 1700s.
In 2018, an archeological find revealed that the Indigenous of the area practiced farming prior to contact with Europeans. It was at this site that modified bison shoulder blades were found along a creek bank and it is believed those bones were used as hoes for gardening by the Indigenous that lived there. This makes Melita one of only two sites in Manitoba with evidence of pre-contact Indigenous farming.
Through the area was also a trail, later called the Yellow Quill Trail, that was used by the Indigenous as they migrated through. As fur traders and bison hunters arrived, they would follow this same trail.
Through the years, many artifacts have been found around Melita including arrowheads that were used by the Indigenous.
As with many other parts of the prairies, the bison were a major source of food and supplies for the Indigenous. For centuries, they would follow the herds through the area. As the Metis culture began to rise up, their legendary bison hunts would last through much of the 1800s until the herds were decimated south of the border, ending this way of life forever.
The first known European settler in the Melita area was a man by the name of Charles West, who came out in 1879. West didn’t live in a house when he arrived, but instead had a small dugout carved into the west bank of the river, near a grove. Soon after he arrived, his friends James Kinley and Alfred Dugay arrived, beginning the era of settlement for the region. West had arrived with no guns or provisions, and some said he was a fugitive and on the run from the Hudson’s Bay Company. He would leave the region in 1880 and was never heard from again, but his historical footnote still exists. From him, and those who followed, Melita would grow.
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On July 1, 1882, residents from across the area came out to a place just south of Melita to celebrate Dominion Day with a large picnic. The spot was also a stopping along the Boundary Commission Trail as well. Over the years, the stopping point would be used and turned into a park after the land was donated by Norman Gould, who always allowed the annual Dominion Day celebration to be held there. The site also holds special significance as it was where the surveyors with the British North American Boundary Commission camped in 1873. One year later, the North West Mounted Police camped at the same spot on their journey out west. Today, the site is the Sourisford Park, a recreation and heritage area in a quiet grove right where the Antler River meets the Souris River. The eight-hectare site is also a Municipal Heritage Property. At the property, you can find a large memorial arch that was built in 1929, as well as an 1885 log house and 1.5 storey fieldstone house that was built in 1902 by Alfred Gould.
What about the name? When the first settlement began, which didn’t last long, it was called Manchester. In 1884, when the post office was opening, the local settlers were asked to suggest a name. They suggested Manchester, as that was already the name for the area, but they were told that this name had already been chosen. A list of names was sent for the settlers to look at. One Sunday afternoon, the lesson during Sunday School was St. Paul’s Shipwreck on the island of Malta, or Melita. Everyone felt this was a good name and it was also a name on the list, so it worked out for the community, and it was chosen.
In 1886, with a growing number of children in the area, the first school was built in what would be Melita. The school was a simple frame building, using lumber hauled in from Virden and was built for the low cost of $75. This school would serve as the main place of learning for the next six years.
In 1890, the railroad was coming through southwestern Manitoba and a townsite was surveyed, sparking the beginning of the current community of Melita. The community soon began to grow from this point. By the autumn of 1890, there were already two stores, a post office, a blacksmith shop, a harness shop, an implement agency, a livery stable, a doctor and a school, along with four houses. The Ogilvies Milling Company, Lake of the Woods and Northern Elevator Companies all opened elevators in the community at this time as well. The Ogilvies Elevator would outlast the other two, until it was finally replaced in 1956.
The same year that Melita was formed, Belfry School would be built just west of the community. This one-room school served many rural residents during the pioneer era, and for the next six decades. While the school was built modest in size, it provided a vital source of education for the children of the area. On top of that, it also served as the social hub for some residents, where dances, community meetings and picnics would be held. The school actually still stands to this day and can be visited on a trip through the area. It is also a Municipal Heritage Property.
In 1892, a new school was built to accommodate the increased number of children in the community. This four-room school was built with a new heating and ventilation system, making it one of the most modern schools in the entire province. That school exists to this day. Today, it is home to the Antler River Museum. The museum features artifacts from the archeological digs in the area, a 1927 Indigenous outfit and a transportation diorama highlight some of the unique items found in the museum. The museum also has artifacts from the military history of the community, the recreation of a rural school, a pioneer home of 1900, and a wildlife exhibit that features 200 mounted birds. There is also an old-time picture room, an antiques room, fashions from the turn of the century and more.
Throughout the 1890s, the community continued to grow and by 1898 it had a population of 500 people, many beautiful stone buildings and a growing number of services.
As the community moved into the 20th century, towards the First World War, it would change with the growing world. The first electric lights would be installed and on May 17, 1901, the first automobile would arrive in the community. The Melita Enterprise and progress would state, quote:
“A horseless carriage appeared on the streets the other day.”
Within five years, the first speed limit law came into place in the community, limiting automobiles to four miles per hour in town.
In 1903, a man by the name of Captain Hunt Johnston Rolston Large would arrive in the community. Well liked in the area and known for his kind heart, he even saved the life of a man who had become tangled in the wheel of a threshing machine by calmly taking a heavy hammer and breaking the large wheel to free the man. Of course, what Captain Large is known for is his boat. In 1908, he took a CPR box car, he tore it apart and used the lumber to build the boat, along with lumber from an old house and a donation of lumber. Propelled with a large one-cylinder gasoline threshing engine attached to two side-wheel paddles nine-feet in diameter and made of steel, the boat showed off the master craftsmanship of Captain Large. He would call his boat the Empress of Ireland and it launched on the Souris River in 1910. One person allegedly said, “Do you expect that to float?” Captain Large responded by painting a line on the hull and when the boat went into the water, the water level went right to that line. A Mr. Mallo was hired to steer the boat along the river, while Captain Large would sing songs and play on his banjo to the delight of passengers. In 1912, he decided to use the ship to haul coal, but he changed the name to the Assiniboine Queen to do so. Sadly, one year later, the ship went to the bottom of the river during a terrible flood and torrential rains. Captain Large, a legend of the area during his time, would go back to eastern Canada in 1914. A portion of the paddlewheel from this vessel can be found at the Sourisford Park I mentioned earlier.
In May 1909, the community would suddenly find itself shaking when an earthquake hit. While no damage was done, it was a jarring experience for many, although people in the streets felt no earthquake, while those in their offices and homes did feel it. In a few homes in the community, dishes rattled, along with stove lids. Farmers outside the community also felt it and phoned into town to inquire if the earthquake had been felt there as well.
In 1917, the community had a bit of pride to show when the SS Melita was launched by the Canadian Pacific Railway Ocean Lines. Stretching 520 feet, she was no small ship and on Jan. 12, 1918, she took her maiden voyage from Liverpool to St. John, New Brunswick. The ship would be involved in a notable incident on Oct. 21, 1925, when Chief Officer Thomas Towers shot Master AH Clews as he slept in his cabin. He would also shoot Assistant Chief Engineer David Gilmour but did not kill him. Towers was then overpowered and arrested by Belgian police, as the ship was in port there at the time. In 1935, the ship would be sold to an Italian company and would no longer be known as the Melita. In 1940, she was torpedoed by a British plane in the Mediterranean. Due to her damage, she was scuttled by Italian forces in 1941. In 1950, she was raised and sold for scrap.
In 1928, Melita was showing that it was a force to be reckoned with on the sports scene. Along with having some of the best baseball and hockey teams in the area, the community also hosted the second-largest bonspiel in Canada with 94 entries. At the time, it was the largest bonspiel in Canada to be sponsored by one single club.
The 1920s was the time of another interesting moment in the history of Melita. During this era, criminals from North Dakota would come up into Manitoba in order to ply their criminal trade, likely because enforcement was less than in the United States. Melita found that out firsthand on Sept. 23, 1922, when six bandits stormed into the Union Bank of Canada in the community and robbed it. They had gagged and bound the engineer of the electric light plant next door, and then forced themselves into the bank and placed the two sleeping clerks under guard. Using four charges of explosives to force the vault door open, they were surprised in their work by Reverend Thomas Beveridge who came over the bank, which was closed at the time, after hearing the commotion. Told to stay away, he refused and was shot at four time. The fourth shot hit him in the foot, wounding him. The men then ran from the bank with $7,000, or $108,000 today. Many citizens in town would say that the robbery was the crudest they had seen, and the robbers made no effort to hide their faces or remain quiet. The only thing they had done was cut all the telegraph and telephone wires to the community. One month later, Edward Sherer, a noted Winnipeg criminal, was arrested in the United States but the American government would refuse to send him back to Canada, stating that the evidence was insufficient for extradition.
The community would have a very important visitor arrive on Sept. 19, 1936. It was on that day that John Buchan, the First Baron Tweedsmuir, and the Governor General of Canada, came to the community on his way to Brandon. The visit was quite brief, and very informal. The Governor General was especially interested in the formation of Buchan Folks Circle in the community. The day was also made a holiday for the children of the area, something they were all very thankful for. The society had been formed in 1934 in order to bring people to the Buchan District, and it would last well into the 1970s.
Around the same time, or at least a couple of years after, that the Governor General visited, a young girl would move from a small hamlet at the US-Canada border to Melita with her family. While her name is quite known around Canada, her son would become arguably one of, if not the most famous, Canadian in history. Her name was Betty Fox and during her childhood through the late-1930s and into the 1940s she would live in Melita. Of course, her son is Terry Fox, the Canadian icon. Betty would have quite the life herself though and is well known for her support in developing the Terry Fox Run and the creation of the Terry Fox Foundation. She would take the lead in many parts of the organization. Over the course of her life, she would speak to more than 400,000 school children, touring the country for 25 years to talk to them about the Marathon of Hope. Every speech she gave would end with the phrase, “Never, ever give up on your dreams.” In 2010, she was selected as one of the Olympic flag-bearers for the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. She would also carry the Olympic Torch with her husband Rolly during the 2010 Paralympic Games. On June 17, 2011, she would pass away from diabetes. Her funeral was so large that the civic recreation centre had to be used, and it was broadcast live. British Columbia Premier Christy Clark would attend.