The History Of Shaunavon

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CraigBaird

Before Europeans ever ventured into the area that would one day be Saskatchewan, the area of Shaunavon was home to a diverse group of Indigenous people. The primary group that inhabited the region in the pre-colonial era were the Blackfoot. The bison formed an incredibly important part of the culture, diet and materials used by the Blackfoot. Their vast herds would migrate through the region that is now Shaunavon, and would be hunted including using nearby bison jumps to harvest a large amount of animals. The Sioux were also found in the area, which was part of their upper northern territory at times.

Fur traders would gradually come into the area, as well as explorers, which would cause a massive change in the culture of the Indigenous. One Indigenous group that arrived from the east with the fur traders were the Metis, who set up settlements in nearby areas such as Willow Bunch and Wood Mountain. Today, Shaunavon is on Treaty 4 land.

By 1913, settlers were migrating into the area in large numbers. This was because the government allowed land to be purchased throughout the province at a cost of $10 per quarter section, as long as a homestead was built on a quarter. Thanks to this deal, Shaunavon quickly sprang up.

On Sept. 17, 1913, the sale of lots in the new site of Shaunavon began. There were about 125 people waiting to buy plots in the community, some having waited for two weeks in line for the sale to begin. In the space of only eight hours of selling in the Shaunavon area, 370 lots were sold, worth $210,000.

As for the name of the community, that is a mystery. It is believed that the name comes from two names. The first is Lord Shaughnessy and the other is William Van Horne. Lord Shaughnessy was one of the founders of the Canadian Pacific Railway, while Van Horne was the president of the CPR and helped to get the transcontinental railway finished. Those two names together became, Shaunavon.

That isn’t the only story for the name origin. Another story states that the name comes from Lord Shaughnessy turning down the honour of having the town partly named after him, and instead asking that it be named Shaunavon in reference to his home in the United Kingdom.

Likely, the first story is the more accurate one.

Water was the big reason so many wanted to homestead in the Shaunavon area. The water in the area was considered to be the purest and most plentiful around. Due to this rapid growth, Shaunavon became the first community in Canada to grow from being just a village, to a town, in under one year.

Shaunavon continued to grow in the next two decades, and in 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to Canada, the water they were supplied with came from Shaunavon. This helped to earn the town the title “Water Capital of Canada”. 

In 1915, the Shaunavon Hotel was built on six town lots in the new community. This three-storey, wood framed building would go on to become an integral part of the business district of the community for the next 90 years and one of its most important landmarks. When it was built, it was considered to be one of the most luxurious hotels in southern Saskatchewan. Even more amazing is that the hotel was built in only two months. In 1928, it would go through an expansion that would make it larger and even more impressive. In May of 1999, it was made a Municipal Heritage Property.

On June 28, 1923, Shaunavon would be brought to the forefront of news in Canada when Gib Hollenbeck, a farmer and poolroom keeper in nearby Dollard, was shot and killed in his pool room. Leonard Staven, a farmer in the area, was arrested. According to Staven, he was talking with Hollenbeck in the pool room when a man came in with a mask on and ordered the men to put their hands up. Staven said he did but Hollenbeck did not and was shot three times. Within half an hour, police from Shaunavon arrived and arrested Staven.  Fred Huss would also be charged with the murder and both would go on trial in November. Huss would be given the death penalty, with his hanging taking place on Feb. 2 at the Regina Jail. Staven would be found not guilty of the murder thanks to Huss taking all the blame for the murder, adding that Staven was only taking instructions from him under duress.

On July 28, 1924, Shaunavon was hit by one of its worst storms when a possible tornado, or at least a cyclonic wind, hit the community, destroying buildings and dropping a massive amount of rainfall on the community in only 20 minutes. In some areas, 71 millimetres of rain fell. The storm caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost crops through the region. The hail also did massive damage to crops, but also to homes in Shaunavon itself. At one point the downpour was so heavy that people could not see the house across the street. Many homes and businesses were flooded and nearly every home in town had some sort of damage to it from the wind, including windows broken. It was estimated that half the telephones in town were out of order, and 50 telephone poles were down. Several cars on Centre Street had their tops torn off by the wind, and the sidewalk in front of the CPR property was swept across the street and reduced to small pieces of wood.

In 1926, the Shaunavon Courthouse was built by architect and engineer Maurice Sharon, who designed ten provincial buildings in Saskatchewan between 1916 and 1930. Within the community, the courthouse would become an important landmark, with a landscaped yard and Colonial Revival style design. Due to the importance of the building to the community and the surrounding area, it was made a Municipal Heritage Property in 1984.

In 1929, another hotel was built in Shaunavon that would rival the Shaunavon Hotel. The Grand Hotel is one of few remaining hotels in Shaunavon from the construction period in the first decades after the railroad arrived. The hotel was an important part of the social scene of Shaunavon. It was also the site of two unfortunate tragedies. On March 16, 1940, Sgt. Arthur Barker of the RCMP was murdered in the rotunda. The only witness was a Chinese baker named Mah Sai who was playing solitaire in a corner of the hotel lobby. Victor Richard Greenlay, a rancher and officer of the 14th Saskatchewan Light Horse would be charged with the murder. At the funeral of Barker, hundreds attended to honour the popular officer. Greenlay would be declared insane as he was suffering from a delusion that made him believe that killing Sgt. Barker was his duty.

This was not the only time the rotunda was the location of a murder. Only two months after the murder of Sgt. Barker, Toy Ying was charged with the murder of two Chinese men in the rotunda of the hotel. Ying would say that Mah Hop had scolded him and he attempted to run away but two Chinese men stopped him. Hop was then said to yell “Beat this Toy” and he took out a knife. In the scuffle, Ying got the knife and stabbed Rudolph Mah Sai, the same man who had witnessed Barkers murder a few weeks earlier, he also killed Hop in the same melee. Ying would say that he was acting in self-defense when he was being attacked. Ying would be sentenced to 20 years in prison on each charge, which were reduced from murder to manslaughter. The sentences would run concurrently, rather than one after the other.

Due to its importance in the history of Shaunavon, it was made a Municipal Heritage Property in 1999.

It was in the 1920s that Shaunavon became known for something that would not be met with enthusiasm today, badger fights. These fights consisted of a badger going up against a medium-sized dog.

The Regina Leader reported quote:

“A great throng would gather in no time and the amount of money bet on either dog or badger, whichever one had, most faith in, appeared to be nothing short of phenomenal.”

Introduced by George Archambault, or Shambo as he was called, the sport was not met by enthusiasm by many. The Assiniboia Times reported quote:

“With public revulsion of cruelty of animals that has come as a result of it is perhaps timely to turn the spotlight of public attention on another and worse form of cruelty. We refer to the badger fighting such as is practiced in the Town of Shaunavon.”

A warrant was issued for Shambo to stop the fights, but it was to no effect. The Regina Leader would write in 1958 quote:

“Proud of their sport, the likes of which had been seen no where else in Canada, they named their hockey and baseball teams after it and Shaunavon became the Home of the Badgers.”

There is some speculation that the article from 1958 was a hoax, but looking through newspapers from 1930 and 1935 I found the following items. One stated quote:

“The bout is causing more interest, it is said, than the famous badger fight staged by the Shaunavon Board of Trade.”

In an article about a staged bison hunt at Wood Mountain, it is stated quote:

“The people of Southern Saskatchewan will still have their fun. Recent visitors from there report that badger fights are still going strong as Saturday night attractions at Shaunavon.”

In the third article, written about a party to say farewell to two RCMP officers in the community who were transferring it was stated quote:

“Owing the inclement weather conditions the badger fight could not be staged. The evening was spent in bridge and music.”

In 1930, a building was remodeled to become a theatre in Shaunavon to show the latest movies and the amazing thing about this building is that it continues to stand to this very day and it still shows the latest movies!

On May 12, 1930, the Regina Leader wrote quote:

“At the present time, the building formerly known as The Plaza is being remodeled into a theatre. The building is of brick and tile construction and was one of the largest dance halls in the province. The latest talking equipment is being installed. The seating capacity will be in the neighbourhood of 700.”

When it opened, Hollywood had just entered the talking film era, and today it is showing the latest digital movies. The theatre has also been part of one family through five generations, which is truly astounding. It is one of the most unique theatres you could ever hope to visit in Saskatchewan, or Canada for that matter, and a trip to Shaunavon is definitely worth the visit.

In the 1950s, Everett Baker, a historian and naturalist, began to develop a park located about 30 kilometres west of Shaunavon. Hoping to create a place for people to appreciate nature, his Pine Cree Park would become a beautiful spot in the open prairie of southwestern Saskatchewan. The park, which is actually in a small valley in the prairie, features many tree and plant species that you typically see in the Rocky Mountains or Cypress Hills. In 1970, it was made into a Regional park to honour Baker and John Macoun, who camped in the area as part of the Canadian Geological Survey in the 1880s.

In 1952, Oil was discovered around Shaunavon and that would spur on the development of the community even more. Within 10 years, there were 125 oil wells in eight oil fields within a radius of 40 miles producing 25,000 barrels a day. The area is still a major oil producer for the area. My grandfather actually worked on an oil rig there in the 1960s.

In 1963, Shaunavon celebrated its 50th anniversary and it was a big event for the community of 2,500. The Golden Jubilee saw the community’s population double to 5,000 for the festivities with hotels packed and strangers putting up visitors they didn’t know who had come to Shaunavon after years away. Municipal Affairs Minister E.I. Wood officially opened the event, and he was joined by Premier Woodrow Lloyd who presented authorized copies of the incorporation of the Village of Shaunavon in 1913 and the Town of Shaunavon in 1914. Over 300 of the honored guests were over the age 65, who were residents of the town prior to Dec. 31, 1914. A mile-long parade was also held, two in total in fact, led by the RCAF band out of Moose Jaw for the first parade and the Cabri band for the second parade.

Shaunavon is home to many sports stars. Jim Hunter, one of Canada’s iconic Crazy Canucks skiers who dominated skiing in the 1970s was born in Shaunavon. In fact, there is a wonderful documentary about him from the 1970s available to watch for free on the National Film Board app.

The most famous person to come from Shaunavon though, is without a doubt Hayley Wickenheiser.

Born in Shaunavon on Aug. 12, 1978, she would go on to become arguably the greatest female hockey player in Canadian history. Representing Canada’s women’s national hockey team for 23 years, from 1994 to 2017, she set the team record for points with 168 goals and 211 assists in only 276 games. In five Olympic Games, she earned four gold and one silver and was twice named the tournament MVP. She also competed at the Summer Olympics in Softball, and won seven World Championships in hockey.

Outside of international play she was also the first woman to play full-time professional men’s hockey in a position other than goalie. In 23 games with a team in Finland, she recorded two goals and 10 assists.

She was also one of the first two women players to appear in an EA Sports NHL game, when she appeared in NHL 13. In 2019, Wickenheiser was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Shaunavon would name its new recreational complex after her in 2011. That same year, she was awarded the Order of Canada.

If you would like to learn more about the history of Shaunavon, then the best place to visit is the Grand Couteau Museum and Cultural Centre. The origin of the Grand Couteau Museum dates back to 1931 when it was established to preserve the history of Shaunavon. The first museum was housed in the old Cottage School and it was volunteers who kept the school going until 1936. At that point, only one person, Frank Bransted, volunteered and kept the museum going until 1957 when a revival began. At that point, the building was moved to its present site on Centre Street where it remains to this day. The building was completely renovated and opened in 1963 in time for the 50th anniversary of Shaunavon. Since that point, the hotel has expanded and grown and would eventually include a branch of the regional library and an art gallery. Today, the museum is one of the best small town museums in all of Saskatchewan. It features exhibits that explore the natural history of the community, as well as the heritage of Shaunavon from the pre-colonial days to the settlement of Shaunavon and beyond. There are many rocks and fossils from the Cretaceous Period on display, as well as a bison that has a unique story behind it. The bison was obtained by a Dr. Lee from Wainwright Park in Alberta, where there used to be Buffalo National Park before the bison were moved to the Wood Buffalo National Park. He had found the carcass and the cost of conducting taxidermy on the animal was far more than the committee could afford. Dr. Lee then remembered that a Mr. Steffan, who was a taxidermist, needed an appendix operation. The doctor said he would take the appendix out if Steffan would stuff the bison. This was agreed to and that is why the bison is on display in the museum.

The Shaunavon Standard reported on March 2, 1933 quote:

“Towering six feet in height and mounted in lifelike posture, the buffalo obtained from the Wainwright herd in November is now mounted and on exhibition at the Grand Couteau Centre. A splendid piece of workmanship, has been done by Frank Steffan, taxidermist in charge of the work, aided by Jack Hughes, curator, and if no other reason, a trip to the museum to see the buffalo is recommended.”

If you would like to learn even more about Shaunavon, then another great thing to do is to take the Shaunavon Heritage Walking Tour. On the tour through downtown Shaunavon and beyond, you will visit 20 different sites that highlight the history of the community. These sites include the aforementioned Plaza Hotel and Grand Hotel, the Union Bank, the Rex Cafe, the Shaunavon Court House, the Shaunavon Masonic Temple, the Memorial Park and Cenotaph, and of course, the museum.

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