The area of Rossburn has long been the territory of the Cree and Ojibway, who occupied the land for centuries before Europeans even knew North America existed. Indigenous trails criss-crossed the land but these would slowly disappear as settlers came into the area and took up the land. As time went on, less and less Indigenous could be found in the valley that they had frequented for thousands of years.
Today, the Waywayseecappo First Nation is located near to Rossburn and is home to over 3,000 Indigneous. The name of the reserve comes from Chief Waywayseecappo, which translates as courageously standing upright. He would be one of the chiefs to sign the Qu’Appelle Treaty, also known as Treaty 4, in 1875. Today, a cairn sits at the spot where the treaty was signed. He and his Indigenous followers would then take up a reserve near Rossburn in exchange for 22,000 acres of land to be given to the Crown. Waywayseecappo would live into his 90s and was described as having a full and fruitful life.
As French traders and explorers began to arrive from the east, a new culture would come to the area, the Metis. The Metis would have a huge impact on the area, and Manitoba in general. Their bison hunts became legendary and were a fixture of the landscape until the 1870s when the bison had been hunted to near extinction by the Canadians and Americans.
In 1850, the area was surveyed and mapped but it would be some time before any settlers started to arrive. In 1879, the first settlers started to appear, with Richard Roe Ross being one of the first. It was for him that the community was named. Other early settlers included William Peden, J. Broadfoot, Samuel Warnock, Bob Murray and Joseph Still. This group of settlers had settled in the area just to the west of Rossburn along the river.
In the 1880s, a pioneer named James Armstrong began to work his property and he would create a thriving farm that continues to operate to this day. He had come from Galt, Ontario in 1888 and settled in Manitoba. This farm was built up by himself and his brothers, William and Walter, both of whom lived nearby and had come from Ontario with him. It was on that farm, in 1905, that a brick dwelling and wood barn would be constructed. He would live in the home, working the land, until his death in 1925. The home and barn continue to stand on the property, sheltered in the trees, and in 2005 both were made Municipal Heritage Properties.
In 1884, the Rural Municipality of Rossburn would be created as a means to handle the municipal affairs of the area, including public schools, health care and work projects such as bridges and roads.
In 1899, a new wave of settlers arrived with Polish and Ukrainian immigrants coming into area in the hope of finding peace and freedom after dealing with authoritarian rule in their homeland. Those same settlers would deal with a terrible outbreak of scarlet fever after they arrived. As the first group of Ukrainians started to arrive in the area, three children would die on the train. On May 10, 1899, the settlers moved to temporary shelters at Patterson Lake. These were merely tents that the families lived in while they waited for their homesteads to be surveyed. The day they arrived, it rained all day and snowed in the night, aggravating the sickness for the children. The children became sicker and every day for two weeks there was at least one death.
This disease would take the lives of 42 children and three adults who were buried en-masse in the frozen ground since individual graves were too difficult. The remains remained in this large grave for half a century until they were removed to the present location 100 metres north of the original burial site. This site was blessed by Reverend Lehky and Reverend Borys. The Ukrainian Pioneer Mass Grave Site would become an important reminder of the hardships faced by settlers to Canada at the turn of the century. On April 17, 1990, the mass grave site was made a municipal heritage site.
Just as Rossburn was beginning to build itself up, a terrible fire broke out in the community on Jan. 5, 1909. When the fire broke out in the block of stores owned by B.W. Johnstone, the temperature was -40 and this made it very difficult to fight the flames. As the fire tore through the block of stores, destroying a general store, bakery, drug store and harness shop, the people who lived above the stores were forced to flee their homes with what they could carry, often only wearing their sleeping clothes. The fire was believed to have started in the bakery, and would result in $30,000 in damages, which is about $800,000 today.
Religion has been an important aspect of the social life of Rossburn for years, and when Ukrainians began to settle at the turn of the 20th century, the wanted a place to worship. At the start, they would hold mass at the homes of local Ukrainians but eventually, something permanent was needed. A church was built in 1901, called the Independent Church, but before long dissention among the conflicting congregations resulted the Catholic settlers leaving to build their own church. In 1904, work began on a log structure that would become the St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church. The church was built by hand by local residents who volunteered their time. The first mass would be held soon after it opened, presided over by Father Hura. This church, which is approaching 120 years in age, is very well-preserved and is one of the oldest surviving churches in the entire area. It is also one of the few log Ukrainian churches that remain in Manitoba. While it is not used for regular services anymore, it is used for annual services and the building itself has been completely restored. In 1991, it was made a Municipal Heritage Site.
For the settlers who came to the Rossburn area, they did not often live in extravagant houses. In fact, they lived in very rustic buildings as they began to build up their new land. The Torsky Cabin is a perfect example of this, as a no-frills, practical dwelling that was very common on the Manitoba prairie. This cabin, which was built in 1926, used milled lumber from the area, as well as hand-hewn logs for its walls. The building was built by Nick Torsky and would serve as a residence for his mother-in-law. The building continues to sit on the land that is still owned by the Torksy family. Its heritage as a symbol of the hard work of early settlers resulted in the building becoming a Municipal Heritage Site in 2005.
In 1922, one of the most beautiful schools in the area was built. The Marconi School, which was built by local carpenter Frank Kennedy, would serve the community for three decades and today remains as one of the few heritage schools on its original site in the area. The building features several windows, a tin ceiling and an informal hipped roof. In 1990, it was turned into a Municipal Heritage Site.
In the 1920s, Delmar King came up with the idea of creating a snow plane. Through the winter at the waiting room of the King Rink, he started to build his plane. Using a four-cylinder Henderson motorcycle engine, four skis and a skeleton frame, he constructed the plane. Unfortunately, when finished it was so light he couldn’t steer it. It was then dismantled and he continued to improve on it. Over the course of two years, now using a Model T engine, he was able to build a new plane. In its first flight, he flew 30 feet until he hit a wooden tool box. The next plane was built using a Chevy 490 engine, a Model T steering post and two old steam engine flues for a frame. This plane was a success and he was able to fly from Vista to Rossburn. He then started on his next plane, which included canvas and could hold three people. Once that plane was finished, he built a plane with an aluminum structure that could hold three people. This plane was very successful and he would use it to transport police and doctors throughout the region on emergencies.
In 1928, the population of the area was booming and a new wave of Ukrainian settlers were starting to arrive. With so many Ukrainian settlers, there was the need for a larger church. That year, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption of St. Mary was built. The second church for the Ukrainian population was much larger and more extravagant than the one I had previously mentioned. Featuring three prominent domes and a gable roof, it would replace the original 1904 church that was built nearby. The first service at this church would be held on Aug. 28, 1928. It also features a separate bell tower on a sheltered hilltop and it still has a small congregation that uses it on special occasions. In 1991, it was made a Municipal Heritage Site.
Around this same time, the population of children was increasing and new schools were popping up all over the prairies. The Glen Elmo School, built in 1929, was one such school. This small log building, clad with wood siding, sits on a hill by the road and is one of the few remaining one-room schools from the years after the First World War to still be standing in the area. The first teacher at the school was Caroline Shumanski, who was paid $765 for her work during the year.The school would continue to operate until 1967 when it was shut down. Thankfully, the building still remains and the school would eventually be owned by a former student, whose parents and grandparents farmed the surrounding property. In 1996, the school was turned into a Municipal Heritage Site.
In 1967, as Canada was starting to celebrate its Centennial, the community set up the original fire bell at the town hall after it had been in retirement for quite some time. It was believed that the bell dated to at least 1914. The Rossburn Times stated that year quote:
“The fire bell, donated by the CNR Company to the Village of Rossburn, is now placed in a good central location, a volunteer fire brigade organized, and various equipment purchased such as ladders and fire buckets.”
The fire bell would stay at the town hall for a brief period, but it was eventually put back into retirement. It would then be moved to sit atop the fire hall roof above the town hall years later.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Rossburn, the best place to visit is the Rossburn Museum. Within the building, you will see an antique printing press, a pioneer kitchen, a period hairdressing salon, a school room and an entire replica of a Ukrainian village. There is also antique fire equipment, artifacts from the local history and war uniforms from the men and women who served Canada during the wars of the 20th Century.