The History Of Mossbank

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The area of Mossbank has been used extensively by the Indigenous of Canada. Dating back centuries, the Blackfoot and the Cree both occupied the territory, which was highly prized due to the vast bison herds that moved through the area. The Ojibwa also occupied the area through the centuries.

Those bison herds provided the Indigenous with many of the things they needed in their day-to-day lives, including food and materials for clothing and shelter.

The nearby Old Wives Lake also gets its name from the Indigenous. There are several oral traditions that detail where the name came from.

According to the Cree, around 1840 a band of Cree hunters followed bison into Blackfoot territory and made camp at the lake. A few Blackfoot Scouts showed up, and the Cree believed a larger war party was going to attack the next day. Since the Cree were traveling with their wives and children, as well as their possession, they could not safely leave the area before the Blackfoot returned in the morning. The older women volunteered to stay behind and tend fires to fool the Blackfoot into believing the camp was not abandoned. The men, young women and children, using this diversion, fled back to the Qu’Appelle Valley. The Blackfoot arrived the next morning and killed the old women. From that day forward, it was said that the spirits of the old women live on the island in the lake and their laughter is carried on the wind to taunt the Blackfoot that killed them.

Interestingly, Old Wives Lake for a time had the name of Johnstone Lake, which came from Sir Frederick Johnstone. He was a British politician who sat in the British House of Commons from 1874 – 1885. He was also close friends with the Prince of Wales, who would go on to become Edward VII. Johnstone was a trophy hunter who came to Canada in the 1880s where he would hunt bison. The name change would happen in 1985 and remained in place until 1955 when the government restored the Old Wives Lake name.

Old Wives Lake is very important when it comes to migratory birds as well. In 1987, 64,392 shorebirds were counted as part of a survey. On March 9, 1925, a migratory bird sanctuary was established at the lake and in April 1997, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network named it as one of the most important inland sites for migratory birds in North America.

Due to weather patterns in the area of the Palliser Triangle, Old Wives Lake has also dried up twice in its history, once in 1937 and once in 1988.

Since Old Wives Lake is a shallow saline lake, it would bring an industry to future Mossbank that would be important for decades. A sodium sulphate plant would be opened in Mossbank and in 1954, it was purchased by Saskatchewan Minerals, becoming one of its most important plants.

As the bison began to disappear, due to overhunting by settlers the Indigenous would be forced to sign treaties to receive government rations and live on reserves.

Today, Mossbank sits on Treaty 4 land.

The area of Mossbank played a very large role in an iconic event in Canadian history. In 1874, as the newly-created North West Mounted Police were on their famous March West to the Prairies, the first meeting between the Indigenous and the NWMP would happen at Mossbank.

At a camp that was set up along the Wood River near Old Wives Lake, a group of Sioux refugees approached the camp, having come from Minnesota after they lost their lands there. It was their hope that the British government would give them sanctuary. The NWMP agreed to meet with them the next day. On the next day, over 100 men, women and children came into the NWMP camp and participated in formal ceremonies and informal trading that lasted for several days. For the NWMP, they wanted to have a positive impression with the Indigenous as this was the first group they had met and they would be interacting with the Indigenous a lot in the coming months and years.

In 2009, the first Old Wives Lake Festival was held in Mossbank to celebrate this first meeting and includes re-enactors for the ceremony.

By the early 1880s, surveyors were coming to the area to begin planning out the railroad and a townsite. While the railroad and the telegraph were both being built through the area, the Mossbank district would not open to settlers until 1907 but as soon as it did, settlement quickly began.

A homesteader named Robert Jolly, who had come from Scotland, would give the community the name of Mossbank when he established a post office on his property.

A branch of the railroad built through future Mossbank in 1912 quickly brought the community into existence.

Mossbank quickly began to grow as a service centre for the farming district.

By 1916, Mossbank had a population of 164 people. Five years later, 303 called the community home.

In 1917, the Mossbank Fire Hall was built to provide the community with fire protection, and save the many beautiful structures that are found there. The fire hall was used until 1976 when a new facility was built. In 1920, the hall had a small holding cell added and the local constable and RCMP would use the cell to house prisoners until 1966. As well, the fire bell was used during the Spanish Flu to warn residents that the curfew was in effect and everyone had to go home. Sadly, the building is no longer there and has been demolished to build the Furrows and Faith Retirement Villa. The fire bell still remains there though, as a symbol of the fire history of the town.

While the fire hall is gone, a fire wall still stands between the Bent Nail Cafe and Ivan Costley’s shop and is the last of its kind in the entire province of Saskatchewan.

In 1920, a blacksmith shop and residence was built in Mossbank. Eight years later, it was bought by Frank Ambroz, a Polish immigrant who would operate the shop for the next 60 years as the community and the country changed around him. During its operation, Ambroz would do everything from shoeing horses, repairing farm equipment and even crafting items for the Royal Canadian Air Force. The amazing thing about this building is that it still stands to this day and is believed to be the oldest-known, fully-furnished blacksmith shop still on its original site in all of Saskatchewan. The shop, with its residence and six outbuildings remains a rare example of a 1920s family business complex in Saskatchewan. The original blacksmithing tools used by Ambroze are still found on site as well. Due to its heritage and importance to the community, it was made a Provincial Heritage Property in 2003.

The Ambroz site, as well as a 1921 wood-frame country school house and an early-20th century wood-frame cottage-type residence are now part of the Mossbank and District Museum. The school had been used from 1921 to 1943 before it was moved to Mossbank and served as the RM office until 1979. The home was used by Frank and Mary Ambroz from 1940 until Mary left the house in 1990. The entire site would be made a Municipal Heritage Property in 1995.

In 1924, Mossbank was hit by not one, but two terrible storms that were described as the worst in recent memory. The first storm hit May 5, 1924 and it took down telegraph poles and wires and caused thousands of dollars in damages for the community.

W.C. Moore, the district superintendent for government lines stated quote:

“The storm is undoubtedly the worst in history for the time of year.”

It would take a week before lines were back up and running and two train car loads of poles had to be sent out. In all, it was estimated that 100 poles had come down.

A few months later on Aug. 3, another big storm hit the area. This storm seemed to be more severe than the first and it broke windows in town, destroyed crops and caused extensive damage. The storm only lasted 20 minutes but it destroyed 50 to 100 per cent of the crop in some fields. Thankfully, there was no loss of livestock for the farmers. Many rural telephone and telegraph lines had also come down, having only been replaced a few months prior after the other storm.

The Great Depression was a tough time for Saskatchewan, which nearly became a Third World Country due to the impact of the depression on its citizens. That being said, many community residents would come together to help each other and that was seen on Aug. 6, 1930 when the citizens of Mossbank decided to improve the town by getting to work repairing Main Street. The cost of fixing the street was more than the community could afford, so residents took care of it themselves. All the machinery and horses for the project were donated and many people volunteered their time over the course of 10 days to grade Main Street. A loading platform was established at the gravel pit to the north and there was a constant stream of trucks bringing in gravel to fix Main Street and other streets in the community. Roughly one kilometre of gravel was spread across the street, costing $1,000 in total, far below what it would have cost the town to do the project. Cash subscriptions were also used to pay for half that cost, which would have been about $5,000 from a contractor.

When war was declared in 1939, the British Commonwealth mobilized and one of the most important ways Canada contributed to the war effort was serving as the base of operations for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. This plan, which was a huge undertaking, cost $1.6 billion and employed 104,000 Canadians across 107 schools and other facilities in 231 locations across Canada. By the end of the war, 167,000 students, among them 50,000 pilots, had been trained in the program.

Mossbank was one such site for pilots. Between 1940 and 1944, 6,241 men from four nations came to the No. 2 Bombing and Gunnery School. Troops there came as pilots and trained in bombing and gunnery.

At the base, 2,200 people were employed and the school was one of only 11 Bombing and Gunnery Schools in Canada. Only the school in Jarvis, Ontario had more personnel than Mossbank did.

One reason that Mossbank was chosen was the wide open area around it and Old Wives Lake, which could be used for target practice.

Eventually, when the war ended, the base was decommissioned and the buildings on the site were sold and moved. One building became the Turvey Centre in Regina and another is part of the Western Development Museum in North Battleford. Other buildings from the base that were moved into Mossbank itself include the buildings that now house Skates N’ Skirts, Mossbank Child Care Services and the Golf Course Clubhouse.

The base would have a long-term impact on Mossbank beyond the buildings as well. By 1966, the community had 596 residents thanks to its proximity to the airbase.

On Jan. 23, 1954, a terrible fire hit Mossbank, destroying a store and garage in the community, as well as the bulk oil station. Other buildings including a coffee shop and a large building next door were also damaged. The fire had apparently started during the lunch hour and was not noticed until 1 p.m. By the time the fire brigade responded, the blaze out of control and the firemen battled in the bitter cold to contain it. They would fight the fire for three hours as a stiff wind threatened to spread the fire to other areas of town. In all, the fire caused $80,000 in damages, or about $830,000 in 2022 funds.

One of the most iconic moments in Saskatchewan history would occur in Mossbank on May 20, 1957. It was on that day that over 1,000 people came out in the rain to the Mossbank Community Hall to witness a debate that would pass into provincial legend. The debate was between Premier Tommy Douglas and Ross Thatcher, a former colleague who had now become an adversary of the premier.

Thatcher had left the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation Party in 1955 and joined the Liberal Party. He then began to attack Douglas by calling the Crown Corporations created by Douglas’ party a dismal failure. He then challenged Douglas, although some sources say Douglas challenged Thatcher, to debate the record of those corporations anytime and anyplace. Douglas would accept this.

Thatcher chose to have the debate in Mossbank, which had always been a Liberal stronghold, during the 1957 federal election.

Reporters from across Canada came out to the debate and it was also broadcast live over the radio so that thousands of Canadians could listen to it. Throughout the debate, Thatcher and Douglas argued over whether or not the Crown Corporations had been a success or failure. In the audience, which was split between CCF and Liberal supporters, many people heckled or applauded depending on who was speaking.

Both men conducted themselves well in the debate and the debate helped Thatcher raise his profile in the province, and he would eventually become Premier of Saskatchewan thanks to this debate.

The Regina Leader-Post reported quote:

“There was no clear winner officially and it may be doubtful if a single vote was changed in the community hall where it was held, either for or against the redoubtable Douglas or the erstwhile maverick Thatcher. But the fact emerged as the debate wore on and the partisan capacity crowd in the opera house like hall cheered, booed, that unexpectedly, Thatcher was holding his own.”

In 2003, a re-enactment of the debate was held with 600 people coming out to two sold-out performances where they were encouraged to heckle and cheer as the audience had in 1957.

Today, the debate is known as The Debate of the Century.

Today, the Mossbank and District Museum is considered one of the best local museums in the province. Within the museum, there are two large murals that document the history of the British Commonwealth Air Training plan in the community, while the second mural shows Old Wives Lake during the time of the Indigenous. The museum features tools used by the Indigenous before Europeans arrived, as well as a plane that was built and flown by Cecil Goddard, a local farmer who built dozens of aircraft over the course of his life. There are also several artifacts in the museum from the history of Mossbank in the early 20th century, and artifacts from the days when Mossbank was an important training spot for Commonwealth pilots during the Second World War.

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