The History of Indian Head

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CraigBaird

The land where Indian Head is today was the territory of the Blackfoot and the Cree for centuries. The two groups would often compete for the territory which was sought after because of the bison in the area.

The bison would move through the area during the spring and summer and they provided the Indigenous many of the things they needed for their day-to-day lives.

Today, Indian Head is on Treaty 4 land.

The first settlers to arrive in the area came from Ontario and were of Scottish origin. The Canadian Pacific Railway had not been built through, but it was going to arrive soon, and the settlers homesteaded in 1882.

The same year that the settlers arrived, Bell Farm was established near where Indian Head is today. This property was massive, stretching for 60,000 acres. It was such a large fixture of the landscape that passengers would often get out and come to the farm to watch the harvesting operations, making the Bell Farm the first tourist industry of the area.

The buildings on the farm included a 16-room, two-storey stone house, as well as four stone and two frame five-room cottages, an ice house, cow barn and chicken house. The farm was divided into 200-acre segments, and a foreman supervised each of those sections. As telephones became more popular, phone lines were strung up between the 23 cottages on the farm, which were some of the first phone lines to be connected in the North West Territories.

By 1886, the Bell Farm had 45 reapers and binders, 78 ploughs, six mowers, 40 seeders and seven steam threshing outfits. Along with 5,000 acres of crops, there were also 200 horses, 250 cattle and 900 hogs.

In 1887, a portion of the farm was sold in order to create the Dominion Experimental Farm, which was one of the first agriculture research stations in Canadian history. I’ll talk more on that later.

Eventually, as the 20th century wore on, the farm was divided up and slowly the huge operation became much smaller.

Today, the Bell Farm, despite its importance to the history of the area, is one of the top ten most endangered sites by the Heritage Canada Foundation. A campaign would begin to save the barn and the Bell Barn Society of Indian Head was established in 2006 to restore the Bell Farm Round Barn. In April 2008, the stone farm was dismantled rock by rock and the ground was leveled to reconstruct the building. The barn has now been restored and many functions are held there through the year.

In 1887, the Dominion Experimental Farm was established. At this farm, work began in the research of crops and dry land agricultural practices. A tree nursery was established in 1901 to supply farmers in the Prairie Provinces with trees to use as shelterbelts. This farm would provide millions of seedlings to farmers every year for decades. As for the experimental farm, it continues to run today and is now a Research Station that continues to help ensure Canada is at the forefront when it comes to agricultural innovations.

The community of Indian Head began to grow thanks to the Bell Farm operation and the railroad that had been built through. In 1902, Indian Head was incorporated as a town and at the time was one of the world’s largest initial shipping points for wheat.

We can’t go any further though without talking about the name of Indian Head, which is celebrated in a large Indigenous head statue at the community entrance. One origin story to the name states that in the 19th-century local Indigenous people were infected with smallpox by fur trades who came through. When someone died from the disease, they were buried in one of the hills to the south of town. Some said that due to the high number of deaths, several bodies were taken there but never buried. The Indigenous began to call the burial ground Many Skeletons Hills, or Many Skulls Hills. As settlers came to the area, they began to call the area Indian Head Hills.

When the settlement was established by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1882, the townspeople called the settlement Indian Head Hills and they offered the Indigenous a camping ground near the town to use the name. Eventually, as time went on, Hills was dropped from the name, leaving only Indian Head.

In 1904, the Grand Theatre was established. This theatre continues to stand to this day. I have actually visited this theatre and it is quite amazing to see the original architecture, as well as the signatures of performers that date back over 100 years. It is also considered to be the longest continually operated private theatre in Western Canada. The theatre was hand-built by Arthur Osment, and served as an Opera House for its first few years before movies took over.

By 1905, Indian Head had a population of 1,500 people, with 12 grain elevators, which could hold an astounding 350,000 bushels. Around this time, the Territorial Grain Growers Association was formed in Indian Head, which was a farmers collective that handled the shipping of the huge amount of crops out of the area. Its first president was William Richard Motherwell, who would go on to serve as the Minister of Agriculture on the provincial and federal levels.

In 1912, construction began on the Cattle Barn on the Indian Head Agricultural Research Farm. The construction of the barn would continue over the course of two years and today it serves as an excellent example of the early era of agricultural research done by the government. The structure was built to replace the previous barn that had been lost in a fire, and it was used for the breeding program of livestock at the farm.

In 1937, the Mainline Ford Building was built by the North Star Oil Company. This was one of the first gas stations to be constructed in southeastern Saskatchewan. Designed in the Art Modern Style, it features a round rocket ship-inspired design on the northeast corner of the building. Mainline Motors would purchase the building to service vehicles, occupying it until the 1960s. Today, the building continues to stand and is a landmark of the central business district of Indian Head.

On Oct. 2, 1946, Eric Peterson was born in Indian Head and he has gone on to become one of the most recognizable Canadian actors in our history.

After gaining fame in theatre circles for his play Billy Bishop Goes To War, which toured internationally and made it even to Broadway, Peterson began to move into television. He would gain national fame as Leon Robinovitch, a lawyer on the show Street Legal, which ran from 1987 to 1994. While that show made him famous, his next show made him a Canadian icon. In 2004, he was cast as Oscar Leroy on Corner Gas, playing the father to Brent Butt’s lead character of Brent Leroy. Over the course of his career, Peterson has won numerous awards. He was nominated for a Gemini Award in 1987, 1989 and every year from 1992 to 1995, winning three in total. He was also nominated for four Canadian Comedy Awards for his role on Corner Gas. In 2013, he was presented with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for his lifetime contributions to Canadian theatre.

He has not forgotten about his hometown either. He currently owns a cottage nearby at Katepwa Lake with his wife Annie Kidder, sister of the late Margot Kidder.

On July 23, 1954, an odd event occurred when an explosion ripped through the Indian Head Hospital. The blast occurred at 4:15 a.m. in the boiler room of the hospital and it destroyed one wing of the hospital. In the hospital at the time, there were 18 patients and a night nurse but thankfully no one was injured in the bast. Everyone was evacuated from the building and no fire occurred but the fire brigade was ready on standby just in case. Four patients were taken to their homes, while the other 14 patients were sent to nearby Qu’Appelle. The wing that was destroyed contained the emergency light plant, heating plant and X-ray room.

Within that wing of the hospital, everything was destroyed, with the walls blown out and the roof collapsed, and rubble scattered 300 feet around the area. Several windows were blasted out at the hospital and at nearby buildings. In all, the explosion caused $50,000 in damages.

In 2007, Indian Head was made famous nationally when it became the shooting location to the CBC show Little Mosque On The Prairie. The show focused on a Muslim community in the fictional Saskatchewan town of Mercy. While the show was shot in the Toronto area, exterior shots of the community, including the mosque, were shot in Indian Head, as well as many scenes within the community. The town hall, a local car dealership and the Novia Café all played important parts as settings within the show. The show would run for six seasons from 2007 to 2012, and received a great deal of coverage internationally including in the New York Times, the Washington Times, CNN, NPR and the BBC. Its first episode also brought in 2.1 million viewers, which was the largest audience for CBC for an entertainment program in a decade.

If you would like to learn more about the history of Indian Head, you can visit the fantastic local museum that is housed in the old Indian Head Fire Hall that was built in 1907. The museum is two floors and along with the fire hall building, features the former horse stable, the museum yard, the military building, the country garage, the carpenter and blacksmith shops. Within the museum, there is over 5,000 artifacts, photos and histories that depict the story of the area from the days of the Indigenous all the way up to today.

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