The city of North Battleford: Its origins and early history

As our great city prepares to celebrate its centennial in 2013, one is compelled to reflect on the extraordinary journey on which our forbearers embarked at the turn of the 20th century. As we consider North Battleford's remarkable legacy, we honour those who came before us to lay the foundations for its wealth and prosperity, way of life and institutions.

Before any white man gazed on the mighty North Saskatchewan River and the great river valley, the Plains Cree had occupied this land for hundreds of years. From the time Europeans landed on the Eastern shores in the 16th century, First Nations people taught them how to survive in a harsh and unforgiving land - how to fashion clothes from animal hides, to hunt and live off the land and cross vast expanses of land and water. First Nations people guided the great explorers like Kelsey and Thompson, and they were indispensable to the fur trade for 200 years. But by 1870, the fur trade was gone. In the Northwest, the buffalo, on which the economy of the Plains Cree depended, had been destroyed. The West was being prepared for settlement. Attitudes of resentment developed between First Nations and white settlers that resulted in armed conflict in 1885. During the 125 years since, First Nations' struggle for independence and equality has been extraordinarily difficult.

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Although the first permanent settlers appeared to have arrived in the area in the 1870s, it was the opening of the North Saskatchewan River Valley in 1902 that provided the impetus for large scale settlement. The fledging community of North Battleford quickly became a melting pot for newcomers, with rich and distinctive cultures, from distant lands. Barr Colonists halted their westward trek and signed for homesteads near North Battleford, Assyrians came from the Middle-East, and Anglo-Saxons from the United Kingdom, the Maritimes, Ontario and the United States made the long and perilous journey by steamer, rail and ox cart. And, hardy souls of Germanic and Slavic origins, some of the best farmers in the world, joined the community's first citizens, intent on pursuing their dream of prosperity and religious and cultural freedom in a great and free land, and eager to help lay the foundations for a new and dynamic city - North Battleford.

But many who left their homelands to brave the wilderness of the North Saskatchewan River Valley came with romantic, and even false expectations. Settlers were lured by the promise of land for next to nothing, or nothing at all - land for the taking that would yield a comfortable living. However, reality hit hard when the newcomers surveyed the expanse and emptiness of the land and were confronted with the rigours of working the soil. Some accused the companies who promoted this new utopia, and the agents who arranged their passage and took their money, of misrepresentation and thievery. Life in those early years was hard, but most survived and prospered. As Cecelia Wetton put it, " undaunted by the odds that would have broken men and women of lesser spirit, they struggled on to final victory they carved the nucleus of a city from the wilderness of bare prairie and bush what a mighty achievement."

Before the community of North Battleford existed, and long before it became a city, newcomers signed for homesteads in a number of surrounding districts. These included Nolin, Mount Hope, Aspenshaw, Metropole and Denholm. Other districts then branched out from the existing ones. In 1903, a colony of Assyrian immigrants acquired homesteads southeast of our present city on the land on which the Saskatchewan Hospital is now situated. In 1902, newcomers from Ontario, including the Walkers, Hamiltons and Millars, claimed homesteads north of the river. The Mairs followed in the spring of 1903. Other settlers arrived in 1903 but took up temporary residence in Battleford pending the outcome of negotiations between the town and the Canadian Northern Railway. When it was decided the railway would be located on the north side of the river, the floodgates were opened. Over the next few years, settlers poured into the fledging community of North Battleford and the surrounding districts.

Despite that North Battleford's early settlers were primarily farmers, and the city was, and continues to be, an agricultural supply centre, there can be no doubt that the impetus, the reason for North Battleford's existence was the Canadian Northern Railway. The CNR was even responsible for naming the new community. Prior to the decision on whether the railway would be built on the south side of the river, or the north, there was a great deal of bitter wrangling between the town of Battleford and the railway and government, and considerable animosity between the residents of Battleford and the small community across the river. Regardless, the Canadian National Railway had acquired the resources and legal right to build a railway from Saskatoon to Edmonton. Workers began laying steel in 1904, beginning in Saskatoon and arriving in North Battleford on May 19, 1905.

As it is today, North Battleford's most important industry during its formative years was agriculture, and the city was, and continues to be, an agricultural supply centre. North Battleford's early settlers were primarily farmers - growing the principle grains, wheat, oats and barley. The first grain grown in the area was oats in 1874, likely by Frank Osler. The first wheat was harvested in 1881. Interestingly, some of this wheat was threshed and transported by river steamer to Prince Albert. This was the first recorded export of wheat from the Battlefords area. About 25 per cent of the grain was reserved for horses and oxen.

Men of prominence and position, men of vision, early recognized the fundamental importance of agriculture to the area, even before North Battleford existed. Governor-General David Laird, in his Thanksgiving address on Nov. 27, 1979, noted at the outset of his speech that, "The great industry of this country must be agriculture and cattle raising Therefore, with bread, the staff of life, beef, potatoes, beets for sugar, wool for clothing, coal for fuel and a healthy and bracing climate, what is to prevent the country from becoming the home of a great people?" Indeed, David Laird's words were prophetic.

Local Improvement Districts were established in 1898. Elevators and flour mills were established shortly after the arrival of the railroad. The first elevator was constructed in 1908 by a Winnipeg Company, Western Canada Flour Mills. William Parks had the distinction of being the first agent. The Union Supply Company also built an elevator in the same year, and a flour mill and bakery - an early indication of a great agricultural industry to come.

Transporting grain to the elevators and flour mills was a daunting task. In the early years, farmers hauled grain by ox cart, some from a distance of 40 to 50 miles. Oxen typically covered two miles an hour. Consequently, the trip could take up to three days to the elevator and three days back. A farmer had to take food for himself and his animals, blankets, a rifle and ammunition, a tent and other supplies. Heat during the day, cold at night, fatigue and boredom took their toll. Hauling grain 100 years ago was no small undertaking.

Ranching was also important. Ranchers of Métis, French, English, Scottish and Irish as well as American nationalities worked cattle in the Battlefords area before the Rebellion of 1885. Many stayed after hostilities ceased. The lush, green prairie grass was ideal for raising cattle. These vision of free-spirited cattlemen, who preceded the homesteaders, of claiming the vast, unbroken expanses of land for vast herds was compromised with the arrival of the settlers. But the cattle industry was not doomed despite the influx of newcomers intent on subduing the land. To meet this challenge, the cattle industry diversified. For example, livestock yards, processing plants, and creameries were established over the years. The first creamery, built by D. F. Stewart in 1912, was later acquired by Saskatchewan Co-operative Creameries. From the earliest days, local farmers supplied milk, cream and butter. This was the first money they earned from their farming enterprises.

In a tangible sense, North Battleford's first settlers' bond to the land determined the direction for the city's development - commercially, culturally and socially - and laid the foundations for its prosperity. As Allan Schille pointed out, " these stalwart men of the soil have put North Battleford and the surrounding districts on the map as one of the most noted farming districts in Saskatchewan."

It is important to note as well that the men and women who worked the land needed a formal organization to represent their interests. As early as 1885, Battleford area farmers and townsmen had formed an agricultural organization. The North Battleford Agricultural Society was formed in 1906 and advocated for farmers and ranchers, and showcased their successes. Seventy-five names were on the application for the charter, of which more than half were community residents. This remarkable fact underscored the co-operation between the community of North Battleford and the surrounding rural areas. In the early years, the Agricultural Society promoted harmony and goodwill between the two, as it does today.

The first Agricultural Society exhibition was held in 1906. The admission fee was 10 cents. The fair has been held annually since its inception. Over the years, the society flourished. Barns, various buildings, an administration building, and show rings were constructed. The groundwork had been laid for one of North Battleford's most important institutions.

To be continued

- Richard Hiebert is a member of City of North Battleford centennial 2013 historical committee

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