Leola Macdonald: A fountain of local history

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows more about North Battleford’s history, and the people of North Battleford, than Leola Macdonald.

Macdonald, nee Minette, has lived in North Battleford for almost her entire life, which explains her extensive knowledge of the city and its residents.

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She has deep connections to Saskatchewan Hospital  North Battleford. She grew up on the hospital grounds and later went on to become a psychiatric nurse, graduating in 1951.

In those days of the early-to-mid 20th century, life on the hospital grounds was unique — it was a community in itself. 

In a publication she submitted to the City of North Battleford Historic Archives in May 2010, Macdonald detailed what life was like there.

She noted many had questions about “Shacktown” and where it was located on the grounds of the hospital.

“Apparently during the building of the hospital from 1911-13, workers lived in temporary accommodation below where a winding low stone wall was later built. Married staff then started to live there. My parents were married in 1924. They bought a previously-owned house at the bottom of the walls. There were few if any fences, no electricity. They used coal oil and gas lamps, heated with coal and wood stoves and heaters. Water was carried from a tap on a small wellhouse. Most houses grew gardens and had cellars where they stored their vegetables.”

It was the house in Shacktown that Leola returned to as a newborn baby after she was born at the Notre Dame Hospital in North Battleford.

Macdonald described the Sask. Hospital grounds as a “close-knit community” and “the occasional trip to town was a noteworthy event, involving an eight-mile walk or the expenditure of a day’s pay for taxi fare.”

About 21 brick or stucco cottages were built for married staff, and then in 1929 an apartment block was built with 42 suites, a mix of one, two or three bedroom units.

Macdonald’s family moved to the northeast corner of that apartment block, which she described as overlooking the barns, sheep pen, clotheslines and staff garden plots. Later, the family moved to the southwest corner to a suite there.

On the grounds, the sound of the whistle would signal meal times and change of shifts.

Macdonald recalls the whistles could be heard in North Battleford itself.

In speaking to the News-Optimist, she recalled the Shacktown area was “a wonderful place for sleigh riding — the sandpit was the most beautiful sand.”  

For school, Macdonald took the bus back and forth to Battleford, which is where people on the Sask. Hospital grounds received their education in those days.

“We had a school at Saskatchewan Hospital and it went up to Grade 8, and after that we went to Battleford - BCI,” Macdonald recalls. “And that was a government thing, the government would pay for it.”

She also knew the family of the future mayor of North Battleford, Ian Hamilton, who also grew up on the Sask. Hospital grounds. Macdonald recalled the Hamiltons lived in an apartment across from them.

“Jim and Hugh … one was in the army and one was in the air force,” said Macdonald. “And Hughie was killed overseas. It was a very, very sad time. I think it was 13 or 14 boys killed.” A cenotaph stands at the entrance to the hospital grounds in their memory.

Macdonald wrote that Shacktown eventually disappeared sometime in the 1940s, with families moving to North Battleford, Battleford or elsewhere and many of the houses moved to other locations.

Today, the houses of Shacktown are gone. Several of the houses ultimately wound up as cottages at Jackfish Lake, including the one Macdonald lived in as a baby. Much later, in the 1960s, she and her husband Douglas John Macdonald, nicknamed “Mac,” purchased that same relocated house at Jackfish Lake and owned it until 2004.

“We had a real good life,” said Macdonald about her time on the Sask. Hospital grounds.

Ultimately, Macdonald studied nursing in Saskatoon and graduated in 1951. When she returned home to North Battleford, she worked at both Notre Dame Hospital and the Saskatchewan Hospital. Her husband also worked at Sask. Hospital. Together they raised three sons and two daughters.

Around 2009, Macdonald became a volunteer with the City of North Battleford Historic Archives, where she’s been a valued member ever since. What prompted her to join was a deep interest in history.

“Just really interested in history, and local history,” said Macdonald.

Those involved in the committee credit Macdonald for knowing every historical family in the Battlefords. If there was any information about family members or the Saskatchewan Hospital, she could be counted on to have it.

Once a woman from England, Margaret Usher, came to the archives department with photos featuring the Illingworth family from the Battlefords. Macdonald had known the Illingworths and was able to share  her information about the family.

She was recognized for her efforts to help the city celebrate the 2013 centennial year. Leola was one of three people involved in putting together a scrapbook about the city’s 100 years of history. Macdonald also created a huge scrapbook about Saskatchewan Hospital, which is in the archives collection.

Macdonald is also actively involved in creating an annual display to promote the City of North Battleford Historic Archives during Archives Week.

Perhaps her most ambitious undertaking was a corner stores project in 2015. Leola is credited with being the driving force behind putting together a display about the various corner stores that had been in business across the city.

A public call went out for submissions or information in documenting these stores that used to dot the North Battleford streets and neighbourhoods through the years, but which mostly disappeared upon arrival of the big chain grocery stores.

“Do you remember the bell that rang when you entered the store, the coiled sticky paper hanging from the ceiling to help control the flies and the string and roll of brown paper used for wrapping?” Macdonald wrote in a submission to the News-Optimist in December 2015.

“Remember too that each order was written by the clerk – totalled in their head and they retained a carbon copy of every receipt. There was the scale, meat slicer, rolls of cheese, cash register, adding machines, the glass display case and the counter. There were shelves of canned goods. Milk and pop were in glass bottles. Apples, pears, peaches, apricots came in season and mothers were kept busy canning. The boxes from the fruit were recycled, making many handy articles. The bags from the flour and sugar also had many uses.”

Macdonald recalls she and one of her colleagues on the committee went out to the various locations in the city, to track down where the old stores were.

“We drove around town finding where these stores had been, and that was an adventure,” said Macdonald.

“And every few minutes she’d say ‘we’ve got to stop and have an ice cream cone.’ And I haven’t had that ice cream cone yet!”

She had also been involved in the genealogical society, which provided her with a fountain of knowledge for her work on the archives committee when she joined.

Outside of the archives committee, Leola has been a tireless supporter of the community. Battlefords Union Hospital recognized her support for the Every Little Bit Counts capital campaign for new ear, nose and throat equipment in 2017.

Her contributions to the city archives, and the community at large, were recognized May 8 at River Heights Lodge, where a gathering was held in her honour. Macdonald was awarded a lifetime membership in the City of North Battleford Historic Archives as recognition for her years of service.

Her recognition coincides with a historic year of change at the Saskatchewan Hospital grounds, as it is expected the new hospital will finally be completed in the fall.

In her archives piece from May 2010, Macdonald wrote that she looked forward to the day when the new hospital was finally built.

“There have been many changes over nearly 100 years. The nurses’ home is gone, as are the H Hut, the barns, some of the cottages, the chicken farm to name a few and Shacktown is completely overgrown.

“One thing that has not changed is the excellent nursing care provided by a caring staff. Many upgrades have been done to the Saskatchewan Hospital in recent years but we need a new hospital. I hope and pray work begins soon on a new facility, the mentally ill of our province deserve it.”

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