50 Years on the Road with Bill and Sue-On Hillman
The family and local history research that have inspired many of my songs have served me well through the years.

I've had a long association with Brandon University -- going back to 1961 and in more recent times to work on staff as an Assistant Professor.

I was commissioned by the Geography Department to contribute a chapter to a university textbook focusing on Manitoba geography. 

I expanded many of the themes in my original songs "John Campbell - Pioneer" and "Memory Take Me Back" in the writing of my chapter for this book. 

The result was:
Edited by John Welsted, John Everitt and Christoph Stadel
University of Manitoba Press
"An exploration of the various aspects of the physical and human geography of the province, including: landforms, geology, climatology, demographics, natural resources, and discussion of Manitoba's role as a 'gateway' region in the staple economy. A comprehensive work with case studies and over 200 maps, diagrams and photographs." 
Strathclair: A Prairie Town with a Past, Present & Future
William G. Hillman, B.Sc.(Hons), B.Ed., M.Ed.
Assistant Professor ~ Brandon University, Brandon, MB  Canada

Geography of Manitoba: Its Land and Its People


Early activity in the area, that would eventually evolve into the Strathclair district, was centred on the Little Saskatchewan River and its valley about midway between Riding Mountain and the Assiniboine River (Figure 1) Area Map. The Little Saskatchewan, a tightly- meandering tributary of the Assiniboine, flows south out of Lake Audy and Clear Lake in what is now Riding Mountain National Park (RMNP) and then follows a generally southeastward course through a fertile, deeply-entrenched, heavily-treed valley. Members of at least two early exploratory expeditions, those led by Dickinson and Hind, recognized this valley as one of the best in the northwest in terms of beauty and settlement potential.1 Along with the deep fertile alluvial soils, the valley contained an abundance of good water, wood, pasture and gravel deposits, as well as offering a relatively easy transportation route for water cargo. It is where the river turns southeast at 36-17-22 that the first settlement took form. The location also gave the settlement its name -- The Bend (Figure 1) Area Map.

The area north of The Bend was dotted with sloughs and lakes interspersed with stands of poplar, spruce and birch. It eventually became the Riding Mountain Timber Reserve (and then RMNP) and the Keeseekoowenin Indian Reserve No. 61. The excellent hunting, trapping and fishing here was the raison d'ˆtre for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) Trading Post upstream near the present site of Elphinstone.

The rolling hills and open grassland south of The Bend presented stark contrast to the northern woodland. The unobstructed prevailing westerlies fanned prairie fires in the summer and whipped up blizzards in the winter. Indian tribes had long encouraged fire to enhance grassland for buffalo grazing and, indeed, an early settler, Lord Elphinstone, found that these grazing grounds lent themselves to successful ranching enterprises.2 Wood for fuel and buildings had to be hauled from the river valley or from farther north, but as soon as the land was broken, bluffs of poplars took root and spread out from the low-lying potholes or sloughs.

Several settlements sprang up before the arrival of the railway. About 10 miles south of The Bend and just east of the southern tip of Salt Lake was Old Marney (2-16-22) which, at one time, boasted a store and post office, a blacksmith shop, a brickyard and the Do-Drop-Inn Hotel. Farther east was the Forks (33-15-21), a junction at which the Carlton Trail (known also as the Hudson Bay Trail or Ellice Trail) continued on its westerly route to Fort Ellice on the upper Assiniboine while a branch broke off northward to The Bend. From there it followed the river to Lake Audy and continued north to Gilbert Plains, Fort Dauphin and the Swan River Valley. Many settlers travelling to the north took this Strathclair-Dauphin Colonization Trail (Figure 1) Area Map, a route which followed an established Indian trail from the buffalo plains along the east side of Riding Mountain on a Lake Agassiz beach ridge. They found this route to offer the firmest ground, easiest grades, and the driest sites for camping.

So, the nuclei and the pattern for farm settlement were determined before the railway arrived -- The Bend, Riding Mountain HBC Post, Old Marney and The Forks were connected by the river, cart routes and Indian trails. By the mid-seventies the area had been surveyed by Duncan Sinclair and a section-township-range grid was in place for future homesteaders and settlement. Wagon loads of adventurous Scots from the east began to arrive having travelled by rail to Winnipeg. Scottish place names soon appeared; for example, Menzie and Glenforsa. Even The Bend was renamed Strathclair, a combination of the Scottish word "strath" for valley and "clair" from the surveyor, Sinclair's, name. Then came the Manitoba and North Western Railway (now a branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway), which traversed the area midway between The Bend (Old Strathclair) and Old Marney (Figure 1) Area Map. Before the end of the century the original four settlements -- The Bend (Old Strathclair), Old Marney, The Forks, and The Riding Mountain HBC Post -- had shrivelled and most activity had moved to the upstart Strathclair Station located in 35-16-22.

This event had a profound effect on the development of the area. Besides the obvious adjustments to the technological and cultural changes brought by the railway, pioneers had to erect a town from scratch on a barren prairie. Furthermore, because the railway company held rights to the land along the line, the town's business strip stretched along only the northeast side of the main street, which ran parallel to the tracks in a northwest-southeast direction, a situation characteristic of many prairie towns (Figure 2) Aerial Photo.

Pioneers such as James Campbell who had settled some distance from 'civilization' (NW 24-16-22) now found themselves on the fringes of a booming settlement with full rail services.3 The railway and land companies carried on extensive advertising campaigns to lure new settlers, resulting in a flood of newcomers, and infusion into the area of a much more diverse ethnic mixture. By 1888, even the Premier of Manitoba, the Honourable John Norquay, had a summer home on the north east corner of Salt Lake -- a lake which was fast becoming a popular picnic and resort spot. He had plans to erect a sanitorium there, as analysis of the waters had shown them to be beneficial to sufferers of rheumatism. Unfortunately, these plans never materialized as he died suddenly. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century, Strathclair had grown into a robust and thriving farm community.

Strathclair in the '50s
Strathclair in the '50s

The glory years of Strathclair and many other similar prairie communities reached their zenith in mid-twentieth century -- the '50s decade. The excitement and spirit generated by these towns was perhaps best epitomized by the Saturday Night "event." Following the Saturday evening supper hour, families would prepare to "go to town." The first cars to arrive would get the best seats. This meant finding a diagonal parking spot along the north side of main street (North Railway Street) in the well-lit, high-traffic area extending from the pool room at Minnedosa Street to the modern 'self-serve' department store at Campbell Street (Figure 3) '50s Town Map. Between these termini, people of all ages walked a jostling gauntlet along a strip of thriving businesses. Three favourite spots were the drugstore with its soda fountain and magazine rack, the Chinese cafe‚ with its booths for socializing, and a rival eatery which featured a jukebox, pinball machine and lunch counter with stools. Many of the men gathered in one of the two male bastions -- the beer parlour and the pool room; while a favourite routine for the women was to peruse the line of parked Fords, Chevies and Dodges -- each vehicle demanding a nod, wave or a detour off the sidewalk for a chat. When the week's discussion lagged out on the street, there seemed to be no end of open doors to shops to provide diversion: bakery, grocery, dry goods store, newspaper office, garages, butcher shop, hardware store, restroom, shoemaker, and tinsmith. In the winter there was always skating, curling and hockey at the rink. The routine for some was to go to the 7 o'clock movie at the Bend Theatre, delaying the sidewalk promenade for later. From a thirty-five cent allowance, kids could eke out a full night's entertainment which included a movie (complete with newsreel, Three Stooges short, cartoon, serial, previews, and draws for prizes), popcorn, "coke" or popsicle, double bubble gum, jawbreakers, and a fifty-two page comic book. Later in the decade, many people gathered outside the electric shop which provided an outdoor speaker connected to the twenty-one inch television in the window, few realizing that this box with its flickering black and white pictures was a harbinger of drastic change to this weekly social phenonemon that everyone took for granted.5

Just as the inception and growth of Strathclair were typical of many Manitoba towns, so too were the changes the town and surrounding district experienced throughout the twentieth century. While agricultural service centres have waned, the surrounding farms have become larger without a corresponding increase in total area farmed, resulting in fewer farms and decreased population. Increased capitalization, mechanization and the use of chemicals have resulted in farming becoming more of a competitive industry than a way of life. Money which once went to the maintenance of a labour force and working animals now is diverted to high tech machines, devices and chemicals. The fields are larger with different things in them -- less summer fallow, more trash cover, and a greater variety of crops. To facilitate the use of large machines many of the sloughs have been filled in; stone piles buried; road allowances and section lines worked; traditional early twentieth century-style barns, outhouses and granaries torn down; and bluffs and old farmsteads bulldozed. Some of the items removed have been replaced by windward-located, Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration-supplied shelter belts, utilitarian steel structures, and mobile homes or ranch-style bungalows. The transportation grid serving these re-organized farms consists of wider, higher roads designed to handle the winter snow pile up, spring runoff water, and larger, heavier machines and vehicles.

Most farm service towns have experienced a steady decline over the last half of this century and Strathclair is no exception. Despite some lack of foresight, occasional political blundering, and the fluctuating economic, social and geographic climate, pragmatic changes in role emphasis have brought about some degree of success in the ongoing fight for survival. In addition, as districts such as Strathclair enter the Computer/Communication Age it becomes increasingly obvious that they will survive only if they can adapt to the challenge of the new technologies and integrate them with the agricultural base.

Throughout their history and evolution, the successes and character of communities such as Strathclair have come largely from their ability to draw lifeblood from communication links -- foot and horse trails, fur trade and supply routes, river travel, oxcart trails, rail lines and later, highways with their bus routes and transport lines. Even the road grid laid out on the section- township-range survey system seemed to exist to channel farm trade into the local towns.6

Now, with most of these traditional lifelines either gone or rerouted to bypass the local settlements, many towns seem to have lost the ability to communicate with the outside. Today's links to the world have changed: fibre optics and cable lines, cellular telephones, computer networks, faxes, satellite communications, and high-speed land and air travel are now the norm. Highway traffic can be lured by roadside way stations but such traffic has little inclination or incentive to drive through every little town en route. Those towns and agribusinesses unwilling to embrace the new technologies which facilitate access to modern-day communications, will most certainly be passed by. Strathclair, progeny of the interplay of traditional trails of the past, now faces the complex task of tapping the uncharted myriad trails leading to the strange new frontier of the twenty-first century.7

End Notes

1 H. Y. Hind, Report of the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition (Toronto: John Lovell, by Order of the Legislative Assembly, 1859)

2 Lord Elphinstone, "Visit to Western Canada 1979" The Edmonton Courant, 13 January 1880.

3 K. Campbell, The Journals of Katherine Campbell: 1933-1971 (Strathclair: Maple Grove Publishing, 1991)

4 Strathclair Centennial History Committee, Our Story to 1984 (Strathclair: Rural Municipality of Strathclair, 1984)

5 W. Hillman, Bill & Sue-On Hillman: A Prairie Saga in 24 Original Songs (Strathclair: Maple Grove Records, Compact Disc Album, vol 10, 1993)

6 J. L. Tyman, By Section Township Range (Brandon: Assiniboine Historical Society, 1972)

7 W. Hillman, "The Integration of Microcomputers with the High School Language Arts Programme" (M.Ed. Thesis, Brandon University, 1991)

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The Geography of Manitoba: Its Land and Its People
University of Manitoba Press
$54.95, 327 pages
Available from

Manitoba Not Really a Prairie Province, New Book Reveals
Reprinted from the Brandon University Alumni News, June 1996
A definitive new book on the geography of Manitoba edited by BU Professors John Welsted and John Everitt (and former BU prof Christoph Stadel, who now resides in Austria) was released recently. "The Geography of Manitoba, its Land and its People" is the first comprehensive update of Manitoba Geography in more than 25 years and is current to within 3 months of its release date.

According to Dr. John Welsted (Geography) the book, which took about 6 years to assemble, is aimed at 2nd year university students, or anyone with an interest in geography. "We provide a good level of detail without trying to be too ultra-technical," Welsted said. "You can pick it up at any point and find something interesting. We're hoping it sets the standard for (future) geography texts.

Along with setting standards, the book reveals some interesting facts about the province, like the fact that Manitobans use the term "prairie province" loosely when describing their surroundings. Manitoba is primarily located on the rocky Canadian Shield, and part of it is subarctic tundra; "prairie" areas make up a small portion of the province.

Contributors (47 in total) ranged from experts in botany, history, political science, geology and geography, as well as community planners, a museum curator and church minister. A number of them are BU or Brandon College grads, including Allison Williams, Dr. Tom Carter '67, David McDowell '65, Bill Hillman '71/'89/'91, Rev. Paul Curtis '70, and Brian McGregor '86.

Academic participants included representatives from Brandon University, the Universities of Manitoba, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan, Simon Fraser University and the University of Salzburg in Austria.
There are more than 200 maps, figures, black and white photos plus a colour section. The book is 352 pages long and will sell for $54.95.

It is available at the BU bookstore (204) 727-9732. A Geography of Manitoba - Its Land and its People is published by the University of Manitoba Press and distributed by the University of Toronto Press. -BC

Book is a Must for any Manitoba School 

Fred McGuinness Column -- Brandon Sun -- December 1996

1996: What with all this talk of books in the air, I must confess to a scandalous oversight. A few weeks ago, I mentioned how much I had enjoyed Brandon: Historical Perspectives on the Wheat City, which was assembled and produced by the Department of Geography at Brandon University.

About that oversight. Earlier this year I neglected to tell you of a companion publication assembled by the same department. It is Geography Manitoba: Its Land and its People.

This is a collection. Three professors: John Welsted, John Everitt and Christoph Stadel worked on the blueprint of a publication that would examine a province and its residents from every important aspect. Having done this, they requested the assistance of 37 persons whom they list as contributors.

Once a contributor had agreed to participate, he or she was assigned a topic and a schedule.

This is an important publication, important to the point that a copy should be in the library of every school.

There are major sections: The physical background; People and settlements; Resources and industry; Recreation. Inside each of those there are scores of sub-sections.

Inside the latter you will find brief items which illustrate the writer’s principal points. As an example, after Emdad Haque wrote his chapter, Population of Manitoba: Patterns and Trends, complete with 45 footnotes, there are several case histories. Geoffrey Smith wrote on the Graying of Manitoba; Laurence Nixon wrote on the Changing Religious Trends in Manitoba; and James Darlington wrote on the Cemeteries of Southern Manitoba.

While, in essence, this is an academic book, in its chapters you can find nuggets of information available nowhere else, in my opinion.

For example, when Sam Corrigan and Robert Annis wrote Aboriginal Settlement in Manitoba, they included the story of Ste. Madeleine, Manitoba, a tiny village near St. Lazare. Correction, it once was near St. Lazare and it is no more. PFRA one day put the bulldozers to homes and church and turned the district into a community pasture.
Let me indulge in a personal note here. I say this book is so good because the professors made their system work; they hewed precisely to the blueprint and its companion schedule. I know this because I was involved in a most modest manner, as befits a fellow who has a lot about which to be modest.

Would I participate? I was asked this question on the telephone by Dr. Everitt. I said I would be delighted. He said my assignment was an article on the Agricultural Hall of Fame, which, you should know is currently (and temporarily) located on the walls of the dining room at the Ag. Centre. The Hall is a collection of brass plaques honoring outstanding individuals from the basic industry. Thanks to the courtesy of Glen Olmstead, Hall of Fame majordomo, I spent hours in the files of the members. This gave me an introduction to some of the former greats, like Almon James cotton of Swan River, J.D. McGregor, Dr. Frank Leith Skinner and Henry Louis Patmore, as well as to a number I know, or have known. I think here of Grant MacEwan, Alf and Edith Poole, Dr. Harvey Tolton, among others.

That’s enough digression.

What is important about Geography Manitoba: Its Land and its People, is the extraordinary amount of information that is now available between a single set of covers. While it is exhaustive, it is also readable.

Those of you who are feeling generous this Christmas should think of donating a copy of this book to your school, or your public library. It deserves a wide and continuing audience.

Fred McGuinness is a Brandon-based freelance writer.

"One of a kind ... a comprehensive, attractive and valuable reference book for anyone interested in Manitoba, and everyone who lives there."–Prairie Books Now 

Book Description
Manitoba is more than one of Canada's three prairie provinces. Encompassing 649,950 square kilometres, its territory ranges from Canadian Shield to grassland, parkland, and subarctic tundra. Its physical geography has been shaped by ice-age glaciers, while its human geography reflects the influences of its various inhabitants, from the First Nations who began arriving over 9,000 years ago, to its most recent immigrants. This fascinating range of geographical elements has given Manitoba a distinct identity and makes it a unique area for study. 

Geography of Manitoba is the first comprehensive guide to all aspects of the human and physical geography of this unique province. Representing the work of 47 scholars, and illustrated with over 200 maps, diagrams, and photographs, it is divided into four main sections, covering the major areas of the province's geography: Physical Background; People and Settlements; Resources and Industry; and Recreation.

As well as studying historical developments, the contributors to Geography of Manitoba analyse recent political and economic events in the province, including the effect of federal and provincial elections and international trade agreements. They also comment on future prospects for the province, considering areas as diverse as resource management and climatic trends. 



1. Gig Notes: 1-10
2. Album Notes
3. Guitar Tales
4. Prairie Saga
5. Roots
6. Photos
7. Media
8. 100 Songs

Bill and Sue-On Hillman Eclectic Studio