www.hillmanweb.com  ::  www.hillmanweb.com/book


Reprinted from:
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
and the
Dr. John Welsted Obituary

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)



Webmaster: William G. Hillman
All Original Material Copyrighted 1999-2010/2020



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