Val Marie, Saskatchewan
The Village of Val Marie is located near the Montana border in South Central Saskatchewan. It and the surrounding communities of Mankato, Coriander, etc. were the home of many of the Larson and Walker families since the early 1900’s. From prairie landscape to rolling hills you will find an adventure around every turn. Much has been written about the southern Saskatchewan community, which has certainly changed and shrunk in the past 50 years. Today it’s the gateway of the Grasslands National Park, with its vast open spaces and abundant wildlife, it is an outdoor enthusiasts’ paradise, bursting with culture and history. In Val Marie one can connect with ranching like nowhere else while you experience true western hospitality. But Val Marie was a once vibrant and busy little town with a couple restaurants, gas stations, gain elevators, garages, lumber yard, etc. I was born in the local hospital, which is now gone, taught by the sisters who all lived and worked out of the convent, which is now a bed and breakfast, and attended one of there schools. Now the little school is a museum and the other schools, although connected are struggling to keep teachers and enough students to stay open. We always had an RCMP and other community services, which over the years have left. Many of these businesses have died over the years and the community drives on tourists and a few locals, many of which are employed at the Park.
Reading through some of the material provided by the National Park it says, “Find yourself wandering downtown, visiting the Grasslands Gallery and its displays of local artistry; stop for lunch at the Harvest Moon Cafe after browsing the Prairie Wind and Silver Sage Museum and Gift Shop, where you can indulge in a latte, relax at the village Square before stopping in at the Val Marie Hotel for their traditional Friday wing night.”
Val Marie banking on Grasslands
By Tim Switzer
Saskatchewan New Network
Val Marie – “It’s ranching country and it will never die,” says Lise Perrault. “All the little towns in Saskatchewan are dead or dying and Val Marie will never die.”
Sitting in the senior’s living room decorated with her original painted landscapes and photos of rattlesnakes, the reporter foolish enough to ask why Perrault would make such a bold prediction had his question met with a simple response.
“Because I know.”
It’s that never say die attitude that has obviously kept this community of less than 200 in the heart of ranching country in southwest Saskatchewan alive throughout the years, from pre-settlement days to now.
Near where Val Marie stands today was the site of the last buffalo hunt in Canada. While American soldiers had killed off many of the buffalo across North America in hopes of wiping out the First Nations population, in 1885 a group of First Nations and Metis hunters rode in the plains and took down 482 of the beasts, enough for their winter’s meat, shelter and many other needs. Among those on the hunt was a 16-year-old Pat Trottier, who was the last living buffalo hunter in Canada when he dies in 1939. He is also the great-grandfather of Val Marie’s most famous son, Hockney Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier.
The area was first officially settled in the early 1900’s when two French priests with a group of 50 settlers in tow came to the top of a hill and looked into the paradise waiting them below.
“When he come over the hill and saw this beautiful valley he thought it was nice and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary and called it Val Marie,” said Perrault.
Despite the pious beginnings the town grew up a rough and tumble place, the home to many cowboys who are still remembered today.
In the town’s museum hang more than a dozen cowboy hats worn by some of the pioneering ranchers who settled in the area.
There’s Cliff Olson who also owned the local hotel and pub where much of the old rowdiness took place. There’s Buzz Trottier, grandson of Pat and father of Bryan. And there’s even anold ripped hat of Fernand Perrault, Lise’s husband who died in 1989.
Some believe the don’t quit attitude of those pioneers is still in the people of Val Marie today as the town faces all the pressures of most small towns in Saskatchewan – no hospital, failing roads, the closure of their one-man RCMP detachment.
One thing many are banking on to help the town is the arrival of Grasslands National Park, the borders of which lie just outside of Val Marie.
Ken Jensen and his wife Johann are two people counting on the park having a big effect on the town.
The ex-Reginans moved to the area about five years ago on a dare from their son, who was a park warden at Grasslands at the time.
He told them about a few acres along the edge of the park with a house already built for a bargain basement price.
“We’ve always been passionate about national parks and conservation issues and when this park was getting established we were getting near retirement time so the two things came together,” said Ken.
“You can count them on two hands but there are people who have moved here, as we did, and built a house because they wanted to be part of the park experience,” he added.
“The town really is still struggling – it’s barely holding on to its grocery store, post office, school and so on. But if it weren’t for the money and the people that the park brings in, it would be in a lot worse shape.”
The idea for the park was first conceived during the 1970’s and the agreement was struck with the federal government to establish the park in 1981.
Over the next 20 years, the federal government bought land from area ranchers on a willing buyer, willing seller basis in hopes of getting up to 900 square kilometers. Today, approximately 56 percent of that land has been purchased and the park is separated in two blocks.
The west block, which is closest to Val Marie, is situated along with the Frenchman River Valley and is home to rolling hills and vast grasslands as well as several teepee rings, evidence the area was popular route of travelling First Nations tribes and a buffalo hunting ground, though there are no indicators it was ever a permanent settlement.
The block is also home to some of the rarest animal species in all of Canada including the peregrine falcon, burrowing owl, eastern short-horned lizard and the long-billed curlew. It is one of the few places in Saskatchewan where the prairie rattlesnake can be found and is home to the only prairie dog towns in Canada.
As she and her husband did since the park opened, Lise Perrault will still take people on tours of the area, across the Tabletop, past the Rubbing Stone and down into the valley to Larson’s ranch. There’s even the odd trip up to the “snake pit” – the hibernaculum where the rattlers spend the winter.
There could soon be a lot more people showing up on Perrault’s doorstep as Grasslands will soon be home to another rare species – at least to the wild. This winter a herd bison will be brouth in to be reintroduced into their native Prairie home.
The herd, made up of mostly yearlings, will come in from Elk Island National Park and be kept in a holding pen over the winter. When spring comes, they’re to be released to live on their own.
Susan Robertson, a heritage interpreter at the park, said reintroducing the bison was always part of the plan, they just had to wait until the time was right.
“They wanted to reintroduce large grazers to this area and bison was one choice. It’s always been the vision but there’s a time for everything to happen. I don’t know if it was the time for bison to be introduced – the park was growing and learning and developing. Now is the time for something bigger like that to happen.”
For some though, the coming of the bison means a change in park atmosphere. From one with just a handful – about 6,000 – of visitors each year, to one with many people just wanting to catch a glimpse of one of only two wild buffalo herds in the country.
“Right now there visitors that we get here are people that want to come here specifically for the birding, for the botany, they’re highly educated, interesting people,” said Johanna Jensen. “But I’m kind of wondering if we’re going to get the gawkers.”
Her husband Ken said there’s no doubt the change will occur and is willing to make the trade-off.
“This is as close as you can get to the original state of things given the area the park has to work with.”
But as exciting as the changes in the park are for some, others in the area don’t see it as a benefit to the community.
There are some in the area who feel that the prairie dogs are destroying part of the rich cattle –raising culture of the land.
Marilyn Magee ranches in the area and is a descendant of Walt Larson, whose homestead is a big part of the tour through the area, partly because it was also home, for a long time, to the famous western author Will James.
“I guess as a rancher I probably would prefer to use it as grazing than to have it as parkland,” she said. “What bothers me the most is going down to see a member of my family’s ranch covered in prairie dog holes. That’s very bothersome to me because his ranch was important to him.”
At the same time though she said, people in the area have to know that park is there and the two will have to learn to work together.
“You to give them a chance too, you’ve got to attend the (events) they have,” she said. “You can’t say, ‘I don’t like the park and I’m not going to attend anything.’ You’ve got to give them a chance too.”
But no matter what people think of the place, Perrault says the park is one of the best things Val Marie has going for it and is a big reason the town will never die.
“Val Marie will never die but it’s going slow and it could go (forward) much faster if people were more interested in advertising (the park),” she said. “I don’t care what you’ve got, if nobody knows, it’s no good.”
Foundations of Learning
A story by Shelley Christian, taken from the Saskatchewan Naturally Magazine, Volume 1, No. 4, Winter 1999.
Scattered throughout the Saskatchewan prairie in various states of repair ins the country schoolhouse. These small-scale buildings seem rooted to the prairie – as much a part of it as the wild roses that grow unimpeded in the school yards of days gone by. there is a deep affection for the schools ingrained not only in the hearts of those who attended them, but also in those who continue to preserve their heritage in rural communities throughout the province.
I don’t know why I developed such a strong attachment to these schools. The rural closures began in the early 1950s, years before my own education was moved to my home town when I was young: an early model of the portable classroom. It was in this one-room school that my teacher would read stories from our past. Later, I discovered”Little House on the Prairie” which depicted the one-room school so well. My parents would often pile my siblings and me into the car on a warm Sunday afternoon to tour the countryside. On these excursions, via rolling country roads, we would occasionally discover a schoolhouse sitting alone in a grassy field.
The one-room school made its debut in Saskatchewan (then the northwest territories) in the early 1900s. Once the settlers built dwelling for their own families, the construction of the school became the highest priority. All available men would assemble on virgin land with trusty Easton blueprints in hand. Often the laborers had little construction experience, resulting in unusual features added to some of the buildings. Nevertheless, the majority were built to last, to which their endurance through almost a century of harsh Canadian winters can attest. For this reason, once a school was closed, there was high demand for them from local farmers who renovated the structures for their own residences. Travel the Yellowhead route from Saskatoon to Lloydminister and you’ll spot this unique architecture along the highway.
Val Marie Grace United Church
Since settlers first came to this area the church has been a part of our community. Sometimes it came with traveling preachers but more often than not it came on a more regular basis by saddlebag ministers who travelled by horse and later Model T’s. Services were held in little country schoolhouses.
In the early 1950’s, due largely to the efforts of Violet Reid a student minister from Wallard, arrangements were made for Reverend Bill Touping from Climax to begin regular church services at the hall. A choir was formed and a Board of Stewards elected. Services were always well attended. Later services were cancelled in the hall and Mr. and Mrs. Archie McInnes opened their home for regular Sunday services.
While we were yet in the Climax Charge, Rena Reid and Joy Barlow made plans to obtain a church. A community-wide canvas raised sufficient funds to buy a lot, build a cement footing and move a church. For $1 the Val Marie congregation purchased from the United Church of Canada an abandoned church in the Kealey Spring district near Eastend. In 1956 the McInnes family moved the church to its present location. The name Grace United Church was chosen because it was through God’s good grace that we obtained the building as well as it was of many dedicated and hard-working people that the church was found and brought here. Dedication of the Grace United Church was Sept. 1961. Today four services a year are held plus weddings, funerals, baptisms and confirmations. The current official board members are Lynn and Sherri Grant, Mike and Betty Waldner, Angela Clement and Trudy Hayes.
Ministers who have served our congregation are Reverends Bill Toupling, Baker and Wesley Ashwin; Mr. Marzec, Lay Minister; Mr. MacLeod, student Minister; Bill James, student Minister; Mr. and Mrs. White, student Ministers; Beverly Irwin, Lay Minister; Graham Dickie, Lay Minister; Rev. Chuck Alton; Mr. and Mrs. Burleigh Warren; Rev. Chuck Alton; Mr. and Mrs. Burleigh Warren; Rev. Colin and Pat Macdonald; Roy Reade, Lay Minister; Louis Van Boardwjeck, Lay Minister; Sharon Day, Lay Minister; Rev. Helen Prior; Rev. Roger Coll; Rev. Sharon McCarthy; and Neil Gilbert, Lay Minister.
Second coming on the lone prairie
Robert Duncan revived an abandoned convent and has high hopes for the its community
By Alanna Mitchell
The story of how a restless, wealthy baby-boomer happened on a derelict convent in arid south of Saskatchewan and turned into a spectacular hotel is singular enough.
But the tale of how Robert Duncan then was inspired to help revive this dying village of 150 – and is running for mayor in today’s election – is positively preternatural.
“It’s a little spacey,” said Mr. Duncan, 49, sitting in what used to be a classroom in the convent and is now the best restaurant for 100 kilometers in any direction. “But, hey, it’s my generation. I inhaled.”
The story starts nearly two years ago. It was the end of June and school was out. My Duncan, who had made enough money in British Columbia’s seedling-nursery industry to retire to Nanaimo in his early 40’s had itchy feet. So he and son Adam, now 13, hopped in their Volkswagen intending to spend the summer driving coast to coast and back.
Mr. Duncan’s wife, Metter, now 43, and their daughter Kristine, now 16, decided to stay at home. By the time the Duncan males had traversed 2 ½ provinces to reach Swift Current, Sask., the adventure had paled considerably.
They decided to let fate lead them. Mr. Duncan spread out the map and flipped a pencil. Whichever way it landed was the way father and son would travel.
It pointed straight south from Swift Current along Highway 4 to the Grasslands National Park near the Montana border. The pair jumped into the van and drove.
An hour later, just as its front tires touched the cattle guard at the park’s entrance, the van quit. The two were stranded for ages outside the little-used park until a motorist appeared and went for help.
Shortly afterward, a rather scruffy, practically toothless fellow drove up, wordlessly examined the van, informed them that something called the ignition module was shot, and took out a rope. Marcel Lacelle turned out to be a gifted mechanic from (no kidding) Cadillac , Sask. With the city folk in tow, he barreled off over the dusty gravel roads. Finally, he deposited the stunned pair at a campground in the nearest town, Val Marie.
With little else to do while waiting for the van part to arrive from Swift Current, Mr. Duncan took a close look at the abandoned convent across the road. The elegant, two-storey brick building appeared to be in ruins, its sagging roof a sorrowful reminder of how low its fortune had sunk since its heyday as a training ground for nuns in the thriving francophone Roman Catholic farming community nearby.
He discovered he convent was a week away from being sold to a fellow who planned to demolish it and sell of the bricks and the mountains of interior hardwood.
The asking price? One dollar. When Mr. Duncan upped the ante to $1,000, the town offered him five years without taxes.
The phone call to B.C. was a model of understatement. “I call up my wife and say, ‘Hey, honey. There’s a convent down here. It’s got 25 rooms. It needs some work,’” Mr. Duncan recalled , holding court with his customers over their bacon and eggs. (It’s a well-honed tale. One of the mean in the corner allows that he’s heard it before.) “She says; It’s only $1,000.’”
Privately, Mrs. Duncan, who met her husband in her native Denmark, admits she never imagined he expected her to move to Val Marie. It took him over a year to persuade her.
For weeks, he shoveled out rotted plaster, but found that the electrical system was fine and the structure unharmed. The floors needed work, but much of the gorgeous hardwood was intact, including the board baseboards and floor-to-ceiling cupboards. Even though the 1930’s-era building had been vacant 16 years, few windows had been broken.
Mr. Duncan decided that, with its soaring ceilings , peaceful atmosphere and proximity to a national park, it would make a fine bed and breakfast. And thus, after investing $170,000 in repairs done mostly himself, he opened The Convent with six rooms to rent just before Christmas. Even though (or perhaps because) the owner insists there a friendly ghost on the premises, business is already boffo, including booking for spiritual and artists’ retreats.
Now Mr. Duncan wants to turn Val Marie into a major tourist draw for Saskatchewan, no small challenge, given that its population shrank 28.3 per cent between 1991 and 1996.
The park, which encompasses prehistoric bandlands and verdant coulees in two parcels near the U.S. border, is one of the continent’s largest remaining pieces of mixed-grass prairie. It is said to be the only place in Canada where colonies of prairie dogs still live in habitat untouched by humans.
As well, the area boasts ancient teepee rings. It was prime bison-hunting land for the Metis. Park literature says Sitting Bull and his Sioux followers fled to this part of Canada to escape the U.S. Army after the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.
“I’m just having this humongous spiritual experience,” said Mr. Duncan. “It’s timeless out there. There are no man-made structures in sight. That’s the charm: Wherever you look, it’s just the way it used to be.”
Unfortunately, his enthusiasm is not widely shared. The beauty of Banff National Park is so famous that the pressure from tourism actually has begun to harm the environment. At Grasslands, however, the allure of the landscape eludes even many of the people who live around here. Few Canadians have ever heard of the park and fewer still realize its importance in preserving the native ecosystem. The place draws a mere 5,000 visitors a year.
Locally, the park’s creation has been controversial and much disparaged by some residents, who would rather see the land put to agricultural use.
To Mr. Duncan, the park’s obscurity and Val Marie’s almost complete lack of facilities are just barriers to be cleared. He envisions eco-tourism writ large – a golf course, horse-hitching posts, motels.
“I’m saying: ‘It’s a national park! What’s wrong with this picture? There should be a little tourist town. And there isn’t.’”
It’s not easy to shift a community’s course so dramatically, especially when you come from “away.” In the vote for mayor, Mr. Duncan is up against Barry Dixon, the local municipal administrator. Mr. Dixon has lived in Val Marie for 21 years and is so tightly knitted into the community that next year he will be the grand master of the grand lodge of Saskatchewan’s Masonic Order.
People should vote for him, he said, because he can heal some of the long-standing rifts in the community and has no axe to grind.
As for his rival, “he’s a two-year boy” noted Mr. Dixon, pausing…”from Nanaimo.”