CHASING HISTORY (Chapter 2 of 10)


It's what it looks like - a round stone barn with a lookout tower (circa 2002).

Just inside the Manitoba boundary we stopped at the Saskatchewan Visitor Centre.  We chatted up the attendants.  Locals tend to know more about their region than experts in Toronto or Winnipeg.

Sure, said an older lady.  She knew Batoche.  Visited it as a child, before it was a National Historic Park.  Just farms and fields.  That was 48 years ago.  A Métis farmer had offered her a souvenir, the brass shell of a Gatling gun bullet.  It would have been fired in 1885 by Arthur “Gat” Howard, the American Civil War veteran who, in his enthusiasm, put several holes in the unresisting church at Batoche.

She pointed to the brass shell.  She was lending it to the Government of Saskatchewan.  It sat in a glass display case, unlabeled.  Sometimes you have to just ask when you’re chasing history.

John and I kept our eyes peeled for museums – small, off-the-beaten-track museums.   We followed the “Museum” signs in Broadview, Saskatchewan.  It is an extraordinary little museum – we couldn’t absorb all the artifacts.  Visiting hours would soon be over; we were Visitors No. 4 & 5.  Three employees – utilizing seasonal employment funding – hovered.

I concentrated on the books.  Local volunteers had thrown together a history, “Centennial Tribute: Percival – Oakshela – Broadview, 1882-1982” – its publication no doubt funded grudgingly by the government.

When the CPR was being pushed west of Winnipeg in 1882, someone endowed this point with the name Broadview.  Why?  One suggestion in the book: “The only ‘view’ was a vast expanse of prairie”. The other suggestion: It reminded someone of his neighbourhood in Toronto.  (By the way, for the benefit of the Australians and Oklahomans who are reading this, the CPR was the Canadian Pacific Railway, Canada’s first transcontinental road.)

His nibs the General.

Why do I care?  In April of 1885,  I have a trainload of characters stopping here, on their way to join General Frederick Dobson Middleton.  Toronto’s militia had been summoned to put down a Métis rebellion in Batoche.  My work-in-progress is titled The Batoche Crossing.

At Indian Head, Saskatchewan, we missed the closing time of the museum by just 10 minutes – it was 4:10.  But, I said to John, there’s the barn at the Bell farm to see.  When I saw it in 2002, no one had been home.  I walked the circumference of this extraordinary edifice, putting my fingers in the gaping cracks of the fieldstone walls, peering through one collapsed section.

There were no signs to the Bell farm.  Just as there had been no signs to the museum.  This is a common state of affairs in small communities.  After all, everyone knows where it is, right?  Hah.  So I flagged down a motorist who looked local and I got lucky.

As it happens, the Bell farm barn was demolished in 2008.  We missed it by just 3 years.  In 1882, a Major Bell established his own fiefdom at Indian Head.  At one point he had 100 tenant farmers on 60,000 acres (That’s 240 km2 or 95 sq. mi.).  The unique feature was a round stone barn that served as stable and silo.  The central silo accommodated 4,000 bushels of oats and 100 tons of hay, to feed the 36 horses in the stalls arranged around the walls.  There was even a lookout in the silo, to watch for marauding Indians and Métis, I presume.  (I no doubt presume too much.)  The farm did suspend operations during the North-West Rebellion of 1885.

So we drove out to the round barn.  Yes, it was there.  The barn had been dismantled stone by stone and reconstructed a few metres away, sans cracks and collapses.  We missed it by 20 minutes.  Now that it is an official tourist attraction and national heritage site, they locked the doors at 4:00.

The Bell barn today, with a slight modification in the silo/tower to accommodate the tourists.

Westward we sped.  At Fort Qu’Appelle we checked into a quaint old inn, with old-fashioned keys and running water and mattresses.  It had improved considerably since General Middleton’s visit.  His citizen soldiers had slept outdoors in bell tents and drank from the crick.

In the morning we would storm the palisades of the old fort.  Or visit the museum.


The beautiful Qu'Appelle Valley, memorialized in story and song.

About EJ Lavoie

Writer and independent publisher with website
This entry was posted in THE BATOCHE CROSSING, WRITING and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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