Introduction ( A personal one…)

Why Local History Matters

Blame Nellie McLung…

As a teacher and a student of history, I knew a bit about Nellie McLung and her role in the battle for women’s suffrage. I had read at least one of her works of fiction, and counted myself well informed in general. But what I didn’t know, what my high school and university history courses had neglected to tell me, was that she grew up just a short distance from my home town.  I had no idea that in the numerous times that I had driven down Highway #2 in the Wawanesa area I passed within sight of the school yard were she got her early education, within a few miles of the homestead where she grew up. I had no ideas that Frank Schultz a Baldur pioneer (my hometown) had been her teacher at Northfield School. (No, I didn’t know who Frank Schultz was either – long story.) In fact I knew distant relatives of hers, (there still are quite a few in the area) before I knew anything about her early life.

My point is that I think I would have appreciated that information. I think that knowing about a local concrete link to this prominent Canadian would have made History a bit more real for me. In fact historians were, and still are, somewhat careless about physical details that might establish more of a sense of place to the stories of the past. Manitoba’s new encyclopedia (an excellent volume) lists Nellie’s childhood home, incorrectly, as Millbrook.) I believe they meant to say, Millford.  Someone didn’t check even the most basic of sources, or an editor simply made a mental error. Either way it reflects a general lack of concern, a mindset in which such details are of little consequence.

Well I believe that such details are of consequence. I think that instead of bemoaning the fact that interest in History seems to be declining, we should be examining the possibility that if we allow for an easier connection between the somewhat abstract facts, figures and dates, and the physical concrete places, buildings and artifacts, we will find the people indeed do like history.

Some Experiences: How One Thing Leads to Another….

I learned about the local connection to the Nellie McLung story while researching, of all things, canoe routes. In trying to learn more about the country I was crossing, I discovered that there were many forgotten town sites along the rivers and that their names were unfamiliar to me. Millford was one of them. And one thing led to another…

Learning by accident…

Often while driving westward along Highway #2 near Wawanesa I’ve taken a brief glance southwards as I crossed the bridge and thought, “That looks interesting.”  You only have time to catch a glimpse of a steep cutbank cliff and the winding river that brushes against it, a mere hint of a wild looking landscape. You get another glimpse as you crest the hill and, for most of us, that’s all you see. We’re all busy. We’ve got places to go. Were you to stop at the western rim of the valley, as I did one day, you will be surprised to find out how easy it is to get a much better view. A conveniently placed crossroad offers a road allowance south from Highway #2 that you might mistake for a lane to a farmyard. The road ends abruptly, and indeed does lead to the entrance of private lane, but it is a public road allowance, and there, a few hundred metres from a busy highway, if you get out of your car and walk a few steps, you will be rewarded with a river valley view that can only be described as panoramic. There on the ‘flats’ was the village of Souris City, a tiny but important nucleus of settlement that existed for a brief decade in the 1880’s until the railway routes were finally settled and Wawanesa came into being.  At its birth Souris City was one of many speculative “cities” that came with the Manitoba Land Boom of 1881-82, but although it is now long gone, it did have more of an impact than most of its kind. This spot perfectly captures a view of the entire flats, the dream and the reality that was Souris City.

But I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at, in fact I likely wouldn’t have stopped, if my rambling (and random?) inquiries spurred on by my canoe route research hadn’t taken me there.

But I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at, in fact I likely wouldn’t have stopped, if my rambling (and random?) inquiries spurred on by my canoe route research hadn’t taken me there.


Souris City Plan
From “The Prairie W.A.S.P.”

These “False Starts” exist all over Manitoba. The textbooks we are given in schools usually don’t mention them – they are local trivia from the national perspective. They are essential to telling the complete story of each existing community.

So is my point perhaps that if you want your students to connect with history take them canoeing! Or hiking!


No budget for that?

Then take them downtown.

Or get them to take out their I-Pads (apparently some schools do have a budget for technology) and get them to try this:

Go to Google Earth and enter the coordinates 49' 31'12.70 N and 99'49'34.35W.

With a bit of zooming you should find a view similar to this one.


What we are seeing is a stretch of the Souris River about 10 km south southwest of Wawanesa.

Even a curious and observant person might not notice the pair of lines running north-south to the west of the river channel. A person who did notice them might at first suppose that they were some sort of trail, but they don't seem to be going anywhere, at least the one on the right doesn't seem to go anywhere.  And why would there be two parallel trails?

I'm happy to report that they aren't landing strips for alien spaceships or even ancient aboriginal linear mounds. They're much more recent. In fact they date from about 1890 and they represent the hopes and dreams of one of the area pioneers. John Gregory established the area’s first flour mill here. He built a dam and a mill race across a bend in the river to direct water to the mill wheel. The ruins of the three-story stone building line the riverbank

How do I know? Again … blame the canoe.

Or blame childhood dreams. Did youthful fascination with dinosaurs or a perfectly timed viewing of Jurassic Park make some kids pursue paleontology? Couldn’t hurt.

I believe I can trace my interest in riverboats to my first reading of Huckleberry Finn as a child. Part of the attraction was that it was exotic, in a frontier kind of way – something that happened, and only could happen, far away. So when I discovered, much later in life, that Manitoba, including my part of Southwestern Manitoba, for a brief time had its own paddlewheel riverboats, I was somewhat surprised.

My education began in the 1980s when I read a story in the Cypress River local history about the Alpha, the last of the Assiniboine River steamboats, the remains of which just happened to be buried in a sandy riverbank a short distance north of that town. Now that caught my attention. Something about actual artifacts makes history a little more real for me and motivated me to learn more. Our history books, in their accounts of the opening of the west, had ignored a little bit of transportation history. Steamboats, not the CPR, were the first mechanized freighters on the prairies. The local history inspired me to mount a search for the site, but although I knew roughly where to look, the river levels that year were too high to reveal anything to my untrained eye. I found it later though, what fun!

Once I made my own personal connection between the abstract past and the very real artifacts, locations, buildings that exist in all communities the list of things I wished I would have learned in school kept growing.

I hadn’t really though about sawmills and the lumber business, because my history and geography courses had led me to believe that lumber came from B.C.  I hadn’t known much about fur trade forts because my school texts didn’t mention the ones that were right here. I knew about explorers like LaVerendrye and David Thompson but had no idea that they had spent time nearby. I didn’t know that there were coalmines in the Turtle Mountains, that Hartney had a Sash and Door Factory, that several towns had brick yards, or that the inventor of the Juke Box grew up in Virden. (Does the name Rockola mean anything? The list of course, goes on.

It not that this information wasn’t readily available. Its just the standardized textbooks our teachers relied upon were written from a national perspective. We were supposed to get the big picture. We learned about Louis Riel but not so much about Cuthbert Grant we learned about the C.P.R. and not so much about the branch lines and upstart companies that brought our small town to life.

Which brings us to the simple purpose of this project.

The aim is to just make it a bit easier for teachers to make the local connection by providing this collection of resources.  It’s not a self-contained learning package. It is not a definitive manual or textbook. It won’t take the place of mandated texts.

I can’t, and shouldn’t, tell you what to do with these resources, although I may have included a few general suggestions. Teachers will know what to do with them – I’ve just done some of the legwork in pulling them together.

Ken Storie