Making it Home: Building a Prairie City
This exhibit, displayed at the museum from May 5 - August 31, 2014, showcased the people and organizations that worked hard to improve the quality of life in Swift Current. It is a celebration of what makes this city unique.
Hilliard Gregory was one of Swift Current’s earliest citizens, arriving at the hamlet in 1883. Gregory worked as a store clerk and a stenographer for the Dominion Lands Office, and eventually ran his own store for a time. Gregory is likely Swift Current’s first decorated soldier. He received a medal for fighting in the Fenian Raids. During those first years, Swift Current had no doctor or dentist. Gregory was acting doctor and dentist, using First Nations remedies, and in a pinch, resorting to using a pair of CPR lineman’s pliers to extract a tooth. Gregory chronicled some of his experiences in Swift Current. These are the only remaining stories from those earliest days, and they give us a glimpse of what the community was like in the late 1800s.
WW Cooper Store
One of Swift Current’s earliest stores was the Argue and Cooper Store, which was established by WW Cooper and his brother-in-law Ira Argue in 1903. By 1906 they had built a larger store; in 1909 they added a 50 x 115 ft addition, doubling the size of the store. Cooper bought out Argue in 1912. With the business offices above, the WW Cooper Store remained the largest business block in Southwest Saskatchewan until the Healy Booker Block was completed across the street and north of it in 1914. Cooper had an incredible mind for business and promotion, but he was also a caring person who extended credit readily when people were struggling. The WW Cooper remained a thriving business until 1953, when it was purchased by the Pioneer Co-op.
The Horse Plant
The Horse Co-operative Marketing Association was incorporated in 1944 under the Saskatchewan Co-operative Marketing Act. The purpose of the co-operative was to create a better market for surplus horses, increase the value of good working horses, and free-up pastures for cattle production. The local plant started operations in October, 1945. The first contract was with the Government of Belgium for 10,000 tons of pickled horse meat for human consumption. A contract with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (U.N.R.R.A.) followed, to provide canned horse meat for parts of Europe devastated by the effects of World War II. In 1946, the first full year of operation, there were about 240 men and women working at the plant, working nine hours per day, six days a week. The canning department had two shifts per day.
In 1947 a new power building included much needed storage space. Built for 100 workers, the plant now had 300 employees. Cloak rooms, toilets and showers, and the lunch counter were “bulging at the seams”. In 1947, one million cans of horse meat were rushed to Poland. They were stored all over town in places like the International Harvester Company, awaiting a telegram from the UN Children’s Fund. They had only 3 days to acquire, load and ship thirteen cars in order to reach the steamer in time. The co-op achieved 7 million in sales in 1947. The two plants processed 100,000 horses in two years. These plants were soon leased to the Quaker Oats Co., likely to permit access to the U.S. market. Quaker opted to purchase them in 1955, and operated them as Alsask Processors. Markets gradually changed and fewer horses became available. The Swift Current plant was closed in 1961. This operation, while distasteful for some, provided much needed jobs for the community, allowed farmers to get better prices for surplus horses, and fed starving people in postwar Europe.
Swift Current Boys Band
Charles Warren (Swift Current Collegiate Institute 1931-46; Warren’s Funeral Home 1946-67) came up with the idea to form a brass band for the local Air Cadet Squadron. Using instruments donated by the community, the band was established in 1944. Skilled trumpet player Jim Culham became Assistant Band Manager in 1946, and the cadets continued to grow as musicians. In 1948, the band was renamed the Swift Current Boys Band, and grew to include a Senior Band and a Junior Band. They won Best Band at the Calgary Stampede and travelled to Toronto in 1952. In 1958 the name was changed to Swift Current Junior Band in order to include girls. This band travelled to the CNE in Toronto in 1963, and to Expo ’67 in Montreal. The school board assumed responsibility for the band in 1978.
Baseball has always been a popular sport in Swift Current. Empty lots were used by children, who often used makeshift equipment (and no gloves) to play. The first ball park, built in 1909, was a community effort. Several local businessmen bought adjacent lots, expecting to sell them at a profit within 5 years. As the Sun put it, all felt that, “…nothing advertises a town better than a ball team” – and what is a ball team without a ball park? In the early days, community boosters ‘stacked’ our regional team with pros by convincing them to homestead in our district. This did not go over well with competing teams. Today Swift Current boasts a number of ball diamonds that are used by children’s leagues, adult’s leagues and by our Swift Current Indians.
The 1947 Swift Current All-Star Softball Team
In 1947 the Swift Current All-Star softball team took home Swift Current’s first provincial softball title. They took the playoff series in six straight wins, thanks largely to pitcher and captain Kay Wells (nee Lightfoot). Kay, who grew up in the Fox district, had loved softball her whole life, and competed in Swift Current, Moose Jaw, Regina and Chicago. She loved the game so much that as a child, she would take on extra chores in order to get her family to play catch. As the local sports columnist wrote, “Once more Wells pitched herself out of a tight spot and her teammates sewed up the holes.” The team was honoured at an appreciation banquet at the Elks Hall.
First Female Alderman
Inspiring the first use of the term “alderwoman”, Rachel May became the first female alderman elected in Swift Current in 1943 as a public welfare representative. She had a reputation for doing charitable works in the community during the difficult years of the 1930s. When she first took her seat with her fellow alderman, Deputy Mayor Archie Budd welcomed her, hoped that she did not mind the smoking, and told her that things “should be taken seriously, because running the city is a serious business.” She was re-elected the following year, but died while in office.
Southside Ratepayers Hall
In 1924, residents who lived south of the railway tracks in Swift Current formed the Southside Ratepayers Association. The initial purpose of this organization was to serve as an advocacy body to voice south side-specific grievances to city council. The association also hosted events such as whist drives, horticultural shows, and dances.
In 1928 they opened a dance hall called the South Side Ratepayers Hall. The building was an old CPR bunkhouse which had been moved to the corner of Friesen and 5th Ave SE. This hall became the social centre of the community. In the early 1930s, the Ratepayers Association got in to the coal and grocery business. It incorporated as the first co-op in Swift Current under the name Swift Current Co-operative Association. By the mid 1940s, the dance hall had acquired the unfortunate nickname “Bucket of Blood”, due to the many fights that took place there between British pilot trainees and local residents. By the mid 1950s, the co-op’s fuel business was declining, as gas replaced coal for heating homes. In 1955, ratepayers voted to close the fuel business and dissolve the co-op. The group modernized the dance hall in an effort to lose its poor reputation. The hall re-opened in 1955, named Club ’76 after the historical 76 Ranch on the south side. By 1959 the club was taken over by private interests. It was damaged by fire and closed a few years later.
Pedestrian Bridge and Overpass
A proper railway crossing was needed in Swift Current from as early as 1912, when the south side hamlet amalgamated with the town. Fences put up by the C.P.R. were knocked down and south side residents vowed to continue to cross the tracks until a proper crossing was built. Although overpass and subway possibilities were discussed by Council for many years, nothing was done. As the number of south side residents increased, the matter became more urgent and was one of the main reasons for the formation of the South Side Ratepayers Association in 1924. Bill Weaver, an active member of the Ratepayers Association, won the first south side Alderman’s seat on city council in 1927. Weaver began a campaign in support of a pedestrian crossing which included leading a delegation of south side residents, consisting of nearly every man, woman and school-aged child, to a council meeting in 1929.
His persistence paid off, and in 1931 the City and C.P.R. joined forces to construct a steel pedestrian bridge over the tracks at Railway and 6th Avenue East. The victory was bittersweet, however, as the bridge proved to be too steep for many, and too far from downtown to be popular. Postwar growth and increased vehicle traffic from the south side brought fresh demand for a proper crossing, and the Second Avenue East overpass was opened the summer of 1960.
In 1934, a group of energetic young people in Swift Current formed a young men’s club. They were concerned with the toll that the Great Depression and dry years of the 1930s was taking on their community. By 1935 they had adopted the name Kinetic Club, which meant “energy in motion”. Their original goal was to raise money for a swimming pool. In 1936 the Kinetic Club ran the ice cream booth for the city’s annual Dominion Day festival on July 1st. Seeing potential for improvement, the Kinetic Club requested permission to take full responsibility for the Dominion Day event the following year. The 1937 event was the biggest in the city’s history and the ambitious Kinetic Club decided to aim even higher the following year.
In 1938 they decided to host a rodeo and to adopt a “wild west” theme, and Frontier Days was born. Over 20,000 people came to the first rodeo. The 1938 event was so well attended that Swift Current completely ran out of accommodations and people were sleeping in their cars. Restaurants ran out of food. The Swift Current Bottling Works ran out of soft drinks. As one organizer recalled, “These hardy people were so used to hardship, they never complained about the lack of shelter or food; this was only a change in hardships and to them, the chance for fun and excitement.” The first rodeo took place at the West End Park on the corner of Cheadle and 6th NW. In 1939 the event was moved to the fairgrounds and permanent bleachers were built. This celebration continued throughout the war years. They raised a substantial amount of money for war bonds, including the club’s savings for a swimming pool. By 1950, with an aging and dwindling membership, Kinetic Club members were no longer able to organize the event on by themselves. In 1954 it was taken over by the Swift Current Ag & Ex. Last year Frontier Days celebrated its 75th year.
Blowtorch the mechanical horse was the creation of local inventor William McIntyre, owner of the local tannery and foundry. This metal horse could walk, and was ridden in numerous parades in Swift Current, as well as in Calgary and Toronto. Quite a phenomenon in his time, Blowtorch was written up in Time Magazine and Readers Digest, and was filmed by the National Film Board.
Blowtorch III was the final version of the mechanical horse. It had it's final march in the 1969 Frontier Days parade and was immediately retired. Blowtorch was donated to the Western Development Museum in Moose Jaw and appeared in this exhibition on temporary loan from that institution.
The Blowtorch Song
Give me a steel horse the old farmer cried
So a hammer and wrench will fix his inside
A Hoss that eats fuel as hot as the sun
That burns up our hay before it’s begun.
Chorus: Here comes Blowtorch, blowing smoke and flame
Dancing, prancing iron horse, flowing tail and mane
Coming down the home stretch, parading thru the town
None can touch old Blowtorch for miles and miles around
And Oh for a horse that doesn’t eat hay
The fair damsel cried, now dobbin’s away:
A sweet smelling horse, a stableman’s dream
No trick to keep barn and city streets clean.
Words by WJ McIntyre
If anyone remembers what tune this was sung to, please let us know!
In Spring of 1966, a handful of arts-oriented citizens met with members of the Saskatchewan Arts Board and other Arts Councils in the province. The Swift Current Community Arts Council was formed, and it hosted its first Festival of the Arts in September of 1966. The festival lasted for over two weeks. Events included a visual arts showcase, daily musical performances, film screenings, folk dancing, marionette theatre, and a performance by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Even the Sunday sermons were about the relationship between art and religion. The event featured many local artists and performers. In 1969 the SCCAC was replaced by the Swift Current Allied Arts Council, an alliance of several local arts organizations, including the Orpheus Club and the Junior Band Auxiliary. Their first official event as the Allied Arts Council was to sponsor a concert by the Regina Symphony Orchestra. The Allied Arts Council has been active in the community ever since, bringing Swift Current the highly acclaimed Stars for Saskatchewan performing arts series.
Swift Current’s first daycare opened in January of 1974. The initiative was met with some objection from community members who felt that women should stay home with their children, but changing social and economic norms meant that more women with young children were in the workforce than in previous generations. The day care was organized by a group of volunteers, with staff paid for by a Local Initiatives Program grant. It was originally located in Grace United Church and had space for 30 children. Within two years the Swift Current Child Care Centre had outgrown its location and needed a permanent home. They raised $11,000 from the community for a down payment on the former Hillcrest Shopping Centre, on 11th Ave NE. Thanks to generous community support, the expanded child care facility opened in September of 1976 and could accommodate 60 children.
Wearing the Pants
When the Swift Current Composite High School opened in 1969, girls were required to wear skirts and dresses to class. The very first class in this school objected to the restriction, and petitioned the principal for the freedom to wear pants. They won, but unlike their male counterparts, they still needed to wear dress pants…not any old jeans would do!
Hockey stick used by Broncos team member Tim Tisdale to score the winning goal in 1989.
Hockey was first played here on Swift Current Creek. An indoor skating rink was built in 1909, where teams like this CPR team could compete with other community teams. The Swift Current hockey team of 1911-12 had some former professionals on it, and was especially famed for its 122-minute overtime game against the Regina Caps. This team entered the Saskatchewan Amateur Association; the following season – just as in baseball – some indisputably ‘pro imports’ were added and, after several early-season victories against Regina, Medicine Hat and Moose Jaw, the team was suspended from the Amateur League. The Indians hockey team, also with imports, dominated hockey in Western Canada in the 30s and 40s, winning 11 Southern Saskatchewan titles, 5 provincial titles and 2 Western Canadian titles. The Broncos hockey team was formed as a feeder team for the Estevan Bruins in 1966-67 and entered the Western Canada Hockey League in 1967-68. After a horrific bus crash where 4 young Broncos died, the team persevered and won the Memorial Cup in 1989.
In 1967 the Swift Current Chamber of Commerce came up with the idea of a weekend “carnival style” event for promoting the City’s downtown business section. Central Avenue from Railway Street to Herbert Street was closed off from traffic. All downtown shops were encouraged to put out colourful sale displays, and space in the middle of the street was used for activities, demonstrations and displays from shops not located on the main street. Over the years the event continued to expand with a farmers market, musical performances, auction sales, fashion shows and competitions including the tractor rodeo and Miss Teen Swift Current pageant. The event was very popular and attracted customers from the city and surrounding district. Service clubs also played a big role, especially the Kinsmen, who provided transportation on their Kiddie Train and ran a children’s carnival. The Business Improvement District took over the event from the Chamber in 1981. As more and more businesses vacated the downtown for locations in malls and closer to the highway, the Jamboree faded away in the late 1980s.
In the Spring of 1990 the Chamber of Commerce was the driving force behind Vision 90’s, a campaign to energize the people of Swift Current, to draw customers from Southwest Saskatchewan to the city, and to encourage local shopping. In 1990, they sold hot pink bandanas for $3.50. MLAs Pat Smith and Harold Martens from Morse wore them in the Legislature, and the stands were filled with pink at the annual rodeo. A pink Cadillac was donated by the local car dealerships. In 1991, huge jars of jellybeans were sold to over 75 participating businesses. For $1, customers could guess the number of Vision Beans; half the money collected was awarded as prize money. In February of 1992 they spearheaded FunFest ’92, a winter carnival, in conjunction with over 24 local organizations. Activities included bathtub races, arm wrestling, street hockey and an ice sculpture festival. Eventually the vigour of the initial campaign waned, but the impact on Swift Current’s morale and economy was significant.
Revitalization of the Lyric Theatre
The Lyric Theatre opened as a vaudeville theatre in 1912 and operated as a movie theatre for almost seven decades. The building closed as a theatre in 1981, became a succession of dance clubs, and was eventually left vacant. In 2005, four young entrepreneurs, Simon and Leah Nackonechny, Joey Donnelly and Adam Budd, saw potential in the abandoned theatre and publicly presented their vision of turning the historic building back into a cultural and performing arts venue. Other members of the public joined them to form the Southwest Cultural Development Group (SCDG). With help from in-kind donations, volunteer labour and fundraising efforts, the main floor interior of the Lyric was transformed. On March 25, 2006, the new Lyric debuted with a 9-act variety show entitled Vaudeville Re-visited. The event was headlined by well-known children’s entertainer Fred Penner and was a sold-out success. The Lyric Theatre launched a $1,000,000 campaign in 2011 to continue work on both the interior and exterior of the building. Since its grand opening, the theatre has hosted young punk and hardcore bands, Open Stage events, literary readings, improv comedy performances, themed fundraising events, the annual Chautauqua Theatre Festival and the Blenders Art + Music concert series.
Windscape Kite Festival was an event designed by Kim Houghtaling (Director, Art Gallery of Swift Current) and David Tuttle (Preparator, AGSC). David had an interest in kites; as he discussed them with Kim, they came up with a plan to mount an exhibition, “On Blue: The Kite as Art”, playing on the Land of Living Skies theme and fact that Swift Current has a ready supply of wind. They decided to host a kite festival as well. The first Windscape was a one day event that took place on 11 June, 1998. In 2005, the Long Days Night Music Festival was moved from the location adjacent to the art gallery to the kite field in Highland Subdivision. It was decided that the festival infrastructure would support a kite festival at the same time. The 1st annual Windscape Kite Festival was held on the Summer Solstice weekend in 2005. The success of these festivals is due in large part to the talent and efforts of Cultural Festivals coordinator Shann Gowan. Shann, her family and her friends have been essential to these projects from the beginning. In the ten years of its existence the festival has become one of Swift Current’s most popular cultural events, drawing more than 10,000 visitors a year from the region, across North America and overseas.
In the late 1970s, a group of parents looking for advanced education opportunities for their children formed a French language preschool. From this starting point, these parents approached the Public School Board about introducing a French immersion program as an option in the city. Meeting the minimum enrolment requirements, a French Immersion Kindergarten class was offered in the fall of 1981 at James O. Begg School. The first teacher was Mia Tuason who had been the preschool teacher in the preceding years. Very much a trail-blazing process, there was a constant struggle for course options and scheduling, and the program moved several times as the program expanded. The parents and students persisted, however, and the first French immersion class graduated from the high school in June 1994.
Earl Monkman, a Métis from northern Saskatchewan moved to Swift Current in the 1990s. Having grown up Métis, he believed that Métis culture was under-represented in the Swift Current region. Around 2003 he founded the Swift Current Friendship Centre. Friendship Centres were a provincial movement that offered drop-in centres for at-risk youth. With the slogan, “Fight Against Drugs and Alcohol”. Earl started a boxing club at the Friendship Centre to give at-risk youth a place to go and an alternative to drug culture. The centre also offers assistance with finding employment, a Fine Option program which enables people to pay their fines through volunteer work, and a support group for pregnant teens called Straight Talk. Earl passed away in 2010, but the Friendship Centre continues to operate both as a boxing club and as a valuable community service.
Southwest Newcomer Welcome Centre
Prior to 2007, the only group that focused on welcoming newcomers was International Women of Swift Current, who had actively welcomed newcomer women since the late 1990s. As local businesses became interested in hiring foreign workers, an Immigration Committee was formed as a sub-committee of the Labour Attraction and Retention Committee.
In 2007, a Newcomer Centre was established at Great Plains Community College. Demand for services grew; a Community Initiatives Fund grant allowed the Centre to move downtown in 2008. A final move to a larger facility in 2010 addressed the continually growing demand for services. The Southwest Newcomer Welcome Centre has registered more than 1100 clients, and served many more.
By 2010, women’s flat track roller derby teams were proliferating across the country. In what was largely a grass-roots movement, women created their own leagues, taught each other the rules, and purchased their equipment online from a handful of suppliers. A group of enthusiastic women from Swift Current incorporated the South West Saskatchewan Roller Derby Association in 2010. Learning about the game from more established teams in the province, the league has grown steadily and now has three house teams and a host of loyal hometown fans.
Skate boarders are known for their self-motivation. They learn how to skate and do tricks by observation and practice. So when they decided that they needed a proper skate park, they found the determination to make it happen. The first skating facility was at the Armoury building. A Swift Current Skateboard Association was formed in 2001. The Association raised money for 3-4 years, until they had accumulated ½ the cost of building a park. The Kiwanis Club matched that, and the city provided the property. The Kiwanis Sk8 Park opened in 2005. The park was designed in consultation with the future users; a 10,000 sq foot park was built with features to suit all levels of ability for skateboarding, BMXing, rollerblading and long boarding. The Association folded after the park was built, but has recently reformed. They will be offering skateboard camps; one upcoming in Val Marie expects 85 participants. The Association plans to collect fees for some camps, and will be raising funds and accepting donations for a future upgrade of the park!