As Excerpted from “Wagon Trails Along the Whitemud”
Once wild prairie, Val Marie was used by many First Nation tribes who were dependent on the bison. In 1803, this land was part of the Louisiana Purchase and was considered to be in the United States. John Palliser explored this land in 1857 and claimed that it was a barren desert wasteland. Most land surrounding Val Marie remained undisturbed.
In the 1880s the British North American Boundary Commission marked the boundary between the United States and Canada and Val Marie was placed in Canada. This was the time of the open range and this landscape was used by the famous 76 ranch.
The first settlers in Val Marie came from Europe, eastern Canada and the western United States.
The vast expanse of treeless land surrounding the Frenchman River was named Val Marie by Father Passaplan, this was to put the settlement under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The ranchers and homesteaders who stayed combined ranching and farming with hospitality and friendliness to create our regional prairie communities.
Before the homestead days Val Marie district was strictly a ranching area. Several companies owned ranches and had thousands of head of cattle in the hills and valleys of this region. The Turkey Track, a company from Texas drove in cattle over the Chisholm Trail in 1900. Those were the days of the Texas Long Horns. Their headquarters were in Vanguard. Their ranch extended from the camp to Wood Mountain. They ran from 20,000 – 30,000 head of cattle on the open range.
The Settlers Came
The first pioneers who came here had to follow winding prairie trails across the hills for miles upon miles; for in 1910 the nearest railway was Swift Current. Many of the settlers who came, with horses or oxen hitched to a wagon bearing all their possessions, had to camp overnight on the open prairie. Stopping places were very few, if any. The endurance of these pioneers knew no bounds, as for example those who walked all the way from Swift Current looking for a suitable homestead.
The pioneers of Val Marie area came from Europe, eastern Canada and the United States. They came because there were opportunities. Homesteads were given and the adjoining quarter section could be bought for $400 with ten years to pay. Although get rich quick might have been the bait to come to Saskatchewan, it was not realized. Most of the pioneers did get rich, rich in experience.
They spent many happy hours in spite of hardships where each day was packed with thrilling adventures that are never forgotten, but are relived now and again as a pioneer tale.
Canadian Pacific Railway
George Spence, an ambitious homesteader who settled south of Val Marie, a few miles from the international border, deserves a lot of credit for his contribution in the development of this area. Besides serving two terms as an MLA, he held membership in the International Joint Commission and other high posts of responsibility. He saw that the quickest way for Val Marie to have a train service would be for the C.P.R. to build its line from the west. He organized meetings, talked to the farmers, urged them to unite in asking for immediate train service. He persuaded government leaders and CPR officials of this necessity.
In 1924, the construction of the railway from Climax to Val Marie began and soon the area of Val Marie was linked with the rest of the country.
A Village is Born
Val Marie sprang up as the steel ribbons were laid. The land on which the village grew was a school section. The very first house was a pool hall built by Mr. Oscar St. Cyr. The livery barn, which was the main center of activity for a time, was owned and operated by Mr. Anton Erne, who was also the first Mayor. This barn was later bought by Mr. Luke Jacob and converted into a garage. There was also a blacksmith shop owned by Ed Bannock. Two general stores, Mr. Dunand’s was built first, then Mr. McClelland’s. One hardware store was owned and operated by Mr. Gordon Mclean.
The Red and White Store was built and opened in 1925 with Mr. P.A. Sharpe as proprietor. The Post Office also moved into Val Marie in 1925. That same year saw many more buildings, there was even a Bakery, and the baker J.B. Bleau turned out tasty bread. The barber was Ed Lacourse, who also operated the first telephone office. Mr. W. Legault was the butcher. There was also a drug store opened by J.J. Paquette. The carpenters were Mr. P. Lavertu and Mr. Jos. Laflemme. Since all these business establishments were built in a year’s time, it is easy to see that the pioneers were here to stay and wanted to have a community.
Mr. Ovide Nadeau had a three-story hotel built in 1926. The first elevator built was the Alberta Pacific in 1927; it was managed by Mr. A. Lemire. The Canadian National opened a branch in 1928 with Mr. R. Langlais as manager, but it was soon closed. The Val Marie Credit Union was opened on December 8, 1950.
Val Marie was incorporated as a Village in 1926. The first council members were Mr. Anton Erne, Mr. G.H. Laidlaw, Mr. Gordon McLean, and Mr. J.J. Paquette-Secretary-Treasurer. The first meeting of council was held on October 4, 1926.
Val Marie School No. 4636 was formally established on Sept 29, 1925. On October 20, 1925 the school was opened and held temporarily in the pool hall (which later became Roland Syrennes hardware store which burned down in 1945 along with the hotel). The convent, a modern brick building was built in 1939. The Sisters of the Assumption were in charge. Two and later three classrooms were opened in this convent.
As the years rolled by the school population kept rising steadily. The closing of the rural schools brought a great influx of students. Besides moving in a two-roomed frame school in 1945, a classroom was opened in the basement of the brick school in 1953.
A new school was started in 1958. It was constructed in three different sections, by three different companies (not that this was intended to be). In 1965, there was more construction. As the building went on through the winter the new part was ready by the new fall term of 1966.
A comprehensive history book of the Village of Val Marie was printed in 2008. Copies are available for viewing at the Chinook Regional Library. For further history of Val Marie and the surrounding area, “Wagon Trails Along the Whitemud” and “Val Echo” are additional history resources.