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A brief History of the Torch River and Moose Run Districts
This article was written by Marvin as a script for a 27 minute local history video that was shown at the local homecoming on July 1st, 2005. The Homecoming was staged in celebration of the Saskatchewan Centennial.
100 years ago, in 1905, when the province of Saskatchewan was created, the only residents in the area that came to be called the Torch River and Moose Run districts were a few white and native hunters and trappers. Most were passing through using the local river as a highway. In 1916 a survey team came to the area and the forerunner of the Torch River district was born.
About 1919 two trappers, Nels Paulson and Dave Nelson, came to the area and trapped here for several years. They had a cabin 2 miles north of where the community hall now stands, where the Grassy Lake Fire Cache is now located. Due to the lack of sustained trapping in the region up until this time, they were quite successful in this endeavor.
The first settlers in the area were Mr. and Mrs. Charlie Otterbien and Charlie Johnson. They arrived in 1921 and the Otterbien’s settled on the property 2 miles south and across the road from where the Torch River Community Hall now stands. They only stayed a short while and in 1924, Jack and Sarah Jardine acquired the Otterbein property and lived there for several years. The lack of a nearby school forced them to move to the White Fox district so their growing children could go to the school and they proved up on their Torch River homestead while living near White Fox. They returned to their homestead in the district after the new Torch River school was completed.
Charlie Johnson remained in the district for many years, living on the property just north of the Otterbein homestead for a while and later moving east of the Co-op store. Charlie was a very efficient trapper and a part-time prospector. He and Nick Sherman, who was also a trapper and homesteader in the Torch River district, are credited with finding the first quartz in Saskatchewan. Charlie was too woods-wise to ever be trapped by a woman and remained a bachelor to the end of his days.
The quarter section that Charlie first lived on was later acquired by Edwin Runn.
Nick Sherman left the district and moved to Southend Raindeer Lake.
The C.P.R. Trail
In 1928, the Canadian Pacific Railway authorized a survey along with clearing of right-of-way that would take them through this newly settled district and in a northerly direction. The purpose of this survey was to run a line through to Island Falls which would eventually connect that community, which is located on the Churchill River near the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border, and Nipawin by rail. This plan was aborted due to the numerous swamps and bogs that had to be crossed. Even though the survey was completed through to Flin Flon, Manitoba, clearing of the right-of-way was stopped somewhere east of Deschambault Lake.
All the supplies for this project were delivered by horse drawn wagon train. One of these trains became bogged down in a swamp north-east of Big Sandy Lake. The horses were unhitched and all the harness was placed in the now unloaded wagons to be retrieved in the spring. By the next spring the wagons had disappeared in the bog.
The C.P.R. Trail, as it came to be called, was used for many years by hunters and trappers as a route into that region of the north. Local homesteader, Harvey Green also traveled it in the early years of his commercial fishing ventures on Big Sandy and Deschambault Lakes.
Two other events of great importance to the district occurred in 1928. The first was the opening of the first Post Office in the Deller home 1 mile west of where the community hall now stands. Mrs. Deller acted as the first post mistress and due to the lack of decent roads or a bridge across the Torch River, William Matice delivered the mail to the Post Office on horseback.
Over the years the location and Postmaster / mistress changed many times, finally ending up in the home of Mr. And Mrs. Harvey Green until being moved into the last two Co-op Store locations. The last full time postmistress was Mrs. Alice Green and after her retirement the store manager took over her duties. The last store manager / postmaster was Mr. Lloyd Kerr who was also the mail carrier even after the Co-op Store closed in 1983 and the mail was delivered to rural site boxes. Dorothy (Morgan) Humphry also delivered mail to the rural site boxes for a short time.
Rural mail delivery was finally stopped in the mid1980's.
The second important event in 1928 made the early mail carrier’s job much easier.
A bridge was built across the Torch River at Lloyd’s crossing, 1 mile east and 4 miles south of where the community hall now stands. This bridge was the first of 5 bridges that were built across the Torch River in the next twenty years or so.
In the spring 1932 the Torch River and Moose Run districts were dealt a crushing blow. The 4 year old bridge at Lloyd’s Crossing was destroyed by an ice jam. This forced the area residents to choose between fording the river again, which was impossible during periods of high water, or making the long detour to the bridge that was completed at Mathews Store in the River’s End district later in ‘32.
Fording the river during high water could be a tricky business. On a return trip from town by horse and wagon during one of the periods when there was no bridge in the Torch River area, one settler had a discouraging experience. His wagon box floated right off of his wagon, destroying most of the supplies that he had gone so far to buy with what little cash he had.
The Lloyd’s Crossing bridge was never replaced but in 1939 a bridge was built at Jacobs sawmill which was located on the south side of the Torch River approximately 2 miles to the west of Lloyds Crossing.
Up until the time when the bridge was built, the only way across the river during times of high water was by walking across on the Jacobs Mill sawdust conveyor which extended across the river. It was not an ideal situation because the risk of falling off was very real and in an emergency situation the mill had to be shut down until the crossing was accomplished.
It happened that one near victim of the conveyor crossing was a 100 lb. bag of flour that was being carried across by two settlers. The bag fell into the river so the two unlucky homesteaders had to jump in after it. The flour was saved.
In the mid 1940's a bridge was built on the west side of the Moose Run district, connecting that district with the Botony District to the south and west. About 1952 the bridge was badly damaged by ice and it was strengthened by cabling two large logs across the damaged section allowing light traffic to cross it for a while longer.
Herb Baerwald, who was managing Lowe’s Store at the time, almost broke through the Moose Run bridge before the bridge was reinforced with the logs. He was traveling across the bridge with a small tractor and some grain in a wagon behind when the bridge started to sag under him. He had to drive uphill all the way to the west end of the bridge.
By some reports, snowfall in the winter of 1954 / ‘55 reached 107 inches at the Grassy Lake Fire Tower in the Torch River district. During the spring thaw after the unusually heavy snowfall of that winter, the Moose Run bridge and the bridge at Jacobs Sawmill were destroyed by ice jams. This left only two bridges along the entire length of the Torch River, the bridge at Mathew’s Store in River’s End which had been built in 1932 and a bridge north of White Fox. The Moose Run bridge was never replaced but the one at Jacobs Sawmill was replaced by a steel structure in 1955 / ‘56. That is the green steel bridge which is on the road north of Love today.
The Mathews Bridge was destroyed by ice in 1957.
The destruction of the two bridges in 1955 was inconvenient but not a crippling blow to the area north of the river. In 1953 a steel bridge on concrete piers had been built on the Torch River about 6 miles north of White Fox and about 4 miles east of Jacobs Sawmill. It’s steel and concrete construction had allowed it to survive the high water and ice.
Also in 1953 a bridge had been built across the White Fox River north of White Fox and about 1 1/2 miles south of the Torch River bridge. Even tho’ the road from the north leading to the bridges was very difficult to travel during extremely dry weather because of the soft, deep sand, access to the region was not greatly hampered. Travel by automobile to the Torch River, Moose Run and River’s End districts was still possible.
Moose Run’s First Homesteaders
In 1930 the families of Johann (John) Sager and his step-son, Joseph (Joe) Kiehn moved to an unsurveyed area north-west of the new Torch River district. They had been there in 1929 and staked out their homesteads, after which they returned to their homes in the south for the winter of 1929 - ‘30. They were the first residents of that yet unsurveyed and unnamed district.
One of the risks involved in settling on unsurveyed land was that you were never sure where the property line was located. When the area around the Sager homestead was surveyed in 1931, it was found that the yard site was located with approximately 1/3 of it over to the south side of the property line. The problem was solved when Mrs. Sager’s father, Franz Byer, homesteaded that south quarter section of land. The land was later acquired by his grandson, Ewald Sager upon his coming of age..
The lack of a proper school was seriously hampering the settlement of the area. In 1930, the few residents who lived there at that time met and organized a school district with the hope of attracting more young families there.
After the school district was organized the soon to be school needed a name and the name that was decided upon was the Torch River School. The Department of Education gave it the designation of School District #4840. The shortened version of just Torch River was adopted for the surrounding district.
Of prime importance to the Torch River district was the opening of the new one room school, on September 22nd, 1931. Miss Thelma Lightheart, later Scarf, was the first teacher. This meant that all the children in the district were blessed (or cursed, depending on the students point of view) with an education.
Since the school was the first building to be erected and it was opened as soon as possible, there was no place for the teacher to live. Boarding places were scarce so Miss Lightheart lived in the cloakrooms until a log teacherage was built over the Christmas holidays. Miss Lightheart claimed that her new residence was so cold that she froze a toe while she was in bed one night. After the school board obtained a tin heater for her, her comfort level rose substantially.
By some estimates, the area to the north had as many as 40 sawmills running in the 1940's and many of the workers had brought their families so in 1942, the one room Torch River School house had another room added to accommodate the increased student body. The second room remained open until 1954 when it was closed due to dropping attendance.
By the late 1930's, the population of the New Survey, as it was then called, had reached a high enough number so the construction of it’s own school was warranted. The school was built in 1939 just over 7 miles by road northwest of the Torch River school. “Moose Run” was suggested as a name for the school by Stuart McKenzie who lived about 2 miles north of there. It subsequently became the name for the school and the district. A teacher for the new Moose Run school was not found until 1941 when a Mr. Moore came from Nipawin to teach.
For a short period in the late 1940's the Moose Run School, was closed because, again, no teacher could be found. The children of the district had to find their own way to the school at Torch River and for some it was a 6 mile walk or horseback ride. The school re-opened in 1950 with Joe Story as the teacher. He was 20 years old and he became a good friend of some of the older boys who were students there..
The Moose Run School closed permanently in 1959 and the Moose Run students were boarded in White Fox to go to the school there. That was the same year that the Torch River highschool students were bused to White Fox for the first time. In December,1965 the Torch River School closed permanently. All the remaining Torch River and Moose Run students were bused to White Fox where a new Elementary school had been opened in 1963.
Mr. J. M. (Mac) Clark was the first school bus driver. The first school bus was a cab built on the back of Mr. Clark’s half ton truck. He drove school bus from 1959 ‘til the mid 1960's, eventually being given a real school bus to drive.
The last teacher at the Moose Run School was Mrs. Katherine (Kay) Patton of Choiceland and the last teacher at the Torch River School was Mrs. Doris Anderson
One of the biggest problems for the early settlers was the obtaining of needed supplies. All country stores, out of necessity, stocked not just grocery items but also patent medicines, fuel for lamps and stoves and gasoline for the few tractors and automobiles that found their way into the district. Oil, grease, hay wire, nails, articles of wearing apparel and much more was required by all who lived in the area.
For some, a trip to Nipawin for supplies was a 3 day event. You traveled there the first day, did your business the second and traveled home on the third so the opening of the first general store was eagerly awaited.
By 1932, a fellow named Robert (Bob) Booth and his son-in-law, Pete Mathews had already been operating a store on the north shore of the Torch River in the River’s End District for several years. This gave the residents of the Torch River area a place to buy supplies without getting their feet wet. This was also the site of one of the few bridges to cross the Torch River and was located about 4 miles east of the bridge at Lloyd’s Crossing.
Mathew’s Store closed in 1952 because of dropping population numbers.
But in 1934 they were still going strong and, seeing an opportunity, they stocked a store 1 mile east and 1 mile south of the new Torch River School which was managed by Otto ( Shorty ) Wigg. The store was located in Shorty’s home on his homestead.
This new store gave area residents almost the equivalent of todays mini mall.
Supplies could be picked up by any one in the district in the matter of an hour or two. Talk about convenience.
In 1934, Booth and Mathews built a store on the knoll across the creek east of the Torch River School. This store was managed by Bun Mathews and his wife. Bun was Pete Mathews brother.
At that time it was the only store in the district until the first community owned Co-op store was opened in 1938 with Len Henderson as the manager. It was built of logs and was located just down the hill to the west of the Booth and Mathews store site. In later years a lumber addition was added to the west side so the store manager could live at the store.
In 1945, Fred Lowe moved his family into the district and he constructed a store 1 mile west of the Torch River School. He operated Lowe’s Store for several years before giving management to Mr. Herb Baerwald in 1951 and going to Rochester, New York for medical treatment. Mr. Baerwald and his wife Iris, a sister to Mac Clarke, operated Lowes Store until 1955 when he moved to LaRonge to manage a store there. From 1955 until it closed in 1957, the store was managed by Adolf and Annie Anderson. Annie was also Mac Clark’s sister.
When the Torch River School closed in 1965, the building was purchased by the Torch River Co-op Association and in 1966 it was transformed into a new store building. The stock was moved from the old store to the new one in January 1967 with the post office moving there, also.
The Torch River Co-op Store closed permanently in 1983. Rural mail delivery to the site boxes was terminated soon after.
the road past the old log store was upgraded to a
grid road a few years
after it closed, the old log building was bulldozed because it had been built
partly on the road allowance.
1934 was in the middle of the Great Depression which was compounded by the extreme drought that had all of the North American prairie region in its grip. That year a government relief camp was built on the Torch River north-west of the newly surveyed area west of the Torch River district. This camp and many others like it were built to give the many unemployed single men in Saskatchewan a chance to earn some much needed cash. The main work that they did at the Torch River camp was cutting Jackpine ties for use by the railroads.
The wages paid were not high, about 20 cents a day plus room and board and considering that the price of a can of tobacco in the 1930's was about 35 cents no one who worked there got rich at it.
The men lived in tents until December when a lumber bunkhouse was built. This building proved very important to the Torch River district later on.
The Torch River Baptist Church was also built in the year of 1934. The first minister was a Mr. M. Crerar from Ontario.
Trees had been cut the year before on the quarter section just west of the Craig Astrope homestead. They were hauled to the Astrope sawmill where they were sawed into the lumber that was used in the building of the first church in the district. The Church was in use until the late 1960's.
Another important event in the spiritual life of the community in 1937 was the building of the log Apostolic Church 1 mile east of the school. It became a spiritual center for many residents of the area. The last regular church service with a full time minister was held in 1953 with intermittent services being held for a few years thereafter. The last full time minister at that church was a Mister Wallace
The Torch River Community Hall
In 1937, the building that was to become the Torch River Community Hall was erected a couple hundred yards west of the Torch River School.
When the Relief Camp on the Torch River had been shut down at an earlier date, the bunkhouse that had been built there was sold to an area resident, Einer Wicker, who in turn sold it to the community for $50.00. The building was totally dismantled, moved to the present hall site on wagons pulled by horses, and re-assembled.
The building was, and still is, the location for many Christmas concerts, wedding dances, all sorts of birthday, anniversary and other parties. Sadly, in later years it was also the location for the funerals of many of the pioneers who helped to build this community.
Many changes have come to the hall over the years.
In 1971 the hall was raised and set on concrete blocks which were used as the foundation. That was the year of the first Torch River Homecoming and a booth was built a short distance east of the hall for that event.
In 1977 a skating rink was constructed near the east side of the hall and it was used for hockey games, broomball tournaments, skate-a-thons and just general community skating. This was the second rink to be built in that general location. The first was built in 1949 and it was used until 1952.
In 1979, the hall was again raised, but this time it was moved a bit south and east making room for parking at the front of the hall. Concrete grade beams were poured before the move for the hall to rest on. The hall was moved by Peters Building Movers of Codette.
In 1981 the hall floor got a new covering consisting of particle board and in 1984 the floor was painted. Also in “84 a new backstop was built for the hall ball diamond.
In 1994 a wheelchair ramp was constructed and in 1995 the booth outside the hall, the hall exterior and the hall floor were all painted. In 1996 the hall got a new metal roof and in the Saskatchewan centennial year of 2005, the hall exterior got new metal siding. The booth was repainted that year also.
Most of the improvements were done by groups of local volunteers tho’ in some cases outside contractors were hired.
The activities that take place at the hall are too numerous to mention them all here but the longest lived and most popular community event that takes place there is the Torch River Community Picnic which was re-named from the Torch River Co-op Picnic in 1979.
Activities include ball games, horse shoes, children’s races and more. The booth has candy, pop, potato chips and other confectionary items for sale and this is all followed by a nice picnic supper in the hall.
The Torch River Ladies Club
One group of people who are very important to the existence of the hall and the spirit of the community is the Torch River Ladies Club.
The Ladies Club was First organized in1934 and reorganized in 1949. That was also the year that the Ladies Club took over the responsibility of maintaining the hall.
The Ladies Club is involved in all facets of community life. The projects that they are, and have been, involved in are way too many to list them all here but the most important of them are:
- Knitting socks for local soldiers during WWII.
- Honouring seniors on their birthdays with small gifts.
- Donations to Telemiracle and other worthy causes.
- Catering to community related functions held at the hall.
- building a sense of community by hosting pot luck suppers, Christmas programs and visits from Santa.
And, most importantly, maintaining and upgrading the community hall so that all these things have a place to happen.
Without the work of these ladies this community would not be the caring and cheerful place that it is.
We congratulate them on a job well done and we thank them from the bottom of our hearts!!
The Grassy Lake Fire Tower
An important part of the community has been the Grassy Lake Tower. It served as a means of giving early warning to the community in case of a forest fire starting nearby. The towerman lived at the site all summer while on fire watch. The Department Of Natural Resources Conservation Officer also lived and had his office at the tower site. His job was to enforce the provincial game laws and he sold hunting, fishing and trapping licenses. He was also responsible for receiving furs from the local trappers and seeing that they were shipped to the Saskatchewan Fur Marketing Service to be sold at auction for them.
The first Grassy Lake Tower was a wooden structure that was locate east of the Torch River School. After it was abandoned a second wooden tower was built about 4 miles north and a mile or so west of the Torch River School. In 1938, the 3rd Grassy Lake Tower, the first all steel tower, was built 2 miles north of the school and it served until1973. This was originally the site of Nels Paulson and Dave Nelson’s first trapper’s cabin.
In 19 74 a new steel tower was put into service about 5 miles north of the 3rd tower site and the old tower was decommissioned and eventually dismantled.
Many of the old timers of the area and elsewhere worked at or on the Grassy Lake Tower or for the Department of Natural Resources, as it was then called. Men like Garry Parker, Jeff Bartlett, Oakley (Oak) Nowlin, Claude Nowlin, John Nowlin, Harry Gade, Jim Brooker, and many others worked out of the Grassy Lake Field Headquarters in various capacities.
The man who, in all likelihood, spent the the most years at Grassy Lake was Walter Kratz. He arrived in the district in the late 1930's and became towerman in the early 1940's He held that position and trapped in the winter until 1965 when he was finally forced to retire at the age of 67. He moved to British Columbia where he married for the first time when he was well into his 70's.
Some Employment Opportunities
Another event in 1937 was a forest fire breaking out on the north edge of the newly surveyed area and the Torch River district, keeping the fire fighters, which included many local men, employed most of that summer.
Forest fires had been, and still are, important to the local residents as a way of earning extra money while trying to raise families on land that was mostly heavy bush which needed expensive clearing.
1961 saw a major fire immediately north of the Torch River area which employed most of the local male population throughout that summer. As recently as 2002 a fire near Tobin Lake again employed many local residents.
Another way to earn money in the bush was by trapping. Almost every man and boy in the Torch River / Moose Run districts tried their hand at it at one time or another. The boys trapped close to their homes for spending money and a fairly high percentage of the local men trapped for a living farther north. Before snowmobiles and quads arrived on the scene, the trapper would head for the trapline late in the fall and wouldn’t go south again until Christmas to take out his furs, replenish his supplies and spend some time with his family. After the New Year or, in some cases, right after Christmas, the trapper would head north again for at least 2 months.
There is only 1 professional trapper left in the area today. Edward Kiehn, the son of one of Moose Run’s first settlers , has been trapping virtually all his life, from boyhood on.
Sawmills were also seen as winter employment opportunities for many. As was previously noted there were many mills in the forest north of the Torch River and work in the bush was plentiful. Many local farmers had mills of their own though most of them have now been shut down, the only exception in the area being the David and Allison Halland sawmill 1 mile north of the community hall.
And in the Present
In 2005 things are not looking good for rural life in Saskatchewan. The ongoing Mad Cow crisis and the continuing drop in farm income due to low grain prices and high input costs are keeping young people from choosing farming as a livelihood and, indeed, are driving many existing farms into bankruptcy. Farm homes are slowly leaving the landscape and the Torch River / Moose Run districts are suffering the same fate.
Moose Run has only 3 permanent homes, one of them being the old school house which has been renovated 3 times since 1959.
The Torch River district has fared no better but due to its larger size still has a respectable number of homes. The residents of both districts are sons, daughters and grandchildren of the original settlers with only a very few exceptions. This is a far cry from the time in the past when almost every quarter section had a family living on it. As well, most residents have either diversified into other on farm businesses or have off-farm jobs to survive in this depressed rural economy era.
Some local non-farm related businesses in order of age are:
Halland Farms Inc. / sawmill - Operating continuously since it was started by Anders (Andy) Halland. - David, Jean, Alison and Bridgette Halland -‘39
Jardine Crop Dusting - Robert (Bud) Jardine and Brennan Jardine - ‘70
Green’s Lumber and Gravel - Rick and Liane Green ‘85
Fox’s Finest Miniatures - Wayne, Rose, Michelle and Lorraine Fox ‘91
Thunderhead Bison - Stan and Tim Francis ‘92
Diamond “T” Custom Video and Sound - Marvin Torwalt ‘93
Torch River Game Farm - Alice, Jim, Joanne, Ken and Jaimie Elves - ‘94
Jardine Catering - Robert (Bud) Jardine ‘95
Sundance Bison and Elk - Marie Green, Rick and Liane Green ‘95
NorthSask Frontier Adventures - Rick and Liane Green and Dave Nowlin ‘97
River Trail Country Vacations - Marvin Torwalt and Deloris Chometsky ‘00
Nipawin Catering Service - Deloris Chometsky and Ruth Von Bieker ‘03
Manley Outdoor Adventures - Dave and Leslie Nowlin ‘04
In addition, there are a variety of crawler tractors (cats) skidders and 6X6 water trucks in the area that are used for various purposes, including forest fire suppression, throughout the year.
Many items of interest were not mentioned in this brief history but we hope that the most important ones were covered. For events and items that were missed we apologize and we hope to do a more thorough job for the Bi-centennial in 2105.
Thanks to all who provided photos, information and/or comments.
Diamond "T" Custom Video