My good neighbour Bob Novak is from Waldron. It’s a small village in east-central Saskatchewan, south of Yorkton and east of Melville, that had an official population of 10 in the 2011 census.
As a boy, Bob remembers Waldron with more vacant lots than buildings. In fact, he often puzzled over the number of concrete foundations along the streets — foundations that spoke of the town’s once great promise.
Like many other Saskatchewan places, Waldron came about during the town-building frenzy in the early 20th century. It was an extraordinary process because of the way new communities literally mushroomed from the prairie soil.
No less than 600 towns and villages with a population of at least 100 found their way onto the map of the three prairie provinces by the start of the Great War in 1914.
Even more incredible was how these towns and villages were arbitrarily established by the competing railway companies at the time.
The location and distribution of communities along a rail line were determined by the distance that farmers could economically haul their grain to local elevators by horse and wagon, not by the natural features of the land.
Railways consequently set towns and villages at regular intervals, preferably seven to ten miles apart. Larger centres, known as divisional points, where equipment was repaired and crews changed, were established every 110 to 130 miles.
One author likened the arrangement of Saskatchewan towns to beads on a string. “They appear,” he observed, “as though a giant, armed with a rubber stamp, had marched along the lines impressing townsites at regular intervals upon the prairie.”
A 1909 article, “Towns Made to Order,” offered a more tongue-in-cheek assessment of this sterile process.
“‘We’ll put a town here,’ said the engineer in charge. The man who held the map put a spot on the map. Other men made marks on the ground. There was no ceremony — no one was there to applaud, no residents came out to shout, for there were no residents.”
Waldron was a creation of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, a forerunner of Canadian National Railways. It was named after the son of the British chairman of the company when the railway was pushed through the district in 1906-07.
GTP builders used the alphabet not once, but twice, in naming towns along the east-west main line through Saskatoon: from Atwater to Zelma and then Allan to Zumbro.
Waldron had big plans. Even though it found itself in the shadow of nearby Yorkton and Melville, the community believed it could ride the early 20th century settlement boom to greatness.
Other towns had similar ambitions and actively pursued any initiative to secure a competitive edge. All understood what was at stake in the urban struggle: only a few communities would dominate.
Waldron, with a population of about 150 by 1911, pinned its hopes on the district’s only indoor hockey rink.
But the same 1912 cyclone that swept through downtown Regina also damaged Waldron’s prized rink.
Undeterred, the community rebuilt the rink — only to see it destroyed again four years later when another cyclone hit the district.
Waldron was back on its feet by the start of the 1920s. But the roaring ’20s, when Saskatchewan’s population and crop production climbed to record levels, were not kind to the community.
A 1921 fire destroyed most of the downtown core. Several businesses never rebuilt.
Five years later, in July 1926, another cyclone rolled through the area, followed by egg-sized hail in its wake.
The one-two punch of the storm killed a farm couple (the Ellwoods), left a trail of pulverized buildings and blown-down telephone poles, and wiped out the district’s bumper crop. Perhaps most amazing, the bulldozing force of the wind completely levelled a half-mile-long bluff, just east of Waldron.
It’s a wonder that Waldron has survived to this day, especially when it was walloped by another fierce storm in 1964.
But anyone will tell you that the province was not built by quitters. Just ask the people of Waldron.
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix