Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: March 2018

Outlaw turned farmer tried to run from his past

When asked why the early cattle industry in present-day southwestern Saskatchewan was never as violent as its American counterpart, a ranch hand suggested, “the alkali water (cowboys drank) up here took it out of them, and the winters froze out what was left.”

But there were outlaws operating in the border country. One of the most notorious was Joseph Erving Kelly, more popularly known as Sam Kelly or by his alias, Red Nelson.

Born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in 1859, the tall, lanky Kelly, renowned for his deadly aim as much as for his bright, red beard, came to prominence in the Saskatchewan-Montana border country in the 1890s when he fell in with American Frank Jones and his criminal friends. Over the next few years, the Nelson-Jones gang, sometimes working with the rough-and-tumble Dutch Henry, terrorized local ranchers and settlers, stealing horses and rustling cattle, when not robbing trains and businesses.

The North-West Mounted Police responded to the crime spree by setting up a detachment in the Big Muddy Valley, but the gang eluded capture by hiding in caves near Peake’s Butte in the badlands or just slipping across the line.

Sometime after 1902, perhaps tired of running, Kelly abandoned his life of crime and tried his hand at ranching. But he was always afraid that his past would catch up with him, and he left the area in 1913 and apparently headed to northern Alberta.

In the spring of 1914, Kelly surfaced in Debden, northwest of Prince Albert, with three friends from his Big Muddy days: Louis Morency, Ernest Schumann, and Jim Moody. All four men applied for homesteads in the area, near what is known today as Kelly Lake.

Homestead records indicate that Kelly applied for 160 acres in late March 1914. But he didn’t like the parcel of land and applied for a different quarter section the next month. That homestead (SE 15-53-6 W3) was patented in 1920.

Kelly might have reinvented himself as a pioneer bachelor farmer, but word about his outlaw past was soon whispered in the community. His pal Morency liked to talk about the old days—how he had served as lookout for the gang and would put a barrel on its side to alert the boys to the presence of the police.

Alphide Jean, a fellow homesteader from Quebec, heard these stories first-hand. He was also one of Kelly’s few friends — he helped fence his property — and wrote about his experiences 60 years later.

Jean said that local people quickly learned not to ask Kelly what he did before arriving in Debden. The former outlaw kept to himself and would not let anyone on his property without permission. If he took a dislike to someone, they knew not to cross his path. He had a soft spot, though, for children and always had candy for them.

Kelly took great care with his appearance and worked at being a gentleman — a far cry from his outlaw persona. He was never scruffy. His clothes were always clean and he shaved regularly. Gone was his trademark red beard. He also never cussed. But Jean remembered that his piercing blue eyes could still look right through a person.

There were also signs of another life. Kelly was a crack shot — able to dehorn a bull with his Winchester rifle from over 100 yards away. And he always paid cash for hired help at the end of the day or for supplies in town.

Kelly was never much of a farmer. He had only a few acres in crop — mostly feed for his horses. His large garden, though, kept him supplied with fresh produce. He also traded eggs to some of the local settlers. He showered affection on his horses and chickens and talked to them as if they were all that mattered in the world.

In the spring of 1937, Kelly suffered a breakdown. Neighbours tried to nurse him along, but he became increasingly confused and ornery. Their concern turned to alarm when they found him shooting at the water barrels around his house, claiming he was being followed, and they arranged to have him committed to the Battleford Mental Hospital.

The 78-year-old Kelly died there in October and was buried in a numbered grave. He found in death the anonymity he desired — and could finally stop running from his past.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:In keeping with his desire for anonymity, there are no known photographs of Sam Kelly.
Photo Source: Blossom Communications

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Twins pressed into service as teachers in rural school

An educated population was a priority for the new province of Saskatchewan.

One of the provincial government’s first acts was the passage of a university act in 1907. School districts also had to be organized to keep pace with the steadily growing population of rural children, while teachers had to be found to staff the small, generally isolated one-room schools. It was a formidable challenge.

During the eight-year period from 1905 to 1913, the number of elementary schools in the province jumped from 405 to 2,747.

Nor did the demand lessen for several years. For the 1916-17 school year, one-half of all registered children in Saskatchewan were in Grade 1.

The government sought to provide a steady supply of teachers by opening normal schools in Regina and Saskatoon to train teachers, as well as establishing a system of high schools.

This preparation and training may have helped teachers in rural schools better deal with the difficulty of handling eight grades in one classroom, but they still had to contend with poor pay, inadequate facilities, and uneven attendance.

Cold winter weather and the cost of keeping buildings heated often kept schools closed from Christmas until late February. Children also stayed home in the early fall to help with harvest.

Students of all ages were consequently concentrated in the primary grades, while many quit before completing Grade 8.

When Saskatchewan’s population peaked in the mid-1930s, there were an estimated 5,000 school districts in the province. Many of these rural one-room schools fell on hard times because of the Great Depression.

The buildings, never known for their comfort, were allowed to deteriorate. There was also a lack of educational materials and supplies, while teachers not only had their salaries slashed or held back, but often had to depend on the generosity of local residents to help tide them over.

Then, the Second World War took away hundreds of qualified teachers who volunteered for duty. Scrambling to keep their schools open, several district boards turned to teenaged women, with no formal training or experience, to serve as study supervisors. Many were not much older than their students.

Jean and Joan Louden, fraternal twins, were among the new crop of young teachers.

Born in Willow Heights (formerly Esplen), east of North Battleford, in 1935, the pair grew up on a family farm where education and music were valued — and hard work was a fact of life.

Despite the sacrifices of depression and war, Bill and Carol Louden made sure their daughters had opportunity. Jean and Joan both took piano lessons, first from their mother at home and then in North Battleford.

The two girls also secured their high school credits through home-schooling and a curriculum drawn from government-approved correspondence materials — again, under the direction of their mom, herself a former teacher and graduate of the Saskatoon normal school.

The 17-year-old twins completed Grade 12, with high honours, in June 1952. They also passed the Grade 10 piano exam of the Royal Conservatory of Music that same month.

What next? They were too young to start university. Besides, they lacked the requisite high school French course for admission.

That’s when they were approached by a senior North Battleford education official and asked to assume study supervisor duties at the Forest Hall rural school.

They agreed on the condition that they could split the teaching. Joan would handle the morning subjects, while Jean would take the afternoon. They both needed the extra time to continue with their piano training.

Their dad converted a newly-built wooden grain bin into a two-room teacherage and moved it next to the Forest Hall school. One of the rooms was taken up by the women’s piano, a gift from their grandfather.

Jean and Joan put their plan to work for the next two years. Despite the demands of their teaching duties, juggling several grades at once, they completed the Teacher’s ARCT Diploma piano requirements, with honours, in June 1954.

Their next stop was the Saskatoon Business College and an executive secretarial course, followed by separate careers and marriage.

In looking back at the experience, Joan admitted she was probably too young and inexperienced to be “a warmly enthusiastic teacher.” But she helped introduce her students to a world that was “pretty far removed from the reality of their lives.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:Jean (left) and Joan Louden on Saskatoon’s 2nd Avenue during the winter of 1954-55.
Photo Source: Joan Sinclair

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.