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Getting back to the roots of our Prairie past

Reporter's Notebook: Lisa Guenther tours what’s left of Cleeves, a once-thriving Saskatchewan town

It’s a safe bet that most people haven’t heard of Cleeves, Sask. While Google maps still marks the spot virtually, little is left of the abandoned hamlet beyond caraganas, a dirt road and the basement of the school.

Growing up in the Turtleford area, I’d heard of Cleeves. I knew it was somewhere around Spruce Lake, but wasn’t sure where. Last summer I had the good fortune of meeting the Rallison family, who have roots in Cleeves. Al Rallison was a driving force behind an event held at the Cleeves site, so I decided to check it out.

Organizers had old photos available showing the layout of the hamlet (I think they were taken from one of the grain elevators, but I’m not sure). They’d also set up signs marking where various buildings had stood so people could get a sense of what Cleeves looked like back in the day.

Cleeves was established when the Canadian National Railway line was extended north from Turtleford, in 1920. The town site was located on a sandy flat, which wasn’t the best farmland, but did have great water. From what I gathered in the Turtleford Treasures history book, it was built on land originally owned by George Cleve, hence the name. The Cleve family came to the area from North Dakota in 1912 and 1913.

The railway’s arrival made a big difference in the daily lives of people living around Cleeves. Before the track was laid, Mabel Carr and her daughter Clara would do the grocery run to Turtleford by riding oxen. On the way home one day, one of the oxen lay in the Turtle River to cool off. Unfortunately that ox was carrying the sugar.

The arrival of the steel also sparked a fair number of businesses in Cleeves, including a general store, blacksmith shop, livery barns, hotel and restaurant, a bakery, butcher shop, lumber yard, pool room, and more. Along with grain, up to 1,000 head of cattle were shipped out of Cleeves each year.

Over the years the community added more activities and infrastructure, such as a school, homemaker’s club, 4-H garden club, skating rink, and curling rink. Church services were held at the hotel and school. The curling rink only had one sheet of ice, so bonspiels ran 24 hours. That is possibly the most Saskatchewan thing I have ever heard about.

Health care in the early days

The railway wasn’t just a means of transporting grain and cattle. When typhoid fever struck Cleeves in the early 1930s, Dr. Ramsay traveled from Turtleford every day in his jigger to check on his patients.

That epidemic “led to a story of romance,” Marilyn Bleakney, of the Turtleford and District Museum, told us. Nurse Peggy Kettles went to Cleeves to care for Della Willy. While there, she met and married Wilfred Willy.

In those days, disease outbreaks would close the school, Turtleford Treasures notes. Cleeves students would have bouts of measles, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, whooping cough, mumps and chicken pox.

It was also interesting to read about how babies were born in those days. Although Turtleford has a fairly new hospital, these days women travel to North Battleford to deliver babies. That was not the case in the early part of the last century. Many of the Cleeves family stories mention the doctors and nurses who attended the births. It’s easy to understand why those people deserved a mention —childbirth was risky.

For many years other women served as midwives for their neighbours as well. Turtleford Treasures mentions the following midwives in the Cleves area alone: Sophia Cleve, Mabel Carr, Mrs. Muirhead, Mrs. Marchant and Vera Ingram.

The slow decline

“Cleeves was the end of the steel until 1929, when the railroad was extended to Paradise Hill. The Cleeves trading area shrunk in size, and this spelled the slow decline of the hamlet of Cleeves,” Bleakney told us that day.

The hamlet did hang on for many years after the rail line extended north. However, once the highway was built and cars and trucks became common, the Wheat Pool elevator closed. The general store and remaining business followed. In 1963, the school was shuttered. In 1966, the post office closed its doors.

Cleeves is not unique in this way. Many other rural communities have slowly gone back to the earth. I suppose that could trigger existential angst in some, but that impermanence reminds me that the land will be here long after any of us are gone.

Many thanks to the Turtleford and District Museum volunteers for organizing the event. If you’re interested in the history of your own rural community, you might be able to find information online at www.ourroots.ca. Many local history books have been digitized and stored on that website.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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