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A Gift To The Community

Phyllis Dawson Speers had the whole community in mind when she gifted a chunk of land near Battleford to the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation. The land belonged to her husband’s parents who homesteaded it in 1902.

Phyllis had a rich and colourful life of her own. She was born in Saskatoon on January 17, 1915. Her father, Cornelius Dawson, was an electrical contractor who came to Saskatoon with his brother in 1903.

In 1933-34, Phyllis enrolled at Normal School in Saskatoon.

“Nobody had any money then,” she says, “so the government offered to let us into Normal School if we signed a promissory note for $100. Six of us from the area did that. I had no money for textbooks, but we shared books.”

Phyllis’s first job was at Chatham School in the Allan Hills, about 18 miles from Kenaston, Saskatchewan. She lived in an uninsulated teacherage with wood plank floors, no lock on the door and no curtains or blinds on the windows.

“My most vivid memory of Chatham School was when Mr. Music, the school inspector, came to visit. We had filled the school with bouquets of yellow-blooming wild buffalo berry branches. Mr. Music immediately ordered them cleared out. He was allergic to them.”

Phyllis’s salary at Chatham School was $300 for the year. She didn’t get a nickel of it until she resigned after a year and a half.

Her next posting was to Rouse School near Imperial. Here she boarded, and walked two miles to school. “For one whole winter, I got only mustard pickle sandwiches in my lunch pail,” the 94-year-old recalls. “Oddly enough, I still eat mustard pickles today.”

Two years later, Phyllis took a job at Willow Heights School northeast of North Battleford. There, she started the Help Along Club, a social outing opportunity for mothers.

Phyllis eventually moved back to Saskatoon and taught in several schools there

Ten years before she retired in 1970, Phyllis married Robert James Duke Speers, the son of homesteading pioneers who settled in the Eagle Hills near Battleford. Jim’s grandfather, Robert George Speers, came west from Ontario in 1884. After the 1885 Duck Lake Uprising was quelled, Robert Speers sent for his family who became the first family to cross the plains after the rebellion.

In 1902, Robert Speers, Jr. established “Breakspeer Farm” which would become a large dairy farm that milked 55 cows at its height. The milk was sold to the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital.

Breakspeer Farm occupied the fertile land between the Battle and North Saskatchewan rivers. (The Yellowhead Highway now bisects it.) A strip of land that lies along the south bank of the North Saskatchewan supports a vigorous stand of white spruce. This was unusual as these trees are commonly found much farther north.

In 1959, during Universal Biological Year, when universities around the world were identifying areas that were biologically unique, “Speers Spruce Stand” was singled out. It is the most southerly outcropping of northern boreal forest in Saskatchewan. The flora and fauna found in the 1-1/2 mile-long strip are a result of a glacial remnant.

Following Jim’s death in 1988, Phyllis decided to gift the strip of land to the Battlefords chapter of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation. That way, she felt, the unique biological environment would be protected and maintained in its pristine state. Her conditions were that no trees in the stand would ever be cut, no plants or flowers removed and the land would be an educational destination for interpretive excursions.

Darlene Polachic writes from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

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