The Colourful Past of Mossbank & District

Including the rural municipalities of Lake Johnston and Sutton as well as several smaller centres, the Mossbank district is located about 45 minutes directly south of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. For over 200 years, the Mossbank district has been at the crossroads of history. Its residents have played roles in provincial, national and international events and many important things have taken place in the area.

Disputed Territory

Old Wives Lake today as viewed from surrounding hills.

Old Wives Lake Today

Prior to European contact, the hills and valleys around Old Wives Lake and Lake of the Rivers were frequently home to many First Nations people. Tipi Rings and other pre-contact artifacts have been found near both lakes. The territory was very important because the immense herds of buffalo that once populated the West. These animals’ regular migrations through the district made it a valuable hunting ground and a cause of dispute between the Cree and Blackfoot First Nations. According to Metis guides traveling with the North West Mounted Police in 1874, there was a famous confrontation between the two near Old Wives Lake in approximately 1840. The Metis claimed a group of Cree from the Qu’Appelle Valley were camped near the south eastern edge of Old Wives Lake. They were discovered by a small party of Blackfoot, but the Cree who were traveling with their families and who were encumbered by their provisions, could not get to safety prior to the Blackfoot returning with a larger party. Anticipating the Blackfoot would attack in the morning, the elderly Cree women offered to remain behind as a decoy to allow the younger people to escape during the night. In the morning the Blackfoot descended on the camp only to find most of the Cree gone. In vengeance they killed the “Old Wives,” but according to the Metis guidies, the spirits of these women still inhabit the Isle of Bays in Old Wives Lake, where their laughter still taunts and mocks the Blackfoot.
The first non-Aboriginal people to visit the Mossbank district were likely members of Capt. John Palliser’s survey expedition of 1857-58. By the 1860s, the Aboriginal presence in the district was declining due to the startling decrease in the buffalo population. Part of the reason for the reduction was the arrival of European trophy hunters who killed the animals in vast numbers. Ironically, in 1886, the traditional Aboriginal name, Old Wives Lake, was abandoned by the federal government and the lake was officially renamed Lake Johnston, after one of the trophy hunters, who shot buffalo in the district in 1866. Fortunately, in 1955 after lobbying from Anne Cusick of Coderre, the provincial government restored the Lake’s original name.

The Great March West

Individuals and horses in full NWMP Great March re-enactment regalia photographed near Mossbank in 1999.

The Great March West was re-enacted to mark its 125th anniversary in 1999. The above photograph was taken when the March reached Mossbank.

In 1872 the government of Canada acquired the rights of the Hudson Bay Company for most of what is now Western Canada. The federal government planned to build a transcontinental railway to the west coast and then populate the region with agricultural settlements. In keeping with this design, it began the process of extinguishing Aboriginal title to the land through the negotiations of Treaties with First Nations. The Mossbank District was covered under the provisions of Treaty 4, which was signed with the southern Cree and Ojibwa in 1874. One year prior, the federal government created the North West Mounted Police. The NWMP were assigned the crucial responsibility of driving American whiskey traders out of the Canadian West, ensuring peaceful relations were maintained with First Nations and generally creating order before the beginning of large-scale settlement. In 1874, the 275 officers of the NWMP started the Great March West. Starting at Fort Dufferin in current day Manitoba and ending at Fort Whoop-Up in present day Alberta, this grueling and hazardous journey took the Mounties very close to Mossbank’s modern location. On August 8th, they descended from the Cactus Hills to the east side of Old Wives Lake and continued along the lake’s southern shore. After camping one night near the lake they pushed on to Old Wives Creek, a tributary of the Wood River, where they camped for several days.During this respite, the Mounties encountered a group of Sioux, who were, up to that point, the first First Nations group they had encountered. The Sioux camped near the NWMP and the two groups held formal ceremonies and exchanged gifts on August 12. The Sioux also visited the Mounties on the two next days, where they performed traditional dances and bartered with the officers. On August 18th, the NWMP resumed their march west. On August 2-4, 2008, the town of Mossbank is hosting the Old Wives Lake Festival, that will commemorate and celebrate historic meeting between the NWMP and Sioux. The festival will include a commemoration of the meeting as well as Aboriginal Storytelling, a recreation of the NWMP experience and an evening concert and street dance.

The Pioneer Era

In the early 1880s, surveyors commissioned by the Canadian government reached the Mossbank district. The surveyors divided the land into quarters and sections as outlined by the requirements of the Dominion Lands Act, which had been passed in 1872 to prepare the West for agricultural settlers. By the summer of 1883, the new transcontinental railway had been built as far west as Swift Current. The increasing activity of the Canadian government, the railway and the first trickle of settlers led to increased traffic on traditional Aboriginal trails, several of which became routes for the NWMP, traders and later, settlers. The Wood Mountain-Fort Qu’Appelle Trail, which ran by the south east corner of Old Wives Lake and very near to the current location of Mossbank, became important in 1885, when the Metis settlements around Batoche led the North West Resistance. The government was worried that southern Metis around Wood Mountain might join them, so, a telegraph line was built on the Wood Mountain-Fort Qu’Appelle Trial. It facilitated faster communication between the NWMP Wood Mountain post and other detachments. The telegraph poles remained on the trail for many years and eventually earned the path the nickname, “the pole trail.” The pole trail remained the primary transportation route for the Mossbank district until the arrival of railway branch lines in approximately 1912. The telegraph poles proved to be a valuable guide to travelers especially during snow storms when visibility was very poor.

Group of ten men posing in front of early tractor.Early pioneer threshing crew

The Mossbank district was not finally opened to settlers until 1907, two years after Saskatchewan officially became a province. Once available, however, the area was flooded with homestead claims and over the next several years immigrants from eastern Canada, the United States and Europe arrived. The rudimentary beginnings of most of the district’s communities started immediately, but it was the construction of railway branch lines after 1912 that cemented their foundations. In the Lake Johnston municipality, the communities of Dunkirk, Expanse, Mitchellton, Ardill and Mossbank were built, and they were joined by Palmer, Mazenod, Ettington and Vantage in the Sutton municipality. Mossbank became the largest and dominant community in the area because both the Canadian Pacific and the Canadian Northern (later National) built branch lines through the community. Although rivalry between the two railways initially led to the creation of two competing town sites, (Mossbank, the CNR location and its CPR rival, Reycraft)by the end of the First World War (1914-18) Mossbank had won out. The communities of the Mossbank district grew into bustling agricultural centres, and in 1920 they were joined by another community named Bishopric. This village grew up around a sodium sulfate plant built by an American company near the south-east corner of Old Wives Lake. The facility extracted sodium sulfate from the highly saline lake and operated until 1977. The Mossbank and District Museum has carefully documented the histories of all the communities in the Mossbank district.

The district population was a dynamic and cosmopolitan mixture of people from all over the world and included Scandinavians, Brits, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, Fransaskoise, Americans and Chinese people. Frank Ambroz, an immigrant from Poland, joined this multicultural setting in 1926. After working for a time as a blacksmith in Mazenod and Limerick, Ambroz bought a blacksmith shop in Mossbank in 1928.

Ambroz Blacksmith Shop with Provincial Heritage Property plaque.

Ambroz Blacksmith Shop and Provincial Heritage Property

Political Hotbed

The settlement era in the Canadian West was a time of incredible excitement and volatility. Pioneer men and women living in what they considered a new land were open to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. Pioneers championed ideas like multiculturalism, equal rights for women, populism and cooperation that are now widely considered to be part of Canadian national values. The Mossbank district was often in the centre of the controversies generated by these issues and area produced some prominent advocates associated with such causes.Starting in the early 1900s, farmers banded together in organizations to combat the power and influence of the eastern Canadian business interests who controlled the grain trade. Faced with the intransigence from such groups and the unwillingness of existing political parties to support their agendas, some farmers decided to take direct action and form new political parties. One of the first was the United Farmers, which would eventually win elections in several provinces and later become the basis for the Progressive Party. In 1919, a federal by-election was held in the Assiniboia constituency, which included the Mossbank district. This event marked the first time that someone nominated by a farm organization ran under the United Farmers banner. The United Farmer candidate, Oliver Gould, faced a veteran Liberal politician, William Motherwell, who had served as provincial Minister of Agriculture since 1905. During the by-election Henry Wise Wood, President of the United Farmers of Alberta campaigned extensively for Gould and made a notable speech in Mossbank. Gould defeated Motherwell by other 5,000 votes and once in Parliament became one of the founding members of the Progressive Party. Gould was among the 65 Progressives returned in the 1921 federal election, in which the Progressives became the second largest party in the House of Commons.

Women’s rights was another issue farm organizations placed on the forefront of the national political agenda. Ida McNeal of Expanse was one of the prominent early members of the Women’s Section of the United Grain Growers and served as President of the body from 1924 to 1926. McNeal’s work contributed to Saskatchewan women winning the franchise in 1917.

Pencil portrait of Louise Lucas.

Louise Lucas of Mazenod

Her work contributed directly to Saskatchewan becoming the second province in Canada to extend the vote to women. Ida continued her work through the Progressive Party until the 1930s, when due to health reasons she left the province. One of the women who took on her mantle was Louise Lucas of Mazenod. Lucas joined the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in the 1920s, but her political involvement started when she was elected President of the women’s section of the United Farmers of Canada in 1931. By this time the Progressive Party was defunct and the need for an effective political vehicle for farmer’s interests was even more pressing due to the the ravages of the Great Depression. Lucas believed the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a new political party she helped found in 1932, would serve that purpose. She became a member of the national and provincial executives of the CCF and traveled across the province and country tirelessly promoting the new party. For her work, she became known as “the Mother of the CCF,” and her contributions were credited, by Tommy Douglas and others, as contributing to the CCF’s landmark 1944 provincial election victory in Saskatchewan.

The Aerodrome of Democracy

The CCF’s election took place shortly before the end of the Second World War (1939-45).

Aerial photo of Mossbank BCATP Base runways and buildings, 1942.

Mossbank BCATP Base in 1942

During the war, the Mossbank district made a significant contribution to the Allied Victory. In 1939, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain agreed to participate in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). The purpose of the plan was to train aircrews for the allied air war against Germany. All BCATP training bases were located in Canada, with 20 of these facilities based in Saskatchewan, more than any other province except Ontario. The BCATP No. 2 Bombing and Gunnery School was built outside of Mossbank and between 1940 and 1944 trained over 6000 men from all four participating nations. Due to the importance of the BCATP to the war effort, American President Franklin Roosevelt described Canada as “The Aerodrome of Democracy.” In 1944, anticipating the end of the war the federal government began dismantling the BCATP bases including Mossbank. Several of the buildings from the air base were moved to centres elsewhere in the province as well as into the town of Mossbank itself. The Turvey Centre in Regina, the Western Development Museum in North Battleford, Hat Trick Groceries in Mossbank and Skates’N’Skirts in Mossbank all use buildings originally from the Mossbank airbase.

The Debate of the Century

With the war won, attention turned back to more local matters, and in the next decades provincial politics became hotly contested. CCF government of Premier Tommy Douglas emphasized government involvement in the economy including the use of government-owned crown corporations to advance their policies. Douglas’s opponents often supported the Liberal party, which felt too much government intervention in the economy was detrimental. The Liberals, however, could not overcome the personal popularity of Douglas and his party’s programs, and between 1944 and 1956 repeatedly lost elections to the CCF. Mossbank bucked this provincial trend and during this period local voters tended to support Liberal candidates. A glimmer of hope for the Liberals appeared in 1955, when Ross Thatcher, the CCF Member of Parliament for Moose Jaw, broke with the CCF and in the next year joined the Liberal party. Subsequently in the 1957 federal election, Thatcher opted to run for the Liberals in the Assiniboia constituency rather than Moose Jaw. While Moose Jaw was a CCF stronghold, the Liberals were stronger in Assiniboia, which included Mossbank.

Prior to the 1957 election, Thatcher made a speech in which he claimed Saskatchewan’s crown corporations were a “dismal failure.” Douglas was infuriated with Thatcher’s comments and at the nomination meeting for Hazen Argue, the CCF candidate for Assiniboia, he challenged Thatcher to a debate on the record of Saskatchewan’s crown corporations.

Throng of people outside Mossbank Community Hall during The Great Debate.

People lined up in the rain, hours in advance, to witness the “Debate of the Century”

He indicated he would debate Thatcher anytime and anywhere. Thatcher accepted and chose Mossbank as the venue. The debate took place on May 20, 1957, when over one thousand people packed into the Mossbank Community Hall, while, despite heavy rain, hundreds more listened on speakers outside the building. The debate was also broadcast live via radio and attracted a huge provincial audience. In addition to provincial media, the event was covered by press across Canada, a number of which sent reporters to Mossbank. The event was very rowdy with Douglas and Thatcher having to contend with hecklers as much as with each other.The debate proved a rallying point for provincial Liberals. It was anticipated that Douglas would mercilessly thrash Thatcher but the Liberal candidate’s performance was strong enough that it was generally felt that he held his own. Although Thatcher lost both the 1957 and subsequent 1958 elections to Argue, his debate appearance with Douglas, the icon of prairie socialism, had raised his stature, so, he became widely regarded as the champion of free enterprise. It was largely due to the Mossbank Debate that Thatcher was elected provincial leader of the Liberal Party in 1959. He later became Premier himself, after winning the 1964 provincial election.In 2003, billed as the “Debate of the Century,” the 1957 debate was re-enacted in Mossbank at the same hall where the original event took place. Over 600 people attended two sold-out performances that included hecklers and the opportunity for the audiences to cheer or jeer as they liked.

Mossbank Today

In more recent times Mossbank has continued to be an innovative community that often finds itself at the crossroads of history. In the 1970s the Snowbirds aeronautical team was formed at 15 Wing in nearby Moose Jaw and the team began its long association with the Mossbank area. Continuing the tradition started with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the Snowbirds are regular visitors in the Mossbank sky, where they practice their precision flying routines. In 2004, tragedy struck when Snowbird member Capt. Myles Selby was killed in a mid-air collision over the Mossbank district. In Capt. Selby’s memory, a road near the former Air Training base was named Selby Road.In the 1990s, the Aunt Mary in the Granary book series was released by Mossbank author Eileen Comstock. These popular books relate Comstock’s experiences growing up and living in rural Saskatchewan. Today, Mossbank continues to play a role in the development of Saskatchewan and Canada. The Mossbank district is home to some of the most innovative and successful agri-businesses in Western Canada, Mossbank entrepreneurs are distinguishing themselves in several fields and Mossbank’s citizens continue to play leading roles in the farm movement. All of which point to a future as exciting as Mossbank’s colourful past.


Eisler, Dale Rumours of Glory: Saskatchewan and the Thatcher Years (1987).

Gauthier, David (editor) The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan: A Living Legacy (2005).

Hollihan, Tony The Mounties March West (2004).

Quirring, Brett (editor) Saskatchewan Politicians: Lives Past and Present (2004).

Zado (Ray), Phyllis (editor) Furrows and Faith: A History of the Lake Johnston and Sutton RMs (1980).

Picture Credits

Old Wives Lake – Mossbank Economic Development

NWMP March West Reenactment – Mossbank & District Museum

Pioneer Threshing Crew – Haroldson Family

Ambroz Blacksmith Shop – Mossbank & District Museum

Louise Lucas – Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame

BCATP – Arni Olafson

Debate of the Century – Saskatchewan Archives Board, used with permission of Leader Post and Michael West