A roadtrip across the Canadian prairies can be both interesting and boring. There’s always something to see near the TransCanada highway if one looks — colorful fields, animals, etc — but much of the drive is across hundreds of miles of flat farmland where one mile often resembles the next, so it’s important to take breaks to keep from day-dreaming while driving.
My mind was starting to wander when I spotted a sign for a town in eastern Saskatchewan that offered two unusual sites : 1) a swinging bridge, and 2) an Opera house. You don’t see many opera houses in small Canadian towns, so I decided to pull off, get a coffee, and see what was of interest in Wolseley.
Wolseley is small, under 800 people according to the last Canadian census, and is about 100 km east of the provincial capital city of Regina. It was settled in early 1882 by pioneers who gained access to the land after the CPR railway had built track across the prairies. The town is named in honor of Sir Garnet Wolseley (later Lord Wolseley) and is neat and clean. Like all towns on the southern prairies it is highlighted by a large elevator for grain storage, several pretty churches, and homes where probably mostly retirees live. Local farmers like to retire to small prairie towns when they sell their property and call it quits. While it is small, I’m sure it has a strong sense of community.
The heart of Wolseley is Fairly Lake, where you’ll find the Swinging Bridge. The lake was formed when the Canadian Pacific Railway built a dam to create a reliable and accessible source of water for its steam engines. Town residents took to this lake and over a hundred years ago built the first swinging bridge across it. I walked cross the bridge a few times, enjoying the cooling breeze.
I was later to learn that Wolseley proudly preserves its historical buildings. including the oldest Courthouse in Saskatchewan, built in 1885, which is currently being rejuvenated to house the town’s government offices.
The Town Hall and Opera building seen in the following photo is a large two-storey, brick building that was constructed between 1906-1907 and was intended to be a multi-purpose structure serving as a town office, library, community hall, and hosts various (including seasonal) performances.
The Town Hall and Opera Building is registered as a Historic Property of Canada. Their description includes the following details:
“The heritage value of the Wolseley Town Hall/Opera house lies in its status as a unique representation of the town hall/opera houses built across the province during the early twentieth century. Once numbering nineteen, the town hall/opera houses were symbols of prosperity and modernity in Saskatchewan during the period…The building is still utilized by the town as a local hall, continuing the community function it has served since 1907.”
“Heritage value of the property also lies in its architecture. The building was designed by prominent Manitoba architect J.H.G. Russell, and is one of only three properties he built in Saskatchewan. The Town Hall/Opera House is built in a church-like style exhibiting the influence of Italian Baroque architecture. The tall proportions, steeply pitched roof, grand front entrance, scroll buttresses and large central bell tower all speak to the resemblance of the building to a baroque church.”
“Heritage value lies in the unique layout of the Wolseley Town Hall/Opera House. Unlike other town hall/opera houses in Saskatchewan, the Wolseley building features the hall on the main level, over the municipal office, which is housed in the raised basement and the fire hall situated at the rear of the building. “
Adjoining the Town Hall building is a small quiet park wherein the town remembers those lost in the great wars of the twentieth century. I thought that the list of names was much too long for such a small town. Sad to think that a war half a world away could reach so deeply into the homes and farms of this small place on the prairies.
Wolseley was home to the first Beaver Lumber, a chain where my dad used to buy tools and supplies at when I was a boy — it was sort-of like Canada’s Home Depot, but on a much smaller scale. Beaver Lumber was established in 1883 and is no longer is in business but apparently the original building still stands (I didn’t know this fact during my visit and didn’t know to look for it). The town is also home to one of four drive-in movie theatres still left in Saskatchewan.
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