JACKFISH, Sask. — The road sign on Highway 26, the church with the historic bell and Rev. Father Leon Bondoux’s log cabin are all that remain of the once thriving Saskatchewan community of Jackfish.
The first missionaries in the area were Oblates of Mary Immaculate, with Bondoux forming the first mission in 1890-92.
Roman Catholic families from Quebec and France settled in the area where Bondoux built a log house that served as a rectory and a chapel.
In 1904, a church was built and a church bell was shipped from France, crossing the ocean and the Prairies to call the faithful to worship.
In 1927, another church was built that became a landmark for the area, with its high steeple being visible for miles around.
Joseph Dion bought the old church and convinced Alec Nolin to organize relocating the building, which involved 72 horses to move the heavy log building.
Jackfish formed around the new church. A store and post office were built and later a blacksmith shop. Over the years, the general store became known for stocking almost everything.
“If the store didn’t have it, you really didn’t need it, ” longtime area farmers reported.
Tragedy struck in December 1976 when the church was destroyed by fire. The community rose to the challenge and built a new one two years later.
The bell from the old church was damaged but is now preserved on a special stand outside the new building.
Situated at the north end of Jackfish Lake, the community has a European history dating back to 1857. Geologist James Hector of the John Palliser expedition and his accompanying men visited the area in the dead of night on Dec. 16 of that year.
The Papers of the Palliser Expedtion talks about the group seeing a small twinkling light across the lake and following it to the campfire of William McMurray, an early fur trader with the Hudson’s Bay Co.
The Footsteps in Time history book from the district indicates that nothing much happened in the area until 1881 when John Macoun, a professor of agriculture and an explorer, reported: “Saskatchewan grasses growing in the area would fatten cattle.”
That year, Robert Wyld and Fred Bourke trekked 75 head of Durham heifers from Calgary.
However, prior to 1881, the development of the livestock industry was hampered by a heavy federal import duty on livestock entering the area that was once part of the Northwest Territories .
Fortunately, the import duty was dropped and Wyld and Burke convinced other would-be cattle producers in the North Battleford River Valley that raising cattle was a viable enterprise.
By 1892, Wyld had a large herd of purebred cattle, employed several local labourers and had contracts for beef with several federal government departments. He also bought local cattle and kept the money in the community where it was most needed.
In 1894, The Saskatchewan Herald published an article predicting a future for the area with many small ranches and families raising small herds of cattle and making a good living.
By the 1890s, there was a growing settlement along the north end of today’s Jackfish Lake. It was a ranching community with hay flats along the lake, a stopping house, a North West Mounted Police barracks and a flourishing creamery.
In 1897, Moise L’Heureux opened the first post office for the area in his home. He travelled east and brought back a Clydesdale stallion and two mares but the stallion died.
The next year, he brought a grey Percheron stallion and four purebred Percheron mares.
Two of the mares died while making hay on a hot day before he realized that the mares were too fat and shouldn’t have been worked so hard.
Moise skinned the mares, tanned the hides and used their colourful dapple gray hides as accents on his front room chairs.
Undaunted, he continued raising horses and within a few years, the countryside was full of gray and white horses.
Agriculture flourished in the area, with the Herald in 1900 reporting fresh baled hay selling for $5 per ton, dressed beef at five to seven cents per pound and No. 1 wheat at 66 cents per bushel.
Records indicate that 16-year-old Joe L’Heureux in 1908 helped drive 300 head of cattle to Saskatoon from St. Walburg.
It took four people one month to herd the cattle for their payment of $1.50 each day. Their cook was a 14-year-old who travelled in a covered wagon with the grub.