Exploring Leader & The Great Southwest September 14, 2017 · 18 min. readWhile the thoughts and opinions are my own, this article was brought to you by a third party. Also, this article may contain affiliate links.
When it comes to Saskatchewan, your next adventure can be around any corner. As you venture off the main highways, signage is scarce and directions such as "if you've passed the gate with the buffalo skulls, you've gone too far" are all too common. Communities grow smaller, people grow warmer and the list of things on your Saskatchewan Bucket List seems to only get longer.
My adventure to Leader started a few months ago when Christine over at Cruisin' Christine shared a list of Leader bus tours on Facebook. Some of the tours were in June, but one was in September. The September tour caught my eye because it was a two-day tour and I had to ask myself what we would do for two days in Leader. Leader has a three digit population, so I was perplexed on what the tour would comprise.
I was so perplexed that I decided contacted Leader Tourism and booked the tour to find out.
The tour didn't include lodging, so I booked two nights at Grandma Shirley's Bed and Breakfast. She's been in operation for years and has over 300 annual guests. She lives in a century old house that is incredibly maintained and cooks a mouthwatering homemade breakfast. There are three guest rooms so the house is never too crowded. You can use her backyard too, to sit, visit or just relax.
The only quirk worth mentioning about the bed-and-breakfast was the shared bathroom. When this house was built in the early 1900s, they didn't have indoor plumbing and instead used an outhouse. Grandma Shirley converted one of the upstairs rooms into a bathroom for this reason. I've had shared bathrooms in hotels, hostels and other bed-and-breakfasts before so this wasn't a problem for me, and it's much better than the alternative!
We met at the red Caboose Information Centre in Leader at 9:30 that morning and were given a variety of pamphlets. We would see a lot around Leader, but there was a lot we wouldn't be seeing too. The Great Southwest is one of the most diverse and vast areas of the province so this tour only covers the area around the town.
Our first stop was down the road in the small town of Sceptre. I talked about Sceptre and the Great Sandhills in an earlier article, so I was excited to see it. We visited the Great Sandhills Museum & Interpretive Centre and learned about the history of the area, the flora and fauna, the people that worked and lived here, and about the Sandhills. The museum was originally a school, but each classroom was converted into a different themed room. It was interesting, but we only had about a half hour to spend there so I skimmed most of it and went to explore the half dozen buildings outside of the museum.
Similar to the museum I visited in Ogema last year, this museum showcases shops, houses and barns from rural Saskatchewan life. You can see how people worked, lived, ate and prayed. Some of the people on the tour recognized some of the relics in the houses and joked about memories growing up with them.
Of all the buildings in this part of the museum, I found the former house to be the most fascinating. The small, two-storey building once housed a family of six people – four children and two parents. With only two bedrooms, no washroom and a stairwell I'm pretty sure was built for mountain goats, it's mind-blowing to imagine living here less than a century ago. There were four of us in the house at once and it felt a little cramped, so I could never imagine living with two additional people.
From there we headed to the Great Sandhills. Our guide told us that these are not the biggest sand hills in the province, but that the Athabasca Sand Dunes are difficult to get to, so they are the perfect accessible alternative. This natural sandy phenomenon is over 1,900 square kilometres in size and some of the dunes are between 15 to 20 metres high. It's difficult to measure the size of this area because the sand hills are continually shifting. Grain by grain, particle by particle, the sand moves across the earth in whichever way the wind is blowing. It's incredible to see!
The First Nations consider this area to be sacred land. Here, they say, the souls of the dead gather once the body dies. One might consider this to be superstitious lore, but if you peer into the sands throughout the area, you'll see tiny bone fragments of animals that lost their lives to the great hills.
When visiting the Sandhills, you'll also notice Boot Hill. This iconic structure was made in honour of a local racher, and the boots are to reflect the many pairs that he wore while working in the area.
There are several dunes throughout the area, but the tallest one is right near the parking lot. It's a great place to visit with kids, for couples or for those who want to do some summer tobogganing. Crazy carpets can be purchased in Sceptre if you're interested in getting a little sandy. Just remember that fire pits throughout the area are banned as they are extremely damaging to this delicate ecosystem.
We went to River Ridge Golf Course for lunch, which overlooks the valley and South Saskatchewan River. After a quick bite and headed back out onto the road. Our next destination was the Estuary Hutterite Colony. For those who are unfamiliar, Hutterites believe in absolute pacifism, having a community of goods and prohibition of personal technology. If you are familiar with the Amish, you are familiar with the Hutterites. However, the Hutterites differ greatly from the Amish as they embrace technology that improves their yields – or at least this colony does.
Every colony is different and has different stipulations. The colony we visited had the same roles as a traditional family would in the mid-1950s. The women cooked, cleaned, did laundry and watched the kids, while the men worked in the fields and tended to the animals. The only difference is that the family isn't just tending a single field or making a single dish of food. Instead, the community is tending scores of fields and making a feast for all 104 people living in the colony.
Often male Hutterites come into the colony looking for a potential spouse. There is no Internet dating like today, and little pre-arranged weddings. If the male finds a love interest, and they get married, the bride leaves the colony and lives with her husband.
This colony had about 104 people in it, and at 120 it will split and form two different colonies. This is to prevent the colonies from getting too large, and to diversify their exports. Right now this colony supplies beets throughout the province and into Manitoba. It's an incredible feat for a single community.
One of the biggest differences between the Amish and the Hutterites is their perception towards technology. Amish do not use technology at all, but the Hutterites use it for manufacturing, business, communication and production. On this tour we visited the dairy section of the farm where automated "space-age" like machines uses self-cleaning, laser-guided milking machines to milk cattle. The computer checks the quality and quantity of milk and if something is wrong, it alerts the staff and flags the cow.
I walked into the colony thinking I would be walk into the past, but instead I walked into the future of automation, technology and innovation. I considered this one of the most eye-opening experiences on the tour.
Following our time at the Hutterite colony, we went back to Leader for the rest of the afternoon. We shopped, tried some of the local restaurants and visited the nine larger-than-life animal sculptures around the community. Afterwards some people went to go play golf, some went to the restaurants, some went to Checkerboard Hill and others went back to the hotel or bed-and-breakfast for the night.
Leader itself is a community wrapped in history. Originally named "Prussia", the town was a thriving German community. During World War I, the town faced increased scrutiny and anti-German sentiment, so they held a contest to rename the town. On September 27, 1917 the city was officially renamed in honour of the newspaper that had just arrived into their community – The Leader – which is now Regina's very own Leader Post.
The town renamed the streets too, removing their original German names for simple numbered streets. Downtown you can still see signs showing what the streets were once called, preserving the history but also moving forward with the changing times.
The next day our tour started at 8:30 in the morning and we headed to the proposed location of the Meridian Dam. This area of the province is very dry and so farmers are constantly finding ways to increase irrigation and crop yields. The Meridian Dam would increase the size of the river, increase soil humidity and open the area to more possibilities. However, a decade ago the idea was scrapped. The long term improvements in the area did not justify the costs.
Today, the Meridian Dam site is an open valley, swarming with cacti, brush and some of the most breath-taking views in the province.
From one oasis to another, our next location was Sagebrush Studios. Purchased in 1996, Dean and Fran Francis took a piece of barren prairie on the edge of a valley and turned it into a picturesque garden of wooden walkways, ponds, flowers, trees and three restored century old churches from nearby communities. Here, Dean has two art galleries and a working art studio with pieces of art for purchase. Every flower, plant, rock and walkway was grown, created and placed by Dean and Fran. It's a beautiful place to rest, relax, explore and look at some incredible Saskatchewan artistic talent.
We had another lunch at River Ridge Golf Course and then went to Blumenfeld Church. Any other day this church would be a site to see all on its own. Beautifully crafted and absolutely massive, it's an architectural wonder from the early 20th century. Surrounding the church is also the Shrine to Our Lady of Sorrows – a monolithic stone shrine that was built in desperation during the 1930s to end the decade long drought. It has had some additional support added to it over the years, but the shrine is stunning.
Behind them both is a cemetery. Much like Leader, the communities around Blumenfeld are of German descent, so many of these graves are iron wrought crosses. Much like any cemetery, the one near Blumenfeld Church is full of stories and rumours. With a towering crucified Jesus in the middle, it's an impressive and commanding location of the area, all while in the shadow of Blumenfeld.
While at the church we took part in Robin's Redemption!, an interactive play put on by The Live History Show. This show focuses around Robin, a young girl that has had nothing but grief and hardship in her life, until she meets a man that changes everything. The performance was very entertaining, but also very emotional. The acting show is at various venues across the country, and they are very much worth watching if you have the chance.
We ended the tour at St. John's School. This three-building area showed the real life struggles of children who wished to attend schools during the early 20th Century. The grounds contained the one-roomed school, the teacher's house and a small chapel – and an additional cemetery not too far away. Most of the buildings are empty inside as they are open to the public, but walking into them provides you with a glimpse back in time to a different era. If you enjoyed the buildings at the Great Sandhills Museum & Interpretive Centre, you'll enjoy these.
The tour ended back in Leader around 3 in the afternoon, but there was still plenty of history to talk about. One story was that of The Smith Barn – the largest privately operated barn in the world. This massive structure only ran for several years before the owner died and the wood was sold to nearby farmers. The frame still exists, but sits on private land and the owner farms over the remaining foundation, ignoring its historical significance. A small replica can be seen near the red Caboose Information Centre in Leader, showing just how massive this building once was.
Southwest Saskatchewan is a historic area ran by an incredibly proud set of people. While the Leader Bus Tours are finished for the season, they will reopen next summer and I encourage you to join them. If you can't wait that long to explore this hidden gem of the province, you're welcome to go there yourself – but I felt the extra history lessons along made it that much better. Our guide, Kerry Wrishko, has an unprecedented knowledge of the history in the area and his stories and extra tidbits really helped make this tour as great as it was. While you can go out here by yourself, I'd recommend taking the bus tour for this added history and to better appreciate the area.
Tickets cost $50 a person for a one day tour, or $80 a person for the two day tour, with all the money going towards the community to make the legacy of this area last for years to come.
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And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.
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