©copyright Regine Haensel
Previously published as “People who lived in stone houses” Western People August 26, 1982
The remains of several houses, churches and a schoolhouse that were built of fieldstone late in the 19th century can still be seen in the district south of Wolseley, Saskatchewan.
Now a few scattered families live in the area, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s 40 families lived in the open country neighborhood called Moffat in an area that includes Westfield and Greenville.
Some of these settlers arrived in the Westfield area in 1882. Most of the first group were from Ontario of Irish and English descent. At that time the countryside south of Wolseley (it was then Wolf Cree) was heavily treed. The poplars that grew there could be used to build cabins and stables. Game was abundant, including deer, antelope and birds. There were wild flowers and wild fruits.
In 1883 and 1884 the population increased rapidly. Many of these settlers came from Aberdeenshire and Ayreshire in Scotland. They were farmers, stone masons, blacksmiths, drapers shopkeepers, often poor men looking for a start. One man, Alec Duncan, arrived in the Moffat area in 1884 with seven cents to his name.
The first houses were shacks, build of logs or sawn lumber covered with tar paper. Often they were not storm proof or water proof. The first Presbyterian Church, ready in December, 1884, was also built of wood. On alternate days the Methodists used the church since they hadn’t yet built their own. Although dancing, card playing and any kind of gambling were forbidden, suppers, concerts, play practices and committee meetings were also held in the chirch.
In Scotland, stone houses were a common sight and several of the Moffat settlers were stone masons by trade. One of them, Mr. Gibson, noticing that most of the stones in his field were either granite or limestone, decided to build a kiln. At times he got 100 bushels of lime from the kiln, often keeping the fires going for as long as 70 hours with the whole family taking turns at the firing. His house, which he began in 1884, was ready by December, 1885, and measured 35 feet long by 20 feet wide.
Other stone houses were built as well, most of them by individual owners and their families. Each farm, as was the custom in the old country, had a name like Craigfarg, Medwyn and Loganston.
In spite of the imposing appearance of some of these houses, the people were not wealthy. They worked hard, did their own building, and used materials locally available. The houses often had little furniture and were chilly in winter (people merely put on more clothes), although they were cool in the summer.
Privacy was important to the Scots. They set their houses well back from the roads and trails, facing their own fields. Surrounded by poplar bluffs, chokecherries, saskatoons, red lilies and wild roses each home was well hidden. The ruins and even those few that are more or less intact are hard to find today.
Wild game provided food and sometimes clothing. Birds sang in the trees, frogs croaked in the spring. In winter squeaking runners and sleighbells accompanied visitors. But life had its harsh side too. There was always a danger of drought. Sloughs dried up in summer and wells sometimes went dry. Winter blizzards could be deadly too.
Two churches were also built of stone. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian was compelted in 1891, a community effort under the guidance of contgractors. It was not beautiful, but had simplicity and solidity. There was no steeple or cross, only a round window in the west wall to give it the feel of a church. In 1897 Greenville Methodist Church was completed. It had a higher roof than St. Andrew’s and had three Gothic windows.
The community flourished. In 1885 the Mutual Improvement Association was formed to provide entertainment and leadership training for young men. A weekly newspaper was established. Greenville’s first school was built of stone in 1886 or 1887. The Ladies Aid presented annual church picnics, bazaars and socials. Farmers from Moffat attended the Farmers’ Institutes meetings in Wolseley, discussing such topics as seed, stock and windbreaks. Farmers and their wives also exhibited at fairs in Wolseley and sometimes Broadview and Indian Head.
Other immigrants, mostly from continental Europe, came to the area. Although the Scots were neighbourly, they kept mainly to themselves. A second influx of Scots, many of them from Buchan County, arrived in the early 1900s.
More difficult years came in the 30s, though Moffat was not as hard hit as many areas and all of the farmers stayed with their land. The people kept up their social life with sports, young people’s meetings and picnics. Church membership was high and Sunday school attendance was at its peak. But many of the original pioneers were dying and change was inevitable. After the Second World War mechanization led to larger farms, the need for fewer people, and an increasing dependence on the nearby towns and cities.
Unfortunately the Scots had built to Scottish conditions, often without adequate foundations. In Scotland this was not a problem, but in the severe Saskatchewan winters the earth shifted and cracked leading to the eventual disintegration of many buildings. Greenville School had to be condemned and was destroyed in 1912; Greenville Methodist church vacated in 1929. As larger farms became the norm, houses were abandoned.
But Moffat is not dead. The hall is still used for dances and other activities. Although the church congregation has dwindled, services are still held at the second oldest Protestant church in Saskatchewan still functioning.
Kay Parley’s grandfather came to Moffat in 1883. She remembers his house (the farthest east in the community) as a “palace” with two staircases and a bay window. Like many Moffat homes, this house was added to in wood, becoming a big, rambling place where one had to walk about “an eight of a mile to bring up the butter and cream from the basement.”
Because her roots were in the area and because so many of the stone houses were falling apart, Kay Parley decided in 1964 to write a history of the community. She spent two years on the project, including a trip to Scotland, the original home of many of the settlers.
Parley has also made pencil sketches of the stone house community, in a series called “The Stones of Moffat and Greenville.”
NOTE: For more current pictures and additional info about stone houses in Wolseley go to http://www.wolseley.ca/