Ceylon and the R.M. of the Gap No. 39: A Century of History

Kristin Catherwood
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One hundred years ago, life in the Rural Municipality of the Gap No. 39 was very different from what it is today. A few dozen intrepid settler families were scattered on homesteads throughout a region made up of rolling hills (becoming progressively more rugged to the south and west), meandering small creeks (pronounced “cricks”) and fertile farm and pastureland. In those days, there would have been almost no trees, few roads, and none of the power lines, oil wells and granaries that now mark the landscape. Thirty acres to be broken over three years was all that was required to stake out a homestead. Scarcely a day’s work for today’s farmer, this represented a homesteader’s livelihood, and his opportunity to create a new and better life for himself. 

This area was given its name due to the visible “gap” between two ranges of hills that settlers noted when they first entered the region. The first settlers followed the Willow Bunch and Assiniboine trails, coming from the east. There had been a Northwest Mounted Police patrol in the area since 1900, but they would have spent most of their time closer to the American border where outlaws were starting to become a problem. 

The settlers who came from Europe, eastern Canada and the northern United States were not the first people to live in this area. First Nations people certainly passed through the region. Plenty of arrowheads, hammers and other artifacts have been found in fields and pastures to demonstrate this fact. But before white settlers came, this area would have been unbroken grassland. The wagon ruts of the Assiniboine and Willow Bunch trails, made by wagon ruts, were the first indication of the roads and highways that would bisect the region in decades to come. 

Homesteaders had to contend with a daunting array of challenges and dangers. Each season brought its own particular hazards. Prairie fires were very common in the early decades, and their destructive power wreaked havoc on cropland and pastureland, destroying homes and livestock along the way.  Winter brought blizzards, and it’s a wonder all of the early homesteaders didn’t pack up and leave after experiencing their first prairie blizzards. “Soddies” would have provided more protection from the elements than wooden houses built of lumber hauled in from Weyburn, but a sod shack would likely not fill the requirement that a house worth $300 be built to claim a homestead. Fuel for stoves was not easily available, and homesteaders would have to travel to Weyburn regularly to bring back coal. Later, soft coal mines were developed south of the Gap. Water could be hard to come by, too. Grasshoppers and other pests could prove disastrous in the days before chemical pesticides. Disease in livestock could wipe out an entire herd, and human illnesses that would today be considered minor could be fatal. 

As was the story with most prairie towns, Ceylon and Hardy really started when the railroad arrived. The Canadian National Railway line came through in 1910, opening for service in July, 1911. The section between Ceylon and Hardy was completed on November 21, 1911. Ceylon had actually started up in 1910 north of where the tracks were eventually laid. When the town site was surveyed in 1911, it had to be moved to the south side of the tracks. With a great effort of manpower and horsepower (of the animal variety), the fledgling town was moved to its present location. The origin of the name Ceylon is still a bit of a mystery. It was given its name by the first postmaster in the area, John Aldred, who did not want the new town to be named after him. He have chosen the name Ceylon in recognition of a CPR station of the name back in Ontario, or it may have been named for a yacht that was owned by Scottish merchant Sir Thomas Lipton (whose name still graces tea bags to this day). Hardy was named for the great 19th century English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy. 

 Some decades were better than the others. After the first years of back breaking work cultivating the land, the first crops were harvested and prosperity came to the region. 

The area suffered a setback from 1914-1918 when many young men left to fight in the Great War. A disproportionately high number of young men from the Ceylon area never returned home. 

Their names are remembered in perpetuity on the war memorial at the bottom of Main Street. 

The twenties were particularly prosperous, only to be followed by the Dirty Thirties and the dust, poverty and hunger that came with it. Many families left during that time, some sought work elsewhere and returned once things had improved, and others stuck it out. The 1940s were dominated by the war in Europe. Many young men left to fight overseas. When they returned, things had changed a great deal. Farm work had become mostly mechanized, rendering horses and oxen obsolete. The threshing machines and their work gangs became a memory as combines took over the harvesting. Since many trains were diverted to the war effort, civilians had to use alternative forms of transportation. They became used to travelling in their own private vehicles, and roads were eventually improved accordingly. The trains were used less and less until the Ceylon train station was torn down in 1976, and all five elevators are now a distant memory. The last elevator to go, the Wheat Pool, was torn down in 2000, ending the need for rail service in Ceylon. Hardy also had a train station and elevators; it lost its train station in 1959, and the last elevator was torn down in 1989. 

Today, Ceylon is a peaceful village, but its history is full of exciting stories. One of the most famous is the still unsolved bank robbery of 1922. In the wee hours of September 27, 1922, the Bank of Montreal was robbed. That same night, a bank was robbed in Moosomin. The robbery attracted a great deal of attention, and was the front page story of the Regina Leader for three days in a row. The story was even mentioned in two novels, though it was represented very inaccurately in both. A very good (and exciting) account of the bank robbery by A. O. Smith is included in Ceylon’s first history book, Builders of a Great Land. During the Prohibition of the 1920s, there was also allegedly some rum running that went on in the area. 

A great many things have changed throughout the past century, but some things have come almost full circle. The earliest farmers in the R.M. of the Gap had to haul their grain to Weyburn. Eventually elevators were built in Ceylon and Hardy, but these did not last and now, a full century later, the closest grain gathering point is once again Weyburn. But while the earliest settlers faced a grueling two or three day journey with a horse-pulled wagon, farmers now haul their grain in semis. In those first few years, there were few families in the area, and farms were far away from each other. A steady stream of settlers meant that within a decade or so, there were farms everywhere, and the isolation of the earliest days ended. Over the years, as farming changed and cities became more attractive to young people, the countryside has thinned out again. Small clumps of trees, former access roads that are being reclaimed by the land, and tumbledown shacks are all that remain of these former farms and homes. Reliable roads, vehicles, telephones and the Internet mean that farm families are not exactly isolated, but they certainly have fewer neighbours than they would have in decades past.  

Ceylon and Hardy were the centres of business in the municipality, but in the earliest decades of its history, most farm families’ centre of identity would be their local school district. In the Gap, there were twenty school districts, ten of which encompassed area in other municipalities as well. These school districts were: Trail, Egypt Valley, Lyons, Gibson Creek, Buffalo Valley, East Ceylon, Troy, Lacadia, Freda, Round Up, Naomi, Green Lake, Meadow View, Carnbrogie, Big Four, Good Time, Gordon, Oakville, Hardy, and Ceylon.  Schools were more than just educational institutions; they were also centres of social activity. Dances, meetings and church services were held in the local schools. It was much more convenient to travel the relatively short distance (though it was probably always several miles, uphill, in a blizzard) to the local schoolhouse rather than travel all the way to Ceylon or Hardy, especially in the winter. Most of the schools were closed down in the 1950s, and the children were bused to the nearest town. The schools may be long gone, but many farms still bear the name of these school districts. 

Religioln was also very important to many early settlers. Before churches were built, travelling priests and ministers held services in people’s homes. St. Joseph’s was built between 1913 and 1917, being dedicated in that year by the Archbishop of Regina. It burned down in 1951 and a new church was built to replace it. The United Church was built in 1918. There was also a church established at the eastern edge of the Gap, called St. Collette’s. A congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses was established in the 1940s. 

There are five cemeteries located within the Gap: St. Collette (NE 12-5-19), Lacadia St. Collettee (NE 35-4-19), Trail (NW 33-6-20) and St. Paul’s (NW 7-5-19), as well as Ceylon Cemetery just south of town. 

Water shortages were a problem early on for the village of Ceylon, and as early as 1919 plans were made to develop a dam. It was completed east of town in 1934 under supervision of the R.M. The work to build it provided employment for many men during the early years of the Depression.  The dam ended up being picturesque as well as practical, and in the 1950s the Ceylon Beach was started by the Homemakers Club. In 1967, a Centennial Grant allowed the development of a regional park, complete with swimming pool, picnic area, campground, ball diamond and a small golf course. 

Throughout the years, there were a variety of clubs and sports teams in Ceylon. Women were very activity in the community, and they did many of their good works through organizations like the Catholic Women’s League, the United Church Women, the Ceylon Ladies Aid, Easter Lily Rebekah Lodge, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ceylon Legion Branch No. 46, and the Ceylon Women’s Institute (also known as the Ceylon Homemakers), among several others. There were many clubs for men as well, including the Ceylon Lions Club, Connaught Odd Fellows Lodge, Ceylon Masonic Lodge, Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 46 and the Knights of Columbus. The Gap Agricultural Society was very active in the earlier decades of the area, holding fairs each year. There were a variety of sports in the Ceylon area as well, including: football, baseball/softball, tennis, basketball, curling, figure skating, and of course, hockey. Hardy also had its share of community clubs and sports teams. 

Ceylon grew very quickly, and by 1926 had made a name for itself in southern Saskatchewan. The Regina Leader published an article on June 26, 1926 which put Ceylon “In the Front Rank of the ‘Best’ Saskatchewan Villages.” 

In the earliest decades there were many businesses, including: general stores, hardware stores, cafes, livery barns, a newspaper, several banks, blacksmiths, butchers, laundries, drug store, dress shops, boarding houses, and later, garages and implement dealers.  The original hotel built in 1911 burnt down that same year, but the North West Hotel was soon erected on the same site, and it is still in use today. Today Ceylon has lost most of its business to larger centres, however, businesses like Ceylon Pulses Plus and Border Line Feeders have rejuvenated the local economy in recent years. The oil and gas industry has also had positive effects on the economy. And of course, there are still farmers and ranchers, making a living the same way the original homesteaders in this area did, albeit with much more advanced technology. 

Ceylon and Hardy may have shrunk to a fraction of their former populations, but many families remain. Some of them have been here for more than a century, outdating even the municipality itself. Others are newcomers. Though the population of Ceylon and Hardy is smaller than it used to be (it has grown in recent years), the fact remains that for those who do live here in the “Gap”, it is unquestioningly home.

More detailed history of Ceylon, Hardy and the R.M. of the Gap No. 39 can be found in the two excellent history books of the area, Builders of a Great Land and Builders of a Great Land Continues.

 

Organizations: First Nations, Canadian National Railway, Bank of Montreal United Church Women Ceylon Ladies Aid Ceylon Legion Branch Odd Fellows Knights of Columbus Gap Agricultural Society North West Hotel Ceylon Pulses Plus

Geographic location: Ceylon, Weyburn, Willow Bunch Europe Northwest Mounted Police Eastern Canada United States Ontario Moosomin Egypt Valley Gibson Creek Buffalo Valley Troy Green Lake Meadow View Oakville St. Paul Catholic Women Southern Saskatchewan

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