ASSINIBOIA — Willow Bunch is a small town with a big attraction, and that has not changed for 150 years. A celebration as one of the oldest villages in Saskatchewan will be held July 29 to 31.
The Willow Bunch post office was founded in 1895. Nestled into the hills on the eastern slope of the Wood Mountain Plateau, the town is protected from some of the more extreme weather Saskatchewan likes to share. The cozy coulees continue to call visitors and settlers alike. People from all over the world now call the valley home.
In 1869-1870 several Metis hunters, along with Jean-Louis Legare, missionaries, and families, arrived in “La Montaigne de Bois”, an area that stretched from Willow Bunch to Wood Mountain before Saskatchewan became a province. The large area was first known as the North West Territories. For centuries previous it is thought that many people passed through the area, hunting the plentiful bison, but the first recorded settlers were made up of French,
Scottish and Native North American ancestry, having moved in carts from the Red River settlements in Manitoba and North Dakota, according to the Gabriel Dumont Institute. Willow Bunch at that time was called “Talle-de-Saules” in reference to the bark from the willow trees in the area. The willows were important as a source of shelter, fuel, medicine, rope, fish net, carving whistles for children and more.
They came to hunt the buffalo, deer, antelope, elk, rabbits, badgers, porcupines, geese, prairie chickens, ducks, coyotes, fox, beaver and wolves. They would find protection and sustenance in the deep ravines, with their willow and poplar trees, saskatoon and chokecherry bushes as well as the wild strawberries that grew around the springs and creeks in the area.
Legare was hired by his Metis employer to establish a business in the area 15 miles south of Willow Bunch where he collected furs. Later in 1879 when a prairie fire destroyed much of Wood Mountain, many of these Metis families moved east and set up camp in the St. Victor and Willow Bunch areas.
In 1880 Legare built a store and adjoining house, the first wooden house in Willow Bunch, along with a private water line. His pioneering and leadership efforts resulted in many French Canadian Francophone settlers moving from Quebec. Legare also established ranches in the Willow Bunch area which provided a livelihood for some of the families.
“The main industry in Willow Bunch is tourism,” said Wayne Joyal, Town Mayor. “There’s a fair bit of ranching in the area of course but a lot of people come by to see the Willow Bunch museum, golf course and the Jean-Louis Legare Regional Park.” They also fill the curling rink, skating rink, and swimming pool. Sports enthusiasts take to the hills for sledding, as well as hunting, with hunters contributing to the conservation and management of the abundant wildlife.
The RM of Willow Bunch No. 42 and Town of Willow Bunch recently won third place in the Saskatchewan Municipal awards with their Jean-Louis Legare Regional Park Expansion Project. “The park will see a working village from the 1870’s,” said Joyal. There will also be a historical area recognizing Sitting Bull who stayed there for a time, as well as a creation of a “coulee chappelle”, a parish where the Metis gathered between Willow Bunch and St. Victor.
A winding road leads visitors down into the Jean-Louis Legare Regional Park, a tiny treasure tucked into the coulees of the Big Muddy Valley.
Visitors enjoy hiking in the dense trees and hillsides, playing in the full playground, enjoying the shady picnic area and gazebo, or camping at one of the modern campsites from May to September.
The well-manicured, nine-hole golf course, within walking distance of the campground, is a popular summer destination with its shade and privacy provided by White Poplar, Ash, Maple, and American Elm trees surrounding each hole. Many people say it’s worth the drive from the city. The course is diverse enough that all levels can appreciate the challenge, and is often the site of tournaments and fundraising adventures.
Joyal added that Willow Bunch is a quiet community. “If you want to live a quiet life, it’s ideal for that. The housing is affordable here. People are starting to purchase or rent and then commute to work.”
“The Willow Bunch Giant, Edouard Beaupre who grew to a height of 8’3”, is our main attraction,” said Nichole Lesperance-Gellner, President of the Board for the Willow Bunch Museum and Heritage Society Inc. “Almost everyone has a connection to the giant – he was my great uncle.”
Many school groups tour the museum and the children love to place their foot in the giant’s size 22-shoe footprint, and to give a high-five to his mega-sized handprint. The Museum has much more than the giant, however, with over 4000 artifacts on display in 10 rooms over two floors. “People are always amazed at how much history we have here.”
One of the rooms is decorated in honour of their first recorded settlers, the Metis, as well as Sitting Bull who brought his people to the Wood Mountain and Willow Bunch area in 1876, and traded with Jean-Louis Legare, a French Canadian settler from Quebec and co-founder of Willow Bunch.
The Willow Bunch Museum celebrated their 50th year recently, having been established in 1972. At first they were located in the old Union Hospital and then moved to their current location, a previous convent, in 1985. “The board members are all volunteers,” said Nichole, “and are talented at creating displays.”
Some of the rooms include a living and dining room from the turn of the century, a frontier schoolroom, a room of fashion through the decades, a hospital room, a church, a gift shop, and many others. For their 50th anniversary, a scavenger hunt inside the museum encouraged children and families to study the artifacts closely to find tokens, and many enjoyed outdoor activities.
“We will continue to thrive with a little perseverance,” said Sharleine Eger, Administrator for the Town and RM 42 of Willow Bunch. “We are very fortunate that we have a good base of volunteers. Despite the fact that we don’t have a school anymore, we are still alive. Students are bussed to Coronach and Assiniboia. According to the 2021 Census, Willow Bunch increased by 10 per cent - 28 people - from 272 to 300. That’s significant when other towns were decreasing.”
Eger attributes the growth to the small-town living trend. “We have all the basic amenities.” Residents can pick up their mail, buy groceries and convenience items, purchase fuel, go out for a meal, check books out of the local library, do their banking and buy insurance. They can keep their vehicles tuned up at the automotive shop and even take it to the car wash. The fire department is on hand for emergencies. The local church cares for the soul while the weekly visits by doctor and nurse practitioner care for the body.
“We have everything that a person needs and the world is a small place now,” said Eger. Online markets and digital interaction mean that people can live and work from anywhere, and Willow Bunch is beautifully situated for that lifestyle. “We are an area that is ready and willing to accept investment and business opportunities to keep our community thriving. You don’t need to live in the big city to start up a business.”
A host of visitors and residents have already purchased their tickets to take in the town’s festivities are on July 29th-31st as they celebrate their 150th year (plus two with 2020 being the actual 150th year). Tickets may still be available through showpass.com.
Activities include cabarets, pancake breakfasts, catered suppers, SnowBird Flyby, parade, wagon rides, children’s magician, balloon sculpting, bouncy castles, car show, Campagne family music, Aaron Pritchett, food trucks, tractor pull, Qu’Appelle Valley Dancers, fireworks and much more.