The historic Willow Bunch Telegraph Office, at more than 110 years old, is the oldest building in the town of Willow Bunch. This two story balloon-framed, ridge-roof house was built in the early 1900s to serve as the telegraph office for the area.
This telegraph office operated from 1904 to 1931. Afterwards the building went on to serve as the Village Office, Credit Union, and Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) office. It was also home to several families over the years.
The following is a detailed history of the Willow Bunch Telegraph Office building and the plot of land on which it is located. It is based on information found from various sources, and clues uncovered in the building during the restoration project. As I researched the history of the Willow Bunch Telegraph Office I often encountered incorrect and conflicting information, so what I present here is that which seems most likely based on the correlation of all the information available to date (March 2015).
The history of Willow Bunch and the Willow Bunch Telegraph Office is intertwined with that of Western Canada. As the country expanded westward after confederation there was a need to police the area close to the border with the United States, the 49th parallel. That was a preventative measure against liquor smuggling, horse theft, and other criminal activity. This was a job of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP).
The NWMP operated out of various stations located on the prairies, including places like Wood Mountain and Willow Bunch. The NWMP post in Wood Mountain, the first in Saskatchewan, was established in 1874. The one in Willow Bunch was established in 1886.
As the NWMP patrolled the west on horse back a need for rapid communications was evident, so telegraph lines were extended farther into previously isolated areas of the country.
Most telegraph lines followed the path of the railway across the country. These lines were usually installed before the railway so they could be used during the railway construction. However, that also meant that some lines were short lived due to changes in the proposed route of the rail line.
The ultimate purpose of these telegraph lines was to communicate information necessary for the safe operation of the railway between each and every station along the track. However, these lines were also used for non-railway purposes, like messages that would have been sent to or from NWMP stations. If a message was destined for someone in a remote location not serviced by a telegraph line, the message was sent by telegram to nearest station and delivered as letter mail the rest of the way.
The need for rapid communications in isolated areas like Willow Bunch and Wood Mountain was of national interest, so the Canadian Government (Government Telegraph Service, Department of Public Works, Dominion of Canada) provided telegraph service to these isolated areas long before the railway arrived there.
By the early 1880s the telegraph had arrived in Moose Jaw along with the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1885 the Government Telegraph Service built a telegraph line to connect Moose Jaw to NWMP Station in Wood Mountain. The government was keen on building this line, and others in remote areas, as a result of the 1885 North West rebellion which proved the tremendous value of the lines and justified the cost to build and maintain them.
The 90.5 mile line from Moose Jaw to Wood Mountain was extended 38 miles to a new purpose built telegraph office Willow Bunch in 1904. Like the NWMP routes, the telegraph lines to places like Wood Mountain and Willow Bunch followed early traditional Aboriginal and cart trails. 
The line to Willow Bunch was obviously created in preparation for the establishment of Saskatchewan as a province in 1905 and the influx of settlers to follow.
The Willow Bunch Telegraph Office was built on a one acre plot of land (208 feet x 208 feet) donated to the government for the telegraph office by Jean-Louis Legare. At the time, Legare owned all the land on which the village of Willow Bunch was first built. He encouraged the development of the village by giving the land away for free.
The Telegraph Office building served as both the telegraph office and a residence for the operator. One room at the front right (north west) corner of the building was used for the actual telegraph office and rest was the residence.
There are stories that say the Willow Bunch Telegraph Office was originally built near Jean Louis Legare's trading post in what is now the Willow Bunch park and golf course, or along the hills south of town and then moved to its present location in 1909. However, no evidence of this exists. Actually, the opposite is true.
Documentation obtained from Library and Archives Canada (LAC) indicates the structure was built on its present site in 1904/1905 specifically for the federal government. The documentation also indicates the construction of the Willow Bunch office was in the planning stage as early as 1903. A letter found in a wall next to where the telegraph operator's desk was located indicates the construction of the building, specifically the completion of the interior, dragged on at least until the fall of 1905.
The letter found in the wall was buried underneath plaster that accumulated at the bottom wall during the plaster job. As a result, it is in very rough condition and only about a third (left side) of the single page letter is legible. The letter was from someone in Weyburn to someone in Willow Bunch and it talked about the theft of horses and a reward for their return. The envelope which contained the letter has two visible postmarks. A postmark on the front, which is very clear, is from "Winnipeg, Canada, 650PM Oct 9, 1905". One on the back, which is harder to make out, is from "Moose Jaw, ASSA, Oct 10, 05". Assiniboia (ASSA) was a district of the North West Territories from 1882 to 1905 (see NWMP Stations & Patrols, 1886 map above) which became the southern part of the province of Saskatchewan in 1905.
Marc Noel was born in St. Anaclet, Quebec, and came to Willow Bunch in 1904 at the age of 27 to start his career as a Telegraph Operator. He was sent by the government to operate the telegraph line from Willow Bunch to Moose Jaw. He was described as the "liaison agent" in Willow Bunch. His job was to facilitate communications with those abroad at a time when the region was somewhat isolated. Back then mail was only delivered every two weeks and there were no cars, radio, or any modern conveniences we take for granted today. The "old timers" called Marc "the little Wire Man" and his mission of decoding the ticks from the telegraph machine into manuscript seemed quite mysterious to them.
Telegraph operators of the time were also weather observers. They would make local observations on a regular basis and submit them, via telegraph, to the government weather agency in Ottawa. They would also receive daily weather forecasts compiled by the government weather agency, via telegraph, which they posted at the telegraph and post offices for all to see.
In older photos of the Telegraph Office, like the c.1909 one above, you will notice a box hanging outside on the front right corner of the building. This was what is called a Stevenson screen. It was an enclosure to shelter weather instruments. It shielded meteorological instruments from precipitation and direct heat radiation from outside sources, while still allowing air to circulate freely around them for accurate measurement of temperature, humidity and barometric pressure.
Another interesting role of the telegraph operator was the submission and posting of election results. Elders used to talk about the old days when everyone would to gather around to the Telegraph Office to wait for the outcome of an election or to get updates on significant news events (e.g. end of WWI).
In 1910 the telegraph line from Moose Jaw to Willow Bunch was expanded with a loop to Gravelbourg. This was accomplished by running two wires east/south-east from Gravelbourg 14 miles until they intersected the single line running from Moose Jaw to Wood Mountain. From that point on the telegraph signal would run from Moose Jaw to Gravelbourg, Wood Mountain and then Willow Bunch. And, vice versa.
In 1912 the same thing was done with Assiniboia. The Leeville loop, as it was called, was created by running two wires west/north-west from Assiniboia 14 miles until they intersected the line running from Moose Jaw to Wood Mountain. From that point on the telegraph signal would run from Moose Jaw to Gravelbourg, Assiniboia, Wood Mountain and then Willow Bunch. And, vice versa.
In the fall of 1912 Marc married Grazialla St. Laurent, also from Quebec. Together they raised 8 children in the building.
Over the years many repairs and upgrades were done to the building. According to the records obtained from the LAC, the first significant renovations took place in the 1912-1913 time frame prior to the birth of couple's first child.
In 1914 Jean-Louis Legare developed a water system for the village. It brought water from springs along the hills to the south west into the village, supplying buildings with a good source of water. This lead to the first form of indoor running water for the village, but many years would pass before it evolved into what we are used to today.
The same goes for the outhouses. They were a fixture in the village for many years. The photo on the right shows the outhouse behind the Telegraph Office. The outhouse is near the lower left corner of photo.
The village water works was sold to Napoleon Bruneau and Frank X. Bellefleur in 1918 and was eventually taken over by the Village of Willow Bunch sometime after it was incorporated on November 15, 1929.
By early 1915 it was clear that the Telegraph Office's one acre plot of land (208 feet x 208 feet) was too large for its purpose and the east half of the lot could be put to better use for the expanding village. The government was initially reluctant to dispose of part of the Telegraph Office lot, but by 1916 they relinquished the east half back to Jean-Louis Legare.
This coincided with the village's first official land survey and its registration with the Land Titles Office. This survey included all of blocks 1 through 6 of what became known as plan AF413 in the Saskatchewan Land Titles system.
Ownership of the various lots in the village officially transferred from Jean-Louis Legare to their then rightful owners as soon as AF413 was registered. This included the then 1/2 acre (104 feet x 208 feet) Telegraph Office lot owned by the government. This parcel of land officially became known as the North Westerly Half of Lot 7 Block 5 Plan AF413.
Jean-Louis Legare built himself a new store on east half of the original Telegraph Office lot in 1916/1917. However, he would never get to make use of it as he passed away in 1918.
The street in front of the Telegraph Office lot was originally called Willow Bunch Street. This was the official name for the street until 1991 although it was, and still is, often referred to as "Main Street".
In the fall of 1991 all the streets and avenues in Willow Bunch were renamed and all properties were assigned their first street number. This was done to make it easier for emergency vehicles (e.g. ambulances) coming in from out of town to locate a property. At that time Willow Bunch Street became 5th Street East and the Telegraph Office building was assigned 30 as its street number.
In 2005 the street in front of the Telegraph Office was renamed once again. At that time 5th Street East became Edouard Beaupre Street in memory of Edouard J. Beaupre, the Willow Bunch Giant. Edouard's ashes are buried in front the Convent (Willow Bunch Museum) one block west of the Telegraph Office. This name change was done as part of the 2005 Saskatchewan Centennial celebrations.
In 1918 the stove in the Telegraph Office was replaced. The only photo known to exist of the interior of the Telegraph Office during the early years is one of Grazialla Noel in her kitchen in front of the stove. Based on the look of that stove and the calendar on the wall it is very likely the new one she received in 1918.
Heavy rains in the fall of 1919 caused the wood foundation to give way under the kitchen. At the same time an influx of a large volume of water caused the dirt basement to cave in. Temporary repairs were made to the foundation later that fall to hold the things over until the following year when a permanent stone foundation was installed along with a new chimney and “other improvements”.
It's not clear what those “other improvements” were, but we do know that an addition (lean-to) was put on the west side of the building during or before the early 1920s, so that may have been part of the work done. The front half of that new west lean-to would become the actual office space for the telegraph office. The rear of the new west lean-to and the old office space in the main building (north west corner) became additional living space for the growing Noel family.
Willow Bunch got its first telephone service in 1922. That new form of communications had no effect on the operation of the telegraph office, but the arrival of the railway along with its telegraph service in 1925/1926 sure would in a few years time.
The first power station and electrical lighting arrived in Willow Bunch in 1927. This power plant was privately owned, built, and operated by Charles Skinner. It ran from 8 in the morning until midnight, so it was only good for electrical lighting and potentially other casual uses. Major electrical appliances like fridges, freezers, and modern furnaces would not appear until many years later when a continuous and reliable power service became available.
The Telegraph Office, and other building's in the village, would have been retrofitted with electrical wiring and lighting around this time to take advantage of the new power service. The style of wiring used at the time was called knob and tube wiring. Plenty of this old style wiring was found in the building during the demolition for the restoration project.
By 1931 the government run stand-alone telegraph office was no longer viable due competition from the railway's private telegraph service. As such, the government closed the Willow Bunch Telegraph Office in the fall of 1931, bringing that chapter of the building's life to an end.
The telegraph offices in Assiniboia and Wood Mountain were closed at the same time.
The closure of the Willow Bunch Telegraph Office was by no means the end for the building. Although, it did go through a lengthy period of uncertainty following its closure.
Marc Aurele Noel was transferred to Notikewin, Alberta, immediately after the Willow Bunch Telegraph Office was. Grazialla Noel and the rest of the family stayed in rental accommodations in Willow Bunch until 1932 when they joined Marc in Alberta. By the time the Noel's left Willow Bunch they had gotten used to electrical lighting and indoor running water, so their new home in Notikewin which had neither took some re-adjusting.
After the Willow Bunch Telegraph Office closed there were numerous attempts by various residents and the village itself to acquire the property, but the government repeatedly refused to give it up. This dragged on for 10 years.
The village originally considered the building to be of no value, even though a government inspector reported the building to be in good condition in 1931. As such, the village wanted the property for free. They planned to demolish it to make way for a park on which they were going to erect a monument for Jean-Louis Legare in recognition for his significant contributions to the village. The idea for the park stemmed from the desire to create an open space in the middle of the block as a fire brake. At that time wood buildings ran the entire length of the street and a major fire that could take down the entire block was an ever present danger.
The government repeatedly refused the village's request for the property, but did allow them to use it if they kept up the building. In 1933 the village was able to lease the property for a token amount of $1 per year. This lease arrangement continued until 1938 and during that time the village used the old telegraph office in the west lean-to as the village office. The main portion of the building was used a residence, but who the tenants were is unknown.
In the fall of 1938 the lease with the village was cancelled, but the government was still not ready to part with the property. It was however offered to the RCMP for use a detachment quarters (free of charge), but that was later declined to due to estimated cost of repairs. In 1938 the government also considered erecting a new building in Willow Bunch for public services and saw the Telegraph Office site as a potential location for that, but later dropped that idea. They also considered using the site for a new post office but that idea was dropped as well.
By 1940 it was said that the condition of the building was very bad, actually inhabitable, as it was not occupied or maintained for some time.
In 1941 the government finally decided to dispose of the property. The entire property, except for a 10 foot strip of land along the west side of the lot, was sold to Alexandre P. Beausoleil for use as the area's first Credit Union. The 10 foot strip of land along the west side of the lot was given free of charge to Philip Legare.
Philip Legare owned the building next door (to the west) of the Telegraph Office and that building encroached onto the Telegraph Office lot by 6 feet. This was never a problem while the government owned the Telegraph Office since the lot on which it was built was given to the government free of change by Philip's uncle Jean-Louis Legare. The government granted Philip, free of charge, the 10 foot strip of land to ensure he wouldn't be affected by the sale of the Telegraph Office property.
In 1942 the building began its long term as the area's first Credit Union. The Credit Union was incorporated September 18, 1942 with Raymond P. Boulianne as the first president and Alexandre P. Beausoleil as the first secretary-treasurer (Manager). At this time the building was also the home of Alex and Anesie Beausoleil.
In 1945 Raymond P. Boulianne took over as manager of the Credit Union and by November 1946 the title of the property was changed to Raymond P. Boulianne and Laurent Mondor, “Agents” of the Credit Union. Around this time the building became the home of Raymond Boulianne and his family.
In the early 1950s the lean-to on the west side of the building was enlarged to make more space for the growing Credit Union. The roof of the original west addition, a cottage style roof, was remove and a new rearward sloping roof was installed covering the newly expanded west addition. The safe which was originally installed at back of the original west lean-to was moved about 15 feet west (i.e. to the back of the newly added space). When the safe was first installed it was placed on a very large cube of concrete and rocks. They really didn't want the safe to sink or someone to break into it from below! The foundation at the new location was much less significant.
The permanent stone foundation mentioned earlier was not as permanent as one might think. It did not go below the frost line and the cellar in the basement was still a dirt hole. As such, it was in need of more work around the same time the west lean-to was enlarged. At that time the cellar space was enlarged and a cindercrete block wall was installed along the back of the basement along with a external staircase so the basement could be accessed from the outside. This work was likely done to accommodate a new centralized hot water heating system, electrical wiring, and plumbing. A new cindercrete chimney was likely installed along with the new heating system.
In the 1940s the power plant in town was replaced by a power feed from the SaskPower coal burning power plant in Estevan. Unlike the local power plant, the electrical feed from Estevan was a continuous and reliable (24x7) service. The type of power was also change from 32 volts DC to the 120 volts AC we use today in North America. This new power service presented opportunities not possible with the previous service. By 1950s folks started to take advantage of this through the use of equipment like refrigerators, electric stoves, oil fired heating systems (which required electricity to make them run), water heaters, and so on. The use of this equipment required upgrades to the wiring, so it's likely that the building received its first wiring upgrade around this time.
Prior to this coal was used for cooking and heating. The east lean-to on the building was used as a coal shed, so the switch to an oil fired heating system meant it was no longer needed for that purpose. As such, the east lean-to was likely removed during the 1950s renovations. The entire exterior of the building covered in stucco at that time and evidence shows the east lean-to was definitely gone by the time the stucco was applied.
One interesting detail has to do with the old chimney for the kitchen stove. There is evidence that this chimney was not removed until after the stucco job was complete, suggesting it needed to stay in place for cooking during the transition from the coal stove to an electrical one.
The house's first indoor bathroom was also likely installed around this time. There was no centralized sewage system in the village yet, so septic tanks and a leaching field were installed in the back yard for that.
In 1958 Laurent Mondor took over as manager of the Credit Union and by December 1959 title of the the property was changed to Laurent Mondor, “Manager” of the Credit Union. Around this time the building became the home of Laurent and his family.
In 1960 Leonard Bourdages took over as manager of the Credit Union. Title of the property was changed to “The Willow Bunch and District Savings and Credit Union Limited” in July 1960. Around this time the main part of the building was rented out. One of the tenants at this time was Delmar and Yvonne Dosch.
On October 1, 1960 the village was incorporated as a town. Shortly afterwards a sewage system was installed, rendering all the septic tanks and leaching fields in town obsolete. A few years later the water system in town was replaced and the supply was changed from the springs south west of town to a deep well south east of town which supplied water to large 100,000 gallon reservoir installed in a hill south east of town.
On September 17, 1962 a small fire took place and the building received considerable smoke damage. The Credit Union vacated the premises as a result. Evidence found in October 2007 suggests the fire and smoke damage was confined to the west lean-to (i.e. the Credit Union).
In December 1962 the property was bought by Marcel and Anna Mondor. They used the main part of the building as their home. Anna had a small office in the west lean-to (north east corner) for Mondor Agencies (a SGI franchise). The rest of the lean-to was converted into a suite.
The first tenant in the suite was Marcel's dad, Philippe Mondor. Philippe occupied the suite until 1968. After him there was Dr. Henry Walter, followed by a teacher, and various other tenants. Anna's dad, Paul Weismiller, was the last tenant in the suite. He occupied it from 1977 to 1980.
In the 1960s or early 1970s the front of the building was covered with an imitation brick facade. The interior received some upgrades as well. Panelling was installed on the main floor. The kitchen was moved into what was originally the dinning room. A wall between the original dinning room and a bedroom in the south-west corner of the building was opened up making for a larger kitchen and dinning room space. The two windows at the back of the main floor were replaced with smaller ones. The original window on the main floor at the front of the house was replaced with a large picture window. Also, some time in the 1970s the original cedar shingle roof was replaced with an asphalt shingle roof.
The house and SGI business were sold to Daniel and Jeannette Mondor in 1981. They converted what was previously the rental suite into office space and covered the front of the building with an imitation stick style facade. The title of the property was transferred from Anna to Daniel in December 1985. However, Dan's mother Anna continued to live in the house until 1987.
Robert and Jocelyne Therrien bought the property and business in 1987. The title of the property was transferred in May 1987. They used the main part or the building as their home and the business was renamed to Therrien Agencies.
They did various renovations to the property. An interior load bearing wall between the front entrance and what was originally the telegraph office was removed. The kitchen cabinets where replaced. The two windows at the front of the second floor were closed in and replaced with a single window in the centre of the wall. The two windows at the rear of the second floor were replaced with smaller ones. The bathroom was remodelled. The heating system and hot water heater were replaced with new natural gas models to take advantage of the natural gas service that arrived in Willow Bunch in 1986.
In October 1991 they moved the SGI business across the street to the old CIBC building, but continued to occupy the house until the fall of 1995. At that time Robert sold the SGI business and moved his family to Regina. The house was left vacant until 1997.
In April 1997 the property was sold to Scott Moffet of British Columbia. He only spent a few months in it before giving the property back to Robert Therrien.
In August 2007 the town of Willow Bunch acquired property for tax enforcement purposes. The following month the town put the property up for sale by tender, as per tax enforcement procedures.
I acquired the property in October 2007 and immediately embarked on ambitious project to restore the building to the look it had in the early 1900s when it served as the Telegraph Office for the area. This restoration project is a major ground up restoration which will likely continue for a few more years.
In September 2008 I acquired the North Westerly 10 feet of the original Telegraph Office lot to restore the 1/2 acre (104 feet x 208 feet) lot that existed on the first land title for Telegraph Office. The parcel of land officially known as the North Westerly Half of Lot 7 Block 5 Plan AF413. It was acquired from the town, who had acquired a few years early along with the old cafe. This parcel of land changed hands a few times over the years along with the old cafe.
By September 2009 the restoration was far enough along that I could make it my residence. And, by September 2011, restoration work on the exterior of the building was mostly complete. The restoration work on the interior is progressing slowly.