A Danceland on Little Manitou

The local indigenous peoples discovered it first. The local indigenous people discover everything first. It’s impossible to say when they first discovered it but the first documented story tells of two young First Nations men afflicted by the smallpox epidemic. No longer possessing the strength to travel, they were left behind by their companions, and camped on this small lake’s shores in 1837, resigned to their fate of death. After drinking and immersing themselves in the water, legend states the two men became well, and after two days they stood up and tracked the trail of the party who had been forced to leave them behind. So important was this lake to the First Peoples, that they named it after their creator, Little Manitou.

By the turn of the century the settlers started arriving. In small numbers at first, just those from the area. But word travels fast, especially about oddities, like this preternatural lake with the strange iodonic brown colour, this brackish lake in which you can float without effort (giving it its nickname ‘the Dead Sea of Canada’), this strange body of water which was rumoured to have healing properties.

The roaring twenties brought a mad dash of activity. Hucksters and businessmen looking to make bank, and the idle rich and gullible poor willing to part with it. Healing bath-houses sprung up. Health clinics and the fraudulent quacks who promoted them. So did camps and resorts. And the tertiary businesses to support them: cottages, restaurants, ice cream shops, and novelty stores. Even the Saskatchewan Provincial government, barely out of its teen years, got in on the action and built a resort on the public dime to cash in on the craze.

And the people came. Daily excursion trains from Saskatoon, Regina, and beyond. Automobiles lined the streets, and farm fields were put into service to park those that couldn’t find other spots. The village of Manitou Beach, with all of 200 year-round residents swelled to 15,000 people at its peak in the summer.

And those people needed something to do when they were not soaking in the lake.

Wellington White was an American-born, Canadian-raised son of Irish immigrants who made his way to Saskatchewan in the late 1800s. He made his fortune in brick works and settled in Moose Jaw where he built a stately manor that still stands today as a bed and breakfast. He and his wife Olive entertained British aristocracy, American industrialists, and Canadian Prime ministers, both present and future.

In 1928 White built Danceland, a large cavernous dance hall which replaced a smaller structure of the same name. The building is not much to look at, and from the outside it could be mistaken for a small hanger or small-town hockey arena. But as they say, it’s what’s inside that counts.

Danceland hosted all the best travelling big-bands of the day: Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen, Don Messer, Wilf Carter, Sammy Kaye, The Inkspots, Norma Locke and the Silver Tone. Maybe these names don’t roll off the tongue today, but ask your grandparents, or perhaps great grandparents. They were big.

Danceland had an interesting business model. Rather than charging admission at the door, all were welcome to come in and witness the spectacle for free. Danceland sold dance tickets for 5 cents a piece, or 6 for a quarter. The dance floor was roped off, and upon receipt of one ticket per couple a smartly-dressed usher would unhook the velvet rope and allow passage onto the expansive floor.

The now-famous floor constructed of a Douglas fir lower deck, and an oak hardwood upper deck, and in between, several inches of horse hair, which was railed in from Quebec and gave the floor a natural spring. And believe me, that floor was packed from the band’s first chords to their last encore.

Rumour suggests that assignations at Danceland have facilitated hundreds of marriages. First kisses in the thousands. It is impossible to say how many young lovers have emerged from the building, red faced and perspiring from the heat of the dancefloor, to slip out into the cool evening air, contemplating their futures under that huge star-filled Saskatchewan sky. Sharing promises with each other, both kept and unfulfilled.

Danceland, and Manitou Beach, thrived for almost two decades until the start of the Second World War. The winds of change blew cruelly over the small resort village. Many of the grand resorts, spas, and clinics closed their doors, the buildings fell into disrepair, and eventually got scrapped and demolished.

Still, the resort village of Manitou Beach survives, and so does Danceland. They are still open every Friday and Saturday night, plus other days for special events. Sadly though, these days, you must pay admission at the door.


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