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by Bill Barry, Saskatchewan place name expert

I first came across the name 'Bitulithic' about a decade ago and I have to admit it blew my mind. What a marvellous name! I just love the way it trips off your tongue.

Bitulithic & Contracting Ltd. was incorporated at Winnipeg in 1907 and was chartered to do business in Saskatchewan a few weeks later. It was set up by an engineer named William Matheson Macphail and half a dozen associates, and it was authorized to do all manner of contracting work.

Within weeks of incorporation the company purchased a site on the southeastern outskirts of the Village of Aylesbury. They built a plant the same year to produce a crushed stone material used for paving streets. The Canadian Northern Railway installed a siding (but misspelled the name as Bithulithic!), and the company shipped out the first loads of product before the snow flew.

The main section of the Watkins' home is the former office of Bitulithic.
The main section of the Watkins' home is the former office of Bitulithic.

The rock used by the plant came from a large bank of glacial boulders just east of the site (now largely covered by Highway 11). Smaller glacial erratics from the Arm River Valley (visible just east of the highway) were also used, and farmers within wagon-hauling distance frequently brought in loads of fieldstone. Apparently these glacial rocks were prized by road builders because of their hardness - the crushed rock was mixed with gravel and cement to make a very hard and durable road surface.

One of the most fascinating parts of the Bitulithic story involves the youngsters who used to collect small wagon loads of stones and haul them to the crusher, receiving a few cents from the manager. Kind of puts you in mind of kids collecting beer bottles or pop cans today, doesn't it?

The plant was destroyed by fire in 1919, a year and a day after the armistice ending World War I. It must have been quite a shock to Mr. Macphail and the other principals of the company, because the plant had undergone phenomenal expansion. From its beginnings with an office in Winnipeg and the plant at Aylesbury, it had expanded to include major offices at St. Boniface, Regina, Saskatoon, Lethbridge, Calgary, Strathcona and Edmonton. Its flagship product was sold under the trade name of Bitulithic Pavement and sales to the foregoing cities (among others) were brisk.

Cliff Watkins is pleased the Bitulithic safe is back home again.
Cliff Watkins is pleased the Bitulithic safe is back home again.

The plant was rebuilt and ran for a few more years beginning in 1922. However, records at the Saskatchewan Archives show that the Great Depression devastated the operation. By 1931 it was a shell company only, existing merely to collect rent on its small property holdings. Indeed, after 1934 its minor business affairs were conducted out of a lawyer's office at Boston, Massachusetts. Bitulithic & Contracting was finally struck off the Saskatchewan companies register in 1941.

Interestingly, though, W. M. Macphail's name was still on the company's masthead when the last annual report was filed. He founded the company at Winnipeg, and was shown as residing at Portland, Oregon, from 1922 until returning to Winnipeg in 1934. But his name was the first one listed among the company's officers for every one of the 33 annual reports that they filed. It would be fascinating to know how well Mr. Macphail did financially with his 'baby', over the years.

A running-water system fed the mule trough.
A running-water system fed the mule trough.

Cliff Watkins is the farmer who currently owns the crushing plant site. His grandfather bought the property shortly after World War II, and Cliff purchased it from his father. Most of his stone house, remarkably enough, is the original crushing plant office, and some of the outbuildings on his farm also date back to the plant, including a shed which provided a garage of sorts for the wagons used to haul the glacial erratics up from the valley. There is also a cement trough for watering mules with 'B&C Co.' emblazoned on one end and '1923' on the other.

If you know where to look, the footings for the crushing plant are still visible, as is the CN siding that was used to haul the company's product to market. Evidence of blasting to break up the huge glacial boulders can also be found.

Bitulithic & Contracting's company safe still exists. After the crushing plant finally shut down, Frank Rider, the last foreman, lived at the site until Cliff Watkin's grandfather bought it. His son, Harry Rider, became the Imperial Oil dealer at Aylesbury, and used the safe for his business. Harry later gave it to a farmer friend in whose barn Cliff spotted it. Cliff bought it back in 1985.

Bill Barry
Bill Barry

I mustn't forget that fascinating name! The Bitu part is a derivative of the Latin 'bitumen', meaning 'asphalt', while 'lithic' is the Greek for 'of stone'. Bitulithic is thus an imaginative descriptor of the company and its function, and I like to think that it was dreamed up by William Matheson Macphail.

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