Kicking off the Merrill Hills Community Improvement Project on Monday, August 21 are (left to right) Lorna Stonehouse, Brent Aasen, Jamie Didychuk, Betty Aasen, Corman Park Reeve Judy Harwood, Rick Didychuk and Chris Sarrazin. The Merrill Hills Community Centre, built in 1906 as a one-room school is in the background

A former one-room schoolhouse south of Saskatoon is poised to once again become a gathering place for area residents, thanks to the efforts of a group of volunteers in the Merrill Hills and Cedar Villa neighbourhoods of Corman Park.

The Merrill School was built in 1906. Several generations of students learned their three R’s inside its walls  before it closed in the late 1960s.

Several years later, in 1981, the building was partially restored and began a new life as a community centre for residents of the area. Over the years, it’s served as a meeting place, voting hall, and informal recreational facility. Periodic repairs to the 117-year-old building by volunteers kept it functioning. Meanwhile, the 3.75 acre parcel of RM-owned land it occupies remained undeveloped.

In the eyes of some area residents, the site offered a perfect opportunity to build for the future while honouring the past.

The Merrill Hills Community Improvement Project (MHCIP) officially took shape in the summer of 2022 when a meeting was held at the former schoolhouse, according to MHCIP President Betty Aasen.

“We had talked for a few years about things we wanted to do at the school and the property,” said Aasen. “The RM has municipal reserve funding that is specifically set aside for public recreation facilities and green spaces. Corman Park Reeve Judy Harwood attended that meeting and gave us the information we needed.

“Over the winter of 2022-23, we sat down as a committee and got several price quotes from companies. We then picked two of the best quotes and took them forward with a proposal to the RM of Corman Park council in May. In June, we received approval from council and a grant of $550,000 to go ahead with the project.”

In addition to MHCIP President Betty Aasen, the committee includes: Vice-President Brent Aasen,  Construction Manager Rick Didychuk, Fundraising Coordinator Jamie Didychuk, Site Supervisor Jordan deBakker, Facilitator Monica Wagner, and Communication Coordinator Gerald Guest.

EBS Designs is the company selected to do the overall project, while Blue Imp is installing the play structure.

The gazebo and play structure at Cathedral Bluffs (above) provided a model for the new facilities at Merrill Hills

While the project does not involve any work on Merrill School itself, it does include a wide range of amenities for the grounds around the building, including: a sports court and hockey rink, equipment shed and dressing area, a gazebo, a play structure, a toboggan hill and parking lot, as well as a fire pit area and illuminated walking paths with benches.

The sport court at Cathedral Bluffs. The Merrill Hills facility will be similar to this

Next year, the committee is hoping to add a new ball diamond to replace an old one that has fallen into disrepair.

The committee drew on the experience of the Cathedral Bluffs Community Association, which established a park with many of the same types of amenities recently.

“We toured the Cathedral Bluffs facility, and they’ve done a fabulous job over there,” said Aasen. “Helen Horsman was one of the people who got that project going, and she’s been a huge help to us. We’ve been in contact with her quite a bit. We basically copied their model because we just love what they’ve done in their community.”

Rick Didychuk, who has extensive experience in the construction industry, said the work is expected to be completed by this fall.

“There was some concern among RM councillors that this is a large project involving a lot of public money,” said Didychuk. “And that’s true. However, the people on the committee have the necessary expertise and are very familiar with construction projects. It’s going to be well-managed and go very smoothly.”

Didychuk said the project will provide “a nice hub” for residents of the nearby hamlets and country residential acreages.

“I think it will breathe new life into the school and the area,” said Didychuk. “It’s nice to be able to keep the heritage of the area and bring the community together.”

Chris Sarrazin, owner of EBS Designs, said initial excavation work is slated to begin August 24 and the project should be completed by mid-October.

“Right now there aren’t too many options for recreation in the small communities around Saskatoon,” said Sarrazin. “This will be a nice place for young families on acreages and in hamlets around here to come and have fun.”

Sarrazin’s work crew began work on Monday, August 21, staking out areas where the different facilities will be located. The parking lot will feature 12 inches of crushed asphalt; while the 7,000 square-foot sports court, equipment shed and gazebo will all have concrete floors.

“The soil is quite sandy here, which makes it pretty easy to excavate,” said Sarrazin. “

Corman Park Division 4 Councillor David Greenwood, who represents the Merrill Hills area, said he strongly supports the project.

“It’s important for people to understand that the money approved by council for this project does not come out of general revenue,” said Greenwood. “This land, which is already owned by the RM, is designated as ‘municipal reserve’ and is set aside for sports and recreation. The grant money is coming from the RM’s municipal reserve fund, so this type of project is exactly what that money is specifically intended for.”

Greenwood noted that the facilities, once completed, will be open to all residents of Corman Park, not just those that live in Division 4.

Reeve Judy Harwood said she’s excited about the project.

“This is something that I looked at back in the 1990s,” said Harwood.

“This is the type of initiative that only succeeds if you have people in the community who are willing to take on the responsibility to keep the momentum going into the future, so it’s nice to see that happening.”

Harwood said the RM council does its due diligence to ensure this type of project is feasible and sustainable in the long run.

The former one-room Merrill School, built in 1906, is now the Merrill Hills Community Centre


Lorna Stonehouse is looking forward to hearing the sound of children’s voices at play in the old schoolyard at Merrill Hills Community Centre once the new recreation facility is completed.

The long-time resident of Merrill Hills in the RM of Corman Park attended the one-room Merrill School from Grades 1 through 8 in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“I was the only kid in my grade all through school,” said Stonehouse. “But it was good in a lot of ways; you had to learn how to do things on your own. You were given an assignment and you just did it.”

She noted that listening to the subjects being taught to older students was helpful, and reviewing material being taught to younger students reinforced what she had learned.

“It was good,” she said. “I have a lot of good memories from those years.”

Some of her fondest recollections are of Sunday evening community softball games in the schoolyard diamond.

“Everyone played,” said Stonehouse. “My mother would make a score sheet, and they’d make sure there was a pitcher, a back catcher and a first baseman on each side, and then it was a free-for-all as the two teams were chosen. All the kids went to the outfield, of course, because they couldn’t handle the fast stuff in the infield.

“The mothers would bring their babies and toddlers and they’d play in the dirt. It was a real community thing.”

The ball games ended only when there wasn’t enough light to see the ball anymore, and also because people wanted to get home to watch the latest episode of Bonanza on television at nine o’clock.

“The next Sunday, everyone would gather for another game and we’d all talk about what happened on Bonanza the week before,” she said.

While a new ball diamond won’t be built this fall, it’s definitely in the cards for next year, according to the volunteer committee overseeing the current project. Coincidentally, the new ball diamond will be in the same location as the original one.

Stonehouse said she’s excited to see the revitalization of the Merrill School grounds as a community park with modern amenities, and is hopeful work can be done to restore the schoolhouse itself. Last winter was not kind to the 117-year-old building, and considerable restoration work is needed to repair the floor and other parts of the structure.

“There’s a lot of history inside these walls,” she said. “It’s important for us to make sure they don’t just disappear.”