Discovering place, family and me – one story at a time
Author: Margaret G. Hanna
A farmer’s daughter. Saskatchewan born and bred. Loves history. Followed her dream -- became an archaeologist. Gladly spends hours in archives, museums and used book stores. Collects vintage hats. Prefers craft beer and dark chocolate (but not together). Once jumped out of an airplane (harnessed to a jump master). Met her husband in Cairo. Writes for the love of it.
I am a member of the Airdrie writers group, the Writers' Guild of Alberta and Women Writing the West.
We received our first COVID vaccine shot almost three weeks ago, so we are feeling a bit braver than before about venturing out.
This week, we went shopping. And I don’t mean grocery shopping.
My husband decided he needed some new clothes. After all, it’s been only two, maybe three years since he’s ventured into a clothing store. D’you think maybe it’s about time?
Unlike me, he does not believe in buying clothes at the local thrift store. “Who knows who has worn those?” he asks. “That’s why I wash everything before I wear it,” I reply. “Besides, I’m doing something good for the environment by not buying clothes that have been made by some poor overworked, underpaid woman in Bangladesh labouring away in some dingy and dangerous factory that then requires emitting who-knows-how-many tonnes of greenhouse gases into the air to ship said clothes across the Pacific (or through the now-unblocked Suez Canal) to Canada.” (See my earlier post about “upcycling.”)
No, my husband buys his clothes new. Off we went to our local not-Walmart clothing store that specializes in casual and work wear for men and women.
Who knew trying to decide between this brand of pants and that brand of pants could be so much fun? Or this shade of green T-shirt versus that shade of green? Socks with psychedelic patterns or boring old grey socks? Plaid shorts or plain? Hiking boots or just a good quality pair of running shoes?
An hour-an-a-half later, we hauled our – his – stash to the check-out. The clerk smiled as she scanned the tags. “Men go shopping once a year,” she said. Oh, so true. A few hundred dollars later, we left the store.
This taste of something approaching “normal” life was certainly tantalizing. The question is: how long do we have to wait before this “taste” becomes “everyday?”
Alas, COVID variants are running amok here. The B117 (UK) variant is now the dominant strain in Alberta, and the P.1 (Brazil) strain has just raised its ugly head in a “significant outbreak” in three communities. Hospital beds, especially ICU beds, are filling rapidly with younger patients, and doctors and nurses are warning of looming disaster if serious steps are not taken to break the curve. Our Alberta politicians have finally woken up to the fact that encouraging citizens to “do the right thing” is totally inadequate because many stubbornly refuse to “do the right thing.” As of a couple of days ago, they imposed additional restrictions on restaurants, gyms, stores and public gatherings. Only time will tell if those restrictions will have any impact.
We may have to wait a few more months for our little outing to become “everyday,” but at least we’ve had a taste. And how delightful it was!
One of the benefits of being retired is you don’t have to go anywhere unless you need to, or want to. We especially enjoy that benefit when the weather snarls at the world.
Such as when March decides to go out like a lion (Growl! Roar!).
The front blew in Sunday night, and I do mean BLEW! Raging winds averaged 70 – 80 km per hour, gusts up to 120 kph. The house shivered and shook all night. Hard, pelletized snow screamed down sideways. The mercury shrank into the bottom of the thermometer and refused to budge. Uh-uh, no way!
We woke up Monday morning, snuggled warmly in our bed, and listened to the traffic report. Roads were in terrible condition. One driver phoned in to report “Snow squalls, white-outs, and ice.” That was par for the course everywhere. Our hearts went out to the poor souls who had to drive.
Now, in these circumstances there seem to be two kinds of drivers. There are those who “drive to the weather” – they slow down, turn on their lights and, if conditions are really bad, activate their warning lights. They usually make it to work unless . . .
But then there are those who think just because they are driving some honkin’- big, four-wheel-drive SUV/pick-up with all the latest bells and whistles, they can still drive a million miles an hour down the highway until they suddenly find themselves doing a 180 or a 360 whoop-de-doo and ending up in the ditch, right-side-up if they’re lucky. Or worse still, they smack into someone who is driving “to the weather.”
And, sure enough, Monday morning there were smack-ups, mostly just your usual two- or three-car fender-bender encounters of a too-close kind. However, a big “smack-up” on the Trans-Canada Highway near Brooks, AB, made even the national news. About 70 vehicles were involved, cars, trucks and semi-trailers.
Now, I am not surprised that such an event occurred near Brooks. My family has known for decades that particular section of the Trans-Canada is jinxed. Whenever we drove to Alberta to visit relatives, if anything were to go wrong, it would go wrong around Brooks. Flat tires. Dead fuel pumps (twice! On the same trip!). Hail storms. Blizzards. You name it. If we made it without incident past Brooks, we were home free!
No, what surprised me was the number of vehicles involved – 70! The Trans-Canada through Alberta is not the 401 in Toronto. Or the I-5 through Salt Lake City. Here, you’d be lucky to get 70 vehicles over the course of an entire day. So where did all those vehicles come from to end up in one great (and thankfully, not deadly) pile-up? Therein lies the mystery, for me.
Monday, the front moved on to harass neighbouring provinces and states with snow squalls, white-outs and ice. And power outages. And accidents.
March is such a lovely month!
(P.S. My apologies to the residents of Brooks – it’s not your fault that section of the highway is jinxed.)
Daffodil, the silly girl, was poking up her head, And Tulip, not to be outdone, arose up from his bed. They both agreed, “Spring must be here, the sun is shining strong. It’s time to show our glorious blooms. It’s time to sing our song.”
Then up spoke grumpy apple tree, wet blanket if ‘twere one, “You should take care, it’s only March. I wouldn’t jump the gun. Too many Marches I have seen as warm as mid-July, But then come April, bitter frost, and May, the snowflakes fly.”
“Go back to bed, you silly fools. Remember spring last year? You froze your little bloomers off!” But neither one would hear. They grew up green. They grew up tall. They grew like it was May. And sure enough, just two weeks on, they lived to rue the day.
The British Columbia Department of Highways said, “It’s impossible.” The citizens of Bella Coola and Anaheim Lake said, “Oh ya? Just watch!”
The top of the hill and the bottom of the hill were no problem. It was the bit in between. The cliff. The “straight down.” The “Big Hill.”
For two years, the citizens laboured. They dug by hand, pried out rocks with jackhammers (the rock was so hard it dulled the bits in no time flat), tossed said rocks over the edge (and listened to them ricochet down the cliff), and bulldozed wherever possible (one slipped off the trail but, fortunately, was able to be winched back up). By dint of hard work, determination and a sense of “up yours, government!”, they transformed that former goat trail into a vehicle trail.
In September, 1953, two bulldozers – one from above and one from below – touched blades mid-way down the “Big Hill.” The “highway” was complete. It had cost $1300 per mile (1953 dollars) to build, plus uncounted hours of volunteer labour. The Minister of Highways attended the official opening and paid off the debt of $8700.
The highway is still considered one of North America’s dangerous highways. It’s narrow and winding; some sections are single-lane only; and there are no guard-rails protecting drivers from a “sharp drop off pavement” to the valley below. Thanks (?) to two serious and steep switchbacks (and a few lesser ones) and a 15% grade, the “Big Hill” drops 5000 feet in seven miles. It gets the heart pounding.
My husband and I received our first COVID vaccine shot (Moderna) on Tuesday. I have never been so excited about getting a poke in the arm.
My husband has numerous pre-existing conditions, so this past year we have been exceedingly cautious. Some have called us “prisoners.” We’ve called ourselves “prudent.”
Our only regular outing has been to the grocery store, always at “Old Farts” hours (7:00 am to 8:00 am), and after we’ve put away the groceries, I’ve wiped down every surface we’ve touched (and any we thought we might have touched). When absolutely essential, we’ve visited the doctor and dentist. Even more rarely, we’ve ventured into hardware stores or the post office. We’ve ordered on-line to be delivered and ordered for curb-side pickup. We’ve quarantined mail and parcels for three days once we’ve brought them into the house. We’ve social-distanced, worn masks (long before our fair city decreed it obligatory), used hand sanitizer and wipes, and washed our hands till we thought the skin would fall off (or run out of soap, whichever came first).
But now! Now it feels as if we have left prison and are living in the half-way house. Freer, although not entirely free. We will still wear masks (we’re double-masking now that the “variants of concern” are running amok), we will still social-distance; we will still be careful about where we go and when we go there.
But now! Now, we can visit friends and relatives. Maybe I will work up the courage to venture into my favourite shopping venue – our local thrift store. And maybe get a real haircut and . . . .
We don’t know when we will receive our second Moderna shot. The Canadian government has royally screwed up the vaccine situation, leaving us dependent on the good graces of other countries. But we – my husband and I – are on our way.
BUT that freedom has come at great cost. Over 22,250 people have died in Canada and millions around the world. “Long-haulers” continue to suffer COVID symptoms with no relief in sight. Front line workers suffer from exhaustion and burn-out, or PTSD, or worse still have died of COVID. Millions have lost jobs or businesses because of COVID. Millions are hungry or homeless because of COVID. Uncounted numbers have committed suicide because of COVID.
The moral of the pandemic is this: none of us will be free until everyone is free. So, don’t dilly-dally. Get that vaccine as soon as you can. Help us all be free.
Just a little northwest of Bluff, Utah; just on the north side of the Valley of the Gods, we found one of our favourite roads.
The Moki Dugway is not for the faint of heart, those afraid of heights, or those for whom “sharp drop off pavement” causes coniptions of anxiety. It is only three miles long, but in those three miles it descends 1100 feet from the top of Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below. Don’t even think about taking your RV or dually on this road.
It was built in 1958 to haul ore from the Happy Jack Mine on Cedar Mesa to the mill in Halchita, near Mexican Hat, in the valley below. At least one ore truck didn’t make it.
If you love tight switchbacks, corners you can’t see around, steep descents, and a road that seems to disappear either into the upcoming rock face or over the upcoming edge, it is your cup of tea. It certainly is ours.
In a previous post, I referred to “purple gas.” Prairie people are very familiar with the term; people elsewhere, not so much.
Beginning in the 1940s, the Government of Saskatchewan (among others) exempted bulk fuel purchases intended for farm use from provincial tax. This could amount to a savings of 10 cents a gallon, not an insignificant amount back then. Since this fuel was to be used only in farm trucks and machinery, it was dyed purple in order to distinguish it from domestic-purpose fuel (colloquially known as “bronze”) used in cars and other non-farm vehicles.
We used purple in the farm truck which was easily distinguished from non-farm vehicles not only by mud and manure permanently adhered to its body but also by the “F” on the licence plate. Purple (and diesel) also fueled our tractors and combine, and they were not exactly “fuel efficient.” Consequently, we had two 500 gallon fuel tanks, one for diesel and one for purple. Every so often, Dad called the bulk station and soon Mr. Conlan, and later Mr. Lalonde, arrived with his big tanker truck and filled our tanks. The reek of gas and diesel hung in the air, and on Dad’s clothes, for hours after these visits and Mom refused to let Dad in the house.
It was not at all unusual for the RCMP to stop non-farm vehicles and inspect for illegal purple gas. Woe betide the person driving a car who was caught using it. Fines ensued. Vehicles could even be impounded.
But there was a work-around, according to my anonymous but totally reliable source (not that my anonymous but totally reliable source would ever do anything of the kind). A solution that only a farm kid could dream up, a farm kid who wanted to take his newest “squeeze” out for a spin but couldn’t afford to buy legit gas. Pour purple into clear glass jugs, set in the sun for a few days, and voila! The sun had bleached out the purple dye so, go ahead, Mr. RCMP, check all you want.
In the 1990s, the Saskatchewan government abandoned the tax exemption. Now farmers pay the tax up front and receive a rebate. Purple gas has become a thing of the past although some jurisdictions still use it.
Our family has a purple gas incident that involves our 1958 Ford, a neighbour couple, a ram, and an unsuspecting RCMP officer.
From about 1968 to 1975, my parents and their good friends, George and Muriel Morrison, jointly owned a flock of sheep. For the first couple of years, Dad and George “borrowed” a ram to, well, you know what rams do. They decided they needed their own ram, so off they went to Regina to the livestock auction to buy one.
During this time, my parents were living in Moose Jaw so that my brother could attend school. George also lived in Moose Jaw. Neither had a truck to bring back the ram, so a truck-owning friend agreed to meet them at the auction mart and ferry said ram back to the sheep yard.
All four drove into Regina (about 75 km away) in our 1958 Ford. Dad and George bought the ram. The friend with the truck did not show up. Now what to do?
Dad took the back seat out of the car and stowed it in the trunk (remember cars with giant trunks?). They covered the floor with plastic, and between Dad and George, with the help of a bucket of oats, they managed to wrestle the ram into the back where they crouched, uncomfortably, holding the ram in place. Ram was not amused. Neither were Dad and George but what else could they do?
Mom and Muriel got in the front seat, Mom driving. Half-way between Regina and Moose Jaw, she saw the flashing lights of an RCMP cruiser behind her. Being a good law-abiding driver, she pulled over and got out her licence and car registration.
“I’m checking for purple gas,” the RCMP officer said, and walked back to the gas cap. Just as he walked past the rear door, the ram stuck his head out of the window, gave an ear-splitting B-A-A-A-A in the officer’s face, and further expressed his displeasure with the situation by taking a big dump of you-know-what.
What Dad and George said cannot be repeated in public. The RCMP officer decided he didn’t need to test for purple gas. Mom drove home, windows rolled all the way down. The ram was delivered to the sheep yard. The car received a thorough cleaning.
Oh, my goodness. Pick something from our kitchen? Our kitchen is full of stuff: pots and pans, labour-saving devices (both electric and manual), thing-a-ma-bobs, gadgets, do-dads, whachamacallits, things we use all the time, things we rarely use, things we never use but keep because, well, just because. Do I make it a “Guess what, folks?” or simply a “Show and Tell.”
I decided to do both. First, the “Show and Tell”
And now for the “Guess what, folks?”
Very few people recognize what this “thing” is used for. Here are some hints:
It is made of cast aluminum
It is about 70 years old (it was an “accessory” included with a set of WearEver cast aluminum pots and pans my mother had)
Of all the tools intended to do what this “thing” does — this is the best design ever (in my opinion).
P.S. An addendum to Dr. B’s Camera Challenge #7: Bridges — I finally found my photograph of the concrete bridge over Pinto Creek that flowed (when there was water in it) on the south side of my home town, Meyronne. The bridge was built in 1929 just before the Depression and the Dirty Thirties blew in. Eventually, farm machinery grew too huge to cross the bridge so it was torn down and replaced by a boring steel bridge over not-so-mighty Pinto Creek.
When my grandfather homesteaded in 1909 in what was to become the Meyronne district, there were no roads, there was no railroad. Everything – mail, groceries, supplies, harness, wagon repairs, even machinery – had to be freighted from the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) mainline to the north, three days one way northeast to Moose Jaw or two days one way northwest to Morse. And yes, the grain the farmers grew also had to be freighted by horse and wagon over those same routes to either Moose Jaw or Morse.
That changed when the CPR, in 1912, started building the line from Weyburn clear across the province to Shaunavon. The “steel” arrived at Meyronne on September 3, 1913. Everyone was ecstatic. No more long-distance freighting. Now everything, including passengers, came and went by train.
Right behind the railroads came the grain companies building elevators to buy and ship wheat. Names like Patterson, Federal, UGG (United Grain Growers), Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator, Parrish and Heimbecker, Pioneer, Olgivie’s, Blanchard’s, Province, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool – these and others were familiar to every town, to every farmer.
Grain elevators stood out on the prairie, visible for miles, hence the nicknames “Prairie Sentinel” and “Prairie Giants.” They were massive structures, standing 150 feet tall; the later ones, even taller. They were built of old-growth fir 2″x4″s, laid on the flat and nailed together with 6″ spikes. Within that giant structure was a belt with scoops that lifted the grain from the receiving hopper up to an assemblage of distributing spouts that poured the grain into vertical bins. The “annex,” a secondary storage bin, was built likewise, and reinforced round-about with 2″x6″s to withstand the tremendous pressure of the hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain stored within them.
Grain elevators were symbols of hard work, of perseverance in the face of adversity, of wealth and prosperity. They defined the prairie economy and skyline. Saskatchewan billed itself as the “Breadbasket of the World,” and a line of elevators every six or seven miles gave credence to that motto. Towns took great pride in their “Elevator Row.” Every town had at least three elevators, some as many as a dozen. The greater the number of elevators, the more the townspeople boasted.
Every child growing up in a prairie town has memories of those grain elevators. Here are two.
A trip to the elevator always began with Dad coming into the house and announcing, “Quota’s open.” A one-bushel quote meant he could sell one bushel of wheat for every acre of wheat he had planted. He hauled the auger to the granary and loaded the old blue International 3/4 ton truck full to the brim. I got to go with him, a special treat when you are ten or so. We drove the 1/4 mile into town, clunk-clunked across the railroad track and along the dirt trail paralleling the railroad, past the Co-op Bulk Station where farmers bought diesel and oil and “purple” gas (therein lies another tale) and up the gangway into the elevator and onto the grate and scale.
To my ten-year-old mind, the elevator was a place of wonder and mystery encompassed by ritual. We got out of the truck. Dad and Mr. McCaslin, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool Elevator operator, chatted about anything and everything – they were probably solving the problems of the world – while Mr. McCaslin weighed the truck and jotted the result into a book. That done, he said, “Okay, you can dump now.” Dad opened the hatch on the back of the box – if I was really lucky, I would be given that honour – and then activated the truck hoist. As the box rose up, the grain poured out through the grate into, into where? I stared down into the grate, trying to see where the grain was going. All I knew was that it was pouring into some dark mysterious place and somehow it was lifted up into the bins above. But which bin? How did Mr. McCaslin know where it was going? Meanwhile, he held his scoop under the golden stream until it was full and then dumped it into another scale. A bushel of wheat at optimum dryness weighs 60 pounds (forgive me using old-fashioned imperial measures but in the mid-1950s we knew nothing of metric). If that bushel weighs less, it is because it is contaminated with weed seeds. The weight of that measure determined how much the load was worth. That bit of information also was jotted down.
Once the last of the wheat was scraped out of the box, Mr. McCaslin weighed the truck again, the final figure needed to determine the value of the wheat we had just delivered. Truck full – truck empty = weight of grain / weight of one bushel (as measured above) = total number of bushels x price per bushel = a grain cheque and money in the bank! Who knew an elevator agent had to be a math whiz?
Mr. McCaslin’s son, David, remembers:
“Back then, grain was shipped in wooden box cars with sliding doors on the side. The doors had to be “coopered”, i.e., sealed so no grain could leak out. I have a lot of great memories about “coopering”! It was my first job as a teenager. My Dad (the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool) paid me $1.00 per car to “cooper.” A dollar’s pay for 45 minutes of work was big bucks for a thirteen-year old, way back in the day.
Dad would sometimes get five to ten boxcars at time. Having to stop and “cooper” the next car greatly slowed the process. I got quite skilled at it. Although it was pretty straight forward, it had to be done 100% correctly.
The CPR provided prebuilt slabs the width of the doors. Each slab weighed about 25-30 pounds and each door required about six to eight slabs. The process of loading slabs into the car and then nailing them in place took about 45 minutes. After the slabs were securely in place, the whole section was covered in sheets of industrial paper to ensure there was no leakage.
The last step was to get out of the boxcar after you had boarded up the doors. There was a two foot space at the top. You had to pull yourself up to the top (well over your head) and then slide sideways in order to get out.
Although it by no means qualified as a craft, I took great pride in it., The experience had a profound impact on my personal development. Among many things, it taught me about personal accountability, attention to detail and the importance of meeting deadlines. In hindsight, most significantly, it sparked the beginning of what became an adult relationship with my Dad.”
Grain elevators, like gambrel-roofed barns and church steeples, were such a part of the prairie landscape that we almost didn’t see them any more. Until they disappeared.
The 1950s and 1960s accelerated a decline that had begun during the Dirty Thirties. Highways were improved and now became the lifeline of prairie towns, replacing railways. Railway stations closed. Old people passed away and no young people took their place – they had fled to cities in search of education and work. Houses were shuttered. Businesses closed.
Many of the smaller grain companies had disappeared or been bought out by the big ones – Pioneer, Cargill and the Wheat Pool (now Agrium). By the 1990s, grain companies were building centralized monster concrete high-capacity inland grain terminals; they were more efficient and cost-effective. Farmers traded in their three-ton trucks and invested in semi-trailers to haul grain the 20, 30 or 40 miles to the terminal.
Some elevators are still in use. Some were purchased by farmers and moved to their farms where they continue to serve. A few others have been converted into museums. Some crumble in place, abandoned, rotting, falling apart, home to pigeons and rodents. Most were tipped over and burned, a raging conflagration so intense that the outsides of houses a quarter-mile away were hot to the touch. The few remaining townsfolk cried as they watched what had once been a source of pride reduced to a pile of ashes. It was the end of an era.
As the grain elevators disappeared, so did the villages, visually if not in fact. Now, as you drive through southern Saskatchewan, you can’t tell if that cluster of trees and houses a half-mile or so off the highway is what was once a town or is merely a very large farmstead.
To those of us who remember, that vacant space pains.