Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Tammy Roberts

Recently, I started following Saskatchewan-based writer Tammy Roberts. While I don’t always agree with her stuff, she is doing some excellent research work and asking some hard-hitting questions about provincial politics. This is her latest:

Recently a SaskParty Cabinet Minister – a really, really lovely person who I truly like – said to me, “You know, you could write something nice once in a while.” I want to. I really do. But after the SaskParty’s absolutely absurd behavior this week – and outright attempts to mislead us, it won’t be happening today. […]

via The Saskatchewan Government: Making Kellyanne Conway Blush — OURSASK.CA

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Swamp Fever

I’ve been working a little bit on a little side project, which I’ve known about for years but kept putting in the bottom drawer of my research life: swamp fever.

What, Merle, is swamp fever?

It’s equine infectious anemia, and let me say right from the outset, that it remains a terrible killer of horses. The Merck manual, that guide for all veterinarians, notes that it is a non-contagious virus. And it can kill a horse, either quickly or very slowly.

Others have likened EIA, or swamp fever, to a horse-form of AIDS. In fact, some researchers have pointed to the work done to find a vaccine for swamp fever as holding out some possibilities for AIDS researchers. 

So, it’s viral, and non-contagious. Except when spread by blood. In this case, EIA is spread by the bite of a fly. Any biting fly. So, EIA is found more readily in places where there may be a lot of biting flies.

Like a swamp. Or a low-lying swampy region, filled with luscious grass and abundant water. The bottom of a pasture. Or, the edge of a forest.

In western Canada, swamp fever rose to critical prominence as agriculture grew. First noted with alarm in the 1880s, it was a disease of the edge, of the new homesteads created in the bushy places, where water is abundant. It was not, nor is it now, a disease much found or noted on the open, dry plain.


Symptoms were distressing but distressingly difficult to pinpoint. A high fever. Or a small one. Or one that bounced around. Lethargy and extreme tiredness. Flesh wasting away while an animal gorged itself, eating itself to starvation. A change in personality. Depression, in an otherwise happy, playful, even spiteful animal.

How do you tell the vet: my horse is depressed? How do you tell an early 20th Century vet: my horse is depressed? It’s a symptom that hadn’t really been invented yet. It wasn’t an available condition.

Results could be quickly lethal, or distressingly chronic. A horse could seem to recover, but with any work, could relapse. Another horse could sicken and die within days, leaving a farm with limited horsepower. In a busy season, swamp fever was a disaster. For a small farm with few resources and little money, it could be the straw that breaks the farm’s back.

But here’s the real problem: another horse can look completely healthy, but be carrier. Those are, in fact, the most problematic. Because in order for an outbreak of swamp fever to occur, there must be a carrier present. There must be a sick horse nearby, for the biting flies to feast upon, to spread the disease. The obviously sick ones can be quarantined. The healthy carriers, with no obvious symptoms, are the deadliest.


There has been well over 100 years of research on EIA, across multiple continents, with no cure and no vaccine. It remains a world-wide scourge of horses, donkeys, and mules.

Horses — and farms — which catch swamp fever go under immediate quarantine, for life, or face euthanasia. It puts a huge burden on farms to keep an infected animal alive, for limited purpose. Yet, the human-animal bond can be strong, and some farmers are willing to isolate and keep their horse, using all necessary precaution, to help it live a decent life.

A rural farm 100 years ago usually didn’t have that luxury.

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Peeling Back the Bark

In just two short paragraphs, the Edmonton newspaper account captured the destruction and relief felt that all were safe after a wildfire overwhelmed the town:

Swept away in the maelstrom of a raging forest fire which descended upon the place like a furnace blast on Monday afternoon, the little village … is today a mere smouldering mass of ruin and desolation, and its entire population is homeless and bereft of all personal effects, save scant articles of clothing which could be worn through the nerve-wracking struggle the people were forced to make to preserve their lives.

The absence of a death toll in the catastrophe is due to the heroic measures taken by the citizens, who rushed into the waters of the lake and defied suffocating heat and smoke by means of wet blankets. Only such measures saved many of the women and little children, the intensity of the fire being shown by the burning of the very reeds along the shore and…

View original post 690 more words

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As the geeky, skinny glasses-wearing kid who thought recess was best spent in a warm corner of the playground with a good book, it will come as no surprise to those who know me that I love museums. I am fascinated by the many ways that a museum can take an object and draw people into its story, find connections, and give a bit of a sense of context, drama, and intrigue.

When I moved to Saskatoon as a teenager, I spent hours at the Western Development Museum site of Boomtown 1910 (now with a funeral home…shiver!!). A lot of my time was concentrated over the three days of Folkfest, when the WDM hosted the old ‘Pioneer’ Pavilion. My Dad’s good friend Llew Bell and his extended family — and his kids, who were my age — would be there every year, playing as ‘The Cottonpickers,’ bringing old time dance music into the wee hours. It was where, in their old bus parked out back, I had my first taste of rye and Pepsi (urgh) and watched hundreds of delighted dancers swinging to the sound of Llew belting out ‘Old Time Rock and Roll.’

But what I love best about the WDM is how it flows and changes over time. While some of the old favourite exhibits retain their enormous staying power, others are built that reflect a keen eye for a broader breadth of Saskatchewan stories. See for example the Fuelled by Innovation  exhibit, or my personal favourite, the story of Saskatchewan’s Cancer Bomb fronted by none other than our own Sylvia Fedoruk. (Yes, I’m biased by the fact that I’m in the middle of co-writing Sylvia’s biography. So what?)

If you haven’t been to the WDM for a while, it’s time to see what’s happening. You’ll be blown away, as I always am, by totally new stories of the place that you thought you knew: Saskatchewan.

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NOTE: This post is cross-posted from https://profhistorygeek.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/the-rules-of-adjunctification-or-what-i-learned-i-had-in-common-with-oliver-twist/. All credit goes to the brilliant Clare Dale.


This post has been a long time in the making.  A very long time — some 15 years, to be precise.  I started “adjuncting” while still in graduate school and have worked, steadily, at 14 differe…

Source: The Rules of Adjunctification – or What I learned I had in common with Oliver Twist

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Ghost Towns

I was recently asked to list things that I’ve done that show that I am “committed to researching and communicating history that resonates off campus as well as in academia.”

Well, let me share with you one of my favourites: in 2011, I was invited to be the on-camera historian and discussant during a Max Magazine taping of an episode on Saskatchewan’s Ghost Towns. The episode visits several classic west central Saskatchewan ghost towns, and shows me poking about in the flotsam and jetsam of small-town history.

View it here:


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On our farm in west central Saskatchewan, there are a lot of rockpiles.

For a farmer, a rockpile – or, if you are looking at my fields, several rockpiles per field – usually means three things. One, your land isn’t necessarily of the highest quality. The best land has topsoil measured in feet, not inches, with no stones to be found. Our land is not that. On our land, the rockpiles help create a sinuous, woven pattern in the fields. It looks like art – from an airplane.

Two, there is an extra level of work involved to bring that land into safe production. Going over fields, every year, and taking off the rocks, stones, and boulders that seemingly ‘grow’ over the winter frost heave, popping out during spring seeding to vex and judder, is an added cost in time, labour, machinery, and field management. Not to mention, planning where to put those stones: they generally end up in the scrubby places, next to sloughs, or get added to old rockpiles. I pretend the piles are collapsed castles, just waiting for the right stonemason to bring them to new life. The behemoths, we move.

A large rock such as this, embedded in the field, can wreck machinery.

A large rock such as this, embedded in the field, can wreck machinery.

Three, ‘safe’ is really important. Anyone who has put a rock through a combine, or hit an embedded boulder with a large piece of expensive farm machinery, will know of which I speak. Not to mention the possibility of crashing into one with an ATV or a snowmobile.

But not all rockpiles are equal, I’ve come to discover. Nor are they all created as a result of farming.

Our farm is in the Bear Hills, a traditional no-man’s-land that demarcated the territorial boundaries between the Cree and the Blackfoot. Historical records point to our region as loaded with prairie grizzlies, fat on local bison. The bison drew both Cree and Blackfoot, leading to conflict.

A fascinating and common feature in our area are rockpiles on the peaks of the hills. Right at the top of the hill, topping what looks like a woman’s breast with a nipple.

Rockpiles were used as sentinel posts, to scout for bison, fire, or enemies.

Rockpiles were used as sentinel posts, to scout for bison, fire, or enemies.

What farmer, I always wondered, was so stupid as to haul rocks uphill? That never made sense to me, until I began researching my region’s Aboriginal past.

The rockpiles were essentially watchtowers, used by spies and sentinels, watching the landscape for enemies and threats, bison herds and prairie fires. In building rockpiles on top of the hills, and hiding behind them, enemies or bison herds wouldn’t see them. They are anthropogenic creations – just not necessarily for farming as we know it today.

It’s well-known in western Canada that much of the traditional Aboriginal features of the landscape have been obliterated. Flipping the landscape from what could be called bison ranching to cropland agriculture meant that stones — stone effigies, medicine wheels, tipi rings, and rock carvings — became impediments, objects to be removed.

First piled into rockpiles, many hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rock from those piles has gone into extensive infrastructure construction, from building foundations to roads, bridges and even dams. The Gardiner Dam on the South Saskatchewan River, which created the reservoir Lake Diefenbaker, was built using rock from hundreds of farms in the region.

Farmers loaded rock from their rockpiles and shipped it off, for payment, to the building contractors. Other dams, for irrigation or water power, have been built across western Canada, using local rockpiles. In a one-time only event, farmers had a cash ‘crop’ from the flotsam and jetsam of their farming operations.

The extensive infrastructure and building needs across western Canada in the last 150 years means that the few fantastic stone artifacts that remain are all the more precious, as we mourn those, like the great Mistassini, that are gone.

Yet rocks remained, and each year, farmers with land like mine would once again find a new ‘crop’ of stones in the spring, needing to be removed. And that’s where the Aboriginal story once again returns.

My husband and I purchased a quarter section of land that has an interesting feature: a stone fence. It runs about a quarter of a mile, right on the boundary line between our land and the next. Another quarter, purchased from a different farmer, has a similar feature. A stone fence runs alongside an old road snaking along the edge of a hill.

For years, we assumed that the farmers who owned these quarters just decided to do something more decorative with their yearly rock production. Instead of simply dumping it in piles, these rocks are carefully constructed into a new feature of the landscape. In essence, we thought that we bought our land from farmers with a sense of style.

But I wasn’t quite right.

My father-in-law, who farms next door, has lived here almost all his life. And he knows who built those stonepiles. In our area, local farmers built a strategic business relationship to get the job done.

Families from the Aboriginal reserve communities to the north of our region – around North Battleford, Meadow Lake, and elsewhere from the parkland and forest fringe – would move en masse down to the farms around Marriott and Valley Centre. On contract with local farmers, the Aboriginal families would camp out in the farm fields, often bringing their own horses and equipment, or coming down with trucks filled with camping equipment and kids, to use the local farmer’s tools, and proceeded to pick rocks.

They also brought presents: my farmstead is filled with jackpine trees, brought down from the north and planted by the Aboriginal families who worked on our homesteader, Albert Kessel’s, fields.

Albert Kessel wheat

It’s one thing to pick rocks; it’s quite another to find a way to measure what you’ve done. Rock picking could only be assessed by volume, not time. After all, it took more work to move one big rock than to move a lot of smaller ones.

Like cordwood (cut stove wood), rock picking was assessed by cubic measure: four feet wide by four feet high by eight feet long. Other variations (six feet wide by two feet high, or eight feet wide by one foot high) can also be found. I found several like these this past spring, on a jaunt through our farmland on the quad. At first, I thought they were old foundations, straight and square and cunningly fitted, until my father-in-law put me right.

One of many Aboriginal rockpiles at the edge of the agricultural land on our farm. Each represents weeks of labour by an Aboriginal family, in collaboration with the local farmer.

One of many Aboriginal rockpiles at the edge of the agricultural land on our farm. Each represents weeks of labour by an Aboriginal family, in collaboration with the local farmer.

Payment was by the cord, and ranged from about a dollar in the 1920s and 1930s, to about $10 per cord by the 1960s.

For a week or two, sometimes three, usually in June after spring seeding but before the crop was very high, these Aboriginal families worked hard to clear the fields of stones. When done, their carefully-constructed fences and other features could be easily measured and payment made. Packing up, most would make arrangements to come back the next year. Many longstanding friendships remain, tying local farm families to friends in the north, though the practice largely ended by the late 1960s.

As a western Canadian historian, I found these stories amazing. They represent an intersection of farming and Aboriginal entrepreneurship not well understood — indeed, I had never heard them before. But I am grateful for the once-fruitful business contracts and friendships: they built a lasting legacy of beauty, making rockpiles that will last for many more generations.

So the next time you see a rockpile, look a little deeper. It may be more than you think.

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