Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

I have long been a member of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History of the Environment. It is a cross-Canada (and international) network of environmental historians and historical geographers.

In response to the growing realization that only about 20% of PhDs land tenure track positions within leading universities, NiCHE editors have created Rhizomes, a blog series about alternative and post-academic career paths. 

This is my contribution: http://niche-canada.org/2017/12/06/rhizomes-an-interview-with-merle-massie/

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[Hey everyone. I’ve been away from my blog for a long time (for good reasons, I do promise). But I have a lot of bite-sized pieces that I’ve published in various places, sitting on my computer. I’m going to start bringing them in here.]

*** NOTE: this piece was originally published in Rural Roots August 21st 2014 ****

John Beames is a western Canadian author “who does not deserve to be as completely forgotten as he has been,” wrote Dick Harrison in 1977, commenting on prairie writers.

But, even in Prince Albert, the town he worked so hard to make famous, Beames is all but forgotten.

Born in India in 1889, John Beames was the son of a British army officer, well-used to traveling and adventure. Taken to Britain, Beames entered public school until the family relocated to Canada, taking up a homestead farm north of Prince Albert when the land was opened for settlement, about 1906.

John Beames.SaskHistoryOnline

Prince Albert author John Beames. Courtesy SaskHistoryOnline

As was the case with most homesteaders, local jobs brought extra cash. Beames worked as a lumberjack, a millhand, and did some trapping. He also hauled freight on the winter trails north from Prince Albert, taking goods up the old Montreal Lake trail. Eventually, he became a bookkeeper and started writing stories for pulp magazines. By 1926, stories such as “Cuff Her, Riverhog” and “The Price of a Pelt” found their way into Short Stories and Ace-High Magazine.

The Ace-High Magazine had a tagline of “Western Adventure and Sport Stories,” and sold for 20 cents a copy. Its covers showed cowboys, in hats and chaps and guns and handkerchiefs, glorying in action. Beames published forty-four short stories in Ace-High, eighteen in West, as well as other pulp publications.

His work brought a distinctly northern flavour to the magazines. Lumberjacks, freighters, trappers and bears, gold mining and prospecting, trees and muskegs seasoned his stories.

Beames moved to Toronto in 1928, persuaded by his editor to write full-time. The Great Depression curbed his writing, as so many pulp magazines suffered in the economic crisis. But Beames, with the weight of practice, wrote three novels that put Prince Albert on the fictional map.

Army Without BannersArmy Without Banners was published in 1930. The main characters, Billy and Maggie Clovelly, are cast as pioneers homesteaders in the northern bush. “Real, wild, new country – that’s what I like. Fences give me a pain in the neck.” The nearest town is Riverton, a mask for Prince Albert, but the town features little in the story. Instead, Beames recreates what it was like to build a homestead, then a neighborhood, then a community, with each quarter slowly filling and the land changing from bush to farmland.

The characters face typical homestead stories, from digging a well to building a homestead shack, getting rooked by an implement dealer and taking freighting contracts in winter to make a little money. Church services and community parties, with a mix of cultures, brings the homestead world to life.

In the end, all that civilization was too much for Billy Clovelly, and he sells his farm to move even further north, to the Peace River country of Alberta, to start all over again in a place with no fences. “He was not made for civilization, but appointed by fate a scout, a spyer-out of the land.”

Two more novels followed in close succession, both with a clear focus on the city of Prince Albert: Gateway in 1932, and Duke in 1933. In both these novels, the city is renamed Gateway – a play on Prince Albert’s tagline, “Gateway to the North.” River Street is Water Street, “three miles long, with a sawmill at either end, and followed the wide windings of the Sweetwater River,” a fictional version of the Saskatchewan. Central Avenue became Maple Avenue, and the “train went no further, and from the banks of the Sweetwater to the Arctic there stretched the Northern wilderness.” Both were published in Britain by Ernest Benn Limited, no doubt to an audience still eager for rough-and-tumble stories from the far-flung colonies.

Gateway tells the story of Richard Black, a handsome ne’er-do-well bachelor who inherits a store on Water Street and struggles to both turn a profit and escort the prettiest girl in town, Molly McLay, in style. The rival for Molly’s fickle affection is Conquest Gates, owner of the local flour mill. Side characters abound, and Beames has a deft touch when it comes to writing local language. A rival store owner, Mr. Isenberg, described a customer: “I don’t give him no credit, it’s cash or trade mit dot deadbeat. He bring in some botter an’ some Seneca root just now an’ trade, I don’t give him no credit.”

In some ways, Duke, his final novel, is Beames’ best portrayal of Prince Albert. In it, he takes the theme of town boosterism, real estate booms and how they can be created. The central character, Marmaduke Ming, becomes the “Duke,” a real estate man complete with a vapish wife who strips him of money and pride.

But the heart of the story is the rush to build a power dam at Thunder Falls – which Prince Albert residents would recognize as La Colle Falls. “The river came foaming down a littered stairway of granite rock and leaped out in a bold and beautiful curve, to fall into a boiling basin forty feet below.” The novel follows the power-dam idea through politics, engineering, raising money, and ultimately the bust that stopped the project and sent Gateway/Prince Albert into a tailspin of debt. Duke Ming, in the end, goes off to fight in the Great War in 1914.


 La Colle Falls during the build. RA-1796-2 Courtesy of Saskatchewan Archives Board

While the old Western Producer book publishing series re-issued Army Without Banners in 1988, both Duke and Gateway are rare finds. Only the lucky will find one of the few copies. I bought mine through rare book hunts and treasure them. But I suspect, with Beames’ connection to Prince Albert and its fictionalization into Gateway, that there are still a few copies of these books hiding in P.A. family bookshelves.

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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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Wow! I have wonderful news to share…

Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan has been awarded a Saskatchewan Book Award 2015 for Scholarly Writing!

The review of my book (presumably by the judges!) said this:

“In this fascinating, well-researched, and innovative book, historian Merle Massie tells a Saskatchewan story quite different from the more well known narratives of the plains Cree, settler societies, and political and economic developments in the southern half of the province. Instead, she embarks on a ‘deep time history’ of a single region in the rural parkland belt around Prince Albert, the ecotone where the boreal forest and the prairies meet. An excellent book with an epic sweep.”

Lovely praise. My thanks.

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This post was originally published May 14, 2013 at ActiveHistory.ca. See the original here.

Between 2011 and 2013, I lurked in the halls and wandered wide-eyed through the conferences of my social and natural science colleagues. An interdisciplinary institutional postdoctoral fellowship, funded by MISTRA (The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research) and routed through the University of Saskatchewan, ensured my place at the lunch table and at the front of the classroom.

So, I spent two years trying to explain how I, as a humanist, conduct my research. More importantly, I’ve noticed, the question is not so much how, but where does that research take place?

Since most of my professional work has focused on the 20th and 21st century, I do (on occasion) conduct interviews and focus groups with living people. I even have a working knowledge of qualitative methods, rigour, and the point of statistical analysis. I parlayed this penchant into the postdoc, with good results. But I remain, at heart, a document hunter/gatherer.

Working with social and natural scientists, I soon learned that research is about data generation. Set up the research parameters/test/study/measurement/focus group/survey/experiment, in order to generate data. Few, if any, ever work with someone else’s data set. The core concern is to generate something new.

That was my first hurdle: what I always thought of as ‘sources,’ now had to become ‘data.’ It’s a bump in the sidewalk that I trip over, every time.

No matter. I forge ahead, explaining gently that although I do sometimes generate new data (using oral interview techniques, statistical analysis, or focus groups), I usually work with sources that already exist. It becomes my job to find those sources, hunt and gather, thinking laterally and strategically, sometimes hitting brick walls or large empty chasms where my ‘data’ (sources) should be but are not. Or I am showered in luck, serendipity, and happenstance and find a treasure trove, an untapped new source waiting for me to harvest, like a new bed of sweet grass, or a docile pod of mule deer.

But, but, where do these sources exist? Are you talking about libraries? Confusion reigns, for libraries, of course, contain outdated data. If it’s in a book, it’s too old. Anything more than five years old is virtually unusable. (Of course, we all recognize the deliberately obtuse generalization here – many social scientists regularly work with similar sources and data sets. Natural scientists, though, perhaps not so much).

No. My data/sources are to be found in archives. Archives? What, exactly, are archives and what kinds of information do you find there?

And that’s how I twigged onto a new way of explaining where I conduct research.

An archive, I now explain, is much like a lab: laboratory space along the lines of the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron at Saskatoon or one of the Toxicology labs or a soil science lab or….  A lab has certain physical requirements that are conducive to research: it requires physical space with heating, light, and custodial services; equipment (shelves, tables, chairs, finding aids and guides, archival quality storage boxes and containers, microfilm readers, lightboxes, cotton gloves, and pencils instead of thermal analyzers or microcalorimeters or…); it needs trained staff (archivists); and it houses raw materials (archival documents, which range from photographs to text to sound recordings, collected over time).

The questions that I, as a researcher, bring to the archive are what guide me through my research process, in the same way that another researcher might ask questions and conduct experiments using the materials/equipment found in a lab. Different researchers posing different questions use different equipment and materials. Each archive is slightly different in its materials and equipment, just like no two labs are exactly the same.

Presto pow! Lights on, understanding, and we’re back on equal footing. (There remain big questions surrounding how I do research and if it is objective, verifiable, and replicate-able, but those are larger questions that might never be solved, as they stand at the dividing line between humanities and natural science research).

Why is this important? I call on all of my fellow humanists and social science researchers who use archives to co-opt this terminology switch, and broadcast it freely. Because I believe that this terminology switch might help save our archives from folding under the collective weight of government and institutional non-support. At a time when investment in science-based laboratory and experimental research is growing (witness the Global Institute for Water Security, and the new Global Institute for Food Security at the U of S), archives funding is cut. We can stop this.

Archives (which collects a record of anthro-centric activity reaching back through time) is the laboratory with which to build research that changes the way our world works and thinks about itself. In fact, I charge you to find another lab that has supported an equal range of research depth and breadth and temporal scope. Where would we be in our knowledge about residential schools, lesbian and gay rights, health geography and poverty, First Nations land claims, war activities, medicare, social protest, and climate change without archives? Accessed by researchers not only in history but in archaeology and anthropology, art, literature, science, technology, sociology, linguistics, education, law, commerce and business, industrial development, mining, resource management, First Nations and Metis studies, institutional foundations, governance and government, medicine and nursing, engineering and agriculture, archives reflect how we as humans make decisions, and what the consequences of those decisions have been.

So let’s make one easy switch: the next time you visit an archive, think of it – and talk about it to interdisciplinary colleagues, institutional leadership, and your MLA and MP – as a laboratory. Co-opt the language that is already implicitly understood – and funded.

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