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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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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…

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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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