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:




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.

Nordegg region.fire.1919 Fire at Nordegg, Alberta, May 1919


Fire at Weyakwin Lake, Saskatchewan, June 2015

Back in May of 2015, with forest fires crackling and snapping from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, Canadian news headlines for this year’s May fire season forecast disaster: “alarming”, “out of control”, and “highest number of forest fires in a decade.” Pointing fingers at human causes, banning fires and issuing evacuation orders, communities from coast to coast were on high alert.

Then came June. And in Saskatchewan, the north has blown up. Wildfires are raging nearly everywhere, threatening communities and sending people and animals running. Ash rains down, smoke is blanketing the province and trailing as far south as Kansas, and across the agricultural south, drought stalks farms, withering crops.

There’s something eerily familiar about all of this.

During the winter of 1918-1919, with the Spanish Influenza epidemic touching fingers of death into every community in Canada, few except lumbermen and farmers noticed the low snowfall. April grew warm, then hot. Logs, with little to no spring runoff, were jammed. By May, the forest was tinder dry and drought stalked the plains.

Textbooks recall the social firestorm in Winnipeg, as thousands walked off the job in the massive Winnipeg General Strike. But across northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, a different kind of firestorm lay in wait. It began with pockets of local trouble: a wildfire here, a wildfire there. Most were beat back, put out.

But on May 19th, 96 years ago, a conflagration burst across the northern parts of western Canada. Fueled by incredible high winds that blew widdershins – first one direction, then another, unpredictable and at gale force – the tinder-dry boreal forest blew up.

At Lac la Biche in Alberta, the town was surrounded, with almost no warning. Dark as night, with embers raining down, multiple buildings caught fire, and the railroad corridor was burning. With no possible evacuation, residents headed for the only place of safety: the lake. Swimming out, dunking under frequently to keep wet, residents watched a fire of such intensity that the very reeds on the lakeshore above the waterline burned. When it was over, 300 people were homeless. Few buildings remained. lac la biche fire.our roots history book

East from Lac la Biche, in not just one fire but a complex of fires burning on the same day, other towns faced a dire situation. Bonnyville. Green Lake. Big River. Smaller villages, such as Goodridge and Debden, and Montreal Lake looked disaster and ruin in the eye. 

In Big River, a major hub of the western Canadian lumber industry, piles of cut wood worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were in the path of the flames. In an instant, 1000 lumber workers became fire fighters, and the flames were stopped 200 yards from the complex. Nearby, hundreds of Aboriginal men, settlers, forest rangers and all able-bodied help formed crews to beat back fires wherever and however they could.

A boreal forest fire is deadly, a conflagration along the ground. Crowning, climbing up the trees to burn the tops like matches, a crowned forest fire is even more deadly. When whipped by vicious gale force winds, or across a boreal landscape dried to tinder, such a forest fire moves faster than either humans or animals. The Prince Albert newspaper simply said: “Hades is loose.”

There was tragedy, too. At Lac des Iles, east of Cold Lake on the Saskatchewan side, near what is now Meadow Lake Provincial Park, Chief Joseph Big Head and his closely-knit clan had signed an adhesion to Treaty Six in 1913 and by 1919 were settling on their chosen reserve. A large family group was out on the land when the fire rained down. Four people – three women and one child – died immediately, but more than two dozen more were so badly burned that some were not expected to survive. By the time they managed to walk out, 11 had died and all carried scars. It is the tragedy of the Great Fire.

In places, the fires raged for days. At one point, the city of Prince Albert was surrounded by wildfires in every direction. Day turned to night as smoke filled the sky and embers rained down. As far south as Regina and Moose Jaw, smoke from the northern fire complex swirled and flooded. The smell of burning pine was everywhere.

In the end, 2.8 million hectares of forest burned. The Great Fire enters the annals of Canadian history as one of the largest fire complexes ever to burn the boreal forest, and is listed alongside other Canadian tragedies such as the Miramichi fire of 1825, the Saguenay/Lac Saint Jean fires of 1870, Black Tuesday in the Porcupine region of Ontario in 1911, Matheson in 1916 and Haileybury fires of 1923.

There is no telling what the end result will be this year, as fire roars through northern Saskatchewan. Water bombers and sophisticated communication add to our modern ammunition against the flames, but sometimes, it’s still not enough. The residents of Slave Lake, burned to the ground in the 2011 wildfire, keep a close watch when the wind is high and the tinder dry. And as I look out through the smoke and haze, hundreds of miles from the firestorm, I think of everyone working night and day, to protect and preserve what we can.

In Canada, fire is burned into our history. Pray for rain. Fire season is upon us.

photo 4

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.

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.

Living on the Edge

This blog post was originally published in the Network in Canadian History of the Environment group blog, The Otter in April of 2010. Find the original here

I grew up on the edge, the fringe. That isn’t a political statement, nor does it reference a social comment – my Mom was a teacher, my Dad a farmer. It is a reference to a place: the forest fringe, the edge ecotone between the prairies and the northern provincial boreal forest, north of the city of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
It was a place where, as my Dad once said, you could make hay one day and go blueberry picking the next, clean the barn then drop the pitchfork and grab your fishing rod. “Going to the lake” was as easy as going to visit a neighbor, and happened almost as frequently. At the transition zone between farming and forest, living on the edge meant pulling aspects from both into the local economy, society, and culture.

My attachment to this edge place means that although I am Saskatchewan born, I am not from the prairies. My grandparents fled the prairie dust bowl and Depression in 1934, moving their animals, implements, and household goods from Weyburn north to the forest fringe along with an estimated 45,000 other people during what was known as The Great Trek.

They abandoned the plains wheat monoculture to embrace a mixed farming lifestyle in a place where they had hope, as well as trees, shelter, fuel, and water. I don’t mean to romanticize that move – there were plenty of hardships at the forest edge – but the rejection of the prairie shaped the identity of my family and our community. Most Canadians fail to recognize Saskatchewan as anything but flat and treeless, blue skies framing golden fields of wheat. That stereotype drives regional conceptualizations of Canada – the prairies are flat, the Maritimes are wet, the North is cold. My work, which is a place history of the north Prince Albert area, suggests that historians must critically engage with the idea of regionalism to uncover and examine underlying stereotypes or assumptions.

One casualty of the power of regional stereotypes is the concept of an ideal farm. A prairie wheat farm, specifically engaged in international market trade for profit has been presented as the apex of the farm endeavor. As a result, few historians have understood or analyzed the critical cultural and social differences between prairie wheat farms and mixed farms common to parkland/forest fringe environments. The Great Trek and similar migrations show that cereal monoculture was quickly abandoned in times of environmental or economic stress, when the edge environment of the forest fringe became a refuge.

Edge farms – with their shorter growing seasons, frost hazards, and soil conditions – grew less wheat, less successfully, less often. However other crops, such as barley, oats, and alfalfa, thrived, as did most livestock. Farmers combined mixed farming with occupational pluralism, particularly non-farm economic activity from the forest (cordwood cutting, fishing, hunting, commercial freighting) as a way of life.

Yet the wheat ideal remained, and farms that required off-farm income were classified as marginal. Recently, powerful arguments from the forest sector demand the return of marginal edge farmland to forest, citing carbon sequestration, forest regeneration, renewable energy resources and green capital. This has led to a re-evaluation of the edge, shifting the ideal away from agriculture. Local tourism promotion as the ‘Lakeland’ region further cements the cultural role of trees. But a concurrent growth in alternative bioenergy research and ethanol production has made farmland an even more critical part of our future. The debate seems to be: which do we need more? Forests, or farmland? The Great Trek migrants would say: some of both, please.

Fantastic news!

My book, Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan has been nominated for a Saskatchewan Book Award!

Nominated in the Scholarly category, I’m very excited to see this alternative view of Saskatchewan history recognized for its contribution.

It’s a great honour. I look forward to the awards ceremony on April 25th in Regina.