This weekend the girls and I went to visit their Nanna and Poppa in southern Saskatchewan. We decided to have an adventure and set out early Saturday morning to explore some of the many abandoned buildings surrounding my in-law’s little town.
Our first stop was an old two-room farm house. This old home looks like it may have been abandoned in the 1950’s and there isn’t much left inside beyond some peeling wooden doors and faded husks of wallpaper. Built of locally sourced rocks (probably hauled in from the field) this modest stone edifice was probably a homestead for one hopeful family. The present view from the front door is dismal but one can only imagine what it might have looked like once. With oxen, a plow, and a section of land- given by a government desperate to settle the west- the owners of this house must have looked at their lot and sown hope along with seeds each spring. Out back, in the only tree for miles, are the remains of a tree fort. City kids only dream about growing up in a place like this.
In the early part of the 20th century immigrants from Europe settled on parcels of land all over southern Saskatchewan. My father’s parents were among them and their story is typical. They immigrated to the U.S.A. from Germany in the early 1900’s. Then in about 1908, they took up residence outside Rosetown, Sask. For the first while they lived in what they had, a tiny wooden shed and made due with what they could produce on the land they’d acquired. They were far from any comforts they may have known in other climes and terribly alone- the nearest neighbors miles away. Life on the Canadian prairies was gritty. New settlers were subjected to the harsh reality of life in the heartland. Drought, blizzards and locusts (just to name a few) tried their best to send them back where they came from. Later, my ancestors built a proper house, a beautiful house in fact, that my uncle still lives in today. The original abode went to the birds (as a chicken coop) and the family carried on. Each year growing their prospects and their kin until they could really say that yes, Canada was the land of opportunity. It might take an entire lifetime filled to the brim with joys and sorrows but the land could be farmed and a family could prosper with the wheat, barley, cattle and chickens. Just up the road (in a manner of speaking) from the abandoned stone house, we cautiously inspected an old Lutheran church, empty, “as long as I’ve lived in these parts,” claims my mother-in-law. Erected in 1925 by local devotees, this church would have been much more than just a place of worship. For the people who settled in the south of Saskatchewan, church was a social necessity. Every day on a farm is work- hard work. A weekly churching was an important part of early farm life in the Prairies for both the word of God and the company of friends. Because of this desperate social need, there were almost as many churches as there were people in the beginning. In 1925 some folks would still have been living without running water or electricity. Homes were heated with coal stoves and people still got around by riding horses. Yes there were cars but with the state of roads in the rain, it would have often been easier to get along on horseback.As I surveyed the area surrounding the little church I could just imagine the poor soul who would have had to get up in the dark- saddle his horse and ride up the hill to the chapel. He would shovel coal into the great furnace in the dirt basement before most others were even out of bed so that each and every parishioner could sit in warm comfort by the time the sermon began. The bell was still in the steeple of this old church. The papers were still in the pulpit and the hymn numbers still sat, waiting like an anxious conductor for their chance to witness again the rising of voices from the now silent pews. Our final stop was a tour around an entire farmstead- still complete and standing (albeit with far fewer intact windows)- filled with junk, garbage and probably a few broken dreams. To me, this entire abandoned farmyard that had once been so beautiful symbolized the end of the era of beginnings. A barn owl swooped out of a great open window and told tales on the ghosts who haunt these old places. This homestead was eerie and beautiful and mournfully sad. These buildings built by people whose whole hearts were set on the belief that their hard work- their sacrifice was laid out to create a new and wonderful life.What is nostalgia exactly? Like a perfectly smooth stone whose rough edges have been worn away by years of flowing water, nostalgia is pleasantly fictitious memory. I wasn’t there and I’ll never know about the heartache and tears it took to build the stone houses, churches and farmsteads. I couldn’t help but wonder as we drove back home afterwards if they way we are using the land now is any better than the way we started out. Is it really so wise to invest in oil, chemicals and debt? And whether, when the pump jacks are dry and silent and the farmland is poisoned and arid, we should have stayed on the farm and just kept living a simple life.