My Ancestors Were Prairie People
By John Warden
This article was first published in the Winter 2015 Edition of Nature Alberta Magazine
Our milk cow fell into the well and had to be shot. The antelope ate our garden and we always had trouble with coyotes. A terrible wind blew up, lifted the barn and sat it down on the hen house, killing most of the chickens. There hadn’t been any rain, so most of the crop was gone (Fleming, 1980).
No, these are not the lyrics of a popular country and western song. This was life on the prairies for my maternal grandmother, Irene Fleming, as written in her autobiography. It was the spring and summer months of 1913 and she was living then in a two room shack on a homestead, near Brooks. It was seven miles to the nearest neighbour and town was twelve miles away. Grandma was 19 that year and had just emigrated that spring, from Iowa. On horseback, she chased the coyotes away from the homestead and on one occasion, returning home from a picnic on the prairies, she got caught in the middle of a cattle stampede.
We were on foot and ran up and down ditches and across the prairie and into a ditch rider’s cabin , just in time. The cattle tore the porch right off the cabin as they went by.
Life on the land was tough. That fall, she moved off the homestead and into Brooks. That winter she moved from Brooks to the village of Hanna.
The man who would eventually be her father in law, had been a trainman with the C.P.R. in Thunder Bay. George Fleming had come west in 1912. He rode 42 miles across the prairie on horseback from Munson, to settle at Hanna, before it was even a town. I’ve seen photographs of the village of Hanna from 1913. There wasn’t much there, maybe a dozen buildings or so. What they did have though, was an abundance of land and sky.
When we were kids, we’d visit my grandparents at Hanna. Coming from the west on Highway 9, the road drops down a long hill and you can see the prairies open up to the east. The sightlines seem to extend into forever and the landscape is just far enough away from the badlands to be pure prairie. It was a tradition, that after dinner, we would all pile into the family car and go for a drive, ‘looking’ as my grandfather would say, ‘for a cloud’. If you could spot a cloud that meant that there was hope for rain and with that rain, life and growth for the land and for the people. We watched for antelope and counted gophers on the road, commented on the dryness of the land and watched the sky, hoping for clouds.
The simplicity of land and sky... a century after my ancestors arrived on the prairies, I returned Hanna.
Simplicity seems, well...simple. Land and sky. Two elements. That’s the prairies. That’s how nearly everyone describes the plains and grasslands. But when we look out to the edge of the land, there’s the horizon, a dividing line between earth and sky. Explicit or implied, the horizon creates space, defines shape and offers perspective. A high horizontal line provides us with a focus on the land. A low horizontal line opens up the sky. Simple, yet subtle, the artist’s placement of the horizon is a powerful, compositional tool. From design theory, horizontal lines comfort and calm us with feelings of stability, balance and control. A horizontal line provides a place for us to stand and also presents us with a starting point from which we can explore the subtleties of both the land and sky.
‘Subtle’ is an interesting word meaning delicate, understated and difficult to understand or perceive. Yet, it is the subtleties of the prairies that leave their mark and tell its story: the always changing canvas of colour, the lines and shapes, layers and patterns. These are all of the elements of design and composition that apply to any other image, but we’re looking for them in a simple, seemingly empty landscape. To find them will require patience, contemplation and a long slow look.
So, with an open heart and a suitcase full of memories, I pulled over to the side of the road, set up my tripod, and attached my camera. A tripod allows for the stability required for crystal clear sharpness and maximum depth of field. Also, I always use a cable release and the mirror lock-up feature of my camera to further reduce camera vibration. With my tools ready, it was time for a long slow look, challenging my eyes and my spirit to find the art of the prairies.
Well, the Hanna landscape that morning was, at first glance, bold. An obvious, brilliant wash of color. Waves of yellow. Canola and mustard fields everywhere. But, what other riches might a long slow look reveal? I composed photographs, patiently working the horizon. What do I see? What do I feel? What does what I see, mean to me? What do I want the image that I create, to tell others?
Here is the land!
With a high horizon, I contemplated the prairies and found rolling hills, where the contours of the land were revealed in subtle highlights. In the looking, I literally, saw the light and watched as it moved, dancing across the land, light chasing shadow. With a low horizon, I felt the power and vastness of the sky, the majesty and mass of clouds looking down upon me from their high view.
A few days later, I went cross country to Vulcan.
My grandfather, John Warden, came to this area in 1906 and worked at the Bartlett Ranch on Willow Creek, west of Stavely. He was a blacksmith, but he also hauled mail and supplies by wagon to the new post office and store at Reid Hill. It was a distance of about 30 miles across the wide open prairie and the winter of 1906 / 07 was one of the worst on record. Snow started falling on 03 November 1906 and fell for 31 hours straight and stayed on the ground until 24th of May 1907. The official record for snowfall that year was taken at Edmonton and was reported as 90.3 inches. Local stories tell of temperatures dropping down to 50 and 60 degree below zero (Fahrenheit). Thousands of cattle and horses died that winter from the snow and cold. Many ranchers went bankrupt and those that survived turned to farming.
My grandfather took a homestead near Carmangay, only to find the summer of 1910, one of the driest seasons ever. He seeded in March and by fall the crop was only about ten inches high. He had a family to support though, so the following year the Warden family moved for better land to Reid Hill, 9 miles east of the new town of Vulcan, on the Lomand Road. A succession of Warden families lived there for the next 50 years.
The Warden home place has changed in the intervening years. The pump house and the old chicken coop next to the windbreak are the only original buildings still standing. The land and the sky though, remain.
How do I tell you of the sky at Vulcan? It’s a sky that has a physical presence, a sky of piercing blue emptiness where a single cloud can appear and move across the land, growing larger and morphing into a prairie storm, all in a matter of minutes.
Beneath that vast sky, I stood in a farmer’s field on a bit of a hill and contemplated the land stretching out to a 360 degree prairie horizon. Breathtaking, it is indeed. The farmers will tell you that it requires patience for the land to reveal its richness. Fortunately, I had the time for a long, slow look and discovered once again, an incredible splendour of lines, layers, and colors. It’s the colours that surprised me the most. On this morning, the prairie was a painting of soft pastels punctuated by farms, windbreaks and old granaries. The land has been cultivated and nurtured for generations now, and the fertility and history of the land was revealed in its soft colours.
In the early 1900’s, when the homesteaders came to Alberta, eighty percent of the population was rural. Now, eighty percent of the population is urban. People have left the land for the cities. But the land, the sky and the horizon remain, simple, subtle and rich. My ancestors were prairie people. They lived and loved and at times, hated the land, but it’s my grandmother’s words that paint the picture.
I’ll never forget the morning we arrived at Brooks. Ah, what a beautiful morning. Almost all you can see for miles and miles is prairie. There are hills, just little rolling ones though. I fell in love with Alberta that morning and have never gotten over it! Alberta’s famous sunshine, air like wine, meadowlarks singing and the whole wonderful world ahead of me (Fleming, 1980).
The stories of my ancestors are a paragraph or two in a history of the prairies. The photographs I took to help tell their stories are also now, part of yesterday. The land and the sky though, they are right now. Their richness is to be found in this moment, and patiently, they wait for us.
Budd, V. (1995). John and Grace Warden and Families History Book. Vulcan, Alberta: Self Published.
Fleming, I. (1980). An Autobiography. Hanna, Alberta: Self Published.
Hunt, S. (2013, May 02). Mythical prairie dances to life. Retrieved from Edmonton Journal: http://www2.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/whatson/story.html?id=a6f70192-4703-4c57-af89-d6b722f75400
Rainone, M. (2014, Feb). Reflections of Ponoka: We also had cold winters in the old days. Ponoka News .
Stavely Historical Book Society. (1976). Butte Stands Guard: Stavely and District. Calgary: W. Friesen and Sons Ltd.
The Carmangay and District Home and School Assoc. (1968). Bridging the Years: Carmangay and Disrict. Lethbridge, Alberta: Southern Printing Company.
Vulcan and District Historical Society. (1973). Wheat Country: A History of Vulcan and District. Calgary: D.W. Friesen & Sons Ltd.