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Saturday, 19 March 2016


Snapshots from the Canadian Prairies
In the winter time when we can't farm
Me and Junny-Mae sit arm in arm
By a big ole fire and honeymoon
A little bit south of Saskatoon
Sonny James; “A Little bit South of Saskatoon”

’Horse Power’, Tendall’s Ranch, S. Sask.
Milestone, Saskatchewan, a town of twenty two streets just north of the Montana border; maybe not the centre of the prairies but when the world is this flat and featureless there is no centre. Looking down on Milestone with Google Maps we see a small triangle on Highway 39, surrounded by a chequerboard of precisely measured out squares of wheat fields, so exact in their dimensions to be heartbreaking. Is there anywhere more desolate to live on this planet than Saskatchewan’s prairies? There are towns in Australia more geographically isolated but the terrain is not so relentlessly unchanging, and they don’t have the long winters that used to drive people indoors for months at a time.

Tendall Ranch, Saskatchewan
These photos come from a single, loose collection, centred around the Tendall family ranch at Milestone but some also taken in Ontario and Quebec. They can be broken onto three, with the earliest, including the first three, taken in Milestone around 1915, two more from Ontario in the 1920s and the rest back at the Tendall ranch in the 1930s. The photographer wasn’t a Tendall. Local records show a Tindall family around Milestone but information on the family is somewhat sparse. There are no Tendalls or Tindalls in the Milestone Cemetery although there are several Tindalls buried in Weyburn, a town further down Highway 39. More about the family later.

Somewhere in S. Saskatchewan. A young friend of Roy Carson Circa 1915 (Fishing trip – see poles on car).
By 1915 it may have been historically too late to be considered a pioneer on the prairies but whatever comforts technology had brought were at best meagre. The Model T wasn’t so much a car yet as an idea of what one could be after basic problems were figured out. People old enough to have travelled in stagecoaches didn’t see a great deal of improvement so far as comfort was concerned. In 1908 the Provincial government established the Department of Telephones with the intention of connecting all the towns on the prairies. The telephone would have alleviated isolation, especially in the winter.

Eva Carson at Rockliffe, Ont.
In January and February the temperature on the prairies can hit -40 and stay there for weeks on end – or as someone put it recently; from November to May. In Canada it isn’t the temperature but the wind chill to watch out for. Winds blowing down from the Arctic have nothing but some low hills and a few trees in their way. The cold that defines the prairies more than the flatness does. A couple of years ago one news service cheerfully reported that it was colder on the prairies than it was on Mars. Rockville, on Lake Manitou in Ontario was tropical in comparison. 

Eva Carson
And here is Eva in the summer, possibly still at Rockville although there are a few small lakes in the vicinity of Milestone.  

Old Carson homestead. Roy Carson’s horses, C1921.
Whoever took this photo didn’t spend much time around horses. In his or her eye a foal was a cute baby animal, not an economic asset. Strange that we have sheep and cattle farmers but we say ‘horse breeders’ not horse farmers. Maybe it’s because that sounds like we are rearing them for knackery yards and glue pots when we like to think we have more noble plans for them.

Mortimer’s car, taken at Masson, Que, just opposite Cumberland, Ont. (Mortimer Cummings, oldest brother of Alberta).   
The Ottawa River marks a border between Quebec and Ontario. Today Masson is part of Gatineau, a quick skip over the bridge from Ottawa. A hasty bit of research indicates an Alberta Cummings born in Ontario 1879, marrying a Thomas Pollock in 1899, and a Mortimer Cummings marrying Victoria Byham in 1896, though with the paywall in the way we can’t say they were related. There is always a small mystery as to who these captions are written for: the person putting the album together or others intending to look at it. 

Fred Tendall at Milestone, Sask. Roy Carson worked for him circa 1915.
Back to Milestone, and to Fred Tendall. Roy Carson (obviously related to Eva) may be one of the people in the third photograph above. This photo was taken approximately twenty years later. Sometimes a journey returning to another’s past is a kind of pilgrimage of honour, and sometimes it’s because the person whose past it is recommends stopping by the old homestead. Despite what Hollywood wanted us to believe, no rancher dressed like this for work, unless the business ran a dude ranch on the side. Those curiosities of excess urbanisation had their heyday in the 1930s, when this photo was taken and when city folk would pay good money to get back to nature – or the closest thing to it. 

Mr and Mrs Tendall, Milestone Sask – Roy Carson worked for these people sometime between 13-1918.
 Interesting the way Roy Carson is always referred to by his full name, suggesting the photographer does not know him (though Eva Carson is a friend). In A History of the Marshall and Related Families, written by Wallace Marshall in 1922, we read That William Tindall, was a Nebraska farmer who had eight children, including Fred, who married Lilliam Brumsay and moved to Milestone. The thing in the bottom right is a dog.

Milestone Sask
It was odd to discover there are art historians and heritage researchers devoting their lives to the study of grain elevators. What could be more emblematic of the dullness that reputedly marks Canadian culture?  Head out to the flatlands, witness the proliferation of silos and you realize these are really what windmills are to the Dutch or what the gas station is to an Arizonan; the defining architecture. There is something else. We have this response wired in to our consciousnesses so that when we see a big structure built by other humans we instinctively gravitate towards it.   

Milestone Sask.
The setting of these photos reminds me of Jonathan Raban’s travelogue and historical investigation Bad Land; an American Romance. Set on the North Dakota and Montana prairies south of the border, the trigger for Raban’s inquiry are old photographs of homesteaders. The story they lead into (but don’t reveal) is an upturning of one of the great American myths.

Milestone Sask.
That myth is that European man sets out to tame the land and does so, fearlessly and with determination. In Raban’s account things are a little less obvious. It isn’t the land but economics that defeat many of the farmers. A sodbuster can break the soil and plant a seed but there’s not much he can do when decisions made in Washingtoncauses the grain market to collapse. 

Fred Tendall, friend of Roy Carson; the best cowpuncher in the west.
Like all good photo collections, these photos don’t tell a story so much as nod to one hidden in the empty spaces between images. In this case it is one that stretches over three decades and a thousand miles but centres, unwittingly perhaps, on Fred Tindall, rancher in one of the most quietly inhospitable places on earth.


1 comment:

  1. I spent a bit of time in Saskatchewan on a family trip, as a kid. From what little I remember, it's immense and bleak indeed. The photos were a good find.


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