Though I am a big fan of the hustle and bustle of city life, the flip side of our increasingly urbanized world, is that small towns are not only being depopulated but they are also simply disappearing. In Canada, perhaps nowhere is this more visible than on the prairies. In his 1962 autobiography Wolf Willow, Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Stegner, wrote that when he returned to East End, Saskatchewan, his hometown, as an adult, he discovered that it had fewer inhabitants then when he had been a child. The pace of urbanization has only increased over the last 50 years. In fact, so many frontier and early settlement towns have literally disappeared that in Alberta, I discovered a group had formed to unearth them in order to ensure that local history is preserved. Working with old maps, these casual cartographers are scouring the province to locate the now missing towns. There is yet another group, Vanishing Alberta, devoted to photographing the remaining ruins, buildings and artifacts before they are gone forever.
Last year, I experienced this phenomenon firsthand when I took a road trip with Val, a music teacher, with whom I was working in Medicine Hat. An immensely friendly and lively woman, she had been born just down the road in Eztikom, and we agreed, that come spring, she would take me there.
Though only a short drive, Etzikom is worlds away. Until recently it had been a thriving agricultural community but was fast on its way to disappearing. Like many other buildings, Val’s home had been boarded up and abandoned. A few residents still held on but now had to drive miles for basic groceries, as there were no longer stores of any kind. Local legend had it that an out of province author had seen a beautiful old home at an agreeable price online and had bought it sight unseen. Upon arriving and discovering that she was unable to buy even milk in town, she lasted not even a year before heading back to more convenient, less isolated parts.
In an attempt to keep the town alive and draw tourists, residents had turned the local high school into a museum and, I will say unequivocally, the Etzikom Museum did not disappoint. It was full of delightful and unexpected curiosities. Old classrooms had been transformed into display halls with artifacts and remnants of rural town life. The entrance hall, outside what would presumably have been the principal’s office, now housed the interior of the town’s old diner. We were able to slide onto round stools and order a tasty, locally made snack. One former classroom housed a terrific collection of pianos and player pianos with rolls, which once inserted, could belt out tunes from yesteryear. Val gamely sat down at a beautiful old square piano and gave the keys a whirl. Though now a little out of tune, back in the day I could only imagine how comforting the sound of the piano’s music must have been to early settlers who found themselves so remote from concert halls. Val’s playing and the sights of the town outside brought to mind Willa Cather’s searing portrait of rural American prairie life, The Song of the Lark.
Outside, I toured the impressive collection of windmills that had been installed in the school’s former playground. Little did I know how important this device had been to the settlement of southeastern Alberta. Etzikom is located in Palliser Triangle, a region so dry that until the importation of the windmill, it was virtually uninhabitable. Companies like Eaton’s did a brisk mail order trade with newly arrived settlers.
The road home took us past Orion, an even smaller town. Most homes there had already been swallowed whole by the prairie, the houses already half-filled with earth blown in by fierce winds. Orion was home to only two inhabitants, octogenarian Boyd Stevens and “the widow who lives down the road”. When I asked him if he would consider moving, now that there was virtually nobody around, without hesitation he responded no. He had tried living other places but to no avail. He always came back to Orion. “I’m an old prairie dog,” he said. Life had picked up a little since a new evangelical church had been constructed a few years back, but the town remained mostly empty, save for Sunday, when folks drive in from nearby farms to worship.
The sun was casting its long rays across the grasses as we drove home. Val pointed out where her mother’s homestead had once stood and the route her mother had taken as a child to get to her one room schoolhouse, which stood at a crest of a nearby hill. Both the home and school have long since disappeared but if you looked hard enough, it was still possible to just make out the old trail her mother had taken those many years ago.