GRASS ROOTS

Life and dust in a prairie town

HEATHER ROBERTSON October 1 1973

GRASS ROOTS

Life and dust in a prairie town

HEATHER ROBERTSON October 1 1973

GRASS ROOTS

Life and dust in a prairie town

HEATHER ROBERTSON

“The West has produced a whole literature of nostalgia written by people who left, books about their childhood and coming-of-age which end as soon as the writer grows up and goes east.” Thus Maclean’s contributing editor Heather Robertson (who grew up in Winnipeg and stayed) explains her own reasons for looking farther west instead of east in search of something more vital than memories — roots and a sense of place. She spent a year, on and off, visiting five towns deliberately selected for their different economic, ethnic and political traditions; she came away startled by their similarity, and by the depth of a tough, unbending Western culture only one generation old. In her new book, Grass Roots, released this month by James Lewis & Samuel, she comes to terms with the myths and realities of the Canadian West; the excerpt that follows is taken from her chapter on the proud little Saskatchewan town that erected a sign: NEW YORK IS BIG, BUT THIS IS BIGGAR.

A light freezing rain is falling on Biggar as the legionnaires form up for the Remembrance Day parade. Row on row of wizened grey men in blue blazers, grey trousers and blue berets, they come pouring out of the Legion Hall and mill around at the bottom of Main Street, waiting for the Air Cadet band which is still practising drum rolls in the parking lot behind the post office. The band, a dozen gawky youths with slicked-down hair in World War II air force uniforms, finally marches up and takes its place behind the Legion color party. A roll of drums and the mob of men, four abreast, moves up Main Street toward the Majestic Theatre, Biggar’s old movie theatre where the service will be held.

The parade is led by two members of the Biggar RCMP in red coats and spurs. They look very awkward and embarrassed as they grin sideways at the handful of forlorn spectators huddled on the sidewalk. Behind them are four flags carried by two middle-aged women from the Legion Auxiliary and a pair of beefy veterans whose bright rows of war medals clank over their hearts. The crowd of men follows, each one trying to keep in step, holding himself as erect as he can in the icy slush. Their rubbers are tied on with string and their long tweed topcoats flap in the wind. Except for the parade, Main Street is virtually deserted. The only sounds are the lonely rat-tat-tat of the drums and the shuffle of hundreds of shoes through the snow. The men stare straight ahead. They are followed by the women of the Legion Auxiliary in matching blue blazers and berets, their thin blue legs sticking like matchsticks out of their heavy winter boots, then by ranks of Elks in purple fezzes with white tassels and the ladies of the Royal Purple in purple blazers and white skirts. On and on they come, phalanx after phalanx, Cubs, Scouts, Brownies, Guides, kids of all ages and all sizes, pushing and giggling, herded by solemn Brown Owls and stern scoutmasters. Each group is in uniform and carries its own banner or flag.

The parade quickly covers the two blocks to the Majestic Theatre, and the marchers file inside past the little glass ticket window. Soon the theatre is full and some people have to stand at the back by the doors. The Majestic is very old and very dingy and the dust rises in fine clouds as the chair seats are thumped down. The wooden floor sags under the weight of the crowd. Up on the stage, three of Biggar’s dozen or so clergymen are ranged on chairs between the crumpled flags and potted ferns along with the RCMP and the Biggar Mother, a frail old lady in a black dress. In the centre is a cardboard cenotaph. The service used to be held at the real ceno-

taph in Queen Elizabeth Park, until the ladies of the IODE complained of having to stand in the cold.

After O Canada and O God Our Help In Ages Past the names of the dead men are read out by a legionnaire. There are only 22 names. The legionnaire mispronounces some of them. A trumpeter up in the balcony plays Last Post and then Reveille after the Silence. He launches into Abide With Me as the Biggar Mother places the first wreath at the base of the cardboard cenotaph. Wreaths are then laid on behalf of the provincial government and the Town of Biggar. A lady from the Legion Auxiliary makes her way down the aisle and up to the stage to lay a wreath. She is followed by a member of the IODE, then an Elk, two Brownies, the Knights of Columbus, the Lady Trainmen, a member of the student council at Biggar Composite High, two Cubs, two Scouts, a representative of the Rural Municipality of Biggar . . . The procession goes on and on. The trumpeter keeps playing. He plays the simple melody over once, twice, three times. Still the wreaths keep coming. The trumpeting takes on an air of urgency and desperation and phrases bleat and slur as the trumpeter gasps for breath. He hits false notes and then misses notes altogether. Soon the trumpeter’s breathing is as audible as the hymn and the audience is transfixed by the unseen agony in the balcony. The tune grows weaker and weaker, spluttering, stuttering until, just as the president of the Chamber of Commerce reaches the stage with his wreath, it fades away. The balcony is silent.

The Anglican minister gives the scripture lesson, the United Church minister says a very long prayer and the sermon is delivered by the pastor from the Church of God. The collection is taken in round metal film cans. A couple of hymns more, a prayer and God Save The Queen and everyone rushes thankfully out into the fresh air. In disarray the legionnaires retreat to the basement of the Legion Hall where they will toast their fallen comrades with rye and ginger ale.

Early in the summer of 1908 William Hodgins Biggar, KC, of Belleville, Ontario, was traveling across northwestern Saskatchewan in the private railway car of Charles Melville Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, for which Mr. Biggar was the solicitor. A former Ontario MLA and sometime mayor of Belleville, Mr. Biggar was accompanying other members of the board of directors of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway on an inspection tour of their new railway line to the west coast. To relieve the tedium of the journey the men amused themselves by designating the buffalo wallows and patches of wolf willow as the new stations and divisional points on the railway. Not surprisingly, they named the stations after themselves. Mr. Hays went first, naming his townsite Melville. The next divisional point went to Mr. Biggar. It turned out to be a large alkali slough on an absolutely flat and featureless stretch of prairie 60 miles due west of Saskatoon. Before the train arrived the slough was nameless; after the train pulled out, it was Biggar. Mr. Biggar never saw his town. His photo — that of a distinguished, white-haired old gentleman — hangs in the Biggar town hall, but aside from a couple of old-timers, no one in town knows or cares who he is.

The townsite for Biggar was originally laid out on the slough on the south side of the tracks but it was changed in the nick of time to the hill on the north. The incline makes Main Street a little precipitous in the winter but it gives Biggar good drainage, of which the town is proud.

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“Ya gotta remember that biggar’s a very cheap town to operate,” says a town councillor, wagging his finger. “Water drainage is nothin’. We can have a cloudburst and there isn’t a puddle around, only a little birdbath here and there.”

Biggar really got going in 1912 when it had two large hotels, the immigration shed, a boardinghouse called the ram pasture, a dozen stores, a brick school and a lot of nerve. The fact that Biggar was miles from nowhere with a population of about 200 people perched on a dusty windblown plain of dubious economic value did not deter the town fathers. They purchased another section of land north of town, subdivided it into lots and named it “Boulevard Heights.” A blueprint was drawn up showing winding drives facing a lake, and the area was advertised in the Biggar Independent as “the high-class residential section of Biggar.” In reality, the high-» class district was nothing more than a seedy pasture surrounding a slough. Some people were rumored to have made fortunes selling the phony lots, but in 1912 the mayor was arrested by the North West Mounted Police and the whole scheme collapsed. Any lots that were sold gradually reverted to the town for taxes. The municipal map still shows the Town of Biggar occupying a section and a half, two thirds being cow pasture.

Biggar is a working-class town. The railway attracted men from the shipyards and industrial slums of Europe and Great Britain. Some were skilled, some not; to the Grand Trunk it made little difference. The immigrants built their new houses on the prairie the way

they had been accustomed to living in the old country. Biggar is all squished together, tiny Victorian frame bungalows with skirted verandas and knickknacks in the windows set cheekby-jowl on 25-foot lots enclosed by wire and picket fences. A miniature metropolis of painted shutters and plastic flowers, Biggar is as crowded and claustrophobic as if its population were two million instead of 2,600. Protected by the railway to the south and the highway on the north and west, Biggar is a walled city, a respectable, proletarian little town set incongruously in the middle of a windswept wilderness.

Main Street runs downhill to the CNR station and rail yards past a welter of aged gas stations, vacant lots and slum houses. The salmon-pink Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses sticks out like a sore thumb. Across the street and a little farther down, the Biggar Citizens’ Clinic occupies an old Safeway store. Most of Biggar’s three-block business section is built of red brick, which gives the town a substantial, established appearance but makes it seem older than its 60 years, perhaps because all the buildings are very shabby and rundown. Urban blight has overtaken Biggar before the town has had a chance to grow. The biggest building is the threestory Eamon Block, an ancient brick office building with a poker den in the basement, a color TV salesman on the main floor and scores of penniless widows living in the attic. A plaque on the post office next door says it was built by Louis St. Laurent in 1955, which makes it just about the newest building on

Main Street. The post office is also the busiest place in town, next to the Canton Café across the street and the Eden Hotel beer parlor, at the end of Main Street facing the station.

The beer parlor of the Eden Hotel is always full, but it’s jammed to the rafters on Saturday night. With its sophisticated bordello-red and black decor, two shuffleboard tables and plush red carpet, the beer parlor is the most lavish establishment in Biggar. It’s the hotstove league, as the townspeople say, committee room for half the organizations in town, political headquarters for Biggar’s most powerful faction, the railroaders, who congregate there all afternoon not primarily to drink but to argue. Most of all the railroaders love to fight with the farmers, with whom they share a relationship of mutual loathing. Each group accuses the other of being stupid, lazy and rich. In the beer parlor they sit at separate tables and mutter about each other. Things come to a head in the classroom where the farm kids and the rail kids fight tooth and claw.

The “rails” form a separate caste in Biggar, a craft guild united by its own ritual, jargon and mystique. “Back in the steam-engine days,” says a yardmaster, “the railroad men, they’d stick together. They’d lie for ya and do everything else to keep ya outta trouble. Sometimes they’d bend over backwards to get ya into trouble! A lot of them lived the railroad. They still do.”

“There was something about a steam locomotive that was almost human,” muses Leo Campbell with a tender smile. “They were alive, part of the establishment. You treated them as one of your own family. They didn’t have names, just numbers, but those numbers were as familiar as Tom or Harry or Jim. Just mention a number and a picture of that locomotive would flash in front of your mind. When a collision occurred those numbers became fixed in your memory.”

“At night the old steam engines would talk away to themselves even if no one was on them,” says Tom Sutherland, who spent many winter nights alone in the station. “They was the only things that was alive besides me. They’d make noises just like when you’re asleep. Not all the same sounds either. There was a breathing to them. Poommph.”

Held together by the mystique of servitude to the steam engine and the arcane routine of CNR timetables, the railroaders have formed big family clans in Biggar in which members are identified by special railroad nicknames. “My brother was known as Clinker Jim,” says Ken Foster. “When a fire clinkered, you know, he wasn’t firin’ it right. It was always clinkered. There was a guy called Lord McKay and another we named Vinegar Face McKay. A conductor was

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Flat Wheel McCallum. Then there was Whistler Wright. He was always whistlin’ until we threatened to throw him out. My name is Cash Register. There’s nobody after the buck like me!”

The camaraderie hides deep jealousies within the railway hierarchy which is rigidly stratified according to status and income. The brakemen resent the conductor, who’s their boss, and the conductor hates the engineer, who makes more money and rides up front. “The engineer is God,” sneers one young brakeman. “The working men are just bums.” The engineers love to play Casey Jones; they swagger around in their striped caps, which they starch and dry over a tin can to make them stand up straight. Everyone pities the fireman, whose job is redundant, and dislikes the station agent, who treats the blue-collar workers with contempt.

Disputes over train orders sometimes broke out into fist fights in the station, but the railroads usually contented themselves with scrawling “F-off” on the agent’s fence on Hallowe’en. Threats and harassment were a kind of guerrilla warfare the railroaders used to protect themselves from the prying eyes of the CNR management. It worked. Intimidated local management covered for the trainmen, overlooking drunkenness and failing to report flagrant violations of rules and regulations. Pranks and arguments were not only a way to relieve the tedium of the trip but a form of revenge against the CNR. A wild collection of drifters, alcoholics and rangytangs, the rails formed a Robin Hood brotherhood locked in mortal combat with the railway moguls. Their weapon was the train.

“Oh, there were lots of wrecks!” remembers Sutherland. “I seen train wrecks right at the station! It was kinda a contest. An engineer would open ’er up and go through like hell when he was supposed to stop. The track was very bad. The ties would come loose and derail the trains. The engines didn’t derail, it was the cars behind. They’d jump the track and come rollin’ along in front of the station. A lot of station agents’ kids have been killed by trains. And trains have hit a lot of stations. Two trains collided once right at the station. Oil car exploded. Agent and his wife burned to death.”

Automation ended all that. “Hell,” says Ken Foster, “now you just climb on and away you go. What is there to do?” The world of Biggar trainmen is bounded on the west by Wainwright and on the east by Watrous. They never go any farther. Watrous is considered the better run because the train has to shunt through Saskatoon which provides a small break in the monotony. Everything is handled by computer; the crew mostly sits in the caboose playing

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cards and telling dirty stories. They all admit they’re bored. “It’s bread and butter,” shrugs a young brakeman. “For what you do, it’s a big paying job.” It’s also a glum future for a young man. A railroader’s income and status are related not to ability but to seniority. Most of the men are veterans who hired on after the war and they still have 15 or 20 years to go before retirement. “They haven’t hired an engineer here since 1956,” says the brakeman. “I’m qualified to be a conductor but there are so many guys ahead of me I’ll be a brakeman for another 20 years.” He smiles wanly. “There’s nothing you can do. You go along or cry a lot.” The young men resent the bottleneck at the top. They are bored by the traditions and arguments left over from the days of steam; mention the romance of railroading and they look blank or laugh out loud. They haven’t been in a wreck or played chicken with an oncoming train; their only thrill on the endless journey to Wainwright is watching the train demolish the occasional unsuspecting cow at a level crossing. Smalltown boys lured out of high school by the promise of big wages, their only justification for their job is money and the new railway mystique revolves around the spending of it.

Biggar’s gambling den does a big business on paydays when the cars and pickup trucks are lined up on Main Street for blocks. The poker game is run by a young ex-railroader who makes a weekly circuit of neighboring towns. Once a year a planeload of Biggar Elks takes off for a week in Las Vegas.

“A railroader’s got a pocket full of money and lots of free time,” says a poker player who quit railroading to go farming. “I quit because I was getting to be a bum. The evenings were all the same, in the beer parlor or the pool hall. Alcoholism’s a big problem in Biggar. For alcoholism you’ve got to have a good economic base. Railroaders are the economic elite of Biggar, but they’ve developed a beer-parlor culture.”

There’s not much waiting for a railroader at the end of the line. Retiring employees are honored at an annual CNR retirement banquet. “All the old retirees come back,” says Leo Campbell. “They stand up and tell what they were on the railway and how many years they served. The men get a wallet embossed with their railway order and $25 cash.” The ladies, says Mrs. Campbell, “get a real good cup and saucer, one worth about $3.50.”

Third Avenue United Church is one of about a dozen little churches which wage a ferocious religious war in Biggar. It’s engaged in fierce competition with several fundamentalist sects who meet in converted schools and the Elks’

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Hall; the congregations shift from church to church depending on the charisma of the minister but seldom number more than 50. Evangelistic pressure from the Witnesses has provoked the other ministers into an intense round of home visitations, prayer meetings, baptisms, solicitations, newsletters, counseling sessions and kaffeeklatsches to seduce the lapsed and to prevent further defections. Each one has staked out his ground: the Church of God is strong on farmers, the Catholics have a big youth group, the Witnesses court the Indians, and the Baptist minister, who tries to

convert everyone he meets on the street, accosts even the United Church minister with “Are you sure that you know God?” The United Church minister, former railroader S. A. “Curly” Doan, faithfully attends coffee row every morning at the Canton Café. “I spend a lot of time with bereaved families,” he says. He buries many people he has never met because, as the catchall church, Third Avenue gets stuck with funerals of local unbelievers whose relatives, out of desperation, deal with the God who asks the fewest questions.

With the exception of the Anglican

clergyman who is cast in the Gothic mold, the competition has resulted in a glut of groovy ministers, intense, hip young men with white teeth and big smiles who are plugged into McLuhan and who talk reverently about “the media” as if it were the Holy Ghost. With an ingratiating style and a firm conviction that theology is public relations, they try to dazzle the community with pyrotechnic displays of relevance.

The United Church women, seated in a prim circle of pastel pantsuits and peony prints, look with a jaundiced eye on Curly Doan as he bounds into the church basement lugging his huge tape recorder. “For our prayer,” he says, “I’d like to play this song.” The women dutifully bow their heads and close their eyes. A loud, up-tempo rock song bursts from the machine. “Come sing about looove,” it wails, “chick-a-boom, chicka-boom, chicka, chicka boom boom boom.” The women never flinch or bat an eye. “We hush to Thee, hear us! Oh yeah!” blares the song, “chick-a-boom, chick-a-boom, chicka, chicka boom.”

Prayer over, the women get down to business. The president reports five dollars in the bank. Surveying the meetings of the past year, she states that one member demonstrated candle making and another showed how to make a centrepiece out of used Christmas decorations. She urges the members to bring used clothing and stockings.

“Who is going to do the baking for the bazaar?” she demands. Bazaar business consumes more than an hour. The women are looking at their watches by the time Curly Doan is invited to give the lesson. He plays Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sounds Of Silence on the tape recorder and distributes mimeographed sheets with the words. He asks them to discuss the meaning of loneliness, isolation, darkness. Silence. The women stare blankly at the sheets. Doan quotes McLuhan, talks about communication and tries to get something going on the significance of the telephone. His words fall like pebbles into a pond. Silence. The women look at their watches. Upstairs the phone begins to ring. In desperation Doan turns to the CBC.

“All that filth!” cries one woman. “All that smutty language. That’s our tax money that’s paying for it! They should get rid of all that trash.” The women mutter excitedly.

“If you’ll excuse me, I must leave,” apologizes a middle-aged lady rising to her feet. “I’m late for my bridge game!” she whispers to a friend as she goes out. The meeting is over.

The most radical organization in Biggar is the IODE which, in between collecting white elephants and knitting vests for Eskimo children, sent off a telegram condemning the American nu-

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clear blast on Amchitka Island. The most popular group is the Mutual Benefit Society, a prepaid funeral plan. A lot of organizations have collapsed. Most have not progressed beyond the routine of raising money and wondering how to spend it. “I wonder if we shouldn’t be looking for a project?”queriesLionKen. “Every organization needs a project.”

Money raising is a way of life in Biggar. The religious war is mainly a battle of bazaars. Little card tables with white tablecloths are set up in the church basement and Brownies serve the cheese slices and pickles while their mothers peddle the home baking and white elephants from long tables ranged against the wall. “Wow,” said an Anglican lady at the end of a hard afternoon, “we made $59!” Not a week goes by without a beer festival, turkey shoot, auction, raffle or a nut drive. “God,” groans a Lion, “you get tired of people coming to your door.”

Everybody in the beer parlor argues politics. “Biggar,” sighs a railroader’s wife, “is a CCF hotbed.” The home constituency of both M. J. Coldwell and former Saskatchewan premier Woodrow Lloyd, Biggar has voted CCF provincially ever since the party was born. The local NDP association has 900 members. After enormous struggle and much prompting from head office they managed to produce five insignificant

resolutions for the party’s 1971 convention. “It’s our social life,” chirps Bea Brown, constituency secretary and centre of the hard core. “I never talk politics. I never ‘politick.’ If someone has a problem and wants to contact the MLA then I hear from them. We don’t want commotion. We want peace and quiet and let’s get on with progress!

“I don’t think the old hard core are as radical as at the start of the CCF. We learned quite a bit over the years. At one point we were going to take over everything! We’ve learned that there are only certain things you can nationalize. The rest has to be done on a freeenterprise basis. We like to feel that we’re very flexible.” The NDP is so flexible that all the farmers voted for the Liberals in 1964 because Ross Thatcher promised them purple gas.

The Depression turned Saskatchewan farmers into astute critics, clever debaters and ruthless infighters armed with a cynical but sophisticated analysis of the Canadian system. Biggar farmers devour vast quantities of political tracts and thrive on tedious meetings, triumphantly finding conspiracy and deceit behind even the most obscure and innocuous statements. With the obsession of medieval scholastics they argue endlessly about the fine points of agricultural legislation and delight in calling down curses on the heads of their

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political enemies. Iconoclastic, extreme, Biggar farmers are far to the right of the Liberals and far to the left of the NDP.

! “The Liberals,” snorts one of them, “are the NDP in slow motion.” “The NDP is just a great big bureaucracy,” scoffs another. “The word comes down from Father and everybody jumps. The NDP is a conservative party.”

“I am a Waffle!” rumbles George Hindley, waving his gnarled old finger in the air. “For 50 years I’ve been a Waffle. For 50 years I’ve been hearing the same things — poverty, slums, unemployment. It never changes because the cause never changes. Radical socialism is the only answer. I don’t mean Communism, but then that isn’t so bad and if it comes to that, then okay!”

Looking with righteous contempt on the strategems and compromises of the democratic process, they occupy a political no-man’s-land where the crossfire of mutually conflicting criticism is withering. “We believe in reality!” thumps one very large, beefy farmer. “We don’t believe in fooling people. If I think something about you, I tell you. We speak out. I don’t do things because society says I have to do it. I question everything. Call me an individual anarchist, let’s put it that way.”

Many have dropped out of the National Farmers’ Union because they think it is too radical or not radical enough. The local president, Doug Potter, runs around stamping out brush fires of insurrection and calming wounded feelings in the pub. “A lot of these guys,” he says, “they came from European countries where they didn’t have anything. They came out here, got a piece of land and now they’re going to hang on to that piece of land if they have to kick and scratch and tromp all over their neighbors.

“There’s this old image of rural people as very peaceful, passive individuals with a great love for the land, for animals and the growing of crops and love for their fellow man. Maybe that was true once, but that’s all in the past. We don’t get tough enough. I’m opposed to violence myself, but people will have to realize that not all of our farmers are this way. Already there have been things . . . tractors tampered with, a few burnings. This has happened before in other countries. When you take the land from the people, you have revolution.”

A fat farmer strikes a chord on his guitar and Doug Potter breaks into a melodious chorus of A White Sports Coat And A Pink Carnation. The man next to him whispers: “One of these nights, some of us are going to go out, we’re just going to go out and ...” The fat farmer raises his bottle of beer. “To the Revolution!” he grins. ■