Thursday, July 18, 2013

Model the Prairies' Built Environment

The geography of the Prairies, as well as its recent history can be instructive in realistically modelling them in scale. Manitoba's unique position led to its development as the gateway to the prairies while exploration, the railway and immigration proceeded westward. Over 30,000 Ukrainians arrived between 1896 and 1914.  In 1925, Manitoba Pool Elevators was formed, followed by the CCF in 1932, and United Grain Growers and Canadian Wheat Board establishing headquarters in Winnipeg. All eras of farm vehicles can be found on farmsteads and in towns, and many of these would make unique models specific to the region. (Above) Elevators and implements in Wiseton, Saskatchewan. (Below) Grain truck, Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. Read more about the Prairies' Natural Environment and Railway Environment.
Saskatchewan's population quintupled from 1901 to 1911.  I was amazed to find false-front shops, the town hotel, the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant, five-and-dime stores, and most surprisingly gravel roads still in existence in 1985! Montmartre, Saskatchewan:
The Depression hit the province hard, with wheat prices plummeting to their lowest level in 1932. Solid wood and brick buildings speak of better times, and can make fascinating models especially with today's laser-cut kits and other detailed building materials available to the scratchbuilder and kitbasher alike. Firehouse and United Church - Liberty, Saskatchewan:
Citizens of English and French origin were soon outnumbered by a host of European nationalities and sects, and the Byzantine domes of Ukrainian churches denoted the provinces's largest ethnic community. It's important to ensure that our modelled towns don't look like the brick storefronts of southern Ontario or Pennsylvania. Many of these buildings are much newer, built comparatively quickly of materials at hand, often wood, and arranged in a certain way. Many prairie towns had a distinct layout - with numbered streets laid out in a square pattern, perpendicular and parallel to the railway line.  Insulbrick, stamped tin, siding and wide streets in Milestone, Saskatchewan:
Depopulation of rural communities has occurred steadily, though some reversal has also occurred recently as the economic boom in the energy sector has helped the economies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. When I took these photos in 1985-86, big-box stores and concrete elevators were on the horizon. Small towns still had business activities on their main streets with telephone and power lines and streetlights, though the sidewalks were a little un-busy. Here are a few examples of some typical Saskatchewan towns.

 Simpson, Saskatchewan:

Wiseton, Saskatchewan
I tried to take a pickup truck view of each streetscape. Most towns still have a prominent hotel, likely from the pioneer days when travellers needed somewhere to stay when arriving by train. Notice the parked vehicles; a mix of cars and pickups, but very little traffic.
Allan, Saskatchewan:

Imperial, Saskatchewan:

Watrous, Saskatchewan:
As early as 1881, the Canadian government permitted leasing of areas up to 100,000 to ranchers at a rate of one cent per acre per year, though the cattle rancher's activities tended to discourage the wheat farmer. Large-scale irrigation projects were undertaken, including the CPR Irrigation Department centred on Strathmore and Brooks, organized by the CPR in 1902.  CPR had a freight monopoly in and out of Alberta until 1905.  Over 100,000 km of pipeline is buried in Alberta. Banks held all the cards and were able to project a substantial presence on prime real estate in town - Bank of Commerce, Milestone, Saskatchewan:
The larger the town, the more services were located there. Often, towns were referred to by the number of grain elevators located they hosted. In later years, farm implement dealers and fertilizer dealers would sell their wares in larger towns. Hardware, gravity gas pump, phone booth and Canada Post in Osage, Saskatchewan:
Even the smallest town needed services related to daily life and agriculture. Houses, church, machine shop and CN speeder at Colfax, Saskatchewan:
Weather-beaten schoolhouse and classic car at Young, Saskatchewan:
"Just before the town the river took a wide loop and entered at the eastern edge.  Inhabited now by some eighteen hundred souls, it had grown up on either side of the river from the seed of one homesteader's sod hut built in the spring of eighteen seventy-five.  It was made up largely of frame buildings with high, peaked roofs, each with an expanse of lawn in front and a garden in the back; they lined avenues with prairie names: Bison, Riel, Qu'Appelle, Blackfoot, Fort.  Cement sidewalks extended from First Street to Sixth Street at MacTaggart's Corner; from that point to the prairie a boardwalk ran." 
-W.O Mitchell Who Has Seen the Wind
 ``As we pass near towns and cities, the crosses and spires and onion-shaped cupolas of various churches stand out as signs of God`s ever-present blessing over the land.  And the handiwork of man is manifest in the houses of every shape and size, buildings large and small, factories and refineries, huge oil tanks, highways and rail carriers of multicoloured automobiles.  The landscape is dotted with grain elevators and farm equipment galore.  Grain storage bins glitter in abundance``
-Teresina McNeil, aboard VIA Rail Edmonton to Antigonish NS

Imperial, Saskatchewan (above). Elevators loom large (literally) in town design, but remember to leave space between them for several cars to be loaded and moved past the loading spout. There's more land on the Prairies than on a layout, I realize, but try to give the elements room to 'breathe'. Three photos from 1988 and 1989 Manitoba Pool Elevators calendars show some typical Manitoba town layouts. Many have a farm implement dealer, machine shops or garages to service farm vehicles and equipment.
Try to imagine how many feet of benchwork it would take to do these towns justice! I wouldn't use the overworked term 'selective compression' here, rather 'selective omission'. Something has to give, so for a layout I would suggest some lineside industries and select nearby town buildings. Mature shade trees would make a great transition to a backdrop.

Running extra...

With Robert MacDonald's suggestion in mind, I took the issue of Trackside Treasure's blog header photo to the people. Thanks to all who responded, and more importantly, for paying attention! I have a habitually short attention span for header photos - usually the photo is something I've seen that catches my eye, and I trust it'll catch yours, too. I just can't keep the same photo up there for more than a few days' run. Whenever I ask the photographer for permission, appropriate credit is always given. Either way, I'll provide more detail whenever I can in the welcome message that follows the photo. If I can't, I'll make something up.

Now, without further Mon Dieu! to the poll results:
  • A whopping 90% requested more info on the photo! We want it! Give it to us!
  • A small-piece-of-pie 28% agreed on changing every few days, you know, like I do my socks.
  • A diminutive 23% suggested changes to the frequency, either more or less.
  • A mere 9% wish to comment on photos. Just email me instead, 'cause I'm not sure how to set this up.
  • A thirsty 28% would like a cool drink. (Not surprising, given the time of year. We call this a 'check question' in the biz, and it's just to see if you were paying attention. Heck, 28% of you were! Drink!
Thanks to all for your participation!


Michael said...

I have to say that Who Has Seen The Wind could be one of the best-ever titles for a novel. These shots make me want to go explore the prairies. Reminds me of where I'm from in Ontario.

Tyler said...

You've made me homesick, meaning that you've done an excellent job!

Eric said...

Thanks for your comments, Michael and Tyler. Heck, I'm homesick from the Prairies and I'm not even from there.

Though I haven't been west since 1986, I hope to again, to take in the big skies and entire freights (on the really flat parts, anyway).

These posts have enabled me to share some of my Prairie photography that doesn't necessarily fit in with a prototype railway theme (because we all know that prototype and model railroading are linked!


Anonymous said...

Awesome post as always ! Love those small towns, was blown away by the lack of traffic on any roadway. A real pleasant change for myself as my 2 previous projects were in TO. For 3 years I battled traffic 327 KM (@ either a buck forty or a crawl) round trip everyday 6-7 days a week. What a surprize, no heavy traffic, no rude drivers and nobody driving much above the posted speed limit. Driving 6-7 hours on a Friday to "homebase" in places like Yorton, Moosejaw or Estevan was a piece of cake, drive 7 hours to Ottawa to visit familly a real test of patience.
The towns are almost the same, yet different somehow. Your photos are not all that different from what we experienced thirty years later. One thing I did notice was a few "War Memorials" at the end of the main street in many small towns. Another sort of unique thing we noticed were the small scale memorials to the elevators that once graced the townsite.
Still shaking my head that your not modelling the prairies:)
Keep up the good work
regards, Randy O'Brien

Eric said...

Sorry I had to put your comment in as A. Nonymous, Randy, but the Blogger Captcha security test can be a real pain.

Agreed about the small towns. Many accounts of the railway stations (see next post) specifically mention the towns' young men leaving for war from the railway station, some never returning.

I used to model the Prairies, but moved my model locale farther west to Vancouver. I still have most of my Prairie structures though. Anybody wanna HO-scale elevator?

Thanks for your comments,

Jason Sailer said...


What year was the Colfax photo taken?

I went through there this summer (twice) and I wished I knew about your photo at that time! I would of loved to do a then and now shot. I can't believe after looking at your photo how much has disappeared from that village! That store would of been neat to store, and to have a CN orange speeder in the foreground as well to boot!

Eric said...

During this 1985 visit, Jason:

If I was any kind of blogger, I'd go back and do some photo editing on these cloudy-day photos to brighten them up!

Shoot everything, ask questions later!
I should follow my own advice :)

Jason Sailer said...

Thanks Eric, I remember reading that blog post. It was a good read, considering I drove that route this summer.

BTW The last comment you said about prairie HO structures. Do you still have them? I could take them off your hands if they haven't left already :P Let me know, thanks!

NorthCentralGranny said...

On the Liberty photo of 'firehouse & school'. It is actually the firehouse & United Church. The school in Liberty was on the 3rd block west from the building you identified as the school.

Eric said...

Thanks for that additional information, NC Granny! Will revise.