On Sunday this village of 250 was visited twice by fire, the scourge of many an old tyme prairie burg.
The region’s infamous gales drove a blaze eastward across the tinder dry plains towards the town, prompting an evacuation of the community Sunday afternoon.
The prairie fire burned up miles of the surrounding countryside, with videos of the onrushing inferno going viral, and grabbing headlines nationwide.
However in Carmangay, it is the loss of the venerable Grange Hotel in a conflagration hours earlier that this weekend will surely be remembered for.
Mere days after hosting the annual “world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade”, the Grange, with its iconic creamsicle coloured façade, was razed to the ground during the wee hours of Sunday, taking with it over 110 years of history and hijinks.
My friend and colleague, Lorena Franchuk, alerted me to the fact that the legendary Calgary Sun photographer and columnist, Mike Drew, was on CBC Radio earlier today.
While I don’t know him personally, Mike was a great inspiration to me in the early days of this project. I was pleased to hear he and I are clearly cut from the same cloth, as he adheres to the same philoshphy on the Rockies as myself: you’ve seen one mountain, you’ve seen them all.
The interview was also notable for the surprising amount of time taken discussing the desert outpost of Hemaruka.
Located roughly about half-way between Veteran and Youngstown on SH 884, this almost forgotten prairie burg is notable for its name, which is derived from a rather prolific railroad official named Warren:
Grain elevators—often called prairie icons, vanishing sentinels, or prairie cathedrals on the horizon—once symbolized the rural landscape across the Canadian prairies.
Grain elevators signalled the location of the region’s villages and towns. Particularly prosperous communities had multiple elevators which provided better services and a stable tax base.
The town of Vulcan is located along the Canadian Pacific’s Aldersyde Subdivision, a secondary mainline between Lethbridge and Calgary, that opened for traffic in October 1911. During the construction of the railway, the grain elevators were erected at the various sidings along the line to receive grain from the surrounding district.
Vulcan’s first elevator, built by the Terwilliger Grain Company in 1911-1912, boasted a capacity of 25,000 bushels. It was joined in 1912 by the Alberta Grain Company’s (forerunner to Alberta Pacific Grain) 40,000-bushel elevator, and Taylor Milling’s elevator and warehouse, with a combined capacity of 12,000 bushels.
Vulcan was typical of the sidings located every six to ten miles by the railways in the West, the practical distance that grain could be delivered from the farm by horse-drawn means in a day. The railways provided sites at these points at nominal rental where the line companies could erect their elevators.
The subject of the email was “Re: C.Y. District school”.
Sandra Guymon, the director and sole employee of a “very very very small library” in upstate New York, was searching for information about this curiously named district in southern Alberta.
“My Grandfather Duncan Lorne Martin was a school teacher at C.Y. District school. I have some photos from about 1917. I know he lived in Taber Alberta, but I don’t know anything about the C.Y. district, and can’t seem to find anything about it on the internet.”
As Guymon explained, Martin was a native of Tottenham, Ontario, who came west around 1917 to teach at C.Y. School, northwest of the town of Taber. Martin enlisted with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment towards the end of the First World War, returning to the C.Y. district in 1919.
Martin initially boarded with the Garrett and Wilhelmina Gertzen family, who lived on a farm near the school, and later married Wilhelmina following the couple’s divorce. In 1926, the Martins moved to another farm in the area, where they would eke out a living for over a decade.
According to Guymon, Duncan and Wilhelmina enjoyed some success during the wetter years of 1927-28, before eventually being driven off the land in 1937, victims of the twin economic and ecological disasters known today as the Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties.
After returning to Tottenham, Martin worked for a time in the post office before hiring on as construction labourer at Camp Borden, where army and flight training was undertaken for the Canadian armed forces during the Second World War. He was hospitalized in April 1940 when a trench he was working on caved in. Shortly afterwards he suffered a brain aneurysm, and passed away at the age of 49.
Some 80 years later, Guymon is seeking to learn more about her intrepid grandfather’s western adventures, and the country her father and grandparents called home.
“I hope they might start up a conversation!” she added.
As it turns out, the origin of the C.Y. is rooted in southern Alberta ranching history.
Both the C.Y. school and district derive their name from the C.Y. Ranch, which was established in the late 19th century along the Belly (now Oldman) River, north of what is now Taber.
Charlotte Gorley was scanning some family photos when a couple of unfamiliar images captured her attention.
“I have found two photos of the Oyen school fire in ,” explained Ms. Gorley, a resident of Victoria, B.C., in an email message. “The photos show clouds of smoke billowing out and a crowd of people watching.”
On the back of one of the images, a postcard, was written: “This is a picture our school when it was in flames”, signed by “Barney, Oyen”.
Both images were from the collection of Wilma Gyger (nee Gorley), daughter of Harold Gorley and Thelma Miller, who passed away in 2017.
A genealogy researcher, Gorley wished to learn about the area, and the ‘backstory’ behind these postcards and images.
“I’m curious to know more about the fire and the community of Oyen,” she added.