A Row of One – Vulcan, Alberta

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.

The makings of “Nine in a Line” at Vulcan. In addition to eight elevators (soon to be nine), adding to the skyline was the CPR’s mechanical coaling plant, erected in 1928 in the far distance. (Glenbow Museum & Archives) – W.J. Oliver

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. 

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Search for grandfather’s story turns up Ranching roots of C.Y. School


C.Y. School, circa 1917
– Photo courtesy of Sandra Martin Guymon.

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.”

Duncan L. Martin enlisted with the 49th battalion Edmonton, Canadian Expeditionary Force, during the First World War. 
– Photo courtesy of Sandra Martin Guymon.

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.

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Oyen endured trial and fire during efforts to construct first school

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 [1918],” 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.”

Postcard showing the fire at Oyen School in 1918.
– Image courtesy of the collection of Wilma Gyger (nee Gorley), daughter of Harold Gorley and Thelma Miller

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. 

Back of the postcard, addressed to Martin Gorley of Rosyth, Alberta, with the note “This is a picture of our first school when it was in flames”, signed “Barney. Oyen”. The postcard was erroneously dated “1916”, as the Oyen School fire took place in 1918.
– Image courtesy of the collection of Wilma Gyger (nee Gorley), daughter of Harold Gorley and Thelma Miller

“I’m curious to know more about the fire and the community of Oyen,” she added.

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E-Bay and Jaydot

View of overturned railway cars near Jaydot, AB – 1927 – Jason Paul Sailer collection

In February 2018, while looking through eBay, I came across a for-sale post of old black and white railway photos of a train wreck in Alberta.  Curiously, I clicked on the ad and saw five or so photos of various wrecked cars, with people milling about around them.

The last photo made my jaw drop, as it had written on the back “1927 – 1 mile west of Jaydot, AB”. 

I knew where Jaydot was (basically the middle of nowhere – i.e., extreme southeast Alberta), and was quite surprised to find these photos, especially since the line was completed by the CPR just five years before this derailment. 

I made my bid on the photos and I won the auction, so a few weeks afterwards an envelope from a Victoria, BC antique shop ended up in my mailbox.  Let’s step back a bit…

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Finding fingerboard signs a lifelong passion for Seven Persons native

Devin Drozdz’s search for AMA / CAA “fingerboard” signs has taken him all across the province. Unfortunately, the signs he finds often no longer have the fingers in place, such as this one he found in Aug. 2019 in the M.D. of Pincher Creek, southwest of Head-smashed-in Buffalo Jump, at the intersection of Hwy. 785 and Twp. Rd. 84 (The Sheep Camp Road). – Photo courtesy of Devin Drozdz

A Seven Persons native’s passion for old road signage has led him to preserve the past, while pointing the way to his future.

Devin Drozdz, 22, developed a fascination for “fingerboard signs”, the once ubiquitous green arrows featuring the names of locales past and present found along the highways and by-ways of Alberta, as a youth growing up west of Medicine Hat.

Drozdz recalled it was his job to serve as the navigator on family road trips, and to read the maps and make sure they were on the right track.

“As a kid, I can remember seeing these fingerboard signs around and being fascinated by them.  There really is nothing else like it,” he explained.

The first of the province’s fingerboard signs were installed almost a century ago, as motorists took to Alberta’s rudimentary road network armed with sketched maps, and the hope their vintage era roadsters would get them where they wanted to go. The Alberta Motor Association began installing road markers in the late ‘20s, and as late as 2001 there were reportedly 1500 of the iconic green arrows pointing the way to places across the province as part of the AMA’s Rural Road Signage program.

In several instances, these signs at lonely country crossroads serve as the only visible reminder of rural communities and institutions, such as former one room schools or community halls, that have been lost to time. 

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Chronicling the pioneer-era people and places of the southern Alberta drybelt since 2009. Alberta Heritage Resources Foundation Heritage Awareness Award recipient.