Prairie Drama: Rural Retrospection

road sign in a golden canola field in Saskatchewan

I had a feeling Theatre Calgary’s production of Dear Johnny Deere would get me thinking about my Saskatchewan homeland. And of course, it did.

The play is an alt-country-folk musical production about the struggles of farm life, based on the songs of Canadian singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith. It was brilliantly performed by a talented cast of actor-musicians. The arrangements were rich and full of harmonies without ever feeling over-produced. The action transitioned beautifully between dialog and song at an engaging pace, with equal parts drama and humour.

The cast even delighted the audience with improvised references to our recent provincial election and the evening’s NHL playoff game featuring the hometown Flames. The crowd loved it, and I did too.

On the farm

Although I wasn’t a farm kid, my childhood was peppered with visits back to my grandparents’ farm. Harvest time was the best – when we’d help our Aunt and Grandma haul a hot lunch out to the men in the fields. We’d all eat together on folding chairs and tables while they took a brief break from combining or swathing.

My sisters and I would ask to be lifted up into one of the big hauling trucks so we could play around in the piles of grain – a sort of rural version of a ball pit, I suppose. Our uncle taught us how to make our own gum by chewing on a mouthful of wheat – a delightful discovery for us.

In more recent years, I’ve gone back to visit with a new appreciation and nostalgia for Saskatchewan’s prairie vistas. Sometimes those visits have been tinged with sadness, as when we returned to the rural cemetery near Dad’s family farm to inter his ashes beside those of my grandparents. The cemetery lies beside a hauntingly abandoned tiny church on the flat prairie, with nothing else around for miles.

small white church in the middle of a flat prairie landscape

Going to town

From the church, a few minutes’ drive away on gravel roads is the site of the town that was once St. Boswell’s. Nothing remains but a chunk of the Main Street sidewalk, a commemorative sign and a hand-cranked water pump. Yet it was once a thriving prairie town; the place where my grandparents hauled their grain, went to buy machinery parts, attended dances, posted letters and heard the latest gossip. In the space of a couple of generations, it’s gone.

overgrown sidewalks and commemorative signs at the site of the ghost town of St. Boswells, Saskatchewan

There are hundreds of ghost towns in various states of decay across the country – lists over 250 in Saskatchewan, 100 in Alberta, 60 in Manitoba and 75 in Ontario. In place of the once-bustling towns and small family farms, vast swaths of land have been consolidated into giant agribusiness operations. Food production has become more efficient and cost-effective. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have gone that way; in fact it was inevitable. But there has been a human impact.

Much like Johnny D in Theatre Calgary’s production, many farmers in these areas were eventually forced to make heartbreaking decisions. At some point, their way of life was no longer viable. Inevitably, they had to sell out and leave behind the only livelihood they had ever known. And ultimately they faced a daunting question: now what?

My grandparents went through it, but I was too young to understand or care. If only I could go back in time – oh, what a great talk we’d have.

Mona signature

Speak Your Mind