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Ghosts of East Central Alberta, part 2: Settler relics

In my last post I wrote about ghost towns, and how they continued to be relevant today, haunting us, even though as centres of social relations and as gatherings of material structures they were for the most part long gone. This time I want to write a bit about other ghosts that haunt the landscape, specifically old homesteads, churches, machines, and the acres upon acres of cleared land. More specifically, settler ghosts. And I mean literally settlers, the homesteaders that came to my home region from Eastern Europe, areas which are now the nation-states of Ukraine, Romania, Hungary and Poland.

Ukrainian settlers arrived in East Central Alberta beginning in 1892. Between 1892 until the First World War, over 170,000 peasants immigrated to Canada, primarily from Galicia and Bukovina. The Government of Canada actively solicited agricultural settlers from Eastern Europe beginning in 1896 [1]. These immigrants built their homes and made their lives first in a bloc called “Star-Edna”, and later extended settlement east from Edmonton, and into Saskatchewan and Manitoba. “Star-Edna” was the oldest and largest Ukrainian settlement bloc in Canada, corresponding to the aspen parkland belt and the railway lines that both cross the prairies. In Alberta specifically the Edna-Star bloc sat between two CNR railway lines constructed in 1905 and 1917. In East-Central Alberta in the 1930s, the majority of the population was of Ukrainian origin [2].

Of course, following on my last post, I am going to ramble on about the ghosts left by these settlers, these early pioneers.  I focus here on settlers from what is now Ukraine because of their strong and ongoing presence in the region, and the distinctiveness of some of the buildings left behind. This is also my own history, my great grandparents lived in the Star-Edna region, and 3 family generations have grown up there. We went to family reunions at Star-Peno church. I myself grew up further South and East, but the whole East-Central region is marked with old homesteads, “onion dome” churches, Ukrainian place and people names.

The landscape in rural Alberta is marked with empty old homesteads, the earliest of which date back to the late 1800s. I personally never thought much of them growing up in the country, but in high school some friends and I explored some abandoned houses, bed frames and ephemera still inside. Unfortunately this is trespassing, and we once were scared silly by a farmer who had followed us to tell us exactly that. There are notable homesteads that I saw and continue to see on recurring trips to different towns – the large brown house and outbuildings on the hill on the way to Vegreville, the place with all the threshing machines lined up along the driveway that my husband likes, the old homestead we partied at in high school. However, I didn’t really pay much attention until one day this summer at my dad’s place I found a copy of a monograph called “Ukrainian Vernacular Architecture in Alberta,” a publication put out by the Historical Resources Division of the Alberta Government in 1976. I think someone must have given a copy of it to my baba when she was alive, who knows, maybe she even lived in one of these houses.

Anyway, it describes a style of house built by Alberta homesteaders from the region of Bukovynia, These Ukrainian settlers, although they had access to the same materials as other pioneers (logs, sod, thatching), used different building techniques and practices that came somewhat from the old country and were modified somewhat in the new. Distinctive features include: thatched roof (instead of sod), shaped logs with elaborate work at the corners and eaves, a southern orientation (with Eastern icon wall for saint’s pictures and icons), a mud stove, and the finishing of the house. Most fascinating of all are the last lines of the abstract: “One thing which this monograph demonstrates is the remarkable durability of the Ukrainian houses. Many of these buildings are still standing; of the 24 plates [in the manuscript], all but four are contemporary pictures” [4]. Reading it, I realized I’d seen these around! And since then, I’ve been noticing them more often – these particular ruins are easy to pick out because of their distinctive shape and very old age.

Of course, the “onion dome” churches built by communities of settlers also mark the landscape, and some of these churches appear today in the “middle of nowhere”. Borschiw Church for instance is about 90 kms southeast of Sherwood Park. A website about Ukrainian Churches in the province says:  “During the early 1900s, many individuals from the Borshchivskyi District in Western Ukraine [hence the name “Borschiw,” I imagine] settled around Haight, Alberta (train station – no longer exists) In 1903, Father Platonid Filas, OSBM, gathered together various individuals from this area to form a parish. The group was able to raise enough money to purchase 40 acres of land for a church and cemetery…In 1905, work began on the construction of the first wooden church. Total cost of construction was $1500…Over time, the area became prosperous. In 1939, work began on the construction of a larger church. The new church was built on the site of the old church. Harry Holowaychuk was responsible for its construction. Total cost of construction was $9000. Oriented on the east-west axis, the church is designed on a central longitudinal cruciform plan following Byzantine traditions. The church has one large dome plus 4 smaller domes. The site is surrounded by flat arable land, second or third-generation trees….The interior is heavily decorated with a variety of stenciling and icons. Peter (Petro) Lipinski did all the artistic paintings and decorations for the Church in 1947” [3]. This is only one example – these churches represent communities, some no longer so vibrant, who fundraised for their building, invited artists to paint the interiors, and celebrated, mourned, and otherwise marked religious and personal time inside.

 Threshing machines also dot the landscape. You see these along the road all over the province, and all over the prairies, actually. Think about how many must have been in use for them to remain a relatively frequent sight today, about 80 years since they were in common use. Threshing machines are basically what people used before combines, making grain processing way easier! Imagine having to separate grain from chaff and stalks using only human energy. Exhausting and time consuming, I’m sure.

In my last post I wrote about how the production of space is always predicated on spatial destruction [4]. But Henri Lefebvre (my favourite space-place theorist, can you tell?) also says that spaces persist – old spaces remain to inflect the new [5]. In East Central Alberta the legacy of Ukrainian immigration and farming heritage remains strong, and is visible on the landscape. In fact, these farming settlers (not only of Ukrainian origin) literally made the landscape as it is today. Think about the amount of human effort that has gone into clearing the fields over the last century or so, preparing the land for the cultivation of crops. This process continues today – on a not-too windy or dry day, someone is burning piles of cleared-out brush, expanding the amount of farmable land to its maximum.

I guess my point here is about giving you another way to think about how traces of old ways remain on the landscape, haunting us here in the present. Like Lefebvre says, no space ever vanishes, spaces are superimposed, interpenetrating.

I feel really lucky to live somewhere where I can see the lives of past generations on the land. I think a lot of people are not so fortunate. Sometimes when the wheels of progress turn, producing new (social) spaces for new (social) formations, there’s an attempt to erase older ones, remove them from the landscape completely.

But this isn’t really ever possible, as I said, older social spaces continue to haunt present ones. In my next post, I’ll talk about Aboriginal ruins, erasure, and ongoing claims to space.                             Image


[1] http://www.whitepinepictures.com/seeds/i/11/history1.html

[2] Martynowych, Orest T., 1985, “The Ukrainian Bloc Settlement in East-Central Alberta, 1890-1930: A History,” http://www.ourroots.ca/toc.aspx?id=1580&qryID=0da9d28a-98cf-48cc-9515-9f481489659d

[3] http://www.pryvit.info/gallery/Borschiw.html

[4] Lehr, John, 1976, “Ukrainian Vernacular Architecture in Alberta,” http://www.ourroots.ca/e/toc.aspx?id=1582

[5] Gordillo, Gaston, 2012 “The Destruction of Space,” http://spaceandpolitics.blogspot.ca/2012/11/the-destruction-of-space.html

[6] Lefebvre, Henri, 1991, The Production of Space, Oxford: Blackwell.


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