Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: grain elevators

A new course in life

If you’ve followed me this far you have no doubt gathered that I wasn’t a romantic kind of guy. I had strong emotional feelings, but I woud have been horribly embarrassed if anyone got a glimpse of them. Circumstances told to me that now I needed to do something to let my bride-to-be know how I felt about her.

So I sat down and wrote my very first love letter. I quoted some lines from a song by the Bee Gees that was popular at the time: “It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away,” and tried to put my feelings into words. I don’t remember writing any more letters, mostly we talked. That meant collect phone calls from Chris to me. I didn’t call her, since her uncle would have answered the phone and that wasn’t what I wanted.

As for the suspicions that some farmers may have harboured, it seemed best to me to just carry on without saying anything more. I had done nothing wrong and I had been careful not to accuse the former manager of wrongdoing. That proved to be the right course of action, as everything went well from then on.

It took several months for it to dawn on me that something had changed in my life. I was no longer turned off by Christian radio broadcasts, there were a couple that I began to listen to regularly. I bought some Christian books. I read more about Mennonite history.

I had always considered the “born again” thing to be a sham. The people I had known who claimed to be born again were no more honest than anyone else. They boasted of a elationship with God, but their attitude of superiority towards other people was not attractive. Now my life had taken a turn, and it had happened at the time I prayed for forgiveness. Was that change what Jesus meant by being born again? I concluded it was.

At that time grain elevators often shut down for the first two weeks of August. The managers would take their vacation and return refreshed to start receiving deliveries for the new crop that would be harvested after mid-August. Chris and I set Saturday, August 1, 1970 for our wedding date and began planning.

Where were we going to get married? What minister would we ask? Neither of us had any church affiliation, I was a lapsed Anglican. Chris’s family was one that said, “If anyone asks, say we belong to the United Church,” but they never actually attended that or any other church.

It happened that Reverend Ken Vickers was now the minister at Saint Barnabas Anglican church in Moose Jaw where my parents attended. Mom asked him and he said he would be happy to do the honours. I was happy to see him again.  We had a counselling session or two with him to help us grasp the importance of the step we were about to take.

Chris has an older brother and four younger sisters, they all lived with their parents. Chris had been with her aunt and uncle ever since a health scare in early childhood caused by neglect. By this time I had met her brother and two of her sisters, but not her parents. Since Chris was only 17, her real father was going to have to give his permission for her to marry. Chris approached him with some trepidation, but he signed.

I asked Joe Zagozeski to be my best man and Chris asked her friend Sandy Carson to be bridesmaid. We were all set, all we needed to do now was get to the church on time.

Belle Plaine, continued

My prescription for the heart pills ran out about as soon as I got settled in Belle Plaine. The doctor who had originally prescribed them had retired in the meantime so I saw Doctor Gass. He flatly refused to renew the prescription. I thought I needed it and tried to argue with him. “You don’t need them,” he told me and that was that. I guess he was right, that was over 50 years ago and I’ve managed quite well without them. Somewhat later I figured out that Phenobarb wasn’t a heart medication anyway.

That ended the problem with being able to drink alcoholic beverages. I tried just about every variety of alcoholic drink and liked them all. This was thankfully before the days when recreational drugs were so readily available, or I might have tried them, too.

It was at Belle Plaine that someone suggested taking an antihistamine for my allergy problems. I have been taking them ever since and they make a difference. They haven’t made my problems go away, but they have enabled me to cope, most of the time.

In January of 1967 there was a two week training session for new UGG elevator managers in Winnipeg. We were put up in one of the better downtown hotels, just a few blocks from UGG headquarters. One morning we were given a tour of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. Our tour guide was none other than Bill Parrish, president of Parrish & Heimbecker, one of our competitors. He was also chairman of the grain exchange at that time and not many years older than I was.

Joe and I had spent the night in the bar and it was around midnight when we arrived back in Belle Plaine one night. We weren’t ready to call it a day, so when we saw a light in Bill and Wilma Paskaruk’s house we went and banged on the door. They let us in and we sat around, drank coffee and made small talk.

As we were leaving I turned and blurted out “Someday I am going to be a Mennonite and wear a beard!” I was just as shocked at that revelation as my friends were. Where did it come from?

I had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol, yet I knew this was not some drunken whimsy. My memory of that moment is crystal clear and I knew it was somehow connected to the thoughts that had been tumbling around in my mind.

As I mulled that over I decided the time had come to visit a Mennonite church. I searched the phone book and discovered there was a Mennonite church on the west side of Regina. I drove by the church the next time I was in Regina and checked the time for worship services. A Sunday or two later I got up early, dressed for church and drove into Regina. I was impressed by the simple form of worship, but found that I was invisible. I walked into that church, sat down in a pew just before the service began and walked out when it was over and nobody seemed to notice. I went again the next Sunday, with the same result. That was the end of that little experiment, I decided to try again some other time, some other place.

There were thousands of wooden grain elevators in the Western Canada grain belt. But trucks were getting bigger, able to haul more grain over longer distances, and the days of  small elevators were numbered. In January of 1969, at a district meeting in Regina I was informed that my elevator was being closed. I would be going back to being a helper until something else opened up. For the next two months I was located in Markinch, north of the Qu’Appelle Valley, again with an older manager who would soon be retiring.

I made frequent weekend trips back to Moose Jaw, with stops in Belle Plaine to visit Christine. At the beginning of March I was told that an elevator manager in Sperling, Manitoba had suffered a heart attack and I was to go there and take his place. Facing the prospect of 400 miles between us, Chris and I began making marriage plans.

Learning the grain business

This temporary job with United Grain Growers lasted about seven years. The Moose Jaw elevator was only a few years old, still one of the old style wooden elevators, but with a scale and hoist that would accommodate a semi. Albert Simmie was the manager, nearing retirement and needing a helper.

My job was pretty menial at first, sweeping the floor, shovelling out the flat bottom bins, stacking fertilizer and seed grain bags. Occasionally I got to weigh a truck. One day a semi with a dry van trailer pulled in to the elevator and the driver asked to have it weighed before he delivered the load to the grocery warehouse. His load was watermelon from Texas and he had driven all the way without stopping to sleep. He looked it too. That would have been at least 2,000 miles. If I remember correctly, he gave both Albert and I a watermelon before pulling out.

The elevator was about 14 blocks from my parents’ home, an easy walk. The grain dust bothered my allergies but I did not have any serious problem. After about six weeks the District Manager told me I was needed at Davidson. Davidson was on the Number 11 highway, the second town north of Craik where I had grown up. There was a row of nine elevators in town, run by four companies. UGG owned two of them.

I was sent to help Jake Thom, an elderly man on the verge of retirement. He was a widower, living in a tiny old two bedroom house where he had raised his family. I occupied one of the bedrooms and spent my days in the elevator and learned a little more about the grain business.

The land around Davidson is lighter and does not have the moisture holding capacity of soils in some other parts of Saskatchewan. The growing year had started with abundant moisture and grain grew lush and tall. Then the rains stopped. There was a field clearly visible from the elevator office and I watched as a combine went round and round that field before it had to stop to unload. The wheat kernels were not plump but shrivelled that fall, low in bushel weight and a low grade but still could be used for making flour.

UGG had a carpenter crew busy building and renovating houses for their grain elevator managers. I got to see them often over the next few years. They had built a new house for the manager of the other UGG elevator in Davidson and when he and his family moved into the new house Jake got the one they had been living in and I moved in with him.

After a couple months in Davidson the district manager came around again and said I was needed in Bladworth, the next town north on the Number 11. I moved in with the manager and his family and spent my days in the elevator. As best as I can remember, this was where I first began to acquire a taste for beer. Every once in a while I would wander over to the beer parlour in the evening and have a cold beer or two. I thought it was refreshing and helped wash down the grain dust I had been tasting all day. The problem was the beer wouldn’t stay down, invariably I had to make a stop at the outhouse, otherwise unused, and let it all come back up again.

Winter was coming on now, the elevators weren’t busy and some managers wanted to take a winter vacation. My next stop was Condie, north of Regina, a place with two elevators but no town. I lived in the manager’s house, an older two storey affair, while he was gone.  Jake Thom’s old house from Davidson had been moved in beside this old house. The UGG carpenter crew proceeded to take off the roof and both end walls and begin transforming it into a brand new bungalow. Thee was a reason for this way of doing things: it could be claimed as renovation and all expenses claimed in the year they were incurred. To start from scratch would require the expenses to be amortized over a number of years.

After Condie I was sent to Craik, my old home town. I stayed in a room in the hotel, just across the tracks from the elevator. This was a pretty quiet time but it seemed the company was preparing me for long term employment. As spring drew near the district manager told me the manager of the elevator in the village of Belle Plaine was quitting. Belle Plaine is between Moose Jaw and Regina on the Trans Canada highway. The location was great and I jumped at the opportunity.

Double-decker church planting

I grew up in a town I shall call Seagull, Saskatchewan. This is a fictional name, as are all the other names given in this account, but the events are true to life as best as my memory serves. Like all other prairie towns, there were a number of tall wooden grain elevators lining the railway tracks in Seagull. As soon as you got out of town you could see the elevators of the next town.

Yet the land was not as flat as it appeared from the highway, it was broken by ravines and coulees which eventually led into the Grand Valley River. Ravines and coulees, we tended to use those words interchangeably. I guess a coulee leads into a ravine, which eventually leads into a river. In spring, these valleys funnelled water from the melting snow into the river, the rest of the year they were dry. The river valley was indeed grand — deep and a mile wide; the river itself was a narrow stream tracing a sinuous path along the floor of the valley.

There were three churches in Seagull, none of which could be considered evangelical. Some folks wished for something more. When I was twelve a Baptist evangelist from the USA came to town and held a week of meetings in the Legion Hall. This caused quite a stir, some made fun, some were curious, some were searching and appeared to find what they were looking for.

At the end of the week, it was clear that there were enough committed people to establish a church. There was an empty country schoolhouse available, they bought it, moved it into Seagull and made it into a church. They called it the Seagull Baptist Church and hired a young Bible School graduate named Larry McLeod as their pastor.

They began as an unaffiliated congregation and happily worshipped together in Christian fellowship for several years. Some members advanced the thought that there would be benefits in affiliating with a denomination and it seemed that the majority were persuaded that this was the way to go. Thus, after seven years of independence they affiliated with one of the Baptist denominations. A hitch developed, though, when it was found that pastor McLeod and the denomination were not altogether in harmony. He was replaced by someone more acceptable to the denomination.

Feelings were ruffled, some members withdrew from the Baptist church and asked Pastor McLeod to stay on as their pastor. More evangelistic meetings were held, a new congregations was formed, and a rural church that had not been used for some years was moved into town. This was the beginning of the Seagull Gospel Church. Now Seagull had five churches, enough to satisfy most everyone you would think. But could they all afford to support a preacher?

The Baptist church was the first to go, closing their doors 13 years after they began, 6 years after the split. The cost of supporting a minister was just too much for those who were left. The Gospel church struggled on four more years, then voted to amalgamate with a congregation in a town twenty miles away so that together they could afford to support Pastor McLeod. The evangelical witness in Seagull lasted a total of 17 years.

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