Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: United Grain Growers

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.

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Belle Plaine years

In 1966 Belle Plaine had all of 16 houses, two grain elevators, three other small businesses and a school that was no longer used. UGG rented one of the houses for their elevator manager.

I had learned the basics of weighing and unloading grain by now, how to grade it and determine dockage and how to load it into boxcars for shipping to ports for export. I was also selling fertilizer, herbicides and other farm supplies. Saskatchewan seldom gets an abundance of rain, but the land here was heavy clay, making for good crops every year and the farmers were prosperous. I got to know the people in the community and soon felt at home.

I was 24 years old and didn’t own a car. I soon remedied that, buying a 1956 Oldsmobile that let me travel at my convenience, not someone else’s. I could buy some groceries at the little store, cafe and post office in town, but did most of my shopping in Moose Jaw. I did my laundry in Moose Jaw, too, at my parents.

I began to do some serious drinking, spending at least one night a week in the bars of Moose Jaw or Regina. My drinking buddies were Joe Zagozeski,  a local farmer, Henry Antemuik, a supervisor at the Kalium potash mine near Belle Plaine and my cousin Dennis in Moose Jaw.

UGG bought a lot in Belle Plaine, built a basement, moved in a house and thoroughly remodelled it. In 1967 I traded in the Oldsmobile on a 1965 GMC pickup. I needed to haul water for the new house as there was neither running water in the village nor a well. UGG had a warehouse in Regina and now I could simply drive in and pick up whatever was needed and bring it home.

When I made those trips I often stayed in Regina enjoying the night life until midnight. On nights like that I found it hard to keep between the lines on the highway and in my befuddled mind it seemed like a logical thing to speed up to 80 mph. I found that concentrated my attention sufficiently to keep in my own lane. I would often wake up in the morning unable to remember coming home. I thought that was evidence that I must have had a good time the night before.

Other things were going on at the same time. I was reading all kinds of stuff, from occult to Ayn Rand and none of it impressed me as offering any real hope to me or anyone else. Then I began to get interested in church history, which also seemed like kind of a hopeless mess until I got to Mennonite history. Here I found people who really believed and lived what they professed and suffered persecution without hating the persecutors. I began to think that if there were any real Christians left anywhere on the planet, they would be found among the Mennonites.

The couple who ran the store, cafe and post office had a teenage daughter named Christine. I didn’t pay much attention to her, she was just a young school girl. But girls don’t stay young and after a couple of years she began to seem interesting to me.

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.

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