Nov 272017
 
Pontiac Firebird

Perhaps a year or so back Team BIGDoer was approached by Rueben Tschetter, a well respected film producer and videographer with Cache Productions, Red Deer Alberta. Seems he’d been watching some of what we were up to – exploring abandoned places and ghost towns and chronicling the experience – and thought it a worthy subject for documentary. Didn’t take much convincing. We are in!

And with that, plans were made.

Fast forward to April 2017 we’re exploring several abandoned-type places close to the Alberta-Saskatchewan border and the filmmaker is along. It’s us, a couple photography friends, the freaking cold and our targets, four ghost towns visited over four days of heavy filming. One of these places, Esther Alberta, is the focus of this here piece.

Forgotten Prairie: Esther Alberta – a little ghost town explored. A work of “Pop History” by Chris Doering and Connie Biggart.(BIGDoer/Synd/Cache)

First things first, Esther is on private property. If you ask the last residents politely, the owners of the place, they will allow you to wander about and explore however. And they’ll happily chat you up about the buildings seen and their history. Take time to listen and learn.

Esther dates from the mid-1920s although settlers had moved in the area before that. Like so many prairie towns, it was the coming of steel that was the catalyst to it being founded. The railway, that lifeline to the rest of the world. The section through Esther was built by Canadian National Railways, the track running from nowhere to nowhere, a lowly “grain branch” started in early 1910s by predecessor firm Grand Trunk Pacific. It was originally planned as a through route, but that idea was soon shelved.

The track ran from Biggar Saskatchewan, where it connected with the firm’s mainline before heading off west into backwater regions of Alberta. It was known as the Dodsland Subdivision.

Scroll down for photos and to comment.

The line was always underutilized, trains running a couple/few times a week in peak season, even in the early days, and generally much less when the fall grain rush was over. Passengers rode in a coach tacked to the end of a wayfreight into the 1960s. The railway had tried to rid itself of the line as early as then but government red tape prevented it from happening until the late 1970s. It was an early abandoned line – most grain branches lasted into the late 1980s to mid-1990s period.

There used to be a small station on Esther – I understand it still exists on a nearby farm.

Esther Alberta

The team descends on Esther Alberta.

Perhaps some thirty to forty people called Esther home at the peak, with many more on nearby farms. Today there’s two living here, with a mere handful out in the surrounding rural areas. This boom then bust cycle happened to near every small town on the prairies with hardly a one escaping this outcome.

Esther AB Elevator

The most prominent thing here, the towering grain elevator.

There was a number of businesses in Esther in the early days. As could be expected. Seen today is the old store, a good sized block with a residence in back. It lasted in the 1970s. There’s a former service station, a pump still standing out front and slowly being consumed by a tree. Nature seems set on winning.

Over there are a number of tanks once connected to a large fuel distribution business. Many of the vintage trucks in retirement seen in this post were connected to that firm. There’s a couple old houses in town in various states of disrepair. Tiny places, these. Some have stocked cupboards and stuff in the closest. Like they just up and left. Looking about – my mom had that tea set – my mom had that pressure cooker – my mom had a record player just like that and played her Tammy Wynette LPs to death on it.

Small house, small town, middle of nowhere. These folks were hardcore. As we tend say a lot.

There’s the former school, of fairly modern construction, which didn’t last long before being closed. Part is used as a farm shop, the rest left to the birds who of course make a mess of things. In the gym – workout equipment, an old punching bag, a medicine ball. Covered in crap.

The tallest thing around, the most prominent thing in all of Esther and region, is the grain elevator. It was built by the newly formed Alberta Wheat Pool in 1925 (the third they constructed) and was last used in the late 1970s. It’s the oldest standing elevator connected to the company, which grew to be the largest grain handling firm in all of Alberta and the second largest in the entire country. At the peak nearly every small town on the Alberta prairies had a “Pool” elevator. The company was founded as a farmer owned cooperative and was merged out of existence in the late 1990s.

Esther’s “prairie sentinel” is one a couple hundred plus traditional style wood elevators left in the province, down from some seventeen hundred and change in the 1930s. Most standing today are either unused, as this one, or repurposed as storage facilities for private farmers, a job they’re well suited for. Commercial grain elevators today are gargantuan steel and/or concrete affairs placed along busy mainline tracks. The day of the small town grain elevator is long gone.

Esther Grain Elevator

It was cold and dreary but no misery here, we thrive in tough conditions.

The old rail line runs out front and is used a road to access petroleum wells in the area. On the big rolling doors is a list of former elevator agents. A separate building houses an office and the engine which drove everything – best to keep the latter away from the elevator proper as it was a fire hazard.

Attempt have been made to get the elevator historically designated. From first hand experience (we’ve helped a couple old building gets recognized), it’s not an easy task. Very time consuming, miles and miles of red tape, the usual government bureaucracy stuff. The people who own the town, its last inhabitants, would love to see it saved – heck the entire town saved – but begrudgingly admit that’s a herculean task perhaps beyond their capabilities.

Interestingly in Esther “the streets have no names” (hey, a good title for a song!) and instead are marked as Range and Township Roads or not at all. Seems the place never got town (or village) status officially, which was needed if they wanted to do this.

Old vehicles litter the property and this is where were find Nirvana. There’s an old VW Beetle, the most iconic auto ever (IMO) and the cause of many a bruised shoulder back in the day. Punch Buggy! Slug Bug! Smack! Ooooouch! Mommmmm!

An Essex is seen – we think we first we’ve ever documented. This line was popular in the 1920s but was gone by the Great Depression. Beside it a Cockshutt Tractor. This was one of the largest makers in the country in the post World War Two period. Most of their tractors were know for their distinctive “streamline” styling – some models, like the one seen, were more conventional.

In the yard of the last Esther-ites (Esther-onians?), highlights include an old Kenworth Cabover (circa 70s/80s don’t see this style of truck much anymore), a GMC General, the firms largest offering in that same time period, and a vintage Kenworth Canadiana (circa 1960s). That’s a nice one!

Esther Grain Elevator

The old rail line to the right.

Elsewhere, there’s a fine Kenworth LW heavy duty (1970s era) powered by a Cummins 350. This engine is legendary I’m told and is worth a mention just for that. “Big Blue” stands out again grey skies.

Esther AB Grain Elevator

The “Pool” had an elevator in near every town.

There’s some old International Pickups, here and there, a very common make in rural areas back in the day. A 1964 Pontiac, one year older than your author, is seen, the elevator acting as a backdrop (it’s backdrop for a lot of photos!). And finally, what the cool rich kids drove back in my school days (those days I bothered to go, that is), a late 1970s/early 1980s Pontiac Firebird. Thinking “Bandit” here – just needs the bird on the hood. Meanwhile the rest of us walked (me), took the bus (me) or drove castoff cars from a decade or two prior (my friends), old beaters, those giant tail-fin equipped land barges.

We wander the property, taking refuge in buildings between intermittent freezing rain. All the while, filming takes places, Rueben shooting fly on the wall style (an approach we use all the time), following us all around as we take in the place. We explore, examine, learn, chat with the people living here, all two of them, and take ourselves back in time. We imagine what the place was like in the old days, when there was a population here. We can picture it.

Much time passes and we have to go. Reluctantly, we say goodbye to Esther but hope to be back one day. We’re not done getting to know you.

Joining us this adventure were good friends Rob Pohl (regular readers will recognize the name – that “view” camera guy) and Byron Robb, both very accomplished photographers and all around fun fellows to hang with. Both make appeeances in the film being shot. Thank God, ‘cuz Team BIGDoer is sometimes shy around cameras.

Forgotten Prairie can be found in Youtube and Telus Optik TV and will soon be available for viewing here at BIGDoer.com. Stay tuned.

More from the series…
Forgotten Prairie: Fusilier.
Forgotten Prairie: Loverna – just down the tracks.
Forgotten Prairie: Hoosier Saskatchewan.
Old Jack’s.

We visited Esther the year before…
Alberta Pool Esther.

If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!

Date: April, 2017.
Location: Esther, AB.
Article references (and thanks): Bill D, Ron Parks, Book: Esther Community History, Glenbow Archives, Alberta Wheat Pool Records, Canadian National Railway Records.
Esther is private property with BIGDoer.com visiting with permission. If you ask the residents nice, you can too.

Esther Alberta Grain Elevator

A list of former agents.

Grain Elevator Esther AB

The building dates from the 1920s…

Grain Elevator Esther Alberta

…and closed in the late ’70s.

Grain Elevator Scale

Underneath the building, hanging with spiders.

Old Valve

Elevator interior – random detail shot!

Guard your elevator against

Guard your elevator against…

Old Wood Abandoned Town

So much character in this old wood…and the brooding sky.

Connie BIGDoer.com

One half of the team.

Grain Elevator Pigeon

When the pigeons get in, it gets messy.

Grain Elevator Esther

Filmmaker Rueben Tschetter heads inside.

Grain Elevator Esther AB

Taking refuge from the freezing rain.

Forgotten Prairie

Filming a scene from “Forgotten Prairie”.

Chris Doering BIGDoer.com

Always the trademark yellow

Kenworth LW

This tough old Kenworth LW.

Cummins 350

Powered by the legendary Cummins 350.

International L Series

A circa 1949-1952 International L Series.

Esther AB Ghost Town

The kids have grown up and moved away.

Old Fuel Tanks

There used to be a good sized fuel distributor in Esther.

1964 Pontiac Laurentian

A year older than your author.

Pontiac Firebird

What the cool kids drove.

Grain Elevator Office

The elevator office.

Folk Art

A fine piece of “folk art”.

Abandoned House AB

Inside a vacant house, the kettle is on.

Old Record Player

Thinking of Tammy…

Abandoned House Alberta

Peering inside a cupboard.

Old Trucks and Tractors

The back lot.

Kenworth Canadiana

A Kenworth Canadiana with a huge brush guard.

GMC General

The GMC General was the firm’s largest truck.

Kenworth Cabover

You don’t see many cabovers these days.

Old School Esther Alberta

School is definitely not in!

This truck stops...

This truck stops at uncontrolled railway crossings…

Kenworth Truck

In retirement…

VW Beetle

The most iconic vehicle ever – and the cause of many bruised shoulders.

International B Series

Internationals were common in rural areas – here a B Series.

Essex Car

We think it’s our first Essex.

Cockshutt Tractor

Cockshutt was a big maker of tractors in Canada back in the day.

Gas Pump Esther Alberta

Nature vs gas pump…

Esther Alberta Store

The old store and a BIGDoer-mobile photobomb.

Esther Alberta Streets

The streets have no names…really!

Cache Productions Drone

Shooting aerial shots for “Forgotten Prairie”.

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38 Comments on "Forgotten Prairie: Esther Alberta"

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00fxd
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00fxd

Great work as usual guys 🙂

Tom Mallett
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Tom Mallett

Very nice!

Martin Winchester-Queen
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Martin Winchester-Queen

Come in, Bandit, you got a Smokey on your tail!

Greg Pommen
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Greg Pommen

If it (Pontiac Firebird) had the screaming chicken on the hood it would be perfect!

Jenn
Guest

I love it! Looks like a wonderful place to wander around for hours.

Dave Armstrong
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Dave Armstrong

So very cool. Thanks for sharing.

Martin Stierlen
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Martin Stierlen

Smokey !

Simon Steffen
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Simon Steffen

I gotta watch the doc!!

Keith Wilson
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Keith Wilson

Thank you. This is great!

Dale Stewart
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Dale Stewart

I watched the video. Nice work.

Jason Paul Sailer
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Jason Paul Sailer

We bought the DVD!

Sandi Haydon McPherson
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Sandi Haydon McPherson

Super cool article and this photo, Chris. I had a 1980 bird and this brings back memories!

Barry Ross
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Barry Ross

Looks like a good running Firebird.

Larry Boing
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Larry Boing

Nice.

Cleve Musick
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Cleve Musick

Gorgeous old girl! (ed: the Kenworth)

Ken Baker
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Ken Baker

It’s actually amazing when you know someone who visited the same remote town in extreme rural Alberta. I visited there in 2007 and then again in 2008.

Jason Sailer
Guest

Love it! I know our brief visit in 2016 was enough to whet the appetite… Would love to go back, one of my favorite places to visit

Ron Parks
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Ron Parks

I drove that old girl (ed: the Kenworth), hauling disposal water from gas wells a few years back.

Chris Attrell
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Chris Attrell

Man, you’ve got a gift.

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