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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.