God, the weather was awful. The bone chilling cold, howling wind, freezing rain and driven snow, a miserable weekend in the making. Or so we thought. It’s April 2017 and we’re out exploring back roads of Alberta and Saskatchewan with a rag-tag group of friends, in these horrible conditions, taking in ghost towns and other forgotten places. And the whole adventure is being filmed for a documentary, “Forgotten Prairie” available today on Telus Optik TV and Youtube and sometime soon at BIGDoer.com.
The setting: a small “private” ghost town in Saskatchewan called Fusilier, a photogenic place home to nothing but memories. The players: Team BIGDoer, all around photographer Byron Robb of Calgary, film photographer Rob Pohl of Edmonton; videographer/producer Rueben Tschetter, Cache Productions Red Deer Alberta and finally our host, Old Jack, whose lists Fusilier as his place of birth. What a sight we must be.
Before we touch on the history of Fusilier, we remind readers and this is at the request of the land owners, and there are two, that it’s on private property and permission is needed to enter. Please, respect their wishes. It’s not much to ask. Or shoot from the road with a long lens.
And with that out of the way, let’s talk about the town as we walk about the town. Lights, camera, action! Come take in what we explored while the cameras roll.
Fusilier dates from around 1914. And like a huge number of prairie towns, it sprung to life with the coming of the railway. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (Coronation Subdivision) the line here was a lowly “grain branch” running east/west through Saskatchewan and Alberta. One old paper describes it as two streaks of rust running from nowhere to nowhere. Infrequent trains were the norm. Still, the line lasted into the early 1990s. But with the town empty at that point, no one was witness to its passing – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Fusilier grew to have had a population of well over a hundred in the 1920s with lots more people residing on farms nearby. There was a thriving business district down by the tracks with many stores and shops. Over there was a church, down that way the school. A combination dance hall/community hall/theatre was built, a most lively place come Saturday Night.
All could agree, the future held promise.
But it was not to last. Soon in people started leaving, a decline made all the worse with the coming of the Depression of the 1930s. By the mid-1960s, the entire population could be counted on one hand. No long after, it was full on empty. Still, the trains passed and even with everyone gone, the town’s grain elevators continued to operated for a time. More on them in a moment.
Fast forward to today, the streets are grassed over, the few buildings left in town open to the elements and dilapidated. A couple houses can be found. An old store still stands. And the old hall, it’s hanging on by a thread, the front facade having collapsed. A sorry looking place if there ever was one…but even in death, there’s a quiet dignity here. Kinda sad, melancholy and touching. A bit eerie.
Down by old rail line stands a “Saskatchewan Skyscraper”, the “Pool” Grain Elevator, the tallest thing around. You’ll see it long before you get close to it. Ahh, the flatlands, these great plains of Western Canada where the views go on forever and ever. Flat-Earthers should have a convention here!
The elevator dates from 1917 and was built for the then newly formed United Grain Growers, for much of its history one of the biggest players in the Canadian grain industry. It later changed hands becoming a Saskatchewan Cooperative Wheat Producer facility. In the 1950s this firm morphed into the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool we all know and love, who owned it up until the time it closed in the latter half of the 1970s. It’s still wears company colours, the Pool logo proudly displayed on its sides – also seen up there “Use Pool Co-op Flour” and of course as was tradition, the name of the town in which it stood. You always knew where you were by looking at a grain elevator.
The Saskatchewan Wheat Pool was not just the largest grain handling firm in the province but the entire county. Every town in Saskatchewan, big or small, where grain was grown and that had rail service (so everyone and everywhere) had an elevator belonging to this company. Interestingly, both the Pool and the UGG, in the 2000s, got folded into another grain firm – long time competitors joined together.
Still seen in the elevator office, the original single cylinder engine that powered everything. Steel cladding acted as a fire mitigation measure. If an elevator went up in smoke, and they did from time to time, well, it was always spectacular. All that wood and grain – flammable stuff.
There used to be two other elevators in Fusilier. One dated from the early days and was soon closed down. The second, like the one standing today, is also from 1917. It had a series of owners over the years (Saskatchewan Elevator Company, Searle Grain, Federal Grain), before it came into possession of a the Pool (via a merger), becoming their “B” facility here.
This elevator closed in the late 1970s and was soon demolished. The office, a separate building as they often were, was left behind however. An old UK made “Ruston” drive engine sits inside. With a little work, I bet it could be made to run. Simple machines, these. There’s a perfect view of the current elevator from the office.
An old Dodge from the 1950s is located nearby. Tail fins! Also seen, concrete piers that once supported an elevator annex (a building added later as a way to increase capacity) connected to “Sask Pool B”.
At the edge of town, so a block away (small place, Fusilier) near the Highway Department yard that borders the property, is a wood boxcar turned shed. That’s an oldie!
We stroll about town, thinking of those who lived here. As we often do. Peer inside this building. It’s empty. That one, similarly so. The most stately house in town – the memories in these walls, if they could talk…that cliched saying. The hall, the wood dance floor, the movie seating, the stage in back. Hear the band playing. The movie screen lit up. A wedding being celebrated. Stand there, it’s the roaring twenties. Fusilier is alive!
The wind howls. Driving rain. Old Jack looks at us like we’re a few bricks short of a load. Why not take refuge in my truck? It’s warm. Crazy people, us. There’s stuff to photograph. Still, we take time to chat with the man from time to time. Be in awe as he speaks of the town. He’s a great guide. And very patient. Lots of stories of train crashes – a couple happened in the area long ago – of hauling grain to the elevator when it was in use – reminding us that even with the town dead and elevators closed or gone, grain still drives the local economy. If we had the time, I bet the stories could last for days.
All the while Rueben films the goings-on. We take no notice. Interviews are done, drone footage captured, much to the amusement of Old Jack who’s never seen anything like that. The hours rush by.
We make a brief visit to the Fusilier Cemetery, where many of Jack’s friends and relatives spend eternity. He’s outlived them all it seems. We all want to live forever, but forever is a lonely place. Listening to him speak of being the last one is admittedly a bit heartbreaking.
And we have to go. A hearty handshake won’t do, hugs all around. This old man, who we only met earlier this same day, is a friend. It’s cold and windy, our hands freeze, but we pay no mind. And it not the weather that’s given us the sniffles, it the saying of good byes. Hold ’em back. These tough case-hardened folks, us, that close to bawling like a little babies. We all knew it from the moment we arrived, this was going to be one special visit. And we hope to come back
And that ugly weather? It didn’t ruin the weekend, it made it. Dramatic photos, yes, but more so it reminds us of our own resolve. Get out there and document these vanishing places before they’re gone and everything else, cold and miserable conditions included, be damned. Team BIGDoer has a job to do!
What’s in a name? A Fusilier is a type of solider. It’d derived from the term “Fusil”, of French origin meaning a old style flintlock rifle carried into combat. Those that carried Fusils were Fusiliers. Simple, eh? Why the name was chosen for the town? We’re still researching that. Stay tuned. Trying to find a Saskatchewan Place Names book and having little luck at it.
There will be one more Forgotten Prairie post where the movie will be posted. Stay tuned, it should be available in a week or so.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: April, 2017.
Location: Fusilier, SK.
Article references (and thanks): Old Jack, Johnnie Backusky, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool Records, Glenbow Archives.
BIGDoer.com was in Fusilier with permission. Please do the same if you visit.