My goal that Fall day in 2007 was to get to Val Marie in southern Saskatchewan before supper. I started my drive early in the morning from Fort Qu’ Appelle. My plan was to stay at a B&B in Val Marie that had been developed in an old Catholic school. The school had also housed the nuns who taught there. On the way, I wanted to see the town of Wood Mountain, only because it was on the way and I wondered what sort of mountain might be out in the prairies.
There was no mountain, but there was a quiet little town with one standing grain elevator. Turned out it was just another prairie farming community, but I liked the look and feel of it. The streets were quiet and it had all the businesses necessary for such a community.
I was driving along highway 358 over the rolling hills between Assiniboia and Wood Mountain. The grain fields, ready for harvest, spread out in front of me as far as my eye could see. It was then that I met Mr. Disney.
Driving just south of Lakenheath*, I noticed the remnants of an old stone house. It was at the top of a knoll, but unaccessible from where I was. I thought it would be an interesting photo project. I stopped, got out, and considered how to get over two barbed wire fences, across the field and up to the house. I knew I didn’t have much time, because the sky was darkening with an approaching storm.
First, I thought, I’ll get an image from here with my telephoto, just in case I can’t do anything else. I was set up and started making some images when a minivan drove past heading in the opposite direction. The van immediately slowed, came to a stop, then turned around, came back, and parked behind my car. Out stepped an older man, probably in his early 80’s, who walked over to me.
“Hi there,” I greeted him. “How are you doing?”
“I’m great, thanks. What are you taking a picture of out here?”
When anybody stops to talk to me while I’m photographing a landscape, I sense they are concerned that I’m a real estate guy looking for sellable property. I always try to be courteous and pleasant, at least to start.
“Oh, I’m making my way to Val Marie. When I saw that old stone house ruin up there, I wanted to explore a bit and try to get some good photographs of the place.” I then introduced my Saskatchewan connection, hoping to overcome any barrier to conversation that my Alberta license plates might be causing. “I’ve been visiting friends and relatives in Regina. My family used to live there.” I held out my hand to shake his, “I’m Jack Blair.”
He shook my hand with a grip that belied his age, “Glad to meet you, Jack. My name’s Rempel Disney.” He saw my queried look and went on, “Yah, we’re in the same family, but we don’t have occasion to talk much.” He finished with a smirk.
“Now…that broken down house…used to be where several priests from the local church lived. As you can see that was a long time ago. The church was up on that knoll as well, but it burned down. We built a new church. It’s just up the road, past the house.
“There’s no need to walk across this field to get to the church. About a half mile further on, just make a sharp right onto the gravel road and that will lead you right past the house. You can walk up to it easily.”
“That’s great. Thanks. I guess you live around here,” I asked.
“All my life. I was born in Stonehenge. That was a town on top of that hill over there,” he explained, pointing to a barren hill to the east beyond grain fields that looked like they were ready for harvesting.
“The railway used to run through the town and we had two grain elevators. It was a great place to grow up in. Heck, now it’s almost impossible to see there was a town there. Everything’s gone except what’s left over of the old school, but the location looks like any other grain field around here.” I thought I heard a little break in his voice as he told me that history.
After I told him about my interest in trains, we talked a bit more about the railway that went through Stonehenge. I guess our casual conversation relaxed Rempel and he went on to tell me a story.
“You know, back in the 50’s, when I was courting my wife, we were out driving around and were on that gravel road I was tellin’ you about. I wanted to show her the old stone house and thought we could talk with the priests for a bit. We stopped and started walking up the side road to the house. I was ahead of her when I heard someone singing in the backyard. As I rounded the edge of the house I saw one of the priests in the garden, weeding while singing to his heart’s content, but he was butt naked! I turned around and ran back to my girl friend who was still walking up the hill toward the house. ‘I think we should come back another time,’ I told her in a bit of panic. ‘They’re busy right now.’ I led her back to the car and we left.
I couldn’t help myself—I broke out laughing.
“Yah, that was a close call,” he said, smiling.
We talked a bit more about families and the state of the crops before I went on my way. Rempel reminded me to go and have a look at the new church after I checked out the stone house, which I did.
The rest of the day was uneventful and I arrived in Val Marie in time to get a room at the B&B. While there I met a couple of cowboys up from Texas who had been contracted to move a buffalo herd in the Grasslands National Park. They were complete with the cowboy Stetsons, cowboy boots and the Texas drawl. I asked why somebody from Texas had to come all the way up to Saskatchewan to move a herd. They told me that they managed a wild buffalo herd in Texas and that it takes someone with experience to handle moving such a herd, because “wild buffalo are mean critters and they can turn on a person or horse without warning.”
We talked about their plans when we met at breakfast in the morning, but that is another story.
Lakenheath, Saskatchewan, surely must be named after Lakenheath in Suffolk, England. I didn’t realise that I drove by a place called Lakenheath on that trip in 2007. Later, when I took time to look at my map, I saw the name and noticed it was located in the Rural Municipality of Stonehenge. I became interested in these references to places in England.
Lakenheath in England has been a significant R.A.F. base since 1940, although these days it is being used only by the US Air Force. The first time I ever heard the name was when I heard The Shepard story, written by Fredrick Forsyth and read by Allan Maitland on the CBC at Christmas time, on December 24, 1979. I think the CBC has played that program every Christmas since then, but I don’t know what is planned for this year. If you haven’t heard it you’re in for a treat. Here is a link to the CBC website where you can listen to Allan, or Fireside Al as he used to be called, tell the story of The Shepard.