Monday, November 28, 2011

The Last of the Legion

Mossbank veterans remember
by Creeson Agecoutay

Ninety-one-year-old Walter Woite walks sure and steady up to the doors of the Mossbank Legion to unlock it. Tucked beside the old hockey rink, the Legion stands on the northeast side of town. The sign above the door reads, “Mossbank Branch No. 11, Meeting First Thur.” A cannon sits outside the building, a reminder of the legion’s ties to its military history. Inside, the air is as chilled as the air outside; the only life hangs on the walls. Hundreds of pictures, keepsakes and memories stare at an empty space. The walls are adorned with pieces of history commemorating the people of Mossbank and their lives during the many wars that took place. There are faces of soldiers, pilots, and other service men and woman who have served Canada. Woite’s picture sits among them.

Woite served during World War II in his early 20s, training all over Canada. He was finally shipped overseas in January 1945. He vividly recalls his nights in Horsham, England, at a base where he slept among 20 soldiers in small huts made of steel. Planes could be heard all night and day.

“It was a hell of a roar and noise. Wondered what the heck it was. Here it was an airbase about a mile from there. At that time the Canadians were doing the night bombings and the Americans were doing day bombings,” he said.

Battle training was an everyday occurrence for Woite. He remembers crawling through wet, muddy trenches, hundreds of feet long, with bullets flying over his head. “It was quite a thing. Our shoes were double-soled and then they were hob-nailed to boot. They had a machine gun sitting across from you on a pile of earth. You made damn sure you kept your butt and head down.”

Woite marched from camp to camp, always preparing himself for the frontlines and the inevitable task ahead of him. Then one day, a visit by two higher ranking officers changed everything. Two lieutenants addressed Walter’s camp. Keeping to themselves they whispered to each other, then they would say to the soldiers, ‘you guys ready?’ Everyone calmed down to a hush. The one lieutenant says again, ‘you guys ready?’ Finally, the other shouts, “For christ's sake, tell them!’

‘Boys, it’s all over.’ Holding back tears, Woite recalls one of the happiest days of his life. “The war was over that day… I was trained to kill and I could have killed and that’s quite a thing to break yourself away from that.” Today, Walter stands firm inside the legion hall. He says this Legion use to be one of the old buildings from the No. 2 Bombing and Gunnery School and they moved it four miles into town. He points to the metal canister behind the locked glass shelf. “They say that`s one of the oldest pieces of sealed butter in Canada,” he laughs.

Woite is proud to be a part of Mossbank`s Legion and he is proud to showcase all it has to offer. His voice softens. “We had 50 some (legion members) at one time. Assiniboia had quite a legion, they had 60 or 70. We use to have what they call a 49th parallel day. We would celebrate it here,” he recalls.  

Over time, Woite says the number of Mossbank Legion members grew thin with each passing year. People grow older. Many moved to care homes in Moose Jaw or further away.

“Albert Maloney just moved to Moose Jaw. There`s just the neighbour across the street, Bill Mackenzie and I. I think we`re the only two veterans left here in town,” he said. Walter Woite and Bill Mackenzie just live up the street from the Legion. Eighty-seven-year-old William “Bill” Mackenzie is Mossbank’s former mayor and handyman. He is retired now and his pleasures in life are simple; dishing out a bowl of butterscotch ice cream is less demanding these days.

In the early 1940s Mackenzie trained with the Canadian army before becoming an aero engine mechanic, working at the airbase near Mossbank. He said he knew a thing or two about tractor motors, so it wasn’t a huge jump to work on airplane motors. He recalls a fast-paced life on the airbase.

“There was quite a few that trained here in Mossbank. They really shoved (the pilots) through. When they got other aircraft in and they use to fly clover leafs and bombardiers would get a chance to drop their bombs. The air crew would get a chance to shoot at the drogues during practice,” he recalled those days as overwhelming. “When you were born on a farm, we were a pretty simple bunch compared to what was going on,” he said.

One of those who knew what was going on was the late Arni Olafson. He joined the Mossbank airbase in 1941 and was a skilled pilot who flew a Bolingbroke. He and other pilots trained students, many of whom came from Australia, Britain and New Zealand.

Woite recalls stories of Olafson and other pilots. One of the highlights to everyone would be hearing the roar of the plane engines flying towards Old Wives Lake for practice bombings.

“Arni got his wings and was a trainer and took the guys out to do practice bombings out there. My dad’s farm was only two miles over and he circled over that many, many times,” Woite said.

Olafson and his students would often fly over the many farms and villages in the area that dotted the landscape. After the closing of the airbase, Olafson dedicated 45 years as a dealer at the International Harvester Company in Mossbank. He passed away two years ago in February, 2009.

"… I was trained to kill and I could have killed and that’s quite a thing to break yourself away from that.” Walter Woite
Woite remembers the funeral service for Olafson, “They just loved him. There was a lot of sad people when he passed away. I guess it was a heart attack. A lot of grown men cried at his funeral. He was loved by everybody,” he said.

Today, the Mossbank Legion is a quiet place. Crowds of veterans sharing stories of days gone by are no longer. The number of legion members is dwindling. If the pictures on walls could speak, the stories would never die and in a way they won’t because the community will ensure they live on.

There is a saying, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” As long as there are people to tell stories, the spirit of Arni Olafson and dozens of others will continue to soar over the golden fields of Mossbank.

You can't beat small town living

By Drew Fossum

   If you follow the Highway 2 south from Moose Jaw, over the rise and fall of the Cactus Hills, and around the southern shore of Old Wives Lake, you will see little but cultivated fields, endless pasture, and the occasional farmstead. This same road used to be dominated by small towns, but Mossbank is one of few that remain. The rest have ceased to exist.
    In Mossbank, though, there is a vibrant community jockeying to stay alive. As the province’s economy surges with oil exploration across the south of Saskatchewan and potash companies post record profits, the time to build their community is upon them.
    No one champions this louder than Mossbank’s upbeat mayor, Carl Weiss. He left for Calgary in search of work years ago but migrated back to Saskatchewan in the early 2000’s.
    “When I came back here I had retired and I thought this is a time to take it easy,” Weiss reminisced as he leaned back into a plush leather chair at the Mossbank town office. Upon return he quickly realized that things “looked very grim.” Weiss decided to help the community’s revival, first on town council and then as the mayor.  
    Since then, Mossbank has had a reversal of fortunes. After decades of emigration from the region, the town’s population has recorded multiple years of growth.
    The provincial department of health publishes yearly statistics of people eligible for health insurance across Saskatchewan. In Mossbank the yearly report listed 394 in 2005 and 489 in 2010, an increase of 19 per cent.
    Weiss attributes this growth to the province’s prosperity. “We are a ‘have’ province, With that the smaller areas have grown. We’ve grown here,” Weiss said.
      “Young people, when they get out of high school and they don’t want to go on to university, they are finding jobs at home. They are working on the oil fields. They are staying here in Saskatchewan and they don’t all buy homes here but they are buying homes around in the area,” he said.
    As well as keeping young people in the community, Weiss said several tradesmen have moved into the area and are thriving. He believes that if the town is to keep moving forward it needs to keep local businesses and attract a few new ones.
    Brad Nagle couldn’t agree more. He knows his store's survival rests upon a thriving town. As Mossbank’s youngest business owner, his stake in the community goes far beyond his pocket book.
    When his store, Hat Trick Grocery, burnt down three years ago, he did not consider leaving. “We could have left the hole in the ground and not have paid any taxes, and put our money in our pocket and been done with it,” Nagle said. The loss of a grocery store would have been a huge set back for the small community.
    But looking past his loyalty to Mossbank, Nagel admits it’s not easy running a store in a small town. “You see milk being sold for four bucks in the city knowing that we can’t even get it off the milk truck for that,” he said.  For his business, every day is a battle with the city of Moose Jaw just a half hour drive away.
    To compete with the superstores, Hat Trick Foods offers everything they can to bring the people in, from meat to dry goods. They operate a small bakery and offer a hot lunch every Wednesday, feeding 30 to 50 people.
    As for room for growth in Mossbank, Nagle agrees the town could use a few more small businesses - but he sees the key to Mossbank’s future lies elsewhere.
    “There has to be something to be said for even just living in a small town. Maybe you don’t work here. Maybe you drive to Moose Jaw (for work),” said Nagle. “(In Mossbank) You get more ice time in your rink. You get more personal care at school. Your kid is not in a class of 50, he is in a class of 10.”
    Marketing small town life may be the saving grace for not only those wishing to escape the city, but for those already living in Mossbank. The town might lack a variety of restaurants, theatres, and coffee shops but it makes up for this with a quality of life only found in tight-knit communities.
    Brad Nagle sits back in his chair with a cup of coffee and smiles. He sees the difference in simple terms. If you want to move to the city then do it, he chuckles, but be prepared because “you’re not going to know anybody if you need help with something. It’s not as easy as yelling out the door ‘Hey come give me a hand and lift this!”’

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Knowing the noodle Of Saskatchewan

The Mossbank Noodle Factory abandoned and unkept
by David Fraser                             

A province full of gold, Saskatchewan can seemingly always trust the wealth seeded in wheat.

Traditionally in Saskatchewan, politicians and farmers alike harvest as much as they can from the staple crop. With a history of experimenting in the pasta production business (city-dweller translation: pasta comes from durum, durum comes from wheat), the Stephen Harper Conservatives were happy to announce a $50-million multi-purpose durum wheat and pulse milling factory in Regina on Oct. 7, 2011. The factory is set to create 150 construction jobs and 60 permanent jobs.

For some, though, the pasta-nouncement had a flavour of nostalgia. An hour-and-a-half southwest of Regina, past endless horizons of Saskatchewan’s confident wheat, lies a town with yielded ambitions.

In Mossbank, Sask. a noodle factory was opened in 1979. The factory was supposed to help move the town into the future. Instead, it was left in the past, and now sits vacant.

After five different owners, three unstable labels and a consecutive run-time of only three months, the factory finally shut its doors forever in the early 2000s.

Wearing a plaid work shirt and a bright yellow Signal hat, Rick Rollie sits across from me in his crowded office scattered with papers and tools. Rollie, who would become one of the managers at the plant, explains how Mossbank’s tumultuous years of the plant affected the town of just under 500 in a big way. “For a small town, when you can employ 14 people, it hurts the community some, because that’s extra money in the community,” says Rollie.

Down the road from the maintenance shop is the Empress Hotel, far away, by small town standards, from the noodle plant. Drinking a beer inside is Lloyd Kawloski. Kawloski saw first-hand the failure of Mossbank’s plant. When the factory shut down, the shareholders - mostly Mossbank citizens – were the ones who paid the price. Lloyd guessed that 80 to100 people invested in the plant, including a few wealthier Mossbankers who had the money to risk. “All the shareholders got nothing, because the future (final) buyer didn’t care about the debt. He just got the building,” Kawloski says.

The last owner had a noodle factory in Montreal, so all the factory's equipment was shipped there. It’s companies like that one, as well as the other pasta producers in Canada, that the new Regina plant will have to compete against. Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver house Canada’s current pasta-makers.

Alliance Grain Traders, the company building the factory, now faces the challenge of entering the pasta market with Regina’s plant. President and CEO of Alliance Grain Traders Murad Al-Katib has become a lead-horse in world trading of grain by placing his bets on pulse crops and canola in the past half decade.

With the government’s controversial decision to lift the reins of the free market on King Wheat, Al-Katib’s pasta and pulse milling factory might boil up a feast of success - but only time will tell.  

According to media reports, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, and Alliance CEO Al-Katib have all said the imminent abolition of the Canadian Wheat Board will help make the factory a success.

Remi Gosselin of Canadian Grain Commissions isn’t so sure. “(The Wheat Board) has nothing to do with it. They still have to buy durum and turn it into pasta,” he says. “It’s the market that will make the difference. The process that the company building the plant has set up, logistics, and marketing opportunities.”

The market Alliance Grain Traders face is in some ways more favourable than the one Mossbank saw. Pasta consumption in Canada has grown, but by no means rapidly. Canadians consume 6.5 kg of pasta per capita, and that number is expected to heat up with the increase of immigrants from Asian countries who are traditionally heavy noodle-consumers.

Canada is still a net importer of pasta. If Alliance plans to sell domestically, established Canadian companies and international pasta heavyweights like the 134-year-old Barilla will be barriers to the market that they will have to overcome.

Exporting pasta is possible, but many world markets are suffering right now. In 2006, Italy was Canada’s largest importer of durum wheat. In 2011, Italy is 2 trillion euros in debt.

Trade talks between the European Union and Canada have taken place a number of times this year. Eurozone counties, like Italy and Greece, have many considering completely restructuring the chaotic current state of the EU.  Financial advisors have gone on the record to state that exposing Canadian investors to these markets could be ominous.

 The Asian-Pacific route might be an option, too. Stephen Harper is currently negotiating a free-trade agreement with Asian-Pacific countries. Countries like South Korea, counting in with debt over two times its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  Included in those talks is the United States, who is also currently experiencing high debt numbers. The market for pasta in these countries is present – but economically they aren’t strong right now.

With a decaying roof and cultivated weeds, Mossbank’s once treasured idea of success now rests on the edge of town- abandoned on the Sea of Saskatchewan’s golden coast.

Mossbank might have a glimmer of a lesson in it, though. If history is to teach
Saskatchewan anything, it might be to remember that when you’re surrounded by gold, you might not always harvest the riches.  

A reason to stay… How rural bars keep small towns alive

- Aaron Stuckel
A right-hand turn off highway two in south central Saskatchewan takes me down a dusty gravel road heading east toward god-knows-where. The loose stones slip under my wheels as I take another right towards my first stop: the bar in Ardill, Saskatchewan.
            An embankment hides the meagre village of Ardill from the highway. With scattered, rusted old cars and a couple of ancient buildings, it’s an unlikely place for a successful business. But beneath the rubble and overgrown grass, Ardill has a surprising history.
           Once a thriving rural town, it supported many local businesses, including three grain elevators.  But in 1985, CN Railroad ripped up their tracks and Ardill’s population has dropped ever since. It now has a population of just one person.
The Ardill Hotel. Phote By Aaron Stuckel
          One of the very few things that keep Ardill alive is its bar, one of just three buildings in the near ghost town. Having the first liquor license ever distributed in Saskatchewan, the Ardill bar is unique compared to others like it. People come from miles around to eat wings and drink into the night, sacrificing a small drive out of town for a comfortable place to spend an evening. With a weather-beaten, paint-less wooden exterior and a rusted metal door, the 100-year-old bar welcomes me with a creak of the hinges.
            Amber Eisen, 19, sits at the back-right corner seemingly surprised to have a customer so early. It’s about 11:30 am on a crisp, autumn Monday. Not exactly happy hour for a place like this. With nobody else around, we sit and chat about a general day in Ardill Bar.
“I come in at 11. I open everything and just kind of hang out until I get someone who comes in. You get the drink order, and their food order. Then we have to cook their food there in the back,” she says, nonchalantly, as if playing both cook and server isn’t a big deal. “They have to haul water from Mossbank. (Sometimes it happens) where it starts to get low and you have to get Marlo out here, or their sons, to make sure they get water out here in time.”
She’s talking about the owner, Marlo Krauss. He and his wife Angie bought the Ardill bar seven years ago. Since then, the Krauss family has turned one of Saskatchewan’s oldest liquor vendors into a hotspot for local farmers and rural teenagers.
A pool table, shuffleboard and arcade game are scattered about the bar room floor.  On the walls, cattle brands have been imprinted on the walls, part of a fundraising activity put on by the Krausses. This place exemplifies small town hospitality.
After finishing my drink and fries, I walk out of the bar and step onto the front porch. Cigarette butts and chewing gum litter the floor, and I am reminded of the trouble rural hotels have been having just to stay alive.
In 2005, the province of Saskatchewan issued a smoking ban in all enclosed spaces. Sales in drinking establishments subsequently dropped from $7.5 million in 2004 to $4.5 million 12 months afterwards. Sales are getting back to normal now, but the ban isn’t the only problem that threatens rural hotels. In 2010, a study done in Manitoba threatened to ban VLT’s from all bars, a lifeline for many rural establishments. The provincial government did not go through with the ban, but many small town bars continue to struggle.
These types of problems have me questioning the sanity of the Krauss family as I get in my car to leave Ardill. While many across Saskatchewan are quitting the small town bar business, the Krausses are purchasing a second one in nearby Mossbank.
I get back on highway 2, heading deeper into southern Saskatchewan with the sun high in the sky. Just south of Old Wives Lake, I arrive in Mossbank, a town of nearly 500 people, according to recent health region counts. Though its population has grown in recent years, Main Street shows few signs of life as I slide through town in search of the Empress Hotel.
            At the corner of Fourth and Main, The Empress Hotel sits in its modest glory. The mural on the south side of the building pays homage to all that is Mossbank: a grain elevator, a blacksmith shop, a bird sanctuary, CP trains, and Snowbird fighter jets. Above the front entrance is a busted Coke sign that bears the name of the hotel. A cracked cement pad acts as a front stoop and the front door resembles that of the Ardill bar: rusted metal, chipped paint and creaky hinges.
            The front entrance of the hotel is cramped. The worn carpets have come unglued from the backing, creating small waves in the floor. On my left is a rickety staircase with a roll of stained carpeting lying in a heap on the way up. The sound of a blunt metal object striking metal can be heard above.
            Occupying the majority of the main floor is the hotel bar. The floors are new, faintly reflecting the morning sun that streams through a window on my right. In the centre of the main area is a pay-per-game pool table. The green baise top is spotted and wet from leaky pipes in the ceiling. The banging heard above is apparently an attempt to mend the building’s plumbing problems. At the back right corner is a small bar, standing about shoulder high and extending roughly 12 feet in length. Bottles of liquor stand atop the shelves behind and two big cooler doors lined with fake brown leather mimic the d├ęcor of the ‘70s style bar room.
            Behind the bar counter stands a woman of average height. Wearing blue jeans and a black sweater, Jennifer Krauss greets me with a cheery smile. She’s the oldest daughter of Angie and Marlo and has been managing the Ardill bar for over seven years. Now she’s helping open up the hotel here in Mossbank.
 It becomes clear right away why the Krauss family reputation as bar owners has the town of Mossbank excited about the hotel's future. Krauss has a way of making a city slicker like me feel at ease, even in a small town like Mossbank. Before I know it, she has me lips-deep in a cold beer.

“The owners that were here, they weren’t here for the people. And we are.” 

            We sit down to discuss her family’s acquisition of the bar, and whether or not her dad is crazy for purchasing a business that hasn’t exactly been profitable in over a decade. This is the third time the hotel has changed hands in less than two years.
“The owners that were here, they weren’t here for the people. And we are,” says Krauss. “Like dad said, if we can make enough to keep our employees paid and our customers happy, that’s all we want. We don’t want to make a profit, we want somewhere where people can go for fun.”
            A group of American hunters sits at a table near the bar sipping on cool Budweisers, only half- heartedly paying attention to the rugby game playing on the brand-new flat screen above their heads. Krauss serves them intermittently as we talk.
          This is Mossbank’s tourist demographic. The bird population around Mossbank brings hunters from down south into town during the fall for a week or two of hunting ducks or geese. Although it does help local businesses, it doesn’t necessarily keep them alive either.
 “Everything needs a good facelift. Keep it looking old style, but fix it up a little,” says Krauss.

The ongoing renovations are stalling with the discovery of the plumbing problems and a leaky roof. Krauss takes me upstairs to the hotel section of the building. There are eight doors in the hallway, each opening to a small cramped room. Many have brown stains on the walls where water has leaked in. One door in the hallway houses the only bathroom on the floor. A few of the rooms have brand new laminate flooring, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I snap a few pictures and ask Jen who she thinks will fill the rooms when they are done.
“We’re not really sure because it’s been such a long time since rooms have been appealing. We’re hoping to get people who are coming home for the holidays. Hopefully we’ll hit a little bit of everybody, but we know for sure it will be the hunters,” she says. That’s not much to bank on considering the hunting season consists of only four months during the fall.
After the tour, I say goodbye to Krauss and head toward the coffee shop. I begin to think about the state of rural hotels. They have, in fact, been doing much better in Saskatchewan in the last few years. The province's economic boom has increased cash flow in small communities, and this has increased spending in small town bars.
“I would say a majority of them are doing fairly well with the way the economy is,” says Tom Mullin, president of the Saskatchewan Hotels and Hospitality Association. “I think the issue is they are competing head-on with government liquor stores and franchises. They don’t have the same pricing structure in place, so they can’t compete adequately.”
Private liquor vendors must pay a 10 per cent tax on all alcohol purchases, which increases their product prices. This allows government liquor stores to undercut private stores, according to Mullin.
            The people of Mossbank don’t seem to be too worried about pricing structures. They are just happy to have their hotel back in the hands of a local who knows the community’s values. It helps that the Krausses have the Ardill bar on their resume. It’s a popular drinking establishment among Mossbank residents.

 “It’s quite an undertaking they’ve taken on, but they’re the perfect couple to run a bar in a small town.”
People in Mossbank are excited about the hotel’s future.
“It’s quite an undertaking they’ve taken on, but they’re the perfect couple to run a bar in a small town,” says Joy Silzer, a long-time Mossbank community member.
As we sit in the coffee shop talking about the re-opening of the hotel, Joy explains what it means for the town. “It gives the same quality of life in a small town as you get in a larger city. It means that people will socialize more in their own town. And any time there (are) more dollars rotating in a small town, it’s good for the whole community.”
            After our brief visit, I jump in my car and hit the highway. With the sun falling and the prairie sky changing colours, the cool wind rushes through my window, keeping me alert as I head home.
All of my life I have lived in cities and could never quite understand what kept small towns alive. With urbanization increasing every day, towns like Mossbank constantly battle extinction. This is where people like the Krausses turn from regular people into unsung heroes. Though they sacrifice profits and financial gain to keep these rural bars and hotels open, they unknowingly give people a reason to stay in small towns and allow their community to survive. Every time their doors open, that’s one more person that hasn’t left town.  And if the success in Ardill is any indication of the Krausses' future in Mossbank, the doors of the Empress will remain open for a long time to come.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mossbank trying to get back in business

By Jonathan Hamelin         
The Empress Hotel in Mossbank
Photo by Jonathan Hamelin

When it comes to Mossbank, Carl Weiss is hoping entrepreneurs won’t mind their own business.
            The mayor is hopeful that more business will emerge in Mossbank, a town of just under 500 in south-central Saskatchewan.
            Mossbank is already home to a number of businesses, including four business and farm equipment providers, two grocery stores, one hotel, a gas station, a heating and plumbing service, a bank, a restaurant, an accounting firm, a children’s clothing store and a post office.
            But with Mossbank situated less than an hour’s drive away from larger centres such as Moose Jaw, Assiniboia and Gravelbourg, it’s hard to attract all the businesses people need, said Weiss.
            “We don’t have a place to repair cars or a mechanic shop. The Co-op does a bit of it, but they don’t really want to get that involved in it. They’ve had a few mechanics come in there and start, but they can’t seem to make any good connections with them,” Weiss explained.
“We have a small doctor’s clinic here and a lot of people use the clinic. But doctors are so scarce that we only have a doctor a few days a week. So of course, some of the people go to Gravelbourg, Assiniboia and Moose Jaw. We’re also losing a lot of our old people to these places because we don’t have a seniors' centre.”
Weiss knows all about leaving Mossbank. As a journeyman carpenter, he did his apprenticeship in Calgary, then served as a superintendent of a housing project in Saskatoon and finally worked construction in Edmonton.
Weiss retired and moved back to Mossbank about 10 years ago. Like many retired individuals, he thought he would just take it easy. But this changed when he witnessed the attitude held by some in the town.
“We were the new family on the block, and of course everybody was tired of doing things. When I came here, things looked very grim,” Weiss said. “There was talk of shutting (the town) down and walking away. I thought, ‘No, that’s not going to happen as long as I’m here.’”
To help revitalize the community so more youngsters wouldn’t leave Mossbank like he did, Weiss got involved in the town council soon after he returned and became mayor a few years later. As mayor, Weiss began hiring people to help the town set up different committees.
Weiss said one of these committees’ big accomplishments was setting up the Dare to Dream Lottery, which sells tickets and has helped Mossbank raise money for upgrades. One example of the lottery’s benefits can be seen in the development Old Wives Lake, which is a primary tourist attraction.
“(The lottery) seems to have picked everybody up in town,” Weiss said. “They see that there is something happening. It’s been a real asset and started bringing people in here. In fact, we have just slowly grown up here until about a year ago, which slowed down a little bit.”  
Weiss hasn’t been the only one working to turn the state of business in Mossbank around. Jennifer Krauss and her parents recently bought the Empress Hotel in Mossbank. Already the owners of a hotel in Ardill, the family decided to run a business in the community they lived in.
“We all kinda knew what the cliental is and what to offer,” Krauss, 26, said. “Right now, we’re slowly getting into everything. We’re bringing in good drink specials and things like that, and we’ve talked to the community to see what they want to do – bringing in certain bands and starting up a pool league again.”
The Empress Hotel has six rooms that the new owners plan to renovate during the winter before opening to the public. The business currently employs only local residents. Krauss said it is important for her family to support Mossbank with the business.
“It’s a good community – there’s good people in it,” she said. “There’s very little crime, basically nil. There’s lots of room for expansion and basically anything. There’s really no competition for anything.”
Unfortunately, no competition means a lack of businesses in Mossbank. Like Weiss, Krauss admitted more services are needed in Mossbank. She stressed the need for a full-time doctor’s clinic, adding that a daycare and gym would be beneficial. But according to Krauss, Mossbank’s age demographic may be hindering this progress.
“One thing out here is people are very skeptical about new things,” she said. “In Mossbank we have our seniors, who basically take up 50 per cent, and the young, young group, which takes up 50 per cent. There are very few in-betweens. It’s basically the battle of the ages. The seniors don’t want as much change and the younger people back down from the seniors.”
 But perhaps the seniors’ cautiousness comes from experience. Leon Wuschke is one of the seniors in Mossbank. Over 20 years ago, after he couldn’t make things work on his farm, Wuschke moved into town and bought the LAW General Store. Wuschke does his best to help the community, staying open late and employing local workers, but he seems to be cautious when it comes to adding more businesses.
“It’s costly to run a business and you have to have the people to support you,” he said. “For a business itself, it has to be interesting for people to support it.
“It’s too easy now to drive to Moose Jaw or Assiniboia. If (people would) shop at home, they’d have good stores, and if the people would quit retiring to other places, we’d have a population of nearly 1,000 people here.”
While many in Mossbank realize the difficulty of running a business in a small town, people still recognize more services are needed to keep the community thriving.
One thing that would help in this regard is an economic developmental officer, tasked with attracting and promoting business. But Mossbank has been without an officer for the last several months. Weiss noted cost has been an issue – an officer’s salary is $60,000 to $70,000 a year, though grants cover some of the cost.
“We are probably going to try and find another one to come in here,” Weiss said. “I think there’s a real need for that.”

“When I came here, things looked very grim. There was talk of shutting (the town) down and walking away. I thought, ‘No, that’s not going to happen as long as I’m here.’”
- Carl Weiss

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wheat weaving ‘almost had a life of its own’ for Joy Silzer

By Jonathan Hamelin

Two wheat dolls exchange flowers.
Photo by Jonathan Hamelin
         Joy Silzer has always thought one of the most beautiful images is a wheat field flowing in the wind almost like waves on the ocean. Farmers often judge a crop based on the production it yields, but almost every wheat crop helps Silzer stockpile material to fuel her passion.
         The 64-year-old spent over 20 years of her life wheat weaving: taking handfuls of grain and forming them into pieces of art. Silzer quit almost 10 years ago, but her collection can still be found all over the world. She “worked a lot of magic,” says Gail Mergen, general manager and assistant curator of the world-renowned Shurniak Art Gallery in Assiniboia.
         Silzer lives in Mossbank, a town of just under 500 in south-central Saskatchewan. As she sits at her kitchen table discussing her work, evidence of her passion is displayed everywhere: sunbursts brace the walls, the coffee table is partially made of wheat and in cupboards there are wheat hearts and little wheat dolls fishing, dancing and playing the banjo.
         “I think I express the beauty of the prairies through my work,” Silzer says. “Wheat weaving almost had a life of its own. A lot of my adult life I’ve been alone, and the straw has been what’s fulfilled me. As corny as that sounds, that’s what it is.”
         Straw is the stem of wheat. On the Prairies, wheat is a resource readily available. Silzer was inspired by the Prairies long before they provided her with the material for her craft, though. Silzer says she wasn’t an artistic person growing up, but her affinity to the Prairies made wheat weaving a natural choice when she did get involved in art. Silzer’s interest in wheat weaving had been piqued in 1979 by a piece of wheat weaving artwork she received from some friends who had received it from relatives visiting Norway. At the time, Silzer was married with children and living on a farm over three miles west of Mossbank. Silzer says she was “obsessed from the beginning” with wheat weaving, noting that when she got the first piece, she soaked it in a tub of cold water, unfolded it and took pictures and drawings, trying to understand how it could work. As Silzer explains, this one scene is an example of what “made [her] different than other wheat weavers:” her dedication to the craft.
         Silzer credits a story about the House Blessing she heard early in her wheat weaving career for inspiring her to go even further. The earliest beginnings of wheat weaving are tied to the House Blessing, a unique piece that brought health, happiness, and prosperity. Farmers would take the last few stalks from their field and weave it into a pattern of honour. They would give it to a fellow farmer as a gift and then stay and help with harvest. At a craft show in Saskatchewan, Silzer met a 98-year-old woman who had been brought to the show with her senior centre for some entertainment. When the elder saw a House Blessing on Silzer’s table, she began to cry.   
         “She told me the last time she’d seen a House Blessing was when she turned 15. Her father in England had taken the House Blessing off of their wall and put it into the lid of her steamer truck, and that was the day she was married and sent to Canada. She had never seen her family since,” Silzer says. “They settled in Ontario … something happened to their seed grain, so she took the House Blessing that her father had given her as a gift – the last thing she got from her dad – and she thrashed out the seeds and she planted them in the dirt floor of their cabin.
         “There was just enough light coming in through the window and it was planted beside the cook stove so it didn’t freeze. It grew over the winter, and in the spring they had more seeds and they planted them outside. She said they did that back and forth over winter and summer with the seed stalk that came out of her House Blessing until they had enough to plant whole fields and store the grain in granaries.”
         Silzer says after hearing this “moving story,” she wanted to learn more about this art form that could get someone so emotional. She found the history of wheat weaving is as vast as a farmer’s field, but finding particular documentation is as hard as picking out a unique piece of wheat among the lot. According to the National Association of Wheat Weavers website, the craft began emerging around the 1500s in Great Britain. Silzer has narrowed it down to the Incan Tribe of Mexico through her research. Other sources suggest Wales, Scotland or Spain. Straw has been used over the centuries for making items such as straw hats, reticules, baskets, storage containers and different types of decorative items.              
         The first step in wheat weaving is locating the grain. Silzer would look for pieces that weren’t wet and had not been treated with chemicals or fertilizers. Drought years worked perfectly for her. In Mossbank, you can see farmland in almost every direction. This was Silzer’s store and the farmers were the shopkeepers, so to speak. While Silzer usually took “less than a deer eats for lunch,” she notes it was important for her to develop a strong relationship with these shopkeepers. If anything, farmers got a kick out of the fact that Silzer was taking wheat from their field and producing art. One Sunburst she produced, using materials from her neighbour, was bought by the Liberal party to be given as a gift to Prime Minister John Turner. Silzer was invited to the $100-a-plate dinner, where the gift was presented to Turner, and was able to meet the prime minister. When the neighbour whose grain she used – a Liberal supporter – got wind of this, he went to Ottawa the next summer and met John Turner. Silzer was fascinated by that whole experience.
          “I think I express the beauty of the prairies through my work. Wheat weaving almost had a life of its own. A lot of my adult life I’ve been alone, and the straw has been what’s fulfilled me. As corny as that sounds, that’s what it is.”
– Joy Silzer
         On the flipside, Silzer has encountered just one farmer unwilling to give away wheat for free. While sitting with him at a coffee shop, Silzer said no one had ever asked her before, but she decided to pay him since it was a crop she wanted. She took out a pen and paper, calculating how many bushels the farmer would get per acre, how much money it would bring in and how much grain she wanted. While the farmer sat back all happy, Silzer finished her calculations and handed the man 98 cents. She later sold the piece back to his brother for $250. Silzer chuckles while reflecting on the memory. Though the farmers were mostly helpful, Silzer has had to drive as far as northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba when the other crops were too wet or suffered hail damage.
         Once securing the wheat, Silzer would check for moisture content. Moisture causes mold. After drying out the wheat in a place with lots of air, she would clean off the bottom portion. Finally, the wheat would be soaked in cold water. This would make it soft and allow it to be bent or twisted without breaking. From here, she could begin crafting pieces. The easiest piece for her to create was the wheat heart, which looks like a heart with pieces of wheat sticking out of the bottom. Long ago, Silzer recollects, men gave such hearts as gifts to women they were courting. Silzer also created sunbursts, which were difficult because she had to sort through a lot of straw to find beautiful heads that would work with each other. Silzer also created wheat dolls and scenes to accompany them. There are dolls displayed in her house doing everything from sleeping to, ironically enough, tending the harvest. In creating the pieces, other materials were often required to accompany them like baskets, banjos or pianos. Silzer’s parents created some objects for her and she bought the others. These dolls are Silzer’s favourite pieces because she feels they almost become like characters. Even though she never put faces on the characters, because legend says it gives them too much power, it doesn’t mean they haven’t come to life. One of Silzer’s customers once told her that one of the two fishermen he had was smiling and the other was frowning. Silzer remembers saying, “Really? I guess one was catching a fish.”
         When Silzer first began selling her work, she notes it was popular because it was a new craft on the Prairies. Others soon picked up on the new art form, but Silzer says none really approached it as dedicatedly as she did. But Silzer says the fact she began selling her pieces was an “accident." She only wanted to make one piece. A friend of hers was going to a farmers' market and offered Silzer some space at their table. Silzer didn’t feel the pieces would sell, but they were bought “as [I] was unwrapping them.” The success at this market led Silzer to be invited to more events. The big break for her came when she earned membership into the Saskatchewan Craft Council. By becoming a member of the SCC, Silzer could get her work put into any gallery in North America. Her work was quickly swept up across the Prairies, then Canada, and then the world. The pieces were often presented as gifts to dignitaries. At one time, Silzer even owned a craft store in Mossbank. She has won awards and attended large craft shows in Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatchewan, Winnipeg and Toronto. She was invited to attend the Calgary Stampede with Tourism Saskatchewan twice to display her wheat weaving collection in its pavilion.
         Silzer’s pieces have sold for over $100, but it’s never been about the money for her. She’s always worked at least one job while being actively involved in wheat weaving. For her, everything that happened because of her wheat weaving was just an added bonus to discovering the passion in the first place. As Silzer constantly stated during the conversation, “Wheat weaving almost had a life of its own.” She means that wheat weaving fulfilled her for so much of her life, and picking up the craft created so many opportunities for her to travel and interact with people she likely never would have had.
         In the Shurniak Art Gallery, a lone piece of Silzer’s work is hanging on the wall. It has been kept there by gallery owner Bill Shurniak, an accomplished, worldwide art collector who promotes his and other collections in the gallery. After putting Silzer’s work in storage for her back in 2006, he asked if he could look through it and maybe display some. Silzer agreed, though doubted her work was good enough to be displayed. When she next walked into the gallery, every piece of hers that Bill had was on display. Mergen says Silzer was the first artist exhibited outside the collection.
         “It was the greatest sense of accomplishment that I will ever be able to have,” Silzer says. “It’s like writing a book that hits every bestseller list and you get every single award you can get in one shot. The pride you’re going to get when that happens to you is what I felt when I walked in that door.”
         Moments like these have reignited Silzer’s passion for wheat weaving. She’ll occasionally feel the need to “get [my] hands wet for a while and make the rest of the world go away,” but she doesn’t plan on doing shows again. After all, wheat weaving was never about the money for her. If it was about the money, Silzer says she would have churned out more pieces once her work was displayed in Shurniak’s gallery, because with this exposure to the art world the public was interested in buying more of her work. But for Silzer, wheat weaving was, and simply remains, an “obsession.” For her, it is enough to see her work displayed in public settings and never see them turn up in garage sales, showing the legacy she created is well-preserved.
A passionate dance between two wheat dolls.
Photo by Jonathan Hamelin
         As the conversation ends, Silzer walks around the room and shows off some of her different pieces. While picking up a new piece, she often begins telling a story associated with it. It is clear in this moment that the personal connection Silzer feels to her finished products is more important than anything else. This strong sense of attachment has given Silzer’s wheat weaving pieces a timeless quality. This is why, while no new work of Silzer may ever be sold again, the collection of her work around the world will always be as vast as a field of golden grain waving at harvest time.