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Athabasca University e-Lab

Student Project: Prairie Ghost Towns

Communication Studies 450 student, Rachel Knox, wanted to create an online, multimedia exhibit, combining still images, moving images, and spoken and written word, in order to capture a piece of the disappearing history of the ghost towns of Saskatchewan.

Rachel writes:

It was my intention to learn as well as to teach: to learn how to become technically and artistically proficient at telling a story using multimedia tools; then to use those tools to teach the viewers about these abandoned buildings and to give a glimmer of what life may have been like for the Saskatchewan pioneers at the turn of the 20th century.

I think the artistic part of story-telling is so important, because even if you do not have all the technical pieces down, you can still present your story effectively if you have a sense of style. I learned so much in this area. Artistically I learned the importance of understanding the subject. A key discussion I had with Jeff  [Jeff Whetstone, University of North Carolina, supervised Rachel in this project] was about the idea that the abandoned buildings have a stronger story if shown within their environment. To be less concerned with the artistic angle and more concerned with the land with which the homestead is set.

We discussed “The Unknown” video and that showing interior shots for long periods of time makes the viewer forget where these buildings are, and that where they are is key to the story - which is in a harsh, beautiful, unforgiving environment. He stressed the importance of continuing to move from the indoors to the outdoors as a constant reminder to the viewers of where these homesteaders lived. Otherwise, he said, these homes could be anywhere. I tried to keep this idea in mind when creating these videos; to show the places within their environment. I only wish I could have taken these same photos again during the winter months.

But what I learned that I didn’t expect to learn was that not all of these buildings were abandoned because people were forced to leave. The reasons were vast and plenty. Of course, some had to leave because of the drought and the economy; this we know. But other reasons aren’t so devastating. Some left because they wanted to. Some families lived in these homesteads until retirement; but, because their children chose a life outside of farming, they sold the land to the neighboring farm. Because the new owners already had a home, these homes were simply vacated and left to the earth.

Why do they leave them standing? One reason is because they have no reason to tear them down, as explained to me by one local woman. One of the more fascinating parts of this trip is when you cross the border into North Dakota there are no ghost towns; there are no abandoned buildings. The reason for this is because corporate farming dominates the state. Corporate farming wants to farm in straight lines and not to have to think about moving their huge tractors and combines around non-essential buildings, so they are immediately removed. Not forgetting this also frees up more land for seed.

Because Saskatchewan is still, so far, mainly mom and pop farms, they don’t tear down everything. Why? Perhaps it’s too costly or time consuming. Perhaps it’s simply not thought much about. I don’t really know but I like to think that maybe it’s because they remember who lived there, they spent time in those homes and schools, and because they too like to keep a little piece of Canadian history alive while they can.