Sunday, December 24, 2017

Remembering the Farm: The School Christmas Concert

In the 1950's I attended a one room, Grades 1 to 8, rural school that my father had attended before me, located in the remnants of a village which today no longer exists. There were two events which brought the community and the school together, the "sports day" on the  last day of school before summer and the annual Christmas Concert, held the last day of school before Christmas holidays, usually on or about December 20th.

About the first of December a few of the fathers would come in and set up the stage along one side of the school.  Planks secured to sawhorses and grey with age. Aged curtains, once olive green, were suspended on a wire or cable that stretched the length of the school.  The windows back of the stage were covered in brown paper, decorated by the older students in tempera paints. One end of the stage exited into the boy's cloakroom (Yes, that is what they were called); the other into a small corner with a record player (we didn't have a piano in our school) where the teacher stood to direct traffic.

And so we began to practice. The program was fairly predictable. Musical numbers, one act plays, the odd individual or group recital, and sometimes something called a drill.

On concert night, wooden benches appeared from somewhere and by 7:00 the place was packed, standing room only. Most families came by car though if roads were bad, some came with a team and sleigh or caboose and put the horses up in either the school barn or the old abandoned livery stable about a block from the school. The place was hot and stuffy but no one noticed as excitement and anticipation kept the adrenaline flowing.

We once did a recital of "The Old Woman Who Swallowed the Fly".  I was in Grade 1 and was chosen to be the anchor man. "I don't know why she swallowed the fly. I'll think she'll die". School terrified me from the first day I went and the concert was the end of my life as far as I was concerned.  Frozen with fear, I woodenly recited my lines as the audience rolled on the floor and wept with laughter.  The more the audience laughed, the more frightened I became and the harder they laughed the next go-round. Fifty years later my father could not tell the story without laughing so hard the tears flowed. 

Drills were choreographed marches set to music, involving almost all the students.  And were usually disasters.  In Grade 2, our teacher decided we would do a drill to the Teddy Bear's Picnic, that being a popular kids song on the radio that year.  Somehow she acquired Teddy Bear masks for all of us. We wore the masks for the first time the night of the concert. They didn't fit.  They were too big and slid down our faces blocking our view.  There was a stage plugged full of kids with no idea where they were going, trying vainly to execute the maneuvers we had practiced.  We crashed into each other, knocked each other down, and in general created an awesomely funny melee. The audience thought it was funny.  We didn't and our poor teacher was so embarrassed for us.

When I was in Grade 6, we did a one-act play about two brothers, bachelor farmers, trying to hire a housekeeper.  I cannot recall the  name of it.  The time period of the play was in the 20s or 30s but the situation was close enough to ours that the humour came through, no problem.Another Grade 6 boy and I were the farmers. We interviewed several job applicants who were less than satisfactory, shall we say. I only recall two. One was a flapper girl whom we wanted to hire as she was cute but since we didn't have a nice car or a radio she declined the honour.  The other was a recent immigrant from eastern Europe with a thick accent (half our community was from eastern Europe) who specialized in cabbage soup only. "My sister, Olga, she wash dish". The play concluded with the farmers deciding they were better off to do their own housekeeping.

At the close of the program, we sang Christmas carols and the audience joined in.  Soon we could hear sleigh bells and Santa Claus appeared to hand out candy bags and if the kids had drawn names, the gifts.  The candy bags were something special, I can tell you. Halloween wasn't a big thing in our neighbourhood so we didn't end up with the loot that city kids get today.  So we looked forward to the candy bags.  Two Mandarin oranges, peanuts in the shell, hard Christmas candy and sometimes even chocolates. There were bags for all the preschoolers too. At our house they were carefully doled out over the holidays as some years it might have been the only Mandarin oranges we got.

If there was a raffle fund raiser, Santa also got to draw the winning ticket.  One year a quilt was raffled off and the winner was a young man who had recently married a very attractive blonde.  The general consensus in the audience seemed to be he didn't need the quilt, he had a wife to keep him warm.

The last concert was in 1959 as the school closed the following year and we were bused to a larger centre.  If the new school had Christmas Concerts, I recall nothing of them at all.  For anyone nostalgic for the days of one room rural schools, I suggest you read Lois Lenski's Prairie School. It takes place in the late 1940's in South Dakota but is so close to my own childhood, it felt more like a biography.

Saskatchewan, along with the rest of Canada, has changed and diversified from the days when 95%+ of our population was either Catholic or Protestant.  Beginning in the 1970s, immigration brought a mix of peoples who celebrate other religious holidays, many of them also in December. Catholic schools stayed Catholic but the Public Schools became multi ethnic and multi religious.  So Christmas Concert is out and Holiday Concert is in.  I think this is wonderful.  My kids were ready to be 'citizens of the world' at a much younger age than I was.

So I wish Merry Christmas to those of my readers who celebrate it and Happy Holidays to those who celebrate other occasions. And to all of you, health and happiness in 2018.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Forty-Seventh Canadian Western Agribition 2017

Canadian Western Agribition (CWA or Agribition) bills itself as the largest livestock show in Canada, primarily featuring beef cattle but including dairy cattle, bison, horses, goats, and sheep. In previous years it included all sorts of critters like pigs, lamas, alpacas,ostriches, and emus.

Purebred cattle enjoying their new facilities

The first Agribition was held in 1971, the brainchild of several far-sighted cattlemen, looking for a way to promote top quality beef genetics in Western Canada. The Regina Exhibition Association (now Evraz Place) would not take a chance on organizing something that new so the cattle industry did it themselves and have done so every year. . Along with a minimum of staff, the show depends on hundreds of volunteers who donate their time and costs because they believe in the show and because it is a great deal of fun.

The show has grown every year.  Agribition leases the facilities from Evraz Place but the show helped attract a great deal of infrastructure money from commercial sponsors as well as government. This year marked the completion of all planned new buildings and the end of the old wooden barns that served so well over the years. The facilities now total over 430,000 sq. ft. PLUS Brandt Centre (formerly the Agridome) and five NHL size hockey arenas converted to display space for the show.  All facilities are interconnected.  No more going outside from one facility to another in -30C weather (this year it was about -2C all week, lucky us)

Map of Agribition
Along with the traditional show and sale for each beef breed, there is also professional rodeo in the evenings, light, medium and heavy horse pulls in the afternoons, stock dog competitions, high school rodeo, a number of light horse events and a great many more livestock related events I likely missed. There is also a huge area of commericial displays including livestock equipment, feed equipment, animal health products, sadddles and western clothes, and the ubiquitous pickup trucks. One building is dedicated to consumer to buy, some related to livestock and some aimed at any consumers at the show.

Red Angus Females

Simmental Bull

Red Angus Bull

Dorset ( I hope) Sheep 

High school girl and mount ready for the next show

Kids loved the Trick Riding in the Brandt Centre

Where was this power staple gun 50 years ago when I needed it?

MacDon forty foot swather for grain or forage
The show is mostly about purebred cattle.  This year there were Red and Black Angus, Charolais, Gelbvieh, Horned and Polled Hereford, Limousin, Maine Anjou, Shorthorn, Simmental, and Canadian Speckled Park.  In years gone by there were other breeds and I was not sorry to see they were not there this year.  They were extremes or just didn't fit.

The Canadian Speckled Park (click on link for breed history) is a relatively new breed to which I am quite partial.  It was developed by Bill and Eillen Lamont of Maidstone Saskatchewan from Teeswater Shorthorn, Aberdeen Angus and British cattle with White Park colour pattern, which is to say black ears and muzzle. In 1972, three Speckled Park went to the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto.  In 1985 the Canadian Speckled Park Association was formed by nine breeders. In 1993 the Association was incorporated under the Canadian Animal Pedigree Act as a developing breed and in 2006 the Speckled Park were declared a distinct breed under the Act. They have caught on in Australia and New Zealand as well as Western Canada. Heifers are trading at $16,000 for export.

Canadian Speckled Park calf at Agribition

Education is one of the pillars of Agribition.  Thousands of school kids go through the show every year with special information packages sent out to teachers in advance.  The Family Ag Pavilion (formerly Agri-Ed Showcase) gives kids an opportunity to learn how farm animals are raised.  Chickens, turkeys, sheep and cattle make up some of the exhibits along with all kinds of activities related to the production of each type of animal.  Electronic and manual Q and A boards, model farms and even a life size model cow which kids, under veterinarian supervision, can assist give birth to a model calf.

Canadian Western Agnes about to have her calf

In the above video Canadian Western Agnes is being assisted with a difficult birth by a future veterinarian.  When not at Agribition, Agnes serves as a teaching tool for students at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.  The calf can be positioned inside the cow many different ways and the students learn how to reposition the calf sight unseen inside the cow for an easier birth.

One of the many students attending Agribition.  I wish they'd had those huge backpacks when my kids were young and I was a parent helping on their tour.  It slows them down and makes them easier to herd.
Of the 47 shows, I attended likely 25 to 30. I was privileged to serve on the Board of Directors for a few years as the representative of Saskatchewan Agriculture and served as a volunteer on the Commercial Cattle Committee.  While I was on the Board, Agribition celebrated its 20th show in 1990.  (That year the Board voted to recognize each volunteer with a distinctive red Agribition jacket, while staff all got a matching jacket in blue.  The company which manufactured the initial order of red jackets commented that they had never used so much material to make 150 jackets).

Tanya and I were at Agribition in 2006 and 2007 and had not been since.  This year she went for two days and I went for four days, one day with a former colleague and another with my brother who drove in for the occasion. Ten years is a long time to be away.  There were still a few people I knew but not many.  The children and grandchildren of the people I knew in the 80s and 90s have taken over the reins and the show strings. Still it was nice to be back.  Made me (almost) wish I was young again so I could get involved. It is about people, it is always about people.  My time at Agribition over the years was always about meeting livestock producers.

Change, of course, is a fact of life but one change made me sad.  My beloved Commercial Cattle Show is just a shadow of its former self.  There used to be several hundred head of cross bred and straight,bred feeder steers and heifers in uniform pens of five, ten and twenty, contributed by cattlemen as a way of advertising their cattle to commercial buyers.  There were also pens of five and ten open and bred replacement heifers, straight bred and cross bred.  All that is left of the Commercial Cattle Show is the replacement heifers, mainly from pure breeders.  The feeder cattle are no more.  Likely because it got too expensive to make economic sense to participate.

All the pictures in this post were taken by Tanya. If you click on the CWA link at the top of the page and scroll down there are many pictures taken at this years show and at this site a great many more: