Decades ago, I discovered some stunning abandoned sights while wandering Southern Alberta’s backroads with my 35 mm camera. These works of country art fascinated me back then and I’m still under their spell today.
Elaine on Assignment
When I took some of these photos, I was shooting black and white Kodak film that I developed and printed at the SAIT Polytechnic photo lab darkroom in Calgary.
My photography instructor wasn’t impressed with my interpretation of his assignment. Technically, the exposures were less than stellar, but more importantly, he said, I hadn’t gotten up close and personal with the old buildings.
If I remember correctly, he branded my group of photos as lacking imagination. They were just documentation.
True, I had kept my distance.
I attempted to explain that climbing fences and skulking around structures without permission was called trespassing. Those of us with rural roots don’t appreciate people who have the audacity to do that.
That was one reason I shot from the gravel road, usually looking over the entrance gate rather than seeking unusual and eye-catching perspectives hidden from view.
Dust to Dust
However, that wasn’t the sole reason I chose to include the environment surrounding these weathered structures. The stories of these aging homes, barns and granaries were entwined with the hills, the grass and the trees surrounding them.
I reckoned before long Mother Nature would reclaim those little patches of ground that hardy Albertans, through backbreaking labor, had cleared to build a life and earn a living.
It would be only a matter of time.
If They Could Only Talk
To me, the images of these vintage backroad beauties were striking and evocative. Each in its own way rivaled the glamor of fanciful statues in uptown parks or dazzling displays of brightly-lit cityscapes.
Even though my instructor didn’t see what I saw – or feel what I felt – it didn’t matter then; it doesn’t matter now. My pictures are likely all that remain of most of these rural relics. That makes my vintage shots even more meaningful than when I photographed them all those years ago.
Perhaps that’s why I carefully packed these images of abandoned buildings on Alberta’s backroads every time I have moved over the years.
So what did this photographer look like back in the days when she was roaming Alberta’s backroads? See for yourself! One of my classmates took this portrait for another of our SAIT photography assignments.
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Here are a few more memories from my youth in Alberta:
- The Old Philosopher of New Dubina - March 10, 2023
- Farewell to the Farm - February 17, 2023
- Feeding Winston’s Cows in 1973 - January 20, 2023
I see and feel what you captured with your camera. One reason is the respect of others property. Another you wanted the whole scene as it said the most in one click. As well as if you had gone closer you might also see the sorrow, loss, etc. looking from afar is only the beginning of your work as I feel you more than most also felt the pain and loss these dwellings hold in their walls. You get an A+ from me. And I also know you hold and share those memories closes to you. As my kids would say…you go girl….
So glad that you see what I do, Gesine. Thank you. Your comment about the ‘one click’ reminded me that we didn’t waste film because it was relatively expensive. With digital cameras, we shoot away to our heart’s content!
There are fewer of these buildings around now, but they still exist, often surrounded by old lilacs and honeysuckle that were planted around the same time. I agree that they are so evocative of the joys and sorrows of the people who built them, probably 100 years ago or more.
Yes, the old lilacs, honeysuckle vines and others like them such as caragana are indeed hardy. So is the rhubarb that still grows behind the ruins of my grandmother’s house 43 years after her death. It must be at least 70 years old and was, of course, a pass-along plant because that was another way that oldtimers supported their friends and neighbors.
I agree with you Elaine, about the distance. Close ups of a number of structures are just pictures of wood, unless its inside. Distance gives you an idea of the topography and of the difficulty these homeowners must have had in difficult times.
Donald, I agree with you on what the typography says about the old buildings and gives us an inkling of the courage and fortitude of those who built them. Modern homes can’t compete!
Those photos are great!!
I managed to acquire one of the old original Frenzel house in Wal Halla !! ( now called Frenzel Road, just off FM1291)
Thanks for showing them! I look forward to seeing more!!!
Thanks, Dick! Did you frame the photo of the old Frenzel house?
Hi, Elaine! I enjoy all of your stories, but thought this was one of the best. Seeing these abandoned buildings in context – in their environment – sparks the imagination much more than “up close and personal” photos would. Black and white is exactly appropriate for their time. When Kathy and I have wandered Old Route 66 and come across abandoned homes, motels, restaurants and other structures, I try to imagine what they might have been like in their prime, with people laughing and crying and going about their lives. It’s more than nostalgia; I think it’s kind of a sense of lost history. I know it sounds corny and hokey, but it’s kind of like stepping into a scene from “Fried Green Tomatoes.” Thanks for posting this one!
Great to hear from you, Dave, and thanks for your insight. You’ve zeroed in on what makes vintage photos memorable; they beckon us to use our senses and imagination. Black and white images urge us to stop and think. You took me there when you described the old buildings lining Old Route 66. It’s like a page of history that plays in our minds – if we allow it the time to do so.
Elaine, your black and white snapshots of old abandoned buildings shown in their settings gives us a more comprehensive idea of what life might have been like when these dwellings were occupied by people or animals. Although some might like really closeups of details, for me it’s like only having one piece of the puzzle, leaving the full picture undisclosed. Everyone though has a different perspective on things, so no one is wrong – it’s just a personal preference. I’m glad that you were able to capture the essence of these structures that are most probably long gone, and that you’ve kept these photos for all these years so that we can walk down “memory lane” with you.
In your mind’s eye, can’t you see a woman coming to the door of one of these old houses wearing an apron over her flowered cotton housedress? She would be wiping her hands, putting a hand to her hair to ensure it was neat as she smiled and welcomed you. As soon as you were seated on a wooden chair at the kitchen table, she would have put a log of wood on the cookstove and moved the kettle so it would boil. Your arrival would have been a pleasant event in her day!
Definitly! That image reminds me of my great-aunt who lived in a time warp harkening back to the early 20th century. She still had that old wood-fired cook stove, no refrigerator or running water. She and my great uncle didn’t get electricity until 1955, so I experienced life with oil lamps, no plumbing, bathing in a washtub and doing laundry in a wash pot over a fire. Their old house brings back memories of some of the dwellings that you photographed. Those memories have lasted a lifetime!
What treasured memories! I was right there with you in my mind on one of your visits to your great aunt and uncle. They would be honored, I think, that you cherish their memories.
Thanks for the (your) American character-making memories, My parents of South Texas w/ their 4 minor children got electricity in 1949, 14 years after, but finally, thanks to the “US 1935 REA” (Rural Electrification Program). The REA was promoted & threatened by FDR (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt), for the electric companies to electrify the farms & ranches or else, but they drug their financial feet procrastinating as long as possible w/o expensive & punitive lawsuits. My childhood family like probably most of Texas rural families used kerosene lamps, & mine also had, one family room installed white-gasoline ceiling lamp, which the adults, under it on a card-table, used to read magazines, newspapers, & play cards by. Probably a miracle we didn’t burn down or even up. I wonder what is the history of Canada electrifying its farms, as on a brief INet I seen nothing of that history, similar to the REA in the US? An INet site says Europe was well ahead of the US in rural electrification. Per the INet as to kerosene lamps, credit Polish inventor Ignacy Łukasiewicz, & credit JD Rockefeller b 1839, for saving the World’s whales by providing petroleum fuel (kerosene) to use instead of the fast-approaching extinction of whales for whale oil. And in my recent 40 years, antique stores began severely mis-identifying kerosene lamps as Hurricane Lamps, which they are definitely not – re: Inet explanations.
Glad you shared the REA story and how it affected your Rio Grande, Texas, family when you were growing up. As for Canada, we got electricity in 1956 through Calgary Power, the forerunner of TransAlta Utilities Corporation, which is now the largest investor-owned electric utility in Canada.
Read more: https://www.referenceforbusiness.com/history2/74/TRANSALTA-UTILITIES-CORPORATION.html#ixzz7ZtBTP0mU
I laughed at your disdain for antiques listed as kerosene lamps that aren’t. It ranks right up there with visiting a museum where the chamberpot was placed on the dresser next to the bed. Hmm. I don’t think that was the norm!
Oh Elaine I love the photos. There are so many of those homes around Colfax, Texas where my Grandmother lived.
My cousins wife and I went in one after our family reunion years ago. The floor was rotten and dangerous but we just had to see.
It was like it was frozen in time. Dishes in the sink. Food in the cupboard, clothes on the bed and in the closet. We were mesmerized. I just wish we had had a camera. It was before everyone had their cameras on their phones.
We just stood there imagining why someone would just walk away from everything.
I love all of your posts and especially this one.
I hope you can come speak at one of our DAR meetings this next year.
Paula, I can understand why the scene you stumbled upon gave you goosebumps! It was as if the owners had stepped out and would be right back from town – or the fields – or the barn. ‘Frozen in time’ is a great description of that house. Don’t you wonder what ever happened to it? Illness perhaps? Sudden death? What a story those walls could have told! Yes, please email me. I’d love to speak at one of your DAR meetings. Thank you!
Thank you so much. I will email you when I know what month we need a speaker.
I look forward to it!
Oh, and I forgot to tell you, the photo of you back then is stunning! Beautiful then and now!
Thank you for your kind remarks! I have been chatting on Messenger with my SAIT classmate who likely took the photo. It is a wonder that I wasn’t laughing. He brought out the best in all of us and we soon got over being camerashy.
Elaine. I cannot imagine that you were really “camerashy.” The life you lived out West of here would have been that of a person who was involved, who knew who she was and whom she represented as a woman whose strength was grounded in the reality of Rural life.
That’s a kind characterization, Malcolm. I do think we farm kids that had lots of chores and pitched in to help on the farm learned life lessons such as the value of tenacity and teamwork, as well as respect for each other, the animals, Mother Nature and the land. Those experiences proved beneficial when it came time to play our part in the big, wide world!
LIke you, Elaine, I love the perspective presented in those old photographs. Unlike you, my early forays into Black and White 35 mm Photography with the camera my mother gave me are more about people (I still own the brownie box camera and the twin lens reflex which figured so prominently in my early days – all have morphed into a bag full of cameras and lenses)
My black and whites are of my comrades in the RAF and later my fellow students at College where I also processed all my work in the College darkroom. Teams I played with or coached are featured too. Like you, though, I also packed these pictures away each time we moved and they provide my real story.
Those abandoned structures are so eveocative and truly provide more than just a glimpse of the real story of life when it was difficult in ways that we can only imagine. I still see the odd example as I wander around the area of which you are clearly so justifiably proud. The families, including yours and that of our late good friend Winston, built more than the buildings, they forged a sharing and caring community. We have much to learn from their example.
Incidentally, we will be in Millarville for the Rodeo in August.
Malcolm, I’m delighted to hear that you have held onto your old photos, too. They mean even more as the years pass. I honed in on your phrase ‘my real story’ because I have realized that a photographer’s images are almost like self-portraits of how the individual sees and interprets their world for others. Have a wonderful time at the rodeo. Hope you take the backroads home to Okotoks after a pleasant outing!
Well, I liked these shots of the old neglected buildings and I, too, wonder who may have inhabited them during the past. BTW, I prefer old pictures be filmed in black and white–makes them appear more authentic somehow. Wish I could be present for your speaking engagement at the DAR. I still do that occasionally. I am speaking in the city of Pine Bluff over near the Delta in November. Won’t be a big crowd…it is a private club of women who are admitted by invitation and they meet for tea and sandwiches at the C.C. periodically throughout the year. Also, Elaine, I took you up on your offer and my next column is your suggestion of “Who Wears Hose Any More?” Ha!
P.S. You were also beautiful as a brunette–such a sweet, pensive expression on your face!!!!!!
Brenda, I wish I could hear you speak again! I remember your wonderful address at our Queen’s Tea. Thanks for the ‘brunette’ feedback. I’ve earned every white hair! Always a delight to hear from you.
Elaine, I loved the photographs! Each one told their own story and oh my if we could hear them! I also loved seeing you as a young, adventurous girl. Thanks so much for sharing all these with us. Hugs, peace and love
Glad you enjoyed the trip to the past, Denise! One of my classmates reminded me this morning that our instructor, a hard-nosed news photographer who had seen his share of accidents and events, gave my photos a thumbs-down because it wasn’t what I was supposed to be shooting. His mandate was to teach us to be able to hit the ground running as reporter/photographers at weekly newspapers. Oops! I still had fun!
There is a reason “pictures say 1000 words” and those words belong solely to the beholder as to what they see and feel thru their own lens and no 2 people see or feel exactly the same way viewing a stellar b&w photo from the country. I see similarities in them to the old Clem Gardner homestead; barn (which we had our black and white wedding photos taken) and then was reminded of Dad’s old granaries, long-listing to one side, then finally collapsing, but remaining behind a fence iconic to my roots that run so deep. Elaine that photo of you is just simply beautiful…are those dandelions you are inhaling? Uncle Winston saw a glint of excellence in your photography many years ago and always said you had found your niche (one of many) So sweet xo
LOL, Deb! That was a dandelion I was sniffing in that photo. As I recall, that day’s assignment was to take outdoor portraits of each other and develop and print a photo of one classmate by the end of the class. Your memories of the Alberta foothills are touching, reflecting how deeply your roots run. Thank you so much for sharing your descriptions of rustic rural buildings that you hold dear.
I love your photos! Mom learned early on that any ride with me through the countryside included frequent sudden stops for me to jump out and take pictures, be it of wildflowers, old rusted farm equipment or dilapidated houses, majestic oak trees… She would patiently sit in the car while I framed up my subject from various angles, hoping to get “the” shot (like you, without trespassing). On our last such ride before she died, she kept pointing out the pastures filled with cattle, and I realized that my affinity for taking pictures of groups of cows must have come from her. Thinking of that always puts a smile on my face.
Jo, what wonderful memories taking photos holds for you, too. I can visualize your Mom serving as co-pilot enjoying the sights along every country mile you drove. Thanks so much for making me smile, too.
Reminds me of the old house across the road from where i used to live at Swiss Alp. Be sure
and look at it next time you drive by.
I know the one you’re referring to. It must have quite a story if the size of the trees pressing on it are any indication of how long it has sat there.
When I am in Maine a favorite pastime is exploring the backroads where I discover many an old building that is camera fodder. I’m especially drawn to old barns that sit alone in the middle of nowhere. Your images are of that which would have caught my eye.
Glad to hear you also feel drawn to old barns and buildings that have seen better days. Somehow, there is a peacefulness about their decline and ultimate demise. Few are rescued at the last moment.