How Crocus got its Seaway
It’s just as well the Queen didn’t stop off to open the new waterway on the Brokenshell. Especially with what happened when Farmer McConeky got fed up with the Beautify Crocus Committee
W. O. MITCHELL
I guess there was a real hooray when Queen Elizabeth opened that Seaway. The mighty St. Lawrence doesn’t run through our town, Crocus, Saskatchewan; all we have is Brokenshell Creek that takes its rise in McConeky’s slough west of town. But, like Miss Henchbaw that teaches us kids at Rabbit Hill School, says, she is an age-old river flowing her same course through the prairies long before the white man and long before the red man too. And the self-same day Queen Elizabeth opened the new Saint Lawrence we had our celebration for the Brokenshcll.
Well, we didn’t have Queen Elizabeth to our party, or President Eisenhower or Prime Minister Diefenbaker; we had Mayor MacTaggart and Mrs. Elsie Abercrombie that’s regent of the Louis Riel Chapter of the IODE and the Deputy Minister of Cultural Activity and Magpie Control. And we didn’t have hundreds of thousands of people — just the folks of Crocus and
Greater Crocus District. But Jake says it isn’t the number of humans or how important they are, it’s how deep it cuts into their hides.
We had excitement. It cut deep into our hides. It’s still cutting.
Jake says it was glorious all right, but he says the price we paid was real glorious too. Jake’s our hired man, that helps me and Ma farm our farm down Government Road out of Crocus. That used to be five miles. Now we go round by Tinchers’, take the side road and go east two miles, then south again, then back at the correction line where it hits the Candy place. Altogether that’s ten miles into town if you add it up. Every time we do those extra miles Jake cusses the Crocus town council and Mayor MacTaggart.
But I better go back. Second Saturcontinued on page 55
continued from page 17
“Got the heartburn?“ Jake asked. “Look like you been eatin’ horseradish through a wove wire fence”
day in April Jake and me took the eggs and the cream can into town. We dropped in Repeat Golightly's Shop where he has that sign in the window: YOUR TON-
SORIAL REQUIREMENTS LOOKED AFTER. Repeat was sitting alone in his barber chair and looking sort of glum and Jake asked him to run his binder through my hair and Repeat kept looking unhappily at the geraniums he grows in his window there and then he got down out of the chair and I got up into it. He didn't say anything whilst he wound that strip of paper round my neck and then tucked in that sheet and then pumped me up.
"Somethin' givin' you the heartburn. Repeat?’’ Jake said and Repeat he just grunted and started up the clippers and Jake said. “Look of your face you been eatin' horseradish through a wove wire fence.”
"Rue the day,” Repeat said. “I say we'll rue the day and we will.”
Jake tilted his chair back so he was sort of leaning on his neck against the wall. “That’s nice.”
"Elsie Abercrombie and her IODE!” "What about her?” Jake asked.
"Leave her alone! Don't touch her! Not a finger! Leave her to her unspoiled and natural state! Primitive and natural state!”
Jake let his chair come down with a thump. “Elsie Abercrombie!”
Repeat turned off the clippers. "Jake— any fool would know 1 was not referring to Elsie Abercrombie. Highly unlikely she’ll ever need a champion.” He turned the clippers back on. “Any fool.” he said to the back of my neck. “Nature. Mother Nature.”
"Oh,'’ Jake said.
"Don't touch Her! Let Her go!” "Mother Nature,” Jake said.
“Of course!” He said it so hard 1 felt his breath hit my cheek. Warm. "Mother Nature!”
I saw Jake's mouth tighten the way it does when his patience gets thin. “All right. Repeat. I promise. I ain't gonna touch Her. Wouldn’t touch Her with a ten-foot pole!”
“Mayor MacTaggart — his council — Elsie Abercrombie and the Beautify Crocus Committee!"
"She'll strike back."
"Elsie Abercrombie . .
“. . . as She always does and has—at man and his anti-nature projects. They are changing the course of the Brokenshell River—behind Daddy Johnston's— clear down to the CNR Bridge you can see them at work. They have their draglines and bulldozers and shovels and diggers—their trucks are hauling away great mouthfuls of earth—digging a new bed for ...”
“For the Brokenshell.”
"Well, Repeat." Jake said. “I wouldn't get all upset over that—ought to done it years ago—floods we had ever since . .
“It is not a flood control measure,” Repeat interrupted him. "They are rerouting the Brokenshell so she will flow through the park . . .”
“What the aitch for?”
“Elsie Abercrombie’s idea and her :ommittee—aided and abetted by Mayor MacTaggart.” Repeat turned off the clip>ers and went over and laid them on the
instrument shelf. Then he came back and stood in front of Jake. “The Venice of South Central Southwestern Saskatchewan.”
Repeat made a couple of snips at the
air, blew on the comb and then he bent his knees and tilted my head. “Hair to the South. Kid. Slogan for Crocus and Greater Crocus District. New slogan.” Jake said, "She's the Flour Barr’l of South Central . .
"The Venice of — ”
“But the sign at the highway coming into Crocus . . .’’
"Will be changed to read: "The Venice of . . .’’
“Holy diddle!" Jake said.
“Leave Her alone,” Repeat said. “Balance. Balance Nature.”
Jake he was staring out past the geraniums and he had this faraway look on his face like he wasn't listening to Repeat at all.
“I said it when they first announced their plans for the St. Lawrence and I say it now for the Brokenshell here at home—don’t upset—the balance—delicate—precise balance. Keep still, Kid. Can’t cut the hair on a moving object.” The scissors went right on snipping over my left ear. "You tip it. Look out.” And I was thinking maybe he was right because look what happened when they poisoned out the coyotes a couple years back and the mice all over the next spring.
"Mother Nature knows best.” "Uh-huh,” Jake said.
"Mother Nature doesn’t count by years —She gets there by hundreds—thousands —millions.”
“Does She," Jake said.
"She goes right on with Her lessons.”
“What lessons is that, Repeat?"
"Every one the same. Humility. We got to learn it at Mother Nature’s knee. Her broad earthen knee. Lesson humility."
"Well, now—you may be right. Repeat, but there’s no sense gcttin’ all stirred up . . .”
“I’m stirred up all right," Repeat said. "And I am also humble before the wonders of Mother Nature—the unspoiled wonders.”
"That’s nice," Jake said.
Repeat started in squirting on hair tonic. "I respect Her. Always respect Her. Orville,’ my Father used to say, use Nature’s remedies and let Mother Nature work for you . . .’ ” He has real strong tips to his fingers and I was feeling just sick because for a week I'd be smelling like the hyacinth Ma has on the kitchen window, "rhubarb season . . .”
"Sure, sure. Repeat.” Jake stood up. "I still say it ain’t nothin' to worry about . . .”
"Lot of arrogant self-satisfied folks
going around patting theirselves on the back over that great earth dam below McConeky's slough.”
"Huh!” Even with my eyes stinging from that hair tonic I could see Jake was startled.
"I say there’s a lot of un-humble people walking . . .”
"Did you say below McConeky's slough!”
“But I thought—I figgered—she’d be above McConeky’s slough.”
“Below. It’s below."
“Well, Holy diddle—that ain’t tamperin' with Mother Nature, Repeat! Why— they’re—they’re slappin’ Her in the Face —right in Her Great Big Grassy Face!” Jake he headed straight for MacTaggart’s Trading Company Store and he hardly stepped inside before he took Mayor MacTaggart by the face.
“Mac, I'd like to—I don’t like how that dam’s going below McConeky’s slough!”
Mr. MacTaggart looked up from the
order he was making out and he said, "Oh."
"Pure foolishness,” Jake said.
"Is it,” Mayor MacTaggart said.
"I want to see her miss McConeky’s altogether.”
"Do you now.”
“Anybody can tell that's what she should do. I sure hate to be the fellow responsible for havin’ ’em put that dam where they’re puttin’ her now!”
"Would you." Mr. MacTaggart snapped shut the order book and slapped it back in the rack. He leaned forward with both hands on the counter. "Why?” “Some engineer just stuck his nose into the district long enough to pull a boner like that an’ get out before the damage comes! Must be blind if he can’t see the great shallah saucer an’ the rise both sides of McConeky’s slough.”
"Is he." Mr. MacTaggart said it real quiet but you could see the knuckles on his hand grabbing the pencil were white.
“Puttin' that dam below McConeky’s is just pointin’ a gun at your park an' half the business section Main Street! Buildin' up millions an' millions gallons flood an' dammed water like the bullet in a gun—an’ that ditch right off of the lower corner there is your rifle barr'l trained through the park!"
“I ain't no engineer,” Jake said.
"That’s right,” Mr. MacTaggart said. "But I know the Brokenshcll the way some fool don’t!”
"Jake . . .” Mr. MacTaggart started to say.
“Must be more’n one fellah figured that out!"
"No, there wasn’t. There was only . . "One fellah couldn’t be all that stoopid just by hisself!”
“Jake!" It just bust out of Mr. MacTaggart.
"Me!” yelled Mayor MacTaggart. "Huh!”
"I am the head of the Dam-Planning Sub-Committee under the Beautify Crocus Plan! If you haven’t got anything constructive to say . . .’’
"But, Mac, you . . .”
". . . then shut up!"
"But. Mac—that dam just can't go below . . .”
"It can and it is and it will and where that dam goes or it doesn't go is none of your damn business!"
So Jake he ran into a stone wall with Mayor MacTaggart, hurting his feelings and calling him what he called him in a sort of an indirect way you might say. But he didn’t give up; he called on Mrs. Abercrombie and she wouldn’t even listen to him. Mrs. Abercrombie always gets Jake’s shackles up.
Even Ma didn't see eye to eye with Jake. Couple evenings later when Jake came in with the milk. Ma said, "Jake.
I didn't think I'd ever see the time when you’d be taking a negative attitude.”
“I ain’t negative,” Jake said.
"There’s been quite a bit of talk against the Beautify Crocus Plan and particularly the new Brokenshell Waterway—whispering . . ."
”1 ain’t been whispering!"
"1 don't think you ever whispered in your life." Ma said. "But there has been nasty, back-biting talk on the part of those who didn't have the imagination or the gumption to do something about it in the first place."
"Look,” Jake said. “I ain't been doing any back-biting . . .”
"I didn't say you had but several noses around town are out of joint and I'm not so sure yours . . .”
"My nose ain't out of joint!"
". . . we can't stand in the way of
progress just because a project wasn’t our idea in the beginning.”
“St. Lawrence Seaway wasn't my idea in the beginnin’ that don’t mean I’m agin the St. Lawrence Seaway ...”
"The Seaway hasn't a thing to do with
"But if they was to engineer the Seaway so’s she pointed right at Toronto then I’d . . .”
“They didn't, and I don’t think that’s what they’re doing with the Brokenshell Waterway. They’re not amateur engineers . . .”
"They know what they’re doing,” Ma said.
“So does Mother Nature,” Jake said.
Ma finished pouring in the milk and then she started winding the separator. "I don't think we have to worry about Mother Nature." She said it that firm w'ay of hers. She was a school teacher once and they don’t get that out of their blood in a hurry.
"Don’t go gettin’ sentimental about Mother Nature,” Jake said.
"I won’t,” Ma said.
"If you care to," Jake said, "you might look out in the corner the barley field where the lump-jaw calf died. Mother Nature’s out there.”
Ma didn't say anything and the separator kept right on purring and giving that click-ling now and again.
“With Her undertakers,” Jake said it to her over his shoulder as he headed for the door with the empty pails. "All dressed in black an’ their beaks all busy. When it’s bare except for a furry white grass over the bones. Mother Nature’s little helpers will tidy up.” He turned
back to her at the door. “Ants—Hies— maggots. She fights dirty. I won’t be the only one shoutin' when She hears about that dam below McConeky’s slough! You'll see! You’ll see!”
Jake he talked to other folks—in the post office; he buttonholed them in the Sanitary Café, Maple Leaf Beer Parlor. When he finally quit was that day in Malleable Brown’s Blacksmith Shop when Malleable went right on pounding Mrs. Doctor Fotheringham’s andiron whilst it sprayed off bright flakes and the cherry kind of fainted back into it. Jake he told Malleable what he thought of the Brokenshell Waterway through the park and Malleable left off pounding and stuck the iron into the tub of water and it sighed and Malleable sighed and Malleable said, “Jake, you may be right an’ you may be wrong ...”
"Oh, I’m right,” Jake said.
"Don't make too much difference,” Malleable said.
"Their ditch is dug now. Their dam’s piled up. Spring runoff’s already started.”
"They ain't gonna kick out their dam. They ain't gonna fill in their ditch an’ all the talkin' in the world ain’t gonna stop the runoff.” Malleable picked up the other andiron with his tongs and laid it acrosst the anvil. “Is it?”
Jake looked at Malleable for quite a while and he said, "No, Malleable, I guess they ain't an’ it ain't."
Malleable started in whangin' Mrs. Fotheringham's other andiron and Jake turned away. I felt kind of sorry for him.
I wouldn't exactly want Mother Nature to get the heartburn, but right there I was sort of wishing there was only some way Jake could be proved he was right all along without our town getting flooded out.
Jake never said another word one way or the other and the Beautify Crocus Committee went right ahead; the dam and the new Brokenshell Waterway were only part of it. Hig Wheeler's lumber yard donated the two-by-fours and shiplap for park rest rooms that the Knights of the Loyal But Purple Order of Homesteaders built—both of them. It was the Activarians put up the slides and swings and rings and teeter-totters and Rotary built the new bandstand like one of those pagodas set up high for the band to play off of.
Our big month for runoff is like from the middle of April to the middle of May and we had a dandy and she backed tip behind the new dam and they held her there, saving her for June 24th when the Queen would open the St. Lawrence Seaway.
It was a little rough on Headiy McConeky with almost a half-section under water but the Beautify Crocus Committee pointed out it was mostly summer fallow and there'd be so much moisture carry-over he’d probably get a bumper crop the next year. Mr. McConeky said he had no intention of raising rice next year even if it went sixty bushels to the acre and there was no quota restrictions on it. They told him it might seem a little unfair but any project for the good of everybody sometimes meant a small sacrifice for the few and look how there were whole townsites hundreds of years old that had to give way for the St. Lawrence Seaway and Mr. McConeky said he wasn't whining just so long as they understood there'd been quite a bit of sacrifice and it was all his and an aitch of a lot more than he'd bargained for and it would of been a lot more convenient for him if the Queen brought her royal yacht up the St. Lawrence a month or so earlier so he could of got
his disking done before his half-section was under water.
June was wet too — steady wet and those four-five inch soakers. She let up two days before the twenty-fourth. IR the morning we had the parade with Daddy Johnston that's a hundred and seven sitting straight up in his shawl in the new fire engine with the sun winking and blinking off of its brass and after came the Crocus town band under Mr. Tucker in their new uniforms scarlet and white and gold and pretty as poppies in the morning. In the afternoon they held the pageant where Cora Swengle was Fair Saskatchewan and Herbie Totecole was the First Living Homesteader and different kids said different things like: “I am the Spirit of Bearded Barley” and: “I changed Her Face for I am the Self-propelled Combine.” Ones nat didn't have something like that to say they were red white and blue anyway.
After the pageant Stevie Kiziw won the egg and spoon race and Alley Coldtart came first in the sack race. There was free ice cream cones and Orange Crush for every kid and the Crocus Millionaires whitewashed the Conception Beavers to win the Little League Finals. I got to play the last three innings. Left field.
The real important stuff started along about five in the afternoon with hundreds of folks jammed in front of the new bandstand and listening to the music and all looking up at the important people [here. Mr. MacTaggart stepped out to [he microphone and he held up his arms [ill the band ceased fire. He explained all about why we were here today just like the folks down east only for the St. Lawrence Seaway.
"This new Brokenshell Waterway shall oe a sanctuary,” Mr. MacTaggart said,
his voice dipping and soaring like those gliders you fold out of paper. “Here wild fowl may rest on their weary trek from the far North to the sunny South. Here the muskrat may push his veeripples ahead of himself over a placid and mirror-like surface that has never been before. Here the stillness may be broken for the first time by the peremptory slap of the beaver's tail. And in the new blue depths of water the carp — the goldeye — the grass pike and the sucker may glide and swirl.”
It was kind of hard to believe Mayor MacTaggart the way I was standing to the West of the handstand and looking down into this twelve-foot ditch and not a spit of water in her.
”... this ribbon,” Mr. MacTaggart was saying, “is simply part of the ritual, you understand. When it is cut there will be a controlled release of water which will fill this winding lagoon and it may be some time — even days — before our town will become — can truly and rightfully be called: The Venice of South Central Southwestern Saskatchewan. Be that as it may — this ribbon will be snipped — for us — by a most distinguished individual — the minister — our deputyminister — ah — whose hand — scissors — will clip the ribbon which will he the signal for Lily — Central to alert the town water works crew even now standing by at McConeky’s farm — who will start the trickle which will become the flow from the dammed — tamed Brokenshell River.”
The sun glistened off of the top of his head when he bowed and everybody clapped and cheered and the deputy minister stepped forward and he read his speech off of a paper. He said how it was a pleasure to be here with us today and how this was just the first time we would
be able to hear our own band drop sweet concord on the soft air over the new Brokenshell Waterway.
“Here those in the twilight of their prairie years may rest — the young may gambol as the lambs upon the green. Young lovers may stroll by ferny banks to watch the silver moonlight upon the waters shaking. And on crisp winter nights the ring of skates may be heard over the clear cold air. The beacon fires of corn and wiener roasts will shine through the prairie darkness while canoes glide by where once the hooves of the mightly buffalo thundered — the shrill cry of the South Blackfoot was heard. Some day there may be even the cool shade of trees and it is no small achievement that you have managed — or will have managed when I cut this ribbon so that where once the hooves of the old fur trader pounded there will wind a new and purling stream ...”
I kept looking down that ditch and I was thinking it is easier to believe a deputy minister. The way he put it so clear and lovely you could almost swear the sandy bottom of the ditch was dark from water already seeping up from below. Right there was when somebody yelled from back of the crowd. The band struck up — not brassy and bouncy but smooth and sweet and it was: Flow
Gently, Sweet Afton.
The deputy minister he snipped and the ribbon fell apart and there was some kind of a fuss at the bottom of the bandstand steps with the folks there swaying and separating like when the wind goes through the smooth-on-barley field. Some fellow went up the steps two at a time. It was Jake. I couldn't hear him for the band but he was pointing to the east and everybody was turning and looking.
The band quit playing and then you could hear her come — it sounded like that soft thunder you get far away in summer like somebody dropping lumber on the horizon. Jake's voice caught the microphone on the public address system.
"... when he seen his registered seed oats under water — opened up one end with his tractor and farm hand! Your whole dam s give way!”
Mr. MacTaggart grabbed the microphone. “Clear the park!” he yelled. "Alert the Disaster and Emergency Relief Committee — sand bags — every available truck — every able - bodied man ...”
She wasn't any purling stream; I could see straight to the east and she was a twelve-foot wall of water just creaming
down the ditch straight for the new bandstand.
“Get the fire engine to high ground!” Mr. MacTaggart was yelling. "Everybody out of the park — send your women and children on foot if you're not near your cars!”
I guess you read all about it in the Regina Leader-Post —twenty-seven cars up to the door handles in water, the Knights of the Loyal But Purple Order of Homesteaders rest rooms carried away to Haggerty's Coulee, two-thirds of Main Street under four foot of water, property, stock and silt damage over sixty thousand dollars.
Most folks made it out of the park in time; I w'as with the ones that didn't and it was pretty crowded up on that stand with the band and the town council and the deputy minister and half the Louis Riel Chapter of the IODE and the presidents and vice-presidents and secretaries of the Activarians, Rotary, Eastern Star. Odd Fellows, South Crocus Homemakers. Athenian Flower, Book, and Discussion Club, Crocus Caledonian Society of Knock-out Curlers.
It was Jake who lifted me up and I was wet right up to where the pig bit me. Whilst we waited for our turn to be taken off by the Emergency and Disaster Relief Committee in one of their three flat-bottom boats — Jake told me what happened.
Headly McConeky had co - operated with the Beautify Crocus Committee right up till that morning when he went out and took a look at his field of registered seed oats.
“Hadn't seen it since the rain stopped.” Jake explained, “and when he did he got the coal oil onto his fire. He hooked the farm hand onto his tractor and he only meant to take a small bite out of that end of their dam. One bite was all the Brokenshell needed.”
I guess Mother Nature must of had it in special for Government Road the way She washed out a quarter of a mile of it. Like I say Jake he cusses Mayor MacTaggart and the council and the Beautify Crocus Committee every time we do that extra ten miles in and out of town. But it is a special kind of cussing where he does it sort of low and lazy with just one hand. You could almost say he has a sort of smile on his face.
Like Repeat said that day in his shop, you tip the delicate balance of Mother Nature and look out! If She can do what She did with our skinny little Brokenshel! Creek, I hate to think what She could do with the mighty St. Lawrence. ★