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On Your Mark

by Dave Yanko

In her book on Saskatchewan's fieldstone buildings, Margaret Hryniuk relates the tale of an elderly man who recalls helping his father gather fieldstones on the farm during the Great Depression. Man and boy transported the stones to a nearby relief camp at Little Manitou Lake and sold them for use in construction of a luxury hotel.

What a visitor to that work site might have observed were hundreds of previously unemployed men toting rocks delivered from local fields and quarries, and a father and son helping to feed the hungry enterprise with a load of stones hauled in an automobile powered by horses, one of the "Bennett buggies'' named after then Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. It was a good arrangement for all.

"Farmers benefited and the workers benefited,'' says Hryniuk, co-author with construction historian Frank Korvemaker of Legacy of Stone — Saskatchewan's Stone Buildings. "And the construction material was right there.''

cover image
  An abandoned farmstead serves as the cover image for Legacy of Stone.   All photographs, unless otherwise credited, courtesy Larry Easton.

Fieldstone as a local construction material in Saskatchewan has its roots hundreds of years in the past when Plains Indians used rocks to anchor their portable dwellings against the Prairie wind. It was mostly Scottish stonemasons who used rocks and boulders, deposited about 12,000 years ago by retreating glaciers, to construct an estimated 500 to 1,000 fieldstone buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"In the 1880s and '90s, getting access to construction materials was not easy because there were few railways and the roadways weren't conducive to easily hauling lumber,'' says Korvemaker. "So when you have free building material, like stones lying in a field or clay converted into bricks, it made sense for people to use it.''

The luxurious chalets at Little Manitou and in the southeast part of the province at Moose Mountain Provincial Park came decades after the height of the fieldstone construction period in Saskatchewan. In fact, the stonemasons working on the chalets used fieldstone veneer, rather than whole stones, apparently to better accommodate the Rustic style popular at the time in national parks across North America.

st. john's
  St. John's Anglican Church in Fort Qu'Appelle was completed in 1885.

Legacy of Stone, published by Coteau Books, won the Book of the Year award at the 2009 Saskatchewan Book Awards. It's a coffee table publication featuring photographer Larry Easton's handsome images of about 50 mostly uncut-fieldstone buildings and including homes, barns, churches and schools—commercial buildings are not represented since most have been demolished or significantly altered. For veteran writer Hryniuk, Legacy of Stone was a dream project.

"Honestly, it was probably the best experience I've ever had. The history is just fascinating. I could have done 100 more buildings.''

bell barn
- courtesy Tourism Saskatchewan/Gerard Makuch
  The Bell Barn was named for Major William R. Bell, shareholder and   manager of the Qu'Appelle Valley Farming Company.

Many of the subject buildings are situated in the southeast corner of the province where early settlement was robust before Saskatchewan entered Confederation in 1905. The round Bell Barn, with an almost three-metre-high fieldstone wall measuring 20 metres in diameter, was built in 1882 for William Robert Bell at his 53,000-acre corporate farm near Indian Head. The barn and Bell's horses served the Canadian military's transportation efforts during the 1885 North-West Rebellion/Resistance; the reconstructed historic landmark opened with an interpretive centre in 2010.

Lanark Place, near Abernethy, was the Italianate-style family home of William Richard Motherwell, co-founder of the Territorial Grain Growers' Association, and both a Saskatchewan and Canadian minister of agriculture who promoted dryland farming techniques essential to the success of commercial agriculture on the prairies. The stonemason artistry at Lanark is apparent on the front of the residence, where coursing and colouring on the left side is replicated on the right.

cover image
  The Motherwell Homestead, featuring Lanark Place, is now a national   historic site.

Use of uncut fieldstone as a Saskatchewan building material slowed significantly early in the 20th century when railways provided better access to wood. But historian Korvemaker says other local building materials, outside the purview of the book, continued to play a role in the provincial construction scene.

Several Saskatchewan brick plants flourished by manufacturing products from the high-quality clay mined in the province. The Claybank Brick Plant, located near Moose Jaw, made a variety of excellent products widely used provincially, but also nationally and abroad. The landmark Delta Bessborough hotel in Saskatoon and the central tower of the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec City employ the distinctive buff-coloured face brick from the Claybank plant.

Cut stone, meanwhile, was the construction material of choice for some of Saskatchewan's most impressive institutional buildings. The University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, designed by Montreal architects Vallance & Brown, initially used native stone mined from a quarry north of the campus to construct its Collegiate Gothic style buildings. When that supply was exhausted, the university switched to Tyndall stone from Manitoba, the same material used to construct the Saskatchewan Legislative Building in Regina, designed by Montreal architects Edward and William Maxwell and completed in 1912.

bess hotel
- courtesy Tourism Saskatchewan/Hans-Gerhard Pfaff
  The venerable Bessborough Hotel in Saskatoon features bricks from the   Claybank plant.

Conservation architect Bernard Flaman says use of local materials in Saskatchewan's early years helped shape how Regina and Saskatoon look today. And while Tyndall stone and brick continue to be used in some contemporary buildings, he is concerned Saskatchewan's use of local construction material is ebbing, at least in part due to higher land and building costs. And he says that's too bad because these materials reflect our place and landscape.

"We could live in a world where everything looks the same everywhere we go,'' says Flaman, who wrote the foreword to Legacy of Stone. "But I think we have the expectation that when we arrive somewhere new, we'll see something new and different.''

He also sees environmental and economic reasons favouring use of local materials like stone, even if they cost more at the outset: they don't incorporate synthetics, they last a long time and they don't require expensive maintenance.

"The other thing is stone is beautiful. Why shouldn't we have beautiful buildings?''

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