June 23rd, 2018

Eye on the Esplanade: Pioneer hopes and hardships

By Medicine Hat News on June 16, 2017.

On May 17, 1914 Norwegians in the district around Robsart, Sask., gathered on the grounds of Luce School to celebrate their national holiday, the 100th anniversary of the signing of Norway’s constitution.

The atmosphere was celebratory, but to the left of the group photo of approximately 150 attendees there stands a woman, dressed in black, a translucent veil over her face. She is in mourning. In front of her is a stroller with a toddler. Beside her is a young girl, barely school age. I wonder if this woman is a widow with two young children, separated by land and sea from any other family.

She is one person in one photograph, but this corner of this one image exudes some of the story of the hope and struggle of pioneer life on the Canadian prairie.

Robsart is a small hamlet 65 kilometres south of Maple Creek. Before 1909, this land was the domain of a few ranchers, but the Government of Canada encouraged grain farming on this flat open range, and the CPR planned a rail line through the area. Hundreds arrived and a community quickly grew. There was soon a hotel, restaurants, stores, livery stables, a theatre, a hospital. In 1915 the first commercially successful crop was harvested. This unfortunately would not be a regular occurrence and by the 1920s some started to search elsewhere for opportunity.

Not many people live in and around Robsart, but much of its history has been preserved through the photographs of John Asplund. As a fellow farmer and member of the community, John Asplund knew the people and knew what was important to them. He travelled to town, and from farm to farm to socialize with and photograph his neighbours. The result is a detailed documentation of life of this community through its people.

It is because of the forethought of the Robsart community, and the value they have placed on their history, that these assets were created and are available for us to build understanding of the joys and challenges borne by our pioneers.

For many decades these images were exhibited and stored at the Robsart Community Hall. As this building reached the end of its life, the people of Robsart searched for a new home for the photos. Now with the Esplanade Archives they continue to be preserved and appreciated. Many of the images are part of the current “John Asplund’s Robsart” exhibit in the Esplanade Heritage Gallery until Sept. 16.

The following was stated by the unknown author of the foreward for the 1955 publication, Robsart Pioneers Review the Years, but also resonates in John Asplund’s photos. “We trust this record will also be of interest to many others and will cause many to have a clearer conception of the hardships as well as the joys of those who braved the unknown and started out against all odds to hew out a home for themselves and their families in a land where opportunity had so strongly beckoned.”

Philip Pype is Archivist at the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre.

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