July 18th, 2018

Book records a bygone era of prairie life

By Medicine Hat News on December 23, 2017.

Matthew Liebenberg

Prairie Postmliebenberg@prairiepost.com

Author and photographer Dion Manastyrski is passionate about a vanishing era of rural life on the Canadian prairies that is now only visible through the many abandoned farm houses and other buildings along quiet gravel roads.

He has been travelling across the three prairie provinces since the summer and during this fall to promote the second printing of his fine art book, “Prairie Sunset: A Story of Change.”

His goal is to have the book available in stores in every town and city he visits.

Since-mid November he has been visiting communities in southwest Saskatchewan as well as southeast and southwest Alberta.

“I wanted to create a very special book about a story that I have learned is not only special to me, but hundreds of people I met,” he said. “They really appreciate and are passionate about prairie history, the old buildings I took photos of, and the people I talked to with their anecdotes and stories. All this is disappearing so quickly. A lot of history books capture only the facts and figures, and I wanted to capture the personal side of things.”

This hardcover book of 240 pages includes more than 100 colour photographs by the author as well as 50 black and white archival photographs, some dating back to more than 100 years. There are also about 200 quotes from his interviews with around 70 people about the past way of life in the rural prairies.

“I wanted to create a book about the past that people would want to pass down to future generations,” he said. “I want people to know the huge diversity of things that happened in the rural prairies as well as what the settlers went through.”

The first printing of the book was released in November 2015. One of the challenges was the cost to create a high-quality publication.

“I raised $40,000 in pre-sales from people who trusted that I would publish the book and deliver it to them,” he said. “I spent about four months in the prairies over the last three years, first to complete the book, then to distribute it and do slide shows.”

He decided to do a second printing of the book in 2017 as a special version for Canada’s 150th anniversary. The front cover includes a translucent band with the official Canada 150 logo on special vellum paper, and with comments from readers on the band’s inside. The band can be removed and used as a bookmark.

Manastyrski grew up on a small farm near Rose Valley, Sask., but he now lives in Victoria. His grandparents were homesteaders who came from Europe.

“After I left the farm, I’ve always been interested in prairie history,” he said. “So I would come back to visit and I would always visit our farm, which was sold to another family, and then it was sold to another farmer and the house was abandoned. I would go and visit our old house, and I also noticed that a lot of our neighbours had been moving out and those houses weren’t lived in anymore.”

His initial focus was on taking photographs of old buildings and other artifacts of rural life. He took pictures of old farm homes, barns, churches, one-room schools, and machinery.

He made eight trips that were between two weeks and two months long to explore the rural areas in the three prairie provinces. During his seventh trip in 2010 he decided to also start talking to people about the past.

“I talked to a lot of people and met people all along the way, but I wanted to interview mainly retired rural people like farmers, one-room school teachers, railway workers, anybody I could find that was part of that whole story over the last 100 years,” he said.

He interviewed a number of people in their nineties and the oldest person was a 105-year-old former one-room school teacher.

“With their quotes in their own words they tell about the last 100 some years in the rural prairies, starting in the pioneer years going right through time, talking about bringing in seeds from their old country, how hard it was starting,” he recalled. “It was all about survival in the beginning, farming by hand, breaking the land. Some couldn’t even afford a horse, and then they talk about as things started to develop.”

During his eighth trip in 2014 he collected the remaining material required to complete the book.

“So the book goes right up through more recent times, and through their words and through these photos it is a very personal retelling of the history of the last 107 years in the rural prairies,” he said.

The book can be ordered through Manastyrski’s website at https://prairiesunset.ca/. The site includes information about the various store locations where the book can be purchased.

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