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'Life and death at play on the Prairie'

Video series teases out the stories from all those abandoned farmhouses and rusted half-tons

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/3/2014 (999 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A Town with Water: The script

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OLDER MAN: I blew it. I truly blew it.

In 1960, Marshallville became "a town with water." As mayor at the time, I'm proud to say I was instrumental in getting the waterworks to town. No more outhouses and public taps, no more hauling buckets of water in and toilet pails out, soon everything would be up-to-date: hot and cold running, flushing and showering. That summer, streets and yards were torn up all over town as the infrastructure for water and sewer went in. And then in early October, most of the town showed up at a ceremony to celebrate the arrival of "the waterworks."

New "towns with water" usually hold a subdued ceremony with the symbolic burning of an outhouse to signal the end of the old well-worn path out back and the beginning of a bright sanitary indoor future.

Never a town to do anything in a small way, the council and myself voted on burning all the biffies in town at once. There was one dissenting voice -- Mark Robbins. He's now the mayor. Anyway, 171 outhouses were piled on the flats over at the north end of the lake, hauled and stacked by Dreidger's Hough. The bottom openings, which once shielded holes filled with human muck, now gaped obscenely and odorously in plain view -- not the most pleasant sight as you drove into town.

The local paper asked me for a comment about the forthcoming celebration, and my exact words still echo through my memory: "It will make a fine blaze and leave an indelible impression. People will remember this night."

At the ceremony, I gave a brief speech. Dr. Gault, in his British accent, remarked how a new era in our ability to fight disease and improve personal hygiene was beginning. I turned on a giant red tap, the water flowed in, the waste flowed out. It was a miracle! The 20th century had arrived! Everyone cheered.

Then, fire Chief Burley lit the outhouses. More cheers as our past went up in smoke, cutting a swath of light, heat and stink through the cold October twilight. It was a fine blaze, enjoyed on many levels, but the outhouses had their revenge.

That night and for three days and nights afterwards, every nose in Marshallville knew we had the waterworks by a constant reminder -- an acrid, burning-manure smell that arose from the smouldering heap of collapsed outhouses. The smell resisted arduous spraying from the town's fire truck and produced a rank odour that permeated the whole town no matter which direction the wind blew. It was awful; some older people even went to the hospital for oxygen and relief.

In the aftermath, I bore the brunt of coffee shop condemnation. I couldn't even go for a java at Jim Jim's without being taunted, often not good-naturedly. But I was the one who said it would be "a night to remember," and it stuck. Unable to claim the waterworks as my victory because of the blowback from the fire, I was soundly defeated the following year. Marshallville had flushed me.

Even to this day, every time I flush the toilet, I can smell the stink from the burning outhouses. Apparently this still happens to other people in Marshallville, too.

Character backstory

WHEN small towns got the waterworks it was truly a life-changing event. I remember the summer of 1960 when Shoal Lake became a town with water, as described in the story. Often, that phrase was then used on roadside billboards as an attraction to the town. I wanted to overwrite this story as it might have been told by the ex-mayor of Marshallville, who recalls the biggest mistake of his political career.

The mayor has carefully written out his side of the story and almost recites it, but not without some sheepishness and embarrassment at the whole event. There had to be a consequence to the folly of a mass biffy burning so I made it true for the whole town as well as for the former mayor. I wanted him to sound a little foolish but still humorous and sad at once.

The collective remembrance of the outhouse aroma lives on, not just in the former mayor's sense-memory but in the whole town's memory. It's a legacy the mayor still can't reconcile within himself, so he leans toward resignation.

A Town with Water presented visual and audial challenges. This was the most difficult role to cast. I tried two voices without success. It was a stroke of luck to think of Borys (Boyd) Kozak, whom I'd listened to on CKRC growing up and have become friends with at the local Tim Hortons. Borys grew up in Wadena, Sask., a town just a little bigger than my hometown. Borys jumped at the chance and brought the ex-mayor to life in just two takes, giving country authenticity to the piece. It was a delight to work with Borys.

Location information

IN spite of the enormous number of miles I travel every summer, averaging about 25,000 kilometres a year, it is surprisingly hard to find classic outhouses these days. I used three different locations for the ones in A Town with Water.

The first is located at what once was Bryd Siding, just west of Shoal Lake on Highway 16. The outhouse, overgrown with bushes, along with a crumbling barn and dilapidated house, are all that remain of Bryd.

The row of four biffies is in the churchyard of St. Michael's Ukrainian Orthodox Church between Tolstoi and Gardenton on Highway 209 in southern Manitoba. The progressively dilapidated structures spoke to me about progress and regression. This site provided the lion's share of the scenes.

The final classic biffy with the crescent moon cut out of the door I lucked into in Makinak, on the northeastern edge of Riding Mountain.

Reid Dickie is a Manitoba writer, researcher and videographer who blogs, reports from the road about heritage and history, creates video art and calls this "retirement."

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