Sketches of Snowflake Manitoba town preserves and celebrates its history, from homestead and rail hub to nostalgic vestige of the Prairies’ past
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SNOWFLAKE, Man. — This southern Manitoba community’s two grain elevators tower on the horizon while driving south along bumpy Highway 242.
It’s only when you arrive that you realize there’s far more to Snowflake than a couple of old buildings.
Some shutterbugs on the internet have called Snowflake a ghost town, but the tractor and air seeder parked beside the newer-looking elevator on a windy Friday in May weren’t apparitions nor were the two men who were setting up a spout to fill the seeder’s tank phantom farmers from a bygone era.
It’s a small place, for sure, one that’s proud of its past and one that’s valiantly fighting to preserve its future.
As Manitoba enters the May long weekend, the traditional beginning of summer on the Prairies, the Free Press gives a final wink to winter and visits the one Snowflake that refuses to melt away.
Joan Wheeler holds a copy of small blue book titled A Diary of Snowflake, edited by local historian Landon Booker, and while the 89-year-old Snowflake matriarch wasn’t here in January 1881 when the entries begin, she’s played a significant role in making sure the community’s rich historic legacy lives on.
She attended Star Mound School, a one-room wooden-frame schoolhouse that had room for about 15 students that opened in 1886.
It has moved four times since, usually to be closer to students, before ending its service as a chemistry classroom in Snowflake proper in 1962, when the community’s high schoolers were bused to nearby Crystal City or Manitou.
“It had a well that you pumped (water) and it had outdoor toilets with boarding all around,” says Wheeler, who attended the school from grades 1-10 from 1940-50 before taking Grade 11 by correspondence and Grade 12 in Crystal City.
“It had a great little barn where you had hay and the horses. Once school was out, the boys would race to see who could get their horses out of the barn and all hitched up with carts, to see who could get home first.”
Five years after the school closed, Wheeler, a nurse who raised her family on a farm near Snowflake with her husband Glen, became secretary of the Starmound Historical Society and made it her goal to save the school from demolition.
All it took was one dollar and some persuasion of the Municipality of Louise, which includes Star Mound, the Municipality of Pembina, which governs Snowflake, and the local school board to allow the society to move it to its current home atop Star Mound. It was added to the Canadian Register of Historic Places in 1995.
“They realized they weren’t going to get any money for it,” Wheeler says, adding the Municipality of Louise owns the land and the society has a 100-year agreement to take care of the school. “I think they liked the idea of preserving some history of the past.”
The school is the centrepiece of Star Mound, a large hill a few kilometres west of Snowflake that offers visitors a stunning panorama of southern Manitoba and the plains of North Dakota, which are only a few more kilometres south along Highway 242.
Star Mound is a geological oddity created eons ago and was once an Aboriginal village, says the Manitoba Historical Society, which in its website entry about the school says Star Mound is also known as Nebogwawin Butte and Merry Dance Hill.
A beaver-shaped burial site is about 50 metres in front of the school, and the Starmound society has erected a sign recognizing its historical importance. Additionally, a cairn was dedicated in 1970 when the school was moved to Star Mound and there’s a sign recognizing the Boundary Trail Heritage Region, which used Snowflake as one of many settlements along the 49th parallel when establishing the border between Canada and the United States in the 1870s.
Walking inside the bright white schoolhouse is a step back in time, not just in Snowflake but for hundreds of one-room schoolhouses across Canada where teenagers learned beside preschoolers.
Wooden benches and desks are neatly arranged around a wood stove — not the original Wheeler says, but one still from the 1880s — and one of the several teacher’s desks that were used during Star Mound School’s history.
Pictures on the walls, arranged by Wheeler, and her secretarial successor Joyce Falk, add to the historical flavour. A young Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip are here, but so is her father King George VI, and even King George V, who reigned the United Kingdom and its dominions, including Canada, from 1910-1936.
There are photographs of local royalty too, hockey and curling teams, but also the 1893 Snowflake baseball team, “border champions” it says on the frame, as well as turn-of-the-century football teams, back when soccer was still called football.
Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, the Group of Seven painter and teacher at the Winnipeg School of Art, which has since become the University of Manitoba School of Art, spent his childhood summers roaming the fields and woods near Snowflake, where his mother’s family farmed.
Some of his early Impressionist paintings were painted in Snowflake, such as Potato Patch, Snowflake, from 1925. It is one of many FitzGerald paintings that are part of the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s permanent collection and were the backbone of a 2020 exhibition
Another was Stooks near Snowflake, from 1927, which Winnipeg art dealer Bill Mayberry sold more than two decades ago, and was reminded by it after a similar 1927 work, Snowflake — The Old School (there’s no way to tell if it is Star Mound School), was brought into Mayberry Fine Art a week ago for an upcoming estate sale.
“We would consider this to be the sketch,” he says of Snowflake — The Old School, adding that Stooks near Snowflake was painted in FitzGerald’s studio afterward.
FitzGerald was 66 when he died in 1956, and many art books mention his ashes were scattered in the fields near Snowflake. The actual whereabouts are also scattered to the winds and soil.
“It was east of Snowflake,” Wheeler says. “In the summertime he would love to come out to the farm.”
There’s a lot of history in a community that reached about 150 people at its peak in the 1940s and ’50s, and at one time had a grocery store, a hardware store, a school, a curling rink and hockey rink, which helped launch two National Hockey League careers. Defenceman Justin Falk played 279 games for five teams from 2009-19, and Lyle Phair, a winger, had 48 games with the Los Angeles Kings in the 1980s.
The community’s population is about a tenth of that 150 today, although there are many people in the surrounding area who are proud to be from Snowflake and get their mail here.
Among them are farmers and retirees who gather weekday mornings at the Double Diamond Farm Supply just north of Snowflake for coffee, chit-chat, news of the day, and offering their solutions to the world’s problems.
A half-filled jar of coins and bills labelled “Drink a cup — throw in a buck” sits on the table in the coffee room in the back of the office. The proceeds go to a rotation of charities, with the Kidney Foundation of Canada getting the funds this time.
A windy Wednesday brought several Snowflake folks, all of whom were neighbours at the time when the school was in town, to the coffee room. Harry Pauls, Alvin Funk, brothers Frank and Robert Goertzen, Ken Barron, Doug Brown and Ken Harms gather to talk about Snowflake’s past and present.
“We may be isolated but we’re not off the grid,” says Funk, who recently moved to La Riviére, pronounced “La Reveer” in these parts.
“Snowflake was very great a few years ago in baseball, and of course, curling was big,” says Barron, whose ancestors homesteaded in Snowflake in 1900.
Snowflake’s big blow happened in 1980, when the Canadian Pacific Railway closed the Snowflake line, which began in 1898.
When the tracks were ripped out, the elevators had no way to ship grain. When they closed in 1981, the community’s economic engine went with it.
Since then, farms have become bigger and the fewer families in the area have fewer children, adding to Snowflake’s isolation.
“It was part of the demise when the railway went,” says Frank Goertzen. “That’s where people got their mail. That was the hub. Now you go 40 miles for a loaf of bread.”
Snowflake farmer Rob Harms owns and still uses the newer-looking elevator to store grain and seed and has built newer granaries alongside it.
The white tin siding hides its age — it was built in 1928 and was erected before the older-looking Federal elevator to the west — but the aroma of old wood and grain dust accumulated for decades permeates the place where farmers brought in the harvest, one truck at a time.
The older-looking sentinel, with faded Federal Grain signage on it, was built in 1958 but used wood reclaimed from an elevator in nearby Fallison in its construction, giving it a rich patina that attracts photographers, painters and romantics who yearn for the golden age of Prairie agriculture.
Its days are numbered, Harms says. Like the skyscrapers at Portage and Main, the two elevators create their own micro-climate, and the wind whips around the elevators, and even knocked down one of his newer seed granaries.
“The other one will come down in a few years. This one got a quite a few years yet,” Harms says.
The elevators, other older buildings and street signs whose words have been erased by decades of wind, rain and snow, attract curious onlookers.
Some have become confrontational when Harms has told them the buildings are private property — and he worries that someone who ventures inside the Federal elevator, which has its entrance fenced off to prevent people from entering, will get trapped inside or start a fire.
Wooden elevators caked with decades of grain dust have always been a fire risk, and the flames can spread to neighbouring homes and buildings because of southern Manitoba’s heavy winds.
“Especially during COVID they kind of show up and start wandering around. There’s been some vandalism in town, spray-painting and shooting windows out,” Harms says. “People just don’t understand that abandoned doesn’t mean it’s a free for all. They just think they can walk in there. They don’t understand private property.
“It’s a great little town to visit but don’t be poking around in any buildings.”
Canada Day sparks celebrations across the country, and it’s the big day of the year in Snowflake, too.
Many folks who have left Snowflake, whether to live in nearby towns such as Manitou, La Riviére, Pilot Mound or moved further afield to Winnipeg, return on July 1 to meet with friends and relatives who’ve stayed in the area.
The festivities include a wiener roast and take place at Star Mound School, with the school’s small playground keeping youngsters busy while their parents and grandparents reminisce.
The day ends with fireworks from atop of the hill. They can be seen and heard from miles away.
The event draws between 300-500 people over the years, Glen Wheeler says, but the COVID-19 pandemic has meant this year’s Canada Day celebrations will be the community’s first since 2019.
Snowflake pride will rise once again.
“Then we sing O Canada, and there’s the pride of that moment,” Falk says. “On the top of this hill, it’s a pretty special moment, I would say.”
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.