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Day 19: Dauphin, Man.
Colourful landmarks bite the dust
on the rapidly greying Prairies


Saturday, August 26, 2000

The tallest building in Dauphin, the one that can be seen from the Riding Mountain highlands or the wheat fields of a neighbouring county, is no longer a grain elevator. It's a retirement home.

The farming community's 11-storey Parkview Lodge is testimony to the rapidly changing face of the Prairies, as is the disappearance of the classic grain elevators that once defined a region.

As life expectancy improves, while more and more young people leave the Prairies, the farmers that brought Manitoba and Saskatchewan into the age of modern agriculture are now shifting to institutional care in towns and cities, puttering around places like Dauphin in electric wheelchairs or lounging in the sun on a park bench.

The town's population is greying so quickly that a local volunteer fireman who gave me a lift through Riding Mountain National Park warned me to be on guard at crosswalks and intersections. He said one of the biggest causes of emergency calls in Dauphin is elderly people crashing their cars into other vehicles, walls and pedestrians.

All along the main street, he pointed out big boats of cars, many made in the 1970s and 80s, with drivers who could barely see over their steering wheels. If they could see. He warned me of one driver who needs his wife to accompany him everywhere to tell him when and where to turn.

On Dauphin's tree-lined streets, where the only sound is of a 100-car train passing through town, much of the community seems stuck in another age. There are onion-domed Ukrainian churches and Zamrykut's Ukrainian Family Restaurant, even though few of the remaining young people speak Ukrainian. Most of the youth now are natives who have moved from northern reserves.

Outside the town, on the seemingly endless wheat fields of western Manitoba, the transformation can be seen again in the growing number of abandoned farmhouses, their fields harvested by neighbouring farmers trying to make a go as corporate-style operators. And there is the steady movement of people west, over Lake of the Prairies, straight through Saskatchewan and into the sizzling economic summer of Alberta, a province that now begs for people in newspaper ads across the region.

But Dauphin's transition, and that of the Prairies, may best be represented by the decline of its wooden grain elevators, the red or green columns once known as "castles of the New World." Numbering 5,800 in the 1930s, there are now fewer than 700 of the stoic wooden elevators on the Prairies, most of them replaced by larger, drab cement buildings.

In Dauphin, two classic elevators that once stood taller than the churches are gone, replaced by efficient new ones outside town, where the freight trains of one generation won't get in the way of the traffic of another.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.

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