Prairie Sunset: A Story of Change

Some of our old buildings are about to be immortalized in print.


This Greek or Ukrainian Orthodox Church between Fosston and Quill Lake was never completed and put into service. 

About 10 years ago, Dion Manastyrski started taking photos of some of the local historical buildings. Eventually he covered Saskatchewan, Manitoba and part of Alberta on his quest to record the standing mementoes of our Prairie pioneer history. To get the photos he travelled a lot of highways, both major and minor, and in the process has created a work of vivid interest.

Manastyrski grew up in the Ponass Lake area, on the farm his grandparents homesteaded. Fascinated by old buildings, he explored more than a few as part of the fun of growing up on the farm.

“The house I grew up in was, in part, the same house my grandfather built,” Manastyrski explained in an interview. “Logs from their original homestead house were hidden in the walls of the kitchen. They just kept adding onto that one-room house over the decades. I learned this when I was about 10 years old, and it was one of the things that made me realize the beginnings of that farm. My mother and father told me things about the past, and some of my older sisters told me about how they went to a one-room school for part of their school years, when Ponass Lake School was still in operation. All of this set my imagination on fire even back then.

“Who lived there? What were their lives like? Why did they leave? I tried to imagine it all, back then, and still do now.

“I would come back and visit once a year or so, after I finished high school. It made me sad to see how many of our neighbours and family had moved away, and how many of these farmyards were abandoned. The house I grew up in has now been abandoned for several years. I visit it every time I go back to the Prairies. When I walk around the farmyard, memories come back to me continually, things that are long forgotten unless I go there. It is like magic, and no other place in the world can do that to me.

“Over the years after I left the farm, I realized how terrific that life was and also how special those times were. Families were a half-mile or a mile apart in the rural areas, everywhere. People visited a lot and worked together. Even the smallest towns were lively. After I started working on this book and interviewing people who were much older than me, I realized that I hadn’t seen anything … decades before my time, the small farms were even smaller and had big families on them, and the small towns had more businesses and were full of life. The rural population density was much higher, and although people did not have a lot of money, they were rich in community.”

As he grew older and developed a career in photography, the two interests melded as he realized what good photographic subjects the old buildings made.

“I realized how important it was to capture this story of change. I made several road trips back from my home in Victoria, B.C. These old places fascinate me and they are disappearing quickly. In 2003 I began to photograph many of the old places, abandoned farmhouses and barns and machinery all across the Prairie provinces.”

He found that Alberta does not have as many old buildings left as Manitoba and Saskatchewan do, and that some areas had more than others.

“Maybe some areas have more old buildings left because they were kept out of sentiment. Maybe the farm has been in the family for generations and the farmers just kept the buildings. I liked seeing that.”

dion pic

The Yamniuk farmyard west of Hendon.

Manastyrski considered going to a traditional publisher to get his book printed, but with his background in pre-press and publishing as well as photography, he started looking at other options.

“I didn’t rush it because I felt that this aspect of the Prairies is a special story, and I wanted to treat it fairly. People who lived in the rural Prairies back then know why it was special, and I heard it in the voices of all those people who enthusiastically told me their stories. I feel lucky to have grown up on a farm and to have seen some of the way things were. The small farm life in the rural Prairies in past decades was loaded with treasures.”

He looked at what other photographers were doing, and ultimately decided to go with crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding, where a large number of people can each contribute a small (or any) amount to a project, has been used for such widely diverse projects as software development, civic projects, scientific research and, of course, publishing. The most well-known platforms for crowdfunding are Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which Manastyrski chose for his project. The Internet is a key part of crowdfunding. Social media and online communities tend to be a major part of its support and promotion both. After an intense two months of campaigning, the book Prairie Sunset: A Story of Change is now going through the publication process and will be available in January.

The book contains not only photos of old buildings across the Prairie provinces, but many recounted stories about what life was like back then, many from people in our own area whose names you may recognize. To order a copy or learn more about it, visit

By Charlene Wirtz


Remembering When ~a few quotes from the book~

“My dad first came to Canada from the Ukraine in 1909, and he bought a quarter section or 160 acres of land for $10. He was one of the early settlers in the area, when there weren’t many homesteaders here yet. He came alone by train to the town of Paswegin. When he arrived, he walked more than 20 miles, weaving through forests and sloughs, searching for the pegs that marked his quarter section of land.

“When he first walked out to start living on his land, he carried all his possessions with him. The only tools he had were an axe, a saw, a shovel, and a hammer. He had matches to start a fire, and a shotgun to hunt for ducks in the summer and rabbits in the winter. He picked wildberries like saskatoons, raspberries, and chokecherries.

“His quarter section of land was covered entirely with poplar trees, and it had a few sloughs on it. The first house he built was made by digging a hole in the ground about 2 feet deep, and he cut poplar trees down for logs to build a wall around the hole, about 2 feet high. He made a roof from thinner logs into an A-shape, and weaved dried tall grass into it. He put sod on top in the winter, because on very cold days it would get down to -40 degrees. He made a bed, and he had a small stove, but I don’t know if he even had a table.”

Joe Kizlyk, Fosston


“In the early decades after settlement, there was very little money to go around, and neighbours bartered and helped each other at all times. Cutting and stacking hay, building construction, vegetable and meat canning, butchering, sawing firewood were all part of the lifestyle and people helped one another with no exchange of money.

“The most important things they needed to buy in those days were coal oil, sugar, and salt. For clothing, women did a lot of knitting, and farmers sometimes kept sheep to spin their own wool. Fabrics like denim were bought to make work clothes. Flour bags and sugar bags were often sewn together to make clothing and sheets.”

Ellis and Anne Dankow, Hendon


In the fall we would harvest all the garden and prepare food for the winter. We would can peas, beans, wild raspberries, saskatoon berries, and cranberries until the root cellar was almost full of jars. We would also can pork and chicken. Potatoes, carrots and beets wouldn’t need to be preserved because they would store very well all winter in the cold area of the earthen root cellar.”

Teena Lipka, Ponass Lake


“One-room schools in the prairies were 5-10 miles apart, and typically had 30-40 students, but some had as many as 80. All had one room and one teacher. Most went from grades 1 through 8, and students could take grade 9 and 10 by correspondence. The teacher would help with correspondence when they had time, usually after school.

“Some bigger towns had one-room high schools that offered grade 9-12, and students could work for room and board and complete grade 11-12. Parents could supply produce from the farm to help pay for room and board.”

Leone Wallin, Wadena


“In January 1938, I was 7 years old when my brother Joey was born. We lived on the farm in a one-room log house, heated with a wood stove. We were about 13 miles from the nearest hospital, and the roads were blocked with snow, as they usually were in the winter in those days.

“My dad drove a horse and sled to the nearest phone, 4 miles away, and phoned the doctor. The doctor came by snowplane, which is an enclosed cabin on skis, powered by a gas engine with a large propeller at the back. I remember being afraid of the noise when the snowplane approached the house, and I thought the noise and blown snow might break the windows.

“Me and my sister Angela, who was 5 years old, and brother Johnny who was almost 3 years old, were in the next bed over, and we had to hide under the blanket while Joey was being born.”

Helen Manastyrski, Ponass Lake


Laundry would be an all-day job. First we’d have to heat up the water. In the summer it was rainwater that was collected in barrels. In winter we’d have to melt snow. Clothes were washed by hand in a big washtub, using a scrub board, and home-made soap made from lard and lye. The laundry would be wrung out by hand, and hung out to dry. In the winter, sometimes the clothing would freeze solid while hanging outside, and when you brought it in, you would have to be careful not to ‘crack’ the clothing while it was frozen, or you would break it. Clothing was often draped over furniture to dry.”

Helen Krakowski, Hendon


Bed mattresses were made from leaves, hay or straw every year. Quilts and pillows were made from goose or duck down. Poultry feathers were also used, but the centre quill would have to be removed. This was a regular pastime for the whole family after supper, to gather at the table and tear the individual feathers to prepare them for bedding.”

Ellis and Anne Dankow, Hendon





Wadena News


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