This is my Grandma and Grandpa around the time of their engagement in McConnell, Manitoba.
Annie had six brothers (two of whom are photobombing the happy couple). Her family had deep roots in this land going back to her grandfather, who immigrated to Canada from Ireland and started farming in the area before the town was even born.
Jack was a baby when his parents immigrated to Canada from Scotland. His father set up shop in McConnell as the town blacksmith. His brother eventually ran the town gas station.
Jack and Annie grew up in this farming community, attending the same school, falling in love and getting married. They eventually moved away and settled in Portage La Prairie, where Jack ran a country veterinarian practice.
My grandparents have long since passed away as have many of my other relatives from the McConnell area. The rest moved away years ago. I had spent some time at my great uncles’ farms near McConnell – playing on the haybales and trying to ride the pigs – but I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. I was curious. What was left of this once thriving town and its tight-knit community?
In the summer of 2012, my curiosity got the best of me and I made the trek from Vancouver to SW Manitoba along with my husband Jeff. When we arrived at McConnell, there wasn’t a town. The school and grain elevators were still standing but were abandoned and in ruins. The church remained and the owners had turned it into a home. But the rest of the town – houses, shops, gas station, playground, baseball field, train station, train tracks, garages, stables – was gone. All traces had been scrubbed clean of the landscape.
It was a sad confirmation that nothing stays the same. Yet there was still beauty. Swallows circled overhead in pursuit of insects. An owl hooted from its home in one of the grain elevators. The old townsite was cloaked in a field of alfalfa, the fragrance of its purple flowers sweet on the summer air.
I wanted to know more about this place, about the people who once lived here, their lives, their connection to the townsite. I wanted to find out why the town died and how the former residents felt about it. Were they still attached to this place or was it just a pile of dirt to them today? And who had sown it with alfalfa? What did this place mean to him?
This is how my film Very Good Dirt began.