What really happened here around 100 years ago?
There are many old structures on the Canadian prairie, especially in rural Saskatchewan. Many of these structures, be they homesteads, churches, schools or barns, distinguish themselves by remaining in pristine condition, or by their decrepit condition that attracts photographers from far and wide. However, today’s blog features a stone house that may otherwise be considered unremarkable because of its very basic style although stone houses are always remarkable to people like me who are surrounded by forests and wood houses. This house has a story that is told by local legend and supported by some facts. Of course all legends have at least some truth to them. Read on and then you be the judge as to whether or not this just a legend that school age kids used to dare and scare each other or an oral history of a tragic event.
First a bit of architectural wisdom from yours truly who is definitely not an architect (nore do I have construction experience). Canada, being a northern country with a northern climate has many months of cold and dark winters. One characteristic you will nearly always see is windows on the south side of the buildings to get the maximum benefit from the dim winter light. I’ve seen many one room schoolhouses with windows on only one side and it’s never the north side. Letting the south or southwest sun warm up a house just made sense to the early pioneers and it continues to make sense today. In fact one would need a very good reason not to put most of the windows on the south side of the structure. On the north side those same windows let in a small amount of light, and let out a lot of heat so they generally are either not used or only installed to provide a path for cool evening air in the hottest days of summer. So with that fact out of the way, lets get on with the legend. The story is an unsubstantiated sensational explanation about why these openings are closed-in, but it is not based on fact; see “update” at the end of the blog for some facts by Frank Korvemaker, construction historian, from Regina, that pertain to this house.
There may be minor variations in the story but basically it goes like this: The Screaming House. According to the local legend, one of the family’s children wandered onto the railway tracks that are just south of the house. As the mother looked out the window she saw her child killed by the passing train. She was so distraught that her husband put stones in to block the window that faces the railway tracks which are just south of the house. The legend says that if you stand in the downstairs room of the house, in the late evening, when the train goes by you can still hear that woman scream for her child.
Okay, I know what you are thinking, you think that this is just a story conjured up by the locals to entertain and scare each other. That is true. How do these stories get started? Well there is always a grain of truth to any story or legend and this is no different. A girl did die here although I don’t yet know how or when she died. The photo’s below will show how easily a person can come to different conclusions from the look of a structure, depending on their own knowledge, or lack thereof, of construction principles. Only someone knowledgable in stone and brick construction can discern the facts from looking at the building. So lets take a look at the old house and see why the local legend had gained so much traction over the years.
The photos below show that indeed the windows and openings facing the railway, and straight south, appear to be blocked by the same stone work as the rest of the house.
There must be an explanation for blocking in the window and door on the south side. Could the train have been too noisy? Well the builder would have known that before he put the windows where he did so that’s not likely. This very railroad probably brought the family here from the east coast. A train passing by would have been a welcome break from the lonely existence on the sparsely populated prairie. Besides, the train was a steam locomotive when this house was built so it wouldn’t have been all that loud compared to modern trains. And finally to put that argument to rest, the tracks are not right next to the house. They are close enough to see and hear but even today houses are built at a similar distance to railroad tracks. There is another explanation, see the update below.
An Update – Spring 2021
I’m honoured by the fact that Frank Korvemaker, construction historian, Regina, a historian and author, has taken enough interest in my blogs to provide some key facts and corrections.
He said that there was a girl who was killed here but the rest of the story pertaining to the railway and the blocked windows is local fiction. I’ll quote his comments below
“That fact is correct, but the business of the blocked windows is not. After considerable historical research by Marg, and my own construction history experience, it is clear that the house was built to have a future extension, as have various schools. To make it easier to access the future additions, the original builder incorporated door frames, which could be easily removed later without having to damage the original adjacent construction. This is evident if you follow the coursing of the stones. Had the openings been filled later, then the stone laying pattern, as well as the mortar texture, and colour would not be identical to the rest of the wall, which it is. However, no extension was ever built, and the tale of a distraught mother not wanting to look out at the track made for a much more melodramatic story. If you look at the school at Fiske (below) , you will see the same concept, but undertaken in brick. As I said, this was standard construction practice a century ago, but is not something of which most people today are aware. While not as common in houses as in schools, it was done, as we see with the stone house. The Fiske School is also a good example of the building running out of bricks, and having to get a new supply made from either a different factory or from a different brick run. This can also be seen at the Wolseley Town Hall-Opera House, where the local bricks came from the Wolseley Brickyard; and the upper bricks came from Manitoba – similar but not an exact match”. Frank Korvemaker, construction historian, Regina.
It’s always interesting to be able to look at someting, that seems odd or out of character, and find the reason for it. In this case what apeared to be blocked in windows was actually a construction technique for future expansion. But a girl did die here as well. As I said earlier there is always a grain of truth to every local legend or ghost story.
I hope you enjoyed reading this blog and found it both entertaining and informative. Note that if you discover the location of this house and want to see it first hand, please respect the landowner’s rights and ask for permission before entering the property. For your own safety, always be very cautious when walking around or inside an old structure. There can be open water wells near any structure and old buildings are inherently unsafe. Take care.