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Celebrating the Spirit of the Machine
25. April 2002
Ms. Head, Marketing Cynthia Blackmore
REYNOLDS-ALBERTA MUSEUM, Canada, WETASKIWIN
By: Darren Wiberg
Head, Restoration Services
Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada
This spring, because I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was doing, I accidentally ran the wing of my cultivator into the grass along the edge of the field I was working. There was an old roll of barbed wire in there and it got wrapped around the wheel. By the time I noticed, it had wrapped around the wheel about a hundred times and was just a tangled mess. As I got off the tractor, I was mad as heck and wondered who was the stupid so-and-so who had left that wire where I could snag it.
I soon realized that it was going to take awhile to untangle this mess. As my temper cooled, I noticed there were three huge rocks on the edge of the field where I had hooked that wire. I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn't hit one of those or I'd have wrecked my cultivator for sure.
I sat there untangling that wire and looking at those rocks. I recalled a conversation I overheard when I was a kid. I remembered my grandfather and my dad and uncles talking about how my great-grandfather would use blasting powder and his old steam engine to pull the rocks and stumps off the land he homesteaded.
The steam engine they were talking about is the 1902 American Abell Steam Engine that is in our museum warehouse.
I started to wonder what kind of equipment the fellow who had moved those rocks had used. He had probably used a tractor similar to what my great-grandfather had.
Working here at the museum, I have had the opportunity to operate some of these antique machines and have actually stood on the deck and operated the controls of my great-grandfather's tractor.
One thing that always amazes me is how slow, uncomfortable and awkward those old tractors are to use. I wonder how long it would take to move those rocks, by the time you pack shovels and chains and blasting powder and run out in the field at the top speed of two miles per hour, blast those rocks out, then figure a way to wrap a chain around and drag it off the field. I am beginning to realize that just moving those rocks with that old equipment would have taken at least one whole day.
Now, if that fellow hadn't moved those rocks I wouldn't have been able to farm that area of that field at all. All of a sudden, I feel a little sheepish about some of the things I was thinking about the man who had cared for this land before me.
My thoughts turn to my great-grandfather and what would possess him to come out to the end of the world and start a farm where there was no power, no roads and acres and acres of uncultivated land. As I pull the last strands of wire from my cultivator, I realize that in four generations my forefathers have taken this land from wilderness to the richest province in one of the richest countries in the world.
We have some unique and rare things at our museum, but if you expect to see the crown jewels here you're probably going to be disappointed. However, when I look at one of those tractors I see so much more than a collection of nuts, bolts and gears.
The exhibits at RAM are not about moving rocks, building roads, moving freight or cultivating the land. In this museum, we celebrate the ordinary people with ordinary tools doing the extraordinary job of building this province. Would these machines mean so much anywhere else?
Just ordinary people, like my great-grandfather Deitrich Humbke, who owned the 1902 American Abell Steam Engine, really are the “Spirit of the Machine.”
As I sit here looking at my two-story tall, 250 horsepower, four-wheel drive tractor and 42 foot cultivator, I realize I can work more land in an hour than the fellow who moved those rocks could have done in a day. But I also realize how totally ineffective that machine would be if someone hadn't moved those rocks and prepared this land before me.
When I work here at RAM, I celebrate the Spirit of the Machine, because how many provinces have been built with the crown jewels?
Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada