drawing credit: David Collier
When it comes to preserving Saskatchewan history, can the pen be mightier than the backhoe?
When you live in Saskatoon, you find yourself caring more about the details of grain farming than you did when you lived in Toronto or Windsor. The people and the media in Saskatchewan regard farming as a deeply interesting subject. The front page of an edition of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix in 1989 featured a drawing of a hand with the thumb and forefinger in the open pinch position next to the headline INCH AND A HALF!, which ran over a story about the previous day’s rainfall.
I myself, with my jaded big city upbringing, always found my attention shifting to the more offbeat aspects of the agricultural life. Like the farmer whose tractor flipped and pinned him flat one day in the 1940s. As he lay dying under the tractor, he managed to scrape on the fender with his knife: “Leave it all to my wife.” Later the fender was removed and presented in court, where it was accepted as the farmer’s last will and testament.
That’s the kind of subject I always pitched to the editors at the StarPhoenix during the year I drew a daily comic called “Saskatoon Sketches” for the paper. It was a little square panel in the third section of the paper (Floral News). But they usually preferred ideas that had more to do with the mud than the mind.
The year of “Saskatoon Sketches” was 1995. Saskatchewan had entered Confederation in 1905, and the editor of the StarPhoenix had dreamed up a special ninetieth-anniversary supplement to go in a late fall edition of the Saturday paper. Notice of the supplement was placed in the staff newsletter, and memos urging us to come up with suggestions were posted throughout the building.
At around the same time, Timothy Leary visited the University of Saskatchewan. I didn’t attend the event but Clara, my wife at the time, did. She reported that Leary was in fine form, pulling faces and rolling his eyes around in his exaggerated “weird” lecture style. At one point Leary paused and said, “Do you people here in Saskatchewan realize that the term psychedelic originated here?” I carried that bit of information around in my head for a while, and one day at the Saskatoon Public Library I looked up psychedelic in the Oxford English Dictionary. I had discovered the OED a few years earlier, while drawing a comic set in the 1940s, when I wanted to find out whether people had used the word groovy in those days. (They had—the word was first used around roller skating rinks in the early years of the decade.) According to the OED, psychedelic was “proposed by Dr. H. Osmond in a letter to Aldous Huxley early in 1956.” Later, across the South Saskatchewan River in the university library, I found a book called Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith, in which Huxley’s reply to Osmond was printed. Apparently Huxley misread Osmond’s suggestion and did not think much of it. To clear things up, Osmond wrote back to Huxley and enclosed a poem he’d composed: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic / Just take a pinch of psychedelic.”
Dr. Humphry Osmond was a transplanted Englishman who’d come to Canada to live in Weyburn, a small city in southern Saskatchewan, and to work at the large building that looms over the west end of town—then known as the Provincial Mental Hospital. Before leaving London he had experimented with mescaline, and at Weyburn Osmond continued his pioneering work with mind-altering substances such as LSD, with the assistance of Abram Hoffer, who was the hospital’s gifted resident doctor and biochemist. Osmond and Hoffer experimented with the drugs both on themselves and on hospital patients: Osmond believed that anything had to be better than the horrific snake-pit conditions at Weyburn and other institutions. The men used psychedelics in treating alcoholic patients in particular, attempting to induce hallucinatory DT-like symptoms before the subject was actually removed from drink.
Based on his findings, Osmond wrote “Schizophrenia: A New Approach” in 1952 and sent it to Huxley, his hero. Huxley surprised Osmond by responding with an enthusiastic endorsement of the article and an invitation to visit him in Los Angeles. Huxley very much wanted to try psychedelics and he petitioned Osmond to bring some with him. Osmond was apprehensive—the drugs might drive Huxley mad—but when he flew from Regina to Los Angeles, he had a jar of mescaline with him, and in 1953 he supervised Huxley’s first drug trip. The following year, Huxley published The Doors of Perception, whose influence can be measured in the fact that the rock band The Doors took their name from the title. Huxley and Osmond concocted plans to get psychedelics into the hands of the major thinkers of the day, dreaming of the changes to the world that these drugs could spur.
The two men regarded Timothy Leary, who came on the scene as a neophyte at the end of the 1950s, as a bit of a laddish American. But they knew Leary could get the message about psychedelics out to the general public. They were right—and Leary was still capturing people’s attention thirty years later. One of those people was me. I took what he had said about Saskatchewan and psychedelics, and all the other information I had gathered on the subject, to the editor of the StarPhoenix, suggesting this be featured in the anniversary supplement as one of the notable events in Saskatchewan’s first ninety years in Confederation. When the supplement came out, it had plenty of coverage of hockey players and milestones in agriculture, but nothing at all about Humphry Osmond, Aldous Huxley, psychedelics or drugs of any sort.
The paper had never been enthusiastic about my many suggestions for subjects that had more to do with the mind than the mud, but in this case, my proposal may have got lost on the editor’s desk amid news reports of another Saskatchewan story unfolding at the time: the fate of the Last Grain Elevator in Regina. And as it turned out, I got just as wrapped up in this story as everyone else. Who wouldn’t be affected by it? Citizens were embroiled in a hopeless struggle to save the building, eighty years old and out of service, a symbol of Regina’s agricultural heritage. It was to be torn down to make room for a few more parking spots for the Casino Regina, located nearby in the former train station, which had also gone out of service when passenger trains stopped visiting Regina in 1990. For months the drama escalated as CP Rail, the owners of the elevator, threatened to proceed with demolishing the building and preservation groups scrambled to draw up new plans to save it. Finally, on April 19, 1996, the news came out that the grain elevator would definitely be demolished on the 29th unless last-ditch efforts to save it and turn it into a historical centre had succeeded by then.
Galvanized into action, I drove out of Saskatoon the next morning and sped the 249 kilometres to Regina in a couple of hours. I found a good viewpoint in the parking lot of the Superstore, sat on a stool on the roof of my car and drew the grain elevator. While I was working, people came up to me with encouraging words but with an air of resignation. “We tried to save it but there’s not much we can do now,” one man said. I thought to myself, up there high on the roof of my car, there is something that can be done, and I’m doing it. The Last Grain Elevator in Regina still had a chance to be saved from the claws of the backhoe (old buildings weren’t even given the dignity of the wrecking ball any more). If my drawing ran in the Globe and Mail, which had bought several of my drawings of prairie scenes, the campaign to save the building would leap from a local to a national issue.
Time was of the essence now. I finished the drawing in a hurry—straight to ink, no time for preliminary pencil sketching. I wrapped it up and sent it by courier to Toronto instead of going to the post office and putting stamps on it as I usually did. I called my editor (another thing I never did, having once read in Editor and Publisher magazine that editors hate having the “flow” of their day interrupted by phone calls) and explained the importance of publishing the drawing in the Globe before Monday, April 29, 1996.
With bated breath I opened the Globe and Mail weekend edition of April 27—and there it was! Oh, what teamwork, I thought. I wanted to rush out to Toronto and personally thank the editors and production staff at the paper: we’d all worked together to make a difference!
Two days later, on Monday night, right on schedule, the Last Grain Elevator in Regina was demolished.