Talking with Mr. Urgel Palin and volunteers renovating the Grange-écurie des Prêtres-Chaumont historical barn in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. CAFM Photo.

Harvesting History: My Visit to Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines

Despite having an extensive background in history and agriculture, the art of collecting is new to me. Before joining the collection and research team in March as curatorial research assistant, I had never really considered the mechanics of collection development and management or rationalization. As a historian, I had never been in the position to decide what should or should not make up a collection. That is, until I had the opportunity to research and write my first acquisition proposal for a Dion thresher, which the CSTMC Acquisition Committee approved this past July. It was a rewarding end to an extensive process that involved countless hours of research and discussion, as well as a road trip to Saint-Anne-des-Plaines, Québec.

 

Examining the Dion threshing machine. CAFM Photo.

Examining the Dion threshing machine. CAFM Photo.

 

This all began when Guy Charbonneau, mayor of Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, approached the museum on behalf of the machine`s owner, Mr. Urgel Palin. Mr. Palin was looking for a new home for his 1920s Dion thresher following the sale of his tractor parts business. Mr. Palin had purchased the thresher from the family of the original owner, who used it on his farm in La Plaine, Quebec. The machine had been stored for over 35 years and remained in original condition – a rarity for such an old piece of equipment.

 

Threshing machines were the ancestors of today`s combine harvesters. They were developed in Europe in the late 18th century to separate and clean grain from straw and chaff. Threshers mechanized the separation of grain, which had previously been done by hand with flails and winnowing trays. Over the course of the 19th century, threshers became more elaborate and mobile as manufacturers added wheels to stationary machines. Canadian manufacturers, such as Waterloo and Macdonald and MacPherson, started producing threshing machines during the second half of the 19th century.

 

As I looked deeper into this potential acquisition, I discovered that little information was available regarding Dion’s history. This was surprising considering the company is still active today. Fortunately, with the help of Luc Choinière, of Dion-Ag Inc., I was able to piece together a basic history of the company which dates to the early 20th century. Brothers Amédée and Bruno Dion, both deeply interested in farm mechanization, enjoyed experimenting with various machines on their farm near Sainte-Thérèse de Blainville. By 1918, the brothers had designed and built their own thresher, specially adapted to their needs. The Dions were inspired by Western Canadian technology in their machine’s cylinder design, an innovative feature in eastern Canadian threshers. The brothers secured various patents and by 1920, la Société Dion & Frères Limitée was manufacturing threshers in a small factory operating on their farm. Dion threshers were known for quality and performance. Key features and improvements included feeders and band cutters designed to prevent cylinder clogging, and beaters and straw racks that facilitated grain separation and cleaning.

 

La Sociétée Dion & Frères Limitée manufacturer’s imprint. CAFM Photo.

La Société Dion & Frères Limitée manufacturer’s imprint. CAFM Photo.

 

Working with curator Will Knight, we were unsure whether to recommend this machine for acquisition. We were dealing with a machine that was technologically innovative, in amazing condition, and with detailed provenance. However, it was a pretty large object that would take up lots of space in the warehouse – space that was already at a premium. What’s more, the museum already has a significant threshing machine collection.

 

In the end, it was Mr. Charbonneau and Mr. Palin who convinced us. Since the thresher was manufactured in nearby Boisbriand, both men saw this machine as an important part of their region’s heritage and were adamant that it should be preserved in the museum`s collection. Through my conversations with them, I came to realize that, to them, this thresher was more than a simple machine. It was a symbol of their region`s agriculture and industrial history, as well as the people’s resourcefulness, dedication and hard work. This thresher was also a testament to the ingenuity of two enterprising brothers who hoped to lessen the burden of farm work through mechanization. The business they started from scratch almost 100 years has survived to this day as Dion-Ag Inc. a Canadian-owned, independent farm equipment manufacturer. This is a remarkable accomplishment in this age of multinational giants.

 

Talking with Mr. Urgel Palin and volunteers renovating the Grange-écurie des Prêtres-Chaumont historical barn in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. CAFM Photo.

Talking with Mr. Urgel Palin and volunteers renovating the Grange-écurie des Prêtres-Chaumont historical barn in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. CAFM Photo.

 

This first experience at collection development has been truly memorable. I met great people who are passionate about their agricultural heritage, including a group of volunteers restoring a historic barn in downtown Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. I had the opportunity to help preserve an impressive machine for future generations. But most importantly, the process humanized the collection. Not only do its artefacts document the evolution of agriculture and food science and technology in Canada, they also tell the story of the people who designed, manufactured and used these machines and of the communities they formed.

 

Web links:

Flails:

http://techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/collection-item.php?id=1966.0606.001

 

Winnowing tray:

http://techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/collection-item.php?id=1969.1133.001

 

Macdonald and MacPherson threshing machine:

http://cafmuseum.techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/artifact-macdonald-and-macpherson-standard-thresher.php

 

Waterloo threshing machine:

http://cafmuseum.techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/artifact-waterloo-champion-thresher.php

 

Canadian Patent:

http://brevets-patents.ic.gc.ca/opic-cipo/cpd/eng/patent/217574/summary.html

 

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to Mr. Urgel Palin for his contribution to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum’s collection. One can only admire your passion for agricultural machinery and your determination to its preservation.

 

Thank you to Mr. Guy Charbonneau, mayor of Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, who played a key role in this artefact acquisition. Your devotion towards the preservation of your community’s agriculture heritage is truly appreciated.

 

Thank you to Mr. Luc Choinière, of Dion-Ag Inc., for his help in retracing the manufacturer’s history. His contributions were vital to the success of this acquisition.

 

References:

 

Robert N. Pripps, Threshers, History of the Separator, Threshing Machine, Reaper and Harvester, Osceola, Motorbooks International, 1992. 128 p.

 

 

 

 

Our examinations and discussions took place in a fairly active public space. There were several visitors from the nearby (and quite large) Kasturba hospital complex.

Summer School in India

From July 20-24, I had the privilege of being faculty at a challenging and inspiring Summer School at the Manipal Center for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH) in India (co-organized by Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature). Graduate students from across India came together for a week centered on the topic “Scientific Objects and Digital Cosmopolitanism.” As a break from the seminar format, Varun Bhatta (MCPH), Roland Wittje (IIT Chennai) and I organized an outing to the Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the Kasturba Medical College of Manipal University. The museum, one of the largest of its kind in Asia, is used primarily for medical teaching, but has a growing role in the region for education and outreach.

Participants examining a specimen in the section devoted to the Nervous System.

Participants examining a specimen in the section devoted to the Nervous System.

We broke off into six groups to examine objects and critique the displays. Each group carried out examinations based on specific themes or questions, for example to “analyse biases in the displays,” “record personal responses,” “analyse local and cosmopolitan elements of a specimen or display,” “propose alternative exhibition themes” and “analyse the processes – technical and cultural – that go into making the final specimen.”

I was nervous about a session with human specimens, having more experience teaching with conspicuously designed and manufactured artifacts of metal, wood, glass and plastic. Would the students be able to “culturally dissect” the specimens within a seemingly airtight scientific setting?

Preparation, choices, tools and technique - Heart specimen as a cultural artifact.

Preparation, choices, tools and technique – Heart specimen as a cultural artifact.

The students presented punchy, brilliant critiques (all within 30 minutes!) that took us far beyond the traditional medical categories of the museum. They raised a number of issues related to translation (between English and Kannada) for words like monster in “Anencephalic Monster”; ethical concerns of the specimen sources; implications of specimens arranged and displayed as art pieces; cultural questions behind the choice and presentation of certain display themes and objects; the absence of information about the tools, processes and techniques used in specimen preparation; questions about labels, language and audience (the larger panels were all English); questions behind choices – technical and cultural – that go into making a seemingly non-problematic museum encounter; notions of objectivity in medical education and practice; and, strong gender themes throughout the displays.

Our examinations and discussions took place in a fairly active public space. There were several visitors from the nearby (and quite large) Kasturba hospital complex.

Our examinations and discussions took place in a fairly active public space. There were several visitors from the nearby (and quite large) Kasturba hospital complex.

Remarkably, in a very short time, we analysed the specimens and displays using careful observation, questions and multiple perspectives. India has vast, underexplored collections of scientific instruments, specimens, and archival materials. These collections have enormous potential for this kind of open-ended group exploration that inspires new approaches to teaching, research and exhibit development.

Locally made c. 1950s? There were several of these plaster and wooden anatomical models on display. They were all identical, but each featuring different anatomical systems.

Locally made c. 1950s? There were several of these plaster and wooden anatomical models on display. They were all identical, but each featuring different anatomical systems.

A student at Tribhuvan University administers ether by way of a Schimmelbush Mask. Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby.

Calgary, Kathmandu and the Ether between them

Dr. Jan Davies, Professor of Anesthesia and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Calgary, contacted me last summer because she wanted to donate historic anesthesia instruments to the Museum on behalf of the Foothills Medical Centre. Dr. Davies selected items that filled gaps in the Museum’s anesthesia collection from a technical point of view, and also reflected the cultural side of medical work and research.

A collection of Tudor Williams Airways used in the operating rooms at Foothills Medical Centre, Calgary Alberta. Photo Credit: Dr. Jan Davies.

A collection of Tudor Williams Airways used in the operating rooms at Foothills Medical Centre, Calgary Alberta. Photo Credit: Dr. Jan Davies.

Her list contained a few intriguing items from Dr. Roger Maltby, a former staff anesthesiologist at Foothills Medical Centre and Professor Emeritus of Anesthesia at the University of Calgary. These pieces, a Schimmelbush Mask and an Epstein-Macintosh-Oxford inhaler complete with travelling case, were used during his time teaching medicine in Nepal in the 1980s.

 This EMO vaporiser was designed to deliver ether/air and is portable and robust. This object comes complete with an instruction booklet and travel case (note the old Canadian Airlines luggage tag). Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby

This EMO vaporiser was designed to deliver ether/air and is portable and robust. This object comes complete with an instruction booklet and travel case (note the old Canadian Airlines luggage tag). Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby

In the early 1980s, the World Health Organization projected that a minimum of 27 anaesthetists should be providing services in the country within that decade. While the need for these trained practitioners was there, the systems were not in place to train that many anesthetists in that short amount of time. By the mid-1980s, there were only seven anaesthetists for the whole of Nepal and they worked in hospitals in Kathmandu, leaving no anaesthetists for the rest of the country.

The Schimmelbush Mask has a shallow trough around the circumference of the mask. This element is designed to catch straying drops of liquid ether. Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby.

The Schimmelbush Mask has a shallow trough around the circumference of the mask. This element is designed to catch straying drops of liquid ether. Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby.

In the spring of 1984 the University of Calgary was approached to assist in establishing a Diploma in Anaesthesia Program at the Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. Dr. Maltby agreed to be the Canadian co-ordinator, without any previous experience in facilitating programs appropriate for the conditions in a developing country. During our phone conversation this past winter, Dr. Maltby justified his decision to participate in the development of this diploma program by stating that, “they wouldn’t have asked me to do it if they didn’t think I could do it.”

His comment seems to minimize the enormity of the commitment he made to the program. And by commitment, I mean both the months at a time that Dr. Maltby spent in Nepal and the years that he dedicated to planning, evaluating, and reviewing various elements of the program.  While Dr. Maltby felt that it was “always their program”, he was instrumental in its success and realisation.

A student at Tribhuvan University administers ether by way of a Schimmelbush Mask. Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby.