Made in Saskatchewan – Excerpt

EXCERPT: Made in Saskatchewan: Peter Rupchan, Ukrainian Pioneer and Potter

Chapter 7



RUPCHAN LOVED WORKING ON HIS POTTERY, BUT WAS still depressed about losing his homestead. Collaborating with his brother-in-law, Metro, helped alleviate the misery. Metro, who remained a bachelor all his life, was a pleasant, amusing man and an industrious worker. He farmed on the adjacent land to the young Rupchans and often joined them in work and fun. He particularly enjoyed playing tunes on the accordion. In his early years he had learned the rudi­ments of the English language from a priest in Canora. Later he bought a Ukrainian-English dictionary and painstakingly learned how to read and write English well. People often asked for his help to decipher instruction manuals for setting up machinery and the like. He was willing to assist wherever he could and was always open to new ideas including a few of his own.

When he joined forces to make Rupchan’s pottery business a success the pair devised various contraptions in the hopes of making their everyday lives easier. The plan was to employ the natural resources around them.

In 1923 Metro decided to harness the wind and began work on a wind­ mill he placed strategically on a hill by his home. Starting with eight-inch square planks hewn with a broad axe, he built a base on skids. Next he con­ structed the tower and added huge homemade rotating blades. He activated the windmill by turning it into the direction of the wind using a pry pole.

Metro and Peter cheerfully experimented with the windmill first as a source of power to operate a small grinding mill for flour. This idea seems to have had some measure of success, but using it to run a wood saw proved to be a disappointment.

“They could have sawed it faster with a Swede saw,” said Nick, who was a young teenager when his father and uncle began their eccentric experi­ mentations. Undaunted by this slight failure, the pair had more grandiose schemes planned to save themselves time and work. In the end they spent more time and worked harder pursuing their ideas. To the west of Peter’s house, on a little knoll, they built a second windmill about 1927. This time they designed and constructed a 10 foot square log building that sat on a platform about four feet off the ground, leaving space for the huge shaft and gear, like the rear end of a car, that would operate it. Then they attached two oversized propellers with massive handmade blades on the roof and fashioned a huge belt about 25 feet long that went around both propeller shafts and attached to a wooden pulley. The belt was made from old used tires.

“They didn’t peel the tires, just left the grips on and everything,” said Nick, who recalls the tires were just turned backwards and laced together. “The belt had to bend and take so much more strain.”

The huge propellers ran the large grinding stones inside the building. Here there was a built-in spout for the pulverized clay to fall into a con­tainer. Although Peter used this windmill mostly for grinding his pottery clay, when he cleaned the stones he ground wheat into household flour for Safta and the occasional neighbour.

“I sawed wood on the corner here on the outside,” said John indicating yet another use of the resourceful structure.

Peter and Metro together could turn the huge windmill into the direc­tion of the wind. Unless the wind was too strong. Then horses turned the gangly structure at the corners. One of the main problems was that the wind would change, commented John, “I remember it didn’t work very easy.”

“And if there was no breeze they wouldn’t do anything at all,” added Nick, chuckling. “The windmills were mostly toys the older men played with.” Toys or not, the pair put immense energy into making the windmills work, but eventually had to leave the double-bladed one in a stationary position.

“After a while we just had to wait for a south wind. We didn’t turn it, it was too heavy for the horses and it broke everything,” explained John. “It was kind of propped up in each corner and if you took them away, it was loose and it would hit the ground.”

Each night after use, the blades needed to be locked up in case of strong wind gusts. “We had to go and put bricks between the wings and support them with a heavy pole. Somehow or other we tied it up, but it would start to wobble in the wind. I must have broke one of the wings and they had more wobble,” explained John. One breezy night someone forgot entirely to lock up the wings. The next morning the smashed blades were found over a quarter of a mile away having landed like pick-up sticks strewn across the fields. So ended this episode of Rupchan’s windmill experiments, but perhaps, it was not his last wind-powered structure.

Numerous local people were aware of Rupchan’s escapades, but one per­ son to note Rupchan’s windmills came about through a different manner entirely. While Peter was investigating various means of glazing and decorat­ ing his pottery, he wrote to Professor W. G. Worcester, head of the ceramic engineering department at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.’

Although the professor is no longer living, his son, James Cameron Worcester, also very much a part of the pottery world in Saskatoon, recalls receiving Rupchan’s letter and consequently visiting him with his father in 1930. He was greatly intrigued by one of Rupchan’s windmills and wrote:

“…The windmill was of Dutch design. Though huge for a prairie wind­mill, it was not as large as its Dutch counterpart. Mr. Rupchan said he used a horse or team to revolve the mill into the wind, whenever there was a shift in the wind and he needed the mill in operation ”

According to Worcester, the particular windmill they saw in 1930 was not the double-bladed one on top of a building, which by that time had no doubt been destroyed, nor was it the single one constructed on a hill by Metro’s home. The windmill they recall was in Rupchan’s farm yard close to the house and barn. It was a single one with four big Dutch blades and was mounted on a turntable to be turned by horses into the wind.

Rupchan was tenacious and possibly this was another windmill he erected after the destruction of his huge double one. He was forever exper­imenting to create successful power apparatuses, but eventually he had to accept defeat with wind-powered operations. However, he did not give up inventing contraptions to facilitate the more mundane aspects of his work.

Although, after the demise of his windmills, he was forced to return to using good old-fashioned foot power to mix his clays; later he was able to buy a gas motor which he adapted to aid in grinding clay. He never used the motor for making glazes, his family declared. Besides the problems of modifying the motor for the task, he simply didn’t need to use it, as he per­sistently experimented and made an endless variety of grinding stones throughout his life. There was always one available to facilitate in his meth­ ods of making glazes. One such revision of his ideas developed into what was perhaps his most ingenious, yet simple, invention.