Former farm worker keeps university’s ag history alive

EDMONTON — The big cream-coloured hip roofed barn on the University of Alberta’s south campus has housed pigs, dairy cattle, elk, rabbit, moose and yak.

Now it holds the history of agriculture.

Along the walls are pictures of winning show cattle and horses, an old X-ray machine for sheep research, horse harness, grain sorters, tack boxes, cream separators, cattle show blankets and rows of identified and some unidentified artifacts.

It’s not a definitive history of agriculture or the agricultural research that has taken place at the U of A, but it’s a start and it continues to grow under Jack Francis’ care.

Tired of seeing old equipment tossed on the scrap heap or sent to surplus, Francis asked the university’s dean of agriculture if he could begin gathering the old equipment for a museum.

The dean agreed and 15 years ago the retired university farm worker began collecting the history of agriculture.

Francis worked at the university for 43 years as an animal technician, looking after the animals and working with students and professors, until he retired in 1992.

For three days a week, Francis, 87, walks, bikes or drives from his nearby house to the museum to organize the more than 400 artifacts, sweep the floor, rebuild and polish the equipment and give tours to schoolchildren, seniors and university students.

“It’s history. I don’t know where you go to find a collection in this good of condition,” said Francis.

“It gives the new generation a chance to understand what the older generation went through.… Great experiments went on here.”

Part of the collection is a cutting block from the meat lab where university scientist Roy Berg and others dissected beef carcasses to prove the value of cross breeding cattle.

In another room is a 1916 buggy Francis restored after it was dropped off in three pieces.

“It’s a lovely buggy, but it had been in a runaway and was demolished, but it is looking good now,” he said.

“A lot of pieces were picked up and loaded to go to the salvage yard.”

Francis said the equipment all works, pointing to plot seeding machinery.

There are some rare finds in the museum, including a special measuring tool designed to predict dwarfism in cattle.

“It was correct 100 percent of the time on horned Hereford cattle at one and a half years,” he said. “You won’t find too many of those around.”

Francis hopes his collection will one day become part of the university’s museum and archive collection.


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