“We believe in leaving the land better than how we found it.”
Note from the Damkars
This is the brief history of the Damkars as told by Ernie Damkar but it is also the story of his brother Norman, his wife Iris and Ernie and Norman’s father. As time goes by, some events blur while others seem like they happened only yesterday. Please forgive any inaccuracies or generalizations; this was our best attempt to document the path that brought us to where we are today.
Started with a desire to farm
Abel Damkar, who was the father to Ernie, Norman and three other children, was a butcher who emigrated from Denmark who always wanted to be a farmer, which was not an easy thing to do then or now. He always said if he could get his first $1,000 he would buy land and start a farm.
In the meantime he bought a house in Calgary in the 1930s, which he paid for three times but never owned. That is just how things were. At one point he walked away from the house but then bought it back down the road. He eventually did get his first thousand dollars and bought a little farm in the Ogden area where he raised pigs for three or four years.
He saw an opportunity for partnership with another individual with a similar last name, Damgard. Together they bought a farm and started the Huntington Hills and Beddington Dairy. Abel, then bought out his partner and ran the farm on his own for just over a year before the prairie fire of 1944 hit.
Life Changing Fire
The devastating fire started in Silver Springs area when a farmer lit a stack of hay and it lost control spreading all the way to their farm. At the time Ernie was in grade seven (Balmoral School) and Norman was in grade one … the boys were at school when the fire struck.
The boys recall the fire as a terrifying event. Ernie described how his father drove their truck through the fire with a hired man in the back. This was a tremendous risk but one that may have in fact saved their lives. His father then went back to the house to get some important documents but the smoke was so thick he could not see and needed to turn back. In desperation he called out “I’m here, I’m here” and the hired man came to his voice following the tracks in the ground to get to him.
The fire changed the trajectory of their family’s life. They lost everything. They were without a home or even a second pair of pants. The family lived wherever they could find a bed with many living at the church or at the Pastor’s house. While they lost everything that day they all lived to tell the tale and can now say that it was this fire that brought them to where the are today.
As can often be the case with such tragic events, a fond memory stands out. Ernie and Norman recall the day that the family drove their cattle herd, which was also without a home, through the streets of Calgary to the Stampede grounds for temporary residence. The cattle drive was escorted by the police and was quite a sight.
Opportunity knocks again
Another opportunity presented itself, where a farmer by the name of Cecil Christianson approached their father with a farmyard they could have in the East Balzac area. This generous offer helped the family through a difficult time, as did the kindness of many people in the area who helped out. While it was difficult for the family to take what might have been considered handouts, the cows and children needed to be fed and that is what neighbors do in time of need. Having said that it was important for the family to get back on their feet and fend for themselves. These were not easy times for anyone. Most people had very little and were literally living hand to mouth.
Home at last
Father continued to look for a place they could buy. He really wanted a place where they could find a home and settle down. The land they own today was for sale by W.S. Henderson who owned Union Tractor in Calgary and a number of Caterpillar dealerships across western Canada. While there was interest from other buyers, Mr. Henderson said if Damkar wanted to buy it he had the first chance. They bought everything, cows and all. In essence his prayers were answered, they had found a home.
Having said that it was a wreck, in fact it was considered by some to be the poorest farm in the area. It took a lot of hard work to get to where it is today… considered to be one of the best in the area.
Another close call
In this process another life changing event was thrown at Ernie. The spring after they bought the farm their tractorwas wrecked and they had to use six heavy horses to farm the land. Ernie was 14 at the time and was in charge of the process. One day after working, Ernie was tying the horses up and feeding them when one of the horses kicked him. He can vividly remember that day and how he called “dad help, dad help.” His sister heard him hollering and came running to his aid. His head had been split right open as a result of the incident. The injury was critical and he lost a lot of blood. A neighbour by the name of Lawrence Pederson had a car and was called to take Ernie to the General Hospital only to find he would save his life in two ways. When they arrived there was no blood to match Ernie’s type so Lawrence donated his own blood to hold Ernie over until more blood arrived. Ernie remembers that three doctors worked on him for eight hours to remove pieces of skull that had been lodged in his brain. Simply put, Ernie could have died that day but he jokingly said “God wasn’t done with me yet.”
Education serves as foundation for growth
Ernie returned to school, now in grade eight and despite the valiant efforts of his teacher who he will never forget he could not focus his eyes to read more than a half a page. There had not been enough time for his wounds to heal. At this point he left grade school and stayed at home to help his dad for five years on the farm. Despite leaving school at such an early age, Ernie had a desire to learn more. It was his goal to attend Olds School of Agriculture. Unfortunately, his father did not initially support this dream, therefore Ernie took $300 out of his bank account, all that he had, to finance his first semester. By December he was out of money but by now his father saw that Ernie was serious and helped him out. While he struggled at first, in his own words at Christmas he “failed everything under the sun,” he persevered and he got it done. By the next year his learning had returned to normal and he graduated in 1951. His brother Norman followed suite and graduated in 1958. Together this education would serve them well in modernizing their operations and making their farm the ultimate success it was.
Further education also served as a foundation for other areas of his life when Ernie decided to attend bible school for two months and met his wife Iris who originally hailed from Camrose. They courted and were married in 1961.
Progress, Modernization and Transition
In the spring of 1958, their barn caught on fire and burned right to the ground. They farmed their cows out to the neighbors and built the barn that is on the property today. At this point the family was raising jersey cows but in the early 1960s they gradually switched the herd to Holsteins.
The late 50s and 60s were difficult times. Trying to support three families off the farm was not possible. Iris kept her accounting job in Calgary for ten years as an important source of income for the family. In this time, the family moved from milk can to bulk operations and in 1958 bought land on Burma Road so the could have forage and roughage to farm. They couldn’t grow enough hay to feed the cows so they dug a silage pit in the 1960s. According to the brothers this move to silage “made” their farm. The silage pit and a move to line irrigation for feed increased their cattle production substantially.
It was at this time that the boys, having recently graduated from Olds College and now that Ernie and married Iris, that they looked to modernizing and growing the operations and also transitioning to the next generation. As can be the case with many family run farms this wasn’t an easy process. The boys had big ideas, and their father who owned the land did not agree with many of them. Respectfully, their father held onto a lot of old ways of thinking and did not view farming as a business rather as a way of life. After about ten difficult years, the three brothers convinced their father to sell them the land in equal portions later to be operated by two brothers Ernie and Norman. Their brother Bent turned his devotion to the church and became a Pastor in a Lutheran Church in Edmonton.
Belief in Change, Sustainability and Community
With the operation now under the control of the Damkar brothers, the farm was en route to become a successful operation. The brothers believed in progress, saw opportunities as they arose and followed suit. In 1974 they put in their first silo with a second in 1974. Around this time environmental practices became more stringent and a slurry tank was built to hold manure. These were expensive requirements but the Damkars have always believed in the preservation of the land maintaining that you need to leave the land in better condition than how you found it. When the 70s hit, rainwater was scarce and drought created more challenges for farmers. This was a pivotal and scary time. Large investments were made in irrigation systems. These investments didn’t increase their revenues but in fact they likely saved them from losing the farm. In the 1980s the brothers moved from grade cattle to purebreds. Norman had taken education in artificial insemination, which was certainly ahead of its time, allowing them to grow their production to the highest in the province.
Time to slow down
In 1999 it was time to slow down and enjoy life in a different way, in fact in that year Norman was married. The Damkar boys stopped the dairy operation, which marked the beginning of their transition to retirement. With this transition, the Damkars turned to the dream they have always had to leave a parcel of their land to build a church and a senior’s facility on part of their land.