by Julia Petrov, Curator, Western Canadian History

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in our occasional blog series called Dirt, which is loosely themed around “dirt” and how that relates (or perhaps doesn’t relate!) to many curatorial programs at the museum. To read the first three Dirt blog posts, click on the links at the bottom of this post.

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

I recently came across this piece while working with our collection of models. It has such an extraordinary story, I wanted to share it.

This road scraper model was made by Thomas Gilman Ellis, who was born in Antrim, Michigan, in 1856, and donated by his son, Lloyd Ellis, a welder and repairman from Breton, Alberta.

Lloyd Ellis wrote a history of the object, which was so well-written, it’s worth quoting almost in its entirety (all grammatical errors are in the original):

Road building used to be done by horse power. On long hauls a scraper on two wheels and pulled by two horses was used. However building a road across waterfilled troughs presented a problem in that after the load was dumped, the horses, scraper and driver had to go into the water to turn around.

The late Thomas Gilman Ellis living at Nottingham Saskatchewan conceived an idea which would overcome this problem. In the year 1923 he made a model of a wheeled scraper that could be pushed ahead of the horses to dump the dirt off the end of the fill and only the scraper would have to go in the water. He spent the entire winter months building this model only to find that he had to be able to produce these machines or a patent would not be granted and this he was financially unable to do.

This was a perfect working model until it was neglected and due to a leaky roof in the old log house* it became rusty.

On reaching the end of the fill, the doubletree and horses were detached from the hook at the front of the scraper, and brought around to the rear with one horse on each side of the beam facing forward, the doubletree was attached to the hook at the rear end of the beam. After the load was dumped, the horses were turned around and the rear part of the hook was used to pull the scraper back up on the fill.

*If you are a member of the Ancestry website, you can see a photo of Mr. Ellis Senior with his wife outside the same log cabin described here.

As you can see from the photo, the model is entirely handmade. It’s remarkable to think that Mr. Ellis Senior was able to mould and cast each individual metal component himself. While today, we have motorised heavy-duty machinery to perform the work of moving dirt for road-building, such an ingenious modification might have greatly sped up the development of the West. It seems sad that such a clever invention was left to rust in neglect due to a lack of funds for its development. The Royal Alberta Museum collections contain other local inventions, some of which I may be able to share with you soon.

Dirt Post #1: Collecting dust

Dirt Post #2: Museum’s famed “finger rock” gets a spit polish!

Dirt Post #3: Clean: Christmas craft edition