In the latter 1800s and early 1900s many young single men came to the Canadian West to make new lives for themselves and were now proving up homesteads in the prairie provinces. A lot of them endured isolated, frigid prairie winters and not only was the little sod shack usually a cold and bleak place, but the loneliness was almost unbearable. They were more than glad for any social occasions when they could visit with neighbours and check out the new arrivals.
Needless to say, few young women who set foot in a prairie town back in those days would stay single for long. Around the turn of the century the prairie provinces were a single girl’s dream—beauty and station meant little. (The ability to cook was a real asset, though.) One doctor paid their nanny a goodly incentive so that she would come along with the family when they moved from England, only to have her get married three days after they arrived in Winnipeg!
When a single girl did come along, such a new schoolteacher, the competition for her “I do” could be quite fierce! Here is the true story of one young homesteader, retold in my own words:
The “Box Social” was an ideal place to meet a young lady—and John Collins had a young lady in mind to meet. In fact his intention was to buy the box lunch the new school teacher had prepared, and thus get to spend the day with her.
For a Box Social each woman prepared a pretty box, into which she packed a lunch for two. These boxes were unmarked, so NO ONE was supposed to know who had prepared which box until it was opened. At the Social each box would be auctioned off to the highest bidder and the man who bought the box got to eat this lunch together with the one who made it.
A wise fellow did not leave this entirely to chance when “top secret” information could be bought for a small bribe. Little brothers and sisters usually liked candy; in exchange for a nickel’s worth from the local store they would tell all. Perhaps a friend of the young lady might give a fellow a tip as to how her box was decorated. Or someone from the home where she was boarding, in the case of school teachers. John whistled a tune as he slapped the horse’s reins and headed for town; he’d done his “homework.”
Alas for John! Tom S, another young bachelor in the area, was also preening himself for the Box Social, confident that HE was going to buy this young lady’s box and spend the day enjoying the pleasure of her company. He’d also done his homework well. (One little ‘snitch’ got lots of candy that week!)
The crowd gathered and the bidding started out innocently enough, with boxes fetching an average of five dollars each. Then a certain box came up and John and Tom began bidding quite earnestly for it.
John, an Irishman as spirited as is common to that species, soon realized that Tom was as determined as to have that box as he was so he threw all caution to the winds and bid higher. He had locked horns a few other times with Tom and was not going to be bested by him now!
His rival was equally stubborn. Folks gasped when the price reached twenty dollars…then thirty…then forty! The crowd looked on in amused silence.
John heard himself shouting “Ninety dollars!” and the sound of that astronomical number jerked him back to harsh reality. No way did he have ninety dollars! In fact, that was more than double his annual disability pension from the army. It was far more than he could possibly scratch from the near-desert soil of his south Sask. homestead.
For a moment he held his breath in horrified silence. When he heard his adversary roar, “Ninety-one!” John dared to breathe again. Swallowing his pride and putting on a most convincing look of dejected despair, he admitted defeat—wiser but not poorer. Tom, beaming with the pride of success, stepped forth to claim the prize.
He eagerly unwrapped the box—and found that he’d been misinformed; this box had been prepared by one of the married women in the community. He got to eat his lunch with her and her husband that day as folks around exchanged arched smiles and smirks. (The Humble Pie was pretty hard to get down.)