Reminiscing with Seniors

by Linda C Butler

We had dinner tonight with my mom in the seniors’ complex and sat with the other ladies at her table.

I asked what they remembered about the horse and buggy days.  Mom remembered when her folks got a model T Ford.  Women in those times did not drive but Aunt Lizzie, who was a bit older than mom, wanted to try.  She watched how it was done, and when nobody was around she started the car and attempted to drive around the farmyard.  Her driving was short-lived as she didn’t know how to steer and hit a cow.  Fortunately the cow recovered. After that incident she was forbidden to drive again and only Grandpa drove.

Iris, who is 100 and of English descent, said that during the war her husband wanted to be a fighter pilot, but instead was sent to Canada as a flying instructor.  He taught in Saskatchewan where it is flat with no trees, an ideal place to train pilots, as there were no obstacles for beginning pilots to fly into.  Iris followed her husband to Canada a few years later.  After the war they returned to England and then later emigrated to Canada.

She told this story before there was electricity: She had just moved into her home and needed ice. Ice was delivered by an iceman who drove a horse-drawn wagon. She asked her neighbor to send the iceman to her place when he next came and a day or two later the man arrived and carried the ice into her house and put it into her icebox for her.  After she paid him, she said:  Knock me up next time you come.  She said that was a common English expression, meaning knock on my door.  The iceman looked at her strangely and left without saying anything.  Her husband told her that night that Canadians have a different meaning for the phrase.

May, originally from Scotland, told us one time she sent a get well card to a lady in the hospital and wrote on it: Keep Your Pecker Up, which in Scotland means Keep your spirits up.  She was embarrassed when she learned the Canadian meaning of the phrase, but everyone who saw the card got a chuckle.

They talked about Christmas cakes and puddings and May said that after the traditional fruit cake had aged, it was covered in jam and then a layer of marzipan (almond paste) added, followed by royal icing, a thick white icing.  After that it was decorated with small china ornaments.  Iris said that their family omitted the royal icing and put the china figurines directly on the marzipan.

It was traditional to add small objects to the cake or Christmas pudding. A button in the cake meant that you would be a bachelor, a silver thimble meant thrift and a threepence coin would bring wealth. Stores sold packages of trinkets for this purpose and other objects were a tiny wishbone for luck and an anchor for safe travels.

Iris said that the English called cookies biscuits.  She said that her Canadian grandchildren would correct her when she offered them a biscuit. Iris talked about currant cakes which were often served with afternoon tea. They were rich in butter and eggs, but there was never icing.

May told us about preparing sauces for meat.  Usually both a hot and a cold sauce were served with every meat. Mint sauce was served with lamb, but if mint was not available an onion sauce was used.

It was interesting discussing food preparation from so many years ago and we had an enjoyable dinner.

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The Potato Crop

The Potato Crop
by Linda C Butler

spudsWe have flower beds made with landscape ties by a fence and in front of our house. Potatoes sometimes sprout from the compost in these beds and we have left them to grow, digging the occasional hill in the fall.

I am bothered by cats using these flower beds as a community litter box, so this year I almost decided to cover the flower beds with black landscape cloth and artificial flowers, but then I remembered potatoes. I removed some of the dirt from the beds so the soil is now below the box edges, then dug the ground and mixed dried leaves and compost into the soil. I will plant potatoes, then staple wire to the wood edges, allowing the potatoes to grow through the wire. Since the soil is below the wire, cats will not scratch in the dirt. I selected Norland, an early red variety with high yields for delicious summer potato salads.

Potatoes grow faster if they are sprouted before planting, so I laid them on a tray in a warm place and the sprouts are now about half an inch long. Small potatoes can be planted whole, but larger potatoes should be cut in half or in quarters, with at least one eye in each piece. After cutting, the potatoes can sit for a day to dry the edges of the cut surface. They are planted 6 inches deep.

After the plants have grown, they are hilled to protect the growing tubers from greening and to encourage additional growth at the top of the vine. I will add dirt to the flower bed at that time, and probably cover it with landscape cloth as I cannot hill potatoes in the traditional way. Under good growing conditions, Norland potatoes will mature in 90 days. When the tops have died down, they can be cut away. The mature potatoes can be harvested then, or left in the ground for a couple weeks to allow the skins to properly set for storage.

I grew Norland potatoes last summer in Northern Manitoba. I was given a bag of sprouted seed potatoes and a neighbor rototilled a patch of ground. I planted the potatoes at the beginning of July but they took a long time to sprout as the soil was still cold. This year, I will plant them in raised beds as the soil in beds warms faster than bare ground. Our neighbors harvested a successful crop in September.

My Dad, who trapped in the Thompson MB area in the 1930s, planted his potato patch on a portage. He was gone all summer, but travellers on the river took time to weed and to hill the potatoes for him. His wilderness potato crop was dependant on the generosity of passersby. Once the potatoes reached a certain size, visitors could help themselves to young potatoes for a meal.

I read an editorial in our local paper about climate change and its devastating effect on the world’s ability to produce food. The suggestion is that we should eat local food, locally produced, or grown at home.

One of the most basic foods is the potato. We rely primarily on 10 or 12 types of potatoes but there are some 5,000 potato varieties among the South American Andes mountain slopes where potatoes originated, many with future food potential. The potato yields more nutritious food more quickly on less land and in harsher climates than any other major food crop. It is interesting that my decision to plant potatoes is a good choice for a world facing more severe climate conditions.

Reference: Chilliwack Progress, page 12, 4 April 14 “A little food for thought on global climate change”, Margaret Evans.


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My Adventurous Shopping Trip

This is a story told by Georgette Major who had the sawmill with her husband Stan at Wekusko Falls and supplied much of the lumber that was used in the construction of buildings at Snow Lake, including Vance’s Store, that my parents owned.

By Linda C Butler
Told by Georgette Major

In the 1950s I was a private school teacher for Claire Tribble, the daughter of Wilda and Brock Tribble, who lived at Herb Lake. One time two of my girlfriends from Winnipeg came to visit and when it was time for them to leave, I decided to accompany them on the short flight to Flin Flon to shop for a couple hours until the plane was ready to return to Herb Lake.

The weather was fair when we left Herb Lake but it turned stormy before we reached Flin Flon and the pilot was forced to land on a small lake. There was no dock, but the pilot steered the plane into a little bay and we stopped near the shoreline, where he tied the plane to a tree. We were able to go ashore, but we spent the night in our seats in the plane bouncing in the water. The pilot handed out emergency rations of hardtack for us to eat and we were comfortable.

In the morning the weather cleared and we resumed our flight to Flin Flon and arrived safely. I said my goodbyes to my friends and they departed on their flight to Winnipeg.

The pilot was worried about the weather and he was anxious to fly before the storm developed again as the weather was unsettled. He told me that there was no time to shop and we would depart as soon as the plane was loaded. He had supplies for Herb Lake and for a mining camp at Squall Lake, and once he was ready to fly, we departed. We went to Squall Lake first and by the time we arrived at the camp the weather was closing in. We unloaded the camp cargo and waited in the cookshack for the weather to clear so we could resume our trip. There never was a break and after supper the men brought out the cribbage board and we played cards. I was the only woman and the fellows pitched a tent for me to sleep in.

We expected to fly in the morning but conditions remained stormy for the next couple days. Finally the storm cleared and we flew back to Herb Lake.

It was a relief to finally get home. I had had a five-day adventurous shopping trip and never made a purchase.

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The Coldest Time of My Life

The Coldest Time of My Life
By Linda C Butler
Told by Charlie Vance (1909-1989)

In 1927 I worked for Ross Navigation hauling freight in Northern Manitoba with horses. We arrived on New Year’s Eve at Joe McDougall’s cabin on Elbow Lake. Joe was a watchman for a mining company and there was only a small log cabin with no room for us fellows to sleep inside. Also, there was no barn or stable for the horses, and we cut trees to clear a stall in the bush for each horse. We then put a pole between the trees in each stall for a manger for feed.

The horses had been sweating and we rubbed them down with dry gunny sacks. We had to dry the horses, otherwise the horse blankets would become wet when we put them for the night. We fed them all the hay they could eat, but were careful not to overfeed the oats.

We made a bonfire and sat around for warmth and to prepare supper. McDougall joined us and showed us his thermometer which read 65 below F. After supper, I spread out 4 or 5 bales of hay and put my down-filled bedroll on top of the hay and crawled inside. Just before I went to sleep I pulled the bedroll away from my face and saw the Northern lights dancing overhead.

About five in the morning someone hollered for us to wake up and water and feed the horses. As we got ourselves out of bed the foreman came along and said: “I want you fellows to button up well today as it will probably be the coldest day of your lives.”

“How cold is it?” we asked.

“It is 57 below and you will be facing the wind. If you get cold, signal the fellow behind to change places with you. I don’t want anybody to get frostbite, so keep rotating. You may never see a day as cold.”

I was on the front end as I was with a four-up (2 teams) which pushed the snow plow. There were about five teams of horses on the front end as the horses were alternated, as they tired easily when pushing a plow.

The oats for the horses were bagged in gunny sacks so we had lots of extra sacks and we put them over the horses’ heads with slits cut for their eyes. The fellow on the snow plow also wore a gunny sack on his head with a peep hole to see out.

As we travelled we tried to keep the teams and the sleighs bunched together to break the wind. On New Year’s Day, 1928 we crossed the ice on Elbow Lake in the bitter cold facing the wind. Finally we reached the shore on the other side.

We had a 20 foot square tent with us, which we seldom used, but that night we pitched it, and everyone was there to help. The tent had steamed up the first times we used it and it was heavy, as we have never been able to dry it properly.  It was hard to lift in the air with the poles that went underneath.

We set up a stove with a stovepipe leading outside. The air inside the tent warmed up beside the stove, but it was cold by the outer canvas walls. Everyone opened and spread out their bedding so there was room to sleep. That night, even in a tent, I shivered and could not get warm. When I slept by myself in the open, I rolled in my bedroll and stayed warm, but the tent was uncomfortable with so many men crowded together.

Morning finally came, and someone called: “Time to get up and tend the horses.”

I was glad to prepare to leave this cold place. It was indeed the coldest time I ever remember in my life.


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Steve Vance’s Curling Joke

Uncle Steve told this story:

I had a dream once about heaven.  I love curling, so naturally I wanted to find out if the game is popular in heaven or not so I phoned St. Peter and asked: “St. Peter, I’ve got to know:  Is there a curling rink once a fella gets past the Pearly Gates?”

St. Peter replied:  “Stevie, I’ve got good news and bad news.  The good news is that, yes, we’ve got a club here, located up yonder, over the rainbow.  Twenty-four sheets, perfect ice, fully-stocked bar. The works.”

“And the bad news?”

“Well, Stevie, you’re on the 9:30 pm draw tomorrow night.”

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Old Blue

Our family had a store in Snow Lake from approx 1950 to 1965.  Georgette and Stan Major were family friends who lived near Wekusko Falls and they supplied the lumber to build our store in Snow Lake.

By Linda C Butler
Told by Georgette Major

In the late 1940s, Snow Lake was under construction and there was a demand for lumber from our sawmill at Tramping Lake for the building boom.

Stan cut trees in the winter months and then used Old Blue, our horse, to manoeuvre the logs through the bush to the lakeshore, where they were piled until spring, and then floated to the mill in a log boom.

In the summer months we cut the logs into lumber, but there was no work for Old Blue, and he roamed the area feeding on the wild grasses.  Usually he did not stray far from the Wekusko Falls area, where we lived, but one day he followed to road to Snow Lake, a distance of ten miles.

Old Blue arrived in Snow Lake early in the morning and trotted to the lakeshore for a drink.  There were already some homes in the townsite and he was attracted to the new growth and bright flowers of the newly planted gardens, which he sampled. The new residents of Snow Lake had hauled soil from the surrounding area to build their small gardens and they were not pleased to have a horse tramping through their yards and tasting their vegetables and flowers.

Snow Lake is a mining town and there were no nearby farms and very few horses in the area and Old Blue was recognized as belonging to the sawmill. We had no telephone, but an urgent message reached us that our horse was wandering through the town and we must come and retrieve him.  Old Blue was the first horse to visit Snow Lake and he was not welcome.

(published simultaneously on the blog

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Harry’s Hotel Etiquette

Hotel Fort Macleod

1. Guests will be provided with breakfast and supper, but must rustle their own dinner.

2. Boots and spurs must be removed at night before retiring.

3. Dogs are not allowed in the bunks, but may sleep underneath.

4. Candles, hot water, and other luxuries charged extra, also soap.

5. Two or more persons must sleep in one bed when so requested by the proprietor.

6. Baths furnished free down at the river, but bathers must furnish their own soap and towels.

7. Jewelry or other valuables will not be locked in the safe. This hotel has no such ornament as a safe.

8. The proprietor will not be responsible for anything. In case of fire, guests are requested to escape without unnecessary delay.

9. Guests without baggage may sleep in the vacant lot.

10. Meals served in bedrooms will not be guaranteed in any way. Our waiters are hungry and not above temptation.

11. All guests are requested to rise at 6 A.M. This is imperative as sheets may needed for tablecloths.

12. No tips to be given to any waiters or servants. Leave them with the proprietor and he will distribute them if considered necessary.

13. The following tariff subject to change:
Board, $25 a month
Board and Lodging with wooden bench to sleep on, $50 a month
Board and Lodging with bed, $60 a month.

14. When guests find themselves or their baggage thrown over the fence, they may consider that they have received notice to quit.

HARRY TAYLOR, Proprietor
September 1, 1882

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Family Secrets – A Change of Name

There are many occurrences where it is hard to trace family from past generations and one of the reasons was that it was so easy to change names.  Poof! And you are now someone else.

I have been looking at old documents from my husband’s mother who died 19 years ago. She was born in England and her given name was “Lilian” on her birth certificate.  The occupation of the father is listed as “plumber and glasier”. (A glazier is a glass-cutter; glasier being a variation of the spelling.)  He was in trade and Lilian’s mother was from a well-to-do family who did not approve of the match.

The family came to Canada when Lilian was a small child and changed their surname to “Johnson” a common name.  The story Lilian told about her parents is that they didn’t want anyone from the old country to trace them in Canada as they wanted a new life without the stigma of being in trade.  If they had become wealthy in Canada, then they would have contacted their relatives, but that never happened.

When Garfield, my husband, was born, his birth certificate shows his mother’s maiden name as “Lillian Johnston”.  There is now a double L in her first name and a T in Johnston.

Years later, when Lillian needed her birth certificate for her old-age pension, she told us about the family deception, and fortunately she knew the original family name.

People sometimes changed their names to avoid debts when they moved to Canada and sometimes they changed spelling to make names simpler.  For many people, it was a fresh start when they came to this country and a new beginning called for a new name.  It is no wonder that people who study genealogy today encounter such difficulty tracing relatives.

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Clearing the Land

My Uncle Fred (Dad F) sold his farm back about 1958. This was the original home place, the farm he’d inherited from his father, Thomas Forsyth. The impression I gleaned over the years was that Dad’s health was bad after the war and he couldn’t keep up with the work, so first Mom left, then he came and joined us in the city.

He did, however, retain one quarter section —160 acres — a couple of miles south of the farm; this was rented to neighbours as pasture. After Bob and I were married, I longed to make a “sentimental journey” back to Pathlow and Dad mentioned this land he still owned. So we made a stop there just for anyhow.

We parked our car by the side of the road, got out and looked around. Tall grass grew in a small clearing — this would be where the renter pastured his cattle — but most of the quarter was covered with native poplar. A spindly tree every meter, or thereabouts.

We’d driven up on gravel roads, past miles of fertile fields, but my mind went back to the original settlers, who maybe got off the train at Melfort, seventeen miles NE. For those who came later a road of sorts had been made but the first homesteaders would have wandered through the trees or followed creek banks until they came to the part that matched the land description in their hands.

And there they stood. Maybe wearing a backpack, with an axe hanging from their belt. Thinking, “Okay, start chopping. Clear this land and build a farm.”

Back around 1908 Thomas Forsyth, born in Glasgow, Scotland, a coal miner heretofore, carved his farm out of bush just like this; he called it Hillside Farm because the house and buildings were perched on a rolling upward slope. The Vances would have faced a similar situation when they arrived at Spy Hill, SK. A few farms had been wrested from the bush, but most of the land was forest, except where creeks meandered through it.

Thankfully clearing the land wasn’t the daunting prospect our forefathers faced when they landed in Oxford County. Our grandfather Allen didn’t face chopping down maple trees a meter thick – or even two – like his father Sam had to fell when he moved up to the Listowell area. Old timers in Ontario talked of a time when you could travel the trail from Kitchener to Sarnia without ever seeing the sun because there was such a dense canopy of spreading maple branches overhead. Can you imagine launching into those woods with an axe?

I’ve read that the Scottish settlers who came to Nova Scotia on The Hector were taken out into the old-growth maple forest and told, “Here’s your land, you just have to clear it and build yourselves homes.”

They’d never seen the likes back home in Scotland, where trees were thin, scrubby things. They were afraid of those monster trees and gloomy forests. A lot of the would-be farmers made their way to the towns and became servants and laborers.

Today we see fields of waving grain — because those who came first were willing to start swinging their axe.

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Women and Work on a Prairie Homestead

In the mid 1800s in the large Eastern American cities, some young women were pushing for the right to higher education – and meeting stiff opposition.  Some educators claimed that a basic Grade 8 education was all girls could handle. If they tried to study college-level subjects it would overwhelm their fragile minds; being forced to learn Mathematics may even drive them mad.  Some educated folks predicted that physical exercise and sports would do permanent damage to a young woman’s internal organs &/or bones.

Meanwhile, out on the prairie homestead…

Teen girls were stooking sheaves, chopping firewood, scrubbing clothes on a washboard and wringing them out by hand…even helping to build the soddies. Life on a homestead meant hard work, no fancy theories allowed.

Old timer Art Bonneau, who grew up near Gravelbourg, SK, told us about the time his father and brothers had gone off to town; his mother was home with him, his ten-day-old baby sister and his invalid grandfather. His mother looked out and saw smoke far off.  A prairie fire – and the wind was blowing their way!

What was she to do?  Even though she was still feeling the effects of childbirth, she gave Art strict orders to stay in the house with Grandpa and the baby and she rushed out to hitch up oxen to the plow.  Then she plowed a number of furrows between them and the smoke to act as a fireguard.  The menfolk, who had seen the smoke and headed for home to fight the fire, were relieved to see that she had a good patch of sod turned over when they got there.

I read another account from a woman in eastern Saskatchewan.  Her husband had broken his back early in spring and was bed-fast for a whole year.  So she did what needed to be done: in addition to taking over all the farm chores she hitched up the oxen to the plow and seeded all their crop land by herself.  She was in her eighties and still spry when she told this story, but they had immigrated from Eastern Europe, where peasant women had never heard that strenuous physically activity could ruin them for life.

These are two of the many extraordinary incidents I’ve heard of, but most prairie farm wives didn’t get the chance to be delicate creatures with servants to do all the tough stuff.  Even if they’d been society ladies back in England, they had to roll up their sleeves and get with it if they and their families were going to survive.

They often acted as doctors and midwives as needed; some women home-schooled their children.  As for math skills, a lot of wives kept the farm accounts. By thrift, careful purchasing and plain hard work they kept the wolf from the door.

We owe our great-grandmothers a lot!

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