I grew up with Saskatchewan


I grew up with Saskatchewan


"Is—IS this it?” asked my mother as father yelled “Whoa, there!” to Sandy and Pat, the oxen he had bought at Fort Qu’Appelle.

I’m sure mother tried to make her voice sound eager; she was a gallant woman. But there she perched, a trim, slim figure in her modish London costume, high on top of the wagonload of the family’s possessions, our settlers’ effects. With her perched her two babies, dressed in capes and bonnets of the very material the Antarctic explorer, Nansen, had recently selected for his trip to the South Pole. Worshipping father as she did, she had to sound eager as he proudly held the oxen he had led all the thirty miles from the Qu’Appelle valley to the virgin parkland that eventually became Headlands P.O.

“It” was something that existed only in father’s mind—until he pointed to the four tiny mounds of newly dug earth beside the surveyor’s mark, the mounds that indicated that here was the northeast corner of the quarter-section he hoped to farm. “It” was endless miles of prairie, dotted with poplar bluffs and sloughs. “It” was a vast inverted bowl of blue sky dotted with soft white clouds. Not a building was in sight. Not a sign of habitation. No shelter to which one could go and imagine that this was home. Nothing but our fragment of sky and water and scrub trees and virgin grass.

I was scarcely three when we arrived and can’t remember anything of the first years, not the tent with its tiny stove, nor the log house with a sod roof soon covered with flowers and weeds and grass to which we moved on mother’s birthday, September 21, 1905. I can’t even remember the arrival of the first Canadian-born babies, my younger sisters Sylvia and Dorothy. Yet so vivid were mother’s descriptions that even now I have only to close my eyes to see those wide prairie skies. I can smell the pungent smells of Balm of Gilead and wolf willow and the sharp tang of grass smoke prairie fires! I can hear the song of a lark, feel winter’s cold.

For I grew up with Saskatchewan. I was an infant when Saskatchewan was an infant, an adolescent when Saskatchewan was an adolescent. I shared its salad days along with some of its grimmest hours, watched prairie ruts changed to paved highways, and the loneliness that broke many a woman’s spirit—and some men’s, too —disappear.

Saskatchewan became a province the year we arrived in Canada from England. Growing up on father’s farm with its deep furrows cut into virgin soil, and at Swift Current where we lived when I went to high school, I became part of it. I became part of the beauty and hardness, part of the hope and frustration, part, too, of the song of lonesomeness which Wilson MacDonald wrote into his couplet:

And when I lie at the skyline's rim,

Where I and this life must part,

You'll find the sagebrush in my hair,

And the cactus through my heart.

Was there, perhaps, some link with the sagebrush and the gorse on a Yorkshire moor beloved of my father’s people? Could it be due to grandmother’s legend about the gypsies who camped long ago near her husband’s ancestral land? Or was it the prairies themselves and I—a love affair, surely; an affair not to be defined in words but felt deeply in the very fibre of your being and to music of the spaces, like a Tchaikovsky piano concerto?

It was madness, the relatives in England said, for a man to bring a civilized woman and two babies to the wilds of western Canada where the Indians had fought white settlers for possession of their aboriginal lands only twenty years before, where the only link with civilization was the still very new CPR. No schools, no churches, no doctors within miles. Nothing that you could see except millions of acres of virgin soil. None of the deep-cut, time-worn marks of generations of people who had built homes, tilled fields, piled up records of their past and lighted beacons for the future. Indeed, the sole tie between all the newcomers in the new province was a common future.

For the English and Scottish settlers; the folk from old Ontario and the States; our Hungarian neighbors, the Gonzias, or the Jewish Jonas family who had a grand piano in their crowded log shack; for all the emigrants then caricatured as “Clifford Sifton’s man in the sheepskin coat with the big broad wife”; for all of us it was a future without a past to guide it. There were no known roots reaching down deep—deep like prairie grass—no past records to turn to for reassurance in time of trouble. Neighbors lived five, or ten, or twenty miles away. The nearest supply of firewood, other than the green poplar from which many of the houses were built, was a day-long trip to the Touchwood Hills.

We knew nothing in those early pioneering years of the fur trade and exploration that had lured white men, a hundred and fifty years earlier, across this continent by the Saskatchewan River. Our reading was the occasional bundle of outdated issues of the Winnipeg Free Press, the also outdated overseas edition of the London Times, and the books each family had brought from home—in our case Kingsley and Lewis Carroll and Kipling and the gay works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Only later did we learn of the spirited fight recently lost by the chairman of the executive council of the then North West Territories, F. W. G. Haultain, to Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Haultain wanted one vast 550,000-square-mile province instead of the present provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

As a girl I had a seat in the bleachers if not at the ringside, in some of Saskatchewan’s big events, and no event meant more to the newcomers than the development of the earliest municipalities. John George was the first reeve, and father the first secretary of the rural municipality of Kelross, founded in 1906. Ours was similar to other municipalities radiating from Regina and all the other new towns such as Saskatoon and Battleford, Moose Jaw and Swift Current.

And none of the first efforts of those little local governments was more important than the first roads, as we well knew. We lived on the deep-rutted Touchwood Trail and father hauled many an early settler out of its mud. Tradition had it that those ruts were tramped out by columns of troops marching north during the Riel Rebellion. Actually they were cut by Red River cart wheels hauling furs from Prince Albert to the Hudson’s Bay Company post deep in the Qu’Appelle valley.

During the first few years of Kelross the metal road scrapers were parked in a corner of our farmyard, and one day one of them led to a nasty accident to my sister Nora. That day was clear and cold, thirty below zero and utterly still. Mother suggested we play horse to keep our hands and faces and feet from freezing. I was driving, Nora was the horse. Suddenly rearing in play, she made for one of the scrapers standing in the shadow of the stable and covered with hoarfrost. She wanted a drink and like a prairie broncho licked the snow from the metal. At once her tongue froze fast. And I, aghast at what had happened, pulled her off with all my six-year-old strength, but left the skin of her tongue frozen to the metal. For weeks she couldn’t drink even tepid milk without agony.

That year father was exulting over the slightly improved roads, and over the first good crop he had to haul to Qu’Appelle. Plowing with the oxen he had harvested a small field of oats that rated eighty-two bushels to the acre and some thirty acres of wheat. For him pioneering would have been rosy, but for one factor: the nightmare of having to accept whatever price the elevator people offered—or haul his load back over the fifty miles to the railway. He had to start each trip long before daylight, harnessing the team by the light of a kerosene stable lamp. If he didn’t accept the price offered, the entire round trip was a waste of time and energy.

We children were too young to understand the extent to which Saskatchewan farmers were at the mercy of the grain-elevator people. But we soon realized that something angered father almost every time he went to town. Sometimes, when he hadn’t sold his load of grain and had brought it home again, mother was short of groceries and there were no presents for us. As early as 1906 he was telling mother about plans among the grain growers to market their own crops and of their frustration when they discovered that unless they dealt through the elevator companies, they couldn’t get a single railway car.

It was about that time that we began to hear of big Bill Motherwell. W. R. Motherwell was a strong-jawed, black-bearded man with a very nice smile, popular with children as well as with their pioneer parents. Indeed we came to think of him as the most important man in all the world, largely because father was always so much happier after a visit to the Motherwell farm near Abernethy at the edge of the Qu’Appelle valley.

Years later I realized why those visits meant even more than the happiest of social gatherings. For it was in W. R. Motherwell’s living room that the Wheat Pool had its birth. Motherwell’s leadership and his firm, persistent action not only brought the plight of western grain growers out where the government at Ottawa could no longer ignore it, but it showed settlers the value of the co-operatives that have become a part of the province’s way of life. Father was proud of being one of the voters who sent Motherwell to Ottawa, where he became Minister of Agriculture.

Father bought his first team of horses a couple of years after filing on his quarter-section, though he kept the oxen for a couple of years longer for plowing; and much as the horses speeded farm work, they meant even more to mother: the heavy Percherons became her first driving pair.

Now she could occasionally visit the few white women neighbors five or ten or twenty miles away; I think she was secretly afraid of the Indian women who traveled up and down the Touchwood Trail with their swarthy men, because she always offered them tea when they pulled up at our door. But with white women she could exult over their delight in moving from a sod hut, such as many lived in at first, to a log shack, or from under a sod roof to shingles. The horses took her and her children to the nearest neighbor the day father wakened to discover our sod roof actually threatening our lives.

All fall he had worried about the roof, as heavy rains and then deep snow added to its weight of sod. Sometimes he used to look up at it as he postponed as long as possible the heroic business ; of getting out of a warm bed, putting on his icy-cold clothes, and lighting the fire; no matter how carefully he banked the stove with the green wood we had, in winter the house was always bitterly cold by morning. There were, he figured, some seven tons of logs and sod in that roof. And, inevitably, the weight was too much for the supporting log beams.

Providence Turns a Wind

Suddenly discovering that the weight had spread the walls and loosened the beams, he leaped out of bed. Never, he recalled later, did he light the stove as fast. Quickly he made up a plan about taking us all for a drive; had us, too, up and dressed. We’d scarcely eaten breakfast before he had the horses harnessed and only when we were on our way did he tell mother about the danger that threatened. I think that would have been one of the happiest visits of her lifetime if she hadn’t worried about father. He had to move all those tons of frozen sod in sub-zero weather. He lived in a tent while he reroofed the house with shingles hauled fifty miles from Qu’Appelle.

I think I can actually remember that visit, but compared with it, something that happened the following summer is crystal clear. I was then about eight, and probably had heard mother cry out in sheer desperation before, but for the first time I consciously heard her agonized “Oh, God!” Father was away working in town to make a little cash because he hadn’t been able to get a profitable price for his last crop. She was alone with her four little girls when she smelled the acrid tang of prairie fire.

Now there’s a world of difference between the smell of burning grass when you’re cleaning up the garden in the fall and the smell of burning grass when a wind-driven prairie fire threatens a woman alone with her small children. Father had plowed a double fireguard around the house and farm buildings and hay stacks, and he had told mother how to set fire to the grass in between to make a wider fireguard. Every minute, it seemed, the smell of smoke increased. The air was thick with it.

We thought we could hear the crackling of flames, we children huddling on the steps of the house, silent with fear as she took a box of matches and quickly set fire to one patch of grass after another between the fireguards. The fire burned right to the plowed furrows; nothing short of Providence could prevent its spreading to the hay stacks. Providence changed the wind, turning the flames on a plowed field, and then of course we were perfectly safe. But I shall never hear a woman call on God without remembering that evening.

The loneliness of those early pioneering years lent excitement to a visit from Mr. and Mrs. D. B. Hanna. Mr. Hanna, then vice-president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, wrote father in 1910—and other secretaries of western municipalities, I suppose—to say that he would shortly tour the province seeking a suitable route for a new line; Mrs. Hanna would be with him, and they’d like to call if it would be convenient. As if anything could be more convenient than anything to do with a railway less than twenty miles away! Mother regretted that her London-made clothes were so worn and outmoded but she served a very good dinner of wild ducks and Saskatoon pie, and had a wonderful visit with Mrs. Hanna while father showed the eastern railway official over the farm.

The building of the Grand Trunk Pacific was a great Saskatchewan milestone in 1910. By that time we were no longer pioneers. Father had harvested three thousand bushels of oats during his sixth summer on the farm and nearly five thousand bushels of wheat. There was a gramophone in the living room and on many a winter’s evening our parents entertained the neighbors with recordings from the operas they had enjoyed in England, recordings that gave us children a wonderful combination of bedtime stories and lullabies. There had been box socials in the first schoolhouse, some eight miles away. We now took fairly frequent trips to neighbors, traveling cozily in the high-sided, hay-upholstered grain box on sleighs.

But for one factor we might have stayed right on the farm. The thing that pried father away from the land he loved was the misfortune of having six daughters—Freda and Gay had arrived to join Nora, Sylvia, Dorothy and me—instead of the six sons who might have helped a farmer with his chores. After many a heart-searching talk with mother, he decided that his daughters must live near schools. We moved to Swift Current where he resumed his profession of optometry. Swift Current was right in the heart of the triangle marked out by Captain Palliser, the English surveyor, fifty years before as a tract where no crops would ever grow.

There was sagebrush around Swift Current, as Palliser had noted, but sagebrush that was pleasantly pungent. And there were many cacti. Soon after our arrival in 1914 mother died of TB and father buried her in the new, still almost empty cemetery across the coulee from town where the cacti grew, some years so prolific-ally that no youngster dared go out barefoot. Surely there is nothing in nature more lovely than a cactus flower, one of the great yellow variety like the silk and velvet flowers Paris milliners used to make —or anything that pierces more cruelly than a cactus thorn.

At first I was bitter, as well as being grieved, by mother’s death. Years later I came across Andrew Graham’s tribute To a Prairie Wife, and only then did I sense that she may have been happy during her brief Saskatchewan life:

We broke new trails, wild roses at our feet,

And by the banks of the Saskatchewan

We found the thorny brakes as scented sweet

As any incense Eden gave to man.

In Swift Current in 1914 the sidewalks were still mostly plank. During hot summer weeks clumps of sticky stinkweed grew between the planks. Burning winds occasionally whipped clouds of gritty dust along Cheadle Street and up Central Avenue. But we were enchanted by the first telephone we’d ever had, new and automatic and up to the minute like everything else in the town. We were entranced by the lights on Central Avenue. And oh, the Lyric Theatre and the Princess Royal ! The cafes from the luxurious Celestial to the most flyblown one down on Railway Street! The huge four-room school! All the cars! There had been only one car in our nearest farm village. The hospital and burly, gentle Doctor John McLean who was the first—and last —doctor mother had had in Saskatchewan, though she gave birth to four babies there !

When the Second World War broke out, Swift Current was a town of three thousand, to us a metropolis in a valley surrounded by lovely hills. The creek meandered through the valley, and on it during my high-school years we skated for miles and miles. We picnicked at the lone tree, the only tree then nearer than the South Saskatchewan valley thirty miles to the north. Ranches at Saskatchewan Landing soon became our Sunnyside and Coney Island and summer camp.

The Old West Thunders Off

We even shared the anxiety of ranchers in the valley lest good crops, wartime demands and the incredible price of two-dollar wheat should end all ranching activities. We made jokes about Palliser’s gloomy predictions, and smiled when old-timers like Bill Brunyee and Jim Smart insisted that the prairies would again become dry and that some of the land now in wheat should never have been plowed because it was too light. When the war ended everyone except the ranchers and a few other die-hards cheered a plan to parcel the last great range in the province, the Matador, into farms for veterans. And so I saw the last great roundup—from a knoll near Smart’s ranch house.

Everyone in and about Swift Current knew “Legs” Lair, the six-foot-six, two-hundred-pound cattleman who managed the Matador; when he loped along the rough boardwalks on his trips to town legends grew, for Lair’s voice matched his great bulk, and his hospitality matched both. At the Matador, the coffee pot was always on the stove, and Lair’s coffee, so the boys said, was strong enough to float a spur rowel.

But I had no thought of Lair that day at Smart’s ranch. I was looking at a strange cloud shadow across the river and far to the west—strange because the sky was clear that day. Yet gradually the distant cloud moved down a coulee and up the valley until at last I realized what it was: nearly three thousand dehorned Hereford steers held together by quiet-riding cowboys under “Legs” Lair. The last Matador herd was being moved to range in Montana. As the thunder of their hoofs passed, and it was thunder you could feel, I knew I’d seen the old west leave Saskatchewan for good.

During the Twenties Montana provided all the flavor and excitement of over the border for us, with a fair bit of local rumrunning, and yarns about rumrunners provided much of the youngsters’ entertainment. Much of it was true, and one yarn in particular was typical.

After a flash rainstorm the rich black soil south of Swift Current becomes a morass of sticky gumbo. When word reached Inspector Stewart of the then North West Mounted Police that a load of rum had left town, he climbed into one of the Cadillacs the force was using, and set out after it. With no trouble at all he got his man, for the rumrunner was stuck fast in the gumbo. So, too, was another car—ahead of the contraband car. Father Cabanel of Sacred Heart Church had set out to see one of his flock and got caught in the storm. The church, the devil and the law spent the night together, waiting until morning sun dried out the mud on the road.

During the late Twenties and early Thirties I was away from Saskatchewan, continuing my education in Toronto, and visiting England and France, Montreal and New York. I wondered if I ever wanted to go back. Dare I risk the happy memories of childhood and adolescence when every newspaper and the radio recorded little but grim tales of depression and drought worse than even Palliser had predicted? As the train wheels clicked toward Swift Current, I panicked. I wished with all my heart I hadn’t decided to go home.

The signs of drought were heartbreaking in 1937. But right in the centre of Swift Current a new park commemorated the boys who had died in World War I. Manitoba maples and cottonwoods and flowers honored the former football and track heroes of my junior high school days. Maples and cottonwoods, lovingly tended and watered, ringed the little cemetery. The cacti were finer than I’d ever seen them. To see what was being done to prove whether or not Palliser had been wrong, I went out to the Dominion Experimental Farm to see L. B. Thomson about tests being made with drought-resistant grasses.

That day the eyes of the man who has since headed the entire Prairie Farms Rehabilitation scheme looked as though they ached with fatigue. But Thomson’s eyes lighted when he discussed the work his staff was doing on drought-resistant, cereals and grasses. He agreed that Palliser had been right about recurrent periods of drought.

“But,” he said with conviction, “we’re beginning to learn how to live in this country, just as people have always had to adapt themselves and their customs to any new country.” And then he went on to talk about the spring-rye experiment down near the town of Cadillac.

I drove with the late W. W. Cooper, Swift Current’s leading merchant, to see the spring-rye experiment which would anchor all those acres of drifting soil, the scientists hoped.

The air was dry and gritty. It stung your eyes and choked you. For miles fences straggled through dunes of drifted sand like strange symbols in a Dali picture, sometimes linking wind-scarred, often windowless farmhouses and abandoned barns, sometimes seeming to link nothing at all. And then, on the distant prairie horizon, the dun-colored scene changed. At last we came to the field of spring rye.

It glowed like a vast, square-cut emerald set on a mat of sand dunes that stretched as far as the eye could see. And we got out of the car and picked precious stalks, held them in our hands, and were full of wonder and gratitude. We could even smile at the sight of a Bennett buggy, a car drawn by a team of horses because the farmer couldn’t afford to buy gas. Next year, we knew now, the long roots of spring rye and other plants would anchor more wind-blown topsoil. Scientific research, both desperate and hopeful, would steady Saskatchewan economy just as it would help men and women overcome their struggles with hail and frost, rust, glutted markets and even economic slumps.

Later that summer I called on Sir Frederick Haultain, who had become chief justice for the province in 1912 and was knighted in 1916. Though his name had been mentioned by father often during my childhood and though I had seen him several times, that visit at the courthouse in Regina was the first time I really talked with him. Afterwards he gallantly walked with me to the steps of the courthouse.

Standing there, as straight as a stalk of wheat and almost as lean, he recalled Regina’s early days and the days when I had first seen the prairie city as a child. He talked about Wascana Lake, now mirroring the handsome Parliament Buildings and site of the city’s fine inland yacht club. Wascana Lake didn’t exist when Fred Haultain first visited Regina as a member of the executive council of the territorial  government in the Nineties. The only water then was Wascana Creek, so dry some years that he couldn’t enjoy his favorite sport of snipe shooting.

“You can do anything with this country,” the eighty-year-old chief justice and chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan said, “so long as you use patience and imagination, sympathy and skill.”

Such faith and optimism is part of the Saskatchewan character. For the drought of the Thirties was barely over before farmers who had left in desperation were returning to dig their wind-scarred houses and barns, their granaries and privies and fences out of dunes of drifted soil anchored by tumbleweed. Soon they were also digging countless dugouts at strategic locations where they could catch and store the scant rainfall of some sixteen inches and the runoff from melting winter snows. Someday they’ll complete their greatest water-storage scheme and their greatest dream: they’ll get that wide earth dam on the South Saskatchewan River, a lake a hundred and thirty miles long, and some hydro-electric power as well. Compared with what has happened in fifty years, even that doesn’t look impossible.

I hadn’t quite realized all that had happened in Saskatchewan until I spent a few days at the Landing visiting the Brunyees and the Smarts after World War II. I lunched with the Brunyees, and lunch included a perfect, crisp salad grown near the house. Later I had supper with Jim and Mrs. Smart —green peas and strawberries, grown from a small irrigation project on the river.

And after supper, on the wide-screened veranda out of reach of mosquitoes, old Jim Smart recalled a visit during the late Thirties from John Buchan, then Canada’s Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir. As the old rancher yarned in his happy way about the changes that had occurred since his arrival on the prairies, the two men had come to the exciting conclusion that nowhere, at any time, had such swift dramatic changes, such social evolution overtaken any other state or province.

This year Saskatchewan celebrates her fiftieth anniversary, her Golden Jubilee. Since Jim Smart and Lord Tweedsmuir summed up the changes, Saskatchewan has opened her top two thirds, the rocks and forest and water north of Prince Albert, to tourists seeking the finest fishing, and to prospectors seeking-—and finding—uranium and other precious minerals. Oil derricks break the sky line alongside remembered rows of grain elevators. But with all the fine changes, I’m glad there are still some sagebrush and cactus in Saskatchewan. For some of us need the things for which they stand—space and beauty and the friendship of men and women who have grown through lonesomeness.