Sunday, October 28, 2007

Love in a Cloud of Dust

In the thirties, the trains ran through Saskatchewan touching almost every small town and city on the map. That made it easy for desperate young men to hitch an illegal ride, leaping onto the nearest boxcar as the train left the station. There were so many of them leaving the prairies that the boxcars were rarely empty. They left in search of a living in other parts of the country. It was called riding the rails and thousands of men did it, leaving home for years and often returning the same way they left - by rail.

It was one of those men that changed a summer for a young girl. A handsome fella, or at least that's what I'm told, who came into town on a boxcar with others like him. They spent two weeks sleeping under the town water tank. They begged for food door to door and sometimes they were given a packed lunch and other times they were asked to sit in at the table but they were never refused. And that's where she met him.

She was sixteen years old and desperate for some fun. She was only in town by chance and it was by chance that she met him. She, a lonely farm girl and he a desperate young man not yet out of his teens and riding the rails to adventure.

He stayed in town with the others like him for two weeks. In that time she found many excuses to come into town, to seek him out. She fell in love. Now no one knows if he loved her in return. What we do know is that when the men trouped back to their boxcar, there was one extra. One man who was not really a man. A young girl with a cap on her head and her hair tucked under it. One girl who had exchanged a dress for a pair of pants and was determined to fit in, leave small town Saskatchewan and head to the big city and adventure with her beau.

Well when she got on that boxcar she created the most drama that town had seen in years. Her father searched everywhere for her. Finally he involved the police and they tracked her down, pulled her off the boxcar and brought her home. No one talked about it much after. Except one senior who years later relished the chance to tell the story with a nostalgic tone in her voice. A love story for sure - unrequited love on a boxcar.

"Come with me. Please, Eva. At the coast you can be someone. There will be places for musical talent like yours. Please, come west with us.” Verna - "From the Dust"

Safe travels


Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Thirties - It Wasn't All Fun and Games

"I was thirteen years old when I finished school," the energetic senior says. Her small dog grins happily up at her waiting for another treat.

She tosses him a treat and turns her attention back to me.

"Why did you quit?" I ask.

"I didn't want to but I had no choice. My father needed me on the farm. My mother was sick and my brother well..." She nods her head and her expression is closed. There is another story here but one she is reluctant to go into.

"He arrived at the school and said, 'I need her at home to help out.'"

"Your father?"

She nods. "That was the end of my schooling." Again she shakes her head. An intelligent woman who could easily gone on to higher education and instead spent much of her life working at low paying and often menial jobs.

"And that was it, at thirteen, the end of my schooling. I cried and pleaded to stay but I was needed on the farm. So I went."

"Did you have any books?" I ask.

"Books?" She looks disbelieving. "There was no money for books. I worked in the fields with my father. I was in charge of my own team. We used them to harrow and when we thrashed."

"So that was the end of school?" I persist.

"Yes," she replies. "There was too much work. I had to take care of the cattle, my team, help Dad in the fields and help Mom get the meals to the hired crews at harvest." She pauses and looks almost proud at the next statement, "I built the hip-roofed barn. At least me and Dad built the roof on that barn."

"But you were just thirteen."

"And a girl," she confirms. "But I have big bones."

As if that explains everything.

"We got water in milk cans for threshing. The men were thirsty. I was in charge of lifting the milk cans off the hay rack and carrying them to the well, filling them with water and then carrying them back and lifting them on the hay rack. Not many girls could do that."

And I'm thinking not many girls should.

"When my knee was hurt, Dad sent me to the blacksmith for axle grease."

Apparently every farm had an area in a shed or the barn where all the tools were kept. That was the blacksmith. In there was also vast quantities of axle grease as there were so many wheels and mechanical items needing grease. "So I plastered axle grease on both knees an inch thick to my thighs," she said, smiling. "Dad was furious. He gave me a lickin'."

"Lickin'?" I ask horrified. "He hit you?"

"No, he yelled but his yelling was scary. He said I used all his grease. And it was true. We couldn't afford to buy more and we needed it for lots of things." She laughs. "Worse, we had no paper towels back then, no extra rags, so what do you get it off with." She is still laughing through her words. "Well, I used the only thing available, the only thing we had lots of, prairie grass."

She takes a sip of coffee before continuing. "Axle grease isn't easy to get off you know but it sure makes your knee feel good. There's something in that grease that's good for everything."

Who would have thought?

Although times were unbelievably harsh for this senior, she partied like she was nineteen at her ninetieth birthday party and her response to the attendees at her surprise party was, "Let's have a drink".

And they did!

Safe travels


“So, because you are a man, a fancy-Dan, but still a man, you could farm better than me. Men are superior farmers to women? What a load of horse apples!” Eva Edwards, "From the Dust

Friday, October 19, 2007

Nightmare Weather and Skating Parties

The farmhouse disappeared, appeared and then disappeared from sight. The storm swirled and eddied around them, the world grayed as dirt pealed from the fields and streaked everything. "From the Dust"

1930 - 1940. The dirty thirties. Years of nightmare weather; harsh winters, blistering summers, unending winds.

1936 was one of the hottest summers on record across North America and one of the coldest winters. The American side of Niagra falls has only been known to freeze over six times because of a combination of its lower water level and a harsh winter. Two of those times were 1936 and 1938.

But even harsh weather didn't stop the fun. In a phone conversation, where I would have sworn I was speaking to a much younger woman, an enthusiastic senior remembered spending many evenings skating on an outdoor rink. There was a skating shack with a heater to warm up between sets and gas lanterns strung along the ice. It was rather more a dance than a skating party as the boys would take turns skating with the girls. They would skate in pairs all evening.

You would dance with all different fellas all night. It was like going to a dance.”

Seems like there was a lot of fun happening in those tough years. When the ice finally melted and skating ended the town children migrated to tennis. And on Sundays they switched to baseball.

Summer temperatures may have reached record highs and the winds become relentless, but when things got really unbearable there was always a dip in a nearby slough, lake or dugout.

Safe travels


Monday, October 8, 2007

A Whole Lot of Nothing in Saskatchewan

"No one had any money," the tall, handsome senior tells me. He was a teenager through much of the thirties. The thirties, not the depression, that's how many of the seniors I talk to refer to the depression, only as the thirties.

"What did you do for fun?" I ask.


"No dances?" I prod.

"I played the fiddle my Dad bought."

"You didn't have any money," I remind him.

"We bought it before the thirties, when we still had some money."

"Did you play at dances?" I ask again.

"Wasn't that good," he says in his cryptic manner. "The neighour taught me. We had musicals at different homes. I played at them sometimes."

"And dances?" So give me credit - I'm persistent!

"Yeah. I played at a few. But usually we had a real orchestra come out."

"Orchestra?" Now I'm puzzled. What about the no money thing?

"Yeah, my cousin played banjo, his wife played fiddle and a friend played saxaphone. They came out every Saturday night."

Nothing is sure becoming an interesting term. There's a whole lot of nothing going on. But I press on.

"From the city?" I ask.

"No, from the farm." He looks puzzled at the question. "They came into town."

"So you danced every weekend?"

"When we didn't have money. Sometimes we had money you know."

He eyes me like everyone should know this fact and continues,"then we went to Disley and bought beer."

"Yeah. But we got rid of the empties."

"So you returned the empties?" I ask assuming poverty stricken as they were they would want the cash on a bottle return.

"Oh no." He shakes his head. "That would mean we'd have to take the bottles home with us. We threw them away so our mothers wouldn't find out we'd been drinking beer!"

Life is Unexpected - Safe travels


“A farmer who loves the classics and plays the piano like a maestro. Interesting.”
Tate Prescott Brown - "From the Dust"

Friday, October 5, 2007

Eat or Go Hungry?

In the 1930’s poverty did not necessarily mean you went hungry; eggs, noodles, potatoes and other root vegetables were a staple. One elderly lady told me that their large farm family went through a 100 lb bag of flour every two weeks. Potatoes and noodles with fried bread cubes, potatoes and cabbage with fried bread cubes, onion and pumpkin turnovers were some of the dishes I heard about.

One youthful senior, who was a child during the depression, described her traditional Christmas present; no toys or books, just a stocking with one orange, some hard candy and peanuts.

A recipe book from the 1930's depicts a few recipes that you still see today and many that might be considered unique. Yet some of the old standbys, like a morning cup of coffee, existed then as they do today.

Coffee with a twist - Try measuring your morning coffee into a cheesecloth bag, add a scoop of crushed eggshells and set the pot over the fire on the wood stove - Coffee in 20 minutes!

Here is another recipe that made me pause:

Milk Toast
“Toast stale bread, butter it and cut in cubes. Pour over it very hot milk, to which are added salt and pepper and if liked, a little more butter.”

And above is a page from that same cookbook featuring the following recipes; Onions and String Beans, Onions Au Gratin, Potato Cakes, Potato and Onion Casserole, and Peas in Baskets

““Well I surely won’t convince him of my value sitting here and moping.” It was almost suppertime. She squared her shoulders. She’d start her campaign by feeding him a good supper.”

Eva Edwards - “From the Dust”
Safe Travels