Prairie School house
Dust storm over a prairie farm
FARMING THE SASKATCHEWAN PRAIRIES
(Memoirs of the 1930s)
My parents and I were born in Lithuania. Our homeland is an ancient nation, one of three small countries bordering the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe.
Three days by train to reach our new home
Father had come to Canada in 1926 and was working as a farm labourer in southern Saskatchewan. Mother and I joined him two years later arriving by ship to Saint John New Brunswick. To meet us he had come by train all the way from Regina, a trip of 2600 miles that took three days. This was my first memory of my Father. I was four years old.
Work on the Trimble's farm
We came to the town of Osage, 60 miles south-east of Regina where my Father worked on a farm belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Trimble. They were English, already past middle age, and worked the land with their grown sons. Apart from a large team of work-horses, a dog and a few cats, there were no animals on their farm. My Mother was hired to help with the domestic chores. Neither of my parents knew any English.
Homes from prairie sod - no trees for lumber
The Trimbles lived in a dwelling made from prairie sod. As was customary at the time, settlers often lived in dwellings constructed from sod until they could afford to build with lumber. On the prairie there were no trees for building material, while prairie sod was right at hand and withstood both blazing sun and winter winds. The land in the Regina Plain and the Osage area is table-flat, the soil is rich, and has attracted farming settlers since the late 1800s.
Spring wheat, the specialty crop
The Trimbles, like their neighbours for miles around, grew only hard spring wheat. This specialty crop became widespread in Southern Saskatchewan as it flourished in the soil and climate, and enjoyed a profitable market. This type of specialized farming was not labour intensive. The flat terrain allowed vast expanses to be cultivated without problems of clearing trees in order to till the soil.
It took only two or three men to operate a huge farm – holdings of many hundreds of acres. All farming is hard work, but with the exception of the weeks at harvest time, the farming of wheat is not too labour intensive. It required only basic farm implements and a team of two work-horses to be productive. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was already in place to provide storage facilities and rapid and efficient shipment of the grain to the world’s markets.
The climate of Saskatchewan is ideal for hard spring wheat production, with sunny hot summers and cold dry winters, which together with the rich prairie soil (considered the best in the world) make for ideal growing conditions. Perhaps the most important attraction for the settlers was that hard spring wheat sold at the highest prices. Hard wheat sells at a premium on the world market because few places in the world offer ideal growing conditions. The flour from this wheat is used to make white bread that was in great demand as a food staple. Saskatchewan would become known as the “bread basket of the world”, and land prices in the Regina Plain soon soared beyond anything in the province.
Speaking in Lithuanian again
By the end of the summer at the Trimble farm, my parents wanted to move on. They heard of a Lithuanian bachelor, Gus Mazel, who was hiring several Lithuanian men to chop down trees in a wooded area of his farm, to expand his arable land. My parents applied and both were hired. Mother was to be the cook for the gang. They were happy to be able to speak in their own language again.
On our own
After a winter and spring of hard work on Mazel’s farm, my parents were anxious to try farming on their own. Dad heard of a farm for rent a few miles down the road. It was a unit of Soldier’s Settlement land and the rent would be a percentage of the crop. Neither he nor Mother had any experience in farming in a drier climate, but they decided they would give it a try.
Stock market crash and the Great Depression
The year was 1929, the year of the stock market crash, and the beginning of the Great Depression, and the Great Drought. I doubt whether my parents were much affected by the stock market crash as there was no radio or daily newspapers to broadcast the bad news. In their lives the Depression and Drought years were yet to be experienced.
The new farm was secured and Dad was preoccupied with acquiring the basic needs in order to start farming. The farm was in the Edenwold district that was settled mainly by Germans. Dad brought home two older work-horses, two cows, a dog, some pigs, chickens and geese. The geese were Mother’s idea. They could swim in the slough and at some point provide meat for dinner. They also supplied down for pillows that Mother made. Seeds of wheat, oats and barley were also purchased. The first harvest was encouraging.
Before long an uneasy development crept into our lives. Unemployment was growing in the East and beginning to make itself felt in Saskatchewan. We heard that men looking for work were hopping on and off box-cars of the trains going westward across Canada. Occasionally a man would appear at our gate, but Dad was in no position to hire anyone. The stranger would, never the less, get a solid meal before leaving.
Money was scarce. A chocolate bar at five cents was expensive. There was no Relief (which we now call “Welfare”). People grew their own food and managed as best they could.
News came about political unrest. The Canadian Commonwealth Party was formed in Saskatchewan. In Alberta the Social Credit Party was formed, and in Ontario - the Communist Party. All attracted many sympathizers.
The Great Drought
During the next few years, rainfall decreased. Our slough went dry and the geese complained noisily. Then our well went dry. We had to go to our neighbours, a friendly German family, to get drinking water, but there was no water for our animals. Crops were doing poorly. Dad had to sell some of our livestock to make up the rent payment for the farm.
Dad heard of a large deep slough where he could get water, but it was 12 miles away. In desperation he hauled water in barrels by horse and wagon, scooping up water in pailfuls to fill the barrels. The work was back breaking and time consuming. Farming at Edenwold had become desperate.
That fall, knowing that a baby was on the way, Mother and Dad loaded sacks filled with potatoes onto our wagon. Mother and I rode off to Regina, 25 miles away, to sell the potatoes. As we got into the open parts closer to Regina, we passed an unforgettable scene. The roadside ditches were brim-full of dust, and in the fields nearby were dust drifts, looking just like snowdrifts in winter.
Back at the farm we would gaze at the sky, looking for clouds that might bring rain. One bright afternoon, Mother and I saw a large dark cloud in the distance. Surely a thunderstorm was coming and bringing much needed rain. Before long, the daylight vanished so that the coal-oil lamp was lit. Soon not rain, but dust descended on everything. We were in the midst of our first dust storm.
In search of rain
In March of 1933, my baby brother was born. Mother and Father decided to move to an area that received more rainfall. So we went to the CPR train station in Balgonie and Father loaded our animals onto the train. Our destination was Whitewood, 120 miles east of Regina. This was considered a long way eastward. Except for one German family, the district was entirely British.
Dad had made arrangements by mail to rent a farm owned by Joe Lamont, a gruff, well-to-do senior who lived in the town. Again, rent payments were a specified share of the crop. The farmstead had a 60 foot well, equipped with a hand pump, and was known to never go dry. The house had 3 rooms. The school was only half a mile away and easily walkable across the pasture.
I started school in a typical one-room country school. It was called Hallsdale number 79. There were about 24 students.
Each morning we began school by standing beside our desks and glancing at the imposing portraits of King George V and Queen Mary as we sang God Save the King. Recess and noon hours were great fun. All the kids joined to play games: hop-scotch, tag and hide-and-seek. In winter we read books from the library. We loved classics like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Christmas without a tree
In December, the Christmas Concert was an exciting event. We decorated the school with colourful streamers of crepe paper, but there was no Christmas tree because there were no evergreens in southern Saskatchewan, and there was no Santa Claus and no gifts. In winter there was no skating or tobogganing because there was no ice and no appropriate slopes. Winters were extremely cold and frost bitten fingers and toes were common. Evenings, people played cards or checkers. Barnyard chores were a daily routine.
Summertime activities did not include swimming or boating because rivers and lakes were scarce and miles away.
Farming's reward - food
For all the intensive work that mixed farming required, there was an important reward: food. This was especially valuable during the depression when money was scarce or non-existent. Farms supplied good organic food for the family, as well as for the animals. Potatoes and vegetables were plentiful. Bread was made at home. Dairy products and meat were also available. When an animal was to be slaughtered for meat, neighbours helped one another. Animals got a diet of grass and hay, with rations of oats and barley. Any surplus could be marketed.
Fruit, however, was in short supply, since apples, peaches and pears did not grow in Saskatchewan, and imports were too expensive for most families. Only oranges were considered a necessity. Popular substitutes were Saskatoon berries, which were widely used for preserves and pies. And High Bush Cranberries were used for jams.
Shopping for groceries in town was done mainly for dry goods and basics such as flour, sugar, tea or coal oil. Clothing was scarce. Shopping was done occasionally by mail order from the Eatons catalogue. Overalls of coarse denim were standard for men and boys. For schoolkids, going barefoot in warm weather became popular.
Hunting pests for money
As the drought years continued, even in Whitewood we experienced a dust storm. A number of pests also added to the devastation of crops. Gophers burrowed holes in wheat fields disturbing roots and feasting on the ripening heads of grain. Teenagers were encouraged to trap them. Crows landed in great flocks on ripening wheat. Authorities urged boys to climb trees and rob their nests of eggs, for which they were rewarded according to their bounty. Then, swarms of grasshoppers arrived, to take their fill of delicious wheat. Weeds grew faster than the crops. A most dreaded weed was the Russian Thistle, which formed into huge prickly balls as they were driven by the wind and scattered their seeds wherever they rolled.
The well was our refrigerator
With no wheat to sell, Dad realized he would have to sell more steers and hogs. We did not ship milk to a dairy, but separated it with a hand-driven separator and shipped cream to a creamery. Butter was churned by hand for our own use. As there was no ice to keep these products cold, they were placed carefully in a bucket that was lowered on a chain into the cool depths of the well.
After 6 years of increasing drought, 1935 brought a surprise. The skies opened and rain fell. From early summer, the wheat stalks grew steadily taller. Grass and hay became abundant. Ravines and sloughs once again filled with water for the animals. Everyone gave a sigh of relief.
But later in the summer where wheat fields were open to the wind, the wheat stems were laid to the ground where they rotted, so that not only the grain was lost but the straw became useless too. As harvest time approached, farmers discovered that the stems and heads of the surviving wheat had rusty brown spots on them. Soon word came from the authorities that the spots were a fungus called Rust and that the wheat was useless for marketing.
The final move to Ontario
My parents were sad, worn out and disappointed by the years of toil and hard work that left little to show for their labours. Once again Dad considered moving – this time much further eastward. He took a trip to Ontario where the farming impressed him. During the following two years Dad sold the livestock and horses. Some household items and personal effects were packed, and once again, our little family headed for the train.
In October 1937 we arrived in Toronto and stayed.
(ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Christina Anderson received the Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto in 1963. After completing the College of Education at UofT, she began her teaching career in Dunnville, Ontario followed by Riverdale Collegiate in Toronto. She wrote their family story in Toronto, Ontario, 12 of August, 2010.)
Image sources: C. Anderson's memoir and publicly available sources.
This post is also available in: LT