Monthly Archives: April 2015

Across the Blue Ripple of the Duck Mountains

I start looking for answers in rural Manitoba.

Durban is a small town in the middle of what people might call a sweeping landscape — long and wide and richer than typical prairie. Skinny poplars bunch into dips in the landscape; tall pines line farm perimeters, dirt roads skirt around them. The soil is dark, deep and loamy. Sections are neatly turned and planted, farmyards are landscaped, houses are painted white. The town itself, is so small it’s on the verge of disappearing; only four streets one way and three avenues the other.

I haven’t been to Durban since I was a kid, I’m taking this all in using street view shots knitted together on Google maps. I turn my little avatar to the Southeast; and the Duck Mountains appear as a thin blue ripple along the horizon, I turn to the North, and green wheat fields stretch out all the way to the horizon.  To my city-eye, it’s farmers’ paradise, but I know I’m seeing a greatly altered landscape. By now I’ve read a dozen local histories and looked at hundreds of old photos; what I am seeing is the result of a colossal effort. This landscape was created by hand and by horse (or oxen) managed by men and women who came with one common dream. To settle and farm.

Harold came with his parents, William and Mary across that blue ripple of the Duck Mountains. When they arrived at the turn of the last century; grandfather was five years old. The whole family (three kids plus brand new baby) travelled from the far side of Lake Huron to take advantage of Land Grants in the Swan River Valley. Ten dollars got them a quarter section of land (160 acres) under the condition that within three years there would be a dwelling, fifteen acres under cultivation and they would be permanently living on the land. It would have been the opportunity of a life-time for a family-man whose profession on the census records of 1891 was ‘Livery Keeper’.

First train to Swan River, Oct 10, 1899. Photo courtesy: Swan Valley Historical Museum

First train to Swan River, Oct 10, 1899. Photo courtesy: Swan Valley Historical Museum

The railway going west had a stop in Winnipeg. From there a new branch line headed North. Trains from the East were so crowded there weren’t enough seats. Sometimes there weren’t enough locomotives to pull overloaded carriages so trains crawled along at walking pace. Some didn’t make it; bad weather and early snow left people stranded in the middle of nowhere for days. Days on board even in good weather were long and tiresome; the view from the window daunting and endless.

I don’t know  when or what the trip was like for Harold and his family, but from old photos I imagine —

Rattling, squeaking open carriages with seats unforgiving like church pews
Coal cinders and chunks of soot blowing in through open windows
Lurching and stopping and tumbling bundles
Tired, cranky kids
Poor peasant farmers with no English and no bundles
Young men high on big dreams talking, laughing, and smoking late into the night

For a five-year-old boy on a long ride, what would have mattered was getting a turn on Mother’s lap and  missing out on Mother’s cooking.

The line running north brought them to the end of their known world. And to their new home.


Nonni Jonsson’s webpage (with many more historical photos) about his Icelandic ancestors settling in the Swan Valley can be found at:

Here’s Where I Started

Gillespie Family horse team circa 1920's Durban, Manitoba

Gillespie Family horse team circa 1920’s Durban, Manitoba

Maybe I didn’t pay attention when my parents were telling stories, I’m not sure. Here’s what I knew about my grandfather when I started.

He was a farmer
His father was a farmer

He was a soldier
He fought in France
He married a war bride
He returned from war
He was a farmer

He like to read
He liked to dance
He taught my mum to dance
They were farmers

He lived through the depression
They were farmers

He got sick
He died of cancer
He was fifty-four

War was a game the boys played

Playing Soldier circa 1907

Postcard: Star Series: published by G.D.&D. London. Shared on Flickr Creative Commons by Pellethepoet

When I was growing up, war was a game the boys played. It was filled with arguments over who was dead and who was not, who was in charge, who was good, who was bad. The boys played in the mud of an eroded ditch on the far side of the school playground – they called it The Trenches. They played in the rain and in the snow. They used sticks, clumps of dirt and their imaginations to make their Howitzers, MK-III’s and grenades. They seemed endlessly fascinated and engaged in it.

The girls were sometimes invited to play as nurses, or if you were lucky (in some eyes), they let you be a medic. Nurses hovered on the sidelines ready to comfort the soldiers. The medic’s job was to help lever boys out of the knee-deep silt then go back to rescue their rubber boots from being sucked down as dozens of boys squelched around in the muck.

As I grew into adulthood, it was easy to  tune out in history classes at university, change the channel when war movies came on, and ignore news stories as wars erupted overseas. It was all unpleasant and I was disinterested and untouched —

“You’re dead! You have to fall down, I shot you”
“No, I got you first!”

I’m older now and wiser — I watch the news, I’m a teacher librarian, I’m interested in History — and now there is a gap. I have questions and I want to document my learning and my research as I look for answers. That’s why I started this blog.

It’s been 100 years since the Great War. My grandfather – like nearly every other young man from the Dominion of Canada – went off to fight. I don’t know how and I don’t understand why and I’d like to make some sense of it all.

I never knew my grandfather— he died before I was born. And that’s the other reason for taking this research journey. I hope that as I piece together information from ‘out there’ with what’s been passed down in the  family, I will get a sense of who he was.