Monthly Archives: May 2015

Survey and Census

methodist surveyThe rural survey by the Methodist and Presbyterian churches is an incredibly rich snapshot of the Swan River Valley just prior to the First World War. Besides charts full of means and averages, it also includes snippets of local history that give some context to the statistics.

I find out that two years after the Gillespie’s arrive in the valley, the harvest was much larger than anticipated and the railway did not make enough cars available for hauling it away. Prices were affected as farmers became desperate to get their grain shipped.

After this debacle, homesteaders realised they couldn’t depend on railway companies and grain buyers and began forming cooperatives. Eighty families joined together to start up a Grain Growers’ Association in the area where the Gillespie’s settled. They built their own grain storage elevator; they bulk-bought baling twine, fencing wire and domestic goods, and organized social events. Although I can’t find a list of association members, as one of the earliest families to settle in the area, the Gillespie’s would surely have seen the advantages.

The survey lists what crops were being grown — wheat, oats, barley, timothy. It records that farmers were experimenting in growing clover and alfalfa, but were not interested in breeding livestock like farms in the far West. When I print off the 1906 Census, I can see my own family’s condition fits that statement. There is a column on the census showing the number of livestock owned by each household – Harold’s family had five horses and three cows.

Equally interesting is what I can’t find on the 1906 census, at first. The two younger brothers, Percy and Ray are missing from the family’s list, but scanning further along I find them listed as ‘sons’ under the Rolls family who have three of their own children the same age. It makes me smile to think there is an official record of the little boys playing at the neighbours’ place.

1906 Manitoba Census - playing at the neighbours

The Methodist survey documented social and domestic aspects of life as well. In 1910, most families still lived in log houses, didn’t have running water and relied on wood stoves for heating. Church socials, sports, picnics and agricultural fairs were favourite family pastimes. Phone lines were being erected and welcomed due to the isolation in winter. Travel was still difficult; the roads are described as ‘corduroy’. When I look that up later, I learn it means they were built with logs laid side-by-side to stabilise their foundations.

The survey says that most households had at least one family instrument. When I tell my sister this, she reminds me of the creepy old pump organ in our basement, she even finds the guarantee slip for it. She reminds me about the old beetle-back mandolin passed on to my other sister, and then I remember the story of an Irish harp being lost in a fire. After grandfather died, the farm was sold up. The ‘old house’ on the property was being used for storage and it was set alight by an impatient new owner before Mum was able to move everything out.


On their own, surveys and census documents can seem a little dry, but when I started viewing and considering them along-side our family stories and photographs, the pieces click together. A far clearer picture is emerging of this family for me — strong, independent and determined to make a go of it.

A Gift, from 1904

While cleaning up one Saturday, I rediscover an old book that’s been sitting on the family shelves since forever.

childrens book of christ 002

A Child’s Life of Christ has never interested me, but I stop to examine it this time because its obviously been well read by someone. I always thought it belonged to my mother, but discover it’s older than that. Inside is a dedication page dated 1904 and it is made out to the three young Gillespie boys — Harold, Ray and Percy. It’s  a Christmas gift from their mother — the boys would have been nine, seven and five years old — the family would have been settled in Durban for only four years. They must have been doing well to afford such a thick, handsome book.

The cover is heavily embossed and soberly religious, but as I leaf through the stories, I begin to see the appeal of this book for little boys. The engravings inside are rich with exotic plants — palm trees grow next to cactus and oleanders in full bloom. Desert landscapes, walled cities and vaulted temples provide backdrops for camel trains, merchants and dusty mobs.  Ancient kings pose with chins on their fists, Israelites crowd together, robes and keffiyeh billowing in the desert winds. This isn’t a book full of bible stories, it’s an adventure book (although the author dutifully delivers morals and counsels his young readers against certain thoughts and deeds). I read a couple of pages then a few of the chapters.cropt version of heir and wicked husbandmen


The Plot: There is this youth who grows up thinking he is just an ordinary boy, but he discovers one day from an eccentric wise man that he is not ordinary at all — he is the Chosen One. He meets other young men, they band together. Some evil people are trying to kill him, other people tell him he is their hope. He performs miracles but has dark days too …


Hmmm, sounds very similar to a book I read to my children when they were young.

****The Raising of Lazarus

The Child’s Life of Christ was probably well-read for a number of reasons: it was a gift, it was a form of religious teaching for the children, it would have been a wonderful source of stories during long winters, and they likely did not own many books. And that got me wondering — how many books would a homesteading family like the Gillespie’s have owned? What other kinds of books might Harold have read as he grew up?

Ten years after the Christmas present was given, a rural survey was carried out by the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. In it they thoroughly documented the agricultural, educational, religious and social lives of the people in the valley — including the reading habits of the locals. Of the families surveyed, the average number of books owned was only ten to twelve. The survey noted that many farmers were not book-lovers (but read newspapers and rural interest journals). It was also mentioned that books owned by families were shared with others. Lending libraries were set up in a couple of communities but not in Durban. So even in 1914, with local communities far more established than in 1904, books and stories were not so plentiful.

Books and the stories in them are what we build our dreams on as children. They are how we take our first steps out into the wider world; they challenge us to live like the heroes within and to stand up to villains wherever they may be. I know they have an enormous impact over our thinking and who we aspire to be.

I’m searching for Harold’s influences — where he grew up, the conditions in which he grew up, what shaped him to bring him to his decisions and his fate.  Could this book have been a factor?


Through the Magnifying Glass

Catherine Gillespie  in front of cabin

Harold’s mother, Mary stands alone at the front door. She is about forty years old; a small, thin, wiry woman. Its late fall or early winter — no snow on the ground, but it must already be cold because she’s is wearing a long black coat with the fur collar turned up.  She’s holding the lapels together with one hand. I peer at her face through the magnifying glass trying to make it out; its blurry, but the sharp lines of her cheekbones suggest she is smiling. This is the house the Gillespies built.

The photographer stood well back to include a complete view of the one and a half-storey cabin, yet I can clearly see the rough axe marks on the sides of the building.  Few of these cabins still exist, but I am in luck as I search online – there is a reconstruction in McCreary, Manitoba and there are photos of it posted on Historic Places. These cabins were built in the  tradition of homes back East (Ontario). The logs were squared off and fitted together at the corners in a dovetail fashion.

Gillespie’s cabin looks bleached and brown, but the heritage reconstruction is built from poplar and the new blond-wood logs glow in a late afternoon sun, A bonus for me is the interior photo the heritage site has posted. It shows a single room with exposed beams, exposed ceiling and the same rough hewn walls on the inside. Any chinks look well-filled on both the original and the reconstruction. There are no windows in the Sattertwaite House but in our photo there are four and they offer maddeningly minute glimpses of what they had inside.

There are half-open blinds plus curtains inside the front windows. Something is pushed near to one of the windows, but is it tumbled bed clothing, a stack of dishes or something else? The angle is curious but the detail is just not there. High up on the house is a small gable-end window, it’s covered from the inside too. With four children growing up in this house, I feel confident it must look out from a sleeping loft that William would have constructed for them The heat from the stove in winter would rise and keep little ones warm upstairs. Their parents probably slept below (to get up at night to feed the fire). The loft would have been a place of quilts and hats and socks, of giggling and blanket tussles and cold toes shoved onto warm backs, all just out of reach of the parents.

The chimney is an eye-catching contrast to the log construction. It looks professionally crafted, a barrel chimney with decorative angled-brick detailing, the drip edge flared out at the top. It is modestly handsome. It would be something you could see from the garden, from the road, from a distance as you travelled home. It looks like a solid brick promise of an even better future.

I’ve poured over the details of this photo a hundred times. There’s a small boardwalk out the front, the hint of a covered porch on the back, maybe a wheel (perhaps a bike?) round the corner on the far side of the house. Yet, when I pull the glass away from the photo this time I spot one more thing — a narrow flower bed running down the near side of the house.  There is a low timber edging, the bed filled with dry, twisted stalks that probably remained until spring clean-up, and next to it a watering-can waiting for warmer weather.


There’s is also so much this photo doesn’t reveal.  I’m left wondering: who took the photo? The grey card frame indicates a professional studio so why wasn’t Grandfather in it too? Was he too far to come in from the fields and pose with his wife, had he made a journey to town that day. Where were the children? If it was late fall/early winter and post-harvest there was no need to be at home helping out, were they gone to school? Maybe they’d gone with their father?

Did all the settling families need an official photograph of their dwelling as proof of settlement for their Land Grants so this was it? But maybe the reason was not one of meeting legal conditions. Maybe a photographer passed through the area and convinced Mary to have it taken on the spur of the moment. Would a few compliments on the sturdy nature of the house or the quality of construction have won her as a customer? Perhaps he persuaded her to have it taken to send the folks back in Ontario. Whatever the reason, we are lucky Mary was impulsive enough, proud enough or law-abiding enough to have said yes to the cameraman.



An ecosystem of insects above their heads

My brother forwarded some notes — recollections he got from my uncle of my grandfather. As I skimmed over all the carefully recorded dates and names, a little cream rose to the surface — my uncle remembered Grandfather saying the year they moved to the Valley they lived in a trapper’s shack with a sod roof.

I am immediately side-tracked, searching for an image on the internet. What did trapper’s shacks look like back then? I finally track down a 1906 publication  — Mink Trapping: A Book of Instruction Giving many Methods of Trapping — there are several photos of trappers shacks, They are not so great.

The shacks were built for temporary shelter and either near creeks and ponds close to trap lines, or farther back from the water, partially dug into the ground for insulating properties. Both types look  dark and grubby — rough-built. Most of them don’t have windows, several show off rows of pelts nailed to the front of the shack or all around the walls on the inside. I can’t find any images that show a shack with a sod roof.

From: Harding, A. (1906). Mink trapping: A book of instruction giving many methods of trapping--a valuable book for trappers. Columbus, Ohio: Harding. Public domain.

From: Harding, A. (1906). Mink trapping: A book of instruction giving many methods of trapping–a valuable book for trappers. Columbus, Ohio: Harding. Public domain.

I’m beginning to understand just how tough these people were.

Harold’s mum would have stepped over the threshold of such a shack, knowing it was to be home for a while.  There would be a family of five plus their belongings crammed into a dark hovel with the lingering musk of vermin droppings, hides, soil and damp. In summer there would have  been an ecosystem of insects living above their heads, clouds of mosquitos driving them indoors in the evenings and wild animals out at night to keep them awake. In winter the shack would have been isolated, cramped and dark. And hopefully it was warm.

While I’m reading the few details available in the book and shaking my head over the photos, I am imagining Mary using all her Christian resolve and domestic practicalities to crush any feelings of uncertainty (or panic) . There would be setting up to do, water to fetch, cleaning and cooking.

And maybe Mary wasn’t in horror, maybe they counted themselves lucky having a trapper’s shack on the property. Some settlers had to continue to live in canvas tents or upturned wagons while they raced to get homes built before the weather turned against them.


I grew up in Saskatchewan and the one thing that matters when you live on the prairies (especially if you’re farmers) is the weather. The photos of the shacks started me wondering — would they be all right through the winter? Just how cold did it get that winter?  I discovered a way to find out.

The Government of Canada – Weather website has historical weather data. For Winnipeg, it dates back to March 1872. The site allows you to generate spreadsheets and charts of temperatures and precipitation on a monthly basis.

Winnipeg is notorious for its cold winters, the Swan River Valley is  more sheltered but it’s also further north. So while I recognise these temperatures will not be 100% accurate for their area, it’s as close as I can find for the moment.

I generated a whole bunch of charts — became a bit of a weather spy – and learned a lot.

1/ They had a lovely summer.

Chart generated from Gov't of Canada - Weather data

Chart generated from Gov’t of Canada – Weather data

2/ The winter was cold but was not as bad as 1899

Chart generated from Gov't of Canada - Weather data

Chart generated from Gov’t of Canada – Weather data

Chart generated from Gov't of Canada - Weather data

Chart generated from Gov’t of Canada – Weather data

3/ There was not as much snow as I’d expected

Chart generated from Gov't of Canada - Weather data

Chart generated from Gov’t of Canada – Weather data

Chart generated from Gov't of Canada - Weather data

Chart generated from Gov’t of Canada – Weather data

To Cowan or Beyond

"Red River cart train 2" by Red_River_cart_train.jpg: Whitney's Galleryderivative work: Nikkimaria (talk) - Red_River_cart_train.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Red River Cart Train 2” by Red_River_cart_train.jpg: Whitney’s Gallery derivative work: Nikkimaria  – Red_River_cart_train.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

At this point in the story, I ran into some confusion in local histories and historical sketches about just how far the Northern railway went. One version put the end of the line at Cowan, MB. From there settlers had to buy wagons, stack them with all that was precious, and battle their way along the steep ridge of the mountain before descending into miles of muskeg. Settlers had to ford four or five rivers to get to their land claims, and fend off plagues of mosquitoes so thick that one old-timer told of a night when the livestock’s moaning sounded like human beings in agony and the humans took refuge in their tents and under wagons with blankets tacked tightly all around to keep the clouds of insects out. Other local authorities said the train line was built all the way through to the Swan River Valley by the summer of 1900.

The trip from there to their section (Section 29) would still have taken days. Local histories agree on one thing — the land was surveyed but there were no roads or trails or bridges. And all through the valley there was thick scrub, lots of creeks, rivers, boggy spots, and miles and miles and miles.

As much as the first version and the romance of covered wagons on long trails appeals to the adventure story-lover in me, I hope for their sake the train did carry them all the way to the Valley so that the trail ride was short.

NOTE: Great Grandfather’s land grant is dated 23 June 1903 so I am assuming they settled in June 1900.


As I am putting this post together, I receive an email from Nonni who is a local historian. Along with the dated photo of the first train to arrive in Swan River, he helps shed some light on my confusion about when Gillespies settled n the valley.

He tells me that many who wanted to claim land didn’t wait for the train to come through to Swan River. It they had waited for the extension to be constructed, they would have missed out. He’s found some historical evidence that William Gillespie applied for his claim on Oct 2, 1899 eight days before the first train arrived in Swan River and suggests that Harold’s father maybe came alone to apply then returned with his family the following year (as many others did).

Nonni also sends an unexpected surprise – a weblink about the Cowan trail and news that the local community has restored a section and celebrate with a trail ride every summer.