The postcards Walter sent to Harold and his brothers may have looked wild and exciting like the sets from a Western, but they didn’t show the real challenges ahead for the young layman.Walter had arrived in Cardston in the southwest of Alberta. Winters could be long and brutally cold on the open prairie. Locals told of the white skulls and skeleton bones of hundreds of cattle that perished a few years earlier, in the winter of 1906-07. They had drifted with the storms, reached the barrier of a railroad fence in a stretch of land between Lethbridge and Burdett and died of cold and starvation.
The area also suffered from frequent droughts; the land was rocky, the wind blew dust and tumble weed for miles, and farmers were only beginning to understand that it was more productive to graze cattle than raise crops, but that was not always a sure thing either.Perhaps the biggest challenge would have been the locals themselves. Cardston was named for its founder, Charles Ora Card, a Mormon fugitive from Utah. He and some followers had escaped the crack-down on polygamy by the American government. They had set down roots in the area in 1887/88, establishing the first Latter Day Saint’s settlement outside of the United States. So Walter Cripps had come to carry out missionary work in a place where a large percentage of the local population were Mormon and had been living in the area for a generation already. The Anglicans view of the situation in Cardston was clear:
Eighty percent of the people … are Mormons, who never cease proselytising, and have put up a fine brick building, costing 8000 (pounds), to the name of their Mormon false prophet. Our people are but few out of the other twenty percent., but they are learning self-support and give 65(pounds) a year for their priest; and when they can raise 450 pounds a little ‘frame’ church will stand under the shadow of the big Mormon temple. (Our Opportunity in Canada, 1912).
Walter arrived in Cardston in May 1911, just before construction on the big Mormon Temple began, but he didn’t stay in town long. On the back of one postcard he tells Harold, ‘My address will be “Altorado” Alberta.’From the Central House in Cardston, Canon Mowat’s ministers established mission houses in outlying areas. Each out-station was meant to be run by a priest and a layman who would live and work together. The priest was to do the ministering and family visits, the layman was to manage paperwork, assist with manual labour and housekeeping. Every three months the ministers were to travel back to the central house to meet up with their fellow clergy-men. In the early years, there were eight ministers, two laymen and a lay reader. Walter T H Cripps was assigned to the Altorado area and quickly dispatched.
I find Walter’s name on the 1911 census, taken only five weeks after he arrived in Alberta. It records him living in a rural area south of Medicine Hat. It also records him as Head of the House and as a minister by occupation.
Many missionaries coming to newly opened settlements had to build their own meeting houses and dwelling shacks. The mission houses, meant for meetings, services and Sunday school were little more than crude lean-tos fashioned from rough-cut timber; one door, one window and a stove to keep the congregation from freezing to death. The living shacks were even smaller; not much bigger than our garden tool shed, some were built with roofs too low for a man to stand up straight once inside, most were unfinished timber, and if it could be had, covered in tar paper to keep out the wind and dust. These constructions were knocked up in a few days with the help of neighbours if they could spare the time, or wanted to help. In 1911, Altorado was a brand new Mormon settlement of about 100 people.
Families moved to Altorado, in anticipation of the rail passing through. Like any large endeavour, there were problems with contractors and misinformation from land purchasing agents and the railway company generally made slow progress. When the route was finally announced in 1913, it was not good news; it would pass north through a new settlement to be called Foremost. Within the year, most of the population had shifted, and Altorado rapidly became a ghost-town.
Perhaps this is why Walter decided to take a trip home to England in 1914 and invited his young friend to travel with him.
Census and Common Sense
I’ve already found that census data while very helpful, can sometimes get things wrong. Like the one where Harold’s younger brothers have been attributed to the neighbour’s family just because they were at the house on the day. So doubt and reservations need to equally apply when reading the 1911 census record for Walter’s household. While it records him as Head of the House there is someone else recorded there that day, a 17 year-old girl, Frances Exley. Her relationship to the ‘Head of Household’ is left blank, their marital statuses were first marked as “M” then scratched out. It is easy to jump to conclusions, and perhaps that’s what the census-taker did in first marking them as married. I haven’t found any further record of Francis and so while it could be tempting to interpret it as an interesting (and shocking!) scandal on the prairie, I am thinking it is more likely she was either domestic help at the shack on the day, or a visiting parishioner.
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