Author Archives: Catherine Hainstock

My Address will be “Altorado” Alberta

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.

A. J. Wilkinson, lay-minister, Alberta circa 1913

A. J. Wilkinson, lay-minister, Alberta circa 1913

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.

Andrew Jenson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Ora Card (1901). Photo by Andrew Jenson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.’

Alberta Temple, Cardston, AB.  Prairie Postcard  licensed by University of Alberta Libraries under the Attribution - Non-Commercial - Creative Commons license.

Alberta Temple, Cardston, AB. Prairie Postcard licensed by University of Alberta Libraries under the Attribution – Non-Commercial – Creative Commons license.

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.

Harold’s Friend Travels to Tame the West


From "The Church on the Prairie" (1910)

From “The Church on the Prairie” (1910)

The story goes that Walter was a minister who came from St. Aidan’s Church in West Herrington, England to Canada. I haven’t found anything to confirm that yet; what I have found is that Walter was born in Brighton in 1884 and lived in Croydon. His father was a boot-maker, Walter was his only son and an only brother to three sisters. He sailed to Canada in Sept, 1910 soon after the two original Anglican mission groups were raised for Western Canada. At that time, Walter wasn’t a clergyman; he was a layman and listed himself as a student on the ship’s register.

Harold at 18 1913

Harold in the Winter of 1913

I think the Gillespie’s were his family away from home in this new country. As he travelled West to his Mission House in Southern Alberta, Walter regularly sent the Harold and his brothers letters and picture postcards full of brotherly concern and encouragement.

In one card, he was glad to hear that Harold had returned to school after the harvest to continue his studies; he reminisced about the fun they had had skating the previous winter and hoped they could do it again someday, he mentioned his best suit had gone missing and that he was travelling on a stubborn horse.

Big Chief Mountain near Cardston

In another, he tells Harold he’s keen to hear of his mother’s travels but won’t be able to meet up with her on her return journey from British Columbia, he is simply too far away from the railway. He promises to write again next month. The photo on one card shows a dusty, one-street frontier town and on another, a flat-topped mountain.

Both postcards came from Cardston, Alberta.

Mainstreet Cardston




It’s fascinating to read some of the handbooks these missionaries were given to prepare them for their life in the West. They pulled no punches — it was going to be a tough job.

It is even more fascinating when you discover an actual photo.

After months of searching through archives and local histories online, I find Walter T H Cripps in a digital collection from the Glenbow Museum Archives.

Image No: NA-1687-43 Title: Anglican clergymen in southern Alberta. Date: [ca. 1914] Remarks: Back Row: Extreme left: Canon S.H. Middleton. Front Row: (hand to eyes), Mr. Cripps. [Used in conjunction with script of talk on Anglican missions in Western Canada.

Reproduced with permission Glenbow Archives. Image No: NA-1687-43
Title: Anglican clergymen in southern Alberta. Date: [ca. 1914]
Remarks: Back Row: Extreme left: Canon S.H. Middleton. Middle row, second: Rev Canon Mowat, Front Row: (hand to eyes), Mr. Cripps. [Used in conjunction with script of talk on Anglican missions in Western Canada.

 There he is in the front row. This friend of grandfather’s, this man who will change the course of our family history.
He sits cross-legged on the grass, looking inquisitive, perhaps a little uncertain, one elbow propped on his knee, his hand shading his eyes so he can meet the camera’s lens. All the other clergymen squint into the sun, their lips pursed, brows wrinkled; serious and somewhat pained. The men are positioned at the front corner of a rough timber building. In the background, there is a wide dirt road; one commercial building peeks over the shoulder of a young clergyman, two telephone poles rise up and out of the frame. Everything is still so new.
There is no indication if this was a special occasion or a regular quarterly get-together. It may have been taken for fund-raising purposes (it was later included in a lantern show to raise funds).
Whatever the reason for the photo, Walter was remembered by someone in the community. They identified him in the photo, recorded it in the archives, what extraordinary luck.



The Grace Race

The main purpose of the Methodist/Presbyterian survey was to understand the religious lay of this newly settled land and to find opportunities for growing the flock. What their survey found was that it was a very crowded field.

Services and Denominations

Emily Murphy was the young wife of an Anglican minister newly situated in the Swan River Valley. She was the author of Janey Canuck in the West (1910). She wrote about her time in Swan River  (renamed Poplar Bluff in the book) and in it made a sly poke at the overabundance of clergy and religious students in the small town.

The clergy in Poplar Bluff are numerous enough to preach the Gospel to every creature. There are five, not counting the students from theological colleges who are here for the summer. The population is about three hundred. Still, this cannot be helped, for our mission boards must really make an endeavour to spend the money contributed by the very generous people “back East.

Why so many ministers? Was the west really that wild? Or was it more like the Americans trying to beat the Russians to the moon.

It seems there was a Grace Race going on.


As settlers spread out across the West, hundreds of men doing God’s work followed. History lessons when I was young didn’t say much about missionaries on the prairies beyond cliches like — they came to work among the Indians — a euphemism used to avoid uncomfortable truths of assimilation through missions and residential schools. While a trail-blazing few pushed on ahead of settlement in the hopes of ‘civilizing’ and saving the souls of the indigenous people, the majority of clergymen came later to maintain civilization and concentrate on the souls of the homesteaders. Nearly three million people arrived in Canada between 1900 and 1914 (almost half of them moved through to the Prairies) so there were a lot of potential souls. Churches of all denominations had their eyes on the New West. Urgent appeals flooded back East and to England for help.
The Church on the PrairieIn 1907 an appeal arrived for the Archbishop of Canterbury from Saskatchewan. They desperately needed fifty laymen in the diocese. Twenty-one men were found suitable and sent out with the promise of more to come. Two bishops on a tour of investigation in 1909 found the Church of England still struggling to maintain their “moral and spiritual influence”.

In February the next year, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York made a public appeal for donations and for offers of overseas service to Canada. They also started The Archbishops’ Western Canadian Fund. Donations would be used to build and maintain central clergy-houses across the west and Mission volunteers would serve in isolated outposts in the surrounding areas. Two groups of men were dispatched in the spring. More clergy and laymen followed as quickly as they could be examined and prepared.
One young man to promptly answer the Archbishops’ call was Walter Thomas Henry Cripps.


Janey Canuck in The West

Janey Canuck was published in 1910,  the same year Walter T H Cripps landed in Canada and made his way to the Swan River Valley. Walter was a theological student and he’d come to take his place ministering in the West. He disembarked in Montreal in September, travelled to Manitoba and wintered in the Valley. He became friends with Harold and his family. He was to have a profound influence on Harold’s life.

His Stories, My Stories

for perserveranceAfter finding the Christmas gift and the book dedication, I start rummaging through the rest of the old books from home, wondering who originally owned them. Every one of them has either a bookplate or an inscription inside — good fortune for me and an indication of the value they had for the owner and the giver.

One of the novels was presented to Harold by a teacher as a prize for ‘perseverance’. Perseverance can mean many things, but maybe it meant that he valued learning and was able and willing to keep attending school when surrender to family duty and hard work on the land was a more common choice.

Home boy Barnardos 1900 Russell Man Collections Canada

Home boy Barnardos 1900 Russell Man Collections Canada. Public domain – available from Wikimedia Commons.

I find more books with Harold’s name in the front — presents from his brothers, presents from  his friend, Walter. I’m surprised to find that even Rilla of Ingleside has Harold’s name on it — the year1919, is written underneath. I leaf through L.M. Montgomery’s story of the the home front during the Great War. When I was young, I hadn’t recognized the historical accuracy of it; back then it was just the romantic end to the Anne series.

I open up my copies of Ishmael and Self-Raised by Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Great Heart by Ethel M. Dell , John Halifax, Gentleman and Lazarre by Mrs. Craik; Harold’s name is in nearly every old book that’s been passed on to dedication - Lazarre

His stories were my stories.

These books are the old romantic stories I read, loved and reread when I was a teen, but skimming through them now, I see they are not merely romantic novels.  They all have protagonists with shining moral standards who maintain their integrity throughout their trials because of their strong Christian values.

I begin to wonder – was that what Victorian/Edwardian novels were like or were they just the type of book Harold preferred to read? 


To find out what people were reading at the time, I used two sources.

First, I found two databases of American Best-sellers of the 20th Century. One was compiled as a joint project involving students from several American universities. The other from Publisher’s Weekly (made available on Wikipedia). The lists cross-checked and two of the books from the lists, The Virginian by Owen Wister (1902 #1 best-seller, 1903 #5 best-seller) and The Rosary by Florence Barclay (1910 #1 best-seller, 1911 #9 best-seller) are in my collection of grandfather’s books. (I didn’t looked into Canadian publishing only because none of his books were published in Canada. They were from Britain and America).

The second source was the good old Methodist survey of the Swan River Valley. It provided a local focus. The surveyors not only recorded the reading habits of the people, they recorded the most borrowed titles from the Bowman Public Library that year. They were:

Bowman Library loans 1914

Popular books at that time turned out to be a range of melodramatic romance, action/adventure, mystery and biographical stories. But what was popular is only part of the answer. I also have to consider, what might have been available to Harold?  I don’t know what else Grandfather may have owned or had access to. And I don’t know how hard it may have been to even acquire books.


Religion seems to play a significant part in the Gillespie’s lives even influencing Harold’s choice of literature. But I wonder what the norm was back then, perhaps my family was just very religious. I want to better understand what part religion played in the history of this time for these people.  I have a couple of solid clues I want to follow — one is the Methodist survey and the other has to do with Harold’s friend, Walter.


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.


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: