Category Archives: Reflections

Thinking about my research journey, thinking about the results of my research journey.

I Don’t Know if We Can Call Them Settlers

 Image from Antoine of Oregon by James Otis from Internet Archive

Antoine of Oregon by James Otis

In school we learned  about brave pioneering folk who travelled west, put down their roots and their crops, built cabins then prairie dynasties and their families owned the land for generations. They made it sound like once settlers secured a Land Grant no one went much farther than the local church or possibly the next town ever again.

But that was generic Pioneer history taught from textbooks. We have postcards — lots of them — that tell our family’s version and it’s quite different from the ‘settled settler’ one.

While the urge to farm on their land and succeed drove them hard, there was also the urge to explore even farther when there was the chance. Walter wasn’t the only person Harold knew who adventured West and wrote back about it. In the summer of 1910 (the year before the family met Walter) Harold’s parents left the boys in charge of the farm and travelled across the mountains to visit family on the West Coast. They spent July and August there, enjoying many of the local sites.

Landing North Vancouver, sent  July 10, 1910

Landing North Vancouver, sent July 10, 1910

The following year (the same summer Walter travelled to Cardston) Harold’s mother made a second trip on her own to the West Coast. She was in her mid-forties by then, yet the backs of her post cards are filled with lively adventures.

She visited her sister Isabella and family living in Bellingham, Washington, a timber boomtown due to the reconstruction work in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. While visiting, Harold’s mum sent several postcards to Harold including one telling of their wonderful time spent on Lake Whatcom.

"Bellingham 1909" by Sandison, J. Wilbur (James Wilbur), 1873-1962 - Library Of Congress CALL NUMBER: PAN US GEOG - Washington no. 48 (E size) [P&P] Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Bellingham 1909” by Sandison, J. Wilbur, 1873-1962 – Library Of Congress  Licensed Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Once back over the border, Catherine stopped in Aldergrove to visit her sister-in-law and family then tram-hopped her way back to Vancouver. The Ringling Circus came to town that week and Catherine, and her sister-in-law took the children to watch the parade.

Even before his parents travelled to the coast, Aunt Isabell, as she spelled herself, sent Harold at least one postcard (in 1908). It showed a giant felled cedar tree on the trunk. The radius of the trunk is twice the height of the man proudly leaning against it. His auntie promised to send him more in the future, and hoped he would come to visit someday.

To Harold, From Aunt Isabell, jan 10, 1908

To Harold, From Aunt Isabell, jan 10, 1908

So many places to go and extraordinary sights to see.


From: An Entangled Object by Bjarne Rogan in   Cultural Analysis 4 (2005)

From: An Entangled Object by Bjarne Rogan in Cultural Analysis 4 (2005)

For years I thought my grandfather was a deltiologist (although I didn’t know the term then); I have more than a hundred post cards from his younger life. But as I’ve become a better historian, I have learned to ask better questions. Instead of wondering — Was Harold a collector of postcards?, I set out to answer — Why are there so many postcards? After reading about the history of picture post cards — the short answer is that post cards were the emails and Instagrams of their time. They became popular after the World Fairs and Exhibitions in Paris, London and Chicago used them to commemorate their events. Soon every town and city was selling them as a way of promoting their local sights and civic accomplishments to tourists. People were collecting and sending hundreds of millions of them around the world each year. Post cards were perfect in so many ways: they had just enough space to dash off three or four lines, were cheap to post, and captured a place if you didn’t own a new-fangled Kodak camera.


Sent to Harold from Papa, July 04, 1910

Sent to Harold from Papa, July 04, 1910

Receiving postcards always make me restless, even if they are the kitschy ones flaunting fluffy native animals or photo-shopped sunsets. Postcards rub my nose in the fact that I’m in a small, comfortable corner of Australia – bogged down in routine — no sign of adventure in sight. I know that’s only the view from where I sit; many people would trade places with me in a shot, but postcards are a reminder that someone is out there living large while I are not. I become restless because I’ve never seen that beach, that animal, that city. Maybe I don’t even want to; it’s just a reminder of being stuck. I’m stuck and they are not.

I can’t help but think that maybe it was the same for Harold. Perhaps it’s no wonder he was able to talk his parents into letting him head overseas.

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.