Tag Archives: census

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.

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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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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.

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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.