Tag Archives: pioneer

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

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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