Tag Archives: winter

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.

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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.

 

 

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