Washday on the Homestead

According to the Laws of Feminine Paradigms, Monday was Wash day long before the prairies filled up with settlers. Homestead wives brought this tradition from their far-off motherlands and planted it into the cultural soil of Western Canada. As Saskatchewan writer Robert Collins says in his book, Butter Down The Well, “To wash on Tuesday, say, or Friday, would violate God’s ultimate plan for the universe.”

My mother-in-law talked of scrubbing clothes clean on the old washboard until after WWII, when they applied for a washing machine. For some years after the war consumer goods were restricted to those deemed most in need and she was crippled, so they got their machine.

Grandma Vance, too, would have done her fair share of scrubbing on the board as a housewife in the nineteen-teens. With Grandpa running a threshing machine, going from farm to farm, there would have been grease and chaff-clogged coveralls to scrub clean. Likely they needed boiling as well. Mom Goodnough told me that whenever her brothers went on a threshing crew they always came home with lice, so all the clothes had to be boiled.

Before the wringer washer appeared someone had invented a washing barrel with a stick agitator. One of the family worked this stick back and forth; this would turn gears that would crank the agitator back and forth to agitate the clothes. Tubs of water were heated on the wood stove and dumped into this barrel together with Fels Naptha flakes that the housewife had shaved off a hard yellow bar.

In summertime clothes were pegged out in the sunlight; this heavenly bleaching agent could be counted on to get diapers and linens extra clean. They came in smelling of fresh breezes, ready for the flat iron — Tuesday being likewise universally decreed as Ironing Day. In winter the laundry was hung out to get the benefit of the sunlight and breeze, then carried in stiff as boards and hung to dry on makeshift clotheslines strung up all through the house.

The gas-powered wringer washer was welcomed heartily by hard-working wives, but you had to be so careful when feeding the clothes through that you didn’t get your fingers too close to those rollers. It happened many a time; I recall hearing of one little girl who got her arm in the wringer right up to the elbow.

One day Mom F told me about an incident from back in her youth when she was brave enough to tackle the washing herself. She’d wet the bed one night and woke up so embarrassed and afraid of the consequences that she jumped out of bed and grabbed the sheets off the bed. She was big enough already that she was able to heat the water and fill the washer. In went the evidence.

I’ve gotten the impression that Grandma was a strict disciplinarian and Mom was seriously afraid of the punishment she’d get for wetting the bed. When Grandma got up she was really surprised to hear the washer chugging away, but Mom told her she’d decided to get the washing started early this morning. I wonder if Grandma ever suspected the real reason?

Hopefully it was a Monday morning.


Grandpa Meets His Match

Two days ago I posted an old-time article about families who boarded the teacher, sharing my Grandmother’s story about coming to Spy Hill, Sask, to teach. Today I’ll share my grandfather’s story of homesteading at Spy Hill.

Vance Turner Connect

Allen Vance and his father Sam arrived in the Northwest Territories in the fall in 1899 to check out the area. Sam’s brother was already homesteading near Neepawa, Manitoba; no doubt the prospect of 160 acres for $10 was appealing. Allen would be 21 in two months and could then file on for a homestead, too, and the two of them could work their land together. Mary (Mrs. Sam) and sixteen year old Will were left behind in Ontario to manage the farm there until they got back.

Sam and Allen would have trekked through an undulating land mostly rich in softwood trees, birch, poplar, and Manitoba maple with occasional patches of “tall grass prairie” until they reached the valley of the Little Cut Arm Creek, where the trees gave way to grassy hillsides. Allen picked out his quarter right beside this stream, not far from the town of Spy…

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Prairie Fire!

Mary Boos was working in the garden that afternoon and paused to rest as a warm wind blew across the yard. Right about that time one of the little girls said, “Mama, look at that big cloud.”

Mary’s eyes followed. She noted the grey cloud that seemed to be billowing up from the fields a few miles from their small farm. Plumes rose in the air and were swallowed in the vast prairie sky.

“Oh no. That’s a fire–a big one!” she exclaimed as she scanned the horizon.

For an instant her thoughts tumbled between fear and confusion. She and the girls were home alone; her husband Mike had taken the oxen that morning and gone to Ernfold, their nearest town, for supplies. What could she do to save the children? And would the fire catch Mike en route, too?

Like all grassland homesteaders Mike had plowed a fireguard around their farm, but that was a mighty blaze and the wind was blowing it straight towards them. She surveyed the plot of land on which their buildings sat. The grass on both sides of the fireguard was knee-high and dried from the summer sun. Excellent fuel to receive blowing sparks and flare up. Could a narrow strip of black earth deflect that fire?

She screamed for her oldest daughter. “Annie. Come!” Then she thought, how foolish. What could either of them do. A wave of hopelessness washed over her. She thought her children, and of Mike. How would he feel to come home and find them all burned to cinders? There had to be something she could do!

In a moment Annie’s head appeared in the door. She looked where her mother was pointing. “It’s still a few miles away, but we have to work fast,” Mary shouted as she grabbed her daughter’s hand and hurried to the house.

“God, help us,” she cried as she ran into the one-room cabin. She shouted an order to her second oldest daughter. “Mary, you stay with these little ones. Annie, we have to do something. Molly and Christina, you stay right here with Mary and you all pray that God will help us save ourselves.”

“Won’t the fireguard protect us?” Mary asked.

“A fire that size could easily set the grass on this side burning, too, with all this dry grass around.”

“But what can we do, Mama? Shall we get buckets of water?”

Mary had no answer. They could hardly battle an inferno like this. Frantically she looked around, all the while praying for some answer.

Her eyes fell on the little tin matchbox holder tacked on the wall beside the stove. A plan popped into her head. “Come, Annie,” she ordered, grabbing the match holder.

Mary led the way and the two of them ran straight toward the plumes of smoke. They crossed the fireguard and waded into the thick grass that rustled against their skirts with each step. They ran about half a mile from home, then Margaret stopped and turned to Annie.

“Take handfuls of matches and go that way; I’ll go this way. Light them and throw them into the grass.”

They both turned to face their farm buildings and tossed lighted matches, ran a few yards and tossed more. Little flames burst out here and there; soon the grass was ablaze with tongues of fire racing on the breeze toward their fireguard.

The mother and daughter made a wide arc of flames until their match supply was used up, then they ran back toward the house. When they got to the fireguard, Margaret turned and saw the prairie blacken where their fires had already burned the grass. Song birds, abandoning their nests to the flames, rose up here and there.

She watched as the small fires reached the fireguard and burned themselves out. Silently they headed back to the house. They’d done what they could; now they’d gather the children and pray for divine protection.

Mike was hauling a load of fence posts back from town when he realized the danger he was in. Thankfully he was not far from a slough. It took no effort to get the oxen headed into the water once they got wind of the smoke. They pulled the wagon into the middle of the slough and there they waited, feeling the heat from those crackling flames as the fire flowed around them, hearing it sizzle at the water’s edges.

Mike thought of his helpless family at home and feared the worst. Would they have had any chance to escape? Had the fireguard protected them or would everything he held dear him be ashes when he finally got there? He almost wept as he sat there waiting.

Once the charred earth was cool enough to travel on he headed toward his farm again, his heart heavy with dread. Then he saw in the distance a miracle: in the midst of the blackened prairie there were his farm buildings still standing! The earth was black right up to the plowed strip of fireguard, but the buildings on the other side were as he’d left them this morning.

Incredible! Thank God!

When he got to the house his family rushed out to meet him and the girls told him how their mother’s quick thinking had saved their lives and the farm. Her little fires had burned away all the fuel so the main fire had nothing to feed on. It had to go around them.

The facts of this incident were written by Emma, one of the younger Boos daughters, in the book From Prairie Sod to Golden Grain 1904-1974, a history of people of Ernfold and Community.
This book was published by the Ernfold Senior Citizens Association.

Prices in Grandpa’s Day

In the spring of 1900 our grandfather, Allen Vance, together with Uncle Moses Smith, arrived in Spy Hill, Saskatchewan. The two men had brought a boxcar of settler’s effects. Allen, being 21, had taken out a homestead and Moses bought land soon after. Allen’s widowed mother and 16-year-old brother William, followed shortly after.

Allen had worked as a stone mason in Ontario, as had his father Sam (who had been killed in a hunting accident the previous fall, just after they’d both filed for homesteads in the Spy Hill area.) So during the next few years Allen picked up some masonry work in between trying to prove up both his own homestead and his mother’s.

What a dollar would buy in 1900. This bill for various household goods comes from the Will’s collection of receipts saved from that time.

Pegs                             .10
Lamp burner            .12
Knives & forks        1.50
Platter                        .60
Polish                         .08
2 pails                         .34
Dustpan                     .08
Coffee                         .15
Dipper & masher     .15
Dishpan                      .18
2 milk                          .16
Kettle                          .50
Basin                           .20
Total                       $4.16

I found this information Will’s grandson Ross’s thesis, “Pioneer Farming” — March 1976. According to Great-uncle Will, a working man at that time would be earning 50¢ to $1 a day. Thus this receipt could represent almost a week’s wages!.

Homesteading in the Canadian West: Log Houses and Soddies

My last post described the mansion C.R. Daniels built for his American bride.  Now for a reality check.  Let’s follow the journey of a would-be-landowner who arrived on one of the immigrant trains and describe the houses MOST prairie folks built when they came to the Canadian West.

Arriving Without a Clue:

Some folks came to friends or family out West and from there they looked around and chose the quarter section (160 acres) they wanted to homestead.  Usually they stepped off the train expecting to find a small town and were surprised to see only half a dozen buildings surrounded by empty prairie.  “Now let’s find you a place,” they were told, “then you get back on the train and head for the provincial capital (Winnipeg, Regina or Edmonton) to register your title.”

Many immigrants stopped first at the Immigration Hall in Winnipeg to get their bearings and a few supplies, then went to the Government Land Office.  There was a huge map of the West and the hopeful homesteader put his finger on a spot.  The agent wrote down the land description by Meridian, Range, Township, Section; the homesteader paid $10 for his quarter.  Next he searched other maps to find out how to get there, aiming to head for the town nearest his land.

Before the West was opened for homesteading, surveyors had gone through and pounded iron stakes into the ground indicating the sections and wooden stakes marking off the quarter sections.  They marked off all three prairie provinces into a gridwork of sections and townships: each township had 36 sections, each section four quarters.  (That’s why all our country roads run true to north & south, east & west–unless they have to go around some natural impediment.)

So the fellow–or family–would get off the train in the general area.  Then the fun began.  Somewhere out in that ocean of grass–two, twenty, maybe forty miles away–was a stake with his number on it.  Without a signpost or trail to guide him, the homesteader had to locate those wooden stakes–or at least the iron one.  IF someone hadn’t carried it off to use for some good purpose of his own, or if a prairie fire hadn’t swept through and burned all the wooden ones.

Finally the homesteader located his land and had a look around.  Was it good loam, heavy clay (very hard to plough), sand (gone with the wind), stony (you’d ache all over from picking rocks every spring), mostly mosquito-infested swamp, wall-to-wall poplar trees, scrub pine, a hill, a valley, an untillable ravine?  If he didn’t like what he saw, he had to pick another spot, then go back to the city and file another claim.

Build a House With Logs and Sods:

Once the quarter was chosen, the work of breaking it and building a house was started.  Many homesteaders set up a tent to get themselves through the first few weeks or months.  For those who got treed land, the axe started swinging immediately.  Every acre had to be cleared before a crop could be planted–but then they had the trees to build & heat their log house.  Scrub brush had to be cleared but gave only a bit of fuel for fires.

Sometime during the summer a prairie homesteader would choose a site for their first real home, marking off a rectangle about 16′ x 20 or 24′.  In Manitoba where the rains were heavy and frequent, homesteaders were advised to build on a little rise because houses needed a dry cellar for winter vegetable storage.  In Saskatchewan or Alberta it was wise to build near a slough, a source of hay for livestock and water for both people and animals.

A farmer then hitched his oxen and plowed furrows, setting the sod aside to use in building the house.  A generous amount of land was ploughed near the site, not only for sods but to act as a fireguard, for prairie fires were a constant menace.  The farmer then headed off to the nearest bush and cut enough trees to make a rough framework for his house.  He’d stick the poles in the ground and use it as a guide, piling the sods against the poles.

Each sod was cut about a foot wide, two feet long, and 2″ to 4″ thick (depending who’s telling the story.)  One old-timer estimated it would take about 4000 sods to build a house 16′ x 24′.  He says when he was twelve, he, his mother and sister had built their soddy while his dad was plowing the land and seeding the crops.

Homesteaders who built log houses stripped the bark off the felled trees and stacked them up, using mud for chinking between the logs.  In both cases space was left for a door, but sometimes these ended up so low that the man of the house had to stoop to enter.  Folks who could afford it bought a pane or two of window glass.  One Alberta homesteader told us he’d built his log cabin for $5: he’d bought one pane of glass and some nails; the rest came out of his bush.  Those who could afford more bought pine boards and hauled them to the site to build their shacks.

A family from England learned the hard way that a door must be hung so it swings inward.  During their first winter in their prairie home a blizzard piled snow against their door until it was almost covered.  It opened only a crack; through this they had to scoop snow by handfuls from inside until they finally got the door open enough that their father could get out to feed their livestock.

Usually the inside walls were covered somehow.  Log house walls were often smoothed with mud, then whitewashed–whitewash (calcimine) being a cheap paint make of slaked lime and chalk.  Some folks hung thick flannel cloths on the inside walls of their soddies; some would have mudded, then tar papered and whitewashed the inside walls to keep the dirt from falling into the house in dry weather.

And to Top It All Off

For both types of house, poles were laid across the top to serve framework for the roofing material, layers of hay, sod, more hay, then dirt and more sod to keep the dirt from blowing away.  A small cellar was dug so the family could store root vegetables where they wouldn’t freeze.

They say sod houses were quite comfortable: warm in winter and cool in summer.  But when it rained, the comfort level dropped severely.  If an area got two or three days of rain, the roofing material absorbed water until the whole works was saturated, then it “rained” in every room of the house.  For day or two after a heavy rain the muddy water dripped down on the occupants and furnishings; the only dry place in the house being under the table.

That was the only “running water” in most pioneer homes.  Plumbing was outdoors year-round: a bucket down the well and a little wooden biffy out back.