Thursday, April 8, 2010

Landmarks and Geography: Part One

Mary said she would like me to write about some of my favorites landmarks/geography from Southern Alberta.

The landmarks that I remember when I go home for a visit to Barnwell are slowly, inevitable disappearing. The old ten acre strip of irrigated land on which I spent much of the first 19 years of my life is still identifiable by the cluster of cottonwoods that surrounded it. Our farmhouse grew from a two roomed dwelling without a foundation to a rambling complex of occasional additions. The east end of the original structure was the living room with one window facing the rising of the sun, and the other looking south towards the CPR rail line running East and West generally.

The west end of the building was separated from the east by a wall with a brick chimney in it that began its climb from a little platform at about my three year old eye level. It disappeared into the ten-test ceiling and reappeared coming out of the peek of the roof, blowing smoke into the blue sky. When I was preschool age, this west end of the building was the bedroom. I have a visual memory of lying on a very high-from-the-floor mattress. I think I had just come home from Cardston where I had been sent when mother was about to give birth to Sharon. That would make me about three going on four. I was up on that bed getting the burn bandages changed on my right buttocks and thigh—Aunt Roberta had tried to bathe me in a pan of water on top of the stove, and I had backed into the hot stove pipe chimney in Grandmother Thomas’s two room home on the prairies west of Cardston. The bed might‘ve seemed high because of several mattresses piled one on top of the other for daytime storage. I remember mattresses being laid out on the floor come bedtime in those days.

As for a kitchen, the west room may have served as a two function room: there were black stove pipes elbowing out of the east and the west sides of the brick chimney, reaching for the front room stove and the kitchen range. I remember the extended Thomas family coming and spending several Christmases sleeping out on the living room floor close to the little potbellied stove that heated the front room. We slept in the living room on those relocated mattresses near the decorated spruce tree watching the flickering red glow of the burning coals through the mica windows of the pot-bellied stove. Other than this light the room was dark and snugly warm. This communal Christmas sleep is securely written in my Christmas memories.

The first extension of the house must have happened about this time: there would have been six children by the time Sharon was born; but maybe it was built during my first trip to Grandmother Thomas’s when Bev was being birthed because he would have made the fifth child. A seven member family must have made a pretty crowded home, since the whole house couldn’t have been much more than 12x24 feet. The lean-to-addition was on the northwest corner or the home, an extension of the kitchen-bedroom, about 10x12 feet.

I remember two things about that room: Bev and Sharon and I slept in the furthest west bed, the other bed that filled the rest of the north side of the room was Mom and Dad’s.
There was a long low sliding window that gave starlight to both beds, and it was close enough to the height of the mattress for an angry bull to look in. I always heard the bull snorting and growling in the night; and I had seen it in the daylight too, as it bothered the cows grazing along the grassy road allowance. It was ferocious the way it butted the gentle cows quietly minding their own business. It would rise on its hind legs and pound the cows on their backs. When I shared that childhood memory with my siblings years later, Bev explained that the growling and snorting was Dad snoring.

I was still sleeping in that room when I started Grade One (with the stern Miss Cogland,) chaffing at the fact that the three oldest children got to stay up late to listen to Mother read stories while I had to go to bed early with the little kids. I was six by then, in Grade One and about to have my appendix taken out.

The third and fourth additions to the house came after the Second World War had started.
The Canadian Sugar Factories, looking for land on which to build bought our ten acre farm, and Dad began building a duplicate of the first one. He had been carpentering on airport buildings for the new RCAF training centers. Now, and with his new carpenter tools he went at it with gusto. My father’s brothers and some of their wives came up to Canada from Provo, Utah. It was the first time I had seen Uncle Gurn, Jesse and Grant. I hung around while they visited, fascinated at their joy and animated conversation. I had never known this side of my Dad. The quietly oppressed, sometimes severe, always stern father now acquired several new dimensions of personality, and I became several years more confident, and suddenly felt more adult.

The third building was about six feet south of the first but parallel with it. The door to the new building faced the door to the west half of the first, so dad made a shed between the two. This eventually contained a third stove, the heat from which was encouraged to spend some time in the two new bedrooms. However, I remember sleeping many a cold night in the easterly room, me on one side, Bev on the other and Jack (Preston) sandwiched in between. He was always too warm; Bev and I were always cold and trying to get our share of the quilts. Preston, struggling for cool fresh air was always planted at right angles to us forcing us apart. By that time, Grant had been conscripted into the Army, Nadine may have been in Garbbut’s Business College, and the three other girls had claimed the new southwest bedroom. I remember that it was before Grant went away, or perhaps when he came home on leave, that he slept in the East bedroom with his younger brothers. As we went to bed one night, he discovered to his surprise that I got in bed without saying my prayers. A few enquiries later and he had me kneeling down beside the bed teaching me how to pray. I remember that with respectful gratitude.

The allocation of rooms varied over time. At about the time Molly left for University, I remember discovering in the damp dingy root-cellar Dad’s abandoned correspondence school lessons on Radio and TV Repair. What a treasure! I set up my scientific bench in the new west bedroom; The school Principal gave me War Surplus electrical equipment including a big cathode ray tube (my introduction to the heart of the TV) that he could not find use for in the school curriculum; Uncle Glen Thomas made me a multi-meter with which I could measure voltage and amperage and resistance and trace circuits in the old radios I collected. Of course, we had no electricity in our home. We had only one battery powered radio; so I was happy to start my scientific career with batteries. For light I depended on our trusty old high-test mantle lamp, lots of light and a fair amount of heat. However, the lamp was usually in high demand, so I expanded the flashlight concept with some “bell wire” and spare flash light parts. This was the kernel idea of what came to be my tree house in the most westerly lone cottonwood tree on our property, half way down our field on the way to Uncle Ollie’s house, which stood on the south side of the north section-line road across from Uncle Leonard’s. These men were not truly Uncles, but being in the “group” of Mom and Dad’s very close friends, we children were taught to call them uncles and aunts. It was Uncle Leonard and Aunt Beulah’s first son Marvin who was my childhood playmate, run over by a farm wagon when we were no more that three years old. But that was many years before I built my Tree House.

That landmark wasn’t in existence when the younger children of the family, standing on the lower strand of barbwire fence while grasping the top strand to get more elevation to see the funeral procession go west on the north section-line road and north up the dusty cemetery road to bury my playmate in the grave yard that overlooked the coulley that drained Horsefly Lake during the spring run-off.

It wasn’t for three more years ‘till I found a new friend who moved in to the beet worker’s one-room shack on Uncle Ollie’s land at the foot of our ten acre farm. He was a shy friendly Eastern European boy my age. He was this strange thing called a Catholic. It was 1938, the upheaval the war was in the air, and beet workers were moving in to take up the jobs on farms abandoned by young men joining the army. The beet workers were to benefit from the end of the Great depression and the flourishing of the expanded sugar beet industry. I remember watching Mom and Dad planting crab apple and potawotami plum trees as well as gooseberry bushes when they talked about the Catholic beet workers.

It was the first time I had heard the word, and the mysterious way they talked about them made me anxious to go and get a look at them. It couldn’t have been long before I made the trek. What I remember was the three boys: Joe, Johnny and Emil, and their slightly overweight mother who was sitting on the bed surrounded by a very thick comforter. I found later, because none of the bedding was so luxiuriously thick in our house, that it was stuffed with feather down. The other thing was the heavy odor of garlic that came to be characteristic of all my beet worker friend’s houses. The other thing that was totally strange was the stereoscope that they let me look through at pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary: the pictures looked real but strangely unreal. I wanted to borrow the machine and the pictures. When I got it home my mother made me take it back: she made me feel that I had done something very wrong. Joe and his mother had no objection. I remember how embarrassed I was taking them back. I was soon to be in Grade one with him and his immigrant friends.


  1. Thanks Dad. Loved reading this.

    I have heard lots of people from Southern Alberta talk about the irrigation canals and their childhood exploits swimming in them.

    Is this something you and your siblings did? Was it something you were told not to do because it was dangerous, but did anyway. :-)

    I remember being told not to play at the "gravel pit" but us kids going up there anyway.

    Keep on writing.

  2. OK, another comment from me to expand on my first request to write about the geography of your youth.

    I love the landscape of Southern Alberta and want to expose my own kids to it over time. I have my favourite places, but I would like to know what your favourite things about the prairies are. Even just things like the smell of a field after harvest, the smell of making pickles, the sunset in the winter, the sound of snow underfoot -- or as you already pointed out, the cottonwood trees. Anything that you find beautiful about having grown up on the prairies.

  3. loved reading this... the bull snorting in the night, the gooseberry and smell of garlic... I want to get me one of those stereoscopes!