Auntie Sheila’s letters are some of my favourite – she is so open and honest in them. I really appreciate how vulnerable and real she is when she writes. Because of that I’ve chosen not to post some of them, they are clearly private conversations happening between sisters but it has given me a lot of insight into who she was and what a really loving and remarkable lady she was.
Based on this letter I’m also understanding how it is that she received that award that Grandma spoke of in her autobiography. You can tell she takes her schooling seriously, it seems all she does is study – well and perhaps buy shoes. I can relate to the shoe purchases much more than the studying although I’ve spent the last couple of years studying more than I ever have before.
21 Aug 1956
Well I bet you thought I’d forgotten you, hey! I’ve been meaning to get up every night this week but never quite made it.
Gee I’m mad!! I’m boiling!! We have to stay in here and study all day from 8am to 3:30pm! On a beautiful day like this! We’re supposed to be supervised but nobody is supervising us and everybody’s talking like mad. It’s just a waste of time.
Oh by the way I hear you went on a big date last night or rather you were supposed to go. Was the show – good?
Marg and I went to see the “High and Mighty” last night, sure was good. There was a big banquet and dance at Penley’s thurs night that all the kids went to except me. Maurice “had to study” so-o-o Kathy said I could go with a friend of one of her boyfriends but I didn’t like her boyfriend so-o-o. I stayed home and studied. Guess it was pretty good. I phoned home Wednesday. Well they didn’t have any news so I stayed in and studied some more, about a quarter to ten Maurice phoned and we went out until ten thirty. He was up to the library at tech all night.
Went over to the Macmillan’s for supper on Tuesday night. Uncle Frank and Aunt Georgie picked me up half way there- I was walking. Apparently ______ and Ken are staying in town for a few days. Marilyn and I drove all over town looking for _____ for canning. She’s buying them second hand. I guess she’s getting married at the end of October this time. Honestly that girl. She’s got more ______(I really wish I could make out this word lol).
Went to a baseball game between the Holy and us on Monday. We lost 18-11 but later we won two games so now we’ve got the cup.
Well I must start studying. I think I’ll get a pair of shoes before I go home. Am going on the bus.
This letter was written by my great aunt, who was the mother of twins. A while ago I mentioned a story in our family history book where the mom would lasso one of the twins to a fence so the other would play close by- this was that mom. Imaging trying to do that now? Back then it was probably the safest way she could watch her kids and also get her work done. The life of a mom, always trying to find balance between chores/work and kids. I guess according to this I also am a bad scholar, exams send my anxiety through the roof (and I honestly don’t think they should be the only way that students prove what they have learned).
(Postmarked December 12, 1952)
Here I am at last. I have sure been slipping up and down- say it anyway you like it feels anyway.
I hear you are getting along quite nicely which I am very glad to hear.
I saw your mother at Uncle Clarence’s Monday night, there was a Stockman’s meeting and you know we nosy old women – we had to trot along too.
Harvey had a hockey practice Tuesday nite and he is going to another this Friday nite and then he will know if he is on the team for the winter. He says his name is – it should be Wills, Callen or Longeway and then it would be easy sliding for him. I don’t think that I would like any of those names, the one I got sounds better, how about you?
Clarence is busy on his exams this week. He says that they haven’t changed since he last wrote and that he doesn’t like them any better so I’m afraid he will make a poor scholar.
Harvey is busy hauling grain to town, he makes two trips a day, so he is kind of tired at nite and likes to lay down and sleep.
Harry was here today, he was going to work on the garage and put in another door for us, so I also got him to put up boards for my drapes, believe it or not I have my drapes now. I sure have to get that room painted – the curtains sure show it up. But not till spring I guess. Everyone is too busy now and after Christmas it will be too cold, so I’ll wait.
Well Margie, keep the good work up and I’ll try to write a little quicker next time.
What better way to get back to the letters than one from Mrs. Barkley, she is always a ray of sunshine for me- even when describing a dreary winter day. This letter was sent to the Junior Red Cross Hospital and then forwarded home to the ranch. I assume it must have been one of the times when mom was in and out of the hospital. At this point it had been about 4.5 years since she contracted the polio virus, and she would have been 15.
Sunday – 15th (Envelope says Jan 16,1956)
You sure can’t complain about not being out in the Sunshine! Isn’t it just the dreariest winter!
How are you progressing? I hope really well and that your time in there is getting short.
I took our tree down on Wednesday and such a mess. It seemed to shed so much this year. I think it may have been because it was so full of frost when it was cut. Of course I haven’t taken the cards down yet. I like to enjoy them for a month or so.
Mr. Barkley and I had hoped to go to Lethbridge this week but the weather took care of that. I guess they had no snow there but suppose they have some now. It is getting quite deep in the fields now. Just about up to the men’s knees.
Did you know they made a tape recording of the Cantanta(?) Friday evening? Also the trip! We hope to have a record of it.
I guess I better retire. Hope you are well. All are well here thank goodness
And finally we have the story of how Grandma’s kitchen came to be in her own words. I absolutely love this description. I have to say I smile every time I look at the photo of Grandma in front of the fireplace as she’s accompanied by the best dog of all time, my old friend Kayla. I don’t know how Kayla managed to get into Grandma’s memory book but I love that she’s there. I miss that dog.
I have so many memories of lying on that old red leather couch, surrounded by the overpowering smell of geraniums and reading old Archie comics. It was one of my all time favourite places to hang out when I was a kid. Although the geranium smell made me swear I would never ever have those flowers in my house, I religiously plant them in the flowerbed in the verandah just off the kitchen because that’s what was always there and anything else seems wrong. They just fit.
We decided then to tear off and build a new kitchen, level with the rest of the house. And build up the earth to be level with the back door and widen all our doors so that a wheelchair could get around easily.
At this age in my life I had enough experience to really know what I wanted in a kitchen, and I got it. Small kitchens were the style then but to me and our way of life the kitchen always seemed to be the heart of the home. I compare a good kitchen in a home to a good woman. And in my way of thinking a good woman is the most important person in the world. Like a good woman, a kitchen should be efficient and beautiful and always have a pleasant fragrance surrounding it. What is more alluring than the aroma of fresh baked bread, hot pies, and a roast in the oven?
One wall of my new kitchen is of knotted pine and has a fireplace with built in china cupboards on each side. The cooking area has knotted pine cupboards. Natural wood adds warmth to a room. The south west corner is all windows which look out on a panoramic view of the Jumping Pound valley up to the wide range of Rockies. This area is an indoor garden of flowers because we seem to have 9 months of winter in this country. It also holds our old red leather covered chesterfield. My range is a beautiful old fashioned one Percy bought me many years ago and I wouldn’t have it for any modern one even an Ultra Ray. There was one small window, about 3ft by 2 ft off the south wall which I didn’t like so I designed a stained glass one which portrayed our wildflowers and friendly wild birds and of course our source of existence – a cow and calf on pasture. This adds colour and conversation to the room.
My kitchen table seats twelve comfortably but of course often more. Adjoining is a very efficient mud room and extra bathroom. I worked hard for that kitchen.
The summer we built it I cooked for 18 men all summer in just a make shift kitchen. At the same time I gave Margie her physiotherapy which consisted of 38 exercises with resistance and each one 15 times. This I did twice a day. Margie also caught the mumps that summer.
The only stories I ever heard about Mr O’Brien were ones like how incredibly strict he was, being a military man and all, how one time he’d got really angry and thrown chalk across the room, and of course the firecracker story – which was of course more mom just responding to his flippant statement about putting a firecracker under someone than her deviously planning to light a firecracker under a classmate’s butt. But through the letters I’ve seen a much different man. From what I can see, he’s the one who organized the students to send those big class letters in for mom at the hospital. In the letters, the kids are describing doing such interesting things in their classes (growing plants, doing woodwork, and so many other activities). I have heard from many people what a big deal those JP Christmas concerts were. Hats off to Mr. O’Brien – he sounds like quite the man.
Mr. O’Brien did so much for the children and the social life in the district it is difficult to tell you just how far reaching his influence really spread. He had been a Sargent major in the army, a scout master of many years experience, and had taken a course in dramatics. All these talents and experiences were put into action immediately and the students experienced the unexpected pleasure of discipline, responsibility, and a scope for their own creative originality.
The fame of the JP Christmas concerts was so widespread the Community Hall had crowds far beyond its seating capacity, standing room only. I remember one concert where one part of the program was a quadrille on the stage by the students to the tune of a current favourite of the time “Buttons and Bows”. The crowd just went hilarious, stomped their feet, clapped their hands, and sang their loudest. Another time he used an Alberta artist talent of a play taken from the book “Johnnie Chinook” a local story and it was a big success.
He formed a Red Cross society among the students. Made them elect their own president and other officers in the correct parliamentary procedure. All this besides their regular schoolwork. And for the first time the students learned how to enjoy well organized sports at recess.
Every so often the students would invite the parents to the school and entertain them by having them take part in spelling matches etc. We became involved in many of the students’ activities, especially helping with the concerts and enjoyed their social life so much.
The annual school picnic was an elaborate affair where presentations were made to students graduating etc. All the speeches and work was done by the students themselves. Mr O’Brien would just strand in the background. but the results of his guidance was made manifest in so many ways.
For a little one room rural school house the ultimate achievement of most of its graduates is quite impressive.
No wonder mom always talked so highly of Lawrence, over and over I see where he’s been such a great friend to her. I remember dances at the Hall when I was a kid where it was family friendly until the “doors of hell opened” or something like that and then it was time for us kids to go home (similar to warnings I was given about going to the Cochrane Hotel – when I finally went I was quite disappointed to find it didn’t look anything like what I imagined hell to look like but was just an old fashioned bar with ugly vinyl chairs).
The Copithornes are a large, closely knit family and our family turkey dinner parties usually had twenty or more sit down to a meal. We usually tried to do our entertaining like this in the winter before the calving time in April. The children were always included in these parties and often in the dances in the Community Hall. They learned to dance and mix freely with their elders, there didn’t seem to be such a generation gap then as now. No one enjoyed a square dance more than Margi when her cousin Lawrence would ask her up. They looked quite small in the circle but they certainly knew their dance.
The evening of our 20th wedding anniversary was a bitterly cold night and Clarence and Irene invited us and Kumlins over for dinner. We had completely forgotten it was our anniversary and Percy said we were crazy to think of going out over snowy roads on such a bad night. But Kumlins insisted we go with them. When we got there there as quite a crowd gathered waiting for us. The ladies usually head for the kitchen to help serve the meal, but they made Margery Buckley and myself sit in the living room with the men. Then they took us into the bedroom and draped old lace curtains over us like veils and gave us each nosegay bouquets made from cauliflower, onions, etc. When they led us back into the living room our husbands were standing up each wearing a boutonniere of onions and Irene’s dad Don Robertson wearing a collar backwards and a wild brocade black housecoat and he read off a very comical take off on the wedding ceremony They shook rice and confetti over us and presented each of us with a very lovely tea set. It was a party we’ll never forget.
Remember how I said I’d never seen a photo of the lean to kitchen? Apparently I just wasn’t paying attention, because there’s a photo of it here in today’s post. The sun porch still looks almost exactly like it does in this photo, and we use it every day.
It wasn’t long before we were issued a “ration book” for each one of us. Transient help would come to work with all the tabs sold out of their books and we would just have to cope it it somehow, but they weren’t very popular. In Feb 1940 I left Sheila and Marshall with my sister and Percy, and I took Aunt Ada and her bachelor brother Roy Wills on a motor trip to visit Aunt Lil in Palermo, California. We thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the wonderful Redwood forest. And visiting the old fort where the Russians had landed in 1872. The fort was standing in good condition because Redwood won’t burn nor decay.
Before I left, I taught Clarence how to bake apple pie. When we got home, the man who helped him batch said they just made steaks out of the whole half beef and had that and apple pie nearly every meal. And his pies were just about the best I’ve ever tasted, much better than mine, but I doubt if he has ever cooked one since. They were certainly glad to quit cooking.
We decided to turn our lean to eating area into a kitchen as it was three steps down from our tiny kitchen and the steps proved very awkward. Mr. Mervin Wallace, the carpenter, came out and he built that kitchen with loving care. I was so proud of it, it was beautiful and quite convenient but could have been larger. It was all white and blue with accents of red here and there. It had a long low window in the west and I made cottage style curtains out of white and blue polka dot material with a wide border of eyelet embroidery.
By now I had a gas Servel refrigerator. Mr Wallace also built me a sun porch for my house plants. From three thirty on in the afternoon I used to just about wear a hole in that window watching for the kids to come riding out of the bush in Nicoll’s field a mile or so west of us.
I would always have a dish of dessert of a bowl of soup waiting for them and would listen to them unload all of the problems of the day, then all was forgotten and the real enjoyment of the day would begging for them. Each one to his or her living, such as curling up with a good book to read or outside to play.
By now we had a Delco in the house – no more coal oil lamps and those frightening Coleman gas lamps. At first we had a gas engine to charge the sixteen-two volt batteries. Then we got a wind charger which worked fine when the wind blew. We were so glad to have just the lights, we never thought of complaining because there were no electric gadgets to be got on the 32 volts.
Has anyone ever had a well behaved Shetland? My sister’s Peanuts was considered to be a good one, but it really was only in comparison to how incredibly naughty and evil my Tango was. Why did we all have Shetland ponies??
Margaret, my last child was born in Oct 1940. We let Sheila name her, she was so thrilled to have a baby sister, so she said “I like Margaret Bateman, let’s call her Margaret”. She was a dear little baby, had long dark hair when she was born and always was very lively. I lay in the hospital listening to the battle of Bristol on the radio and wondered if it was right to bring a child into such a world.
One fall a cattle buyer who bought our steers, gave Marshall a Shetland pony when he was about four years old. I have never liked Shetland ponies, but Marshall was very happy and wanted to be on it all the time. One fine afternoon when I decided to ride across the creek to get the milk cows in, I let Marshall ride his pony and come with me. My horse stopped halfway across the creek to have a drink and I looked back to see how Marshall was doing. Clarence was building a fence nearby. The Shetland had stopped at the edge of a deep pool to have a drink too, and I could see both Marshall and the saddle were slowly sliding over its head. I called to Clarence just about the time Marshall plopped head first into the cold water. The dumb Shetland sat on the bank like a dog sits down and it had the saddle on its head like a hat. Clarence and I both headed to the rescue but things happened too fast for us. Marshall no sooner hit the water then he bounced out again and was on a howling rage. It all looked so comical, Clarence and I just went into helpless laughter which made Marshall furious. He walked home in a huff and we were so weak from laughing at that crazy looking pony we could hardly get the saddle off.
Later that pony ran away with Sheila one day and threw her onto a big rock and broke her elbow. My father had sold his farm and rented an apartment in Calgary. While Sheila was in the hospital with her broken arm – it had to be broken a second time to get it right – my dad visited her every day and read stories to her. He also helped Percy cut crop a few times when help was scarce. He loved the children dearly and always called Margie “Peggie”. The last day he visited us, in Nov 1942, Marshall and Margi clung to his legs and begged him to stay but he had two companions with him and returned to town. That night he died of a heart attack.
The bear stories!! I can’t imagine how scary it would have been to be the girl, and how funny it would have been to be Uncle Clarence. A couple of years ago in the fall we thought we saw something weird dart out of our yard. My girl offered to go over and look in the snow to see what tracks were there. As she had boots and I only had shoes I agreed. She grabbed Bear her dog and I stood on the driveway and watched them go across the yard. She stopped by the crabapple tree beside the cottage for a very long time and just stood there. Finally I yelled at her to keep moving and look at the damn tracks or come inside but I didn’t want to stand there all day. She looked, didn’t see much of anything and came back inside. Bear the dog stayed outside and barked at that crabapple tree for a good 45 minutes. Finally I went outside to tell him to shut up, and in that small moment where I distracted him, a huge cinnamon coloured bear dropped off the cottage roof, down the tree where the girl had been standing and took off out of the yard. There is never a dull moment out here!
Annie decided to take a business course in Calgary and do secretarial work in there. She continued to keep the big house as her country residence and as we were in a very small house, Clarence slept over there but otherwise lived with us.
One day, Percy’s brother George rode upon a fresh kill, the carcass of a yearling. George was used to the ways of the wild and he very carefully concealed a huge bear trap in a natural windfall of logs. He succeeded in trapping him and shooting the monster dead at first shot. He was a seven foot, seven hundred lb male grizzly.
Talking about bears, Percy nearly shot Clarence one thinking he was a bear. I had a girl working for me who had lived all her life on the prairies. She hated trees and got the creeps when she had to walk under one. Of course the boys delighted in spinning tall terrifying yarns to her and this evening she had waked down to visit a girl at Jack Copithorne’s. It was almost dark when she hurried home and Clarence and another boy put fur robes over themselves and hid under some brush about half way down the hill and jumped out behind her. Percy and I were sitting quietly in the kitchen when she hit the back door. If it had been more fragile she would have come right through the door. We were very concerned when we saw her white face and when she finally was able to speak we had our own doubts about it being a bear, but we hadn’t been told about the trick. Percy grabbed his shot gun and went out and shot it off in the air anyway, just to satisfy everyone. I guess those two boys never dusted up the hill so fast in all their life, expecting maybe another shot.
We finally dug a ditch to Annie’s house and got the water in in 1938. Just a cold tap in the kitchen and a slop bucket beside the sink for a year of so. Then we dug a septic tank east of the house and put in bathroom fixtures and hot and cold water. That lightened the work a lot but we were still very very crowded, especially at meal time. Finally the men had time to dismantle an old house in the area and build a lean to over the kitchen door where we put a big table and used it as a dining room, down three steps from the kitchen.
About then we got a battery set radio. It was wonderful to get the world news every day but becoming very disturbing to hear it. Then one day in the fall of 1939 the news that we were all dreading to hear, came over the air. We were at war! It really shook us, more than we ever expected it to. The happy care-free talk at mealtime was changed a lot. The whole outlook of our operation as a ranch changed…
A day in Grandma’s life is exhausting, they sure worked hard. But honestly – ironing diapers!!! I remember mom complaining bitterly about washing out diapers in the toilet, and although I try to be more eco friendly, I have to admit I was pretty happy to just throw diapers in the trash.
We now have the story of how Aunt Gertie joined the community before she joined the family. I loved the story of our great grandfather Richard giving Auntie Sheila sweet treats. When my boy was born, I kept him off sugar for so long and was so careful. Then his first Christmas, when he was about 6 months, my dad took him on his knee – in the dining room here at grandma’s – and very gleefully put a gigantic spoon of Grandma’s Christmas sauce in his mouth. So that was the end of that. What a great way to start out with sugar though – that sauce is mad good.
Shortly before we were married, Percy gave me a fine big black saddle horse named Spades. He was part Arabian and very gentle. I loved to go out riding with the gang when they were working the cattle. Annie rode a very beautiful spirited bay hunter and she certainly was a good rider. Percy’s dad always had a string of coyote hounds following him and occasionally they would go after a poor little rabbit that crossed our path.
In 1929, Jack Copithorne and Dave Lawson combined their teams of horses and pulled Archie Arie’s(?) homestead house down to a spot between Nicoll’s and Jack’s to be used for a school house. All the children of the district were living in this neighbourhood at that time. The fall after we were married, 1932, the teacher Marg Erwin boarded with us and walked to this school. Marg was a city girl and found it very lonely at our place. She was extremely musical and we brought my mother’s piano out for her to play on. We enjoyed many musical evenings after that. Frank, Percy’s brother got married to Georgie McDougall in 1934 and lived on the XC ranch. That year Gertrude Flumerfelt came to teach and boarded with us until our Sheila was born in 1935. While Gertrude was here, my mother’s health deteriorated and she spent considerable time with us too. Sheila was a real pride and joy to everyone. The first baby girl to be born in the district for fifteen years and everyone made a great fuss over her and she was a darling. Percy’s dad used to hold her on his knee and give her little bits of food at mealtime. She sure started eating ice cream at an early age. By now my mother’s health was so poorly my dad rented a house in Cochrane no moved her in near the doctor. He was fortunate to get Mrs. EC Johnson, her dear friend to come and live with her and nurse her that year. She died when Sheila was only six months old.
When I was in Cochrane so much, Sheila came in close contact with my sister’s daughter Aileen, who was, unknown to us, just coming down with the whooping cough. Sheila caught the whooping cough and what a winter we had after that! Frank was in the hospital all winter and poor Georgie was alone with Richard who was only a tiny baby then. Sheila’s health was poor after that until she was two years old when we had to have her tonsils out.
Percy’s father died in April 1936, when Sheila was just a year old. It threw the whole responsibility of the ranch and family on Percy and Frank’s shoulders. Clarence was only fourteen years old. He seemed so young to lose his father after having lost his mother when only two years old. Annie carried on as usual that summer, cooking etc for the haying crew, for which I was very thankful. But it was a short haying season and by then when I took on the job of feeding the men, the poultry and dairy, I was expecting my second child. But I at last got a washing machine of my own and certainly needed it with all the men’s clothes to wash as well as our own. Sometimes there were as many as fifteen shirts to iron each week. The washing machine was run by a gas engine – a very temperamental one. I often gave up trying to get it started then in anger would give it a swift kick and it would start.
I churned once or twice a week and with the butter and eggs bought the groceries. Butter requires a lot of cold, cold water to wash all the buttermilk out of the butter and to make it firm. Then you add salt and work and work it in, then pat it into a mould so that the result weighs exactly one lb. My churn was a big wooden barrel, one that made about thirty lbs at a churning. We carried the water from a well on the other side of Annie’s house. It seemed like a quarter of a mile away. We had a big Windlass built out in the corral and butchered our beef there. Hung it up on the Windlass to clean and skin, about an hour’s work. Then after it hung in a cool place for ten days we would cut it up and put it into a brine and some into jars and cooked. I also canned chicken. I remember one time I starved the roosters etc and the other chickens to be butchered as usual the night before so that they would have empty crops and be easier to handle. Never thinking about the weed seeds in the bottom of the trough. The chickens ate them. I had forty beautifully jelled jars of chicken but when I opened them to use they smelt so strong of stink weed and tasted like it too, I nearly wept when I couldn’t use them.
As I said before, money was scarce and there was no hope of making our tiny kitchen larger. I loved my little kitchen when there were only the three of us, but that winter, trying to crowd four and sometimes six more people around our table and then squeeze between it and the stove was just impossible. I use admit we were a jolly crew and had many hearty laughs and jokes about it all.
That winter was a long one. Marshall was born in March and about that time Percy brought his cows home from Olds. He bought some of their hay they had for sale and when he got it home the cattle wouldn’t eat it. It was slough hay that they had cut on top of the ice and it didn’t even make good bedding. When driving them home from he stockyards in Cochrane, one old cow just played out about four miles south of Cochrane so he had to leave her there as it was getting late. Next morning she was standing at the gate at the home corral.
Fortunately Marshall was a healthy, happy baby because I was too busy to fuss much. I remember very foolishly ironing diapers for Sheila and everything had to be just so, but not so with Marshall. We baked eight or ten loaves of bread every other day – set it to rise overnight. I used those hard Royal yeast cakes. I even made my own soap for a while. There was su much fat after butchering and I had a good soap recipe. Poor Sheila must have been a bit neglected then too because once when she was only two years old, she was playing around the yard while I was churning in the basement. She tried to look through the window and both she and the window crashed to the cement floor. It was a long fall. Fortunately she was not cut by glass but did bite her tongue and lip badly.