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Portrait of Life in Southern Alberta, 1920-40

Portrait of Life in Southern Alberta, 1920-40

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Published by nonavee
A man writes about growing up in a prairie farming town in Southern Alberta during the 1930s. Vivid, allows you to imagine exactly what it was like. From a historical book by Canadian genealogist Ann Jones, "David Allan Watson and Lydia Tanner Watson: their biographies, descendents, and ancestors".
A man writes about growing up in a prairie farming town in Southern Alberta during the 1930s. Vivid, allows you to imagine exactly what it was like. From a historical book by Canadian genealogist Ann Jones, "David Allan Watson and Lydia Tanner Watson: their biographies, descendents, and ancestors".

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Published by: nonavee on Jul 23, 2009
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05/11/2014

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R
'ortrait
of
lift
in
Southtrn Rlbtrta,
1920·40
excerp\B
!tom
the
autobiogrtlphy
at
BruceAnderson
Low,
husband
at
RuthWatson
_Editor's Introduction: In preparing this book, this excellent autobiography came to my attention.Bruce Low, born in 1919. vividly describes life in Cardston. a small Mormon community inSouthern Alberta. He depicts the common experience of all living there, as well as those living inany of the other small Mormon towns that existed at that time, such as Magrath and Raymond.Lydia and Dave Watson and their family lived in Magrath, Raymond, and Cardston. Life for themwas very much as portrayed by Bruce. -
...If Cardston is on the Canadian prairie. it is only just barely. The surroundingterrain is mostly quite hilly, and probably would be better used for ranching than grainfanning. Nevertheless, fanning is the main industry today, as it was 100 years ago.Fanners still have to work very hard to make a living on that windy,
dry,
rolling land.
It
was an interesting area for a boy to grow up in, with its creek-river-prairie-foothillmountain environment so close. My deepest feelings
of
place were forged there. and arewith me still.The dominant feature
of
the landscape is big Chief Mountain, Old Chief we calledit.
It
stands out to the east of the more or less north-south line of the Rocky Mountains,like a bastion on a defensive wall. Its imposing vertical eastern face masks a gentlysloping western side, composed
of
talus rocks, which makes it rather easy to climb, as Idiscovered in my earlier days. The view from the top overlooks at least one hundredmiles
of
prairie to the east, north and south --looking green and verdant in the earlysummer, and golden yellow in the autumn. with the rectangular fields of stubblecontrasting with the darker fields
of
summer fallow. In the wintertime, covered withsnow, perhaps a white desert would be the best description, as very few trees exist thereto break the flatness. Legend has it that Indian youths would climb to the top of OldChief and after fasting for a day or two, through dreams or inspiration wouldcommunicate with their Manitou seeking answers to the way in which they shouldconduct their adult life. I can't imagine a better place to go to leave the world behind.When the winter Chinook winds blow, the background mountain chain is often obscuredby the Chinook arch, a gray-purplish mass
of
cloud covering the mountains but notventuring onto the prairie. in spite
of
westerly winds up to 80 miles an hour. Thisbackground leaves Old Chief alone in the clear air and the blue sky. A truly noble andmagnificent sight, and the most impressive memory
of
the area in the minds
of
all wholive there, or who have lived there. except for maybe the wind.The prevailing wind is from the west.
It
comes from the north Pacific Ocean, heavywith moisture. As it blows toward the prairies, it bumps into the mountains of thewestern cordillera, where it loses its moisture as rain to western British Columbia and as
 
A Portrait
of
Life in Southern Alberta
snow to the mountain area. Once past the mountains it swoops down onto the prairies,drying the ground as it picks up the moisture it lost over the mountain area. This resultsin occasional spectacular droughts in the Alberta-Saskatchewan-Montana area, the lastone occurring in the early 1930s. Even in a normal year rainfall is barely adequate, andthis has led to numerous irrigation schemes in the area --a Mormon heritage.It's not all bad, however. How sweet it is to have the Chinook winds break aprolonged winter cold spell. When suddenly you can go outside without hat and gloves,when the sun reflects brilliantly from the slushy snow, when the icicles melt and drip anddrop
off
the eaves
of
buildings, and when one remembers that summertime will returnagain after all, even though everyone knows the Chinook will stop in a few days andwinter will return to grind out its allotted time. This warm wind does make snowwonderfully sticky for the making
of
snowballs and snowmen, and the reflected sunshinegives a temporary snow blindness to anyone coming inside out
of
the sun.This west wind causes snow drifts to form in gullies, on hillsides, and in anyprotected area. During the early ranching era, cattle from the open
plAins
would be drivenbefore the blizzard winds to seek shelter in coulees and river bottoms. There they wouldpile up and freeze to death. In more modem times the highways would drift over, makingtravel impossible unless a path was shoveled out. Before black top highways with deepborrow pits were built, people would often travel in groups, in order to supply sufficientshovel power to clear the road. Usually a truck heavily loaded would head such convoys,and would break the crust
of
the drifts. to make shoveling easier. The same Chinookwinds blow in summer too, but instead of causing snow to drift, it is topsoil that drifts,sometimes to the nearest coulee or fence line, and sometimes to the next township orprovince. Modem fanning techniques have today eliminated much of this soil drifting,thanks to strip fanning and shallow cultivation, but I can well remember the large blackclouds
of
drifting soil approaching and engulfing the town during the 1930s.The highway on the northern border of the town separates it from a large BloodIndian reservation, and also marks a definite division between the true prairie and thebeginning foothills. When I was a boy the town herd used to be
pastured
on thisreservation. Each morning after milking I would drive our cow to the herd corral andeach evening return to the same to retrieve her for the evening milking. There were abouta hundred cows in the herd, and in those days
of
no refrigeration or dairies, having yourown cow was a necessity.This reservation/prairie served also as a type
of
vacant lot playground for the boys
of
the town. In the spring we would work like beavers, carrying water to pour downgopher holes to drown out the poor things, just for the satisfaction
of
killing them. Thecruelty
of
the whole process never entered our minds, and the energy expended in theoperation would have astonished our parents, who had to endure our daily lassituderegarding household chores. As spring faded into summer the sloughs dried up and withit our source
of
water, our strategy then changed and we used binder twine snares. Howquiet and peaceful it was to lie on the prairie grass waiting for the gopher to pop its head
26
 
A Portrait
of
life
in
Southern
Alben.
up out
of
the hole. to be snared. The meadowlarks were always singing. the gopherssqueaking in their burrows, the breeze singing in the telephone wires. the ducks quackingin the lakes and sloughs, and with the pun-pun
of
the grain elevator engines in thebackground, all this softly combined to let small boys know that the earth was unrollingas it should, and it was good to be alive and secure in this. the best
of
all worlds. Again.the atavistic feeling
of
cruelty and killing was absent from our minds. leaving them blankfor the sensual feeling
of
smug contentment...In the springtime the grass --prairie wool --would have a brief period
of
colorwhen the anemones (crocuses) would bloom. spreading a splash
of
lavender over the flatareas. Later the gray-greenish tint
of
the grass slowly turned to the brownish-gray color
of
summer prairie land, as the sunshine matured and withered the stalks. In the gullieswouldgrow buffalobeans,shootingstars,buttercups, wildroses, andwolfwillow.togivethe lie to the thought that the prairie is always drab and colorless. Ground sparrows builttheir small cup-shaped nests on the ground in the open, and we always wondered howthose small birds could ever find their nest again as they flew home with insects in theirbeaks to feed their brood. The same meadowlarks that perched on the tops
of
telephonepoles or fence posts had nests in the tall grass, marvelously camouflaged. as did alsoprairie chickens (sharp tailed grouse) which were very common in those times. High inthe sky circled hawks soaring on the summer thermals, screaming their defiance
and
superiority to all and sundry down below. I used to think that ifthere was such a thing asreincarnation, I wanted to come back as a hawk...Lee Creek is about twenty-five miles in length. It begins as a spring halfway up thenorthwest side
of
Old Chief mountain. and flows through the foothills, through the town.
to
join the St. Mary's river farther on. The combined waters continue northeastward tojoin the Oldman River at the spot where the famous Fort Whoop Up was located in the1800s. The ten thousand years or so since the last ice age have given the stream time
to
carve out a fairly wide valley throughout much
of
its length, and as it progresses eastwardit goes through mountain, foothill and prairie habitats in that order, all in the space
of
twenty-five miles.
,
Since I lived a definitely rural/earthy existence, the creek area was part of myplayground centering around the farm, and particularly the swimming and fishing holes itcontained. What better reward for having picked berries all morning than to goswimming all afternoon. The sun was always shining and hot, the water tepid, the sandmedium fine, and our bodies unencumbered with bathing suits. We wound up thesummer brown as Indians, but clean, clean, clean .-daily swimming did it. Even oursaddle horses were' clean, for we rode them into the pool in order to dive
off
their backs.We also caught the odd fish, suckers mostly. though occasionally the odd careless trout.The water was crystal clear in the summer and fall, and we used copper wire to snarethem, yanking them over our heads with a shout
of
triumph and lugging them home
to
becooked for supper by our mothers. We somehow had the feeling that we were mimicking
the
Indians who had lived by this creek for so many ages past, and indeed we were.
27

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