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excerp\B !tom the autobiogrtlphy at
Bruce Anderson 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 in Southern Alberta. He depicts the common experience of all living there, as well as those living in any 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 them was very much as portrayed by Bruce.
...If Cardston is on the Canadian prairie. it is only just barely. The surrounding terrain is mostly quite hilly, and probably would be better used for ranching than grain fanning. 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 are with me still. The dominant feature of the landscape is big Chief Mountain, Old Chief we called it. 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 gently sloping western side, composed of talus rocks, which makes it rather easy to climb, as I discovered in my earlier days. The view from the top overlooks at least one hundred miles of prairie to the east, north and south -- looking green and verdant in the early summer, and golden yellow in the autumn. with the rectangular fields of stubble contrasting with the darker fields of summer fallow. In the wintertime, covered with snow, perhaps a white desert would be the best description, as very few trees exist there to break the flatness. Legend has it that Indian youths would climb to the top of Old Chief and after fasting for a day or two, through dreams or inspiration would communicate with their Manitou seeking answers to the way in which they should conduct 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 obscured by the Chinook arch, a gray-purplish mass of cloud covering the mountains but not venturing onto the prairie. in spite of westerly winds up to 80 miles an hour. This background leaves Old Chief alone in the clear air and the blue sky. A truly noble and magnificent sight, and the most impressive memory of the area in the minds of all who live 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, heavy with moisture. As it blows toward the prairies, it bumps into the mountains of the western 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 results in occasional spectacular droughts in the Alberta-Saskatchewan-Montana area, the last one occurring in the early 1930s. Even in a normal year rainfall is barely adequate, and this 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 a prolonged 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 and drop off the eaves of buildings, and when one remembers that summertime will return again after all, even though everyone knows the Chinook will stop in a few days and winter will return to grind out its allotted time. This warm wind does make snow wonderfully sticky for the making of snowballs and snowmen, and the reflected sunshine gives 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 any protected area. During the early ranching era, cattle from the open plAins would be driven before the blizzard winds to seek shelter in coulees and river bottoms. There they would pile up and freeze to death. In more modem times the highways would drift over, making travel impossible unless a path was shoveled out. Before black top highways with deep borrow pits were built, people would often travel in groups, in order to supply sufficient shovel 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 Chinook winds 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 or province. 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 black clouds 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 Blood Indian reservation, and also marks a definite division between the true prairie and the beginning foothills. When I was a boy the town herd used to be pastured on this reservation. Each morning after milking I would drive our cow to the herd corral and each evening return to the same to retrieve her for the evening milking. There were about a hundred cows in the herd, and in those days of no refrigeration or dairies, having your own 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 down gopher holes to drown out the poor things, just for the satisfaction of killing them. The cruelty of the whole process never entered our minds, and the energy expended in the operation would have astonished our parents, who had to endure our daily lassitude regarding household chores. As spring faded into summer the sloughs dried up and with it our source of water, our strategy then changed and we used binder twine snares. How quiet and peaceful it was to lie on the prairie grass waiting for the gopher to pop its head
A Portrait of life in Southern Alben.
up out of the hole. to be snared. The meadowlarks were always singing. the gophers squeaking in their burrows, the breeze singing in the telephone wires. the ducks quacking in the lakes and sloughs, and with the pun-pun of the grain elevator engines in the background, all this softly combined to let small boys know that the earth was unrolling as 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 blank for the sensual feeling of smug contentment... In the springtime the grass -- prairie wool -- would have a brief period of color when the anemones (crocuses) would bloom. spreading a splash of lavender over the flat areas. 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 gullies would grow buffalo beans, shooting stars, buttercups, wild roses, and wolf willow. to give the lie to the thought that the prairie is always drab and colorless. Ground sparrows built their small cup-shaped nests on the ground in the open, and we always wondered how those small birds could ever find their nest again as they flew home with insects in their beaks to feed their brood. The same meadowlarks that perched on the tops of telephone poles or fence posts had nests in the tall grass, marvelously camouflaged. as did also prairie chickens (sharp tailed grouse) which were very common in those times. High in the 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 as reincarnation, I wanted to come back as a hawk... Lee Creek is about twenty-five miles in length. It begins as a spring halfway up the northwest 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 to join the Oldman River at the spot where the famous Fort Whoop Up was located in the 1800s. 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 eastward it 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 my playground centering around the farm, and particularly the swimming and fishing holes it contained. What better reward for having picked berries all morning than to go swimming all afternoon. The sun was always shining and hot, the water tepid, the sand medium fine, and our bodies unencumbered with bathing suits. We wound up the summer brown as Indians, but clean, clean, clean .- daily swimming did it. Even our saddle 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 snare them, yanking them over our heads with a shout of triumph and lugging them home to be cooked 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.
A Portrait of Life in Southern Albena
The creek presents quite a different aspect during the spring run-off. When the heavy snow pack of the mountains and foothills is subjected to the increasingly vertical rays of the April sun. plus the warm Chinook winds. then the flooding can be quite a spectacle. This triple combination occurs about once every ten years. and increases the volume of water carried by a factor of twenty to thirty times. The roaring sound this meltwater makes can be heard for a week or so by anyone living within a mile of it... When C. O. Card. after whom Cardston was named. rode over BC [British Colwnbia] and Alberta (NWT) [Northwest Territories] in 1886 looking for a site for his future home. he originally chose a spot thirty miles north of the border. When on the following year the pioneers arrived there it was discovered that area was already taken up by the Cochrane ranch. and was out of bounds to homesteaders. They backtracked about fifteen miles to Lee Creek, and there settled. The land was still grass covered like the adjacent prairie, but was quite rolling, albeit picturesque. The Old North Trail came through this area, and travellers had been using it for a hundred centuries or longer. The immigrants came up from the south, over the Milk River ridge, through Whisky Gap. crossed the 51. Mary's river just north of Aetna and into Cardston. This was a route which roughly paralleled the old whisky traders trail, which originated at the steamship landing at Fort Benton, Montana and ended at Fort Whoop Up on the Oldman River. ten miles southwest of Lethbridge. Upon arrival the settlers built their log cabins out of the wind. in the creek valley. or on the quarter section homestead land. and began their new life. I can recall quite a few of these original dwellings still being lived in when I was young. Many of the old-timers still had their long beards, and their wives wore ankle length dresses. tight bodices and severely swept back hairdos. They had to labour long and hard to survive and prosper. The best complement a person could receive was to be told he was a hard worker. i.e. strong and willing. Mixed farming was the rule, everyone having cattle, pigs. chickens. etc. even in the town. Horsepower was being slowly phased out when I was born, being replaced by tractors and motor cars. This all took time however. and wasn't completed until after World War II. Roads were of graded up soil until the 1930s, and cars were not too dependable. I often rode in my uncle's one horse sleigh in the wintertime, and pushed cars out of mud holes in the road in the summertime. In town we had horse drawn drays 10 deliver groceries. coal and ice. The town hearse was drawn by two gray Percheron horses, and town boys had their own saddle ponies, which corresponded to the bicycles kids have today. People had to spend a good deal of time and energy on the mechanics of daily living. Every Monday morning after our breakfast of oatmeal. or cocoa and toast. we would heat a boilerful of water on the kitchen stove, cut up a bar of laundry soap into it, and add some lye. When it all began boiling, the scum from the hardness of the water was spooned off and the water was carried by bucket to the washing machine in the back
A Portrait of Life in Southern Alberta
room. About that time Dad would go to work, we kids would go to school, and Mother would be up to do the washing. At noon when we all assembled for our big meal of the day, I would empty the washer, bucket by bucket, and mop the floor in the back room before eating, while my sisters would hang up the clothes on the clothesline, where in the wintertime they would freeze solid. What a switch from today's automatic washers, completely undreamed of in 1930. Boys wore bib overalls or jeans (they weren't the height of fashion as they are today, rather a sign of poverty, not being able to afford real clothes) and home-knitted sweaters. Socks always had holes in thejn (nylon was still a number of years away, to be invented). Mothers were constantly darning them, putting them over old light globes to hold their shape while plying the darning needle. Clothing was constantly being made over and my mother was a whiz at it, using her treadle sewing machine. How she found/made time for all her projects I cannot to this day figure out. Bread was baked twice a week, garden vegetables were bottled every summer, 200-300 quarts, and that's a lot. Pickles, chokecherry jelly, peaches, pears, etc. for a family of six, were also bottled and stored away for the long hard winter that was sure to come, and always did. Peeling potatoes and carrots etc. for our noon dinner was done with a paring or butcher knife, which took five times as long as it does today, with our handy-dandy vegetable peelers, which hadn't been invented then. I can still remember our standard meal of fried hamburger or pork sausage (which we liked best) with milk gravy (a taste sensation that has nearly vanished today, what a pity) poured over mashed potatoes, together with creamed corn or creamed green beans, home baked bread, perhaps home made cottage cheese (we called it Dutch cheese) or pickles, and for dessert probably a half hour pudding or a dish of preserved saskatoons (we called them sarvis berries). In the summertime we ate radishes, which were usually wormy, and lettuce with our meals, especially at supper, which often was bread and milk eaten with a spoon, out of a drinking glass. Our supreme taste sensation was corn on the cob from our own garden, golden bantam or sunshine varieties. Farmers spent several weeks a year putting up hay for their animals (horses mainly), doing most of it by hand, i.e. pitchforks. Grain was cut and formed into bundles by a binder and was then stooked by hand, often by women and boys, at a wage of one dollar a day or ten cents an acre. Stooking means piling eight to ten bundles into a bunch, with the heads of grain off the ground, to ripen for a week or two prior to being picked up (by pitchfork), loaded on hay racks and carried to the separator (threshing machine), where the kernels of grain were separated from the chaff (straw). This straw was left in large straw stacks, scattered here and there over the landscape, to be used as winter cattle feed. The cattle would create large tunnels as they ate their way into the center of the stack. The next spring, ducks would make their nests in these decaying straw piles, and later in the year everything would be burned (stacks and stubble) to clear the land for seeding, thus polluting the atmosphere for miles around with the smoke.
A Portrait or Life in Southern Alberta . I
A Portrait of Life in Southern Alberta
All of our buildings were heated with coal and wood. Supplying it was good business for local mines and sawmills, hauling it into the house was the job of the family's children, cleaning up the dirtiness and smokiness after it was burned was the mother's bane and burden. Long underwear and sweaters were worn all winter long. We did have, however, several spectacular house fires every season, because of this means of home heating. An antiquated fire truck plus a volunteer fire department insured that the fires had ample opportunity to bum, also insuring that a good time was had by all who turned out to watch it... The volunteer fire department typified the way in which pioneer communities functioned. Many people had their opportunity to serve on the town councils, school boards, agricultural committees, Scout committees, Church positions, etc. It was participatory democracy in action and it made people feel that they were important and that their opinion mattered. Furthermore, the cooperation thus enabled people to have conveniences they would otherwise have missed, e.g. rural telephones, irrigation schemes, beef rings, libraries, etc. Most homes had a large barn located at the bottom of the lot, in which they kept a cow or two, and a pig and some chickens. By the time fall arrived, several loads of prairie grass hay had been purchased from the local Indians at two dollars a load, delivered -- just imagine. This hay had been pitched into the loft until filled, and the balance piled outside at the back of the barn in a large stack. Thus for a six to eight dollar outlay for cow feed, a family could be supplied with milk all winter These barns at the bottom of the lot were sometimes the leftover horse barn from the horse and buggy era (pre-1920) and sometimes it was a later structure built solely for a cow, with occasionally an enlargement or a lean-to on one side to be used as a chicken coop or pig pen. A family cow served two purposes: first, obviously, to furnish needed milk, cream and butter, and second, to give a job for the young boys of the town, to teach them responsibility and animal husbandry, and presumably to occupy their time such that they wouldn't be able to frequent the local pool hall... These animals belonged to a town herd in the summer time. Each morning after the cow was milked, I had to drive her to the edge of town to join about one hundred other animals, all of which were entrusted to the care of a local herdsman, who pastured them on the grass of the Blood Indian reservation adjacent to the town. At six o'clock in the evening they were driven into a large corral, from which the owners retrieved them, driving them home for the evening milking. In my mind's eye I can still see all these cows being distributed throughout the town in the hot, dusty summer evening sunshine. At least half of them had to be driven the length of main street to reach their barns. This was no great problem because all the stores shut down promptly at 6 p.m. Traffic was minimal by then (there wasn't too much traffic anytime, anyway) and to this day I cannot remember thinking there was anything unusual about it all. Didn't every town drive cows down their main street? Didn't all towns have cow pies splattered all over their roads to mix with the plentiful horse manure and dust and mud? The truth is that all towns of that
A Portrait of Life in Southern Albena
era and area did. Overall it was then considered good husbandry and provident living. and an indication of a degree of prosperity. It was all of these, but it was also of a time and custom long gone. By the beginning of World War II it had vanished. Horses too, had practically disappeared by then. During the 1920s and the early 19305 (Great Depression time) they were still the mainstay of most of the farming of the area. They were also used in town dray service, delivering coal and wood. groceries and ice, gravel and lumber, and pulling the town hearse. They pulled wagons in the summer and sleighs in the winter, and were often more dependable than the Model Ts or Model A Fords, or Chevies or Stars, or McLaughlin Buicks, or Durants of that period. Our town had two harness shops, with the semisweet smell of oily leather mixed with the pungent acidy smell of horse sweat ever-present. There were three blacksmith shops also. where small boys would watch the smith rasp the horses hoofs, work the bellows on the forge. pound the metal horse shoes into the proper fit and nail them home onto the hooves of often skittish horses. The smell of the buming slack coal on the air-pumped forge. mixed with the always present perfume of horse manure gave a most distinctive "air" to the place. By 1939 all three blacksmith shops had gone, their workers had retired or died or joined the army to become welders and/or cannon fodder in the coming war. When the Palliser expedition was sent out by the Canadian goverrunent in the late 1850s it reported that, in effect, there was a large triangle (roughly, Edmonton. south to the border, east to Winnipeg, back to Edmonton) which was unsuitable for agriculture and settlement. Time has proven them only partly right. Most of this large area supports agricultural communities to the tune of several million people, thanks to better farming methods, machinery, seeds etc. The greatest physical problem is drought, although uncertain market prices are a perennial worry as well. During the 1930s when a major drought came hand in hand with a world wide depression, farmers in the western part of Alberta certainly had hard times. but were spared the calamity of total crop failure that occurred in areas farther east in the Great Plains region. Hard work and minimal rainfall enabled them to just keep their heads above water. My father worked in a town totally dependent on the farming trade, and so our family had hard times too. The strongest exterior influencing force on my life was the depression of the dirty thirty era. Hard as life became physically, it was even harder for people to maintain courage, hope and optimism. However, we were lucky to be living in a town containing many people who, by their influence, rallied and encouraged people to hang on. President Wood, our Church leader,spent his-life prevailing upon his many flocks to strive to lead honorable lives and to work hard and intelligently, promising us all that by so doing we would win in the end. His wise counsel constantly lifted spirits in those dark days. The calibre of men and women who taught me in grade and high school was also of the highest degree. As I have observed their lives over the past fifty years, I realize how fortunate I was to have been taught by them. From them I learned attitudes as well as facts.
A Portrait of Life in Southern Alberta
The cultural events we had were surprising. both in numbers and quality. Due to the fact that we were cut off in a comer of the province. having poor roads and undependable transportation. we were forced to improvise on our own. There were quite a number of people who spent considerable time and energy promoting music. drama. dance. etc. Each year the community would sponsor and perform a different operetta. such as The Mikado or Once in a Blue Moon. or Once in a Pirate 's Lair. most of which are long forgotten now. They involved the efforts of fifty to one hundred people over several winter months. and were of a surprisingly high standard of performance. They were the highlight of our winter season. Church dances were held almost weekly. and thanks to a prepaid budget system. they were within the means of most people and provided much of their winter entertainment. School festivals taught the art of speaking in public, and at the very least furnished the opportunity for shy country kids to partly overcome their bashfulness. This ten year depression period provided me with a schooling of sorts in human nature. It brought out the goodness in many people and the weaknesses of others. I found out that honesty and decency and compassion are often ignored in the struggle to survive. I know how it feels to be a "have-not" and the resulting envy of. and semi-anger toward the "haves". The feeling of bitterness that those at the bottom end of the ladder have because they feel they are not getting their fair slice ofthe pie. I've seen the hopelessness in the faces of people who have been slammed down too often by adversity. their supply of toughness and optimism completely exhausted. and seen how necessity sometimes forces people to live a nearly animal-like existence... My public school and high school education followed the method then in vogue. which had considerable rote learning, especially in the lower grades. This method isn't all bad, because everyone needs a base from which to learn to think, but it was often carried to excess. I can't forget teachers whacking kids over the head with a ruler because they couldn't remember the date of the Magna Carta. or how much was seven times six. Exam results were graded down to a fraction of a percentage point, and pupils were considered "smart" if their average was over 80%, and only mediocre if only 79%. Failure was under 50%. The names of the passing (and failing) students. with their final marks, were published in our weekly local paper each June. Just how it might have affected a kid's self confidence was never considered. This approach to education was brought in from the province of Ontario, which in tum had imported it directly from England, thanks to their United Empire Loyalist ancestry -- it was Tom Brown's School Days 100 years later. Queen Victoria would have been pleased. Fortunately this whole approach died away with my generation-and about time, too. As well as the three R' s, we studied courses in citizenship, art and art appreciation, English grammar, geography. history, etc. Our maps of the world showed a great deal of red, i.e., British Commonwealth countries, and we studied English history almost exclusively, together with the geography of those red places on the map; we even spent a fair amount of time studying Canada. Our literature, history and geography
A Portrait of Life in Southern Albena
pointedly excluded any reference to the US whatsoever. If I hadn't been living just fifteen miles from the border with connections to my Utah relatives. I could have spent the first dozen years of my life believing the US was a vast. relatively uninhabited wilderness. I have since discovered that this stupid antipathy was mutual and that American kids were educated to believe that Canada was one vast snow field. probably still do. The main thrust of our four years of high school was to prepare us for university entrance. We wrote departmental examinations (provincial) every June and paid $10 or so for the marking thereof. About one out of ten went on to more formal education. Once a year a school "inspector" - would visit each classroom 10 insure that the Department of Education curriculum was being followed. Since teachers were graded on this rwo hour visit, considerable effort was made 10 make a favorable impression -- after all, a teacher's future standing and salary depended on it. In the three years I taught school I had a special pre-rehearsed program drawn up for the day the inspector arrived. all the kids were in on it too. It seemed to work, although I'm sure the inspector (he' s now called superintendent) wasn't fooled much. During the 1920s and 30s school inspectors were mostly veterans of the 1914-18 war, as were many of the civil servants of that period -- Indian agents. policemen. post office workers, national park employees, etc. Not just all of them were competent in their jobs, but they were surviving veterans and the government rightly gave them preference. These people were strong supporters of the authoritarian, British oriented. semi-caste system of society which paid their salaries and they seemed to go out of their way to let us farmers and low-lifes know that they were definitely one cut above us. In one respect they were, with their dependable jobs and good salaries (for that time), but I know now that we were 100 easily conned and looked up to many phonies simply because they had government largesse to thank for their position. Since many of them were from urban areas of our nation they also brought what we thought of as their sophisticated condescension with them, as they raised their families out here in the sticks. In fairness. I must admit that it must have been hard on them to live in a community which was 90% Mormon and which oriented itself much more to Utah than to Ottawa. Socially we didn't mix very much. By and large it was a draw -- they looked down on us and we ignored them, both positions being mutually exclusive... Our public school in town had eight classrooms surrounding a gymnasium. This just nicely accommodated the first eight grades (l to Vlll, no kindergarten) with about thirty to thirty-five pupils per grade, one teacher per room. The building was siruated in the middle of a block, the playground space was a grass-weed mixture interspersed with areas covered with coal ashes which had been carried out from the furnace. The west half of the grounds was the girls side, and the east half. the boys, with no mixing. When the bell rang we lined up to be marched in, two by two, girls first, lower grades leading. Sometimes a teacher would play a march tune on the piano located in the hall and sometimes just a "left-right. left-right" by the teacher in charge would do the trick. Our desks had inkwells in them (shades of the 1890s) to be used with the straight pens and
A Portrait of Life in Southern Alben.
nibs that were in vogue at the time. (How could anyone possibly learn to write with those newfangled fountain pens, after all? Those goose quill types had been used successfully for hundreds of years, hadn't they?) Every room had solid windows on the peripheral side of the building which gave excellent light and ventilation. The front wall of each room was blackboard, with additional blackboards on the sidewall vertical sliding doors. which camouflaged the hooks we hung our coats on. The floors were of wood and were kept well oiled to keep down the dust. This gave a certain smell to the school and also would have provided excellent fuel for a fire, which fortunately never did occur... The one thing that set us apart from the hundreds of other small towns in the west was the Church. For a dusty rural village, Cardston had a great amount of musical activity. This was related directly to its LDS background and its aim to instill a bit of culture into our lives. As well as the usual religious influence on morals and ethics and it was pretty exclusive there -- it took over most of our social life. It sponsored nearly all of the cultural events in our community (dances, drama, picnics, lectures. etc.) as well as sporting events. Because nearly everyone was a Church member, all civic affairs were influenced by the Church position on cooperation. honesty, hard work and optimism. It gave scope for people to feel responsible and worthwhile in their own eyes. This outlook on life has been a great boon to me personally and I am indebted to the Church and the people behind it.
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