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Dadís parents fitted out a covered
wagon in 1880 so they could move from Ontario to the Moose Mountains in
the Northwest Territories.
The prairies were good for farming
wheat, but if you wanted a log cabin, you needed trees nearby. The closest
trees were in the Moose Mountains. My grandparents wanted to live in a log
cabin more than they wanted great farmland, so they moved out of the
prairies and into the mountains.
They loaded all their possessions into
the covered wagon. The last thing on was their four year-old son, who
would become my father. Everything went smoothly until they were only 35
miles from their destination, at the Oxbow River.
ÖI should say, ďin the Oxbow
River.Ē They had crossed several rivers on the trip, but they didnít
realize this one was the deepest. When they were less than halfway across,
the wagon stopped. The river was so deep the horses' hooves didnít reach
bottom any more. They were treading water and straining to keep their
heads above the surface.
The horses couldnít pull the wagon
further. They couldnít back it up or turn it around either. If
Grandfather didnít do something quickly, the riverís current would
topple the wagon and drown the horses.
Grandmother was terrified as she sat in
the precarious wagon with her young son and everything she owned.
Grandfather didnít make her feel much better when jumped overboard and
pulled the kingpin, setting the horses free.
When the horses got to land, Grandfather
hooked a chain from them to the wagon. They easily pulled the wagon to the
When my Grandparents got to the Moose
Mountains, they homesteaded a quarter section (160 acres), built a log
cabin, and raised their family. Eventually, Dad had two brothers and a
Dad was supposed to grow up with cousins
also. Two years after Grandfather moved his family to the mountains, his
cousin brought his family from Ontario in a covered wagon to homestead
They never arrived. Indians massacred
the entire family.
Grandfather worked for other
homesteaders in the Moose Mountains to earn money. Usually, he was just
gone for the day, but sometimes he stayed overnight. On the days he was
gone, Grandmother milked the cow.
One day, when Grandmother was milking
the cow, Dad wandered into the forest. Grandmother frantically searched a
long time before finding him. From then on, whenever she milked the cow,
she tethered Dad to the kitchen table leg. Dad hated that, but it saved
One day, Grandmother rushed in from
milking the cow and lowered the beam that locked the door. She said she
saw about thirty Indians riding their horses towards the house. She untied
Dad and they crawled under the bed. They stayed as quiet as they could.
When they needed to talk, they whispered.
The Indians looked in the window but
didnít break into the house. Then they left.
Dadís childhood left then, also. Grandmother didnít need to tie him to the table after that.
Lots of young Irish people came to America in the
1800s. Usually it was because their families were very poor. That wasnít
the case with my motherís father, Charles Perry. He grew up in a castle
in Northern Ireland.
His motherís family was wealthy because she was a descendant of Oliver Cromwell. Iím not sure how proud we should be of that connection. He ruled England in the 1650s, but many people didnít like him. They dug him up three years after he died and executed him.
Grandfather may have had a large dose of Oliver
Cromwellís genes in him. I donít know what Grandfather did before he
left town at the age of 27, but he didnít want anyone from Northern
Ireland to know where he was. My mother said he never talked about his
childhood, hometown, or family. He never sent a card on a holiday or
contacted them in any way after coming to America in 1875.
When my uncle, Arthur Perry, was on furlough during
World War I, he visited the castle and stayed with his relatives. They
warned him not to go out at night because the locals might kill him.
That didnít have anything to do with whatever made
his father leave. It was because their family wasnít Catholic.
My youngest aunt, Pearl Perry-Orr, visited the castle
during World War II. Our relatives werenít living there any more. The
new residents didnít invite her in. They didnít even open the door far
enough for a person to squeeze through.
Iím sure there are lots of interesting Perry family
stories from Donegal County in Northern Ireland. Grandfather didnít want
us to know them.
Maybe Grandfather knows best.
My motherís father arrived in New York in 1875 cold, hungry, and very seasick.
It had been stormy during the entire crossing from Northern Ireland, so the passengers had to stay below deck in the rocking, rolling ship. Almost everyone gets seasick down there.
Crossing the Atlantic was expensive, even in crowded ships like Grandpaís. Many immigrants spent all their money for the fare and arrived broke. Grandpa was one of those. It wasnít a problem, though. As soon as he arrived, he joined the United States Army.
Grandpa loved the Army. He appreciated the warm clothes and plentiful food, but the best part was that the ground didnít move.
The Army sent Grandpa out west to fight the Indian Wars. Lots of homesteaders and prospectors were claiming land in the northern Plains and the Indians didnít like it. The Army kept them from doing anything about it most of the time.
Six years later, Grandpa was discharged as a Major. That left him in northern Minnesota with warm clothes and lots of money. He was quite a catch for the young pioneer woman, Selena York. He met her just across the border, in Manitoba. They married late in 1881 and headed west to claim a homestead.
Selena wanted to settle in Edmonton, where her cousin lived. So they fitted out a covered wagon and bought two horses and two cows. Horses walk faster than cows, so Grandpa hired a man to take care of the cows. Then they started on the 800-mile journey.
During the day, the cowboy and the cows fell behind the covered wagon, but they caught up in the evening after Grandpa and Grandmother stopped to set up camp and make dinner.
Even this faster way of traveling was too slow. By the time they got to the town of Wynyard, about half way to Edmonton, Selenaís pregnancy was showing. Thatís where Mr. Wynyard gave them some good advice.
ďYouíd better build a log cabin here or the baby will be born in the snow,Ē he said. He also told them the local Indians were friendly. That meant a lot to Grandpa. Heíd seen enough Indian wars.
Grandpa and Grandmother homesteaded a quarter section of land near Punnichy, about 20 miles south of Wynyard, in 1882. Thanks to Mr. Wynyardís advice, Grandmother gave birth to my mother, Verna Perry, in a comfortable log cabin on December 16th.
Mother was the first Anglo-Saxon female born in the Northwest Territories. Thatís fitting because one of her motherís ancestors, William Brewster, was an elder on the Mayflower.
Unfortunately, I never met my motherís mother. She died shortly after giving birth to her second child, Fred.
Grandpa thought it would be best for his children to live with their motherís parents, so he brought them to their home in Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, Ontario.
They didnít stay there long, though. Grandpa married Selenaís sister, Mary, and they moved back to the homestead in Punnichy. While living there, they had eight more children - seven boys and one girl.
Boys are really good to have around the farm, especially if youíre not a very good farmer, like Grandpa. Growing up in a castle, he didnít learn much about farming. Even when he lived on the homestead, he wasnít too interested in it.
As soon as the boys were able, they took care of the farm. The eight boys ran it well. Eventually, the fifth boy, my uncle Walter Perry, took it over. Grandpa got involved in local politics.
He was one of five men elected to the board. They governed the equivalent of a county. Grandpa was the chairman of the governing board. That made him the reeve. I donít know if he earned a salary for his service, but once a year the government paid his fare to Regina, the capital.
One nice thing
about growing up in a castle is that it often includes a good education.
Iím sure Grandpaís education helped him in politics. He also passed a
lot of it on to my mother. When she grew up and was sent to Regina, she
was able to get a teacherís credential and then teaching jobs in nearby
She enjoyed her one-room schoolhouse in the Fernley district, but gave it up when she met her husband.
How did she know that Walter was the right guy?
It was easy. His last name was ďHusband.Ē
the ďLuck of the IrishĒ work for people from Northern Ireland? My
motherís father had a lot of it on June 25, 1876. That was the date of
Custerís Last Stand.
was in the army, fighting Indians in that area, from 1875 to 1881.
Luckily, he wasnít one of the 225 soldiers chosen to cross the Little
Big Horn River and fight Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse on that day. None of
Indians thought of that as a victory, but it really wasnít. It prompted
the Army to send many more soldiers. The Indians lost a lot more than 225
people because of it.
of the first things I learned in medical school is that life isnít fair.
All you can do is make the best of whatever comes your way.
the late 1800s, the Sioux in the northern Plains saw a lot of unfair
things come their way. Unfortunately, their leader, Sitting Bull, didnít
make the best of it. Fighting the U.S. Army was a really poor decision. By
July of 1881, he realized that and surrendered.
movies glorify fighting to the death as honorable. I think thereís more
honor in admitting defeat as soon as you realize you canít win. Any
lives lost after that are just wasted.
days, Osama bin Laden is acting like Sitting Bull before he surrendered.
While they each had one dramatically successful strike, afterwards, itís
cost their followers dearly. I wonder if an Indian elder could talk some
sense into Osama.
Sitting Bull surrendered, it brought peace to the area and unemployment to
lots of soldiers. Grandpa was one of them.
about that time, a little further north, my young father and his mother
were hiding under a bed in their cabin. They were afraid that the band of
Indians outside their cabin was going to kill them.
Grandparents guessed that the only reason the Indians didnít come
through the window was that they were afraid of getting shot. The Indians
knew there were guns and people in the cabin, but didnít know exactly
where they were hiding.
family was glad the Indians decided to leave. Why didnít they set the
cabin on fire? Maybe they were friendly Indians. It was hard to tell the
year later, my grandfatherís cousin must have met unfriendly Indians
while he was moving his family to their area in a covered wagon. The
Indians killed them all.
50 years later, I was driving to Carlyle to pick my brother up from the
train depot. As I passed the White Bear Indian Reservation, I saw a man a
half-mile away, walking though the snow towards the road. I stopped.
young Indian thanked me for waiting for him as he got into the car.
be storm,Ē he said. Indian boys spoke a little English because the
government built a school on the Reservation.
may have learned English in the government school, but he learned to read
the sky from someone else. He was right. It stormed so hard that evening
that I couldnít drive back home. My brother and I had to stay in a
I got to Carlyle, the Indian thanked me again for the lift and got out of
the car. He was a nice young man.
his grandfather one of the Indians outside my grandparentsí cabin in
1881? Was he one of the Indians who killed my grandfatherís cousinís
family? Did my motherís father kill any of his relatives?
thoughts didnít cross my mind. They didnít matter then, and as time
goes on, they matter even less. Whatever happened in the past was done by
other people, not us.
important is that we get along fine now. We trust and help each other,
work well together, and come together in times of need. We donít waste
time trying to hurt each other, and we donít have to protect ourselves
from each other. Peace makes life better for everyone.
some ways, wild animals are smarter than us. If two bears want the same
territory, theyíll show how ferocious they are. If one is obviously
going to win, there wonít be a fight. If they do fight, itís usually
over in a few minutes and they both survive. They never have long wars
where thousands or millions are killed.
boy becomes a man at different ages in different cultures. For
homesteaders, the magic age was eighteen. Thatís when he can claim a
homestead of his own.
father picked out a beautiful quarter section of rolling hills and shallow
ponds five miles northwest of his parentsí farm. More than half of it
was covered with willows and poplars, but there were several meadows for
farming and grazing.
loved looking at the Moose Mountains from his land. They were just a few
miles south, but surrounded by a blue haze. He named the farm, ďPleasant
you didnít improve a homestead within five years, the government took it
back, so Dad built a log barn right away for a cow and horses.
the next few years, he built a log cabin, fenced the property, built up
his herd of cattle, and developed some farmland. Ė But something was
missing. He needed a wife.
Saturday night, the farmers in the area got together at the schoolhouse
for a little party. A different family supplied the refreshments each
week. Most people played a card game called ďWhist,Ē but Dad was more
interested in the schoolteacher.
and Dad enjoyed each otherís company and corresponded for years - but
every time he proposed, she turned him down.
was a fundamental undenominational Christian and wanted to marry a man who
shared her beliefs. Eventually, she asked Dad to join her brother at the
Beamsville Bible School in Ontario. Dad couldnít farm in the winter, so
he joined Fred at school for those months.
was pleased when Fred wrote her that Dad was baptized by immersion. She
might have married him then if her fatherís second wife hadnít died,
leaving two babies and three school-aged children. Mother was the only
adult daughter, so Grandfather Perry thought she should take care of the
Perry asked Mother to quit her job in the Fernley District and move back
to his farm. He was chairman of the local school board, so he arranged for
her to teach at their one-room school.
liked having her half-brothers in her class. She said that Uncle Harvey was
a very good student, but Uncle Walter was mostly interested in sharpening
not as foolish as it sounds. Pencil sharpeners were pretty new at that
time. The mechanism fascinated Walter. Also, he had just graduated from
using a slate and slate pencil to using paper and a lead pencil. The lead
pencil was a status symbol for him. He was proud of it and liked keeping
it in good condition.
he grew up, he took over Grandfather Perryís farm and used mechanical
farm equipment every day. He always kept the equipment in good condition,
like his first pencil.
was always fair with everyone in her classes, but the parents thought
sheíd favor her brothers over the other students. She didnít like the
didnít like the chores at home, either. She was now responsible for a
large family in addition to teaching during the day. It was a heavy
workload. She worried that she might be the third young woman to die in
father and the older brothers could take care of themselves, but the two
youngest children needed a mother. She couldnít leave themÖbut she
could take them with her.
wrote to Dad and offered to marry him if the two youngest children could
live with them. He agreed immediately. They married in January of 1910 and
raised Lynn and Pearl as their own.
raised five children. There were plenty of chores, and no electricity or
plumbing until the 1950s. This was the hard life she thought would kill
All the relatives went back to Pleasant View in 1982 to help Mother celebrate her 100th birthday.
days, most teamsters wouldnít know what to do with a horse, but without
horses there would be no teamsters. A teamster used to be anyone who could
handle a team of horses Ė and that included people who operated heavy
engines replaced horses, heavy equipment operators continued to call
themselves teamsters, even though they didnít work with horses anymore.
My father was a real teamster. He worked with teams of horses, but never
had a union card.
he went to town for the mail and groceries, he just took a horse and
wagon, but if he needed to haul anything heavy, he used a team. He usually
used a two-horse team on a wagon or sled, but heavier pieces of farm
equipment needed teams of five or six horses.
good teamster could move a larger load with the same wagon and horses by
matching them correctly and loading the wagon right. If Dad knew one horse
pulled to the right, he paired it with one that pulled to the left Ė but
not so theyíd push into each other. Some horses were nervous in the
lead, but others thrived on it. He balanced the teamís strength by
putting some strong horses on each side.
he just had a two-horse team, one horse was usually stronger. He made sure
the stronger horse got the heavier load, so they moved the wagon easier.
The most difficult part was getting it started from a dead stop. Sometimes
he loaded it so heavy they couldnít get going unless Dad got off the
know that sounds like Dadís secret was a swig of booze, but he was a
strict born-again Christian. He never touched a drop of alcohol.
real secret was that his horses liked him. He understood them and did what
he could to give them what they wanted. They appreciated that and did what
they could for him when he asked for a little extra effort.
never had teams wider than two abreast. The wagons were made to fit that
size of a team. Ė And the roads were made to fit that size of a wagon.
Later, cars were made to fit that size of a road. The next time you look
at a car, you might notice that the wheelbase is about as wide as
our roads were dirt, and rutted from wagon wheels. Wagon wheels were
pretty large, so the ruts got deep. As long as your wagon had the right
spacing between its wheels, the roads fit the wagon well. If your wheels
were spaced too wide or narrow, the roads would wear out your wheels and
one time we had 35 draft horses on the farm. The numbers went up slowly
most years, but down quickly in others. Every four or five years, we lost
a lot of horses to a disease the mosquitoes transmitted.
1930, there was a vaccine to protect horses from the virus. I donít know
if the vaccine was available before then, but even if it was, it
wouldnít have helped us. We didnít have a vet in our area until then.
we didnít have enough horses, my father used oxen. They were a lot
slower than horses, but if it wasnít for them, we wouldnít have been
able to operate the farm. Keeping oxen was like having insurance against
and mosquitoes didnít bother oxen like they bothered horses, but the
heat bothered them more. Horses sweat like we do when theyíre hot. Oxen
have to stop and hang out their tongues when they get too hot.
were so slow, some farmers didnít want to waste more time by stopping
when they were hot. My father knew if he didnít allow the oxen to stop
and cool themselves, they would walk to the next pond they saw and lie
down in it. Dad was the teamster, but the oxen were the ones who were
liable to strike.
1922, Dad was so proud of a couple of his sheep that he entered them in
the Wawken Municipality Fair. We all got in the wagon with the sheep that
morning and drove to Kennedy. While we were waiting for the judging, Dad
entered the sled-pulling contest.
we only used sleds in the winter, when they were easier to pull than
wagons. Youíd never use a sled when there wasnít snow on the ground
because it would be too difficult to pull. But the purpose of sled-pulling
contest was to have such a difficult load that only the best team could
farmers took turns harnessing their two-horse teams to the sled to prove
they could move it. Then a few men from the crowd stood in the box on the
sled. The teams that couldnít move the loaded sled were disqualified.
Then more people got on the sled. Eventually, the sled was so heavy that
only one team could budge it. - Dadís, of course. His horses gave a
little extra effort for him.
everyone can appreciate an artesian well. It helps if youíve dug a well
or two yourself. I guess that makes my father a connoisseur.
was an artesian well on a farm two miles south of ours. Underground
pressure pushed the water to the surface. Water just flowed right out of
the pipe. They didnít even need a pump.
next best thing to an artesian well is one like my fatherís younger
brother had on his farm two miles west of us. He only had to dig down 14
feet. He needed a pump to get the water out, but he always had all the
water he wanted. His well never went dry.
father had to dig down more than 25 feet for water on our property. Even
though our well was deeper, it went dry in the winter - usually in
that happened, Dad drove the cattle to Uncle Johnís farm, where there
was plenty of water.
donít want you to get the wrong picture here. When Dad drove cattle, he
didnít put them in the back seat of his car. They walked. He rode a
was in the early 1900s, when no one in the Moose Mountains had a car. Even
though people have cars these days, when you drive cattle, they still
always believed it was possible to dig a year-round well on our property,
so he kept digging them. He got pretty good at it. He and a helper could
dig a well in a week or so. He never dug a well alone.
person dug while the other hauled up the dirt. Also, the helper could
rescue the digger if the sides collapsed. When the digger got tired, they
starting to dig, Dad picked up a wagonload of 12-foot 1 x 4s from the
lumberyard in town. When the well was 12 feet deep, he lined the sides
with the boards. It looked a like a very tall 5-foot wide barrel. As the
boards absorbed moisture from the soil, they swelled, getting nice and
liner kept the sides of the well from collapsing, so the well stayed open
for a long time. It also made it safe to dig deeper. When they dug down to
24 feet, heíd build another liner.
gave up digging wells after his fourth one went dry. Thatís when he
hired a man with a drilling rig to get water from a lower level.
man used the same equipment he used to drill for oil. He didnít expect
to find oil on our land, but sometimes you get surprised. My father
wasnít hoping for oil, though. He wanted water.
they struck oil, it wouldnít belong to my father. Homesteaders own the
mineral rights only within forty feet of the surface. Anything below that
belongs to the government. When oil is discovered under a homestead, the
homesteader might be able to rent space on the surface for the oil company
to place a pump, but he wouldnít get anything for the oil they removed
from his land.
they didnít strike oil. Unluckily, they had to drill for eight days and
276 feet before reaching water. The last foot took four hours. They
stopped in a layer of gravel. Thatís good for holding water, but itís
difficult to build a well in.
makes the sides of the hole collapse as soon as you pull up the bit. These
days, they pump something like clay into gravel or sand layers to
stabilize them until the casing is placed.
was frustrating to drill through gravel, but maybe they should have spent
a few more days doing it. If they sunk the well closer to the bottom of
the gravel layer, it might not have gone dry the next February.
when the wells went dry, there was plenty of snow around. We used that for
water until spring.
spring came, the snow outside melted. The water dripped into the ground
and filled the wells. Iím not sure if itís always darkest before the
dawn, but the wells are always driest before the snow melts.
fatherís last attempt at all-winter water was the dugout. That was a
deep pond the government built for farmers in a spot where it would fill
with melted snow and ice.
All ponds collect snowmelt, but they silt up and become shallow. Shallow ponds freeze completely in the winter.
are twelve feet deep. The top three feet might freeze, but the rest stayed
liquid. When you needed water from a dugout, you chopped a hole in the ice
with an axe. If you used it every day, the ice over your water hole stayed
water isnít good for people to drink, but itís fine for cattle - and
cattle drink a lot of water. The dugout would allow us to keep our cattle
at home all through the winter.
November 4th, 1943 a large government truck drove onto our
farm. The trailer behind it carried a huge yellow Caterpillar tractor. It
had lots of power and two wide metal tracks instead of rubber wheels. They
drove it off the trailer and started working on the dugout.
three in the afternoon, they were almost done - then the Caterpillar
broke. They said theyíd come back the next day and finish the job.
was starting to rain and my father was afraid the ground would freeze that
night. That might mean that they wouldnít be able to work on it the next
day. The ground might not thaw until spring Ė but by then, the
unfinished dugout would be full of snowmelt.
thought if it wasnít finished that day, it might never get done
correctly. So he decided to finish the job that afternoon with my brother,
planned on plowing the high spots with the tractor and using the horses to
pull the loose material out with a scraper, two yards at a time. It was
wet and muddy, but there wasnít much work left to do.
would have finished the job that evening if the mud hadnít caused my
fatherís foot to slip off the tractorís clutch. The tractor lurched
forward as the front wheels lifted off the ground.
tractor is more like a lawnmower than a car. Instead of a gas pedal, it
has a throttle. You pull it out to set the engine speed, and it stays that
speed without you having to press a pedal.
you canít reduce a tractorís engine speed quickly. Instead of just
lifting your foot from a pedal, you have to reach for the throttle and
push it in. Thatís hard to do when the tractor is jerking forward and
tilting up like Dadís was that afternoon. Itís quicker to disengage
the engine by stamping on the clutch, but the unexpected motion must have
thrown Dad back to where he couldnít reach it.
power kept going to the rear wheels and the front wheels kept going up Ė
then over the top. Within a second, the tractor was upside down with Dad
pinned underneath it. He was dead before George was able to get to him.
next February, we had water. Dad would have liked that.
the rest of us Ė we would have preferred him.
* ďWater is where you find itĒ was a local old-timerís saying. You could never know where you were going to find water. But once you found it, there it was.
Who Needs Electricity?
lived a good life without electricity on the farm. We never missed it. We
didnít even know what to miss because we didnít know anyone who had
worked very well for lighting. If we needed an especially bright light we
used the kerosene lantern. But, do you know what worked even better? Ė
woke near sunrise so we didnít waste the sunís natural light. That
made us want to go to bed early. We didnít need much artificial light.
are nice to have, but theyíre expensive to buy and run. We had something
better. Ė The ice block under the porch.
hinged a section of boards on the porch into a kind of trap door. When we
wanted to get to the ice block we lifted up the door and leaned it against
the north side of the house. When Dad first built the cabin, he dug a hole
about four feet deep in that spot. In the winter, he filled it with water
and it froze into an ice block. When he wanted to keep something cold
anytime during the rest of the year, he pushed aside the sawdust on top
and laid the item on the ice.
when we had a lot of people living in our house, we never ran out of cold
storage. If it looked like we might need more space, Dad enlarged the hole
and put more water in it the next winter. By the mid-20s its surface was
about two by four feet.
we used the ice block to keep milk sweet. If you pushed the sawdust aside
and set the pail on the block, it cooled quickly.
dairy cows gave us fresh milk twice a day, so we never stored it very
long. The babies drank some of the whole milk, but Mom skimmed the cream
from the rest of it. The skim milk went to the pigs and the larger
children Ė but not at the same time. We didnít have to line up at the
trough with the pigs!
churned some of the cream into butter. Dad brought the rest of it into
town once a week when he picked up the mail. He sold it to the creamery
and got enough money to buy groceries and other necessities.
cooked for eleven people during the summers, but never needed much cold
storage. She was always preparing fresh food. There was rarely a reason to
usually put leftovers into the soup pot. She kept it at the back of the
stove all the time. Soup was more like stew and was always part of dinner
use their refrigerators these days to keep greens fresh. We had a better
way. We left them in the garden until we needed them in the kitchen.
of the year, we didnít have greens because it snowed so late and froze
so early. But when we had greens, they were always fresh from the garden.
the rest of the year, we used vegetables we stored the previous summer. We
filled the root cellar with vegetables like potatoes, beets, onions,
cabbage, and carrots. We dried our beans and fruits or canned them in
glass jars. We pickled cucumbers in brine.
probably shouldnít say ďweĒ. It was mostly Mother. In the summers,
when Dad hired three farm workers, he also hired a young woman to help
Mother in the kitchen.
washing machine was on the porch near the ice block. A leather belt ran
around the pulley at the bottom of the tub and over to the gas engine
beside it. After filling the washing machine, we started it like a
lawnmower. Ė By pulling the rope on the gas engine.
filled the washer tub with buckets of hot water from the top of the stove.
When the clothes were clean, Mother opened the valve at the tubís bottom
and let it drain into the garden. Then she ran the clothes through the
wringer and hung them on the line to dry in the fresh air.
put perfumes in laundry soaps these days, but they never smell as good as
clothes line-dried in the country air.
the winter, Mother washed the clothes inside the house by hand in a
washtub. She still used the wringer and hung them on the line to dry. When
she brought them in the next day, they were frozen stiff as cardboard
until they warmed.
tried making soap once, but it was too much work. She decided we could
afford to buy our soap at the store.
one had a television or computer in the 1920s, 30s, or even 40s in our
area, so we didnít miss them. Radio was another story, though. Ė So,
Iíll tell you about it in the next story.
We usually used the radio at night, when the
reception was better. Also, daytime is for work. Evenings are for
The closest station was in Regina, about 100 miles
west of us. Storms usually got there before they reached us, so we
listened carefully to their weather programs.
We also liked The Amos and Andy Show. We
laughed more at those old radio comedies than any TV shows later. I
donít know why they were so much funnier on the radio.
It may have had something to do with the company. We
kept the radio in the living room, and most of us were there from supper
to bedtime. If the radio was on, that was our family activity. We had good
These days, people have remote controls they can
press to switch stations. We couldnít imagine anything like that being
possible. You were doing well if you could tune in a station in less than
a minute. Once you got it as good as it could be, you didnít want to
change it for a long time.
Our radio had three tuning knobs. They all had to be
turned just right to tune in the station. Even then, youíd hear hissing
in the background. Sometimes the hissing was so loud, the program was in
the background. Then, you had to listen really carefully to understand
what they were saying.
If the radio wasnít tuned exactly right, you might
hear strange howling sounds. Often, it went out of tune while we were
listening to it, so someone always sat by the radio to bring it back.
We also got a station from Winnipeg. That was further
away and to the east. Late at night, if there were no storms, we sometimes
received a station or two from North Dakota, to the south.
The radio had several tubes that got hot and glowed
orange. It used lots of energy from the 6-volt battery that powered it.
Dad took the discharged battery into town each week and came back with a
freshly charged one.
Motherís brother stayed with us during the winter
of 1932-3. He enjoyed listening to the radio with us and thought of a way
to save Dad the weekly chore. He built a windmill to charge the battery.
The battery was the same kind they use in cars, so he
got a charger from an Essex car to charge it.
We had good wind at our property and the house was at
the highest spot. Even so, Uncle Claude wanted the windmill as high as he
could get it. He strapped the charger to the end of a tall log and mounted
it to the peak of the two-story part of our house. Three guy wires kept it
He special-ordered wood from the lumberyard and spent
months crafting the windmillís blade. He wanted it to get the most power
from the wind. We knew he got close to the best shape because he
experimented with it for so long. Several of us helped him every time he
needed to take the windmill down and modify the blade.
Once he pronounced it complete, it worked perfectly.
We listened to the radio as much as we wanted and never had to worry about
charging the battery.
Twenty years later, that was still the only electricity in the house.
Even though we couldnít
grow anything in the winter, we were just as busy.
Dad spent a lot of time cutting down trees and sawing
them to the right length for our cook stove, heater stove, and water
heater. The water heater wasnít for us; it was for the cows.
During winter, the cows stayed in the barn. Their
body heat kept the space a little warmer than outside, but the main
benefit of the barn was that it blocked the wind. Dad chinked the logs
with concrete, so there were no drafts. Without drafts, 20 degrees below
zero didnít seem that bad.
Twice a day, Dad milked the cows and watered them. He
also made sure they had food and clean stalls. When it was time to water
them, Dad led them outside to the trough near the pump.
When he raised and lowered the handle, it moved a rod
that operated the pump about 200 feet down the well. That pushed water up
the pipe and out the spigot. When the trough was full, he opened a valve
and let the water in the pipe drop about 15 feet before closing the valve
again. If he left water in the top 15 feet, it would freeze and burst the
The water in the trough would freeze solid overnight
unless he kept it warm. Thatís what the water heater was for. It was a
little wood stove that stood in the water trough. Dad always kept a fire
going in it during the winter so the water in the trough didnít freeze
too badly. He still needed to crack the surface with an axe when he
brought the cows to it, but it never froze solid.
Itís times like this that you appreciate an
artesian well like one of the nearby farms had. Water always flowed out of
the pipe. It crusted on top, but stayed liquid below.
Once it started snowing, we stopped using well water
in the house. Water from clean snow was much higher quality. It tasted
like bottled water. Mother said it was easier to wash clothes with. It had
no minerals to make it hard, so it allowed the soap lather better.
We also had a special use for clean snow. My sister
made a treat for us at Christmas that she called snow cream. Iím not
exactly sure of the recipe, but it was probably cream mixed with sugar and
vanilla, and poured over snow. Thatís as close as we ever got to ice
cream at our place.
Our cook stove had a compartment at the back for
warming water. It stayed just the right temperature for washing hands. It
really felt luxurious to pour a ladle of warm water over your hands after
coming in from outdoors in the winter.
We kept our hands warm when we were outside, also.
Gloves would lose too much heat between the fingers, so we used mittens.
Mother knitted them from wool, and we wore store-bought leather mittens
over them to keep out the wind.
Dad couldnít wear his mittens when he milked the
cows. Cowsí have warm teats, so his hands didnít get cold as he milked
them. Also, he milked the cows in the barn.
When the temperature was 20 degrees below zero, we
never called it warm, but we might say it was balmy. The coldest I
remember it being was 67 degrees below during a blizzard. The wind causes
water to evaporate quicker from your skin and makes you feel even colder,
so the wind chill would have made it feel much colder than 67 below.
That was a cold day. A calm day with a temperature of
20 below was balmy, especially if the sun was out. Donít you agree?
Each of us had two sets of long underwear. We changed
them every Saturday because that was bath day. Mother washed the dirty
underwear during the week so they were ready for the next Saturday. We
also had two pairs of flannel sleepers (night gowns for the girls) and we
rotated them the same way. Our denim coveralls didnít need to be washed
nearly as often as our underwear or sleepers.
Sometimes you hear of pioneer families using the same
bathwater several times. We never did that. Every Saturday, Mother set up
the bathtub in the kitchen near the cook stove. She kept the top of the
stove covered with pots of water, heating for the next bath.
Everyone got into a tub of fresh water. When I was
little, my sister and I bathed together, but the water always started out
By suppertime, all the children were clean. After we
went to bed, Mother and Dad bathed.
It was nice to wake up clean on Sunday because we
always had a lot of company Sunday mornings. Dad led a worship service in
our living room for our family and about a dozen of the neighbors. No
matter what the weather, they showed up and stayed for dinner.
Mother was always prepared for the extra large dinner
on Sunday. Every Thursday evening she mixed up a large bowl of dough. By
Friday morning the yeast had risen and it was ready to make into loaves of
bread. Every Friday she made 35 loaves of bread, so it was fresh for
There were lots of ways we kept warm in winter, but none was as much fun as our evening family sing-a-longs. My sister played our small foot-pumped organ and I played chords on the Spanish guitar.
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