Canadian Homesteading: My Great Grandparent's Farm / by Leslie

In 1909, a fourteen year old boy from Tarutino, Bessarabia traveled with his Aunt, Uncle and sister (or cousin) by train through Romania, Austria, Germany and Belgium to Antwerp, where he boarded a converted freighter destined for Canada. He was on the ship for 2 weeks, with meagre facilities and no privacy. It was a difficult journey, but they landed safely in New Brunswick and boarded another train to take them into the heart of Canada, where the farm land was. Travelling through the Canadian Shield had them concerned about all the rocks and trees, but they were so relieved when we reached the flatter, fertile land in Manitoba. He arrived in Alberta in 1910, now fifteen years old. He worked for his cousins for two years and in 1912 he paid a $10 application fee and claimed an abandoned half section (320 acres) near Hilda adjoining his cousin's farm. Gustav was only 17 and The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 required applicants to be 18, but many immigrants like Gustav couldn't provide proof of age, so it wasn't strictly enforced. The Act also required that he erect a residence and cultivate a certain amount of land each year. He built a sod house where he would live for at least 2 winters and he borrowed farm equipment, in exchange for labor, to plant his first crop, 7 acres of wheat and 10 acres of flax. It was a hard life, but he was strong and young and he didn't mind. He dreamed of owning his own farm. He didn't have any money, but he could work hard. And he would, for his entire life. His name was Gustav.

The Farm, April 1943.

The Farm, November 2010.

In 1917 he married a widowed neighbor with adjoining land. She grew up in South Dakota and had also come to Canada in 1910, with her husband and a train car full of farm equipment, livestock, furniture and a sewing machine. She farmed with her husband for four years before he got sick with appendicitis in the fall of 1914. They returned to South Dakota for an operation, but he caught pneumonia in the hospital and died. In the spring of 1915 she returned to the farm with her parents and her 5 year old son Irvine (he may have been younger though, I don't have a birth date for him). Her father helped her put in her crop which turned into a bumper harvest. With hired help and neighbors like Gustav, she farmed for two years alone. I think Gustav might have admired her strength and determination and despite her success she didn't want to farm alone forever. They soon realized that they made a great team and whether or not they were in love, they certainly cared for each other and needed each other. Her name was Magdalena.

Left: Magdalena and Gustav on their wedding day in 1917. Right: On their 50th wedding anniversary in 1967.

They lived in her log house and in 1918 had their first son together, my grandfather, Edward. Soon after that, they built the big house and the barn. Gus purchased a large livery stable in Estuary for $2000, he dismantled it and packed up every board and nail. They probably floated it down the river and then moved it by horse cart to the farm about 40 miles south. They rebuilt the barn half the length of the original and with the rest of the lumber they built the big house. He straighten every nail by hand to reuse and he used only hand tools like a saw, a hammer and a ladder. I'm sure that Maggie was right there helping. She seems like that kind of gal. It was one of the most well appointed houses in the area, with stained glass windows, a coal furnace and flax straw insulation, plaster walls and a detailed interior paint job by a local craftsman. It was a fancy house, for a farm house, and while the windows are now gone, you can still see the remnants of the original paint on the walls.

They lived there for 25 years and raised their six children, one of whom, Raymond, died at four years old. I can't imagine. Irvine was the oldest, Edward was second and was my Grandfather, and then there was Otto, Victor and Leona. (Leona was kind enough to share these black and white photos with me.) After Gus and Maggie moved to Medicine Hat, Otto lived at the farm and raised his own family, until they moved to Saskatchewan in the late 50's. Gus continued to farm the land in the summers, with the help of his sons and eventually even with his grandsons, until about 1970, just a few years before he died. That's 60 years of working that land. He had plenty of other businesses and ways to make money; a gas station, a hardware store, delivering milk and construction, but it is the farm and those buildings out in the middle of the prairies that were a mainstay. The farm is his legacy, he built it with his hands and his heart and it is still there, defying time and weather. It still brings an income to the family, the land is leased to other farmers, and there is still a beauty there, an energy and stories of strong people struggling to succeed.

Victor, my Dad's uncle, is on the left. Magdalena in the middle and Gustav on the right.

When we visited during my recent trip home to Canada, the farm was literally in the shadows when we arrived. There was a cloud bank that had descended and covered everything in frost. It was cold and a bit uninviting. We rushed around, checking out the house and the rooms. I took a few quick shots in the house with freezing hands. The kids were restless, my Mom was shivering and we were supposed to continue on to see the Sand Hills. I couldn't leave though, I had come all this way and I needed more time. We took a break in the warm truck and had lunch. It helped, and everyone gave me permission to take my time. I really appreciated that. By the time we were done lunch, the sun had come out and warmed everything up. The sky eventually turned blue, the kids had some fun running around in the wheat field and I got to spend some time with my Dad, in the barn and the blacksmith shed, listening to him talk about his days on the farm.

The only other time that I visited the farm I was 13. To me it was a bit creepy and sad. I didn't like being inside the house. This time I was moved, I felt connected, I wanted to take something home. I found some glass pickle jars, a receipt book from the 40's that detailed the sales of the gas station that Gus owned in Hilda. I found a spool of thread, a broken yard stick, an old juice can. There are a lot of little things still at the farm. No one properly moved out, things were left behind, stuff like Garlic powder, a coffee cup, mattresses, boots. It's a bit apocalyptic actually, like all of a sudden everyone just left. The house was used for a long time as just a summer time place for the people that were there farming, almost like they were camping there, so the things that are there are not precious or personal things, just working things. One summer Gus must have been too old or sick to farm and I suppose that he always planned to come back, but he probably didn't. And I don't imagine Maggie did either. So it all just got left behind.

The house has been taken over by animals. The place is covered in pigeon droppings and nests. All the windows are broken, the shingles are gone off the roof and all the plaster has fallen from the ceilings. It is a matter of time before the house falls down, but right now it is still pretty solid. We walked everywhere except the basement, the second floor was intact and everything seemed straight and secure.

The other buildings are in worse shape. The barn is full of holes and the loft seemed treacherous. The blacksmith shed next to the windmill was leaning sideways at a crazy angle. We didn't have time to check out the other buildings but from a distance, they seemed to be in the same rough shape.

A strange thing happened while we were there. My Dad and I were trying to get into the blacksmith shed, the door was stuck in some dirt and grass and we were really yanking on it to get it to open. The windmill, which was right beside us, started to turn. And not just a little, as if the wind had blown it, but quite a few times and at a good pace. I don't remember it turning at any other time while we were there, it was pretty noisy and I think we would have noticed it. My Dad was surprised that it still worked. When it happened, my Dad and I didn't think it was weird. It seemed very normal that the windmill would be turning like that, but when we got back to the car, Chris asked us what we had done to make it start turning. When we told him nothing, he said it was so strange that it did that all by itself. From his point of view, being further away, it seemed eerie and unusual. Maybe it was simply a gust of wind, but I'd like to think that it was my Great Grandpa saying "Hello".

As I walked around with my Dad, he would remember things that he did while he was there and that his Grandpa had told him. He said that Gustav hid a .22 rifle somewhere in the blacksmith shed and that he used the porch of the house as a grainery after everyone moved out. My Dad remembered driving the tractor in bitterly cold weather, seeing the stars at night so bright that the Milky Way was plainly visible and sleeping on a mattress on the floor in an upstairs bedroom. He told me that my grandfather, Edward, was incredibly smart and made crystal radios from scrap parts. He also wired the farm with power from batteries before there were power lines. Once my Dad remembers a power outage when a plane trying to land at a nearby farm flew through the power-lines and took them out. Gustav and my Dad rushed to the crashed plane only to discover the pilot had died.  

There are so many stories! I'd like to write them all down, before they are gone. Our ancestral stories are so fleeting, they disappear so fast, and I am lucky that I still have a tangible place to see and connect with. By the time that we left that day, we all felt good. The sun had come out, I had spent enough time there and it was as if the farm had borrowed a little bit of our life force for a moment. There was a shadow there when we arrived and by the time we left, it had gone. 

I don't think my kids understood how cool it was to visit a place that their great-great grandparent's had built and lived in. I didn't really understand it until this visit. I will go back, next summer I hope, and do a little more work there. I feel like I should take care of the place, clean up a little in the big house, sweep up the plaster, throw out the old mattresses and line up the boots. My cousin talked about putting a new roof on the house, to fix it up so that the weather wouldn't do so much harm. I'm sure it's far too much work and expense but it's nice to dream a little. I also want to really explore all the buildings, see every inch of the place and take some more pictures. The spring of 2012 will be the centennial of Gustav's acquisition of the land. I'd like to do something to honor my great grandparents then too. It would be fun to have a big party there, under a big tent and with the whole family, but maybe at the very least we will just camp overnight by ourselves, see the stars, feel the energy and tell the stories to our kids so that we don't forget.

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