Christmas cake. What would Christmas be without it? (Yes, I’m one of those who love it!)
The beginning of every December, Mom pulled out the old cigar box that held her mother’s Christmas cake recipe and began the ritual.
Step one: assemble all the fruit – sultanas, dark raisins, golden raisins, mixed peel, candied citron, and glace cherries. And don’t forget the almonds and walnuts. That entailed a day of rummaging through the lower back shelf of the old Kelvinator refrigerator to retrieve what was left over from last year’s production, plus a trip to Mr. Marcotte’s general store to purchase anything we hadn’t found. Mom dumped all the fruit into the large yellow Pyrex bowl and poured apple juice over it all. Dad was a staunch teetotaler so no rum or brandy in our house!
Step two: cream the butter (the homemade variety) and brown sugar with a wooden spoon until smooth and creamy. Mom and I took turns for the hour or so of smooshing and blending till we thought our arms would drop off.
Step three: dredge the fruit with flour, dump in the fruit and nuts and more flour, plus the cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, and stir till mixed.
“Stir?” Are you kidding? How do you stir something as solid a fruit cake batter? You might as well be stirring cement!
There’s a tradition in making Christmas cake that everyone has to give the batter a stir to ensure good luck in the coming year. At least, that’s what Mom told us, and she wouldn’t lie. So each of us would dutifully take our turn trying to stir the mass. And, inevitably, the wooden spoon would break. I don’t know if that, too, was supposed to ensure good luck in the coming year.
After several decades of annually broken wooden spoons, my brother (of all people) had the “Aha!” moment. “Why don’t we mix it in the Mill-N-Mix*?” he asked.
Now, why didn’t we think of that?
We dumped the butter and brown sugar into the giant stainless steel bowl and turned on the machine. It beat that mixture into submission in no time flat. We dumped in the fruit, the nuts, the flours and the spices and watched in amazement as the industrial-strength dough hook wound its way through all that “stuff” with absolutely no problem. In 10 minutes or less, we had Christmas cake batter ready to spoon into the already greased and lined antique cake tins (another legacy from Mother’s mother) and put them into the oven.
We no longer took turns stirring the batter to bring good luck but perhaps taking turns turning the machine on and off counted instead. I don’t recall that we had any less good luck in the absence of a broken spoon.
The Backstory: Both my maternal and paternal grandparents struggled to farm through the terrible years of the Dirty Thirties. The rains left in 1929, they did not return until 1938. By then, it was too late for many families and for many towns. Southwestern Saskatchewan alone lost about 50% of its population during those years. They left for truly greener pastures – northern Saskatchewan and Alberta, or back east to Ontario and Quebec.
My grandparents lived in the heart of the Palliser Triangle, a region that Capt. James Palliser in the late 1850s called a desert and that, a decade later, John Macoun called a paradise. The difference: Palliser traversed this region of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta during a drought; Macoun during a wet period.
In 1935, the Canadian government formed the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) which immediately launched several programs to help farmers deal with the drought. These included dugouts to store water, and strip farming and large-scale tree-planting programs to reduce erosion. Marginal land was turned into community pastures.
The PFRA no longer exists, but it helped transform dry-land farming practices to be more in tune with the vagaries of prairie climate. Perhaps we once again need the PFRA as we begin to comprehend the long-term effects of climate change on this fragile prairie region.
Our kitchen faucet finally failed. Mind you, it is 22 years old, original to the house, never ailed a day in its life.
Until the last couple of weeks.
It developed an annoying drip . . . drip . . . drip . . . drip . . . drip, but when the drip turned into an intermittent dribble, we decided it was time to do something about it.
Now, neither of us is a plumber. Especially me. I hate plumbing. You have to mess around with water and goop and stuff splashing in your face. Give me a wiring job any day. Guess I’d rather electrocute myself than drown.
First hurdle: figure out how to take the thing apart. We earned a B+ on that test.
Second hurdle: figure out what was wrong with it. The faucet gave us a rather blatant hint when one of the O-rings fell apart when we touched it. Does that count as cheating? If not, then give us an A+.
Third hurdle: Find O-rings that fit. Remember, this faucet is 22 years old. Do they even still make parts for it? But hey, how hard can it be to find O-rings that fit? Or other parts?
Answer: really, really hard when you’ve got a 22-year-old faucet.
To make a long (and frustrating) story short, in spite of our best efforts, the faucet still went dribble, dribble, dribble. Our only option was to shut off the water supply to the kitchen sink and call our favourite plumbing repair outfit. The problem was, this happened on a Sunday so we had to wait till Monday.
Have you ever counted the number of times you need and use water from the kitchen faucet? Making coffee. Filling water glasses. Getting a drink. Filling a saucepan for cooking. Wiping up spilled whatever. Washing dishes. Rinsing those washed dishes.
As I carried an ice cream pail full of water from the laundry sink to the kitchen sink, I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother and how she lived like this every day. For years!
If she were lucky, there was hot water in the cook stove reservoir. If not, then she had to grab the bucket, go to the well, pump water into the bucket, carry it into the house (don’t slop!) and then heat it until the water was just the right temperature – not too hot and not too cold. Then pour it into the dishpan (careful! don’t spill!) and start washing.
Even though I had to carry water to the kitchen sink, I could at least dump the dirty water out of the ice cream pail and down the sink.
Grandma didn’t have that option. Nope. She had to carry the dishpan, full this time, carefully out the door and dump the dirty water on the flower bed.
It isn’t until something as simple as a faucet goes haywire that we realize just how lucky, and how spoiled, we are. And how we have become so reliant on such conveniences.
Thanks, Grandma, for the lesson.
P.S. The plumber came on Monday, replaced the worn part, and now our faucet works again. No more drip . . . drip . . . drip . . . drip.
P.P.S. You can learn what else Grandma Hanna had to endure by reading “Our Bull’s Loose In Town!” Tales from the Homestead. During May, it’s 50% off on Smashwords.
The gravel road going straight south from Meyronne to McCord gradually climbs up over a ridge of hills four miles south of the village. At the summit of these hills, the road curves around the highest peak. We called it Four Mile Hill.
It was no mountain but it was prominent enough to be noticeable. For me, it was a landmark I looked for whenever we (i.e., my family) were returning from a visit to any of the relatives. It was a sign that we were close to home, that the tedium of an eight-hour drive from Meadow Lake or Airdrie would soon be finished; that I would no longer be cooped up with my brother in the back seat of our 1958 Ford car; that soon the two of us would be unpenned and we could run off all our pent-up energy that, for the last hour or so, had been translating into spats and arguments that annoyed our father to point of his threatening us with the back of his hand. Or worse.
In 1965, I left home for university and work. Seventeen years later, I returned to Saskatchewan to work. One of the first things I did was drive to the family farm.
As I neared Meyronne, I started looking for Four Mile Hill. I couldn’t see it. Had I forgotten where to look? What it looked like? Was it smaller than I remembered? I still hadn’t seen it as I drove up the lane to the farm house. Where was Four Mile Hill?
It was all but gone. A mere remnant remained. Several years previously, someone in his wisdom decided that the curve around the hill should be eliminated. Perhaps he deemed it too dangerous. Straightening the curve entailed going straight through Four Mile Hill. It was bulldozed, and all but erased from the landscape.
My reaction was visceral, emotional, intense. I was appalled, angry, hurt. How dare they destroy my landmark, my touchstone, the signal that I was nearing home! Yes, there were highways and road signs to guide me home – as if I needed them! – but somehow I needed Four Mile Hill. It was my North Star, my lighthouse guiding me home. And now it was gone. My home – not the house, not the farm, but my HOME, the landscape I knew as a child – was in some small way gone. Forever.
Cultural landscape theory proposes that the landforms around us are more than mere topography, more than a series of hills and valleys and lakes and streams. We imbue those landforms with meanings, memories and values that transform them from “places” into “spaces” filled with personal, historical and even spiritual significance. These spaces hold memories that trigger a host of other emotions – a sense of home, of self, of security, of one’s place in the world, of belonging. In other words, we humans are not apart from, we are a part of the landscape. We create, and are created by, the spaces around us.
The places I highlighted in my previous five posts of “Saskatchewan is NOT flat!” are those that hold exactly those kinds of memories for me. But not just for me. Everyone who has spent time there – who has climbed to the top of St. Victor petroglyphs, or learned to swim at Camp Woodboia, or gazed in awe at the gazillions of stars strewn across the night sky at Grasslands National Park, or seen the world laid out below them from one of Cypress Hills’ peaks – they have their own memories of those places, their own sense of attachment to them. All those stories are layered on top of all the other stories – many, alas, now forgotten – of all the people who preceded us.
The next time you drive across “boring,” “flat” Saskatchewan (or anywhere, for that matter), take a good look at the landforms around you. Imagine what stories they might tell, or significance they once held. If only we had the ears to hear, or the eyes to see . . .
There’s no date on this photograph but if I’m right in estimating my father’s age as 6 or 7, then it was taken in either 1930 or 1931. In other words, two or three years into the Dirty Thirties, known elsewhere as the Great Depression.
Two years with little rain. Two years with barely any crop. Two years of rock bottom grain prices. Two years of working on relief projects. Two years of accepting relief. Two years of making do when there was precious little to make do with.
Two years of hoping after hope that “Next Year” the rains would come. That “Next Year” there would be bumper crops. That “Next Year” grain prices would go up. That “Next Year” relief would not be necessary.
Little did my grandparents know that “Next Year” would not come until 1938. That they had yet to endure the worst year of all – 1937, the year of no rain, the year of no crop, the year of the army worm invasion.
But that Christmas of 1930 or 1931, they found the will to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. They decorated a spindly spruce tree, hung a very thin Santa Claus from the curtain rod, and invited the Robinsons to join them for turkey dinner. They still lived in hope, in spite of the dire circumstances that surrounded them and everyone else.
Much as we do now. As we should do now. Like my grandparents enduring the drought, we do not know when this pandemic will end. We can only hope that it will end sooner rather than later.
Unlike my grandparents who could do nothing to alleviate the drought, we can do some things to alleviate the pandemic. Get vaccinated. Wear masks. Take reasonable precautions. Be kind.
And continue to believe in “Next Year.”
(P.S. Four chapters in “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” Tales from the Homestead recount the dire effects of the Dirty Thirties on everyone, be they city folk or farmers.)
So starts a beloved Christmas hymn which probably describes exactly what my paternal grandmother, Addie Hanna, thought about her first few winters as a homesteader’s wife in southwestern Saskatchewan.
Just take a look at the photograph. Two uninsulated shacks sit in the middle of the bleak prairie. Not a stick of a tree anywhere. Nearest neighbour a good mile away. Nearest store, a good two miles away. No running water (although the oldtimers all claimed they had hot and cold running water – they got hot running to the well to fetch cold water). No electricity. No central heating, unless you count the cook stove. No roads, only trails.
And none of our modern, high-tech, ultra-warm clothing, either. Nope. Scratchy Stanfield’s longjohns. Heavy wool coats. Knitted wool scarves. And that was what you wore inside the shack (just kidding – maybe).
Yet my grandparents, and all the other people who came west in the early 20th century, stuck it out. What were their options? Go back to Ontario, or the USA, or England, or elsewhere in Europe? That would be to admit defeat, and my grandparents were too stubborn and proud to do that. Besides, life was no better there. Little did they know they would have to endure times much worse than a mere “bleak midwinter.”
So they stayed. They stayed because here they could make a new life for themselves. They stayed because they had hope — hope for a better life for their children and grandchildren, a life with more opportunities than they ever had.
Now, here we are in our own “bleak midwinter,” facing yet another COVID variant and whatever it might bring. The question is: do we have the courage to face whatever is coming? Do we live in hope as did our grandparents?
(P.S. You can read how my grandparents endured “bleak midwinters” and more in “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” Tales from the Homestead.)
I long ago lost track of the number of times we escaped the heat and wind of our farm for the cool breeze sighing through the pine trees of Cypress Hills.
For countless generations before us, Cypress Hills was, and continues to be, an oasis, a respite from the heat of the prairies. They were once a common hunting ground for all the Indigenous people who lived around and about – the Blackfoot to the west, the Southern Nakota (Assiniboine) to the east, the Plains Cree to the northeast, the Lakota and Gros Ventre to the south. The Hills teemed with game, they were covered with Lodgepole Pine (the only place east of the Rocky Mountains) used for tipi poles, and they provided a host of plants for food, medicines and dyes. Numerous archaeological sites, some several feet deep going back several thousand years, are scattered throughout the Hills, testimony to their long-term importance.
Twenty thousand years ago, the Cypress Hills were a nunatak – a high ground rising well above the continental glacier that ground its way across the rest of southern Canada. It is the highest point of land between the Labrador peninsula and Banff in the Rocky Mountains – 1392 metres (4567 feet) in Saskatchewan, 1,468 metres (4,816 feet) in Alberta.
So much for Saskatchewan being flat!
You can see the Cypress Hills from the Trans-Canada Highway – a line of distant hills to the south, hazy blue in summer’s heat, shimmering white in winter’s chill. Turn south at Maple Creek and prepare to enter a very different world. The highway rises up and leaves behind the undulating grassy hills of classic ranching country. The air softens and cools. You are surrounded by pines and their scent fills your nostrils and lungs. Welcome to the Cypress Hills.
The Hills extend across the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, hence the name Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. They are not entirely continuous but rather present as three more or less distinct blocks. The Eastern Block is home to Nikaneet Cree First Nation, and the Centre Block is home to Saskatchewan’s part of the interprovincial park. The West Block extends across the Saskatchewan-Alberta Boundary. On the Saskatchewan side are two national historic sites: Fort Walsh, established in 1878 as the headquarters of the North West Mounted Police, and Farwell’s and Solomon’s trading posts, site of the 1873 Cypress Hills Massacre of a Nakota village by American wolfers that prompted the formation of the North West Mounted Police. The Alberta side of the West Block is home to Elkwater Lake and townsite.
Our family spent most of our time in the Centre Block, especially at one place on the north edge of the Hills where you can look northward across the prairies below, almost to the North Pole or so it seems. We often drove the gravel trail through “The Gap” between the Centre and West Blocks, and always imagined that the cattle grazing there were, in fact, bison in disguise. The road up (and I do mean “up”) to Fort Walsh is a classic switch-back, worthy of any mountain road.
It is possible to drive across the border into Alberta’s portion of the West Block but it is not a trail for the faint of heart, or for your usual puddle-jumper. It’s mostly a narrow, rutted and bumpy dirt trail, with trees encroaching onto the roadway. And don’t even think about driving it if it’s rained. But what a thrill!
These last five posts describe only a few of the places I came to know and love when I grew up in southwestern Saskatchewan. I really do recommend you get off the beaten track, head south to highways 13 and 18, and see the Saskatchewan that the Trans-Canada Highway avoids.
Once you’ve done that, I dare you to say that Saskatchewan is flat.
Further reading: The Cypress Hills: The Land and its People by Walter Hildebrandt and Brian Hubner.
A final note: If you decide to see Saskatchewan (as opposed to drive through it), I recommend you buy a copy of Bob Weber’s book, Saskatchewan History Along the Highway (A traveler’s guide to the fascinating facts, intriguing incidents and lively legends in Saskatchewan’s past). I guarantee you will never again think of Saskatchewan as either “flat” or “boring.”
Nestled in the heart of the Wood Mountain Uplands, amidst the hills and ravines, is the village of Wood Mountain. Not much is left of it but that’s not where the action is. For that, you have to drive 8 km south on Hwy 18 where you’ll find Wood Mountain Regional Park, Camp Woodboia (operated by the United Church of Canada), the Wood Mountain NWMP Post, the Rodeo and Ranch Museum, the only Lakota reserve in Saskatchewan and, last but not least, the Wood Mountain Stampede.
This complex of history and activities sits in a shallow “bowl” surrounded by hills, ravines and trees with a permanent, spring-fed creek trickling through the middle. The Metis wintered here. The Lakota took refuge here. The Boundary Commission had a depot and storehouse here which proved a life-saver for the starving North West Mounted Police on their westward march. And now we come here to rest, relax, rejuvenate and learn.
Wood Mountain Regional Park. This is the perfect place to camp for a couple of days while you explore everything the area has to offer (even St. Victor Petroglyphs, last week’s post, is accessible from here). The campground offers some full-service and electric-only sites as well as many non-serviced sites. It can be full, especially at Stampede time. In addition to a picnic area and playground, it also manages the swimming pool, much improved and expanded since my day.
Wood Mountain Post Provincial Historic Site: The Canadian Government formed the North West Mounted Police in 1873 after a group of drunken American wolfers massacred a band of Assiniboine camped outside Farwell’s post in the Cypress Hills. The first contingent of the Mounties marched west in 1874 and established a post here that year at the Boundary Commission’s depot.
The Wood Mountain post was never permanent. After one year of operation, it was closed when the NWMP built Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills. It was reopened when the Lakota fled northward to the Wood Mountain area after the Battle of Greasy Grass in 1876. It was all but closed after 1881 by which time most of the Lakota had returned to the USA. It regained some importance during the Riel Rebellion of 1885 because the Canadian Government feared the numerous Metis living in the area might join Louis Riel and the Metis at Batoche. Afterwards, there were bootleggers to deal with. And rustlers. And the occasional other crime.
It was permanently closed in the early 20th century and the buildings torn down. It may have disappeared from view but not from the memory of the people who lived there (the location was always pointed out to us Woodboia campers on every hike). In the 1970s, Saskatchewan declared it a Provincial Historic Site. They marked the building locations, rebuilt one building which serves as an interpretive centre and conducted archaeological excavations. there.
Wood Mountain Stampede: This is Canada’s oldest stampede, first held in 1890. It’s not your glitzy Calgary Stampede. No, this is a down-home kind of rodeo that is all about riding and roping and celebrating all things cowboy. There’s the arena, the stock pens, a grandstand (when I was a kid, the roof was covered with freshly cut willows and aspen branches) and the concession stand, all surrounded by horse trailers, RVs of various sorts, and lots of real live cowboys who are willing to talk with you, have their picture taken with you, maybe even let you sit on their horse. You’re close enough to the arena you can smell the manure and hear the cowboys grunt, the horses’ hooves strike the ground, and the “smack cer-runch!” as a cowboy hits the ground.
Camp Woodboia: The United Church of Canada established Camp Woodboia in 1949 as both a religious and an outdoor experience. I learned to swim at there. Every summer from about 1956 to 1964, I flailed my way across the pool to earn another Red Cross pin marking my progress from Beginner to Junior to Intermediate (I left for university before I earned my Senior pin). We held Vesper services on Sitting Bull’s Hill, hiked over to visit Mrs. Elizabeth Ogle , a Lakota artist who always welcomed us as if we were her own grandchildren, and listened to Lakota elders tell stories of times gone by. We hiked through the bush, had cook-outs, washed in the creek, formed friendships and, yes, attended Bible study. But most of all, it was a place of wonder for all of us who came from the farmland to the north where trees grew only because they had been planted.
The Rodeo and Ranch Museum: Don’t let the small size of the building fool you. It is filled chock-a-block with exhibits about ranching and rodeo and all the people — Metis, English, Lakota, Romanian, Serbian, American and others — who lived, worked and played here. It has a nice little book store, too. It’s well worth the visit.
Wood Mountain Lakota Reserve Not all the Lakota returned to the USA in 1881. Several remained here, the foundation of Canada’s only Lakota reserve, and became an integral part of the Wood Mountain ranching and rodeo community. Even though they did not take treaty, the Government allotted them a reserve here in the Wood Mountain Uplands. However, during World War I, the same government took away a substantial amount of the land to give to European ranchers and returning soldiers. After a 10-year long court battle, the Lakota and the Canadian government have reached a tentative settlement whereby the Lakota will be able to purchase up to 5,700 acres of land to replace what was taken.
The Lakota called them mistiko waci. The first Europeans called them La Montagne de Bois or Woody Mountain. Today, this region is officially called the Wood Mountain Uplands. We just call it Wood Mountain.
This region of flat-topped hills, wooded ravines, springs and streams extends almost 100 miles along the Saskatchewan-Montana border, from Big Muddy in the east to the Cypress Hills in the west. It’s high, up to 1000 meters above sea level, high enough that it was not covered by ice during the last glaciation.
For untold generations, it was a wintering area for the Metis, Lakota, Plains Cree and Southern Nakota (Assiniboine) people. This was the region where Sitting Bull and his Lakota sought refuge after the Battle of Greasy Grass (otherwise known as the Battle of Little Bighorn). A well-worn “pitching trail”(camp-moving trail) ran from here to what is now known as Moose Jaw, and became the basis for the Pole Trail that the North West Mounted Police and homesteaders followed into the “south” country. Various notorious outlaws – Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch (including the Sundance Kid), Dutch Henry, and Sam Kelly – as well as lesser known rustlers, thieves and general ne’er-do-wells used it as a hide-out, evading the law. It is now primarily ranching country, and home to Canada’s only Lakota First Nation reserve.
In the heart of this region are two places of interest: St. Victor Petroglyphs (this week), and the Wood Mountain Regional Park complex (next week).
St. Victor Petroglyphs Provincial Historic Site First, the sad news: It is now impossible to experience this place the way I did as a child. I will tell you why below.
These petroglyphs (rock carvings) are carved into a horizontal, loosely consolidated sandstone outcropping that lies a few miles south of, and overlooking, the tiny village of St. Victor. We are not sure how old they are – possibly 1000 to 1500 years old, – who carved them and why, although that hasn’t stopped people, especially archaeologists, from speculating.
Nevertheless, it is a place of great beauty, a place of contemplation and a place of wonder. And for us young kids, a place to scamper up the hillside (or, if we were brave, to climb straight up the rock face) ahead of our much slower parents. Once on top, we walked carefully across the outcropping, taking care not to step on any of the carvings, checking out our favourites, and then stood still to gaze northward across the descending slopes and cultivated fields to the horizon, 40 miles away, where the town of Assiniboia was barely visible in the haze. Montague Lake lay just to the northeast. We heard the wind rustle the leaves on the trees below. We heard birds singing. And we were always sad when our parents herded us back below to head back home.
The sandstone that made it easy for ancient Indigenous people to carve the petroglyphs is also its inherent weakness. Over the centuries, the freeze-thaw cycle created a myriad of cracks and fissures, some fairly deep. One day in the 1990s, one of those fissures gave way and a huge piece of the rock face, including many of the petroglyphs, calved off and fell into the valley below.
The Parks Department decided it was no longer safe to allow people to access the outcropping. They took down the stairs and the boardwalk they had built some years earlier to facilitate visiting, rerouted access and built a tall chain-link fence around the outcropping. Now you can only view at a distance, which is unfortunate because you can no longer feel that you are a part of the place, as I did when I was a child.
Whenever my Alberta-born and raised husband wants to get a rise out of me, all he has to say is, “Saskatchewan is s-o-o flat!” and the battle is on.
“Saskatchewan is NOT flat!” I declare.
Which got me to wondering: Why do people think Saskatchewan is flat?
I think it has to do with where the horizon is. If you come from a place of mountains or forests or cities, you have to look up, w-a-a-y up to see the horizon. In Saskatchewan, the horizon is down around your knees. Maybe even your ankles. It is OUT there, not UP there. It is “space,” writ large. As one of my uncles said, “You sure can exercise your eyeballs there.”
So, yes, you can see yesterday leaving and tomorrow coming. Yes, you can see your dog running away for three days. But that doesn’t mean it is flat! We have valleys – the Frenchman, the Qu’Appelle, the South and North Saskatchewan river valleys, the Assiniboine. We have uplands – Moose Mountain, Duck Mountain, the Porcupine Hills, the Missouri Coteau, the Wood Mountain Uplands, Cypress Hills, Old Man on His Back.
Another factor may be that people drive through Saskatchewan on the Trans-Canada Highway which, surely, is the least interesting part of the province (note, I did not say “the most boring” part). The route was probably chosen because it was the least demanding, and therefore the cheapest, route on which to build a highway. Furthermore, it connects three major cities – Regina, Moose Jaw and Swift Current – which, I grant, have their own charms.
But if you want to see the Other Saskatchewan, the Definitely Not Flat Saskatchewan, turn left at Moosomin (if you’re coming from the east) or right at Maple Creek (if you’re coming from the west) and head south to Highways 13 and 18. That’s where I grew up and where we (my family and I) spent the occasional week when farming duties permitted. I will introduce you to some of those places in my next posts.
I guarantee you will see the definitely Not Flat Saskatchewan.
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