Fickle Prairie Weather

After a less-than-snowy winter, after a long warmer-than-usual spring, after a long scorching hot and dry summer, we are now in autumn. The harvest season.

Too bad there’s not much to harvest.

The drought across the prairies – from Manitoba to Alberta – has brought back memories of the Dirty Thirties. A time of no snow, no rain, no crop, no income. A time of dust storms that obliterated visibility and buried shelterbelts and fence lines. A time when farmers abandoned their farms and moved elsewhere. Anywhere.

This year’s crops are stunted due to lack of rain and bleached or burned due to the intense heat. The heads are only partly filled, the kernels in them shrunken. It’s not a pretty sight.

Harvest started two to three weeks earlier than usual. Those crops that are worth combining are so short that the combine table barely clears the ground. Other crops aren’t even worth the cost; farmers have turned their cattle in to graze what little grew. They will be depending on crop insurance to see them through to spring. No farmer likes that, if only because it means next year’s premiums will rise.

Ranchers are in no better situation. Cattle have eaten pastures down to the dirt. Hay crops are abysmal. A cousin got just over 300 round bales off his hay field this year. Last year, he got over 1000. They’re selling off their cattle because there’s little hay to bale or to buy, and what is available is horrifically expensive. Ranchers, like farmers, are depending on government relief payments. They don’t like that any better than farmers like crop insurance.

I joked with my brother a few weeks ago that the rains would come as soon as the combines rolled into the fields. And they did. Last week, the rains came. Good steady showers and rains. The kind that should have come in May. Or June. Or July. They’re too late to help this year’s crops and pastures. They might help restore ground moisture for next year.

If more rain comes. And winter snow.

In 1986, my father had a bumper crop. He combined one field, 40 acres of Canada No. 1 Hard wheat in the bin. And then it started to rain.

It rained all September. Not just showers, but downpours. Constant. Steady. Occasionally, it stopped raining for a couple of days, just long enough for Dad to think, “If this keeps up a bit longer, I can get the rest of the crop off.”

He’d wake up the next morning to pouring rain.

The crops deteriorated. They were so wet, kernels sprouted in the heads.

At the end of September, the clouds rolled away, the sun came out, the breezes blew, and the crops dried out. Too late. The damage was done. The crop was ruined. What had been a bumper crop of Canada No. 1 Hard was now barely feed quality.

All this makes you wonder why farmers keep on farming. Why they persist in spite of fickle prairie weather.

I think it’s because there’s nothing else they’d rather do.

#PrairieWeather #Drought #PalliserTriangle #HarvestTime #ClimateChange #FarmingChallenges #TooMuchRain #HannaHistory #MargaretGHanna

Chores!

“Margaret, today I think we should do . . .”

Uh-oh. I knew what that meant – Mom had a chore for me to do.

Mom loved the Royal “We.”

Doing chores for Mom often meant doing chores with Mom. And doing chores with Mom was always an adventure. It was a time for stories, jokes and laughter.

Especially jokes. Mom was never above pulling a fast one, even on her daughter.

Like one time when we were doing dishes – Mom washing, I drying. It devolved into a game of “I can wash faster than you can dry!”

I was keeping up but I seemed to be drying an inordinately large number of saucepans. Wait! Didn’t I just dry this saucepan?

Mom!

She laughed. “I wondered how long before you noticed.”

Instead of putting the saucepans away, I had put them on the stove. Which stood beside the sink. Within Mom’s easy reach.

Silly me!

#ChildhoodMemories #HannaFamilyHistory #NonFiction #FamilyHistory #Humour #DoingChores #MargaretGHanna

Going Hog Wild . . .

. . . And That’s No Bull!

BertPigs

Grandpa Hanna (and later my Dad, Garnet) did what prairie farmers can no longer do – operate a mixed farm. In addition to growing grain (wheat, oats, barley, and flax, and later rapeseed now called canola), they raised a few head of milk and beef cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys – some to eat and some to sell for quick cash when the price of wheat was low or the grain cheque had yet to arrive. However, from time to time, livestock provided more than income.

 

The four words that farmers dread the most? – Your cows are out! While out, they wandered everywhere, including into town. The village of Meyronne passed a bylaw in 1921 stating that horses and cattle were not allowed to run at large between May 1 and November 15, otherwise there’d be fines to pay. Council forgot to tell the livestock about the bylaw. The Meyronne Independent printed jabs such as “Do you, reader, own any of the livestock that parades up and down, in and out of Meyronne’s streets every week?” The editor obviously forgot that livestock can’t read.

Abe had to pay those fines several times, and sometimes even compensate neighbouring farmers. He paid Mr. Barber $20.00 for damages done by cattle while he, Addie and the family were visiting in Alberta. One Sunday morning, Abe had to retrieve the bull that had wandered into town. That incident inspired me to write my grandparents’ story, “Our Bull’s Loose In Town!” Tales from the Homestead. Escapades did not always end well. Cherry, the cow, got stuck in the mud in the pasture on the Flat. Abe hauled her back to the farm on the stone boat but the next day she caught pneumonia and died.

Abe’s cattle weren’t the only ones to go astray. One morning, Abe found six strange cattle wandering about the farm yard; a few phone calls soon determined whose they were and the red-faced owners quickly retrieved them. Another time, he found a yearling Holstein bull in the yard; Abe took it to the pound for the owner to liberate.

Abe references a few cows by name – Lily, Cherry, Emma, Davidson, Blue, Whiteface and Broncho. The female names lead me to suspect those were mostly Holsteins, large rangy milk cows that, every morning, lumbered up from the pasture to the barn and stood there, bellowing, “Mo-o-o-ilk me! Mo-o-o-ilk me!” Those bellows have a particularly urgent timber to them – there’s no sleeping in when a cow’s needing milked.

Cows, like horses (see last week’s post) needed doctoring, and the diaries contain many references to sick cattle. Dr. Houze was called in only if a dose of aloes and Miracle Wonder (whatever that was) didn’t cure the ailing beast. Not every cow survived. Broncho got very ill after being fed a small amount of feed sorghum one afternoon. Two hours later, Broncho died. Abe suspected the sorghum had been treated with something that poisoned the cow.

Abe didn’t give names to his pigs but I’m willing to bet he called them choice names whenever they escaped. Pigs, being canny, often escaped. Seventeen hogs got out one day and wandered into the village – were they wanting to have words with the butcher, we wonder? Abe had to pay to get them out of the pound. Another pig went on a cross-country adventure on its own; Abe found it two days later at a farm about three miles away. Several piglets once scampered into the school yard just south of the farm — at recess time! — and engendered no end of mayhem. Perhaps they thought the big bad wolf was after them and they would be safe in the red brick school house.

And then there was the Pigs-in-the-Garden incident in the first year of my parents’ marriage. The fence around the pig pen was in need of repair. “Fix the fence,” Mom said on several occasions. “Yes, dear,” my father replied, on as many occasions.

Mom was particularly proud of her garden that summer. She had managed to grow cantaloups and watermelons, no small feat in southwestern Saskatchewan; the gladiolas and dahlias were in full glorious bloom. So imagine her fury when she came home from town to find the pigs wrecking havoc in her garden.

“It wouldn’t have been so bad if they had eaten only one watermelon,” she’d say every time she told the story. But no, the pigs had gone down the row and taken a bite out of each and every watermelon, each and every cantaloup. They had uprooted and munched on every dahlia and gladiola corm.

Mom hit the roof. Dad fixed the fence. The pigs never got out again.

 

#AnimalStories #HannaFamilyHistory #SaskatchewanHistory #FarmLife #MeyronneHistory #MargaretGHanna #OurBullsLooseInTown #BWLPublishing #Humour #NonFiction

Elsie and I

(A Christmas story)

I hated it at first. Thought it was the stupidest gift I had ever received. Threatened to give it back, throw it out, anything but take it home.

It was a Christmas present, and what kid doesn’t like Christmas presents? Christmas is the best time of year for any kid. The anticipation of Santa Claus with his bag of goodies, the tree, decorations, food, cookies, candies, turkey and stuffing. But most of all, presents. Piled up under the tree. Piled so high you can’t see over them. And stockings, hung perhaps not by the chimney but certainly with care, awaiting gifts from Santa. Christmas morning can’t come soon enough.

But first you have to endure the school Christmas concert, the Sunday School pageant re-enacting the birth of Baby Jesus, singing carols, and trying to figure out which cup and saucer to buy for your mother and which tie (or socks) for your father, just to get to the best part – opening your own presents. You wonder if Christmas morning will ever arrive.

But finally, it does. It’s early in the morning. It’s dark. Mom and Dad are still in bed. Never mind. You tear downstairs and run straight to your stocking. There it is, full to overflowing. You ignore the mandarin orange and hard candies, and go straight to the good stuff – the gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins, the little toys. That will keep you happy until you get to open the mother lode, the pile of parcels under the tree. Now all you have to do is wake up Mom and Dad and wait while they have their coffee and make breakfast.

Sometimes you have to wait even longer because your family is going to spend Christmas day with your relatives. You bundle up in winter clothes, put all the parcels into the trunk, and away you go. When you arrive, the grown-ups have to have coffee, talk, eat cookies and Christmas cake, check the progress of the Christmas feast, and talk about the weather. Don’t they know that Christmas is about opening presents?

But finally the big moment arrives. Paper flies, boxes are strewn about, and in five minutes it is all over. Reality settles in. That’s it, folks! Now we have to wait till next year.

I was 10 that particular Christmas. We drove to Assiniboia, 40 miles away, to spend the day with my Aunt Kay and Uncle Bob (my mother’s oldest brother). Grandpa Higham and Uncle George (my mother’s younger brother) were also there.

It was the gift from Uncle George that intrigued me. It was a rather large squarish box, decorated with a plush cow’s head. That’s a weird decoration to put on a Christmas gift, I thought, but then Uncle George had a reputation for being a joker. It was the last one I opened. I tried to pull the head off before ripping off the paper, but it wouldn’t budge. Finally, I tore off the paper, opened up the box and pulled out – a cow!

1957Christmas
Oh sure, I’m smiling but that’s because I was told to!

She (and it was most definitely a “she”) was white with red blotches. She had horns, an udder and a silly grin on her face. She wore button-up boots and a bell. What a stupid gift to give to a niece! How could my favourite uncle do this to me?

Of course, my parents made me thank Uncle George and they made me take her home and put her in my bedroom with my other plush toys. But they couldn’t make me like her.

They explained to me that she was Elsie, the Borden Cow, the cow in the advertisements for Borden’s condensed milk. But that didn’t make her any less ugly.

What they didn’t tell me was that she had magic powers. She had to, because otherwise how could a despised ugly plush cow turn into a prized possession?

When I packed to go to university, Elsie came with me. She was a connection with home and family. That was important for me, being only 17 and 2000 miles away from home.

Elsie was also a conversation piece at residence. Students would come in to visit, see her, and ask “What’s with the cow?” I would tell them the story, and they’d look at me like I was crazy. She was unique, and somehow by association that made me unique. That was  important because I was at that point in life when I was trying to find out who I was and what made me tick.

Elsie is still with me. Like me, she’s a bit worse for the wear sixty-some years later. Her hind legs are bowed under her, her boots are dirty, her coat not as plushy. She still has her bell and her silly grin, and she sports a 1968 McGill Winter Carnival pin. I’ve grown to love her for who she is, slightly quirky, definitely herself.

Maybe she’s a reflection of me.

 

#Christmas #ChristmasPresents #ChristmasMemories #ChildhoodMemories #ElsieBordenCow #FamilyHistory #HannaHistory #MargaretGHanna #Humour #NonFiction #BWLAuthor

I’ve been here before

The house was in chaos. The remains of breakfast still on the table. Unwashed dishes stacked in the sink. The living room in shambles. Mom standing in the midst of it all, dazed, confused, worried. She looked at me. “I need help!”

A medical emergency? Break-and-enter? Home invasion?

Nope. Something far more serious.

“B______ wants a quilt with animals on it, and I can’t decide what to make.”

That explained the shambles. The floor, the sofa, the coffee table covered with fabric – fat quarters, cut lengths, remnants – of all colours and designs; quilting magazines opened to different patterns.

Two hours later, we had decided on a pattern (frogs). We’d picked out the fabrics from her stash (varying shades of green and green prints).

I knew this was far from over. I’d been here before.

Mom stood up, hands on her hips, her lips pursed. “We need contrast fabric. And something for the sashing. And for the backing. I just don’t have enough flannel for the backing and what I do have just doesn’t go.”

She gathered up the chosen fabric and her purse. “We’ll just have to go in to Peachtree.” She handed me the keys to her beloved Buick Century. “Here, you drive. You know I hate driving in Regina.”

Yep, I’d been here before.

Peachtree was Mom’s favourite quilting store. Two rooms filled with more quilting fabric than you ever imagined existed. Plus quilting supplies. And sewing machines. And quilting books and magazines, just in case you didn’t already have enough. The staff knew her by name. That was no surprise – I think she was there at least once a week. Mom was an avid quilter. We joked that if something stood still long enough, she’d work it into a quilt.

An hour later, Mom left behind a bundle of money and I carried out a bundle of fabric. But the afternoon wasn’t over.

Mom grinned. “I think we need coffee. And something to eat.”

I knew where this was going. I’d been here before.

Off to our favourite coffee shop. Two lattes and a couple of those really decadent chocolate whatever-they-ares. Then it was time to pay.

“Gee, I forgot my wallet, Margaret.”

“No, you didn’t. You paid Peachtree, remember?”

“Yes, but you’re driving my car and burning my gas.”

“Yes, but you asked me to drive. You need to pay your chauffeur.”

“I paid last time.”

“No, I did.”

Meanwhile, the poor clerk looked more and more concerned, wondering if World War III was about to break out. Little did she know this “discussion” was all in fun. It was part of our routine. Mom knew I would pay. Eventually.

Like I said, I’d been here before. And I loved every minute of it.

Oh, and the quilt? B_______ loved it.

 

#Quilting #HannaFamilyHistory #MothersAndDaughters #MargaretGHanna #Humour #NonFiction

“Next Year” Country

Or, Hope Springs Eternal

He looks out over the prairie, hand on the breaking plow, horses at the ready. “Not much of a field this year, but next year it will be bigger.”

They walk, hand in hand, across the blackened field. She says, “At least the prairie fire missed the house.” He says, “This ash will fertilize next year’s crop.”

He fingers the rusty wheat leaves and thinks “Next year I’ll grow that new rust-resistant grain.”

He watches the droves of grasshoppers ravage his fields. “No crop this year, but a cold spring next year will do them in.”

They stand at the window, watch the dust storm carry away soil and seed. “Next year, we’ll have rain,” they say.

They cry as they look over the hailed-out crop. They put their arms around each other. “At least we have crop insurance. That will carry us through to next year.”

He holds the grain cheque. “Hardly worth putting in the bank.” His son says, “Prices should be higher next year.”

They watch their grandson start up the four-wheel drive tractor, air seeder and fertilizer applicator attached, and go into the field to start seeding. “This year,” they say. “This year!”

#FarmLife #NextYearCountry #RuralLife #Hope #MargaretGHanna

How I learned you can’t go home again

Part 2: The Farm

My brother and I drove to the farm last year. We knew the house was no longer there; a year or so after GD bought the farm, he sold the house which now sits on a wind-swept hill east of Swift Current.

We weren’t prepared for the other changes.

ChangesInFarmOf the original buildings, only the barn, the hen house and the garage still stood. Everything else – the old wooden granaries, the shop, the implement shed, the sidewalks that once bordered the house – were all gone. Grass had taken over what had been Mom’s prized flower garden. It had invaded what had been our vegetable garden. Even the old basement was gone. GD had filled it in and built a new home in the garden north of where our house had stood. All the trees, lilac bushes, and peonies that once grew there were gone.

My brother and I stood in the yard, disoriented, confused.

We found the concrete patio that marked the southwest corner of the house. We traced where the sidewalk along the south side of the house used to be. We stood where the east-facing kitchen window used to be, where if winter atmospheric conditions were just right, we could see Lafleche (13 miles distant) float above the little valley in which it sat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe found the two trees where our swing used to hang, and the tree we used to climb. We wandered into the barn. Even though no cow had been in it for almost 50 years, the huge old-growth fir beams still retained vestigial smells of cow and horse and manure and straw. We found remnants of the old pump for watering the livestock, overgrown with grass.

Our home had all but disappeared.

 

The farm was more than where we lived. It was where we became who we are today.

Here, we learned the value of hard work, perseverance, determination, even stubbornness; the prairies are, after all, “Next Year” country. We learned to respect and care for the land from which we earned our living.

Here, we learned that failure is not the end; it is merely a lesson to be learned. There is life after failure.

Here, we learned to roll with the punches because there are always forces (weather) and circumstances (e.g., international markets) beyond our control.

Here, we learned that death is part of life. The animals we fed, watered and cared for eventually ended up on our dinner plate.

And here, from our parents, we learned the value of community and of working for justice. Our parents were involved in many organizations, both religious and secular, as members and as leaders, always striving to improve life for their children and for others.

We learned the sense of satisfaction that comes from having accomplished a day’s hard work, be it getting the harvest in the bin before the threatened snow arrived, or seeing 90 quarts of pickles sitting on the kitchen table.

We learned the value of education, that learning never stops. Our parents made great sacrifices so that we could get a good education. They, themselves, never stopped learning.

We also had unparalleled freedom. No helicopter parents hovered. We walked unaccompanied into Meyronne to play in the school yard, to visit Grandma or to play with friends. We ran about and played, occasionally in places deemed dangerous – we climbed trees and jumped off the roofs of granaries. We rode the calves (a forbidden pastime) when Dad was away. In exercising that freedom, we learned that actions have consequences, and we had better be prepared to live with those consequences. We also learned to assess risk vs. reward.

We learned to imagine. The inside of the threshing machine (another forbidden place) became a cave. Trees were the masts of sailing ships and we were pirates sailing the high seas in search of treasure.

We learned responsibility. Long before we were legally able to drive, Dad taught us to drive the truck and machinery, and we learned that power meant danger and must be treated with care and respect.

In time, the farm became my refuge from the stress of my work. There was something healing about weeding the garden, or sitting in the garden swing, or listening to birds greet the early summer dawn.

As my brother and I stood there in the yard last fall, it became obvious the home we had once known was gone forever. At the same time, I realized “Home” was no longer a physical place. “Home” was who I had become. It was embedded in my values, my priorities, my expectations, my worldview.

“Home” will always be with me.

 

#MeyronneHistory #HannaFamilyHistory #Memories #RuralHistory #Contemplations MargaretGHanna #VillageLife #Nostalgia #RememberingThePast #NonFiction

How I learned you can’t go home again

Part 1: The Village

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote L.P. Hartley. “They do things differently there.”

No. We do things differently here. The past is over and done, fixed, immutable. We cannot change what happened then.

Not so with our memories.

Psychologists, neurologists and other “ists” tell us that our memories are anything but immutable. We remember some aspects of things past, forget others, confuse events, think we were somewhere when we weren’t. Even the act of recalling a memory changes that memory, or so they tell us.

Memory is a muddle.

So, what was I remembering when I went back to my home village of Meyronne this summer? I walked up and down the streets for almost an hour, looking at vacant lots where once there had been homes, businesses and gathering places. The village was eerily quiet, quite unlike my memory. Continue reading “How I learned you can’t go home again”

Overbeck’s Medical Marvel

Or, If It’s Too Good To Be True . . .

In 1998, when Mom decided to sell the farm, we had a grand clean-out of the house and shop. The shop had quite the history of its own. It had started life in 1910 as the two-room script house on S 25-8-7-W3 in which my grandparents wintered. In 1917, it was moved across the section and attached to the new house to serve as parlour and bedroom. When the house was enlarged in 1925-26, it was removed and transformed into Grandpa Hanna’s shop. He did his blacksmithing and general repair work in what had been the “front room.”

I don’t know what Grandpa Hanna used the back room for. In my time, Dad used it as a general catch-all room, containing whatever didn’t end up in the junk pile out back of the shop. I never ventured that far into the shop; it was too scary.

The 1998 clean-out turned into a treasure hunt. Yes, that room contained a lot of junk, but we found scythes and sickles, an ancient foot-pedaled wood lathe complete with tools, and the weirdest looking device called an Overbeck’s Rejuventor contained in a wooden box. I was curious. What was this device used for? Continue reading “Overbeck’s Medical Marvel”

Jam

Excerpts from Grandpa Hanna’s diary:

Wednesday, November 14, 1917: dug rhubarb
Monday, November 19, 1917: dug up plants & fruit bushes in old garden. Planted same in new garden in pm.
Thursday, November 22, 1917: planted raspberries

When Abe built the new house clear across the section in 1917, he moved more than the buildings from the old homestead site. All the garden plants came, too. Perhaps the conversation about the move went something like this:

Addie: When are you planning to move the garden plants over?

Abe: Can’t right now. We’re busy working on the barn and the new house. The garden will have to wait till next spring.

Addie: You’re not too busy to scrape out that slough or work on church business.

Abe: That’s different. We need the pond to collect water for the livestock. I’ll move the garden come spring.

Addie: And next spring you’ll be too busy with seeding and harrowing. Then come summer, you’ll be too busy with summerfallowing and breaking new land. Next thing you know, it will be fall and you’ll be too busy with harvesting. You want raspberry jam and gooseberry jam and rhubarb pie, don’t you, so move those plants over now before the snow flies. Otherwise they won’t be grown enough to produce fruit for that jam you like so much.

And so, the garden was moved.

Of course, maybe it didn’t happen that way at all. But given my grandmother’s opinionated and outspoken personality, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had something to do with the timing of the move.

 

#HannaFamilyHistory #Garden #Humour #HistoricalFiction #MargaretGHanna #OurBullsLooseIntown