By: Sherry Richards
I grew up in a farming community southeast of Saskatoon, and I’ve heard many stories about pioneer days and the depression. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like in those years.
I’ve always had food and shelter and I’ve never known hard times. What is fascinating for me is the difference in stories between life in the south on the prairies and life in the north. Living was no less hard but the north provided food and shelter for it’s residence.
I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with a Big River resident and hear her story about life in the north.
Grace Colby and I sat at her kitchen table and she told me what it was like to live through those times.
Grace is a wonderful storyteller and sharp as a tack. Her voice rises and falls and at times her arms wave and I can paint a picture in my mind as she speaks.
She was born in 1922 and grew up in the Esterhazy area. Later her family moved to Renown (Watrous area) and by the time she was 14 years old she had to go out to work to help her family. Grace said she was lucky to have a job and being the eldest she didn’t mind working to help feed the family. It was the midst of the depression and there was no work or food and what little water they had was rationed.
“I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for my Mother wondering how she was going to feed 10 kids. I remember one fall when all my Mother managed to get from her garden was a milk pail each of potatoes, carrots, beets, and turnips, but she made it last until Christmas by making soup.”
The government helped by sending the starving families cheese, beans, salted cod and smoked herring.
“We didn’t know anything much about fish and we didn’t like the salty cod so we fed it to the cattle for the salt. It was cheese and beans, beans and cheese and the occasional rabbit.“ she said. I asked Grace about her first job and if she remembers what she got paid. “$5.00 a month, and I worked 7 days a week” she said.
Her father was lucky and got a job fishing on South Stoney (which is now Delaronde Lake) and in October of 1939 the family moved to a log house in the Big River area. “I was 17 years old” she said, smiling “I thought we had moved to God’s country.
Escaping the drought didn’t mean that life was easy, jobs were still scarce and times were hard. Grace got a job right away working for a couple with a new baby. She was used to hard work and she had to grow up fast, never really having the chance to be a teenager.
The daily routine of cooking, cleaning, washing, hauling water and milking cows had already been a way of life for many years. At the old age of 17 she spotted the man she wanted as a partner and by 18 she was married and ready to have a big family of her own.
I asked Grace about her first home and she replied “My first home was a little log house built into the side of a hill. There was 2 tiny rooms and I’ll never forget one winter there. My husband Carl went to work fishing in October and never came home until April the following year. I hated that winter. I had 35 head of cattle, 2 horses and 2 little kids.
I had to keep the watering hole on the lake open for the cattle by chipping the ice out of it twice a day. When I milked the cows I had to take the kids to the barn and place them in the manger to play, while I milked.
Carl had left me enough cut wood but the last 2 weeks I had to take the buck saw and cut firewood. It was a terrible winter.” I tried to picture myself living in a little cabin beside a lake with 2 little babies and cattle and horses to take care of and no help and I shudder to think how hard the work was and how lonely it must have been.
Grace and I have spent more than one afternoon talking and laughing and I am delighted that she is kind enough to tell me about her life. Some of her stories are funny, some are sad and some are downright horrifying. I wonder if I’m the only one who doesn’t know how it was, and if others are also interested in a way of life long gone.
While I wonder I hope to spend more time in Grace’s kitchen and Nora’s and Mabel’s and Johnny’s...
Sherry Richards was a 23 year Saskatoon resident who abandoned her familiar surroundings and moved North to live and write in Saskatchewan's boreal forest.
Contact Sherry by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org