The Way We Were
The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the March 28, 2012 issue. Reprinted with permission.
Life was a gamble in the '30s
Foreword by Norma Geggie
When the following letter came to my attention, I marvelled at the resilience of this young couple who had, with their four children, left the Gatineau, possibly in 1930, to seek their fortune in Western Canada, as so many others did. Perhaps news from the East was scarce, as Winifred Greene responded to Miss Armstrong's letter immediately.
Were all four of her children delivered at home by Dr. Harold Geggie, or did Nurse Jessie Armstrong act as midwife, or assist Dr. Geggie depending on his availability? The building which now houses Remax Real Estate had been an Armstrong home from the 1840s was destroyed in the village fire of 1904 and rebuilt in brick afterwards. The Mrs. Orme to whom she refers was the wife of William Orme, the longtime baker, operating out of what is now Wakefield Bakery. Their home was an earlier version of Solstice Books. Roxy was Fred Hamilton's wife, Clarence's mother, and this fire of 1933 which is referred to, swept north from the vicinity of the Anglican Church, stopping just before the Earle Residence (Earle house/Molo), destroying Fred's garage, I.B.York's Funeral Home, Store, and two other residences. There was no volunteer fire department in the village until 1953.
Prior to the safety nets which we enjoy today - universal medicare, child support, employment insurance and pensions - life was a gamble. Winifred and Bert Greene, and brother Dick Greene, had the fortitude to laugh at the absurdity of their situation. One wonders how they fared.
Rocky Mountain House,
Jan 25th (1934)
Dear Miss Armstrong
I was very pleased to get your letter tonight. A neighbour brought it from town. We are 12 1/2 miles from Rocky, West and a little south. Really in the foothills of the country.
We just got tired of Regina and no possible chance of getting any work, at least it looked that way, so we just sold everything we had, bought a Dodge Touring car, built a caravan & left for fields unknown. We took two men with us and the two and Bert tried all the way to get work. We got as far west as Cranbrook, B.C., then the two men left us and returned to Regina, so we sold our caravan and packed what we could in the car. Then made our way back to Calgary & north to Edmonton to the harvest.
We stayed in Wetaskiwin for over two months & went down to Red-deer, at Red-deer about a month then down to Calgary. At Calgary Berts brother joined us and the two went North gain looking for work for the winter. We stayed in the Auto Camp. Dick landed a job on farm at Strachan, $7.50 a month, and Bert took a house for us and came to Calgary for us. The understanding was Bert was to help the farmer with his engine & wood, through the winter, & in the Spring work in his lumber mill. Dick was to do the work on the farm.
In the Spring no work was to be had anywhere and we had to leave where we were. Our car was no good as we had burst two tires coming in and had no money left by this time. So Bert looked around a bit and took an abandoned farm for a year for taxes. There were no buildings and the house was just a shell, no roof, no windows, no doors, everything had been stripped out of it. They patched up part of the roof and when it rained, which it often did, we had to gather in one corner and the rain poured all around us. The windows I covered with curtains of fine mesh nailed on and half boarded up.
Often we sat up all night as the children were in the only dry spot. N the middle of the night (dark as we had no coal-oil) it would strike us as irrisistably funny and we would look at each other and burst out laughing. Bert got a little work and we managed to get a few seeds and a garden patch plowed up. Then we were well away. In time we got a roof and made beds with boards and hay. Didn't manage windows until nearly Fall.
Dick was away working for his board (There seems to be no money in this part of the world.) Bert managed to exchange the car for a cow and a pig. Dick exchanged his mandolin for a heifer calf. So now we have stock. The boys had a collie pup and two kittens. We were getting on. There are plenty of trout in the creek and the two boys (9 & 11) were pretty lucky. There are wild partridge & strawberries, raspberries blueberries and cranberries to be picked and sold in town.
Then there are early frosts & most of our potatoes froze. The two men went to the harvest and had to walk 102 miles before they got anything to do. They struck a pretty good place where they had a horse given to them. Didn't earn much and walked back. Bought heater & pipes & boots for the bunch & Dick filed on a homestead. If we can get $10 too we are going to file on one too. If we can't it is in the lap of the gods.
How's that for experience? We are all well & the children are getting their school lessons by mail from Edmonton. Bertie has just passed to Grade 1. He is seven now and Dot is not quite 13. She is taller than I am & is wearing size 6 shoes.
I don't really know if we have done the best thing or not, it is hard to say but if we can get the homestead and seeds and a team or one horse to march the one we have, I think we will be alright.
It is really a lovely country and there are plenty of moose & deer to be had. I want hens & lots of pigs for a quick turn over.
I am sorry to hear of the Hamilton's bad luck and will write to Roxy. I haven't written for years.
Thank you so much for your letter. It is good to know you are not forgotten. Please remember me to Miss Lindsays and Mrs. Orme and Dr. Geggie.
Yours very sincerely
Ed. note: Norma Geggie is a Wakefield resident.
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