FORT VERMILION, ALBERTA
January 6, 1935
When you wrote that help would come at Christmas I wondered what you meant, and things did look blue as winter came on. They have changed their blue cast, and I am sending out for a pair of rubber boots for Karl that he long has needed and the liniment for Daddy and his medicine besides. We will get the flour we need and that is a big load off my shoulders.
October was a bright sunny month, not cold, and Outside, where our river rises, it was very warm and the warm winds brought us summer weather when we always had before experienced wintry cold.
The minister of the English church in here did not put on his winter underwear and set out to walk a short distance to an evening meeting of the Literary. He took the wrong path in the dark and got lost and did n’t know it for hours and then he kept on walking all night till a blizzard came up and it grew cold. He had no overcoat and had on silk socks and low shoes.
The Mounted Police had all the men and Indians out hunting for him and after two days he was found nearly dead from the cold. He is going to live, but the doctor took off his toes. He is still in bed. We are glad he will live, for he is a fine young man. It is so easy to get lost where the settlers are only a fringe on the great unknown.
Karl was wild because he could not go to hunt for him too, but Daddy is too old to do chores and get up wood and was having a sick spell, so he is just up now and sitting in his chair. The white men could n’t go where the Indians could anyway and it was a couple of Indians who finally found the poor man. They made a huge fire at once, boiled coffee for him while one went for help. Every man who was on this hunt carried coffee and matches and a gun.
Wolves have been numerous this winter. We tied up our dogs and the wolves come up around the stable every night. Karl has caught two of them in traps, but there is no bounty on them any more. The bounty was left off with the coming of the depression. If he can catch the two big ones that howl at night I think the others will go away. They seem to be the ringleaders. These are gray wolves. They are large, but the black ones are larger. Karl was best man at a wedding at New Year’s. He wore his bright red and black checked sweater, red tie, and I ironed one of Daddy’s old white shirts for him, so he looked very nice. He said the priest, Catholic, wore his brightest dress too. Dad and I chuckled over it, but on the frontier anything goes. It was quite a colorful wedding. He is to be best man at a church wedding next June. He is so big and good to look at I don’t wonder they like him for best man.
Daddy reads the papers to me while I sit and mend. He is just as bright as he ever was. Such a dear companion. I am going to mend up Karl’s overalls and have them ready for use when Karl wants to shed the heavy moosehide pants in the spring. The overall cloth was just what I had wished for so long. Moosehide is very heavy and unsuitable except when it is very cold.
P. S. 50 candles came by mail, so I have a light at night. I was sorry not to get the coal oil, but am getting along real well.
February 14, 1935
Your woolies came and are appreciated, for I have no time to knit. This going back to the early days makes me remember that they used to wear out two to four wives and how they lay in neat rows in the graveyard.
I would n’t have come so far if it had n’t been for the boy. An ideal place to raise a boy. I think the world will hear of him some day. He is a born story-teller, makes up yarns as easy as I talk.
The lake that now covers our farm except the hill we will leave to dry up with the years. I am starting all over again on a new homestead in the spring. It will be hard, but we can and we will. What a lot of power that we will gives one. Great obstacles seem like molehills now.
I thank you for your fine letter, but am afraid you overestimate what I do. I just live from day to day. I used to climb hills before I got there — pioneering takes that out of you.
February 15, 1935
I have time only for a short note and this letter will be taken by a freighter who is going out overland with a team to-morrow. I wish there were time to write to Miss —— and to tell her that all her sample packages and letter arrived safely and how glad we were to get them. The winter has been hard and I had given up hope of being able to do anything in the future when the Christmas mail came. It seemed to give us courage. We figured out right then that we would leave this homestead and start on another one. It means beginning all over again, making log cabins, stables, and breaking ground in the wilderness as before. Most of the work falls on Karl, but much on me. I am going to get screens and some windows; those I have in this cabin are wee things that give so little light it is really a twilight through the whole winter. I ’ll need nails too. Well, the money came and we look forward to life again with new hope and courage.
Your bundle came that you sent last also and the doctor’s came wrapped in ticking, and was n’t I glad! My ticking on my pillows is worn out.
Daddy loves your father’s poem. He chuckles over it; somehow it is so true and to the point. I had a visitor one day when Daddy was ill and very low. The visitor said, ‘Well, he is so old it is best that he goes; he has lived his life.’ And I resented it fiercely, for I know how wonderful that brain is after so many years of this world’s struggles and woe. When he is sitting up again my arm is round his neck and my hand in his, too satisfied for words.
The days are already longer. It has been hard, in a way. Some candles came, including yours; they all helped, but were inadequate, as the dark is so long. I sat in the dark when I possibly could do without a light and managed to get through fairly well.
Karl is out cutting logs for the new cabin; this old one has seen its day and can’t be moved. I’ll have dirt roofs, but they’ll keep out the wintry winds and in time we’ll have better roofs. I hope to be able to get lumber for the floors; rough lumber will wear smooth with the years. I hate dirt floors so. Karl has a dirt floor in his cabin and it’s dusty. But having a cabin for himself takes much from my shoulders. It was so disagreeable to step over sleeping trappers in the early morning when getting breakfast. Now Karl takes them to his cabin, where he has an extra bunk for them, and I see them only at meals, which leaves it more peaceful and private. Eating, sleeping, and cooking, and entertaining three to four strange men who have managed to reach shelter in the blizzard, is not pleasant in a small one-room cabin. Karl is going to try to make three rooms for me beside his own cabin. I am afraid the boy is too ambitious, but he is growing up and real strong.
He is a genius if there ever was one, and will be a writer of stories and books. It will take work, but his head is full of them. Next winter we hope to get him started writing and sending out some. Now I must close and I am glad you are wintering through again, and so is Daddy.
May 19, 1935
I was surprised and not pleased to have my letter to you returned to me because I had mixed up your address with that of another. I seldom make mistakes, but have not been very well this winter, and when tired mistakes are apt to occur. Many of the settlers had a touch of scurvy this winter; Karl had it quite bad and I had it in a lighter form. Some thought they had cancers when slight bruises refused to heal and looked bad. I never had it before and I diagnose it as a bad case of indigestion to start with.
It kept growing worse until the snow was gone. I like soft water to drink and cook with; our water in here in wells is hard and a bit alkali, so we use river water. The boy found a pool of snow water in the grass in the woods and, though it was quite yellow from the grass, it tasted good. We grew better at once and when it was gone I made a tea of green grass to keep up the good work. Now we are all well.
I will be glad to leave this and hope to be on my new homestead before the snow flies. Where the water covers ploughed land it is soft and our only milk cow drowned in it last Sunday by getting stuck in the mud, which acts like quicksand. The new homestead is several miles away. It means a great deal of hard work for Karl to begin all over again.
He is breaking there now, but has some logs cut and will work at the cabin as soon as the breaking is in. He went to the Fort yesterday to see if there would be any seed grain for him. I asked the government to lend me thirty bushels as there is none in here. They seldom refuse to lend seed to settlers.
Several settlers are leaving on the boat this week, but they are city people who made a mistake in coming in here when they lost their jobs. We have had several of these settlers come in each year and as many leave.
Mr. Rose is now in his eighty-third year, but is through to grass again. He likes to keep busy in his little old shop where he fixes things that break. This week he put in five spokes in an old wagon wheel and half of the wooden rim. He is very proud of being able to help out yet; though his step is slow his eye is still accurate, and his hands, though they tremble a little, can do light work. He has a weak heart and for weeks at a time does not lie down, but sleeps in his old rocker tilted back.
We are glad to be through to spring; it was a late cold spring but is warmer to-day. I was out to see if my garden was coming up, but it is a bit too early yet. I grow anxious to see the green things.
June 16, 1935
This is a busy time and a happy time when our brief summer comes to cheer us. My garden is planted and most of it is up, and hardly a day that it does not shower with sunshine in between the showers, so it grows fast.
The sun is just below the horizon at midnight and you can see to work all night if you wish. Karl has been fencing and that is a hard job, for the rails are long and heavy because they are green and have the sap yet. After working all day he wanted to go to a dance at the Fort that the Ladies’ Aid was giving. It seems that youth is never too tired to dance. So he went off on his pony last night and is n’t back yet. Daddy and I are alone and it seems very lonesome indeed without the boy.
You spoke of hardships in your last letter, things that I bear with because nothing can help. It is very true, some things cannot be told. But we are very happy together. Karl has never come in contact with anything coarse, uses cultured English, and does n’t smoke, so he has had a normal growth both mentally and bodily. That makes us happy and we still have our little cabin home. Think how many have lost their homes in this depression.
What causes the hardships is that in a new country much is lacking. This winter I started without any disinfectant and had need of it sadly. I have just received some Mercurochrome and Lysol in the last mail and I asked for it from a friend. It came to hand last week when Karl stepped on a rusty spike. With it I was able to cleanse the hole and it healed nicely. It is so hard to get by without some things of civilization. So it goes on. Karl has put in some grain, worked so hard to get the land ready, and we look forward to having some of it ground into flour. It will cost to take it to the mill, at the rate of $1.25 cents for a hundred pounds of flour, and furnish your grain and the sacks. Karl hopes to be able to work for it, and if he cannot — no flour.
Then there’s the binding of the wheat. I have a binder, and I have horsepower; old-fashioned indeed, for you hitch the horses to sweeps and they travel round and round. I traded a cow for the oldest and first thresher ever made, a wee thing, but Daddy and Karl fixed it up so it threshes. One must be independent, so far from human help. Others tie their grain with a binder, but that would cost us ten dollars for twine, so we tie it by hand. This is back-breaking work, but I am glad we can thresh it out alone. Before that we threshed it out on a canvas with a flail and ground it ourselves in a little hand mill and it was just chick feed, but we ate it, for it was food. I could go on like this, but you can see what the depression has done to those who live on the land. I talked to a man last winter who is married to a titled English lady and they grind their wheat in the coffee mill. My floor is of rough boards, but their floor is of clay. This cabin has a tarred-paper roof that leaks some, but theirs is of sod. And she is the most exquisite little person and takes it on the chin. Her father disowned her, but she is happy. Speaking of sod roofs, Karl and I are planning to move as soon as he can get the log cabins up and our roofs will be sod also. Things like that do not matter. They do not affect our souls or our health very much. What I worry about is you, if something happens to the government, if it changes so you have no rents and no interest.
Things look better than last year, for we have not had the frosts we had then, though the spring was two weeks late. We have rhubarb and green winter onions to eat. They are perennials. Then I get all the wild spinach we want and that toned up and cleaned our blood from the scurvy caused by lack of vegetables last winter. Karl, like most kids, does not love spinach, but you should see him take several helpings now. So we are through to grass and so are the mosquitoes. I am just deaf enough so I do not hear their song unless there is a swarm of them about my ears. This prevents me from becoming nervous. Their song used to annoy me exceedingly. My deafness is so slight that it does not annoy me and so I am thankful that the mosquitoes’ song is dulled.
I have mosquito bars over the beds and there is peace, heavenly peace there. I also bought fifty cents’ worth of Citronella (a drug that flies abhor), and a drop on my forehead, neck, and wrists makes me immune for thirty minutes. So I can go outside and still not be eaten up alive by the swarms that fill the air night and day for ten weeks. But to make up for these pests we have showers and the world is green, so we call it the Emerald Isle. How dreadful drought would be and dust! Here the air is always cool and refreshing, like mountain air. Daddy will live to be a hundred years if we always have enough to eat, I believe. He is very happy here and his health is good, though he is frail and it is hard to winter him. If I had a better home it would be easier for him in the winter. We live so syncopated in a small oneroom cabin. Karl, as you know, is trying his best to make a home for us and he has been cutting logs and planning the best he can, but with only his hands and no money it is slow. Still I know he will make it.
The candles came and will light the evenings in August, as it grows dark faster and faster as fall comes on. I like them in my candle lamp, as it has a shade and it takes only short candles.
I filled the pink pillowcase with duck feathers for my pillow. I had gone without a pillow all these years because Daddy had to have all of them. So now I say as I lay me down to sleep, ‘I sleep on a wild duck pillow.’ How many of Life’s children can say that? The Indians have learned to make feather quilts of the wild duck feathers and they roll up in them, but never use a pillow.
The apron made me two more pillowcases and I trimmed them with some crocheted lace I made years ago. You see, in homesteaders’ cabins pillows, cases, and sheets are minus. I have seen them made of dark blue calico that had been used as clothing before. I have seen them made of many things where the woman hated to do without them. I did too, and they served. I wash all old wool clothing when past its usefulness and make it into comforter covers. But I have never used overalls, as I read some do, though I have several times slept under these hefty covers in here. They are warm, but my heart is weak and I have trouble unless the covers are light on my chest. Wool is softer.
The sewing bag and material and everything in the package will be good to have this winter. It helps. Without it I’d sit and just think and wonder why there is so much made in the world and yet one must not have it to use. I guess many are studying on that problem these days. Now I must close with the happy thought that you are stronger this summer. I was so glad to hear this.
July 6, 1935
I write so easy on the typewriter and letters are longer on it and easier to read too. So I will write an answer to the last letter, which came yesterday when Karl came home from the Fort with it. He left for the mail on the first day of July and while he was there the river rose fifteen feet, overflowing and taking the ferry off its moorings, and submerged the cable, and with driftwood coming down thick and fast they do not know yet how much damage was done.
He had his pony and was marooned on the other side and needed to get back home, so he got a small barge or scow to take him and the pony across and paid a dollar and a half for it. It was risky with the floating timber shooting by so thick, but boys will risk their necks and think little of it. A high school sent him a pair of binoculars and the money for the customs enclosed, and so he had just enough to get home on, as there was no duty. We were glad to see him come, as Daddy was ill with his stomach; he has relaxed bowels on account of his age, and I have to be careful what I give him to eat; and he had eaten greens and, while they are good for him, he likes them too well.
The spyglass, as I call it, is just what Karl needs on his hunting; I warn him all the time to be sure he is n’t potting an Indian lad who might be after deer also. The Indians live only six miles from us and there are two reservations and any number of them in the woods along the lakes and rivers. One Indian lad is living with us now and working with Karl, hoeing potatoes and helping him with the logs. I have never refused a hungry lad food and shelter yet, red or white. Once last winter in a week I had given away twenty-eight meals of what I had on hand. That’s unusual, as most weeks none come. The Indians come long ways to trade at the Fort and get out of food, and the law says, ‘Enter and eat your fill, but do not take any away.’ They do not take advantage of it and always pay with moosehide or moccasins for the food. Besides, I love the poor dears of the wildwood. I kissed one young maiden just to feel her skin and it was like a brown rose petal.
The coal oil you tried to send us last winter is famous now. They telegraphed in to see if it could be sent in and it was too late. They asked everybody that was coming in here about it and it got around until we heard the tale as it was repeated. Such things grow like a snowball rolling downhill. We heard that there were ten gallons of coal oil at the end of rail for us, held up by the river being frozen early last fall. We thought someone else, name unknown, had sent it, as we had your letter telling about your attempt to get the oil in here. You are right — it is harder to get a letter in and out of here than halfway around the world. Few people realize this, or the terrible handling things get on the overland mail in the winter. A small radio was sent to Karl last winter and it was not usable at all, so shaken up and broken. There are about forty creeks and muskegs to cross; the soil erodes fast and the banks to the smallest creek are about 400 feet deep and steep, and things have to be unloaded, the sled let down with chains and pulleys many times. Sometimes the ice breaks and everything gets wet. It was so rough, this overland trail, that our beloved mailman, a strapping halfbreed, strong and able and fine, was decorated by the king for his service. The freezing and hardships got him and this spring he died in the prime of his life, having carried the mail about eighteen years in the winter. He leaves a big family of little ones. Once his wife had twins. She lived Outside.
So there is no coal oil. Therefore the candles lighted us when the dark came and were blessed many times. It’s the oddest thing that just when I have moulded the last stumps into a usable thing the mail brings some more from you and the little lady with the wings who dwells in the Prosperity Shop. She must give you a picture of herself; it’s full of moonlight and makes you think of a silvery moth with folded wings ready to disappear if you open the window to the dark outside.
I walk alone here, for Daddy is slipping away and sleeps much of the day as well as the night. He may stay a year, maybe several, but the looks of him make us realize it may not be long. He is sweeter and gentler than ever now; he always was, but now it hurts us and we can only try to love him all we can. I sent out for his liniment with the dollar. There is no money in here at all, no way to get any, and I wait patiently when there is a need: surely someone will enclose something for postage, perhaps — and it always comes. One teacher keeps me in paper and pencils, another in typewriter ribbons, one old lady sends me a roll of adhesive tape, as she gets an extra roll for a penny at a sale. Trying to cure the sores caused by lack of vegetables this winter used up a bottle of Mercurochrome and the teacher who supplies it sent me another bottle, so I have some on hand.
Karl wrote to an old uncle in the spring and borrowed thirty dollars for seed grain after I had written to the government and they had none to send. So he put in grain and it looks fine and we will have bread if nothing happens to it. Potatoes look good and yellow turnips and carrots for the winter. There is also cabbage in the garden for the winter and we missed the frost by a narrow margin, as we do most years.
I had two old rugs still good and I traded them for a good cow that will milk all winter for us. Our last cow was drowned when she mired in the ‘lake,’ as we call the land that is under water. It is still under deep water and and we are going to try to move before winter. I cannot stay here, where the ‘lake’ is fast becoming a graveyard for animals that go there to drink. Ours was the fifth cow to lose her life and Karl’s yearling colt went to his death there too last fall.
Karl picked the new homestead and I never saw it till this spring, and the beauty of it fairly took my breath away. It has a view of the river, but the building site is high above it and there is a spring from which runs a tiny creek or rill in the front yard a little to one side. It’s a large spring and will keep my milk and butter cool through the summer and furnish water to drink and use. He works on it all his time, nearly, and drags up logs to build with, as they are very handy and not far away. There is a larger creek fed by springs that will run through his barnyard and furnish water to the animals. That’s what comes of being first to settle a new land. You can find the ideal homestead. We have n’t seen any like this or as good anywhere. Karl, combing the land on his pony, found it and went over the survey lines to see what it contained. It is much better than the one we are now living on, even if the water should vanish.
We do not expect much more than a roof and walls this first year. I will be happy to get that much to begin with. I have the roofing and we will need boards for the roof to lay it on, and we think we can charge it for a time. Also boards for a floor. They will be rough boards about a foot wide and Karl will smooth them off some with a jack plane. In time they will be only the foundation for a real floor of planed flooring.
Daddy says that Karl will gain most from this making a new home. It is an experience that has aged him and made a man of him. While only just eighteen years, he appears as old as twenty-six or twenty-seven to strangers. He is well built and broad-shouldered and quick to act, as all who have the wilderness to contend with. His real hardship is the terrible colds he gets from getting wet, and I have no raincoat big enough to fit him. He uses mine thrown over his shoulders if he is home. A man’s raincoat, no matter how old-fashioned or shabby, would be a great gift to the boy.
We are planning to do some intensive studying this winter if we get fixed up and have the light. He likes to dig things out and the winters are long.
August 10, 1935
There have been excessive rains here in the north and the railroad is under water for about 200 miles at the end of rail, so no trains are running yet, but the government is at work. They are making a detour which they think will soon be ready. Supplies are running low in the north country, the paper states. The mail is brought to the river from Edmonton in planes until this is ready.
There has been no frost and my garden is doing fine. If it holds off two more weeks, all is well and the stuff will go into the little cellar, safe from the cold that arrives all too soon for me. I just begin to enjoy the out-of-doors when the frost takes the mosquitoes and poisonous black flies. But this fall I intend to be outside as long as I can to absorb all the sunshine possible before the winter closes down so intensely that a woman cannot set foot outside unless she is hardened, and I have never allowed my body to grow that cold, day after day, as some women do who have cows to milk and must. Karl has done the milking, with Daddy’s aid, all these years. Now Daddy is too old and has to sit in the cabin, but he often helps me with the dishes and we have good times talking together.
I will write to the good doctor later. It is a very busy time for me, with two breeds helping Karl to hay. It is a wet season, rains and rains; between the rains they rush out and cut and rake and stack hay and there is hay where Karl cut last year. Then it was nearly all bushes, but with the bushes cut the hay came in this year in abundance. Karl helps the poor breeds who have no tools and they pay him back with work. Karl has almost grown up in the little blacksmith shop with its oldfashioned homemade leather bellows and is a good hand to fix broken iron things. He earned himself two pairs of coveralls and two dark work shirts mending some broken machinery a month ago. It was in trade; there is no money in this country.
You can see that I am glad the garden is good and the cow gives milk, for I have many to cook for and food is soon cleaned up that I set on the little forty-inch table. I could never do it if I had not learned to eliminate. I sit down to do the dishes. I have gradually learned, so it is automatic, that I must fill the teakettle with a dipper and the water pail also and never try to lift either. If Karl comes in I hand him the broom and he sweeps up without a word; he knows my heart must be spared. Also he carries in the wood. If I overdo it misses beats and I rest poorly. Otherwise I never think of it any more, as it has come on so gradually. I am not an object of pity, but have to leave much undone that I wish I could do. I never went to a doctor about it; never doctored for it by taking anything; have gradually used more under my head when I sleep and seldom remember it. And I do not weigh more than eighty-seven pounds and am as light as a feather on my feet and quick to move, being so light. Daddy says I will live to be real old; his mother was slight and much the same way, and she lived to be eighty and then she died from a bad cold she caught by getting her feet wet.
That reminds me of the rain cape. It will be very welcome in this rainy land and just the thing on horseback, I should say. A raincoat has its uses too, as it can be buttoned up tight and affords more protection when it is windy and stormy at the same time. Karl has chaps to protect his legs on his long rides, but always is so wet on his body and seldom comes home dry from the Fort. That’s why I used to ask you so often for stuff for his throat and I still labor with it, for his throat is delicate, but I think he will grow out of it in time.
The candles came from the Lady of the Moonlight and she does not dwell all the time on this prosaic earth, I can see. That box of candles must have been searched a hundred times before it arrived in here. The little postmaster here said he had never seen a package come so torn up. About six candles had been lost out, too, in the mad scramble for the two dollars the card said were enclosed in the package. You and I are too worldly-wise to put money in a package and then tell all about it on the outside. I’d have tucked it into the toe of a stocking or in a slipper, as you did those charming scissors with the flowers on them and many other things — the darling thimble that many folks would certainly have scrambled for if you had said so on the card. I said, ‘Oh dear, oh dear, the Lady of the Moonlight lives in a dream world, not in this one.’
The candles are just now all the light I have when dusk comes and much appreciated. You can never know how much. But this winter I will have oil and I am planning all kinds of things I can do when the dark comes again. Last winter I sat in the dark too much; it fretted me not to have light and the time seemed lost. Never again, I hope.
Now I must close and go to bed. It is late. I ’m glad you are able to be around this summer and hope you will have a good summer.