Tag: pioneer

Our Story

I’ve just come back from a family reunion — the descendants of those pioneers I’ve mentioned over the past few weeks.  We’re all older now.  The cousins I knew as kids chasing through the hay fields are all grown up.  Some are grandparents themselves.  The old farmhouse has been renovated with a modern kitchen and new wiring, the barns expanded and modernized.  Tractors and harvesters have taken the place of draft horses and hired men.  What remains is the land and our story.

The fields, cleared by my grandfather yield corn and grains and hay, just as before.  Cattle and babies live off its bounty.  The valley traps the heat, the hills on either side offer a cool respite.  I sit under a tent on Sunday morning and listen to a preacher talk about God and gardening while my eyes rest on the old homestead.  It’s a wonderful moment of connection.  I feel the pioneers smiling.

But it’s more than the place that draws us together, it is the stories.  Cousins I hadn’t seen for decades gathered on the verandah and we talked about playing hide and seek in the big house.  (It’s the only house I’ve ever known with both a front staircase and a back staircase, plus a couple of interconnecting rooms. Perfect for restless children!)  Members of the succeeding generations added their stories, weaving their memories into the fabric of the family.  That pioneer lady, with her eyes and heart set firmly on family, faith and farm, lives on in all of us.  We  each add another chapter, or maybe only a paragraph, but together we build the story of who we are, where we came from and what we stand for.

I’m sometimes annoyed at businesses or sports organizations that run advertisements that tell a story to align themselves with the nation or with a particular value.  I keep thinking, “it’s only a game,” or “it’s only fast-food” but those ads remind us all of the importance of story and the importance of roots.

Some people dismiss fiction as fluff, preferring documentaries or hard news.  Yet, story is who we are.  It roots us in place and time, it encompasses us as a family or a nation or a world.  A genealogy chart may show our blood lines, but it’s story that makes us human.

Here’s to my pioneer ancestors, here’s to family, and here’s to the storytellers among us, wherever you are.

Working Hands

Continuing my theme of the hard-working pioneer, the lady pictured here is baking bread — at the age of 90.  Once the habit of hard work is established it cannot be broken.
Family lore holds that in the early years, she’d lay her baby in the shade of a tree with an older child standing guard while she picked blueberries.  Then she’d carry  the baby and the berries a half-mile to the house and set about making pies.  As the years passed and the family grew, she routinely put up ninety quarts of wild strawberries every summer.  Note, those are wild strawberries, tiny little things no bigger than the tip of your baby finger.  Picking ninety quarts is a mind-boggling task, never mind preserving them in jars sterilized and processed on a wood-burning stove in summer.
Of course, picking and preserving fruit were extra chores.  Her regular days consisted of baking bread, churning butter, washing clothes on a scrub-board, scrubbing pine floors with lye soap.  Then, when the children were in bed, getting out her sewing machine and making the children’s clothes.  She also spun the wool from her own sheep and knitted mitts and socks for her brood.
So many of the tasks we look on now as hobbies or crafts, were necessities of life to the pioneer woman and she did it all without electricity or running water, or store-bought aids, like soap.

There is another story of her husband being annoyed because she’d been put to extra labour to entertain some visiting men while she herself was still recovering from a bout of pleurisy.  In her words “I was recovering because I was in active service.  There was no one to take my place.”
While her offspring like me are aghast at the mountains of work she accomplished, she didn’t complain or sigh.  In fact her memoirs are filled with descriptions of happy times, like the annual Fall Fair, and her pride and excitement when a horse or cow from their farm came home with a blue ribbon.

Her life revolved around her family, her faith and the farm.  She nursed her children through whooping cough and scarlet fever and ‘flu.  She sent one boy to the Great War in 1914 and another to WWII in 1939, then welcomed them home when the conflicts ended.  She lived a very long life, saw the world go from horse and buggy to a man on the moon.  Through all these momentous changes, she kept her focus — family, faith, farm.

Not a bad recipe for a good life.
Here is her recipe for hand soap.

Have grease rendered.
Take 9 cups of grease and put in crock. Heat to lukewarm.
Put 1 can Gillette’s lye in 6 cups soft cold water.  Stir until thoroughly mixed.  Lye will heat the water.  Put 1/2 cup borax, two table spoons ammonia and stir, leave it to cool until lukewarm.  Pour lye in with grease and beat (by hand!)for 10 minutes or until it looks like honey.  Bake in layers.

Romance or Drudgery

I’m currently working on the third book in my Prospect series. Like The Man for Her and Her One and Only, it is set in the mythical gold rush town of Prospect in the Rocky Mountains. The time is 1890. The railway has come through the town so travel is easier, the population is growing and the town is taking on some of the trappings of a city of the time. Still, there is a sense of the wilderness on the doorstep. Rogues masquerade as upstanding citizens, upstanding citizens will risk all for a chance to strike it rich on the gold creeks. It is a wonderful setting for a romance, bold men and daring women, a rugged landscape, and a sense of wildness and freedom.
I’m having fun writing the story and researching the times. Of course, I’ve explored this setting before, but there is always more to learn, some little nugget of information that fires the imagination.
But the life of the pioneer was not all romance. There was work, hard, unremitting, necessary work. If a man didn’t work his fields and grow a successful crop, his family went hungry. If a woman could not preserve the bounty of harvest, the winter months were lean. Storm, drought, fire, were a constant threat.
I’ve found a little of that in my own family history. This is an excerpt from a toast written by one of my relatives to celebrate our pioneer ancestors.
“Thou cruel days, those lonely nights,
How can I the picture paint
Of endless toil and lonesome frights
In that land of the Northern Lights?

With Pioneer John to the lumber camps gone
Where the tote-road became his highway
His steadfast wife sustained all life
At home, in Temperance Valley.
. . .
The father came home, when the camps closed down
His sleigh-bells rang a jubilant message
They were heard from afar, the door was ajar
his winter of labour was over.
. . .
The dog chased his tail, he was only a pup
The cats and their kittens gamboled in glee,
In Temperance Valley happy days had begun
Pioneer John was his own man again.”

It’s that line “his own man again,” that resonates with me. There may have been easier paths than that of the pioneer, but those paths depended on the good will of some other man. For men like my grandfather, and the men I write about in my books, to “be his own man,” is worth all the sacrifice, all the toil, all the hardship.
I hope, in some way, that my stories pay homage to those brave men and women who trekked into the unknown, faced the fury of nature, and came through to peace and plenty at the end of the day.

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