Home Town or Home Community:
Dmytro and Dora Belyk
The Dmytro and Dora Belyk story begins in Ukraine around the turn of the 20th century. It is a story of immigration to Canada and a determination to succeed in a new country.
Dmytro’s parents, Michal and Maria ( nee Kotelko) came to Canada from Horodenka, Ukraine with their four children, arriving at Fish Creek, NWT in 1899. The father had been a landlord in Ukraine, was educated and with some financial means. He acquired land and farmed near Alvena. Two more children were born in Canada, Victoria in 1901 (living in Calgary in 2004) and Dmytro in 1903. Dmytro’s mother died shortly after giving birth and the older children were required to look after the household and the new baby. After his older sisters (Anne Herman, Mary Kohut, and Dora Wozny) married and were farming at Hafford, Dmytro spent his childhood in their care. As a young boy he became a hired hand, working for different relatives in the Hafford district.
Dora was born on February 14, 1906 in Horodenka, Ukraine to John Srajchuk and his wife Parasceoia (Polly) (nee Betzkal). The family included a half sister and an older sister. They owned seven acres of land and the father worked as a foreman on the landlord’s large farm. Dora’s father died when she was one year old, which left the household of women to manage on their own. By the age of eight, Dora was already earning money from her embroidery and later as a farm laborer.
Two events triggered her decision to emigrate to Canada. Dora’s mother had remarried and the relationship with the stepfather was unhappy. Secondly, the first World War had brought destruction, death and hunger, and a miserable outlook for the future. Relatives wrote of a better life in Canada, where there was enough milk to feed the extra to the animals. Correspondence with the relatives ensued, and they offered to sponsor Dora in exchange for her work as a farm laborer. It took some months to prepare the papers, to get the necessary clearances, and in 1926 against the wishes of her family she set out alone, at the age of 20, for Saskatchewan.
Dora travelled from Horodenka to L’vov, through Poland into Germany and by ship to England. The Atlantic crossing took seven days, some of it in lurching waves causing sea sickness. After docking at Halifax, she boarded a train for the West, passing through Winnipeg to Prince Albert where finally she got on a train to Hafford. A relative was at the Hafford station to meet her, but she was not allowed to get off the train, as her sponsoring relative’s address was Speers. Through an interpreter at Speers, she was able to hire a family to drive her over the crooked trails to her destination. She was dumbfounded to find that she was not to live in town, but in the backwoods in a sod house. Dora wondered what she had gotten herself into. It was not the last time she regretted her decision. She was forced to do normal farm chores, plus clear bush and dig out roots with a pick axe and chop through the ice to get water for the cattle, in addition to household duties. She did not have proper clothing to work outdoors in the winter. It was a cruel introduction to life in Canada.
Fortunately another relative knew something of her misery and offered to take her. She was treated like a daughter and was happy with these people. There were times when she felt “bad inside, but I was singing on the outside”. After spending a winter helping this family and joining in the community and church events, Dora went to work for Mrs. Anne Herman, who later gave birth to a girl whom she named Dora. It was here that Dora met Dmytro Belyk, a brother to Mrs. Herman, who farmed for his brother Vasyl (William) Belyk near Redberry Lake.
Dmytro and Dora were married on October 31, 1928. The bride designed and sewed her own wedding dress of white crepe, purchased in Hafford. The wedding followed the three day tradition: the first evening the head pieces were braided and friends of Dora’s mother from the old country socialized and sang; the next day was the actual ceremony with vows taken in the Ukrainian Church followed by an all-night dance; the third day guests gathered at the Vasyl Belyk farm.
The newly weds lived with the brother’s family. The following year Vasyl Belyk entered the sanitorium where he died of tuberculosis, so Dmytro farmed this land and rented another quarter section nearby. It was the time of the Depression and the land was sandy. No crops grew. There was no money. The dust choked and it was dark inside and outside the house. They remained on this farm helping their sister-in-law and her three children and became parents themselves to Walter (1929) and Rose (1931).
When the sister-in-law remarried, Dmytro and Dora with their two children moved to a poor, one-roomed house on land close to Redberry Lake. Dmytro prepared a mixture of clay, straw and water and they plastered the house by hand. They had only meagre furnishings – a stove, one bed, a hand-made table and home-made chesterfield for the children to sleep on. This land was sandy and unproductive and the depression persisted. They were able to grow a good garden with water pulled from a well, kept a cow, pigs and chickens and Dmytro was able to earn some money as a thresher. Helen was born the last year they were on this farm (1934).
The family took up an offer to rent a neighbor’s land for three years. The land was hilly, and though the soil was better, the drought continued and the meagre crop was cut with a hay mower, with the heads landing in the carrier. The crop was raked to gather up any stray stalks of wheat. A stand of wheat by the slough was so heavily infested with wild oats that it was cut with a scythe and the kernels threshed out in a tub. The yield was minimal, yet the landlord wanted his third of these salvaged kernels.
Within two years the landlord returned and claimed the farm and the search was on for other land to rent. Dmytro was fortunate to discuss his predicament with the Saskatchewan Pool agent, Joe Melling, who happened to have land north of Hafford for rent. With the agreement signed, the family moved all its possessions on a hay rack to this property. They were all set to begin farming two quarters of land with barely any machinery. Mr. Melling had a set of discs; two colts were traded for a plough and a binder was purchased on low payments from Mr. Melling’s machinery agency. From this modest start they began over four decades of farming, eventually owning this land and adding a third quarter.
There were some buildings on the farm yard. The house measured 16×20 and there was a large hip roofed barn and one good sized granary. Dmytro built a pig pen and chicken coop from logs. The coop was plastered with straw and mud and painted inside with whitewash. The house was crowded and so a small kitchen, bedroom and porch were added. Their fourth child, Peter, was born in 1942. Even with the extra rooms it was still crowded for a family of six, especially when the ailing, elderly grandfather, came to live with them.
There was a doctor in Hafford, but fortunately the family did not suffer any serious health issues or accidents while farming. This was important from a financial consideration as well, as medical bills were difficult to pay and could remain outstanding for months. There were other hazzards that the pioneers feared – fire and blizzards. Dmytro nearly lost his farm buildings in a fire that swept toward the yard from the west, but fortunately was halted when it reached the strip of land that had been plowed for a fire guard. Dora had the frightening experience of being overtaken by a blizzard while she was milking cows away from the yard. She became disoriented and couldn’t find her way home. It occured to her to shout her loudest so that the dogs in the yard would hear her call. They barked in response to her repeated yells and she followed the sound until she arrived safely home.
All farm families had to be self reliant. Food was produced on the farm and even during the depression there was no shortage and the family was well fed. The bounty of the garden and the meat that was butchered were preserved in hundreds of sealers which were stored with the vegetables in the root cellar, accessed by a hinged opening in the kitchen floor. All food was made from scratch using basics grown on the farm, with the exception of store bought sugar, salt and flour. At times wheat was exchanged for flour at the mill. Harvest was an especially busy time when there would be as many as twelve extra men to cook for. Breakfast, served at 5 a.m., was a full meal of meat and potatoes, followed by mid-morning coffee, dinner, lunch and a big supper. All meals were hearty accompanied by home made bread and an assortment of baking and pies.
Milking the cows was often the woman’s and childrens’ job. The cream separator and butter churn were prominent fixtures in the kitchen, used for the family’s need and to prepare cream and butter for sale. Without refrigeration, perishable food was lowered into the 45′ well, from which all the water for the household and livestock was drawn.
Clothes were hand made; sweaters and socks knit from home-spun wool. Quilts for the beds were hand sewn and filled with sheep wool and rags were braided and turned into rugs, Laundry was a major undertaking, beginning with the drawing of the water from the well, heating it on the stove, scrubbing the clothes clean with home-made lye soap and then drying the wash on an outdoor line, summer and winter.
From the vantage point of the 21st century, the life of the pioneer housewife was punishing, a daily grind of long hours of manual labor both inside and outside the home. Perhaps because she shared the same life experience with her neighbors, and considered it her natural calling, Dora worked with love for the comfort and well being of her family.
Life was no easier for the farmer. Dmytro raised and sold horses used in farming, having as many as 15 at a time. Cattle could number 25 to 30; the pig pen held a few sows and offspring; chickens, turkeys and ducks were plentiful. All livestock required water to be drawn daily from the well, their food distributed and the barns cleaned. It was easier in the summer when cattle could be put to pasture, but the farmer needed to maintain the fence lines as well as be a “vet” to ensure a healthy herd.
Farming the land meant working with horses, riding on a two furrow plough or following the harrow all day on foot. In order to increase his acreage, Dmytro cleared bush by hand and removed the troublesome rocks and boulders by hauling them to the closest stone pile. In the fall Dmytro would join a threshing gang and eventually had his own crew travelling to neighbors to thresh the stooked wheat. Without mechanization, farming was often back-breaking and heart-breaking, forever at the mercy of the weather and poor prices. The return on a year’s work was often minimal and the family survived by being self-sufficient, frugal and co-operating with the neighbors.
Each fall trees from the farm were felled, cut into stove lengths and piled in the yard for easy access, as cooking was done on a wood burning stove. The heat in the kitchen in summer was oppressive, but in winter so inviting. A wood burning heater was the only other source of heat in the uninsulated, four-roomed, wood-frame house during the cold winter months. Piles of home made quilts kept off the frost over night but often a winter morning began by breaking the ice in the bucket before starting the fire in the cook stove. The other convenience, an outdoor toilet with an Eaton’s catalogue or (in season) wrappers from Okanagan fruit, was several yards away nestled in the trees.
Hafford had a large Ukrainian population with English and French minorities. The Ukrainian culture was the dominant underpinning to the life of the community. Dora had participated in concerts and singing in Ukraine and continued to enjoy these activities. She, along with other ladies, kept alive the tradion of embroidery and psyanka and the celebration of Holy Days on the Ukranian Orthodox calendar. Socializing with neighbours was important and always included meals featuring traditional foods and baking. Card games, Kaiser in particular, were a popular pastime.
Christmas Eve was strictly a family gathering, celebrated according to the Julian calendar on January 6th. The table decoration was three tiers of braided bread with a candle inserted into the top loaf. A sheaf of wheat was placed in the dining area, where it remained until after the New Year. When the children spotted the first evening star, the meal could begin. The dinner consisted of 12 dishes, beginning with kutya, a preparation of boiled wheat, poppy seeds and honey. Pickled herring, fish, holubtsi, varenyky, beans, mushrooms in sauce were the main dishes followed by a dessert of stewed dried fruit and pastries.
Easter was celebrated with a special service and a procession around the church. Baskets filled with a sample of the food to be eaten at dinner, and decorated Easter eggs, all covered with an embroidered cloth, were blessed by the priest. The Easter meal featured babka ( Easter bread) eggs, ham, sausage, studenetz or pickled pigs’ feet, cottage cheese, beet and horseradish relish, vegetable salad and dessert.
Ukrainian was spoken in the home and the children learned English once they started school. The battery radio (for which a license had to be bought yearly) brought the outside world into the home and contributed to the learning of the language. Dora and Dmytro gradually became bilingual, though the Ukrainian language was heard prominently in the community and places of business right to the end of the century.
Transportation in the early days depended on a horse, but sometimes going to town meant walking the three and one-half miles each way. The children walked this distance to school in town until they were old enough to go by horse and buggy. In the winter Dmytro drove the children in a closed-in “caboose” drawn by a horse.
Over time Dmytro added a tractor, small machinery, haying and harvest machinery and also a car, as farming conditions improved during the Second World War. Weather conditions had improved resulting in better crops, and demand for farm produce brought better prices.
The local phone company installed telephones in the farm homes and Dmytro served on the board. In every area of the province, the party line was a popular means of keeping track of events (or the neighbors) in the community. Notice of teas, bazaars, fowl suppers, meetings, even a fire alarm could be quickly communicated to the district.
Electricity was brought to the farm in the late l950’s and with it came the luxury of electric lights, a refrigerator, deep freeze and a television set with two snowy channels. Since the Belyks had a TV while many of their neighbors did not, they were assured of visitors every night. Often they had not finished milking when guests began to arrive, but that didn’t matter as no invitation was needed to enter the house and to take “their” chairs in front of the set. Since everyone stayed until the programs went off the air, Dora provided lunch and coffee, often using up the bread she had baked that day.
Dora and Dmytro moved into the town of Hafford in 1967 though they continued to farm until the land was sold to sons Walter and Peter in 1971. Their home was a comfortable three bedroom house with running water and full bath, and a gas furnace. Dora was able to do her laundry in an automatic washer and dryer and cook on a full sized electric range. The yard was large and she could still grow her vegetables and flowers while Dmytro enjoyed picking raspberries and cutting the grass. The grocery store and the pool room were only two blocks away; the seniors’ center and the Church a short walk. Friends often dropped in to visit and life in their sixties took on a measure of ease. Dmytro and Dora always hoped that “next year” would be better and finally it was true.
Dmytro passed away in hospital following surgery in l974. Dora continued to live in their house in Hafford until 1983 when she took up residence in Saskatoon at Ilarion, a seniors’ home built by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Dora appreciated the security, comfort and companionship this move afforded her, while she enjoyed her independence. Dora remained in her suite, with the support of her family, until she needed nursing home care. She moved to Stensrud Lodge where she died in 1996.
The Dmytro and Dora Belyk story is not unique. Their friends and neighbors, many of whom came from the same location in Ukraine to Hafford, experienced the same harsh pioneer life. They knew the daily grind of keeping their farm viable, raising a family in poverty without feeling poor, assisting family and neighbors and strangers needing a handout in any way they could. Above all Dmytro and Dora toiled for their children, so that they could have an easier life. Their children were able to leave the community and take post secondary education, which led to professions in education, secretarial field, nursing and business. Though their lives were rooted in another culture far away, they became Canadians at heart and never desired to return to the homeland, even for a visit.
We, the family listed below, honor the memory of our parents and the contribution they made to the development of the new province, Saskatchewan.