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Nipawin, Saskatchewan

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Harry and Katherine Fitton Family

A brief history of the Fitton Family of Nipawin, Saskatchewan written by the children of Harry and Katherine Fitton:

Harry’s Parents:

Our paternal Grandfather, George Arthur Fitton, was born on April 9, 1875 at Lindley, Yorkshire, England. He emigrated from Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England to Canada in April of 1905. “It was the idea of a free gift of 160 acres of land that brought me to Canada,” he was quoted as saying. He arrived in Canada with limited funds and headed for Saskatchewan with the intent of farming. However, apparently as soon as he arrived in Saskatchewan he had a change of heart and wanted to return to England, but his remaining funds would only take him as far east as Brandon, Manitoba. George must have been impressed by the Brandon community, because he decided to remain there and in November of 1905 his fiancé, Edith Annie Shaw (born on November 12, 1879 at Huddersfield, England), arrived from England and they were married. George tried his hand at farming in the area but in a speech he gave as President of the Manitoba School Trustee’s Association he related: “There is certainly money in farming; I know, for I put it there myself and never took any out!” He gave up on the idea of farming, ran a successful grocery business then became Bursar of the Brandon Mental Hospital.

Our grandparents enjoyed the outdoors and frequently holidayed at one of the lakes near Brandon and no doubt those holidays were significant in instilling in our Dad a great love of the outdoors. They were active citizens in their adopted city and happily gave of their time and energy, contributing to the City’s worthy projects. George was a member of the Brandon School Board for 41 years. They had three children, Marjorie, Harry and Edith Mae. Harry Fitton, born November 25, 1912, was our father.

Katherine’s Parents:

Our maternal Grandfather, William Edward Frances Wickens (Frank) was born June 28, 1886 at Knowl Hill, Berkshire England. He received his education and training as an architect in England and in 1906 he emigrated to St. John, New Brunswick with his parents, William and Catherine Zi Zi Wickens. A few years later they moved to Winnipeg. Frank had been employed as an architect in England, but whatever papers he brought with him from England were apparently useless here in Canada. While in Winnipeg he worked for the architect firm of J. Pender West and then he got a job at the Grain Exchange in Winnipeg as a bookkeeper, but his burning ambition was to become a farmer and the best place for this seemed to be Saskatchewan.

Our maternal Grandmother, Muriel Adelaide Buckland, was born in London, England. Her parents, Judith (Howard) Buckland and Henry Buckland had lived in Australia, hence Muriel’s middle name of Adelaide, and they barely made it back to London from Australia in time for Muriel’s birth. She was an only child. The raising of Muriel was in the hands of a French governess and nanny, and consequently Muriel’s first language was French. Later, she was not only fluent, but literate in French, German, Italian and of course English. Henry Buckland was a civil engineer and after Muriel’s birth the Bucklands were stationed in India where Henry was involved in building bridges. Muriel grew up in India so she could also speak Hindustani.

They lived in Quetta which at that time was part of India. The British, as well as other Europeans living in India, found the heat almost unbearable and it was customary to employ local servants to carry out the daily household tasks. The Bucklands were no exception and therefore Muriel grew up in a privileged environment. She was a terrific amateur artist and she was also a classical pianist who studied piano from Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna.

Muriel was engaged to a fellow in the British regiment stationed in India when she was 18. The young officer unfortunately contracted malaria and died. Judith, Muriel’s mother, thought it would be therapeutic to leave India and take her daughter on an extended vacation to assist in mending a broken heart. We have been told that Henry was a drinker and a bit of a philanderer, so Judith was probably looking for any excuse to leave India. They first went to England where they stayed for some time, and in order to stay occupied, Muriel took a Pitman shorthand course in London. Muriel hated traveling as she got terribly sick on everything – ships, trains, boats – everything. They travelled by ship a lot and by train when in Europe.

Judith and Muriel, still on vacation, came to Canada and went across the country to Victoria, British Columbia. They then went east again, to Winnipeg, Manitoba. When in Winnipeg, Judith became ill, ill enough that they had to stay in one place for a while. With her mother ill and unable to travel, time was heavy on her hands and Muriel decided to get a job. Judith didn’t approve, but Muriel went ahead and got a job despite her mother’s disapproval. Our grandmother was a gifted, headstrong and energetic woman, who, despite her upbringing, was not afraid of work.

The job Muriel got was as a secretary/interpreter at the Grain Exchange in Winnipeg and that is where she met our grandfather, William Edward Frances (“Frank”) Wickens, who was working there as a bookkeeper. Much to Judith’s dismay and disapproval, Muriel fell in love with and married Frank Wickens, a man destined to become, in Judith’s opinion, a poor farmer.

Mom recalled several stories of her parents’ lives and their struggle to succeed at farming and she often wished she had written some of the stories down and paid more attention to others. Frank Wickens was a wonderful storyteller, but no one thought to record those stories for posterity. Muriel had kept a daily journal when she was growing up in India and continued that practice when she lived in Canada. However, her journals were never found after her death and we later learned that she had destroyed them after discovering she was terminally ill. What a loss to future generations of her family. We can only imagine how a well-educated, intelligent, strong- willed woman, coming from a rather privileged background, would record the trials and struggles of trying to survive on a farm in Saskatchewan from 1912 through the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Imagine is all we can do – the journals are gone.

Muriel and Frank were married in Winnipeg and then travelled to Saskatchewan to live and work on a homestead. Keep in mind, Muriel had lived with servants all her life, so when they set out to farm, she literally couldn’t boil water. Their first attempt at farming was near Cando. Their only child, our mother, Katherine Howard, was born at Battleford, Saskatchewan on August 31, 1914, a couple of years after their arrival in the Cando area.

They remained there for a couple years after Mom was born, struggling to live off the land. One time Muriel made some dandelion wine which they were able to keep cool in their cellar. On a hot summer day they got into this wine, blissfully unaware of its potency, and they got terribly, terribly drunk. Determined to live off the land she tried cooking a gopher, but they couldn’t eat it. Everything was a struggle as neither of them had any farming experience – what Frank couldn’t learn from the neighbours he would try to learn from a book – but their first attempt at farming was failing miserably. The final straw was a prairie fire. They saw it coming so Frank harnessed the oxen and ploughed a furrow around the house to create a fire break. Mom was confined to the house while Frank and Muriel ran down to the slough and wet a bunch of sacks and beat back the flames by themselves as there were no neighbours to help for miles around. The fire revealed what the prairie grass had covered up – rocks. Acres and acres of rocks, that would take forever to clear. Practically starving, they sold what little they had and headed back to Winnipeg.

Frank and Muriel were still determined to farm, but they had to get their old jobs back and save money to do it. Back in Winnipeg Mom (now about 4 years of age), Muriel and Frank lived with Frank’s parents, William and Catherine Zi Zi Wickens. Catherine Zi Zi shared Muriel’s love of music and she played the organ at St. Jude’s Church in Winnipeg. From what I understand the four adults and Mom managed to live together in relative harmony, even though they were living under the same roof due to their financial circumstances. In any event, it was a temporary situation.

Great Grandmother Judith was a different matter. Judith remained in Winnipeg and lived by herself. Once her daughter was married and Judith no longer had a traveling companion, she had no desire to travel and she never returned to India.

Mom was cared for by a maid as everyone in the Wickens household worked outside the home. Sometimes Mom was sent to visit her maternal grandmother. Judith was strict – she had the attitude that children were to be seen and not heard. Mom says her mother later told her that every time she went to pick Mom up from her grandmother’s, Mom would be sitting in the corner evidently doing time for some infraction.

When the Wickens group determined they had sufficient funds to make another attempt at farming, the whole crew, Frank, Muriel, Mom and Frank’s parents William and Catherine Zi Zi , moved from Winnipeg to Baljennie, Saskatchewan. Frank and Muriel obtained a quarter section of land – a homestead, and William and Catherine Zi Zi lived nearby in a place of their own. William helped around the farm a bit and Catherine Zi Zi went back to normal school in Saskatoon to get her credentials to teach, which she really already had because she had taught in England. She was the first schoolteacher in the area and she taught Mom at Baljennie until Mom was in Grade 5, at which time Mom would face a world far removed from her life on the farm.

Judith died in Winnipeg on March 22, 1919. Her death totally shaped the course of the rest of Mom’s life.

Judith bequeathed everything to her granddaughter, Mom. Judith did not want to see her estate dribbled away and sunk into a farm that would never amount to anything, which is what she believed would happen if she left everything to her daughter Muriel. I don’t know if Judith was a woman of independent means or if her husband (our great grandfather) Henry Buckland predeceased her (remember, he had remained in India), but in any event he was not a factor in determining the devolution of her estate.

Judith’s estate was managed by a Trustee of the Royal Trust Company in Winnipeg.

Muriel managed to talk the Trustee into buying a piano for Mom and a birthday present for Mom at 7 was music lessons – but in actuality the piano was really for Muriel as Mom readily confessed she, Mom, had no musical ability whatsoever. Muriel and Frank often got together with another musical family in the area with Muriel playing the piano and Frank playing the violin. Mom said she often hoped that her parents’ musical abilities, if not showing up in her, would skip a generation and show up in her children. They didn’t.

One of the conditions in Judith’s Will was that Mom was to attend a private school for her education. As a result, Mom, technically a poor Saskatchewan farm girl, was sent to attend private school at Rupertsland School in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Mom recalled one of her more embarrassing moments was having to go to the Trustee and ask for funds to reimburse a young man for his violin when she accidently broke it when she sat on it during a hay ride. Mom admitted that she enjoyed going away to school – when she was home on the farm in the summer holidays she had to work like a man alongside her father while also being expected to help her mother with many of the household tasks. She said the hard work didn’t hurt her, but it did make her appreciate the more pampered life away at a private boarding school.

Another condition of the Will was that Mom, upon reaching the age of 21, change her name from Katherine Howard Wickens to Katherine Howard…further evidence of Judith’s disapproval of her daughter’s choice of husband.

Upon graduating from Rupertsland School, Mom attended the Winnipeg School of Art. While going to school in Winnipeg, Mom could only go home to the farm at Christmas, Easter and summer holidays, always traveling by train. After graduating from art school, Mom was employed at Brigdon’s in Winnipeg as a commercial artist.

During this time, our Dad, Harry Fitton, was attending medical school at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

One year Mom couldn’t go home to the farm for Christmas, so she was invited to spend Christmas in Brandon, Manitoba with a friend whose family were friends of the Fittons. That family and the Fittons always spent Christmas together. As a result, Mom and Dad met in Brandon, Manitoba. Later, they married and settled in Nipawin, Saskatchewan.

How they ended up in Nipawin is best explained in an excerpt from a Speech Dad gave at Nipawin, Saskatchewan in 1975:

“My first glimpse of this town and district was approximately at the end of the first week in October, 1936. I had answered an ad in one of the newspapers, I think it was the Winnipeg Free Press advertising for a doctor at White Fox, Saskatchewan. Many of my friends, and some members of my family including my father, thought I had lost my marbles; especially so when they looked at a map and saw where White Fox was, and realising that I had turned down several more promising offers in the States as well as some in the cities. A close friend of the family had located an excellent opportunity at the Coast to go in with a busy proctologist. In other words a rectal specialist, and they were rather taken aback when I informed them that in no way had I any intention of limiting my practice to that of a rear admiral. The end result was that I boarded a train and changed at Yorkton, then proceeded on to Nipawin. I decided that I should look this area over incognito, no one knowing that I was a doctor. After disembarking from the passenger express I walked up the hill and across the street to the Avenue Hotel, approached the desk behind which stood a Mrs. Ida Puterbaugh (who was to eventually become one of our earlier friends). I asked when the next train or bus left for White Fox. She told me that on a Friday night she knew of no way that one could go unless he walked. There was a middle aged, pleasant lady sitting in the lobby who had overheard my conversation. She informed me that she was from White Fox, and that she and her husband were going to return there shortly and if I didn’t mind riding in the back of a truck I was welcome. When her husband returned I climbed into the back of the small truck, pulled all the clothing about me I could, and let me tell you that was one damn cold ride for a fellow lacking the great layer of fat he has today.

I learned later that the people who so kindly gave me the lift were the Erickson’s , he ran one of the elevators there. All they knew of me at that time was that I was Harry Fitton from Manitoba that had come up to look the country over. On arrival in White Fox I contacted Bill Donald, the owner of the Drug store, who was responsible for the advertising and disclosed to him that I was the doctor who had answered his ad, and asked him not to tell my occupation to anyone until I had time to look around and make up my mind. That same evening there was a fowl supper in the Community Hall and I attended as one of Bill’s friends. In those days very few people were averse to gambling, other than the wives of those involved. I would enter into a conversation with some man only to have his wife shortly lead him away. It was a grand evening spent among so many wonderful people who went out of their way to make a total stranger so much at home. I learned later that some of the women had noticed my hands (trust a woman) looked soft with no callous’s etc., the mark of hard work in those days. Therefore, they had assumed I was some kind of a card shark or gambler who had arrived for the fall take, and they weren’t about to see any of their husbands conned into any poker game. Seeing and associating with such fine people had the most amazing effect on me. I had made up my mind before leaving that I would be back.

On arrival at Brandon with less than $5.00 in my pocket I was most surprised when my father informed me that he had realized what the outcome was going to be and therefore, had purchased a second hand Model B Ford Coach which would be ready for me on October 30th. In spite of his help and encouragement I felt at that time that I was possibly number one disappointment to my father. Criticize the youth of today in any way you might, but I now realize I was not one iota different. Having made up my mind that was it, I was fortunate in having a tolerant father. On the same day I acquired my Model B Ford I took off from Brandon, spending that night with a classmate of mine who had taken up a practice in Russell. On October 31, 1936 I proceeded on to White Fox, arriving there Halloween night. I shall never forget that journey. I was paralleling the railway track at Nora and I noticed that there were several boys playing along the tracks with guns. Whether one of them overshot his target or not, a bullet managed to hit the right hand door glass that was rolled up fortunately and shatter proof. It sprinkled glass all over me. Right then and there, chicken me was about ready to turn back; however, being about in the middle of my journey, it was about as close to Nipawin (where I knew safety must reign) as it was to Yorkton, so I kept heading north. The concentric circles in the door glass on the passenger’s side were always a conversation piece as long as I kept that good old Ford.

I arrived in White Fox late on October 31, 1936, and sought shelter in my room above the drugstore. By this time many of the residents of White Fox knew there was a doctor coming but the Nipawin doctors, Doctors Scott and Kiteley, were unaware. Therefore, on November 1, 1936 I proceeded to Nipawin and introduced myself to these two gentlemen who I was going to get to know so well over the next few years. Dr. Scott was most friendly to this young, inexperienced upstart. He showed me around Nipawin, fed me, and finally took me to the hospital where I was introduced to the matron, Miss Denton, and her staff. They most graciously, on Dr. Scott’s recommendations, invited me to make use of their Lady Grey Hospital if I so desired. Right then and there I developed a soft spot for Nipawin that I never lost.”

Dad loved the outdoors. Nipawin, with its close proximity to lakes, forests and rivers was and is a haven for the outdoorsman or anyone who enjoys the wilderness. Although his early years of medical practice were far from lucrative, he was determined to remain in the Nipawin area. Dad, with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure, had found his place in this world.

His 1975 Speech Continued:

“I came across a letter that I wrote to my mother dated November 17, 1936. I was apparently trying to justify my existence with such paragraphs and excuses as: ‘Since November 2nd I have done approximately $74.00 worth of work, about $65.00 I think is collectable, that should be alright considering I am new and haven’t been here long as yet.’ I also tell her of another place where they clean, card, and spin their own wool, and sell knee high bush socks for $1.50 a pair. Further on in the letter it says: ‘We lit the lamps today at 3:30 p.m. Do you think I should hold on for a while in spite of the slight income? In a year or so this country will be much better, so personally, think things will pick up. Do you think I’m too impatient? As far as health goes, I have never felt better, and am almost ashamed of my appetite at times. P.S. 11:15 p.m. Have had two calls since 8:00 p.m. – One four miles out, the other eight. It was getting rather chilly – for the last one put on a cap and a light caribou jacket over my suit coat and was very comfortable. Goodnight.’ I used to make my rounds in the Lady Grey Hospital in Nipawin. It was nice even then to get into Nipawin, see my one or two patients and confer with Doctors Scott and Kiteley. This nice, but not very satisfactory existence went on until mid-January 1937. I found myself doing more and more work and getting less and less for it. All maternity cases were delivered in their homes and I received part of a $20.00 grant from the government. Then the great opportunity struck – I was offered a position as a doctor from the R.M. of Connaught which borders the R.M. of Nipawin to the South and includes the Villages of Aylsham, Zenon Park, Ridgedale, Armley, New Osgoode, Leacross. This was for the magnificent salary of $2,500.00 per year, and I was to supply my own transportation. This wasn’t bad for the Dirty Thirties. In May of 1937 I married Katherine Howard. Although we went to Tisdale frequently we still had a most soft spot for Nipawin and district and used to consider it our fun town. It was, therefore, inevitable that when we decided to leave Connaught, although my salary had more than doubled, we should once again head North to Nipawin to join Dr. Alex Wright in practice.”

Another excerpt from his 1975 speech:

“One of the many things that I have noticed during the past 38 years has been the change in travel during the winter months. I see it from the standpoint of a doctor but many of the old timers and pioneers must have noticed these changes in winter travel both in time saved and comfort in travel. In 1936 I made my first 7 mile round trip during the night on snowshoes as no driving team was available. During the winters of 1937 and 1938 I travelled in an open sleigh or cutter behind a team of horses and then in a closed-in van with a big spotlight shining on the road between the team. This was equipped with a little closed in heater, and as the teamster drove, you dozed, and either sweat or shivered depending on the humor of the fire. To improve our comfort and entertainment for some of the long trips we had at night we installed a car radio. I can recall listening to one of Joe Louis’ fights one night. The worst were the spring break-ups when the un-gravelled roads were neither fit for runners or wheels; then it was horseback. I can recall two such trips totaling 48 miles on two different horses in one 36 hour period. Let me tell you that I couldn’t have caught a pig in an alley for a week after that. Then in 1939 the snowplane came into general use, and this was a godsend – something one could at least make time in either on the beaten track or across the fields. [AUTHOR’S NOTE: Dad purchased a snowplane in 1939 in order to reach patients in the rural areas in wintertime. The snowplane had a cigar-shaped body on four skis, driven by a V-8 motor with a large propeller at the back.] Their speed made up for the deafening roar of the propeller. When one came home from a call on a cold night your wife would hear you coming a good mile or more away, and have time to hot up something to eat – usually a good big dish of moose soup. One could tell of many stories of his experiences in these machines. They were good for the practice too as they always produced the odd finger amputation and hand repair. With the coming of grading and gravelling of many of the side roads, the community snowplow clubs, the improvement of the snowplows the snowplane gradually disappeared from the scene, to be replaced with the car as we have it now.”

Van drawn by team of horses Year: 1937 Place Name: Nipawin Image Source: unknown

Van drawn by team of horses
Year: 1937
Place Name: Nipawin
Image Source: unknown

One of Mom’s recollections with the snowplane was after her mother passed away and her father, Frank Wickens, came to stay with her and Dad for a short time during the winter. Frank accompanied Dad on a trip with the snowplane and when they returned, Dad went directly to the house, leaving Frank to park the plane in the garage. Dad and Mom, in the house, heard a crash. Frank accidently pressed the gas pedal instead of the brake and he rammed the skis of the plane through the back wall of the garage. You had to be there.

Snowplane Year: 1939 Place Name: Nipawin

Year: 1939
Place Name: Nipawin

Through the years, Mom and Dad raised five children, Joy Anne, George Anthony (Tony), Marjorie Mae, Michael Harry and Katherine Diane.

Every decade for Mom and Dad was packed full of adventure and drama, but looking back, the 1960s had to have been a real humdinger for them. There was the introduction of Medicare, fraught with controversy, with Dad considering moving to another province or to the States to practice medicine. Because of Medicare his two partners in his medical practice did move – one to Alberta and one to California. Dad and Mom, however, now middle aged, were established in the Nipawin community, they had two children still in school….it just wasn’t practical to pull up stakes at that point in their lives. Mom, at 48 ½ gave birth to their fifth and last child, Katherine Diane (Kathy) in 1963 – a 24-year span between their eldest and youngest child! In the 60’s they purchased a quarter section of land bordering the Saskatchewan river. Most of the property was forest, but it contained a few acres of cleared land where they could indulge their love of gardening – dozens of varieties of flowers and enough vegetables to feed them and many of their friends. That decade also saw two of their children becoming teenagers, two of their children getting married and two grandchildren arriving on the scene. There were always one or two dogs in the family, but they added horses to the mix in the 1960s.

Dad helped to form the Nipawin Fish and Game League and was one of the original group who blazed the trail to Little Bear Lake. Mom was very active in the community as a volunteer and over the years she was president of the Anglican Church Women, the Hospital Auxiliary, Honored Royal Lady of the Order of the Royal Purple Lodge and President of the Nipawin Art Club. Mom had to work around Dad’s schedule, raise five kids, cope with dogs and horses, do volunteer work, gardening, hobbies and entertain guests. Mom, after marrying, was able to exercise her artistic talents by painting and designing posters for various events, decorating halls, and doing professional printing on certificates for a variety of organizations.

Although he made a decent living, Dad was never in medicine for the money. He loved his profession and he was a dedicated doctor. Each of his children can recall hundreds of late nights, many in the dead of winter, when Dad would be on call and the phone would ring and Dad would have to get out of a warm bed and go to the hospital to deliver a baby, do an emergency appendectomy, or make a house call to some ailing patient or attend the scene of an accident. Or we would be opening Christmas presents on Christmas Morning or having Christmas Dinner or having some enjoyable get-together as a family and the phone would ring and Dad, if he was on call, would have to leave. Personal phone calls were kept short because someone may be trying to reach Dad and it was before the days when kids could have their own phone lines. There were definite rewards and definite sacrifices having a doctor in the house.

Fitton family Year: 1987 Place Name: Nipawin

Fitton family
Year: 1987
Place Name: Nipawin

Dad passed away in October of 1996 at the age of 83 years and Mom passed away in January of 2004 at the age of 89 years. Their contribution to their community and to their family is immeasurable. They conducted their lives with dedication, dignity, optimism and a wonderful sense of humor and they have left us with fabulous memories.

Katherine Fitton
1133 Henleaze Avenue
Moose Jaw SK S6H 3V8