Home Town or Home Community:
prepared by Mary A. (Harrington) Bryant
When in the early 1830s a group of English people who had sought refuge in the County of Tipperary, Ireland, realized that their living was still prejudiced by politics, religion, the pale of poverty and lack of freedom, they turned elsewhere. The Bill of Union between England and Ireland in 1801 had far from accomplished the secure, fair-living they had hoped. The potato crops were being threatened by blight, religion was contentious, politics nasty. A small light of hope beckoned when they heard more and more of the colonies forming across the Atlantic Ocean in Upper and Lower Canada.
My great, great grandmother Harrington, a recent widow, was among the group of discontents. She had two sons, John and James, and a daughter, Sarah. A strong, articulate lady, she put all her resources together and sailed to the “New Land” in the hold of a ship going to Lower Canada to procure lumber for shipbuilding. Many of the travelers became ill and some died but she and her children were able to continue with a small group up the St. Lawrence River. At a site near where Cornwall is now, they disembarked. There the thick forest made settlement difficult so they continued on up the river and along Lake Ontario. Farther south and west the travelers began to find other settlers clearing the shores, building shanties and when kindred folk welcomed them to leave the boats and take up their new lives, they did.
John Harrington set up a wholesale hardware business in Toronto and Sarah, his sister, stayed to housekeep for him. John’s brother, James, and his mother finally got land and farmed at Ancaster, near Hamilton, Ontario. James had 5 daughters and two sons, Joseph and William. When he died, the two sons each inherited half the land. William inherited the portion known as “Bleak House” and it is he who leads on in this story.
In 1886 William married Sarah Hammill of Ancaster. William was a happy, contented farmer. Sarah was a fine housekeeper, fond of tradition, playing bridge, writing for the Hamilton newspaper, and a social part of the new community. They had three boys and a girl. It is their first son, John Richard Harrington, born November 11,1887, who became a Saskatchewan pioneer.
The family lived in “Bleak House,” went to Zion Hill local school and to Ancaster for High School. Young John was especially methodical, a careful, articulate writer with excellent penmanship and accurate mathematics. His parents chose to article him in a bank. At age 16 he was working long hours, often way into the night, copying ledgers and checking
accounts in the dank, cold recesses of the big stone building. Not surprisingly, he developed severe respiratory problems. With a prediction of tuberculosis, the family doctor said, “John better get out of there. He needs to spend time out-of-doors in the fresh air.
That was good news for John who loved to be out-of-doors. His mother decided it might help his health if he went west to visit his two uncles, Drs. Greene – one a physician, the other a veterinarian, in Carievale, Northwest Territories. A fare of $7.10 took him west on the Harvesters’ Excursion Train in 1904. The train ride was an eye-opener for the young man. The slatted board seats, the little coal oil burner at the end of the coach for all to cook on, the bumpy, rough tracks and stops at water towers for the steam locomotive’s water. The uncouth travelers were of never ending interest – their uncleanness, their scratching, spitting and vulgarities were unfamiliar in his Ancaster life. In appearance, clean shaven, blue-eyed, curly-headed, a lean six feet tall, he was quite a contrast in his neat clean clothing.
He studied the changing environment as he rode west. The immensity of the country, the variety of terrain and especially the rock formations opened up to display by the building of the railroad greatly impressed him. If John had been young in later years he’d have chosen geology for his life’s work. It was always his study.
Carievale was an emerging new town and his uncles welcomed him. For a time he busied himself helping his veterinarian Uncle Greene with the horses he was treating – mostly foot trouble and colic. He learned many treatments that were to help him in later years. As for his other uncle, the physician, he couldn’t assist with those patients but he enjoyed quiet conversations with them. He was encouraged to be out-of-doors and to take long walks to help his chest problem. Later, he took wagon trips with a surveyor out on the trails into the new land to register homesteads for new settlers. This greatly interested him.
John heard from his mother that her brother, Uncle Bob Hammill, had taken up a homestead at a site farther west, later named Milden. He decided to go on to see him but winter was coming so he helped harvest near Carievale to earn his $7.10 for a ticket back East, determined to return west next spring.
Hamilton was a busy centre with a large steel mill. John got well paid work at the Hamilton Steel Plant of the International Harvester Company. He didn’t, however, like the fiery heat from the smelter, the noise and roughness of the bossman, and he longed for the vast, quiet West.
In April, 1905 he was in the little town of Saskatoon. Before long he was studying the big survey maps pinned up on the walls of a shed at the Land Office where “homesteaders” were gathering. He located his Uncle Bob’s area and studied long and hard the nearby
topography and notes on the map. About 20 miles north of his uncle he saw an area near a lake, a creek running into the lake, and a proposed railroad was dotted in across the land. It seemed ideal and the rules were straight forward. He registered his claim on the south half of Section 27 – Township 31- Range 1O -West of the 3rd Meridian, and paid his fee often dollars.
With the money earned in the Hamilton mill, he purchased his first homesteader’s needs: a wagon, a team of horses, harness, a one-furrow plough to break the land, tools – including hammer, saws and axe. The settlers’ agent had helpful lists prepared for new arrivals – a basic cooking pot, a tin stove, a fry pan, blankets, matches, etc.
In a few days he set out following one of the Old Bones Trails, southwest. Luckily he had some experience with horses and “High Hopes” to keep him going. The Old Bones Trail, so called because of piles of bison bones lying bleached along the way, was rough and irregular. Ruts had been worn in the land by earlier travelers and the trail was rough. At night he stopped near a slough or pond of water and tethered his horses so they could eat the plentiful grass while he cooked over a little fire near his wagon which was his only shelter.
At this stage of my father’s story I wondered, “How did he find 27-31-10? Where? Which way? I quote from a taped record of a conversation made when my husband and I were visiting my parents many years later. [Both of my parents reveled in talking of their “old days,” glad to have an eager audience and often talked at the same time, overlapped, amended one another’s memory, so despite the difficulty of transcribing the tape, some vivid bits of history came through.]
- When you first came with your wagon and team, how did you find your land?
- (by my mother, Rosa Mae) The prairie fires had pretty well cleared the land of trees and bush so travel wasn’t as difficult as in some other parts of the Dominion. My Uncle Dick Smith had been on one of the initial survey crews working over the prairies. They measured the distances by tying a piece of rope on one place of the rim of one wheel. They then counted the revolutions of the wheel. This way they could put markers in to designate the sections. As you remember, a section is one mile square.
- But how did they mark it?
- (by Jack) They dug four square pits and put a stake in the middle. Sometimes in stony areas they put a little pile of stones in the middle.
- What if you didn’t claim the whole section?
- (Jack) You found 2 mile markers and counted off your steps between them and if your land was a quarter section, you would then step off half the number in a mile. Many years later officials came to check our measures.
For the required six weeks that summer, Jack slept at night under the overturned wagon box. He had the tin stove to boil water which he got from the creek. The smoke kept the mosquitoes away, more or less. He made tea, then when the next pot boiled he tossed in a little salt and threw in some oatmeal from the 50 Ib. bag he had bought. For breakfast he had tea and oatmeal. At mid-day he had water and cold, cooked oatmeal. In the evening he had some jam on what oatmeal was still in the pot.
One day at lunch he stopped from his work clearing brush from his first field, gave his horses a drink at the creek and tethered them nearby. Returning to his wagon he saw some little furry creature dash away from his space. Dry oatmeal was scattered about – a gopher had found his sack. To save the rest of his precious rations he dug a hole in the ground and fitted a wooden box with a lid into the hole. A few pieces of prairie sod over the box kept this “cellar” cool and safe.
The first task in setting up the homestead was to use his axe and saw to clear the shrubs and willows where he wanted his yard and field. He used the larger willow logs and branches to fashion a sled-like thing called a stone boat, for the horses to pull. To establish his homesteader’s claim he had to begin making a shelter. The prairie grasses, never before disturbed, were rooted into thick mats in the light sandy soil. Day after day he toiled with his plow and horses cutting strips of sod with which he could begin building. The building was small with walls about three feet thick at the base. When he got up to six feet high on one side and a little higher on the opposite side, he was able to lay some poplar logs from side to side and get a roof over his head. “Shingled” with rows of prairie sod, the covering was waterproof during the rare summer showers.
Busy as he was, that summer must have been lonely for the 17-year-old homesteader. Then one day, after tethering his horses where they could eat and drink, he took off across country to see his Uncle Bob Hammill, a homesteader at Milden. Jack, as he was by then called, was long‑legged, strong and apparently rid of the respiratory troubles. He eventually found his relative who had already built a lumber shack just on the southern edge of the village of Milden.
Bob Hammill was a tall, scrawny man with long arms, legs, face and nose but with a broad smile. He was, at that time, still batching but to Jack whatever he had was a change from oatmeal and freely shared as were his experiences.
After a couple of days, Jack hiked back to 27-31-10, finished up his summer work, boarded out his team for the winter and left for the East.
For two more winters, Jack returned East to earn money then hurried west to claim his homestead and work at various goals there. “Instead of going back East in the Fall, I joined up with a carpenter who was building barns and other buildings in various Manitoba places. Little towns were growing along the rail line. Livery barns and farm barns were our main contracts. The money I earned could be used to build up my own farm. There was so much to do, I stayed out west the winter of 1908-09.”
And he earned more than money – he also learned such things as carpentry, different farming techniques and how best to deal with conditions of a new life.
While on these jobs the men stayed in rooming houses. Such accommodation sprang up in every town. Downstairs, street level, was one big dining-kitchen area with a long bare wooden table and benches. Again upstairs was one big room where the boarders threw their blankets wherever there was space. The toilet was “outside.” A little stand near the kitchen door held a tin basin, water pail and cup or dipper.
Some rooming houses were better than others but John recalled that everyone he stayed in had plagues of bed bugs and body lice.
The cook put the big pots of food in the middle of the table, banged two pot lids together and the men dove in for their shares.
The charge by the day, bed and meals, was often 40 or 50 cents.
- By then you needed a house on your own property. How did you get the lumber?
- (Jack) From Tessier. The first train came to Tessier in 1909. Tom Lindsey and Andy Mann had a feed barn and dray business, a livery barn. Tom brought the first load out to the homestead.
- How did he know where to dump it?
- (Jack) We didn’t know where but I found the surveyors’ mounds and the surveyors’ pit and we unloaded the boards. That is on the hill just west of the present house.
- I remember finding bits of broken glass and dishes there in our field when I was little. Did the livery bring a keg of nails too? What year was that?
- (Rosa) Of course they must have sent nails.
- (Jack) 1909.
- (Rosa) June 6, 1909
- (Jack) The Tessier livery came out several times – load of coal from the new Lethbridge mines, my stove, all my stuff, bed, orders from Eatons came to me at Tessier.
- Why and when did you move the house? Was it on skids?
- (Rosa) Mr. Hidinger helped Dad move.
- (Jack) We put skids under it. I had built it on wooden blocks. I laid the floor first and built the house on top of it. It was only 12X16 feet. But I built her well -16 inch centred studs and lath inside. One door and a window on the side.
- (Rosa) On the south side.
- (Jack) We decided on a better building place near the creek.
These two pioneers continued to tell the scene of those June days in 1909, Jack from first-hand memory, Rosa from recalling his stories. “We put a door on the sod barn and a window for the horses. More land was being claimed in the area… McQuestion, Farrows, Clarks, Martel, Glendinning, Rose, McCutcheon. I spent time with the others, trading work and help.” He continued working on construction jobs during the winter of 1909-10.
It was while he was with a crew building a new barn near Souris, Manitoba, in the summer of 1910 that John met a young woman, Rosa Mae Kelly, who was living with the Smiths. Richard Smith, his brother, his sister Agnes and their mother, Rosa May Smith, had a thriving farm and a big harvesting outfit. Whenever the crew building the barn was delayed, perhaps waiting for supplies, Jack was able to join the Smith’s harvesting crew.
Rosa Mae was petite, had long, thick, reddish brown hair. The stylish, nipped-in-at-the waist gown made by her mother, a highly qualified seamstress, complemented her figure. She had been with her grandmother, aunt and uncles since she was twelve: Rosa Mae, born in Toronto in 1891 to Henry and Rosa Kelly, finished Fourth Form at Ryerson School when she was only eleven. Her parents, on the wages of a street car conductor, couldn’t afford to send her on to a private school so Rosa Mae was sent to help her Grandma Smith in Manitoba. For a few weeks she attended the small country school near Smith’s farm but she was already ahead of their level so was told to stay home. One lasting benefit she had from her time there was learning the names of the wild flowers. Botany and Latin were required subjects and she enjoyed both. The Smiths were great gardeners and taught her many domestic skills.
John and Rosa Mae met when she took lunch to the fields for the harvest crew. It was an eventful meeting. Before Jack left Manitoba in October 1910 to go back to the homestead, Rosa Mae agreed that if he could return to Souris in February they’d be married and return to get settled for spring on their own farm.
Back at his homestead later in 1910, Jack worked to extend the cultivated land, to extend his 12 X16 shack into another room and to install another window. He also doubled the size of the sod barn as he was to buy two more horses in 1911. The well was working but needed a new platform. It must have been an urgent, exciting time, making his homestead good enough for such a bride – for Rosa Mae Kelly.
The railroads had been built, but not through his land as the original plans had shown, one line went west from Saskatoon through Delisle, Laura, Tessier, Harris to Rosetown, 14 miles at the closest to John’s land. The other line went south through Swanson, Ardath, Conquest, ten miles away at its nearest point. So a trip to town meant an early start, at least three hours on the road, stabling the team at the livery barn, a dinner at the Chinese cafe (if there was one), buying supplies and then the long drive home.
Meanwhile Rosa Mae’s parents had moved from Toronto to a farm near Souris and she went to spend a few months with them. Together they planned her wedding. When, on February 15,1911 Jack phoned from Souris he said they must hurry back to the homestead as he had left his horses in a livery stable in Laura. So while Rosa Mae quickly finished packing her trunk, Jack bought the ring and the marriage license and arranged for the wedding to be held in the Anglican Deanery.
The day, -40°F. February 16,1911, was the beginning of a remarkable life for Jack and Rosa. Her parents and she, with her luggage, drove the 14 miles to Souris with team and sleigh. It was too cold to wear the beautiful cream cashmere dress and six petticoats that she had planned but she had a warm, dark green suit. She wrote, “Jack looked smart in a suit of dark gray tweed with greenish specks, a black coat with sea otter collar and a grey Fedora hat.”
After the wedding and dinner in a hotel, they took the train west to Laura, Saskatchewan. The details of the epic honeymoon were carefully detailed later by Rosa. After a long, cold drive with horses and sleigh through a blizzard over an uncharted route, they reached the homestead. She wrote, “I thought everything was lovely.”
- Tell me what it looked like around the homestead. I know the big prairie fires caused by lightning had killed the trees, so what was growing?
- (Rosa Mae) I think the fires didn’t kill the roots and after a while shoots came up in many places. There was a big willow bluff across the creek from the barn. The horses and cattle made paths and wore many of the trees down.
- Were there ducks around the creek? I remember learning the names of many ducks from Dad when we were little.
- (Jack) Thousands of them. Just around every bend. All kinds of ducks.
Throughout his life Jack was great at keeping records and diaries. He made lists of how many acres he was able to break each year and what he seeded. The records showed the value assessed to each building and improvement. There were fences to build, too, and work to do for neighbours to repay their neighbourly help, for example, to pay for a cow needed for family milk, pigs and chickens. He used to tell us about a rooster he bought to eat but it was such good company he kept it for many years.
The homestead grew – it grew to be a farm. And the family grew. Jack and Rosa Mae had nine children in fourteen years, all born at home, 27-31-10, later known by a sign on the gate, “HAPPY HOLLOW FARM.” Their marriage was a splendid union of work and satisfaction from things they accomplished together and as individuals, both intelligent, innovative and forthright.
As their middle child, I have always valued their wisdom, their achievements, love and encouragement. There have been many local history books written through the years and under “H” various accounts of their lives. The facts vary, the stories may differ, that is natural, for doesn’t each one, contributed mainly from memory, change or alter through the years? I have been fortunate to have a Mother who wrote to me almost weekly, wonderful letters. While in the Arctic from the ’40s to the ’60s, mail was often infrequent but when it came there was always a beautiful stack of letters with my Mother’s handwriting. I probably still have them all – hundreds of them. So by letters and many visits back to Saskatchewan by myself, with my husband, with our children, I have marveled at their contributions to us, to their community and their province.
Rosa Mae served on the School Board, mainly as Secretary-Treasurer, for 21 of the school’s 33 years. She had a big metal box in which she stored meticulous accounts of meetings and transactions. When our house burned in 1927 she risked her life by exiting through a window, amid the smoke and flames, the box in her arms.
She fed, clothed and nurtured the family, supported Jack in his work – farm and community. She boarded the teacher. She sewed many old garments sent as cast-offs from city relatives to give us acceptable clothing with style. We’d show her a picture in Eaton’s catalogue and she could copy it. Until we were grown up and the economy improved, not one of us had a “store bought dress or shirt.
She joined her husband’s church, the Anglican, and was a faithful, loyal member in the Women’s Auxiliary. In the ‘flu epidemic of 1918-19 she travelled the neighbourhood with pails of home-made soup to assist others, even while her own were very ill.
And how did she do all this? Make butter, bread, big nourishing meals, sew attractive clothes, welcome visitors, serve on committees, read books of her wide interests, e.g. stained glass in early Canada, arrowheads and aboriginal life, make the biggest, best layer cakes, dozens of pies, cook for harvest crews of 20 or more men? How did she welcome anyone who ventured into the yard to share our next meal? And her garden – well, she loved it, too. Her attitude, her calmness, her caring were remarkable gifts for all.
Jack had a lively community interest, too. He served on the Heathland School Board, mostly as Chairman, 27 years of the 33 years the school was open. For many years he was a Councillor for Division I of Harris Municipality. The regular meetings in Harris meant many long drives, days away from the farm, but an eager involvement in government of the municipality. Councillors were compensated by being given deductions on taxes of a few dollars for each meeting and mileage for work on roads, etc.
A firm believer in the benefits of community efforts, Jack was a charter member of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool which he supported from its formation in 1924. He also worked with the United Grain Growers.
Frequently, but depending upon what he thought of the candidate, he assisted the Conservative Party – by voting at local meetings, driving candidates to meetings and asking astute policy questions. He listened attentively and read widely.
When the Anglican members felt able to move from holding services in the Glenhurst School and the Ardath Town Hall, he assisted with his tractor in moving a house of Mr. DeWoIfe into town from the Glover farm. He and other men converted the old two-storey building into St. James Church.
Jack liked his cats, dogs, animals of all sorts. He was convinced that his assortment of horses, mostly bought at auctions, should be improved and supported the formation of a Belgian Horse Association. A breeder of these heavy work horses, living near Saskatoon, agreed to travel a stallion to the members’ farms during the summer so that the mares would produce finer colts. By the time the work horses on the farms had improved, however, horse power was being replaced by tractor power.
The Second World War found many Saskatchewan farmers, like J.R.H. short of manpower. Sons and hired men had gone off to war although farm produce was even more urgently needed. Using tractors enabled Jack to cover more land and produce more grains at the expense of reducing dairy and beef herds. The days of mixed family farms were gone.
Jack was a gifted mechanic. As his farm grew, he acquired machinery and tools. It seemed that he could repair anything. If he or a neighbour had need of something that was unavailable, he invented it. He made his own forge, blower and equipment for blacksmithing, such as sharpening plow shares. He used binder twine to make ropes. Many neighbours made use of his ability and brought their troubles to him.
My father’s inventiveness was also of interest to the University agriculturalists. I remember their studying his method of keeping cream cool before shipping it. By this time the farm had over twenty dairy cows and the sale of cream kept the household expenses paid. In 1919 his 8-gallon can of fresh cream was the first to be shipped from Ardath to the Saskatoon Dairy Pool. His design to keep it cool and fresh during several days of collection was to stand the can in a big barrel through which the very cold water of the farm well was frequently pumped. A simple design, but effective.
Another invention was more complicated; using a home-built windmill to give energy to a generator that stored it in several banks of big black car batteries. I remember Mother’s delight when she could pull a little string hanging from a bulb in the kitchen and get light. It was all such a mystery to us children. I was ever so proud when I was chosen to brake the wind charger if the prairie winds blew too high and long. The generator and batteries were in a little shed near the house. My father showed me how to read a dial to indicate if the batteries were fully charged. So for part of the time at least, we had electricity in the late 1930s at Happy Hollow Farm.
Jack had a curiosity, an inquisitive mind that learned and adapted ideas. When we went to the Fair in Saskatoon, we children had to choose – stay with Dad around the machinery or with Mother in the cooking and handicraft exhibits. Both parents picked up useful ideas.
Jack and Rosa liked trees – they added beauty, broke the force of the harsh prairie winds, gave habitat for wild life, especially birds. From their first homesteading days they planted trees, first an orderly planting of Manitoba maple, ash, poplar and caragana, running north and south on the west side of the house. This planting ran east as well. Then the north-south planting extended all the way north to the side of their land. Since the water table was high, the trees grew well. The Forestry Farm at Sutherland, Saskatoon, supplied the cuttings, advice and periodic inspections. They used the Harrington trees as a demonstration, an example of good cultural practices. We children harvested the caragana seed and sold it back to the Foresters.
Within the security and frame of the shelter belt other things flourished. One episode was labelled locally as the “Birth of Capitalism.” Mrs. Provencher wanted some rhubarb. She was penniless so she brought a calf to Rosa, asking to trade. They did trade but the calf, named Zucher, was not a normal animal so Rosa sold it. Thus she received cash for her rhubarb.
The shade of the shelter belt provided a comfortable place for community and church picnics. Several years the hayloft of the big red barn became a place for country dances. The band played loud, lively music and the country folk, young and old, enjoyed the summer event throughout the night. The next day Jack and Rosa would prepare the loft for the new mown hay.
Jack built a screen summer house in the shelter belt. It was a restful haven during the hot summertime and often a room for a guest to sleep. On the hot summer days John often had a cat nap there right after lunch. The children vied for turns to sleep out in the summer house but dashed to the house when a thunder storm woke them.
Ontario-born Jack tapped some of his own maples. Even though they were a different species, the family enjoyed the treat of their own maple syrup.
As is engraved on their tombstone in the Fertile Valley Cemetery,
LIFE’S WORK WELL DONE