The Murdochs–Girvin, Saskatchewan
History by Marjorie (Murdoch) Hicks
November 3, 1898 – December 19, 1983
Youngest child of Alexander Murdoch (1855-1928) and Sarah Ann Benham (1857-1934) and a granddaughter of James Gaul Murdoch (1832-1916) and Janet ‘Jessie’ Donald (1829-1898).
Edited by great nephew Craig Horsland , Fruitvale, B.C., from a tape recording made July 1974, a letter written on October 19, 1980 and an autobiography written during the winter of 1982-83.
I was born in Ontario on November 3, 1898, into the Murdoch family, the youngest of four boys and four girls , children of Alexander and Sarah (Benham) Murdoch. As I am the only person left of this family and a pioneer of the prairies, I will try to write of the early days of Girvin.
When I was very young, I took sick, and my parents Alexander and Sarah (Benham) Murdoch, took me to Mount Forest, Ontario, from Woodland Springs in Egremont Township to see the family doctor. My mother never told me what was wrong with me, but I expect it was a respiratory infection. After the examination the doctor said to my father, “Alec, if you want to save this lassie take her to the prairie.” Having lost one six-month-old son Alfred, Father sold the forty acre farm at Woodland Springs, not far from Mount Forest, and we went west to Saskatchewan in April, 1904.
There were many families in Ontario moving to the prairie with families of seven, eight, and nine children. So, we joined a lot of people bound for the West and boarded a colonist train – some cars for stock, some for household equipment, and passenger coaches for the families who had the same idea we did.
My brother George had charge of the stock and household effects in a car of the colonist train. We were in another car – a passenger coach with a large coal and wood cook stove in the end which the train men kept going – which was where the families did their cooking. There were no dining cars in those days and no comfortable berths either. There were slatted seats and that is where we ate and slept on the long journey west. I am not sure of the time.
We ate and slept and wondered what was coming next. Our destination was Lumsden, in a valley north of Regina. As we neared Lumsden we realized the train was just creeping along, and the rail tracks were under water. We were the last train with settler’s effects over the track before the 1904 flood. I was only five years old then and I can see the ducks swimming under the train yet, in one side and out the other. The water was all over everything.
It appeared there had been a great deal of snow over the winter and the valley had had rather more than its share and now that spring was here, there was a lot of run-off. The valley was full of water, almost up to the second-story windows in some houses and other buildings.
Water was right up to the second story windows of the houses in Lumsden. My sister Francis lived with a Mrs. Little in Lumsden because they had also come from Ontario. In a few days they had to leave the house from a second-story window in a rowboat.
The Lumsden people moved back to their homes and places of business when the water subsided. There was no talk about getting after the government for assistance, like they do today, or having Lumsden declared a disaster area. Everyone cleaned up their homes and businesses and went on with their daily living. Francis told me years afterward that she and Mrs. Little cleaned up the house, no easy task – almost everything was ruined by the flood.
Father rented a little farm near Pense with a house and a barn. Mother, my sister Mae, my three brothers, and I, along with the stock and household effects, moved to this farm in the Cottonwood district. At least it was on higher ground and dry. The farm was owned by Amos Sittler. That is where we spent the first year. My other sister Jean had apprenticed in a tailor shop in the East and had no difficulty getting a position.
In the meantime, Father journeyed north from the Cottonwood Valley to the Girvin District and was much taken with the farming country and with the great amount of building activity going on in the small village. So he filed on a homestead and preemption eighteen miles west of Girvin in the Sprattsville district and came back to Lumsden to tell us tall tales of that country. We moved the following April – lock, stock, and barrel.
When we arrived in Girvin there was no depot yet, but we were glad to leave the train. Mother and the girls set out to find a place to live, and Father and the boys took charge of the stock and house wares. I’m not sure now where they put the stock but we found living quarters above a flour and feed store until Father got our house built. It was cramped when we all arrived. Mother wouldn’t leave Lumsden without Jean and Francis so we were back to full strength, nine in all.
There was a great deal of building going on at Girvin then – a church, a C.N.R. depot, stores, machine shops, blacksmiths, and a hotel complete with a bar and a brass rail to take care of all the workmen and travelling salesmen. The hotel was a real boon to the village. Now there was a place for people to stay, especially the commercial travelers, as there was lots of buying done. Mr. and Mrs. McIntyre and their daughter Vera came from the States to manage the hotel. They were a smart, handsome couple and brought their own barber with them, a negro.
Building also included a one-room school, several elevators to take care of the grain, two grocery stores, a hardware store owned by Dan Douglas and Jack Young, a Bank of British North America, several implement places, two lumber yards, and a great many houses – one for Doctor and Mrs. Tanner and Olive. He was an animal doctor when he wasn’t farming south of the village. They were very musical people, a great asset when we had a concert in the new schoolhouse. Doctor Hazelton and his family lived in the house on the Andrews Farm. So many people came from Ontario and the border states – the large Jackson family, the Storey family, the Spence’s, the Kernen’s from the States, the two Fraser families.
There were lots of carpenters and contractors, so Father bought a lot and got the men to build us a house with four large bedrooms upstairs and a large living room, dining room, and kitchen downstairs. I forgot to mention, over a cellar. I’ll never forget that innovation. The four bedrooms boasted two double beds in each room, and they were all full every night. Jack Young was one of the steady roomers and when he said, “Turn,” in the night, everyone turned. That remark got to be quite a joke.
I think it was 1905 when Mother, my sisters, small brother Jim, and I moved in. Mother and my sisters fed lots of workmen. Mother was an excellent cook and taught us all to cook and keep house. It was a good thing Mother had three grown daughters to help her, between moving, and baking bread every day, and selling it to the bachelors for ten cents a loaf. They came on horseback from all parts of the country with their clean sugar sacks to pick up the loaves, until they married and had their own bread makers!
We lost my brother James in 1905 . He was in an accident, thrown from a horse, breaking an arm and a leg, which Dr. Victor Stewart set without difficulty. It was mending well when meningitis set in, and no one knew what to do. Jim died, the first burial in the new Girvin Cemetery. That was a terrible blow on mother and the rest of us.
Father, George, and Stanley left for the homestead and had a house, a barn, and a sod barn for the cows built there. They came and went for mother’s bread, too. There was a lot of commuting between the farm and town for a few years, breaking new ground for our first wheat crops.
After my sisters married, Mother rented the house in Girvin, and we went to the farm. Francis had met James Wright and moved to Hamiota, Manitoba, where Jim was in the hardware business. Mae married James Patton, a carpenter and contractor. In 1910 they preempted a homestead at Pinkham, later moving to Nakomis. Mae suffered from a lingering and painful disease of the hip joint and in 1914 died in hospital in Winnipeg. Jim stayed in Pinkham for a few years, then remarried and moved to Rosetown. Jean and Joseph Wilkie moved to their farm north of Girvin.
We went to the homestead eighteen miles from Girvin where we had a nice house on the farm. It was warm in winter and cool in summer. The house had two bedrooms, a great big living room, and a dining room. I can see it just as if it was yesterday. There was a big round dining room table, rockers, and chairs – cozy as could be. Linoleum on the floor. The kitchen had a big cook stove and a cupboard for dishes. The old corner cupboard was standing in the one corner and over in the other corner was the old reed organ that we brought from the East. And, we had a big heater that heated the place in the winter and off that was another bedroom. In the summer when the teacher lived with us he stayed there. Of course, the teacher would. Then we had a Murphy bed that pulled out from the wall. My two brothers slept there. Dad and Mother slept in the big bed in the bedroom, and I had a cot. I was just a tot, just a little thing.
I remember going to town with my brother George and my dad. Mother put a hot brick at my feet, and I had a baked potato in my hands to keep my hands warm. I drove eighteen miles in the sleigh to Girvin for the mail and supplies. When we came home, it came up a blizzard. We couldn’t see anything.
I thought, “Well, we’re done for now.”
My brother just let the lines loose, and the horses took us right home. There were no fences, no nothin’. The horses took us right to the door. Wasn’t that wonderful? I’ll never forget that!
Those days on the farm were the best days of my life. We didn’t have any indoor toilets or anything. We had outdoor toilets. Mother was a meticulous housekeeper, a wonderful cook. We had a dirt cellar and a wonderful well. It had a natural spring in the bottom. The neighbours used to come and fill their water tanks out of our well. And, before they’d get home the darn thing was right to the top again with water. It was the most gorgeous water you ever tasted – right from the spring underground. Mother used to hang cream cans in the well. She had an arrangement. The men made it for her. That’s how she kept the cream cool. She used to churn butter. I never liked milk then but now I wish I had some of that milk. I would sure have been better than I was. I was the skinniest little rabbit you ever saw. I used to go down to the pasture for the cows. Dad had the place all fenced. We had a nice barn with the hay mow for the horses.
In those days the grain grew so tall that you couldn’t see my dad in the fields. You could just see his hat, his straw hat above the grain. It grew so tall. It never does that anymore. Oh, we had some wonderful crops.
What did we get a bushel for it – 50¢ a bushel. We took it eighteen miles. Mother used to send butter and brown eggs to the grocery store. She’d get about 20¢ a pound for her butter and 15¢ a dozen for the eggs. Beautiful eggs – Mother was very careful, particular.
I really enjoyed the farm. We spent two winters on the farm. I think it was one of the happiest times of my life. The longest time was the winter. We had little reading material except the Manitoba Weekly Free Press and the Christian Herald. Through the latter magazine Mother was able to buy books. She bought Swiss Family Robinson, and that kept us busy one winter. Mother read it aloud although I could read some. Mother enjoyed the book too.
We always had lots to eat and kept warm, thanks to Dad and my brothers hauling coal from Girvin and wood from the Sand Hills. It was poplar trees, chopped down and sawn at home.
I started school when I was on the farm. I went to school at Harley School from May to September, in a one-roomed school with around fifteen pupils. We had excellent teachers, ‘doctors-in-the-making’ from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. The teacher stayed with us, as we had two bedrooms in the house and two beds in each room as usual.
The first teacher was Dr. George Kidd, a wonderful teacher as well as a wonderful man. Mother liked him because he weeded the garden and hoed potatoes on Saturdays. He taught two summers and opened a whole new life for farm children.
I had a white pony – Minnie. We hitched the pony up to the buggy in the morning and drove to school – Dr. Kidd and me sitting as big as life on the front seat – a mile south and two miles west to the school. We went down the hill and up to McConnell’s for Flossy and Russell. Flossy would get in between us – she was a little girl – and Russell would stand on the back. Then we turned the corner and went down to Harley’s School, just a couple of miles down the road. There was a barn there, a nice old school house and outhouses, of course. There was hay and everything for the pony. The pony would be there all day. We watered the pony and came home at night after four. Oh boy…those were great days. Oh, I had the most wonderful time of my life. Dr. Kidd showed us how to play all sorts of games, outside games. He played ball with us. We thought he was just great. He wasn’t too big for anything. I guess he liked kids. That school was my introduction to Shakespeare. Dr. Kidd was a student of Shakespeare and every Friday afternoon we had the plays from Shakespeare, opening a whole new life for a roomful of children from the farm. One of the favorites was “Merchant of Venice.” None of us had ever heard of Shakespeare. We could hardly wait. I’ve liked that ever since.
The third doctor was Dr. Wallace and, as my brothers said, he was a ‘health nut’ who ran two or three miles before breakfast, which they couldn’t understand, as they walked more miles than that every day behind the sulky plow and got very tired but had to do it. A few years later they got ploughs with seats which was a help.
My brothers Stanley and George had filed on homesteads and preemption at Pinkham, wonderful farming country near Kindersley. Father gave them all the stock and implements, and they left. That’s how they got their start. Dad just gave it to them. The horses were alright. The machinery was almost done. But, they mended it and they got a start.
Then Father rented the homestead and the farm, and we moved. He came back to town and became postmaster, a position he held for twenty years. He must have been a good Liberal then. He must have had ‘pull’ with Laurier. Sometimes he was mayor of the village and often superintendent of the Sunday School. My parents were great church people. First the Presbyterian Church, then when Union came along, we joined the Union Church.
I helped my Father in the post office Saturdays and holidays, after being sworn in. When he took over the telephone company, I was the first operator they had.
In Girvin I was able to go to school the whole year round then. When I came back to town, to my old school mates, I found I was way ahead of them, which spoke well for my country teachers. We farm children must have worked harder! I was glad to get back to school again.
My school work went on, and I had no chance to play hooky or forget to do my homework, as the teacher stayed at our place and knew what I was doing every day. But they were wonderful people, mostly from the Maritimes. I remember one teacher with affection, Zella B. Wilson, who loved books and reading like my mother and I did. She introduced us to L. M. Montgomery books, still among my favorites. Another teacher was Lucy Dull from Nova Scotia who was an excellent teacher, later married Fred Kernen, and went to Sunderland northeast of Saskatoon to farm.
Vera McIntyre was the new kid on the block and we welcomed her with open arms. She was good-looking and had lovely clothes. We learned a lot from Vera about clothes, popular music, and May baskets! Vera made foil baskets from the empty tea packages. On the 1st of May she filled them with fresh crocuses and left them on all our door steps, rapped and ran away. We thought that was a wonderful idea.
Mary Douglas, Thelma Dial (her Father had a machine shop), Ruther Hazelton, the doctor’s daughter, Eveline Dolan, a farmer’s daughter, and I vied with each other to see who would invite Vera to supper at our houses. She would then invite us back to have supper at the hotel. What a red-letter day! To eat in the dining room and be waited on by a waitress – we really were coming up in the world!
When I was growing we made our own fun. We made our own amusement. We even made our own baseballs to use at school. We didn’t have any money to buy equipment.
In the fall, the golden days of fall, I’d wake up in the morning and hear the whistles. It used to be quite a contest between the men of the steam engines to see who’d have the first whistle going in the morning. You could hear the whistles all over. The men would be getting out to thrash. The school in the village was right next to the fence and beyond the fence was a farm and they’d be thrashing there. There’d be a great pile of the most beautiful straw, and we could hardly wait ‘til four o’clock came and we could get out. Some of us, not all, would make a bee line for the straw stack and we’d climb up that straw stack and slide down. It’s a wonder we didn’t smother to death. We weren’t afraid. We were there for two or three hours, just until supper time.
Then we’d go home and mother would say, “Look at ya!” My sweater would just be full of straw, my hair. I was just filthy. “Look at ya!”
But, oh, I had a wonderful time. We used to do that such a lot of times. That was one of the things we enjoyed – sliding down the straw stacks. They don’t have any straw stacks. It’s all combining. The trash goes back to the land. It’s a good idea. It’s cultivated again. The summer fallow goes back into the ground. They used to have to burn those straw piles. I sure loved sliding in the straw stacks.
Of course, when winter came we skated. I learned to skate. I had skates that screwed onto my old shoes. I remember the first pair of skates I had. They were on the Christmas tree, the school Christmas tree – my first pair of skates. Boy, I sure got them screwed onto my old boots and was out on the rink, the skating rink. You know, the best way to learn to skate is to push a chair in front of you. That’s what we used to do.
We used to have carnivals. I remember I was dressed up as Queen of Hearts. I made a silver crown out of the silver paper off the tea boxes. Silver paper – saved it all and cut the crown out of paste board. The points – covered it all with silver paper.
There were lots of bachelors, and my family was very musical, and as we brought a reed organ from Ontario we had lots of music around the organ. Joseph Wilkie played the violin and when he got out his violin and played it, that was the signal to roll up the carpet and dance. We had the reed organ and someone used to chord to the violin. We had such fun. Being Presbyterians we could sing and dance. The Methodists played cards! They used to say in those days, “The Presbyterians danced and sang, and the Methodists played cards!” Father and Mother didn’t approve of cards. They thought it smacked of gambling. My older brother George and my sisters learned to play cards but I never did. I have no card sense except to play rummy and solitaire.
All due respect to the Methodists, they allowed us Presbyterians to hold church service in their church, the minister coming from Davidson to officiate. The church burned down, not because of the Presbyterians. The hot ashes from the heaters were piled too close to the building and it caught fire. That was a terrible blow, too.
In 1912 my sister Mae died in Winnipeg following an operation.
Then, in 1914 war broke out, ‘a war to end all war’ but didn’t and never will, I’m afraid. The news of the war was sketchy. Father got a large bulletin every day when the mail came, which he hung in the outer post office, and after the two mail trains were in, the outer office would be full of people getting the latest war news. A far cry from today’s swift service.
I can’t remember the names of the young men who enlisted, but I still have a picture of Walter Hazelton in his uniform. No doubt his name, if deceased, is on the war memorial in Davidson Park, along with the others and my first husband Eric Simpson Morrison.
When Eric Simpson Morrison and I were married, April 7, 1916, we went to Toronto to live and to visit Eric’s mother and married sister. We went to Fort William by train and by boat from there to Port McNicholl. That was a memorable trip. We lived with Eric’s mother until we got a place of our own, and at Christmas 1916 James Eric was born in St. Michael’s Hospital.
During that time Eric received a letter. In it was a white feather. Many young men received them, but the cowardly person that sent it was too late. Eric had already enlisted and when Jimmie was six weeks old he left for overseas. He transferred to the RAF, took his training, won his wings and Flight Lieutenant status, and was assigned to a bombing squadron. Meanwhile back in Toronto I lived for the mail which came by boat. No air mail in those days, but even if it was slow and late, ‘better late than never’.
The summer of 1917 my mother came to Toronto to see Jim and me and we went to Guelph to visit her sisters and a brother, James L. Benham at Rockwood, out of Guelph. When we came back to Toronto, mother persuaded me to go home to Girvin with her until Eric came back and I did, putting my household goods in storage.
In 1918 Jim and I went to Creelman to visit my sister Frances, her husband, and two children, Jean and Allan, and it was while we were at Gooseberry Lake I received word that Eric had been killed in a bombing raid on July 7, 1918, along with his copilot Lieutenant Paul Frederick Webb. I was a long time getting used to the fact that Eric was gone. No more heavily censored letters or making plans for the future. It was some time before I received a letter from Eric’s commanding officer and Eric’s ring in a linen-lined envelope. Then his clothes came, very soiled and moth eaten. I couldn’t do much but burn them. I removed the wings and sent them to his mother in Toronto. Eric is buried in France in the Huby-St. Luc British War Cemetery, and his mother paid for the expense of the inscription on the cross. It was her wish, and after all he was her only son. “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
This goes for all the young men who laid down their lives from Canada, the greatest country in the world, and for the pioneers who came from every corner of this vast land to live here, die here, and be buried here.
During WWI, the hotel burned down, and the McIntyre’s went back to the States.
So, there I was in Girvin helping Dad and Mother and taking care of Jim. I carried on where I left off, going to the new United Church, singing in the choir, helping Mother and Dad, and looking after Jim. Father had different girls helping him while I was away, so I hoped he was glad to see me back. Anyway, he and Mother doted on Jim and spoiled him. I like to think the best of them rubbed off on Jim, because he turned out to be a wonderful young man.
Jimmie grew like a weed, big brown eyes like me and a shock of dark hair and my turned-up nose. Jim went to school, and when he was seven I remarried. George Edward Hicks and I married on the June 14, 1924. He was with the Bank of Montreal and very soon we transferred to Prince Albert where Bill was born. Then we were transferred to Outlook, Saskatchewan, where we stayed eight years. We made many friends in Outlook. We were transferred to Saskatoon from Outlook in 1933.
Mother died in her own home in Girvin in 1934. Father predeceased her in 1928. My second husband George died in 1942 after a lengthy illness.
Bill got his schooling in Saskatoon, and Jim went to University. Bill enlisted after high school and went overseas but came home safe and sound. When Jim graduated he went back to Toronto to visit his paternal grandmother, was given a position with the Canadian Aluminum Co., and lived there until he died .
My brothers and sisters married, most moving from Girvin to raise their children . In Pinkham, Stanley and his wife Mildred farmed and raised their son Beverley and daughter Shirley. Stan farmed his original homestead in Pinkham until his death at age 84. As the difficult 1930s were ending, George and his wife Nellie moved from Pinkham to Ladysmith, B.C., with their daughter Joan after selling their farm to nephew Bev Murdoch. Francis and her husband James Wright had two children, Jean and Allan. Jean married Joe Wilkie and farmed north of Girvin as they raised sons Lyle and Walton and daughter Mila.
My sisters used to say that being the baby I was spoiled rotten! Maybe! I know my father bought me a piano before I left public school and I lugged that piano all over the country with me and finally sold it, not having a place to put it.
I talk a lot about Father, but Mother was just as important. Mother was shy and reserved. Francis was very like her. Mother was sad too, having lost two small sons, Alfred as a baby and James Alexander at age eight. Then in 1912 my sister Mae died in Winnipeg following an operation. She is buried there.
Mother and Father were great church people, first the Presbyterian Church then the United Church. In the community in Ontario Father led the church choir and congregation and, not having an organ, started the music with a tuning fork. I fell heir to the tuning fork. Father read a chapter of the Bible every day at breakfast until the children were married and moved away.
I remember some things before we came to the West. One that stands out in my mind was going with Father, Mother, and my brothers and sisters back to the maple bush to a ‘Sugaring Off’. We went in a sleigh with two horses. In the sleigh we had a huge iron kettle to boil the sap. Father lit a fire under the iron kettle and the boys gathered up the sap buckets. Then Mother and my sisters strained the sap into the kettle where it boiled down to make a gallon or two of maple syrup. There was still some snow in the bush, as the boys cleaned off a place, and Mother ladled the syrup onto the snow and it curled up, making the best candy you ever tasted.
The old doctor knew what he was talking about when he said, “Take this lassie to the prairie,” because I’m still here and sometimes I wonder why.