Home Town or Home Community:
Saltcoats, Lancer, Fort San, Weyburn, Wynyard
RECOLLECTIONS OF A DAUGHTER
Carl J. Olson, 1884-1951
Olöf Sveinfrίδur (Freda) Sveinsson, 1890-1925
Katrίn Margret, 1914-1986
Ingibjörg Lillian, 1917-
Carl Jonas, 1919-
Gίsli Robert, 1922-2000
Our family is not, strictly speaking, a Saskatchewan one, with only two sons actually born in the province—and yet, in a remarkable way, its story is woven into the pattern of the Saskatchewan fabric.
My father Carl was born in Minneota, in southwest Minnesota. His parents were both natives of Iceland who migrated to North America as adults—as did my mother’s parents.
Carl attended school in Minnesota and graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College, not too far from his home, a school with a Swedish background. He himself was fluent in Icelandic as well as English, and later comfortable preaching in either language. He had a warm, outgoing personality, a logical mind and a fine speaking voice. In college he excelled in oratory—public speaking was valued at that time—and debating, and was attracted to the study of law.
However, on the suggestion of his parents and pastor, he agreed to spend a few months serving the Lutheran church in Icelandic areas of western Canada. He served mostly in parts of Saskatchewan, in particular the “Lake Settlement” in and around Foam Lake. This would involve visiting small towns and farms, and holding services for the family and friends, where there was no established church or house of worship. Over the years he made many visits to these areas, and is credited with establishing a number of congregations in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
At the end of that summer, Carl was convinced that he had a vocation for church ministry, and went on to attend Chicago Theological College. He was ordained in 1911.
Returning to Canada, he accepted a call to the Lutheran church in Gimli, Manitoba, and in 1913 married a local school teacher, Freda Sveinsson. In due course they had two daughters, Margaret and Lillian.
In 1918, the Olson family moved to Saltcoats, Saskatchewan, a largely Scottish settlement east of Yorkton, where Carl served the Methodist Church. The church and parsonage were next to a small lake or pond.
Few people had telephones, but the parsonage did—and on November 11 a call came through which sent my father rushing out to ring the church bell. It was with great elation he sent out the message to the whole town—the Great War was over! It was Armistice Day!
Soon there was great activity with the return of surviving soldiers—but unfortunately there followed the great epidemic termed “the Spanish flu.” There was no medicine to arrest it and many died. My mother, who was six months pregnant, contracted it; she survived, but never fully recovered her health.
As a child of about 2 years of age, my most vivid memory from Saltcoats is the night our house caught fire! It was a bitterly cold January night; my sister and I were settled in bed, our baby brother, Carl, in a crib nearby. There was a small kerosene heater—never very stable—next to the bed. For some reason it fell over onto my side of the bed, and soon set the bedding on fire.
Things started to happen very quickly; my dad rushed into the room, threw open the window, picked up the little stove and threw it out into the snow outside. Margaret and I were told to hold hands and go quickly downstairs. Someone was helping my mother carry the baby down to safety. When we got downstairs, half the townsmen seemed to be outside, forming a bucket brigade from the pond, and were starting to pass pails of water along to the burning house.
Mother and children were cared for by neighbours, and the fire was put out. I don’t recall what followed, but do have a lasting impression of the quick, neighbourly—and effective—response, characteristic, one might say, of Saskatchewan people.
Fort Qu’Appelle, 1919-1920
My mother’s failing health—in the wake of the flu—developed into tuberculosis, for which at the time there was no specific medication, only a “rest cure.” We children were cared for by family in Manitoba, and my mother—as a Saskatchewan resident—was sent to the provincial sanitorium, known as Fort San. Modeled on the Swiss or Austrian Alpine system, it was located in a lovely scenic area overlooking Echo Lake in the Qu’Appelle Valley, which at that time experienced very little traffic. The treatment of patients featured long hours—well-wrapped in winter—resting on balcony beds in the prairie sunshine, having bland regular meals featuring milk and other calcium-rich foods.
A friend who experienced this regime in 1940 said that for anyone who had led an active life, the boredom and frustration was almost intolerable at first, but as day followed day with no activity beyond perhaps a bit of embroidery if one could manage it, one accepted the fact of not going anywhere and relaxed into the soothing and wholesome atmosphere.
The thought of death could not have been very far from many patients—so many were not admitted as patients until an advanced stage of disease—and in fact many died at the “San.” Mother confided in her oldest friend—she did not want to upset her husband—her concerns about what would happen to her family if she died. “Carl would be so alone; the children have each other.”
Some say that the spirits of former patients who died at the “San” still haunt the area. From a visit a few years ago in the company of some family members—the buildings temporarily unoccupied—as I strolled in the soft evening air, with a gentle breeze barely stirring the leaves of the tall old trees, it was not hard to visualize the shadowy figures strolling quietly, so many years ago.
However, my mother was one of the more fortunate; in time she was able to get out for short walks, or even—as a snapshot of the time suggests—brief periods of boating on Echo Lake. By the summer of 1920, I believe, she was able to rejoin her family.
Lancer I recall as a neat, pleasant town—especially due to our next door neighbour, English-born and a dedicated gardener. He grew beautiful flowers—we did have some very dramatic sunflowers and some snapdragons, which always amuse children—and also vegetables, and gave us small, sweet young carrots and green onions which grew right next to our common fence.
The roads were poor, especially in winter, so that it was the rail lines that connected the towns. My father, having grown up in the country, was a very good walker and would often walk along the tracks between various settlements he served. He especially enjoyed the cold weather, when the roads were blocked with snow, the rails were always kept clear. I can recall him returning from one of his winter journeys, rosy-cheeked and full of robust good health.
Lancer was a “flag stop” on the railroad—there was no regular station, so that to board the train one had to inform the agent, who would post a red flag at a given point, and the train would then stop very briefly only to take on passengers or baggage, and then speed on its way. The stop was brief—the train scheduling was very strict. After all, the railroads had the most accurate time in the country: “CPR Time” was the standard of correctness!
In late autumn of 1921, I took my first train trip; our family was going to Swift Current for the day—our nearest “city”—to have the children’s picture taken, probably for the grandparents’ Christmas. There was much excitement, and the fuss and flurry of getting a young family to the train in the early morning.
The ground was covered with ice, over an open field leading to the flag stop. As always, one could hear the whistle and see the smoke, at least, of the train miles away, but approaching. Mother was carrying little Carl J., while my father had me by the hand. Everybody was running! (A missed train meant a missed day!) I could not keep up, and kept slipping on the ice.
Suddenly I felt myself off the ground—my feet touching nothing! It was frightening—especially as the train ground to a halt, the smoke still puffing out, and obviously ready to charge off again in a few seconds! There were no steps to mount, so my dad and the train conductor swung me up onto the open platform between coaches, as the train moved on its way. I was left with a feeling of almost horror, at the age of four, which lingered long after—about insurmountable steps—even on half-built houses, no so uncommon in those days.
Once aboard—and seated—however, all was well. I was reassured by the appearance of the friendly conductor, who in those days not only checked your tickets but stopped to chat, especially with small children. Train trips were very pleasant experiences.
During our time in Lancer, we children had our most severe illness—Scarlet Fever. As with other infectious diseases there was no antibiotic, and except for smallpox, no immunization. Margaret who started school that year, was the first to be ill, and as she was getting better, Carl J. took it—followed a week or so later by myself. It was law that in each case the house must be quarantined for 21 days from the onset of the illness. For this, a large red sign would be put up by the local health officer at the entrance to our house—a yellow sign or placard would indicate a disease considered less critical, such as chickenpox. These could only be removed by the same officer. For the period of quarantine, no residents were to go out of the house—with the exception of my father, who for practical purposes was able (I don’t know with what restrictions) to go about his necessary church visits. Groceries could be picked up at the door of the store, without any direct contact with others. At the end of the specified period, there were strict regulations about purifying the sickroom: anything that could be boiled (sheets, clothes, etc.) or burned (papers, books that had been in the room—if not too valuable!) was dealt with thus. Then the doors and windows were effectively sealed off and for (I believe) 12 hours, sulphur was burned in the room.
I don’t know whether the sulphur fumes killed any germs, but I do know that the pungent smell of sulphur lingered in the room and in the surviving clothes and books for days—or probably weeks after.
It was March 19, my birthday. Our illness had continued from before my sister’s December birthday and my brother’s January one. When we children came into the dining room, we saw on our buffet three cakes—my mother had baked them for a surprise, one for each child, his or her choice. Mine was a date cake, a recipe my mother had created. All were standing splendidly on the sideboard when a man arrived, calling on parish or personal business for father, and a look of surprise came on his face. Mother was very amused. He was too polite to ask questions, and she let him continue wondering! I don’t recall gorging on cake—my mother was after all a teacher, and kept things under control—so I expect that after our “party” piece, the rest of the sweets were served with coffee for visitors who would likely come in numbers to visit after our house was open again!
In the spring of that year, the country doctor came to check my sister, and decided she should have her tonsils removed. Then—in the accepted wisdom of that period—advised that since “little sister” was sure to need her tonsils removed sometime in the future, it would be a good idea to operate on both girls at the same time. This made sense to my mother—so on the set day I came down in the morning to find the dining table opened to its full length, and covered with blankets and a clean sheet. My turn was first, so I was made to lie on this improvised bed. It was spring, and the doctor—a fatherly, gentle individual—was holding a branch of lilacs in full bloom, which he had just cut from our garden. He was also supplied with chloroform, then widely used as an anaesthetic. He held up the flowers to my face and told me to smell the flowers—to breathe deeply! When I was breathing deeply enough, he switched to his sponge of chloroform: the sickly sweet smell was not so attractive as that of lilacs, but I kept breathing deeply—back and forth between flowers and gas. As the two were interchanged, I felt myself floating gently in the air high above the waters of Lake Winnipeg, my childhood home. It was all very pleasant. Then gradually I started to float downwards toward the water; the next thing I knew, I was in bed with a very sore throat! My sister told me she had a very similar experience.
This was quite different from my experience in the Winnipeg General Hospital, where I had tonsil tags removed in 1939, with the raw, irritating smell of ether—and the instinctive fight to escape as one loses consciousness—and no kindly father figure nearby!
My brother Robert was born in June 1922. Shortly after that, on the advice of my mother’s “San” doctor—with whom she kept in touch—my dad decided, for the sake of her health, that he would have to leave the ministry for a time. He decided to try his hand at selling insurance; and leaving the family in Gimli with our grandparents, he set himself a two-month period to try it out.
This was a time when many settlers carried no insurance at all, and death or injury—a farm accident, not uncommon—or illness like pneumonia (often fatal) could cause great hardship for the wife and family. My father had no problem taking on his new challenge, and with the same evangelistic fervor he had in preaching, to convince prairie farmers of the need for basic life insurance. He was remarkably successful, topping the area sales in his first two months. At the end of the summer he was taken into the Weyburn office of the London Life Insurance Company, and a year later was put in charge of the regional office in Brandon, Manitoba.
We had a pleasant house—though dark in the winter—in Weyburn, near the edge of town in an area slightly raised from the centre of town. Across from us was the RCMP residence—Sergeant Schulz’s wife was a friend of my mother’s, and when mother went over there for tea, we children were able to go over, enjoy the well-kept grounds and see the stable with its two riding horses. Mrs. Schulz who was, I believe, Scottish sent over the most delicious shortbread I recall tasting!
I was now almost five-and-a-half years old. There were no kindergartens and the regulations did not allow a child to start school until September of the year he or she turned six. Margaret had started school in Lancer, bringing home her little slate and chalk, and later her early readers. She also brought home the English language—up to that time, only Icelandic was spoken in our home.
My mother taught me the Icelandic letters, basic phonics and some poetry. My sister taught me the English alphabet and read from her early books. We also studied the weekly comics—an education in itself—but I was more than ready for school. My only playmates were twin girls next door, about two years younger than me.
My memories of Weyburn, particularly the spring of 1923, are of solitary rambling, further than I had ever been before, exploring the area, especially the sunny bank below our street, where prairie crocuses grew—small hardy ones, deep purple with very hairy stems. There were also birds—raucous crows and robins—and earthworms wriggling out of thawing soil. And once, I recall, sitting on the walk by our house, observing the dragonflies, one of which was walking over my chest—observing me! I had been told they were called “Darning Needles” because they would sew up your mouth! I didn’t know whether to believe it, but felt it wisest to sit still and not challenge them!
Occasionally we children would have a few pennies and would skip down the slope at the other side of the house, to a little store run by a kindly gentleman named “Mr. Heaven” to buy candy. We had childish jokes about going “down to heaven,” which we said only to each other.
We had three good years in Brandon, but tragically my mother (Freda) died following surgery at the end of 1925. My father then grew restless to return to the ministry, and by late August 1927 we were all back in Saskatchewan, where he served the Lutheran church in several towns along the railway line (the “Alphabet Towns”) from Dafoe to Leslie, just west of Foam Lake—an area largely settled by Icelanders—but we lived in Wynyard. It was the largest of the towns along the line in a thriving farm area and was itself lively and forward-looking.
The Lutheran congregation had just built a parsonage for us, across the street from the two schools—an older traditional two-storey brick building housing up to Grade 11 (High School leaving) and a newer frame junior school which Robert attended.
Perhaps because he grew up on a farm, where he had to walk to school in all weathers, my father always made a point of locating as close as possible to the children’s school. We could hardly have been closer in Wynyard! We could be having a leisurely breakfast or lunch, or dawdling over getting our things together, when the school bell rang—a large hand bell rung at the open door of the main school—and had no trouble getting across the road and joining the lines forming outside (girls and boys separately) in preparation for marching into the building. In all but the severest weather, we lined up in twos and after a brief ceremony would march inside to the resounding martial music, usually of the “Ben Hur Chariot March,” popular from a current movie, played on a piano inside.
Our house was a two-storey frame one, with four bedrooms and bathroom upstairs, and four rooms down—kitchen with a wood/coal-burning stove, dining room, living room, and my father’s library/office. In the basement there was a fairly large cistern to receive rain water, quite a modern convenience at the time, when many country people only had large “rain barrels” outside, covered with screening to keep out flies, litter, and spiders!
As the water from town wells was unpalatable due to minerals from the soil, we—and others—were supplied with drinking water from a farmer who delivered it in a tank wagon once or twice a week, to a big container in our kitchen. I recall how anxiously we awaited his coming on some hot and thirsty days in August!
In the basement we kept semi-perishable supplies in the winter, such as eggs kept in “water-glass” (a gelatinous substance) and root vegetables in boxes of sand on the cool cement floor. Members of the congregations were generous in supplying such basics in season, as well as meat at the time of the fall slaughter. Refrigeration in winter was no problem—in the unheated back shed we could freeze and keep a side of beef, for instance, hanging and saw off steaks, roasts, etc. as needed. Chickens ready for use would keep perfectly in the deep freeze of winter.
In the spring we always knew when the hens had started to lay, as a generous supply of eggs began to appear, and add more variety to our menus.
We were living near the edge of town, close to where the highway now runs. Behind us was a mostly open area, with some low trees and shrubs—always called “the bush”—and plenty of sandy soil with large anthills. Just two houses over, beside us, was the town golf course—not the beautifully-groomed links of today; in fact it was rather rough, with a few gopher holes to watch out for, and of course some “bush.” It was a great play area though, when there were no golfers—and some boys would collect lost balls and sell them back to the players. At one point there was a high sandy bank, which had a hollow which my brother Carl J. said could be a badger’s nest. I’d never seen a badger but was apprehensive!
There were always people coming to the house, to see my father on church or personal matters, visiting fellow clergy, friends, members of organizations coming for meetings. And on occasion a couple would arrive from a town up or down the “line” to be married. They would have come a week or more previously to arrange this. If they came alone, our housekeeper would be invited to act as a witness, and she would afterwards serve coffee and cake before the couple left for home or a honeymoon “up the line.”
At that time, especially in winter, few people would travel far from home—so whatever entertainment was offered was well received, and there always seemed to be something going on. Besides the big Arena, with skating and hockey (to watch or play) there were the Christmas celebrations, church socials, concerts, plays, lectures, school programs. The first “talkie” most of us had seen came to town: it was called “Honky Tonk” with Sophie Tucker—a buxom, rather tough-talking night-club singer, not young. It seemed a strange choice for our community, but the hall was packed!
One day the whole school was let out at noon to see the Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir, who made a brief stop from his official train trip across Western Canada. Again, it seemed the whole town was there!
In summer there were ball games, the local agricultural fair and the visiting circus, the Victoria Day parade and for us kids farm visits, berry picking, swimming in the buoyant and soapy waters of Big Quill Lake! We even put on plays for our own amusement, with some of the kids in the area, in the large garage behind our house. Our plays used characters from well-known stories—my sister Margaret was the leader, and because she was the tallest she usually played the male lead. There were often more players than audience—most wanted to take part rather than watch! On one occasion a little girl whose big sister was to be Maid Marion complained she had no part. She seemed about to bring her mother on the scene, so we quickly decided to create a role for her: she was “Mrs. Jones,” a non-speaking part, and the costume wasn’t difficult. Everyone was happy.
In Wynyard we got our first coloured car! Up to that point all cars seemed by definition to be black. From the horse and buggy Dad drove in Saltcoats to the Model-T Ford and so on—reliable, but black. This new one was an “Essex Super-Six” and shiny blue-green. Dad asked if we’d “like a spin” (around a few blocks). He loved driving, though he was no mechanic: he never let anyone else drive his car, but he loved company, so we often went with him on trips to the various churches under his care. We enjoyed it—even if sometimes it meant hearing the same sermon twice!
There had been great improvement in roads, as well as vehicles over the years, and there was talk of a major highway across that mid-section of the province—from Yorkton to Saskatoon—and on to Edmonton. A number of business people, a group spearheaded by the “Wynyard Advance,” were keen to have Highway 16 be that road—which it eventually became, as the Yellowhead Trail, which roughly follows the rail route.
My first visit to Regina was brief and bizarre. My father had been called to the Central Lutheran Church in Seattle, and had to get official papers from the US representatives in Regina. He was US-born but a naturalized Canadian. We all stayed at a “commercial hotel,” common at that time, mostly used by traveling salesmen, with perhaps an elderly gentleman or two living permanently on their own. The hotels were austere, but usually clean, the meals plain but basically good.
It was suggested that we bored kids go out for a walk. We had hardly gone onto the street before we were aware of a crowd assembled, all looking in one direction. We saw the focus of attention seemed to be a man sitting on the sill of a third or fourth floor window across the street. As we watched, suddenly this figure hurtled forward and fell into the street. I was horrified, until a woman standing near me said, “That was a dummy—they’re making a movie.” Almost immediately, we were called back to the hotel and our train west, so I never learned if Regina had a budding movie industry in 1930 or if this was an amateur production! It is even more difficult to reconcile this with the modern, attractive Regina I now know!
We were five years in Seattle, and never came back to Saskatchewan as a family. However, that is not the full story.
Years later I learned that my husband, Alec Lane, whom I met and married in Montreal—who was born and brought up mostly in England—had actually spent time in Saskatchewan! It was in wartime 1942 when as a student at McGill University he responded to the fall harvest, to fill the gap left by farmers’ sons and hired men who had gone into military service. Seeing the prairies for the first time—the vast expanse of open country, the great blue sky—was an eye opener. The work was something else. He and his friend went to a farm in the Dysart area—owned by two brothers—and immediately set to work raking, lifting, stooking, etc.—using muscles unfamiliar with such labour. By the fourth or fifth day they felt they couldn’t push themselves anymore. “Then,” he said, “the fifth night it snowed—all next day a precious reprieve.” After this they resumed and finished their work. They returned to Montreal with new respect for those who do this work, and the patience and kindness of their two employers.
A number of years later, He was seconded from the federal department where he worked, to assist Professor McGregor Dawson in preparing part of the official Mackenzie King biography. Alec’s research was on King’s economic policies in the 1920s, dealing particularly with the transportation of grain by water and rail—with special focus on the Crow’s Nest Pass rates, a matter of great importance to the prairie farmers at that time.
On his retirement, Alec earned his Ph.D. at McGill with further research in this field—in which the Saskatchewan grain grower was most particularly involved.
In 1993 our son William married Donna Goodhand, who while not born in Saskatchewan has spent a good deal of time there. Her father, William W. Goodhand, born in Ontario, came to Regina in 1948 to train for the RCMP. He then served in Ontario, but came back to Saskatchewan in 1958 and served in the central and northern parts of the province until retirement in 1979. He then served as Sergeant-at-Arms in the provincial legislature for 15 years, retiring in 1994.
Donna’s mother, Millie, in the meantime, was an executive hospital administrator during their time in Prince Albert. Later she worked for provincial social services in Regina. Bill and Millie are now retired in Regina and Waskesiu.
There is a further family connection: my daughter, Dorothy, and her husband Noel, both Ph.D.s in English from Queen’s University in Kingston, have been serving as professors of English at Luther College, University of Regina, since 1993. They have three sons: Owen Michael, Adrian Jonas, and Gareth Robert, all born in Regina. These are true sons of the prairies; and wherever life may take them (for they are still young) they will be firmly rooted—as so many others—in the soil of Saskatchewan.