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Sparling Kenny Wilder Gettins: 4 Pioneer Families of Saskatchewan
This is the story of our grandparents, how they came to Saskatchewan around the turn of the twentieth century and how they contributed to the development of their communities. Our father’s parents came as adults. Our mother’s parents came as small children. They were of different generations. They settled in different parts of the land now called Saskatchewan. Our parents met at the University of Saskatchewan in September 1945.
LAND-HUNGRY AMERICANS – 1899
Our maternal grandfather, Alfred Wilder, was one of the younger children of Josiah and Jerusha Wilder. Josiah was the son of the hotel keeper in the village of Rising Sun, Wisconsin. His bride, Jerusha Bangs, was born in Ontario of Loyalist ancestry, but moved to Wisconsin with her family as a small child. Her mother ran the Rising Sun store and was editor of the local weekly newspaper.
Josiah Wilder drove the stagecoach. He often delivered substantial amounts of money. One day, when he had his young fiancée riding with him, armed men tried to hold him up. He tossed the reins to Jerusha and leaped to the ground, his pistols in his hands. Jerusha loudly announced “It’s Bud”. Whether it was Josiah’s (also known as Bud) reputation as a sharp shooter or Jerusha’s commanding voice, the would-be robbers lost heart and ran away.
Josiah and Jerusha Wilder moved to Iowa with their growing family where they farmed at three different locations. In 1899, Josiah bought a farm just east of Yorkton in Assiniboia East District, North West Territories. My grandfather, Alfred, later wrote of their move to Canada.
“[I remember] …the great and glorious excitement of packing and getting ready to move to Canada. The [railway] car was loaded to capacity and still there was no room for the old faithful team of Bill and Jack. A team of grey horses that Dad had, had for many years. They were just too old to travel a thousand miles or more to a new home in Canada. At last the eventful day came and the car loaded and Dad and my oldest brother Roy went with it while us four younger boys and my older Sister Florence made a last call on Grand Mother and then we were put on the passenger train and headed north. Boy what a trip that was for a gang of healthy youngsters. Day after day on a slow train that kept on going but never arrived. The train of that day was slow and steady and eventually got where they were going, but over all very painful to ride any distance. Hard seats and no sleepers and a barren landscape that slowly went by the windows of the cars as the little engine up front puffed and puffed up hill and down and around bends, with a mighty whistle, as we thought, that broke the stillness of the day and night every few minutes to announce its passage thro the bleak frozen land. One of the highlights of our long painful trip for my mother, was the kindness of a young man that attempted to assist in taking care of us two young mutts that was so bothersome. He was quite a guy and no doubt enjoyed playing with us and keeping us quiet so that Mom could have a few minutes of sleep.
“So one cold and dismal night we arrived at our destination, which was Yorkton, at that time, Nov. 1899; and I understand it was my birthday, if so it would be Nov. 22. By superhuman effort we were bundled over to the hotel bag and baggage and at last had rooms and beds to sleep in, and Yorkton and the Royal Hotel in particular would be our home until Dad and the car of stock etc arrived. Then we would move out to our farm home six miles east of town. Mother sure was in a dither, being tired and overwrought from continuous worry and mental strain with us kids and everything in general. Dad arrived about four days behind schedule and in great hope and trust in the divine guidance that all would be right in this new and as yet strange and untried land. Full of hopes we moved out and Mr. Bownlee moved into Yorkton and we settled down for a cold winter and hopes of a great future come spring. The west and Canada can well be proud of those strong hearted pioneers that opened this land and made it into a great grain producing country.
“Our new home buildings were made of logs, more long than high, with a small upstairs that was large enough to hold my boisterous brothers at night after their days work was done. The barns were low log buildings with sod roofs, with a feed lot behind large enough to hold several loads of hay, which was plentiful in that locality growing around the sloughs. All the neighbor settlers east of us came through our yard, which was the highway to Yorkton and points west. Six miles away. The coyote or bush wolf were rather plentiful that year and for several years after; making a din at night that fairly made your scalp creep, and naturally scared me even in the house and the door shut tight, which no wolf could get through, let alone a cowardly coyote, but I could never believe that, always feeling spooky when I heard them howl day or night and more especially at night in the winter time being the worst.
“One night Dad came home from a neighbor about three miles away, when the pesky coyotes decided to make it a night to howl in unison all along the road that he had to travel. Dad may have been a bit scared, but wouldn’t admit it for the world to his family. He had a double barreled shot gun which may have bouyed up his courage. All he said was that [they] would have found that he wasn’t a spring chicken.
“The winter passed without much excitement, in spite of the heavy snow fall that came in this latitude and of which we weren’t used to in Iowa. It didn’t bother us much as far as I can recall. Of course being only four years old I wouldn’t know about the weather for when it was cold I could and no doubt did stay in the house where a hot fire of wood burned.
“The next spring after the crop was in, and I don’t remember how big an acreage it was to sow. Not many I’m afraid; Dad went west to find a homestead which the government bet him ten dollars that he couldn’t live on and make a living for himself and family. Dad took the dare and won hands down. Homesteading not far from the Beaver Hills where he could find all the wood he wanted for fuel and logs to build house and barn. He broke a small plot of sod and planted spuds, just in hopes that they might grow some new ones, and so help me that fall the spuds were so big and plentiful that we had more than we could eat and gave some new unfortunate neighbors some to keep them alive. That was proof sufficient that the land was rich and would produce bountifully at harvest time and our new home in a strange land was not so foolish as all our relations back in Iowa thought.”
Alfred was sent to Melville to live with his married sister, Gracie Schultz, and attend school. He became close friends with Gracie’s son, Ernest. When Ernest died of the flu, Alfred’s mother brought him home to the farm, putting an end to his formal education. Older brother, Roscoe, enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I. Sixteen year old Alfred ran away from home to enlist, too. His formidable mother fetched him home again.
Alfred stayed on his parents’ farm until he was drafted into the Canadian Army towards the end of the war. After demobilization, he became a grain buyer for the Standard Elevator Company. He was stationed at the Standard grain elevator in Eskbank, Sask. in 1923 where he met Reta Gettins.
Josiah and Jerusha Wilder retired to Melville in 1928 at the ages of 77 and 68. They lived in a small, two-room house. Josiah chopped their wood. Jerusha tended her vegetable garden and beloved flowers. Grandsons came to stay with them in town to attend school and play junior hockey. They both died in 1943.
APRIL FOOLS! – 1904
Reta Gettins was a baby when her father, Uriah Gettins, moved his family to his homestead in West Assiniboia District, North West Territories in the spring of 1904. Uriah was a Welshman from Brecon. He came to Canada as a teenager to seek his fortune. He became a railway conductor with the CPR. Sophia McMillan was the daughter and sister of railway men. She married Uriah in Chalk River, Ontario in 1888. They lived in North Bay, Ontario where they had a comfortable home and a maid. But Uriah wanted to own land.
It snowed heavily the day the Gettins family made their way north from the railway station at Caron to their homestead. They were forced to seek shelter by digging the snow away to get through the window of a friend’s shack. It was April 1, 1904. Sophia always said that the homestead was the greatest April Fool’s joke ever played on her.
Their first home on the prairie was a wood shack with a dugout cellar. Much later, a two-story house was built, preserving the original shack as the kitchen. The oldest children, R. J. age 14 and Olive age 9 were a big help to their parents. The younger children were: Violette, Cecil and our maternal grandmother, baby Reta. Sophia went back to North Bay to give birth to Trevor 1905. She had Lovey Pearl, Chelta and Dorothy in Saskatchewan.
The Gettins’ shack was the last stop for many later homesteaders heading further north to their new land. In addition to basic survival and developing the land, there was the task of building a community. The Gettins family was always very involved. The first religious service was held in their shack. In November 1904, a school district was formed. Uriah was the Chairman. The schoolhouse was built across the road from the Gettins farmhouse. The Gettins provided room and board to the teacher. Uriah Gettins was the Post Master from 1905 to 1913. He and his eldest son, R. J., travelled to the train station to drop off and pick up the mail and then delivered it to the homes in his district. Their post office was originally called Eyebrow Hill. It was renamed Eskbank in 1908. Uriah invested in the local telephone company in 1910. He also was a member of the Beef Ring, the Grain Growers, and the Eyebrow Masonic Lodge.
One of the first Eskbank schoolteachers was very interested in Violette Gettins. He wanted to marry her, they say. One winter afternoon he volunteered to deliver mail to one of the area farms. They found him the next day frozen to death. This was a shocking and sobering experience for the young community.
Educating their children was a priority for Uriah and Sophia Gettins. R. J. and Olive finished their education at the local one room schoolhouse. Uriah raised the cash to send his middle daughters, Violette, Reta and Lovey Pearl, to school in Moose Jaw and Regina. He left the farm in the care of his wife and eldest son in the winter to work at his old profession of railway conductor. Our grandmother, Reta, attended Regina College for three years. It was with great sorrow and regret that Uriah had to tell Lovey Pearl that they simply could not afford to send her to school in Moose Jaw for another year. Lovey Pearl, however, was overjoyed because she had been so homesick while boarding in town.
The Gettins prospered. They had a pair of fine carriage horses which won first and second prize at the Brownlee Fair in 1914. R. J. bought their first car in 1916. Then Uriah bought a Chevrolet four-door sedan. Uriah also invested in modern farm equipment, including a steam-powered threshing machine, the remnants of which still grace the homestead’s farmyard.
The Spanish flu epidemic reached Eskbank in October of 1918. Everyone in the Gettins household was desperately sick except Sophia and young Lovey Pearl. They were kept very busy nursing the rest of the family. Cecil died October 31. Eleven days later, R. J. was killed in an accident at an Eskbank grain elevator. Their mother was beside herself with grief.
Losing the eldest and second oldest sons was a huge economic blow to the family. As Uriah aged, his youngest son, Trevor, and his eldest grandson, Arnold Torgerson, took over the chores. Sons-in-law, Les Carter and Art Torgerson farmed nearby and could lend a hand.
The Canadian Girls in Training (CGIT) was formed in 1915. Reta Gettins was leader of the first CGIT group in Eskbank. She left a collection of photographs, which may be of the first ever CGIT camp held at Lumsden Beach in 1918. Reta continued to be a CGIT leader for forty years.
The Saskatchewan Homemakers Club was organized in 1911 “for the study of scientific homemaking, of sanitation, ventilation, the composition of foods, hygiene, the care of children, the improvement of environment, etc. and to promote social intercourse”. Sophia Gettins was the senior member of the Eskbank Homemakers Club until her death in 1956. She was also active with the Ladies Aid and the Red Cross.
Uriah Gettins died in 1928. Sophia and her son, Trevor, stayed on the farm through the Great Depression and War Years. Trevor continued to live on the homestead and farm until his death in 1978. Uriah’s great grandson, Scot Torgerson, owns and farms the homestead now.
STARTING A TOWN – 1906
John and Mary Ann Kenny were well established on their farm and respected members of their community in Euphrasia Township, Grey County, Ontario in 1906. He was on the township counsel. John was 54. Mary Ann was 47. Their only son was a Methodist minister. Why did they uproot themselves to start over as homesteaders on remote virgin prairie?
John’s brother, Nicholas Kenny, was a land agent in Battleford. John and Mary Ann sold their possessions and moved with their 24 year old daughter, our paternal grandmother, Blanche. John’s homestead was near the present site of Wilkie. His wife and daughter joined him there in 1907, but not before Blanche met a law clerk, Herbert Sparling.
Wilkie sprang up in a matter of months in 1908 and continued to grow rapidly even before the railway arrived on 1909. In January 1911, John W. Kenny was elected to a two year term on the first town counsel. He was the second Worshipful Master of Prairie Lodge # 57, A.F. & A.M. He and his wife were both active in the Wilkie Methodist congregation. For a time before the railway took over delivering the mail, John Kenny brought it into the district on horseback from Battleford. The Kennys acquired a second quarter section of land near their homestead. They must have rented out their land because they lived in town. John had the Deering Farm Machinery agency for a year or so and other business interests.
The Wilkie Press published several reports about the visit of John and Mary Ann’s son, the Rev. C. Elmer Kenny in August of 1912 and the service he conducted at the Masonic Lodge. According to reports in the 6 March 1917 issue of “The Wilkie Press”, John became secretary/treasurer of the Saskatchewan branch of the national Conservative Party. This was when his possible cousin, W. B. Willoughby, made an unsuccessful bid to be elected M.P.
Mary Ann Kenny was evidently very close to her daughter, Blanche Sparling. There are many reports in both the Wilkie and Battleford newspapers of them visiting one another. Blanche surprised everyone by giving birth to our father at the age of 48. Mother and babe barely survived. Our aunts told us that our father still could not walk at the age of two. The rest of the family went on a holiday, leaving him with Gramma Kenny in Wilkie. When they came back, he was walking. No doubt Gramma Kenny made urgent visits to Battleford over the next few years to provide help and comfort during the frequent illnesses of both her daughter and grandson.
John’s health deteriorated. Finally, in 1927, when he was 75 years old, they sold their land and all their bulky belongings. They travelled first to North Battleford to stay with their daughter, Blanche Sparling. Then they moved back east to stay with their son, Rev. Elmer Kenny, in Owen Sound, Ontario.
GO WEST YOUNG MAN – 1906
Herbert G. Sparling grew up on a farm at St. Marys, Ontario. He did well at school as did many of his family. Herb and his younger brother, George, went west, first to the farm of their Uncle James and Aunt Margaret in Manitoba and later as teachers at remote schools in Alberta District, NWT. They attended Wesley College in Winnipeg where another uncle was the Dean. George became a Methodist minister and missionary. Herb obtained his BA in Classics.
Upon graduation in 1906, Herb joined their elder brother, Dr. William R. Sparling, in North Battleford. He was hired as the principal of the North Battleford High School but quit after a few months to pursue a career in law. In those days it was not necessary to graduate from law school to become a lawyer. One could article (apprentice) for three years instead. H. G. Sparling articled for R. R. Earle in Battleford.
Both Mr. Earle and the young Mr. Sparling were courting ladies living in Wilkie. The local newspapers noted that they found frequent reasons to go to Wilkie on business. Herb Sparling was a school trustee of the Battleford High School, which advertised for students in the Wilkie Press.
- G. Sparling was called to the bar in 1910. He set up his law practice in Grenfell, Saskatchewan with Mr. B. P. Richardson. Herb quickly became involved in the community. He was Sunday school superintendent of the Grenfell Methodist Church. On 11 May 1910, he married Blanch Kenny at her parents’ home in Wilkie.
In 1912, Herb and Blanche Sparling returned to Battleford with their daughter, Ruth. He practiced law in partnership with R. R. Earle who by then was the mayor of Battleford. Mr. and Mrs. Sparling built their home by the Battleford golf course. It is still serving as a single-family residence at 311 – 43rd Street West. This house proved difficult to heat properly in the winter. Therefore the family lived in an apartment above H. G. Sparling’s law office. This building is now the Battleford Public Library.
Herb continued to be active with the church and in educational matters as a school trustee. He was also a Mason. Blanche found her place in Battleford Society, entertaining and no doubt belonging to worthy (and prestigious) women’s groups such as the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IOODE) and the Ladies Aid Society.
The Sparling family moved to North Battleford in 1928. By then, Herb and Blanche had three children: Ruth, born in 1911 in Grenfell; Helen, born in 1916 in Battleford; and a late addition, Frederick, born in 1924. They moved into 1391 Frederick Street, across the street from the North Battleford Collegiate. This house is now an elegant bed & breakfast called the Turn Stone Manor.
Blanche Sparling developed diabetes during her last pregnancy or shortly thereafter. Fortunately, Drs. Banting and Best discovered the insulin treatment for diabetes in 1922. Blanche travelled to Toronto where she was diagnosed and prescribed this new wonder drug. Poor little Frederick contracted diphtheria, meningitis and polio, all before the age of five. He was the only child in the Battleford infected during this outbreak of polio in 1929 who survived. He started school with a brace on one leg but was left with only a slight limp by the time he was a teenager.
After the death of John W. Kenny in 1928, Gramma Kenny came to North Battleford to live with her married daughter, Blanche Sparling. Frederick Sparling remembers her as a friendly grandmother who ignored her daughter’s demands that she refrain from spoiling her grandson.
- G. Sparling was a well-known courtroom lawyer before he relocated his office and home to North Battleford. He was elected to the provincial governing body of lawyers, the Law Society of Saskatchewan, in 1927. He was awarded the honor of King’s Counsel in 1930. After serving the maximum four terms as a bencher of the Law Society, Herb was so well loved and respected by his fellow lawyers that he was made an ex officio bencher for the rest of his life.
Money was in short supply on the prairies during the 1930s. His clients, therefore, paid Herb, in chickens and other produce from time to time. He had enjoyed considerable success investing in farmland. During the Depression he lost it all because he could not keep up the property taxes.
The Sparlings were not wealthy but they lived comfortably even in the worst years. Frederick Sparling recalls how upset his father was when a tramp came to their door asking for food. Father and son had just returned from their cottage on Jackfish Lake. There was nothing at all in the pantry to give this man. Herb felt very badly and was also embarrassed for fear the tramp would not believe that the inhabitants of such a fine house really had no food on hand.
Herbert Sparling was generous with his time, volunteering to serve not only as a bencher of the Law Society and an elder of his church but also as a school trustee and a member of the Board of Directors for the Saskatchewan Hospital. He continued to be an active Mason and was a member of the IOOF, the Canadian Club, the Battleford Golf Club, the Curling Club and the Liberal Party. He also served on the Senate of the University of Saskatchewan.
The Sparling daughters, Ruth and Helen, both moved to Toronto in their late teens. Ruth married an Anglican minister, Allan Seabrook. Helen married a lawyer, Les Ball. Their son, Frederick, went to Regina to join the army as soon as he turned 18 in 1942. He had to go to Regina to enlist because no doctor who knew his history of serious illnesses as a young child would have allowed him to pass the medical examination. Frederick Sparling spent the rest of the War being trained, trained and trained some more in Canada and England. He returned to Canada during the summer of 1945 and was discharged promptly on compassionate grounds. His mother, Blanche, died of cancer a few days after he arrived at her hospital bedside in Saskatoon.
Frederick also became a lawyer. Father and son practiced together briefly as Sparling & Sparling, but Herbert was getting old. He lived with our parents for several years. In 1952 he moved to Woodstock, Ontario to live with his daughter, Helen Ball. He died there before the end of the year.