A True Pioneer – Gladys (Nelson) Tett
This article has been written from stories that Gladys told to her son Harold and her daughter Betty. The grandchildren have also been very interested in the life of their grandmother who was born and lived all 93 years of her life in Saskatchewan. She was the fourth child born to James Hartley and Elizabeth Burkett Nelson.
J.H. Nelson had emigrated from Liverpool, England in 1883. The ship landed in Montreal, Quebec. After traveling by train, wagon and oxen, he settled on a homestead south of where Yorkton is now situated. This area was referred to as the North West Territories, as the province that we know as Saskatchewan today hadn’t yet been surveyed or made into a province until 1905. In late 1883, J. H. Nelson returned to England and in 1885 he brought his family over to the homestead. Gladys was born on September 6, 1885, in a sod house where she spent the first few years of her life. This was near where the town of Lebret now is.
In April of 1885, the settlers received word from the 90th Rifle Brigade to all move into Fort Qu’Appelle where they would be given some protection from the natives who were on the war path. This was the time of the Riel Rebellion. Gladys’ mother killed the few hens she had and made some chicken pies (in the old milk pails they used) in order to have some food while they were on the trail. They were just about ready to leave, when a band of natives walked into the house and took all the food they could find, but did not harm any of the Nelson family.
On the trail, they had a few milk cows with them so there was always plenty of milk for drinking, but they had to boil all the water before they could use it.
They settled at Port Perry near where the town of Buchanan now is. It would take two weeks to make the trip into Yorkton for supplies, which they would sometimes run out of. During these times they would have porridge for breakfast and supper, and potatoes for dinner, One time they had run out of tea, and Gladys’ mother, who was always resourceful, dried out some black currant leaves and used them as a substitute.
Gladys’ father had been given a freight route delivering supplies from Fort Qu’ Appelle to Touchwood. One afternoon when traveling home he was accosted by a group of natives on horseback. They were carrying clubs with nails driven in them. They pretended to hit him over the head, then circled around him and repeated the action. When they reached a fork in the road, imagine his relief when the attacking party took the turn off into Yorkton and Mr. Nelson continued into Lebret.
They had to live in tents until the end of November of that year, when they were finally able to move back into their log house. At first they had no proper windows or doors, so Gladys’ mother hung sheets over the window openings and a carpet over the door. The house was made of logs with a sod roof. One time after a very heavy rain, the sod roof was leaking, so some neighbors came to put some more sod onto the roof. When they had finished, they were enjoying a cup of tea when one of the girls, who was already in bed, called to her father that she had heard a crack in the roof. Each of the four men were able to grab a child, and just got to the door when the roof collapsed. The weight of the extra sod had caused the ridge pole to crack.
In 1885 there was a drought, with grasshoppers and gophers, so there was no food for their stock. Mr. Nelson and several of his neighbors loaded up the wagons and started the long trek to the North East where there was plenty of wood, water, and grass available, There were about twelve in the party, as well as children and several outriders to tend to the stock. They would travel all day until they found a suitable site, where they would set up camp for the night. The first thing our grandmother, Mrs. Nelson, would insist on, after the tents were up was that the cook stove be set up so she could bake bread. She would mix the dough in the morning and let it rise all day in a wagon. They would be sure of fresh bread for supper every night. The ladies would also prepare food for the next day and do any laundry that needed doing. It took them more than two weeks to make the trip with the wagon and the teams of oxen. By the end of November they had erected sod shacks for the settlers to live in. Supplies were still very slow in arriving so once again they relied on the sheets over the windows and the carpet over the door to protect themselves from the elements.
During the following ten years they lived in this manner. In the fall of each year they were able to get a large order of staple foods, and with the produce they grew in the garden they were able to maintain a regular diet.
One day when Gladys was about ten years old a cow was tempted by the fermented juice that was in the bottom of a barrel that they had received full of apples in the fall. The cow stuck her head into the barrel to investigate further, only to get her horns stuck. She was unable to get the barrel off of her head. They had a frantic and hilarious time trying to free the cow. They finally had to destroy the cow to put her out of her misery.
Due to the fact that there were no school and no teachers, Gladys’ aunt undertook the task to educate the children. In 1895, Gladys’ family moved into Yorkton where Gladys received her public and high school education.
Prior to this, missionaries would visit often and the whole settlement would gather for a church service, and then complete the day by having a pot luck supper.
One of those missionaries was Rev. Joseph Woodsworth, who was the father of Jas. Woodsworth, one of the founders of the C. C. F. Party. Rev. William Reed, who at one time was the minister of the Third Avenue Church in Saskatoon, preached his first sermon in the Nelson ranch house.
After completing her high school education in Yorkton, Gladys attended Wesley College in Winnipeg and the Normal School in Regina, where she received her teaching certificate. In 1904, she was the first teacher to teach school at Willowbrook. In 1906 she taught two years at Dunlop School, near Foam Lake, Sask., and was also the first teacher there. She then taught for two years in Winnipeg.
On the ranch, they had many natives that visited them. One was a young fellow who had a trap line. He would stay at the Nelson house for the night and spend his days tending his traps. One spring he brought his wife and family. While they were there his wife became sick with pneumonia and Gladys’ mother nursed her back to health. When it came time for them to leave, she took the beaded strips off her leggings and gave them to our grandmother. This was the highest honor of respect she could bestow on our grandmother. Her husband also took off his beaded belt and tobacco pouch and gave them to her as well. These beaded artifacts are over a hundred years old and are in the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, and were presented there on Gladys’ behalf.
In 1911Gladys moved to Outlook, Saskatchewan to work in her brother Harold Mortimer Nelson’s law office. She wanted to article as a law student, but at the time they would not admit women into the profession of law.
In 1912, Gladys’ sister who was a missionary in China died, leaving a young daughter whom Gladys raised until she was grown up and could live on her own.
During the First World War, Gladys took deep interest in the Red Cross Society, and during the 1918 flu epidemic she was very active in organizing the preparation and delivery of food to those who were ill. The Lutheran College in Outlook was temporarily made into a hospital, and volunteers worked there. She was made a life member of the Canadian Red Cross Society and received a gold medal for her efforts. Unfortunately this medal was stolen by a university student who was boarding with her.
Gladys had the honor of being the first woman town councillor in the province of Saskatchewan. When she was elected, the following was taken from The Western Municipal News :
“Miss Nelson is the first woman of the Outlook Town Council if not the first woman member of any urban council in the province of Saskatchewan. Miss Nelson is a real westerner, having been born near Fort Qu’ Appelle and having spent her whole life in Saskatchewan, except for a short stay in Manitoba. She was educated in Yorkton Public and High School, at Regina Normal School and Wesley College in Winnipeg. After teaching for the Public School Staff in Winnipeg, she has made her home in Outlook, where she holds a position in her brother’s law office. She has always taken an active part in public matters and was particularly interested during the war in Red Cross work as well and in the work of the Girl Guides. She is also an energetic worker in local Sunday School, and is fond of all kinds of sports, her favorites being curling and golf. She is now on her second term as a member of the Town Council serving on the Finance and public works committee. During 1922/23 as chairman of the Health and Relief Committee, she has been appointed deputy mayor for the second term.”
And from the Regina Post:
“…speaking of women on city council, over at Outlook the other day at a ratepayers meeting, Dr. Drennan is reported to have said ‘If we could get more women councillors like Miss Nelson, I would suggest that the school boards be composed entirely of women.’ ”
It was stated at the meeting by Mayor F. S. Reid that Miss Nelson was the first woman to be elected to council in the Province of Saskatchewan. As chairman of the Sanitary, Health, and Relief committee, Miss Nelson had a number of thankless tasks to perform for the benefit of the community, and the results of her endeavors may be estimated form the report of the Provincial Health Inspector. Outlook is one of the cleanest and tidiest towns in the province. During the year, there had been for the first time in the history of the town, no outbreak of contagious disease, which is a great tribute to her works.
In 1924 Gladys was married to R. P. Tett of Bratton, who had a general store and post office. R.P., or “Doc” as he was known, was born at Buttermilk Falls ( now known as Newboró, which is in eastern Ontario ), He attended Kingston Military College and was a captain in the Medical Corps during World War One. He had a partnership with Stanton Bros. and Tett, in a general store situated in Outlook, until he moved over to the general store and post office in Bratton. Gladys assisted in the store and was assistant Post master for over twenty years. She was also secretary treasurer for the local school board for over fifteen years. Gladys was also the secretary treasurer for the local school field day held at Surbiton every spring, involving eight school districts.
During the years of the Second World War, she was secretary treasurer of the local Red Cross Society and convener of the women’s work. She was responsible for shipping sixty boxes of sewing and knitting for the armed forces, and raised over $2000.00 by putting on dances, card parties, and suppers.
Gladys was the Bratton reporter for The Outlook, the weekly newspaper for a number of years. While living in Bratton she played the piano and taught Sunday School for over twenty years. She also supplied room and board for many of the teachers. She belonged to the Womens’ Club of the Church, and was an active member of the Homemakers Club. Gladys also held the position of enumerator, poll clerk, and deputy returning officer in federal, provincial, and municipal elections.
Gladys and Doc had 2 children. One was a daughter, Betty, a schoolteacher at the Brookland School District, south of Saskatoon, and at Sunny Valley School which was northeast of Hanley. She married Kenneth Harold Newman of Valley Park when he returned from Europe after the war. They had four children. Their other child was a son, Harold. Harold was an architect and lived in Thunder Bay for many years where he ran his business, and he was very community minded in the activities there. He married L. Catherine Deck from Brooksby, Saskatchewan and they raised five children.
After Gladys and Doc retired to Saskatoon in 1949, she became very involved with the Western Development Museum in the early days when they were situated on 11th Street West. She continued her community interests and was secretary of the Friendship Club, and also of the Saskatoon Senior Citizen Association. Gladys was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary to the B.E.S.L. which later became the Ladies Auxiliary to the Royal Canadian Legion. She was also a member of the Miriam Rebekah Lodge I.O.O.F.
Gladys was always interested in the activities of her family and grandchildren. She knit many pairs of mitts for her grandchildren and other friends of the family. She was a talented seamstress and was always willing to lend a hand with producing costumes for Christmas Concerts for the local schools. She also helped make matching outfits for the local schools for their annual field day. I remember her bleaching sugar bags, then dying them with onion skins to make yellow shirts for the matched outfits of yellow and black for Bratton School for their field day.
Gladys was a Justice of the Peace, and was always willing to assist neighbors with understanding and filling out legal papers.
Gladys always had a big garden and canned many quarts of vegetables, fruit and meat, as the family had no kind of refrigeration. In the summer when eggs were plentiful she would put them in a big crock with a mixture called “water glass” that enabled us to use them for baking later in the year when eggs were scarce. Because of having the store Dad had to bring in a certain amount of fresh fruit for canning. If this was not all sold, Gladys would have to can it rather then have it go to waste.
Gladys lived a long, productive, and interesting life and saw many changes take place, such as electricity, indoor plumbing, motor cars, trains, planes, radio, television, and medical advances during her 93 years of life. Gladys passed away November 28, 1978 in Saskatoon. A true Pioneer.