Home Town or Home Community:
The Watson and Hanson Family
Rupert’s Land, the Northwest Territories of Canada and ultimately Saskatchewan and Alberta evolved from an expanse of relatively unoccupied territory into what it had become by 2005 by the hard work of many thousands of immigrants, waves of whom arrived between the 19th and 21st Centuries. The often brutally harsh winters and bleak summers challenged all newcomers. Key to the success of the development of the province of Saskatchewan was the courage, hardiness, self-sacrifice, self-discipline, and communitarian generosity of those many immigrants of different origins.
Two families whose contribution spread over that entire period were the Watson and Hanson families. Those family lines merged in 1946 with the wedding of Ruth Georgia Hanson and Charles Francis Watson.
Iver Hanson was born in Norway on January 31, 1845. His wife, Olina Romfro was also born in Norway on October 22, 1842. They emigrated to Danvers, Minnesota in the 1870s along with many other Norwegians whose imprint on the community and culture of the north central United States remains. Like many others, they later moved to Manitoba, specifically to Clanwilliam, in 1903 where they lived until the year of the Great War, passing away within two weeks of each other in April, 1914. Descendants of Iver [notably Kenneth Cook, a great grandson] were farming their homestead land still in the late 20th Century.
Iver’s sons included Iver I, Hans I, Ole I, and John I who carried not only the second initial to their names but the Scandinavian hardiness and Lutheran outlook with them. Along with daughters Bertha and Randa, the Hanson clan involved almost two score children. John I, who was ultimately father to the largest family group, but the youngest of Iver, was encouraged to pursue a religious calling. His daughter, Ruth Georgia Hanson wrote:
“The Hanson family were Lutheran and wanted one son to become a pastor. My dad being the youngest was chosen for this career. He attended the Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, for two years. Not cut out to be a pastor, he left the Seminary and became a farmer. This was not his forté either. He was very gregarious and became a salesman, selling farm implements for John Deere, Case and International Harvester.”
Severine Block had emigrated to Canada around 1880 from Denmark, and also settled on a Homestead near Minnedosa, Manitoba. Like many of his contemporaries, he had to clear the land and built his own house before he could have his wife Christina come to Canada with their three sons and a daughter, Marrie Christina Block, born on January 21, 1886, whose nearly 100 years of life (to 1984) was the center of the John I. Hanson family.
The name Block had been awarded to their family and many other citizens of Denmark by the King, who was apparently exasperated by the proliferation of families with the surname Nielsen. Severine had some wisdom, as he opted for the comparatively new concept of life insurance, which much assisted his family upon his death at 35 due to a well cave-in.Christina Block was then pregnant, but the $1,000 insurance proceeds enabled her to acquire a house for $500, and to deposit the balance for a rainy day. Ruth Hanson wrote:
“Gramma Christina ….. couldn’t speak English, nor could the kids, but there were a number of Scandinavians arriving at that time, so she opened a boarding house. She also took in washing. There was no welfare in those days so you lived or died on your own. The English residents were not too kindly to these foreigners, calling them names. However they survived and soon learned to speak English. She was a very handsome lady, and many of the men wanted to marry her, but she refused.”
The life paths of John I Hanson and Marrie Christina Block crossed when they married in Clanwilliam, Manitoba in 1904. John I had the advantage of higher education, whereas Marrie did not get past Grade 4 as her mother felt the trips to and from school were dangerous for her. Nonetheless, Marrie understood and spoke at least four languages, including English, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. Furthermore, Marrie had a business like wisdom and self-reliance which she learned from her mother. With the energy and diligence that was consistent in her family, she ran the Hanson household quite successfully, and for many years alone.
John I and Marrie were living in Saskatoon at the time of the Influenza epidemic across the world in 1918. By November 5, 1921, their main biographer, daughter Ruth, was born, the 11th child of 14 carried by Marrie. Marrie by then was concerned about the large family and had attempted using various old fashioned methods to procure an abortion, which failed to defeat Ruth’s determination to be born fat and healthy, which she was in a nursing residence about five blocks from where the family lived.
The rambling residence with so many children was a major project for Marrie, about whose efforts Ruth Hanson wrote about her childhood:
“Mother was a very busy lady cooking and cleaning and sewing for us all. She was very well organized. They had a wood stove and on Sunday night a big copper tub was filled with water to heat for washing on Monday mornings. She had a round wooden tub washing machine with a hand wringer and the boys took turns at the wringer before they went to school. The vegetables were peeled as well because dinner was served at noon.
Eddie and Irene, the two oldest, were working and they came home for dinner. The meal was on the table and dishes washed and dried before they went back to work. Eddie was six feet four, and he was the dad during the week and kept order at the dinner table. If any of us kids started to act up at the table, he would reach down with his big hand and tap us on the top of the head. This was enough to restore order.”
Ruth recalled a conversation with her grandmother Christina at that Saskatoon house when Ruth was five years old. As crowded as the house was, they found room for her grandmother as well, whose life by then was winding down. Symbolic, perhaps, of the genetic inheritance also provided, Ruth’s grandmother also gave her the first nickle she ever had. Upon her death in 1926, Christina joined her long deceased husband in the family plot in Minnedosa.
Guy Watson was a veteran of World War I – being one of many tens of thousands of young Englishmen called the Boy’s Battalions sent into those horrendous killing fields. Despite the slaughter which surrounded him, Guy Watson had a noteworthy writing skill. He also developed a talent at bookkeeping which essentially was his life’s work until his passing at age 68 in the 1950s. Guy’s father was a solicitor in England, who died of cancer in his late 50s. These features of their education may well have forecast what later came to pass, with the admission of two grandsons, George Watson and Jack Watson, to the practice of law in Alberta in the 1970s, following graduation from the University of Saskatchewan, College of Law.
Blanche Lillian Benson was one of five children, also of English heritage, which family had emigrated to North Dakota [and thereafter different parts of which travelled to various parts of the United States]. Their family biographer was Ethel Benson Soper, sister of Blanche, who wrote of their homestead in America that it was cradled in the arm of a small river, and surrounded by barns, sheds, bushes and trees. As with comparable residences in Saskatchewan, the distinction between townhouse and farmstead was indistinct but rules were, as she wrote, clear:
“My mother was very kind about sharing our spacious yard with others but posted a warning – not responsible if anyone felt in the river or horse trough, or was kicked by a horse – everyone must come at their own risk.”
The strictness of her upbringing was a clear and certain characteristic of the outlook of her sister Blanche. Blanche and Guy married and their lives joined in what she used to call their “ranch” in Indian Head, Saskatchewan. In Indian Head, their older child, a daughter Elizabeth, always known as Betty, came to be the post-mistress, while their son Charles Francis, born December 19, 1920, worked from young years as a helper and vehicle driver – it being a crossover period between the horse and buggy era and the motor vehicle era.
Despite his lack of a driver’s license, Charles offered to the local farmers and businesses that he was quite able to handle their variety of strange and now well obsolete trucks and cars. This came to be a helpful adaptability with the onset of another World War. He wrote:
“Back in Indian Head I got a job hauling gas to the farmers. The man I worked for was the wholesale dealer for BA Oil Company and the gas was delivered in 45 gallon drums which you had to manhandle on and off the back of a half-ton truck. Wandering around the back roads to various farms in the area was a real exercise in itself – no maps or anything but then I knew where all the farms were and had instructions to find the dumping spot – some old farm wagon that was parked out in the boondocks just for that purpose.
I worked at this job for a couple of months and got pretty good at wheeling gas barrels around on their edge, you couldn’t lift them as they weighed 300 lbs. full and 90 lbs. empty. I also got pretty good at driving a truck and various cars, all of which were standard shift of course, and this came in handy later as well.”
Charles also wrote of his last job before enlistment:
“I just happened to be employed at a relief camp (run by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Agency (PFRA) earning a dollar a day and found. in those days, early 1939, it was quite a sum. One half was held back to be paid during the winter months and from the other half a certain amount was used to pay for the so-called uniform they supplied us. The only part of the uniform not surplus army clothes was a fairly decent wool windbreaker with a zipper front and a large PFRA crest.”
Ruth’s father John I was also well familiar with the new motorized equipment of the 1920s as well. He would set out on Mondays in his Model T Ford to the country and circulate to the farmers of Saskatchewan until Fridays. A great believer in higher education, he wanted his children to go to school. He furnished Ruth with books to read to him on weekends so that he could check on her learning. Having picked up her ABCs and numbers early, she was promoted at age 5 from Kindergarten to Grade 1. Ruth recalled:
“Mother went with me to school and told the teacher I was used to sleeping in the afternoon. The teacher, Miss Smith, said, ‘Not to worry, if [I] fell asleep at [my] desk, it would be ok, that [I’d] stay awake in due time.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Hansons’ neighbour, one Scott, delivered milk with a horse and wagon. The horse, a beautiful big Percheron named Daisy, was a favourite with the kids, and its barn was across the alley from their house. When Scott would put Daisy in for the night, the kids would gather to pat and brush the horse.
As it happens, Ruth’s sons George and Jack had the privilege of seeing horse-drawn milk wagons during their early childhood in Ottawa [where Charles was stationed after World War II] though the motor vehicle era was very soon thereafter exclusively established in Canada. Children of 2005 would consider horses for recreation only, and would likewise not think of other limitations. Ruth added:
“We didn’t have electric refrigerators in those days either. We had an ice box and mom would pay 25 cents for a block of ice. This ice was carved out of the river in the winter time and stored for use in the summer. The ice man also had a horse and buggy, and we kids used to run behind and eat the slivers of ice from the cart.”
John I was a victim of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Having amassed the princely sum of $30,000.00 in 1928 he organized a cattle drive from various prairie locations to Winnipeg where they were to be sold. The stock market crash of 1929 arrived ahead of the cattle, and he lost his entire investment. He was unable to get a job, but Ed and Irene were able to catch on with the Saskatchewan Telephone Company to help pay the family bills. Others of the boys took jobs cleaning streets while Ruth’s brother Roy worked for a wood and coal company, being paid in a ton of coal each week which kept the house warm. Eventually, however, they lost the house to the City due to back taxes. Ruth added:
“My dad was a proud man and this latest blow was too much for him. He left the family and went back to Clanwilliam, Manitoba where his brothers lived. We moved into a rented house on Victoria Avenue. The rent was $15.00 and Ed, although he was married and away from Saskatoon, continued to pay the rent for many years. Irene was married and living in Calgary. Vernon [another brother] was working as a chef for Eaton’s [store] and Margaret [another sister] was a clerk at Kresge’s [store]. They paid board and room, and mom took in sewing. Those were really tough times, but mom kept the family together. Eventually Wally [another brother] married and moved to Edmonton and Harold [another brother] married and was living in Winnipeg. They sent home money when they could.”
Blanche and Guy Watson were also careful with their money, and their children worked supportively. Blanche in particular was decisively thrifty, and a believer in recycling well before the concept had the cachet it acquired later in the 20th Century. Betty’s long career with the post office ultimately secured her financial future, but rather delayed her social life. Charles worked where he could, ultimately working under the Depression era social habilitation project under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation program. Significantly, despite the challenges and deprivation of their young lives, Charles, and Ruth’s brothers, shared that patriotism that saw all of them volunteer for military service with the coming of the Second World War.
In an amusing, well-written and easy to read recounting of his war experiences, written many years after the fact, Charles described the sometimes humorus, sometimes humbling and sometimes harrowing experiences of a young Canadian serving his country from Aldershot, to endangered ships running the risky passage into the Mediterranean Sea, into Italy and Belgium and Holland. He, and other young contemporaries, were part of Canada’s all volunteer troops of various mechanized and artillery divisions, frequently used as the spear points for the British Army. A copy of Charles’ memoir is also available on request from his son, Jack Watson.
Probably to both the fear and pride of his veteran father, and to the chagrin of his concerned mother, Charles had signed up for the army almost as early as was possible for service in that War. Assigned to the 17th Field Artillery Regiment, Charles came to regard himself as a “gunner” from that point forward.
An effective handler both of vehicles and the typewriter, and a quick study, Charles rose in rank rather expeditiously in the organizational aspects of regimental activity – though noting his promotion to Lance Bombardier included the princely increase of 20 cents per day – as well as becoming involved in training and supervision of other young men. Charles and other young men of his prairie background, including fast friends from his home town, were involved:
“We had officers who we had known for years and had to start calling them “sir”, NCOs who had been farmers, grocery store clerks, and many who had because of the times, been freight train riding hoboes who could really look after themselves. One of these was our cook and he was very good at it, also the town baker was another cook who got a couple of stripes right away, to keep him with us I suspect.”
In the 1930s, Ruth, on graduation from Nutana Collegiate in Saskatoon, took a job washing dishes at Kresge’s store for 25 cents an hour – which seemed to her like a lot at the time. Her hard-working mother used to sew clothes for her many children, including rebuilt items from clothes donated by neighbours. Ruth recalled how her mother would turn them inside out. Ruth particularly recalled a chocolate brown coat with a sable collar of which she was very proud – Ruth not getting another new coat until she could afford it from her own paycheque.
Like her siblings, Ruth shared the burden of the family, including the costs of upbringing of her two younger sisters, Doris and Florence (called Pete in the family). Of a salary of $8.00 a week in a six day per week, 10 hour per day print shop employment, she remitted $4.00 to her mother. Ruth recalled fondly of working with a deaf mute young person, with whom she exchanged notes and gradually learned to communicate in sign language.
Ruth joined the Government telephones operation as a long distance operator, being told in a three week course to handle a key board and how to be a “voice with a smile”. Her voice must have been particularly empathetic and smiling, because her operator number 37 soon became a favourite with sales and business people who discovered her capacity to remember their client numbers and forward their calls swiftly to be a great advantage. Ruth learned, well prior to the Internet, that it was possible to route calls through Montreal, Chicago, Los Angeles or any other switching point to achieve a rapid link. Chocolates and apples arrived addressed to her. Her salary, meanwhile, rose to $63.00 a month.
Her departure from the phone company had a duty-grounded aspect to it. The Canadian Army Show came to the Auditorium in Saskatoon with Wayne and Shuster as key performers. Ruth bought a ticket to take her mother to the show a couple of months in advance. As they had their shifts posted for three months in advance, it was a scheduled night off. Miss Brown, the chief operator, changed her assignment telling her that she would have to work that night because the new girls needed a senior operator to supervise and train them.
Ruth took her mother to the show. Suspended for three days for her insubordination, Ruth decided a change was in order, and went to Edmonton with her brother Wally’s wife to get a different job. This she promptly got with Coast Construction, then involved in building the Namao airport. When she reported to give two weeks’ notice to the Saskatoon phone company, Miss Brown was furious, telling Ruth she would “never amount to anything leaving a good government job like this”. Ruth replied that her new salary of $120.00 a month left her to think she would be “okay, so she wouldn’t need to worry”.
Ruth almost followed her brothers into the military at the onset of war:
“When the War broke out, a neighbour of ours asked me to join the CWACS (Army) and promised I would become an officer within two months. I wasn’t interested in serving in the army, instead I went to the Naval recruiting officer and signed up for the WRENS (Navy). They said they would call me when arrangements could be made for me to go to Halifax. When they got around to it a couple of years later, I was in Ajax, Ontario, making bombs for the war effort, so I cancelled out and said I was otherwise employed in the War.”
She did not lose her contact with Saskatchewan even when working with what eventually became Canadian Industries Ltd. (CIL) in the armaments business. As with her employment in frigid Edmonton, she would send money home to her mother to help the family. In the meantime, her brother Ben was in Army Intelligence, brothers Vernon and Harold were in the R.C.A.F., brother Wally was in the Army and brother Roy was in the Navy.
Charles said of his prairie soldiers that “most of them hadn’t been more than 10 miles from home” when they joined a “motley horde” that gathered in Saskatchewan, including a long-armed simian-like fellow who had worked with his sister in the Indian Head post office. His tale of war experiences followed Charles to eastern Canada, then from Halifax to Aldershot, England on H.M.T. Oronsay with seasick “plowjockeys” in the early North Atlantic winter. Ultimately they shipped through the Straits of Gibraltor as part of the invasion of southern Europe in 1943:
“Our trip towards Italy was very uneventful, we sailed west for so far we thought we were headed back to Canada but it was to avoid the U-boats that prowled the Bay of Biscay and we were too far out for German aircraft. After going through the Straits of Gibraltar it was a different story. The Mediterranean was like a mill pond but that is great torpedo water and so we were changing course every five minutes or more and were travelling at full bore. Passing North Africa was sight as they had all their lights burning and everything was like normal there, not for us though, from Spanish Morocco came a nice flight of Dornier torpedo bombers, wave top height and the convoy was back lighted by the lights on shore.”
In her brief autobiography, also available on request from her son Jack Watson, an Alberta Judge, Ruth’s adventures living in Edmonton with her colourful sister in law, and working on the airport project under the supervision of the American Army reflected the initiative and unabashed forthrightness of Ruth as a confident young woman way ahead of the later more gloomy feminists. Never questioning her capacity to decide, she managed to avoid a strike amongst the 2,000 workers there by promising a raise that the U.S. Army found irregular, but ultimately accepted. Ruth was a highly employable person and was invited to South Carolina to work at the end of the project, but would not surrender her Canadian links.
Finding her way in Canada led her to Fort Smith and thereafter to the Ontario munitions plant, where she managed to rise to a managerial level due to her ability to keep up morale of an aircraft bomb making wing of a an enterprise of 9,000 women and 1,000 men. She rose through the ranks there to the end of 1945, with some degree of exaggeration of her skills. One of her opportunities arose when she was invited to work as a secretary. Her boss, one Patterson, asked if she could take shorthand:
“I said, ‘Sure, I can do anything.’ So he hired me a couple of weeks later. First chance I had, I hiked into Toronto to buy a Pittman shorthand book. When I was taking dictation, I kept the book on my knee. My shorthand was long, shorthand and memory. After a few weeks, he said to me, ‘Have you ever taken shorthand before?’ ‘No’ I said, thinking I was going to get fired. Instead he said, ‘I didn’t think so because you don’t even use the words I do.’ From then on, we got along great and I stayed with him until the War ended.”
In a matter of fact, soldierly way, Charles noted that, like many Canadians of Saskatchewan and Alberta, their efforts were associated with a number of significant battles in the northern Italian campaigns, at places like Acquafondata, near Monte Cassino, at Ortona to Orsogna, at Ponte Corvo and on through Italy into Belgium. Charles’ loyalty to his Regiment continued for decades after the War, as he was a main contact for Regimental activity.
There were also the non-battle events, such as his driving a “car, light, recce” in perhaps Italy’s worst winter in history “tooling along mountain roads with no barriers or fences on the sides of the roads, which were lousy and the bottom of the valleys was a long way down!” After a day of this, “my face was frozen for about three inches all around my eyes. It had that size of a slit to see through and if you put down the bullet proof glass you couldn’t see the road – lots of fun!”
Amongst other action near the Gustav and Hitler lines, Charles and his long-time friend Hagen not only managed to keep a company truck operative with three appropriate wheels and one wheel of the wrong size, but also to get ahead of their Regiment into enemy held territory, though managing to stay healthy until their Regiment caught up with them. Amongst other events in his travels an American Sherman tank flipped on its side and landed with six feet of their truck.
His biography noted, as well – and with no particular sense of shame – that “moonlight requisitioning”, notably of the more substantial supplies of equipment possessed by the American armed forces was a means for staying current. All in all, Charles and his fellow prairie boys served Canada in the hardy manner appropriate to their upbringing. After his return to Canada in 1946, Charles’ and his regimental comrades stayed in contact for many years, the regiment retiring from regular reunions only when most of its members had reached the 8th and 9th decades of their lives.
Despite an offer of yet another advancement for Canadian Industries Limited, Ruth returned to Saskatchewan in December, 1945. Charles, who had been corresponding with her for a long time, was due home in January, 1946. They married on May 4, 1946.
What followed was an industrious life for both in Ottawa. Service as they had done it in the War years had given them no financial base to build upon. Hence, Charles continued his military career, and also worked part-time in a hotel, meaning long hours during the days, nights and on weekends. Ruth also was a believer that earning a salary actually meant “earning” it. As to one position she held with the Federal Government she wrote:
“I went to the Employment office and got a job as a secretary to the Deputy Minister of Agriculture. His name was Dr. McCallum. His job consisted of buying black horses for the R.C.M.P. so he spent months away on trips to England, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, looking for the perfect horse. I also worked for a Veterinarian who examined cattle for TB. I only saw him once a month to fill out some forms. An old girl waiting for her retirement was also in the office, so in fact I worked [?] for the three of them.
Mostly I did nothing, which drove me bananas. So after several months, when Dr. McCallum came home from one of his trips, I quit. He didn’t want me to leave, but I said I couldn’t stand sitting around trying to look busy, and besides he didn’t need a secretary anyway. There was a pool across the hall with 12 girls waiting for something to do. His reply was “How would it look for a Deputy Minister not to have his own secretary?” My reply was, “I don’t know but it would save the taxpayers the cost of my salary anyway.” so I left. About six months later he called and asked me to come back. This time he had a lot of work for me to do, and I wouldn’t just be sitting around. So I went back. The work didn’t last long, so I quit again.”
Taking her work ethic with her, Ruth came to work at the Chemical Institute of Canada and Canadian Society of Chemical Engineers, the professional bodies of the chemists and chemical engineers. They well demonstrated to their sons, George and Jack, the virtues of hard work, self-discipline, generosity, patriotism and a devotion to what was valuable, honorable and right in a free and democratic society.
Amongst other things, Ruth rose in the media game by rising to Business Manager and Production Editor for Chemistry in Canada and the Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering. Ruth discovered that glass ceilings could, with hard work and zeal, be penetrated eventually as did friends who included the feisty Ottawa mayor, Charlotte Whitton, and executives of the Canadian Women’s Press Club. She never forgot that Saskatchewan sharing impulse: long before affirmative action, she did not hesitate to hire workers with physical or intellectual challenges.
The tug of home eventually returned Ruth and Charles to Saskatoon in the 1970s, shortly after both of their sons graduated in Law at the University of Saskatchewan, George in 1971, and Jack in 1972. Ruth wrote:
“We moved back to Saskatoon in 1976 to Clarence Avenue. As things happened, we ended up only a couple of blocks from where Doris [sister] and Wilf [brother-in law, also a veteran whom Charles served with] lived. I began to do visiting at the Lutheran Sunset Home and regularly checked in with my mother who was still getting along. She had gone on a trip back to Sweden at the age of 75 and had passed through Ottawa en route. Even in 1976, at the age of 90, she was still upbeat and mobile, although she was having some difficulty sorting out who all of her enormous family of descendants were.”
Both George and Jack came to be lawyers in Alberta. Tragically, George passed away on March 15, 2003 in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, where he had practiced law for about thirty years. After more than twenty-seven years as a lawyer, Jack was appointed to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in July, 2000.