Tricks and Tragedies

Burrowing Owl

Image credit: USGS, Columbia Env. Research Center

As we did occasionally, one day a little after midsummer, we were exploring in our neighbor's grassy area, where the original sod had never been plowed. that were about ready to fly. We played with them for quite a while. One of the most interesting things we did was to hold our finger in front of their bill, about two or three inches away, and move it in a circle around their head. They would keep their bill pointed straight at our finger and follow it around for slightly less than two full turns, which seemed to be their limit. [Then] snap! they would untwist their neck so fast it could hardly be seen, and stop with their bill still pointing straight at our finger and ready for another two turns. The reason we thought they were nearly ready to leave was that we went back a day or two later and the nest was empty. We explored far and wide but were unable to find any trace. We wondered whether we had hastened their exit, or whether they were that near ready to leave. We had been watching for an attack by the mature owls while we were playing with the young ones, but we never even saw them flying near.

After Mama had spent several years doing the washing by hand she finally got a hand-powered washing machine and we supplied the hand power. Mama expected the machine to be powered with steady supply of power at a reasonable speed but for some reason it was I think my mother sometimes wished she had her old system back. The machine had a flywheel on it that ran four to six times as fast as the crank handle. The manufacturer never expected his product to be used like that one was, and wasn't required to have safety features so that boys could run it safely. Consequently it was the cause of several sore fingers and thumbs. The flywheel was placed close to the machine so that if a finger or thumb got in the spokes there was a thud and the machine stopped running and at least a finger or thumb was bandaged.

Mosquitoes were probably the worst pest on the prairie. In the spring they were the worst. If we were walking somewhere a cloud of them rose up in front of us and almost immediately we were fighting them off to keep from getting bitten all over any exposed skin. Even then we would usually get covered with welts and [go] nearly crazy with itching.

One day Ed tantalized Mama to the extent that she was going to punish him but he ran out of the sod house door and was running away. Mama grabbed up a potato, followed him out, threw it at him and was, as she considered, fortunate enough to hit him on the head with it. He must have done something that she considered was pretty bad because she rarely physically punished any of us. She was very patient and we usually obeyed her even though sometimes haltingly. She would sometimes take us by the arm and start us to what we were expected to do and we dared not resist beyond that.

We were told to be careful not to spill pepper on the stove. One evening a little late we were getting into mischief (the folks said)—learning by experimenting what we were supposed to know because we were told. The folks had already gone to bed so we shook a little pepper on the stove to see what it was like, and leaned over the stove to get the first whiff of [it]. To our surprise we could smell nothing. We did learn something though, and that was that even inside a house air currents too soft to be detected [are] present. Soon from the bedroom came, “Who's putting pepper on the stove?” We learned several things that evening.

One of the things we boys had to do was to clean the barn quite regularly. The usual process was something like this: we would pile the manure up outside the back door of the barn far enough away so it would not be against the wall of the barn. The pile would usually [be warm] summer or winter. Toward spring was the usual time to haul it away. By that time there was much less to haul away than we had put there in the first place. Really, it should have been spread on a field or garden before it lost most of its fertility. We didn't learn of its value as fertilizer till later.

About 1917 we acquired a pair of geese (large). They were interesting to have around but they would chase around till they would fall down and then they would pull their hair, clothes, their fingers and so on till we older ones came to their rescue. Harold did not seem to get in on this for some reason or another but he was aware of the geese chasing and tormenting the younger ones. One spring morning we were harnessing and preparing a four-horse team for working in the field. The geese were around and so was Harold chasing them close around to where we were working. As time went on, he was getting braver and braver and boasting, “The geese won't chase me.” The geese were aware that we older ones got after them if they tormented the younger ones so they put up with him chasing them as long as he was quite close by where we were working. He repeated, “The geese won't chase me,” and got braver yet and chased them around [behind] the barn. [He] barely got out of sight when the geese turned on him and he came sailing back with the geese right behind. We didn't go after the geese this time but that was the end of his chasing the geese.

About this time we had a few colts, one of which was a beautiful and extraordinarily lively colt. She was also self-willed. Dad had her mother in a team and was sure [the colt] would be determined to go along so Dad determined to take her. [Instead,] she determined to stay. Dad and Mama drove her out to her mother and closed a single strand barbed wire gate behind her and Dad drove [the team] off. [The colt followed] a very short way and then decided to turn back and ran at an angle into the wire and virtually sawed her head one third off, severing her jugular vein. In a very few minutes she was dead even though the folks tried to staunch the flow with flour. We children were returning home and were there soon after it happened and there she lay dead. We loved that colt. We felt so bad.

Greater Prairie Chicken

Image credit: Saskatchewan Environment

One cold, quite stormy, snowy winter day, Mom stepped outside for something and there a few yards from her in the shelter of the south side of the sod house was a prairie chicken. Prairie chickens are usually easily scared away. However being out of the cold north wind made it braver and it didn't move. Mom quietly stepped back in the house, picked up a gun, peeked out the door, and shot the prairie chicken and we had chicken for dinner that evening. Prairie chickens are quite meaty and good eating.

We children used to get the job of running errands. I do not remember any amusing happening in carrying them out except one. I had been asked to run about half a mile away to where a couple of bachelors lived, a homesteader, and his hired man. When I got within about a hundred yards of the house I could faintly hear a woman's voice singing. This was very unusual to me but I went on toward the house to complete my mission. But as I got closer and the singing got louder I slowed down and began to wonder if I wanted to interfere. A short distance from the house I stopped and waited a little. No one showed up at the door and after a short time I went back home without completing my mission. A few days later I learned that the singing was from a gramophone. That was my introduction to It was probably when I was about 11 or 12 years old.

One winter when Dad was still hauling coal from Drumheller distant) a three day blizzard came up and we ran out of coal before it was possible to replenish the supply. We at home waited as long as possible to start a fire [but eventually had to,] to keep things from freezing up inside and to keep from getting too cold. [We had done what we could to keep warm] by putting on our overcoats and wrapping in blankets. We finally had to start a fire in our heater by starting to tear off our shiplap ceiling and using it for fuel to keep a little heat in the place till our load of coal came. It finally arrived probably about 10 p.m. before we had used (I would guess) more than fifteen to twenty percent of our ceiling. [The ceiling was never replaced because there were already plans to build a new frame house.]

Lamb's quarter (Chenopodium album) is usually regarded as a weed, but is edible and very nutritious. Recipies for cooking with it can be found at
, among other places. It is known by many names, including “pig weed,” though the plant Lloyd refers to as “pig weed” is a different one.

Image credit: Canadian Weed Science Society

Very shortly (a year or two [after our arrival]) weeds were a problem in our fields and garden. In the fields, wild mustard, Russian thistle and wild oats were the worst ones at first and others followed a year or two later. At the first we tried to hold them down but even though we covered our fields and pulled all we could find it seems that enough was always left to cover the fields with weeds. When we first arrived we had to buy wheat and later oat seed and it was obvious the way it was so evenly spread that the weeds came in the seed grain. Even though I never saw it in the fields there is no doubt that our garden weeds came from the same source. In two or three years, pig weed, lamb's quarter (the two worst) and some other weeds were anywhere we planted garden. There was one compensating factor: the lamb's quarter was the best greens we could grow. We could use only a small percentage of what always grew. The very cold winters kept some varieties of weed from becoming much of a problem, such as biennials and perennials that were subject to the cold winters. Canada thistle got started later. We had a patch or two by about 1920. I was surprised that [it] started and survived, though I shouldn't have been, judging by the name.

Lloyd mentions that Lamb's Quarter greens were the best greens they had access to. In addition to these and other greens in the summer, the family's diet consisted of oatmeal, potatoes, bread, some kind of meat maybe once a week, and milk to drink. Other things were incorporated into their diet when opportunity presented itself—such as the prairie chicken. (Given this general diet, it is easy to see why it was such a significant event when prairie chicken appeared on the dinner menu!)

Another occasional part of their diet was mushrooms. The older children would go out on the prairie after a rain to look for wild mushrooms. These would be fried or used to make soup. The caps of the particular mushrooms they gathered were the size of dinner plates. Nevertheless, gathering enough for a meal required searching acres and acres of ground.

Lloyd expressed the opinion on several occasions that his parents would have been money ahead to buy more meat and less potatoes. While potatoes were much less expensive than meat, they were not nearly as filling or as nutritious, so the family consumed very much more of them than they would have of meat.

When young, most of the children developed a condition that caused their ankles to tilt inward somewhat. All outgrew this eventually. Lloyd blamed this condition on their diet in Alberta.

Despite the diet, though, the family was remarkably healthy…

In all the eleven and a little over a half years we lived in Excel, none of us were ever in a hospital nor were any of us called on by a doctor (doctors there did make house calls). Dad did go to the doctor, not for himself, but to consult one concerning some of the family, almost entirely for advice on Even that was not very many times. I was taken to the doctor once to have an impacted tooth removed. Cost: $1.00. That was the total amount of medical treatment for up to eleven people including the birth of five children and a few quite serious injuries, some of which have already been mentioned.

which made the wagon coast and stop when the wheels hit a hole or rut. That is what happened when I fell off the front and was partly run over by a wagon wheel and the wheel lodged against my back [at about kidney level]. If the wheel had gone a foot farther, my back would have been broken and much of my insides probably ruined. To get the wagon off my back Dad had to back it over my leg, [which was pinned under the wheel]. As it was backing over my leg I could feel the bone [below the knee] splitting up and down in several places around it. Though it was quite painful, I could limp along so a doctor was not consulted.

Irvine, Ed and I used to go out on moonlit nights and play, especially in the winter. Naturally, we would play very active games to keep warm. One night we were out until after ten o'clock, playing tag around the machinery lined up along the barnyard fence. The buggy was at the end of the line, being used later than the machinery and stored only when there was enough snow to start using the sleigh. Everything was stored about three or four feet from the fence, and with some space between the pieces. I learned something that night that I hadn't realized before: even though you could see quite well in the moonlight, distances were not detected nearly as well as in daylight. Irvine was being chased and he grabbed the buggy wheel to swing around, and [in so doing] rolled the buggy up to the fence. After a short time I was pressured enough that I wanted to use the buggy wheel to swing around as Irvine had, but did not notice that he had rolled it against the fence when swinging around earlier. The barnyard fence was made of barbed wire, so I cut a gash in my cheek about two inches long and about halfway through my cheek. Mom bandaged me up and it healed, but I had a scar for many years. It finally got much less noticeable, though it can still be seen after seventy-five years if looked for.