Marianne - Author and Historian

An excerpt from The Buffalo Man

Buffalo Man

On the Road

Margaret remembered the beautiful spring day when the wagon train started out.

"We started out with as much as we could take in the four outfits, one hundred bushels of oats and one hundred dollars. By this time there were eleven children and Mother was pregnant again. Well, you know she'd get pregnant if my dad walked by the bed. Anyway, there we were, on our way. We children were plenty excited. We thought we were heading for British Columbia!"

Albert had his own thoughts on leaving Hythe. He spoke about the misgivings he felt as the wagons pulled away from the place where they had built a home in a clearing, where they had scratched fields from the bush and where he had worked as a man at the age of ten. Weldrick shared his uncertainty.

"We had eight horses with us," Margaret continued. "I drove the hayrack, never thought a thing about it! I was used to handling a team. Esther and Anita were in the democrat. Orville and I took care of the horses. Our job was to harness them. But first we curried them because we were taught that you never, ever harnessed a horse without currying it first.

"We travelled about fifteen miles a day. My dad measured how much work a horse could do by miles. If a horse was working out in a field, pulling a load, my dad considered fifteen miles a day's work. So it was the same when we were travelling. We'd unharness them and rub them down. They were usually tied to trees. This one night a wild storm blew down some of the trees the horses were tied to. Luckily none were hurt. But the next day we slogged through mud all day.

"There were times when mosquitoes and black flies were so bad that no one could sleep. So they would load up the wagons and travel all night. During the day, they built large smudges to provide some relief for the horses. Everyone would try to nap in the shade.

"We forded creeks as we came to them. Of course there were few bridges over the big rivers then, like the Big Smoky and the Little Smoky. We crossed them on ferries, one rig at a time.

"We had company every night. We camped along the road and the people from the nearest house would come out and visit with us by the fire. We were always given some milk for the children, which was very kind. Those people were having a hard time too but Mother always said, 'If you need help, go to the littlest house and rap on the door. They will help you.'

"No one had more faith in people than our mother. When you're travelling and you drink different kinds of water, you'll get diarrhea. One night Mother asked the people where we were camped where we could get some spring water. 'If we could get some spring water,' she told them, 'I know everyone would be okay.'

"In the morning we went to this spring they told us about and the water was bubbling right out on the ground. We used mugs to scoop it up into the big cream can that was kept with our pails on a small platform built onto the back of the caboose. And there was no more stomach problems for anyone after that!"

Overalls and Bread

The family did not travel on Sundays, days of welcome rest for the horses. Everything depended on them being in the best of shape. The children loved the freedom to run about and explore.

The Walters did not travel on Mondays, either. On that day, the scrub board, washtub and clothesline were untied from the wagon. Hannah kept the clothespins right on the line. It was unrolled and strung between trees and the girls pitched in to help their mother with the week's wash. While they worked, the menfolk took care of the horses. They mended harnesses and tack, checked and repaired wagons and wheels.

Everyone wore the same shirt and overalls all week so they were plenty dirty by Monday. Heating water, rubbing dirt from the clothes on the scrub board, rinsing and wringing them out was backbreaking work. Hands were rough and reddened by the strong bars of soap.

As they travelled, the overalls became more and more worn out. Hannah basted patches over the holes. One day on the road, while the horses were resting in the midday heat, she gathered together all of the overalls and took the pile, a large piece of extra material and spools of thread to a nearby house. She rapped on the door and then asked the woman of the house if she might use her sewing machine. The woman was happy for the company and in exchange, Hannah helped her, perhaps with her mending.

When the washing was finally on the line, Monday's work was mostly done. But bread had to be baked for the entire week.

"We'd save the potato water from supper the night before," Margaret recalled. "We used Royal Yeast Cakes then. You can see them now and then today in museums. It's a blue, square box.

"You'd put the yeast in a cup with a little sugar and warm water. Then you add some flour, don't ask how much, you just go by feel. Then you beat it for half an hour with a wooden spoon. If one arm gets tired, use the other. Put it in a big bowl, cover it up and let it rise overnight. I guess we'd do this on Sunday night. In the morning, put it in pans and bake."

After just a few days on the road, something happened that was upsetting to the closely-knit family.

Always the laughing family jokester who everyone called Hap, Weldrick had become very quiet. He was very unhappy with the move. He had been working for Francis Reaume for a long time, a job he'd enjoyed. He just couldn't see why he had to leave. One morning, when the family was camped at Drift Pile, while it was still dark, he slipped silently out of the tent, saddled his horse and disappeared into the darkness. He never returned to live with the family, although he did visit and his ties with them remained strong.

So the wagon train continued on without Weldrick. The original plan had been for them to make their way to British Columbia but that disappeared beneath the wheels of the wagons as they rolled slowly south.

As they travelled, they met rigs just like theirs, mostly from southern Saskatchewan, wagons and children and horses, all heading in the opposite direction, heading north in a desperate search for work. It was a sad sight.

The people they met and the stories they told were part of a very unique time in our country's history. Before that time, people new to Canada were able to put down roots and become firmly established wherever they homesteaded. The Depression changed everything for many of these people. The only recourse they had was to pack up, abandon their dreams and wander across the country.

Margaret recalled that not everyone understood what these people were going through.

"This was the Dirty Thirties, remember. There wasn't much these folks could hope for. And lots of people didn't want to think about them. Later on I was working for a family who were doing okay. When I told them how we came down from the north in wagons, on the road for a month, from the look on their faces, I don't think they believed me. I learned to keep my ears open and my mouth shut.

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