Stories of Canadian pioneers.
One of my most important and time consuming jobs was to take care of the lamps. We had two kinds, coal oil lamps in the bedrooms, and over the dining table we had a two-mantle naphtha gas lamp that you'd pump air into. It hung down from the ceiling and there were no shrouds or glass around the lamps. The mantles were bare. Below the mantles was a gas container that would hold about a liter of white or naphtha gas.
The whole procedure could take quite a while. First you had to warm up the generator a bit where the mantles were. To do that you held a match to it until your fingers almost burned and gradually it opened up. The mantles had a wrinkled look when they were not being used but when the gas started giving enough heat, they'd kind of puff up. Then you'd open up the valve a little more. Some people had nice glass shades on their lamps that helped reflect the light but we didn't. Still our lamp gave a nice white light, something like a modern Coleman lantern.
I remember that you'd notice when the light was not so bright and you'd have to give it more gas, maybe half a dozen times if we had company. If it was just us, the naphtha gas lamp was turned off as soon as supper was finished. That lamp was just for eating. Then we'd all sit crowded around a coal oil lamp at the table if we wanted to read. That was a lot cheaper light.
Our neighbours had a coal oil lamp that worked like a gas lamp. But in order to heat the generator up in that lamp, they put methyl hydrate in a tiny cup under the generator. You'd light the methyl hydrate. It has a blue flame like the alcohol burners used in school labs. By the time it was burned down the generator was so hot, it opened up the valve and the coal oil would light up the lamp like our naphtha gas lamp did.
With all the care that those lamps took, it was really amazing to see electric lights at the Bay View Hotel in town that you could just switch on and off. The hotel was on a flat plateau with jack pines all around it. It had a tower with a windmill on it that was high enough to get that great sweep of wind off the lake. Even a steady breeze would work. The windmill generated enough power for just a few lights in the hotel but that was really something! Later my Uncle Otto was one of the first people we knew to have a small power plant in his home. He had a small generator and batteries so he had a few electric lights in his house. He never had enough power for an electric stove, just a few dim lights. But that was a big deal to the rest of us. We kids wished that we could have that in our house.
We might not have had electricity but we had something else that gave us a chance to relax and enjoy ourselves, especially in the winter. A radio. It was a tall, floor model Deforrest-Crossley. It was bought from the hardware store in Dryden.
Joe Armstrong was this teacher that everyone liked. He was a great guy. Well, when our radio came in, Joe carried that big, heavy floor model all the way from Vermilion Bay to our house on his back! He took a short cut straight across country from Red Lake Road to Tower Road. Red Lake Road was the other road from Vermilion Bay that went north, parallel to Tower Road. He went across frozen swamps and over hills carrying that heavy radio!
I was about four years old at the time and I can remember so very well that when my dad turned the radio on, I kept running behind it to see the little men who must be in there, talking and singing. I couldn't figure out what was going on.
We had to ration out our radio listening because batteries were expensive. The back of the radio was just full of batteries! It wasn't even closed off, it was open, and the batteries stood there inside the cabinet. There were three huge dry batteries, two tiny batteries that provided light for the dial, I assume, and there was one wet battery. The wet battery was a three-volt battery whereas a car battery is six. So to charge it up we took it with us when we went to Dryden or Kenora to a service station. That charge would last about six months. My dad always kept an extra battery on hand.
On Saturday nights we'd sit around the radio as close as we could get and stare at it. We'd have an ear turned almost up against the radio because the volume was never turned up. We'd laugh at all those old shows like "Henry Aldrich," and "Fibber Magee and Molly". And of course we really enjoyed the "Grand Old Opry". As I said, our listening time was very special because my dad was very thrifty.
When the first settlers were setting up their homesteads, the houses were put close together on the four corners where the homesteads met. For us kids, this was very handy. It meant that there was usually someone near at hand to play with.
We'd play ball on the biggest yard. We'd all get together and if we didn't have enough kids, we'd play scrub. If someone had kids visiting we might have enough to choose teams and have a regular game. The girls played just as hard as the boys! We'd stay out till dark on the long summer nights and, if there was enough moonlight or starlight, we'd stay out even longer.
Everyone loved to play ball. When I was about ten, I started playing on a softball team. I played on teams for years after that. We were all very competitive. Most of us never even had a glove. We might have one glove for the whole team and the catcher'd get that! Didn't matter, we had a great time.
The Forest Rangers had this truck with sides on it and we'd all pile in the back and go to games in Dryden and small places like Minitaki and Oxdrift and Waldhof. If it rained we'd get wet. We'd arrive home late and hungry but it was fun.
On the hottest summer days we'd go down to the creek and swim in a deep pool. We probably needed a bath when we came out of there! It wasn't all that deep and once you stirred up the mud on the bottom you got covered with it. We kids didn't care. As long as it was cool.
Sometimes we'd go horseback riding. Even though those old farm nags couldn't go very fast, they were comfortable riding. We rode bareback because we didn't have any saddles. It was hard enough to get money together for harnesses, never mind saddles! We'd spend hours sitting on the horses, just wandering around. Our free time was our own and we enjoyed every minute of it!
Every fall we went out for Halloween. By late October it was usually very cold and snowing but we went anyway. All of the kids loved to go to Alex Balko's house in town. He was a bachelor, a Ukrainian fellow. It wasn't that he was giving out lots of candy. Nobody did then. He just made such a fuss over all of the kids. We couldn't wait to get to his place. He'd give everyone an apple and that was great. They were expensive for the time and, although most families bought some for winter, they weren't handed out every day.
We didn't play tricks when we were kids but I remember one Hallowe'en when a bunch of older guys went to this farm, took a wagon, dismantled the whole thing, got it up on the barn roof and put it all back together again, straddling the peak. In the morning when the farmer came out, here's his wagon way up on the roof.
I remember a neat trick I was mixed up in when I was a bit older. When there was a dance at the Waldhof hall, there was plenty of moonshine and carrying on. The hall was right in the jack pine trees. While everyone was in the hall dancing away we young guys'd have our own fun. We'd find rope or whatever we could and tie the bumpers of all the cars to the trees.
Winter was the time when we had the most fun. All around our place there were sharp long hills, perfect for sledding. Once we packed the snow hard we'd get a piece of cardboard or whatever we could find and away we'd go. The best thing for sliding and skidding was a piece of deer hide. You'd sit down on one of those hides and would you ever move! We'd ride right out into the middle of the field.
There was one place where there was a creek at the bottom of a hill and it was all full of willows so we chopped a trail through the willows. It was as hard and slick as a railway track. Then we took off down the hill and into the trail at top speed, hoping we'd stay on the trail and not end up in the willows.
One time a couple of us dragged my dad's bobsled to the top of a hill above the barn. We came down that hill, out of control and took the siding right off the barn. My dad came out, took a look and said, 'Well, I guess I don't have to do a thing.' He didn't but we did!
We used whatever we could find to have fun. We did a lot of skiing, although some of our skis were pretty rough. My brother was really good at it.
You know, it seems like we had more moonlight nights in those days. There weren't as many cloudy, overcast nights and the moon was much brighter and clearer. In the evening, on weekend nights, we'd be out sliding down hills or skiing all over and it'd be forty below and just beautiful moonlight on everything. We never knew or cared how cold it was. Sometimes we'd stay out until midnight. It was wonderful!
We'd come in the house and the neighbour kids would come in too and we'd all have hot chocolate and something my mother put out to eat. I can remember her looking at us and saying, ' You're noses are all frozen!' The tips of our noses and our cheeks would be white with frostbite. Our feet would be frozen stiff. Later it really hurt when everything thawed out.
One thing we never did was skate. We slid on the ice at school in our moccasins but we never had skates. And we didn't know or care anything about hockey, although we heard about it on the radio.
We had a lot of freedom to play wherever we wanted. But my mother was such a worrywart. ' Watch out you guys! It's dangerous out there!' she'd yell. One night, I think she was right. I had been to a dance or visiting. It was after midnight, bitter cold with a bright full moon. I got a ride partway home and I still had a two mile walk. I started walking and suddenly a wolf howled right near me. And then a bunch of them a mile or two away started howling. It was terrifying. I started to run and it seemed as if that wolf was moving in the bush right with me. I could tell the rest were getting closer. Did I run! I got home alright, out of breathe and worn right out.
Another time my mother and I were out visiting. This was before my brother was born. It was night and Mom was nervous about walking home. This guy we knew offered to give us a ride in his dogsled. He used the dog team and sled which was built like a toboggan for trapping and for getting around.
Well we got on the sled and my mother always said she nearly died of fright. There she was, hanging onto the sled for dear life and trying to hang onto me at the same time with half a dozen dogs yelping in front, going like crazy because they were cold or hungry or something. It was a pretty harrowing experience and she talked about it for years! One thing we kids seldom got was money from our parents. But we knew that trapping was one way that people could make some cash. There were so many lakes and rivers close by that it was a logical thing to do. We decided that we could make some pocket money by doing some trapping on our own.
We got some tiny leg-hold traps, size O, the smallest ones you could get. We'd take chicken heads or innards and tie them out on a mild day by the creek. The weasels would come down the frozen creek bed and they'd go for that meat and we'd get enough weasels for our spending money.
We skinned the weasels and stretched the skins on small frames to dry. My mom wasn't too fussy about the smelly things drying all over the place. We also got squirrels and rabbit skins but they didn't bring in as much money. The best weasel skin I ever had was worth $4.10. I was really proud as that was big money in those days!
Usually we'd wait until we had a half dozen skins ready to go. But sometimes we needed some money in a hurry and would send only a few, just to get some cash. We sent them on the train to the Sidney I. Robinson in Winnipeg which is still in business today. They still send us a catalogue but now it's just called the SIR. Winnipeg is only about two hundred miles from Vermilion Bay so we got our money pretty quick. That was sure a great feeling, to have some cash in your pocket! We bought things we never could have had, like skis.