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THE GEORGE RUSSELL FAMILY OF SPEERS
By Patrick Desmond Malachy Russell
The George Russell family moved to the Speers district in 1927 to settle on a farm nine (9) miles north of the Village of Speers. George with his wife Elizabeth, his father Joseph, and three children – Joseph Vincent age seven (known as Vincent) Olive Patricia age five, and George Paul (known as Geordie) age two came from Dodsland, Saskatchewan where George and his father Joseph had homesteaded. Two other children were born after the family moved to Speers, Patrick Desmond Malachy (known as Desmond or Des) and Charles Edward.
George Russell and his father Joseph Russell first came to Canada in 1906 when George was eighteen. They homesteaded and worked on farms in the Dodsland and the Plenty areas. There was no railroad at that time, so supplies had to be hauled by horse and wagon from Saskatoon.
George Russell was very musical, being able to play several Instruments including the violin and accordion. He played for many dances in the Dodsland and Plenty area.
The Russell family had lived in County Down, Province of Ulster, Ireland dating back to the twelfth century. The Russells were Normans. In the reign of Henry II, Robert de Russell accompanied Strongbow to Ireland. On the death of Strongbow he went with John De Courcy to Ulster, and as a reward for his services in that Province, was granted lands in the barony of Lecale in County Down. Almost all the Russells intermarried with the Celts and the local Irish. Over the next several centuries there were many wars for the control of Ireland and since the Russells always sided with Ireland and their faith, their lands were confiscated. (1)
Joseph George Russell, my grandfather, was born in 1862 at Downpatrick, County Down, Northern Ireland. Prior to coming to Canada he owned a farm a few miles from Downpatrick, -where he raised race horses in addition to cattle and grain. He had nine children, four boys and five girls. George, my father, was the oldest.
George Joseph Russell, my father, was born in Downpatrick, County Down July 6, 1888. He was the oldest of nine children; there were four boys and five girls. He was the only member of the family that emigrated from Ireland. The minority of his relatives still live there. Prior to coming to Canada he lived on a farm that included raising race horses. George was also a jockey who rode in steeple chases and point to point races. Included among his ancestors were doctors lawyers, priests and nuns as well as farmers.
Elizabeth Ellen Russell, nee McCann was born September 22, 1898 at Dunganon, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. She was the youngest in a family of twelve children; two boys and ten girls. Her father was a farmer and carpenter. Several members of her family have emigrated from Ireland, one brother to Australia, one sister to England and several sisters to the United States – one to Florida, and several to Philadelphia.
George Russell and Elizabeth McCann were married on April 30th 1919 at St. Brigid’s church, Derryvolgie Avenue, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The Russells emigrated from Downpatrick, County Down, Northern Ireland to come to Canada in 1924 to settle at Plenty and later Dodsland, Saskatchewan. When George and Elizabeth Russell came to Canada they had two children: Joseph Vincent and Olive Patricia. Another son George Paul was born on February 22, 1925.
When the Russell family moved to the farm purchased from the CPR nine miles north of the Village of Speers very little land was broken, so there was a lot of hard work clearing and breaking the land. In this regard his wife, my mother, worked alongside my father clearing the land and pulling tree stumps. To break the land my father purchased a heavy breaking plough and a 15-30 McCormick-Deering tractor with steel wheels. Each year more trees were cut down and the land ploughed. The larger trees were cut down with an axe, with the wood being used to heat the house.
The Russells farmed three quarter sections of land consisting of the SE quarter, NE quarter and the NW quarter of section five, township 45, west of the third meridian. It was a mixed farm, where wheat, barley, and oats was grown. Occasionally flax was grown. Cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys were raised. Cows were milked with the cream being shipped to the creamery in Speers until it burned down, then it was shipped to the creamery at Meadstead. The steers were fattened to be shipped to the market. Six to eight cows were normally milked. The cattle herd ranged from 12 to 25. Usually three to four litters of pigs were raised. About three dozen laying hens were kept. In the spring about 100 male chicks were ordered from a hatchery, which were fattened to be sold in the fall. Only a few turkeys and ducks were raised for our own consumption.
In the 1940’s my father George Russell leased five more quarters of land on a crop share. At this time he started to use a combine to thresh the grain. The first combine was a used one which broke down often which delayed the harvest. Also at this time he reduced this cattle herd. In 1941 my father purchased a new Ford car by trading in the 1934 Ford and seventeen head of cattle. He continued to lease land until the early 1950’s. On October 10, 1951 we had about one foot of snow, which delayed harvesting until the next spring. Normally when we get snow this early we expect that it will melt, but this didn’t melt, but we got more snow. It was a very cold winter with lots of snow. The crop had to be harvested the next spring. In order to pick up the grain that was flatted by the snow we purchased pick-up reels. As a result of the snow, both the yield and the quality was reduced. This was the only year when we harvested and planted in the same season.
We had one huge turkey gobbler on the farm which attacked my mother. At first she tried to avoid him, but finally she got fed-up of avoiding him so she decided take him on, so when he attacked her again she hit him with the feed pail, temporarily knocking him out. After that he didn’t attack her again. He got his just reward for we had him for Christmas dinner. Since he weighed over 35 pound he lasted for several meals.
Because we had no refrigeration to keep our cream fresh we hung the cream can about forty feet down a well. This kept the cream fresh until it was shipped to the creamery.
Harvesting In the 1930’s
In 1928, my father purchased a 28 inch McComick-Deering threshing machine. A threshing machine of this size required four bundle wagons. Up until the early 1940’s : he threshed for many of his neighbors. At that time many farmers in the area started to use combines, because of the lack of farm help because many young men were in the services. Besides the men on the bundle wagons, the separator man was a very important to the operation of the threshing machine for he kept it running by greasing and oiling the bearings as well as checking the belts. A neighbor, Ted Berryman, was my father’s separator man for many years. When the day was coming to the end he would sit on the front of the threshing machine to watch the men throwing the bundles into the feeder to make sure they didn’t throw them in cross-wise so as to plug the machine, so that they could quit earlier.
Threshing time was a special time for me as a child with the excitement of the threshing crew gathering the sheaves of grain to be threshed and the fresh smell of the new straw stacks that sprang up all over the country side resembling small hills. They were fun to play in when new and in the winter to slide down on a sled when they were packed. As a child I liked to go to the field with my mother when she brought lunch to the threshing crew and to eat any sandwiches left, for they were usually made with something that we normally didn’t get such as bologna.
Threshing was not so glamorous for my mother because of all the extra work in preparing meals to feed the hungry threshing crew. Besides the regular meals a morning and afternoon lunch was brought out to the field. My father threshed for several bachelors so when this happened my mother had to prepare the meals for the threshing crew. Because my father threshed for the neighbors our grain was always threshed last. My mother got up about four o’clock in the morning to get the breakfast ready, while the men fed and watered the horses. By the time the dishes and pots and pans were washed and the kitchen cleaned it was after ten o’clock in the evening.
When I got older it was my job to milk the six cows, while my older brother Geordie and my father were threshing. Geordie had a team and bundle wagon.
During threshing time one thing that farmers feared was rain. Rain could delay threshing for a few days to several weeks. In addition to delaying threshing it could lower the grade of the grain. I recall my parents mentioning one year when we were not able to thresh for six weeks because of wet weather.
In the late 20’s and early 30’s my father was one of a few who owned a car. He first owned a Model T Ford, then a 1929 Model A Ford and a 1934 Ford V8. Having a car enabled our family to go to the annual North Battleford fair, which was one of our main highlights of the year. Very few roads were graveled at that time, including highway 40, so it was always a concern that it would rain, making the road impassable so that we couldn’t go to the fair. One memorable fair about 1933 it started to rain while at the fair and while driving home through the hills the car slid into a steep ditch where we had to spend the night. In the morning the rain had stopped and it was bright and sunny, when we discovered that the car had almost upset. A farmer pulled us out with a tractor.
Another memorable time of the year was picking Saskatoon berries, either in the hills to the west or the sand hills south east of Speers where Saskatoon berries were plentiful. For us children if was like a picnic for our mother packed a lunch which would be eaten after we has picked berries for a couple of hours. A blanket would be spread on the grass in the shade, where we all enjoyed the lunch. It was not long after we started picking that us children’s faces were purple from the fresh berries. When we got home fresh Saskatoon berries with fresh cream was always a treat. For several days after our mother was busy canning and drying the saskatoons. Quite frequently they were mixed with rhubarb which grew in abundance in the garden.
Going to the movies to Speers on Saturday night was always another high for our family. George Formby and Jane Withers movies were always very popular.
Going To School
We lived on a farm four and three quarter miles from our one room rural school, Wanganui No 600. So going to school could be very difficult. The school at one time accommodated over forty children from grades one to eight. There were times when some children took grade nine by correspondence who came to school to get help from the teacher. The school year started the first week in August and went to just before Christmas. After Christmas it didn’t start until the first week in February, going to the end of June. This was done so the children didn’t have to go to school during the coldest time of the year. It also saved the cost of heating the school.
During the summer months we rode in a buggy pulled by a sorrel mare named Totsie. She took all the Russell children to school until she got too old. In later years we rode bicycles to school. In the winter Totsie pulled an open cutter with us children bundled in blankets to keep us warm, but it never kept us warm enough on the long journey to school. I can remember being cold from the time we left home until we got to school and the same on the way home. Later we got a closed cutter with a wood heater which made going to school much more comfortable. There were times when the cutter would upset because of snow drifts on the road. By this time the two oldest children Vincent and Olive had left Wanganui.
The story goes that when the school was to be named there was a man in the district from New Zealand, who asked it to be named After the city of Wanganui where he came from in New Zealand.
Two of the highlights of the school year were the annual Christmas concert and the annual school picnic at the end of June. For several weeks before Christmas the children practiced skits, drills, and songs preparing the program for their parents. After the program Santa Claus came with great fanfare to give presents to every student and pre- schooler including bags of candy and fruit. The school picnic took place at the end of June. There were races and other athletic events that the students participated in where prizes were given for first second and third. Prizes were tokens which could be exchanged for soft drinks, ice cream, chocolate bars etc. The Russell children usually won first prize in the majority of events. One lady remarked to my mother that she must have chased us a lot with a stick to make us run so fast.
In the winter the boys cleared an area in the school yard on which shinny was played. It wasn’t long before it was packed as hard as ice. Every recess and noon hour the boys played shinny until the school bell was rung. This was where many boys learned their hockey skills such as stickhandling.
In the summer soft ball was the main sport played at school. Everyone, both boys and girls participated. Several times during the school year, our school team visited other rural schools to play soft ball. Wanganui usually won most of the games. Other games played at school were several different kinds of tag.
All the Russell children took their public school education at Wanganui. Vincent, the oldest, took his high school education at St. Thomas College, Battleford, where he was active playing hockey. He played goal on the school team. After graduating from high school the second world war had just broken out and he was called up into the army, but he transferred to the air force, where he was trained as a pilot. He served in England as a bomber pilot. On one of his missions, when he brought home safely his badly damaged aircraft, he was decorated with the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, just one of a few Canadian service men to receive this decoration. Part of the citation reads as follows: “Russell by superb airmanship made a bombing attack on Kassel against heavy anti-aircraft fire and although his plane was crippled by a German fighter, he managed to make a safe landing in Britain.” Later he died on February 21, 1944, when his plane was shot down when on a bombing raid over Germany. He is buried in the ; Durenbach War Cemetery about forty miles south-east of Munich in the Bavarian Alps. Under a program of the Saskatchewan Government to name a geographic area in the province after service men killed in the war, a bay on the northeast part of Lac La Ronge is named Russell Bay after him.
After leaving Wanganui, Olive Russell took her high school at the Sisters of the Child Jesus Convent in North Battleford. She then trained as a nurse at the St. Paul’s School of Nursing in Saskatoon. After graduation she worked at several places in Saskatchewan including Gravelboug and Hafford. She also worked in the United States in Rochester Minnesota and in California. In 1952 she joined the Saskatchewan Department of Health as a public health nurse. She worked as a public health nurse in Unity, North Battleford and Saskatoon Rural, serving Langham, Borden and Radisson. She had attended the University of British Columbia where she obtained a Diploma of Public Health. She died on April 19, 1977 and is buried in the Catholic Cemetery at Hafford alongside her father, mother, grandfather and her youngest brother Charles.
George Paul, known as Geordie, the third child in the family, also attended St. Thomas College, Battleford, after graduating from Wanganui. At St. Thomas he was active in hockey. He stayed on the farm and after his father retired to Saskatoon he took over the farm. He purchased another two quarters of land and leased two more quarters. While farming he was active playing hockey and baseball. After his active hockey days he coached hockey. He married Genevieve LaFreniere and they have six children, five girls and one boy. He was a member of the Kinsmen and the Knights of Columbus. He served on the council of the Rural Municipality of Douglas.
Patrick Desmond Malachy, known as Desmond or Des, the fourth child, also attended St. Thomas College, Battleford, after graduating from Wanganui. At St. Thomas like his two older brothers he was active in hockey. He played on the school team. After high school he attended the University of Saskatchewan, graduating in 1951 with a Bachelor of Arts. Later he attended the University of Manitoba where he obtained a Bachelor of Social Work, the Florida State University for a Master of Social Work and the University of Michigan for a Master of Public Health in Medical Care Administration. He worked for the Saskatchewan Departments of Social Welfare and Health as a social worker in Weyburn and North Battleford and as a medical social worker for the North Central Regional Hospital Council, Prince Albert. After graduating from the University of Michigan he worked for seven years in Michigan and Ohio in health care planning. Returning to Saskatchewan he was the Executive Director of the Weyburn Psychiatric Centre and the Regina Mental Health Centre. Later he worked in psychiatric research and as a policy analyst for Saskatchewan Health.
He has four children, two girls and two boys. He was active in boy scouts both in Canada and the United States, having served on the group committee and as a cub and scout leader. In Lansing in the United States he coached minor hockey.
Charles Edward the youngest of the family also attended St Thomas College after leaving Wanganui, but only stayed there one year then went to Campion College, Regina. While at Campion College he contracted spinal meningitis and he died in April 1951. He is buried at Hafford in the Catholic Cemetery alongside his mother, father, grandfather and sister. As a boy he was a member of the Speers Junior Grain Club and attended farm boys camps.
All the Russell boys were members of the Speers Junior Grain Club where they grew plots of grain which were judged. They attended farm boys camps representing the Speers Junior Grain Club. Vincent, Geordie and Charles went to the farm boys camp at the Saskatoon Exhibition. While Desmond went to the farm boys camps at the North Battleford and the Prince Albert Fairs. At the farm boys camps there was judging of dairy and beef cattle, pigs and sheep. There was a general questionnaire on agriculture and identification of weeds. Each year Desmond won first prize for the identification of weeds and had the highest aggregate score for judging at both the North Battleford and Prince Albert Fairs for which he was given a watch donated by the T. Eaton Company.
Entertainment During The Winter
During the winter in the 1930’s the roads were usually blocked with snow, so the only means of transportation was with horse and sleigh. The farthest we traveled was to the Hamlet of Keatly six miles away, where, we bought our groceries.
In the evenings radio was our primary source of entertainment much like TV is today. In the winter we could get KSL Salt Lake City and KOA Denver where we could listen to Lux Radio Theatre with C.B. DeMille, the Shadow, Gang Busters, The Lone Ranger and many others. In the summer because it stayed light late we stayed outside until bed time.
We didn’t get electric power until 1948, so before that time the radio was powered by six volt batteries which we charged by wind a generator. Without electricity we used kerosene and gas lamps to light the house. We visited other families back and forth for Christmas and New Years, where the children played cards, while the parents talked.
Hard Times In the 1930’s
The worst crop we had was in 1937. That year we did not thresh any grain, but what grew was cut with a mower as feed for the cattle. That year because of no crop we got relief from the R.M. of Douglas No 436 as did most of the families in the area. I can remember getting apples from Ontario and dried fish slabs from the east coast. Many people did not know what to do with the dried fish, but my mother was able to use them. She soaked the fish to soften them, then made fish cakes. As I recall they tasted quite good.
During these years there was little cash, therefore we always had a large garden to assure an adequate supply of vegetables. Us children spent many tedious hours during the summer weeding and cultivating the garden which we felt must have covered several acres. Our mother raised chickens both for eggs which were sold and consumed at home. Selling cream was another source of cash to purchase the necessary staples such as flour and sugar. Our mother always baked her own bread, so it was a treat to have bought bread, which is the opposite of today when homemade bread is a treat.
Joseph Russell, my grandfather lived with us until his death in 1948. He helped with the farm work and was always a source of stories about Ireland and the early days in Canada. In 1956, my mother purchased a house in Saskatoon where she lived until her death on July 8, 1986.
My father continued to farm for a few more years with his son Geordie, but also retired to Saskatoon. He died in November 1973 and is buried at the Catholic Cemetery at Hafford.
(1) The Life of Lord Russell of Killowen, by R. Barry O’Brien, Thomas Nelson and Sons, London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and New York.