Home Town or Home Community:
LIFE IN BLUMENHEIM, AN OLD COLONY MENNONITE VILLAGE IN SASKATCHEWAN, DURING THE THIRTIES AND FORTIES
by Jack Driedger
Jack was born April 29, 1926 in the Old Colony Mennonite village of Blumenheim nine miles south of Hague, Saskatchewan. The family doctor came to the Driedger home from Hague with horse and buggy. The bill for the house call was fifteen dollars.
Jack grew up in Blumenheim. He completed his Grade Eight in Renfrew School #4116. This school is presently part of the Saskatchewan River Valley Museum in Hague. Although he dreamed of becoming a teacher, there was no opportunity to further his education at the time. When he was twenty-one, Jack enrolled at Rosthern Junior College, a Mennonite private boarding school. He was the first person from Blumenheim to attain a Grade Twelve diploma.
After Normal School, Jack accepted his first teaching position in Renfrew School #4116 in 1951, the same school he attended from 1934 to 1941. He continued his studies by means of summer school, evening classes and correspondence, eventually earning his B. Ed and B.A. with Honors in Psychology. In 1982 Jack retired after 30 years teaching.
He now lives in Saskatoon. His wife Irene passed away November 3,1999. Both his daughters teach in Saskatoon. Jack continues freelance writing, sings with the Orpheus 60 Chorus, and is a volunteer at the Western Development Museum.
THE DEPRESSION: NO CROPS, NO WORK, NO MONEY
During the Depression, the Mennonites in Blumenheim were very reluctant to apply for government relief. They hated to admit that they couldn’t look after themselves. The day came when Father also had to consider applying for relief. It was late autumn. We had an ample supply of pork from the pigs we butchered and potatoes and canned vegetables stored in the basement. Father also had fifteen dollars cash. He concluded that we could manage one more winter without government relief.
Next summer we had no crop due to a severe drought. Father applied for relief in fall. For our family of five, we received between nine and ten dollars per month. After the first month, Father realized that we did not need the entire relief check for groceries. However, since relief was meant for groceries, Father decided to spend the entire check for food. Now we were able to indulge in such rare treats as a wooden box of B.C. prune plums.
People tried so hard to make a few extra pennies. Some went to Saskatoon to peddle garden produce, eggs and cream. When Father took thirty chickens to Saskatoon he gotten cents apiece for a grand total of three dollars.
To make farm implements last, parts were salvaged from wrecked implements and vehicles. A farmer with blacksmithing skills could make an entire implement from scrap materials. Any junk was an asset on a farm.
Rats migrated from eastern Canada to the Prairies during the 1930’s. My uncle and aunt, who lived across the South Saskatchewan River east of us, reported seeing rats at their place. From my reading and pictures in books, I had an idea what rats were. Not long after that we found rats on our farmyard.
Butchering pigs, one of the major events in Blumenheim, was a working bee as well as a social event. The month of November was a good time to butcher pigs. By then the fly season was over, frost nipped the air, and fresh meat could be frozen and stored in the granary. Many children took the advantage to miss school, claiming their help was needed at home.
It was considered an honor to be invited to help the neighbours. It meant you either had special equipment to bring with you or, what was even more flattering, special indispensable skills. For example, the person who performed the evisceration had to have a good knowledge of the insides of a pig, where to cut and where not to cut. I recall Mother saying one fall that they had been invited to thirteen pig butcherings.
By six in the morning everybody gathered around the kitchen table for breakfast. In the meantime a wood fire snapped and crackled under a cauldron or two to bring water to a boil in preparation for scalding the pigs. As soon as there was sufficient daylight, it was time to do the killing, something I never failed to watch.
Father usually had this dubious pleasure. Since the pigs had not been fed supper the night before so there would be less animal matter to clean out of the guts, the minute they were aroused from their sleep they rushed out of their lair in anticipation of breakfast. Little did they know what awaited them.
Father did not like to see animals suffer. He made sure each pig dropped with the first shot. Then the pig’s throat was immediately slit deeply to assure thorough bleeding. The person selected to do this had developed the skill to do so with efficiency and dispatch.
The pig’s rear legs were slit lengthwise to expose the tendons to receive the hooks of a single-tree. A horse was hitched to the single-tree to unceremoniously drag the pig to the scalding trough.
Ropes were laid on the semi-circular bottom of the wooden trough. The pig was laid on top of the ropes. Boiling water from the cauldron was poured over the carcass. By means of the ropes the carcass was rolled over and over to make sure the pig was thoroughly scalded. After scalding, the carcass was lifted and a ladder placed under it. The men surrounded the pig. Within minutes the hair had been scraped off clean as a whistle. The head was removed and cleaned. Later it was cut into pieces to make head cheese. Feet claws were removed with the claw of a hammer.
Next the carcass was hung up. The single-tree was used again, hooked onto the back leg tendons to suspend the carcass from a beam in the barn. A block and tackle was used to raise the pig so the front of the carcass was easily slit and the insides removed. The women came with a large kneading pan to take the guts into the kitchen where they were cleaned to be used as sausage casings. The guts were turned inside out. After the contents had been removed they were placed in a large pan of warm water with lots of salt. Now the women scoured and scraped them mercilessly to make sure they were meticulously clean. Then the clean casings were kept in cool water until needed. The rest of the carcass was cut up into manageable chunks and placed on a large table. The men cut spare ribs, hams, bacon, pork chops and lean meat to be ground up for sausage. The bacon was tied up into a roll and the heart and liver dropped into a barrel of water to draw out the blood. The skin with the lard was cut into strips. Men laid the strips on the table with the skin side down. Skillfully sliding a sharp butcher knife between the skin and lard, they separated the two.
The lard and spare ribs were placed into a large cauldron to be rendered and deep fried. Traces of meat in the lard became cracklings that were often served for breakfast. There seemed to be an unwritten competition among neighbours to see who had the heaviest pig or who rendered the most lard.
One of the tricks invariably pulled on some unsuspecting soul was to pin a fresh pig’s tail on his back. A straight pin was pushed through the thick part of the tail and the protruding end bent to form a hook. It was very easy to hang the tail on the back of a person’s jacket without him noticing. Everybody tried to keep a straight face as they watched the victim’s appendage swing from side to side as he walked.
Sometimes the host provided homemade wine. Wine accompanied by good humor made the time go quickly.
To make sausages, lean pork was ground, spices added and kneaded. A sausage maker was used to stuff the ground meat into the casings the women had so meticulously prepared. The next day or so, the sausage and bacon were smoked. About half the hams were salted down in a pork barrel, while the rest were frozen to be smoked in the spring.
Soon twilight was upon us, lanterns were lit and the knives and cutting table thoroughly scrubbed. Then all went into the house for supper to complete the day.
THE SCHOOL CHRISTMAS CONCERT
Our teacher began preparations for the Christmas concert in early November. By that time school attendance was as regular as could be expected. The crops were harvested, pigs had been butchered, and the potatoes were in the bin. The children were running out of excuses for missing school.
Every child joined in singing carols. If a child was a monotone, the teacher discretely encouraged him not to sing too loudly so other children with weaker voices could be heard.
Everybody had at least one more opportunity to appear on the stage to present a recitation or participate in a play. Since there were no copying machines, the older students copied each selected part by hand.
We had no Christmas tree. The Old Colony Mennonites considered a Christmas tree akin to idol worship, which is forbidden in the Bible’s ten commandments.
About two days before the concert, we moved our desks to make room for the stage and the benches and chairs that were brought in for the audience. All school work was put aside so we could concentrate on rehearsing for the concert.
Finally the day of the concert arrived! After supper Father hitched the horses. My excitement grew as the sleigh runners squeaked along the hard-packed trail, the harnesses jingled, and the horses snorted to remove the accumulating frost from their nostrils. At the school, the clear moonlight revealed several teams already tied to the hitching posts. The horses were covered with blankets to ward off the crisp cold air as thin columns of smoke curled lazily upward from the smoke stacks of the heated sleighs.
As we entered the school, the hiss of the mantle lamp and the crackling coal fire in the huge Waterman Waterbury furnace made me feel safe and warm. Stomping the snow off my boots, I silently repeated my recitation once more, just to make sure I knew it well enough not to stumble.
The pupils had combed their hair. Some of the girls even wore a ribbon. A couple of the boys were lucky enough to wear a brand new shirt. If I would have had a sister, I’m certain Mother would have been tempted to put a ribbon in her hair. As a devout Old Colony Mennonite, she resisted the temptation to commit such a sin of worldly pride.
Finally it was time for the concert to begin. Our teacher stepped onto the stage and cleared his throat several times. Finally the people realized that he was ready to start. An excited hush preceded the first item. Reminded and coaxed by our teacher, we gradually got the courage to sing and speak loudly enough that we could actually be heard. The last item of the evening was the most exciting when we all got our paper bag of Christmas treats the school trustees had prepared. Santa Claus did not make an appearance, again in deference to the strict religious mores of the families in the district. Then it was time for the parents to gather their children and bundle them up for the trip home.
When we got home, Mother coaxed the fire in the kitchen range back to life . Soon the house was warm as toast. How wonderfully content, warm, and secure we felt as we crawled into bed under the cozy, wool-filled quilts Mother had made. Soon we were sound asleep.
At Renfrew School #4116, a one room country school, we looked forward to the spring cleanup on Arbor Day when there would be no lessons. Every family brought a tool or two. Most brought a rake or a fork. We needed one “fire” fork to control the bonfire at the end of the day. Those who lived close to school brought a wheelbarrow.
It was most important that everybody bring a lunch for the noon hour. We were especially concerned that there would be enough dessert for all of us.
At nine o’clock the teacher organized all the pupils into work crews. Some picked up refuse that had accumulated on the school yard while others raked. The wheelbarrow operators loaded the raked leaves and dead grass to be piled up downwind and well clear of the school buildings.
Shortly before noon the senior girls unpacked the food and got it organized. They were considered especially privileged because they could see which family had brought what.
At twelve o’clock the teacher rang the bell for all to hurry into the school to get washed up for lunch. The boys competed to see who got to eat the most cake. I remember one boy eating eleven pieces.
After lunch we went outside to finish the job. Then came the big moment. Our teacher warned the pupils to stay well clear while he lit the huge pile of leaves and grass. What a sight it was! After he was sure the remaining ashes were completely doused with water from the well, the teacher assembled us in the school for a final assessment as to how the day had gone.
After standing at attention and singing God Save the King, we were free to go home.
UP AND AWAY TO THE BIG CITY
Seldom did the lads of Blumenheim miss the Saskatoon Exhibition. Not having money for admission, we cautiously circled the exhibition grounds until we found a tree of suitable height and proximity to the fence. We sat in its shade until we all had climbed the tree and over the fence unto the grounds.
We decided to see a couple of side shows. During hot summer days the tent walls were rolled up part way for air circulation. We pretended to rest in the shade at the back. One by one we managed to slip unnoticed under the wall and into the tent. Some side shows were hardly worth the effort.
We may have been naive, but we were not stupid. No matter how hard the hucksters might try, we refused to gamble our meager resources on the midway.
If we wanted to go to Saskatoon in winter, we went by train. It took a sixteen-hour day to get five hours of shopping in the city. To begin the day, we got out of bed about six in the morning. Horses and cattle had to be fed and watered and the barn had to be cleaned.
By ten o’clock it was time to wash up and change into clean clothes. Then we hitched the horses for the one hour trip to Osler. There we arranged for the horses to be kept in the livery barn for the day.
At the railway station we purchased our sixty-five cent return ticket. If it was on time, the train showed up at 12:30 p.m. It was good to sit in the warm passenger car, watching the harsh winter environment flit past as the wheels clickety-clacked along the steel tracks. At one o’clock we arrived in Saskatoon. We visited several hide and fur companies to bargain for the best price for our rabbit pelts.
We shopped until 6 p.m. when we boarded the train for the return trip. At the livery barn we paid the fifty cents due for tending our horses during our absence. We arrived home shortly after eight o’clock in the evening. After chores and a quick snack, it was past ten o’clock before we got to bed. What a satisfying sleep it was, snuggled under those Mother made warm woolen quilts!
In summer I was lucky if I could accompany Mother and Father to Saskatoon on the Model T Ford. Neighbours who rode with us were charged sixty-five cents for their return fare.
Father was a careful driver. If we had no trouble along the way, we could make the thirty mile trip to the city in an hour and a half.
It was exciting to watch the landscape flit by as we bounced our way to the city. Sometimes a jack rabbit bounded away from his hiding place in a zigzag pattern to elude a potential predator. Or a group of prairie chickens burst from the grass beside the road and flapped their wings with a whir and glided to safety. Occasionally we saw a farmer work his field with a tractor instead of horses.
When we arrived in Saskatoon Father carefully parked the car in one of two central locations, either at the Market or at Eaton’s. From there we walked to do our shopping.
Saskatoon was such a clean and exciting place where people dressed in Sunday clothes, even if it wasn’t Sunday. Since reading opportunities were limited in Blumenheim, I read every sign and billboard.
My favourite stores were the Fifteen Cent Store (Woolworths) where everything was fifteen cents or less, the Twenty-five Cent Store (Kresges) where everything was twenty-five cents or less and the Dollar Store (The Metropolitan) where everything was a dollar or less. I usually spent most of the money I had managed to accumulate since the last time I was in the city
Eaton’s had a machine in the shoe department that was about the size and shape of a small bookcase. If you put your feet under the machine an X-ray showed whether your toes had enough room in your shoes.
I dreaded the elevators at Eatons. They always made me motion sick. I hung onto Mother’s hand while waiting for the elevator car. Seeing the heavy weights and dangling chains sway through the glass doors as the elevator car moved up and down sure didn’t help.
Saskatoon was such a noisy place. Since there was no air conditioning, doors were kept open during hot summer days. Whether one was in a store or on the sidewalk, it was impossible to carry on a conversation when a street car rumbled by. You had to wait until the noise died down before you could continue your conversation.
A trip to the city invariably included a stop at a junk dealer. A pile of junk was a valuable asset on the farm. It often provided just what one needed to repair a broken down machine.
The nuisance grounds, later called the landfill, was another good source of “junk”. I was amazed at the assortment of things people threw away. Enterprising unemployed men lived in small shacks on the nuisance grounds where they picked up things to sell for whatever price they could get. Apparently some people even picked up live chicks at the nuisance grounds that had been dumped by the hatcheries.
One time we went to an air show at the Saskatoon airport. The largest airplane I remember seeing had three engines.
Hucksters shouted, “Hot dogs, fresh hot dogs”. I had no idea what a hot dog was. I wanted Father to buy me one, but he told me they were hard skinned things that I wouldn’t like.
Downtown we noticed people looking up at the clear blue sky. Following their gaze, we saw an airplane write the words “3 STAR”, a brand of gasoline sold by the Imperial Oil Company.
One day in 1939 we went to Saskatoon to see King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. We dressed up in our Sunday best. As a thirteen-year-old lad, I was embarrassed with my scuffed work boots. How I wished I had oxfords like my older brothers. Several years later Father bought me my first pair of $1.98 Sunday oxfords.
It was a warm sultry sunny day. I had never seen so many people. Hawkers sold balloons, cardboard periscopes, and soft drinks. One boy used a periscope to see the Queen over the heads of the crowd. One lady drank an orange drink out of a bottle with a straw. She got lipstick on the straw. How I wished I could have a nice cold orange drink!
After seeing the royal couple, we returned to our car at Eaton’s. Mother had packed a gallon thermos of coffee and homemade bread. Father bought some fresh ring bologna. What a delicious lunch! After some shopping and browsing, it was time to go home.
HEALTH CARE AND HOME REMEDIES
There was no public medicare and money was scarce. Doctors and hospitals were a last resort when illness struck. A family could not survive without a father. He ran the farm and provided food, clothing, and shelter. He was the first to receive medical attention. The mother cooked the meals and looked after the children and the farm in the absence of the father. When she became seriously ill, medical help was sought. Since children were economically dispensable and money was scarce, it was not unusual for a child to become ill and die at home without having seen a doctor.
Every household had a supply of patent medicines such as ointments and liniments. One of the few highlights for me was the visit of the Raleigh man. His sales pitch was most fascinating. After he had exhausted his repertoire, he paused to look at my parents expectantly, not sure whether he should concentrate his efforts upon Mother, who seemed to be more receptive to his sales pitch, or upon Father, who seemed to make the decisions. Mother usually bought some liniment, camphor ointment, and vanilla extract.
Colds were common. To soothe a sore throat Raleigh’s camphor ointment was applied and a warm soft cloth wrapped around the neck. Sometimes we used kerosene. Occasionally Mother heated homemade wine which we sipped slowly to comfort the throat.
Inhaling steam from a dab of camphor ointment in boiling water provided some relief for coughs. For severe chest colds, we spread mustard between layers of cloth. Then we heated this and applied it to the patient’s chest for several minutes or until you felt your skin tingle.
Earaches and toothaches were treated by applying heat. A trip to the dentist was warranted only when the pain became unbearable. When I had an ingrowing toenail, I was told that fresh cow manure would cure it. I never tried it.
A painful foreign object in the eye was treated by dropping two to three flax seeds into the eye when retiring for the night. This created no discomfort whatsoever. In the morning the flax seeds and the foreign object could be wiped out of the corner of the eye.
Sprains and dislocations were massaged by people recognized as having innate chiropractic skills. Some “chiropractors” developed considerable expertise. Although they might accept small donations, Mennonite “chiropractors” charged no fees. They considered their skills a special gift from God.
When I was about thirteen, I had my tonsils removed in the doctor’s office in Saskatoon. I was anesthetized with chloroform. I vomited badly when I woke up. Then it was back onto the Model T and a long ride home. One good thing about this experience was that I got free ice cream. Unfortunately, I did not feel like eating ice cream.
TRANSPORTATION AND COMMUNICATION
Our means of transportation during the early 1930’s were horses and the Model T Ford. Horses were for short distance travel as well as a source of power to farm the land. The Model T was reserved for longer distance travel in summer
During the Depression, the car was a luxury Father could no longer afford. He was forced to place the Model T on blocks and eventually sell it.
Shortly after selling the Model T, our economic situation improved sufficiently for Father to purchase his first rubber-tired tractor. Since it was a small Allis Chalmers Model B tractor with a road gear, it often took the place of the car we had given up. We never used it to go to church on Sunday. Tractors reminded people of work. Sunday was a day of rest. A tractor at church would have been out of place.
As economic conditions continued to improve during the early forties, Father was reminded of the convenience of an automobile. I was delighted when he bought a 1927 Pontiac. For me it was a big improvement over the 1927 Model T.
When I was sixteen, Father bought me a driver’s license for fifty cents at the Motor License Office in Saskatoon. There was no driving test. Proof of age and fifty cents was all that was needed. I had reached another milestone towards being one of the big boys.
When winter arrived, Father knew what he had to do. He put the car in storage, drained the radiator and took the battery into the house .
In winter we used two basic types of horse-drawn sleighs. The bob-sleigh carried heavy loads. It had four runners to hold a sturdy grain box or a large hay rack, depending upon the need. The caboose or bunk usually had two runners, although larger bunks often had four runners. Bunks carried passengers in relative comfort. They were closed in and heated with a homemade wood burning stove. Sawdust soaked with kerosene served as kindling to start the fire.
After a day or two of a howling prairie blizzard, the trails were obliterated under a blanket of fresh snow. Osler was six miles distant. People needed to get the mail, coal to heat their homes, and grocery staples such as coffee, sugar and flour. Who was going to be the first to break the trail to town?
The villagers had a very efficient way of sharing this ominous burden. Each family hitched a team of horses to a bob sleigh. Then they all travelled slowly to town in a convoy of eight to ten teams, taking turns at leading the procession. By the time they had travelled to town and back, the new trail had been driven over sixteen to twenty times.
The residents of Blumenheim shared the same mail box at the Osler post office. Whoever went to town picked up the mail and dropped it off at a centrally located home in the village. When looking for our mail it was fascinating to speculate about the contents of your neighbours’ mail. Holding it up to the light of a window sometimes yielded a tantalizing clue.
For weddings, funerals, and engagement parties, a single copy of a letter of invitation was hand written and delivered. To facilitate the process, the names were listed on the back of the letter in the order to be delivered. After reading the letter, each family delivered it to the next household on the list.
Sometimes weddings or funerals took place in the home of the family. Then they travelled from house to house with a hay rack to borrow benches, chairs, tables, dishes and cutlery. Meals at these celebrations were simple, consisting of buns, sugar lumps and coffee.
Baking buns was shared by the community. The host family went to every household with a large batter of dough. At each house they cut off whatever amount of batter the housewife felt she could handle. The dough was then rolled into balls and baked into buns. The quality of the baking varied. Some women hoped people would find out which buns they had baked; others hoped nobody would ever find out.
If a family suffered misfortunes, neighbours pitched in to help in any way they could. Once I delivered a donation of several pots and pans to neighbours who lost everything in a house fire. Mother often had me deliver fresh chicken noodle soup to poor Mrs. Wiebe, who was bedridden with arthritis for years.
During the thirties, my oldest brother Henry and the neighbour boys rigged up a telephone, using barbed wire fences for the phone line. Neighbours were called to the phone by means of a battery-operated Model T ignition coil. As the telephone lines expanded, obsolete wall phones became popular. Gradually telephone lines replaced the fences.
There was a limit to the number of telephones you could have on one line. We eventually had three separate lines with about eight phones on each. The telephone central was located at our house. We switched people to whichever line they requested. All work was voluntary, including our telephone switching services.
Eavesdropping was common. If too many people had the receiver off the hook, it became difficult to hear. Usually eavesdroppers were considerate enough to hang up before communication broke down completely.
Around this time brother Henry and a neighbour friend made their first crystal sets to listen to CFQC Radio Saskatoon. During clear cold winter nights, they could sometimes get Denver, Colorado. In 1939, CBK Radio at Watrous operated by the CBC came on the air. These primitive crystal sets were capable of pulling in this station as well.
Battery operated vacuum tube radios followed the crystal set. Only two households in Blumenheim had a radio. The boys gathered at one of these homes to listen to news, western music, hockey broadcasts, and world heavy weight boxing.