Home Town or Home Community:
Robert Stafford (Staff) and Zelda Anna Mickleborough
Staff Mickleborough was born on Oct. 17. 1905 in Regina, the year Saskatchewan became a province. He resided in the province through the rest of the 20th century and into the next, dying at the age of 98 on March 26, 2004.
Zelda, who was born on April 3, 1910, had the distinction of being the first child born to pioneers in the Eston district. She lived her entire life at Eston, SK and died on January 29. 2001.
Zelda’s grandparents had immigrated to Wisconsin, USA from Denmark and Wales. Her father William Owens followed the cry ,”Go west, young man”, choosing to bypass the Dakotas for the real land of opportunity in Canada. After working four summers in the North West Territories he filed for a homestead on 16-24-21 W3rd, where he and his new bride Jennie Oleson established their home in 1907. The log house had two rooms, a living room and a bedroom. Zelda, their third child, was born in this home. To accommodate a growing family an additional room, 12 x 20, was added. Eventually there was a family of four boys and six girls, and when Zelda was l6 a large two storey house replaced the original homestead. This house was sold to Full Gospel Church for use as a dormitory on its campus in Eston, after all the family had left the farm.
In 1911 the Owens couple filed on more script, but the early years were not productive as combinations of late springs, drought and early frost reduced yields. Often the sheaves could be loaded on one large hay rack and hauled away to be threshed. 1915 was the first good crop and pioneers always looked forward, hoping it would be repeated. However, drought during the Depression, or poor prices when there was a decent crop, kept the family scrambling to survive. Mr. Owens caught wild horses roaming around the river, brought them to the farm and tamed them for sale as plough horses or as riding horses. In innovative ways such as this, the Owens family persisted, though some neighbors were forced to abandon their land or moved to the Peace River to try their luck. Zelda would say that acquiring land was the easiest; the pioneering became real when you had to eke out a living when there was no rain and there was no one to back you.
The Owens’ farm was on the main road south to the ferry on the South Saskatchewan River and thus it became a natural dropping in place for travelers. The home served as the Post Office and the first church services were held there. There was not only a large family to feed, but countless visitors, especially on a Sunday when the twelve foot dinner table was often set three times.
Mrs. Owens could not manage the household tasks herself and naturally the girls were enlisted at an early age to assist with the baking, cooking, cleaning and laundry. Zelda, being one of the older children, carried a heavy load. She baked each night after school for the supper meal and for the school lunches. It was her job to make a loaf of home-made bread into school lunches each day for the family, a difficult task when the supply of butchered meat or chickens or eggs was exhausted. She was expected to mind her younger siblings, milk cows and help in other household chores. She became accomplished in the kitchen and at a young age could produce a good meal, even for visitors.
Food for the family was produced on the farm. Saskatoon and chokecherry picking on the near-by river hills was an annual ritual. Quantities of the fruit were preserved and the pitting of a 5 gallon pail of chokecherries remained a vivid memory. The parents also purchased several cases of the cheaper fruits for canning, and once a year a salesman from an American – based grocer took a food order. They were able to buy some food in case lots and sugar and flour in 100# sacks. They needed a lot of flour as Mrs. Owens baked bread at least three times a week.
The flour sacks, complete with the indelible writing, were recycled into underwear for the family. That was not a problem for Zelda while she lived on the farm and attended the country school, since her classmates were similarly attired. Relatives in Wisconsin sent used clothing to the family and these garments were much appreciated, perfect as they were or remade and then handed down. Shoes were worn only from fall to spring and were always handed down to the next child. Inheriting her older brother’s boots with their hooks was embarrassing to Zelda; she would insist that the hooks be removed so the boots would have eyelets and look more feminine. There was more trouble when these hookless boots were handed down to the next child, a boy.
Water was a precious commodity. There was a dugout, but no well, as neighbors had not been successful in their attempts to reach water. Instead water for household use was pulled from a spring in the river hills four miles away. When the dugout was dry it meant pulling and hauling 2 tanks each day to bring water for the family and livestock. A tub of bath water served the whole family, beginning with the youngest to the eldest child, followed by Mom and then Dad.
Laundry was performed over a scrub board, rinsed twice and wrung out by hand. A hand wringer, then a hand powered machine eased the wash day blues. Nonetheless it was nearly an all-day job to be followed by another day of ironing. A tub full of men’s cotton shirts, including starched dress shirts, was a formidable task using the stove-heated flat (or sad) irons. It is no wonder that Zelda never had much interest in collectible antiques!
Zelda attended Pioneer Grove School, known locally as “Owensville”, until grade XI, when she went to Eston High School. She and a girlfriend did light housekeeping and the janitor work at the school, earning $.10 per hour for nightly sweeping and $.40 per hour for scrubbing over the Christmas and summer holidays. Following high school, Zelda took a business course in Saskatoon and on her return to Eston worked as a telephone operator and as a bookkeeper/clerk for the Larson-Byers store. Her business training came in handy later in life as she was secretary to many groups, spending part of many days at the typewriter composing minutes and correspondence. The family was always disappointed to find her Christmas shopping list done in shorthand.
Staff’s family lived in Regina where his father Bob was the agent for the International Harvester and handled De Laval separators and rope makers. This could have provided the family with a comfortable living as homesteaders “purchased” machinery on the strength of an IOU until harvest time. It was impossible to collect many of these debts. In later years Staff met a farmer whom he knew had an outstanding bill and to satisfy himself inquired if the debt had ever been paid. “Why, no. None of us ever did” was the reply, an admission that Staff accepted although he found it quite baffling.
Bob Mickleborough owned a series of cars, needed to run his business. The first was a Reo, right hand drive, acetylene brass headlights, rubber ball horn, wooden wheels and gear shift outside the main body. The family also owned a Mitchell, a six cylinder, open touring design. The next deal was for a glassed-in Model A Ford Coupe which they traded in on a Hudson Super Six. This car attracted the attention of the RCMP as a well-known local entrepreneur also drove a Hudson in his illicit liquor “business” and the family was often stopped on Albert St. or on the present No.1 highway west.
Staff was the fourth son born to Bob and Catherine Mickleborough (nee Greenley), followed by three girls. The family moved from Regina to one and a half sections of cultivated land south of Grand Coulee, SK when Staff was five years old. After the First World War they bought another half section, but were unable to meet the interest payments as a result of drought, plus the scourge of mustard and wild oats which they were unable to eradicate.
This young family was to know grief early in life. In 1913 Staff’s father took ill, was hospitalized and died of peritonitis at the age of 42. The oldest brother Norman, aged l6, took over management of the farm with the help of hired men. Their mother became ill when Staff was a young teenager and had to spend time in the hospital and at the Sanatorium. Thinking that a warmer climate might be beneficial, Norman took her and the three wee girls to California for the winter, leaving Staff (aged 14) alone on the farm with the hired men. There were 35 horses and 20 cattle and the usual hogs and chickens to look after. His mother did not recover and died in 1921 leaving the children without parents. It was a blessing for all when Norman married and his saintly wife Cee assumed the job of surrogate mother.
On the farm there were always chores to do, beginning with keeping the two stoves in the house stocked with wood or coal and carrying the ashes outside. In winter the water trough had to have a fire burning to maintain drinking water for the stock. Before there was a dugout in the pasture, a 300 gallon tank of water for the animals was pumped by hand from a well almost every day. A load of manure that young Staff claimed was “six feet high” was removed from the barn daily and bedding was distributed each night.
A boy’s job in the summer was to do the harrowing, standing on a plank tied to the harrow behind a team of four horses. At thirteen, Staff drove the tractor, a cross mounted Case engine, and then went to school. By the age of fifteen he had plowed, seeded and driven a binder and was working on the stook rack. A young boy was expected to do the same work as a man.
Staff attended Grand Coulee View School, a mile and one half away. They had a homemade cutter for winter travel and a two wheel cart for the rest of the school year. For a few years they were pulled by a stubborn old mule and were happy to replace him with a thoroughbred racing mare that made the “wheels spin”. Staff was always an observer of nature and found the trips to and from school full of surprises – crocuses to pick, frogs to catch, muskrats to snare, the spring and fall migration, a meadow lark to be shot and roasted over a campfire and shared with his sister. After finishing elementary school in Grand Coulee, Staff was able to attend high school in Regina as the family had purchased a house on Angus St., but after their mother’s death they returned to the farm … and to the chores.
Despite long days of hard labor, there were rewards living on the farm. Andy Messer, brother of Don Messer, the well-known Maritime fiddler, was a neighbor. Staff started playing the ukelele and then switched to banjo and joined with Andy, a pianist and accordion player in a band playing for school dances. Interest in the banjo continued into his senior years when he joined with others from Eston playing at nursing homes.
Staff was a good hardball pitcher in his youth. He pitched for his Regina Collegiate Team and the Westminster Church Boys Team. At a tournament in Wilcox he pitched 3 games (two 7 inning games and the final 9 inning evening game) beating Wilcox, Rouleau and Regina. His arm became swollen and his shoulder ached and he was never again able to pitch beyond eight or nine innings.
Staff had another vivid memory of playing hardball. “At two p.m. on June 2nd, l920, playing first base for the senior ball club at the Grand Coulee Sports Day, I had the misfortune to have my leg broken by a man trying to reach first on a short grounder to the infield. I had him cold with the ball in my hand, but he, not being much of a ball player, decided to jump the last five feet, landing on my outstretched leg. He drove both bones out -tibia and fibula – between the knee and the ankle. It sounded like the crack of the bat.” Staff was driven to the Regina General Hospital by his brother Howard, but the administrator wouldn’t admit him without knowing who would pay. Howard sought help from a relative who was a doctor, but he wasn’t home. Fortunately his neighbor, who was a judge, demanded the boy be treated. Iodine was poured into the wound and then the leg was straightened without benefit of even an aspirin, as the doctor understood Staff had a leaky heart valve following double pleurisy. Staff recalls hanging onto the iron bed posts during the leg manipulation and “sweating like a horse”. Years later, Staff explained his fierce support for medicare dated back to his being turned away from the hospital – a 15 year old boy with two broken bones protruding from his leg.
Hunting was a passion for Staff from early youth. He took his “trusty 22 Remington Automatic” everywhere with him to shoot prairie chickens or ruffed grouse. His first goose hunt happened when he was twelve. Returning from school on horseback, he spotted a flock of geese flying into a pot hole surrounded by tall weeds. He approached the birds, creeping through the stubble and finally crawling into the slough on hands and knees. He aimed at a cluster of birds and got four geese with one shot. Two were dead and the other two wounded ones he captured by corralling them at the edge of the slough. He returned home with four geese and five shells still in the magazine. Staff continued to hunt until he was 75 years old, getting his quota each fall.
The Mickleboroughs had a huge barn, 100’x48. The main floor of the loft was covered with hardwood tongue- in -groove. During the summer when all the straw and sheaves had been removed, the loft was cleaned and it was used for barn dances. An orchestra from Regina played from a raised dais in the centre and lunch and cold drinks were available at opposite ends. Electric lights, even a spot light, added allure to the evening, and thousands from Regina and surrounding districts attended over the years. Admission was $l.00 including lunch and proceeds went to the ball club or other community activities.
Mr. W.T. Mooney of Grand Coulee was a neighbor and superintendent of the Presbyterian Church Sunday School where Staff and his family attended. He persuaded Staff and brother Murray to move to Eston SK to manage his 3 1/2 sections of land. They arrived March 1927 and took up residence in the farm house one and one-half miles northwest of town. Bachelors had lived in the house, and both the building and the yard needed a thorough cleaning. Staff planted row upon row of trees to act as a wind break and to beautify the yard and protect the garden area. Frequent watering was necessary to establish this oasis of trees on the bald prairie.
There were 1000 acres to break and only a 15-30 I.H.C. engine for other work. Their solution was to hitch 12 horses in two rows of six to break the prairie sod. It was a big job to get the horses fed and harnessed and brought to the field to begin plowing, and it took some ingenuity and adept handling to keep all the horses pulling their share of the load. Mosquitoes nearly drove the horses and driver crazy, so a wet grass smudge in a pail on the plow was a technique adopted to alleviate the nuisance. In 1928 Mr. Mooney offered to sell section 1-26-21, where he had already broken 200 acres, to Staff. The offer was accepted and as quickly as possible the rest of the section was broken. The cost was $32 for raw prairie with set prices for breaking, smoothing the breaking, seeding, summerfallow, swathing and harvest plus interest. Since his yearly salary working was only $3000, he was in a rather tight financial situation.
Staff and Zelda met in Eston and a wedding was planned for December 12, 1931. They took the train to Saskatoon and were married in Knox United Church manse with only their attendants present. They returned to Eston to live on the Mooney farm. Their three children were born while they lived on the farm: Gwen (1933), Alma (1935) and Owen (1938).
Zelda became responsible for looking after the hired men used in the farming enterprise, and that meant a lot of food preparation. There were long hours over a coal burning stove with no electricity or refrigeration and potable water being hauled from town. She was assisted by younger sisters who came to live with them in order to attend high school and in later years she had a hired girl. Staff kept the usual array of livestock and continued assisting in the Mooney farm enterprise. In an attempt to improve their finances, one year Staff raised 50 turkeys which they plucked, cleaned and made oven ready, to be paid only $1.00 per bird. A dozen farm eggs sold for 15 cents if delivered to the door, otherwise it was 5 cents at the store.
In the 1940s Zelda and Staff decided to strike out on their own. They got a loan from the farm loan board with which they paid off their debt to Mr. Mooney and started buying their own equipment. In 1942 they moved into town and purchased a small house. They needed to enlarge the building but the war was on and people were only allowed $400.00 of lumber per year. By combining the years ’42 and ’43 they had enough lumber to add 10′ to the house, build a stairway to the upstairs and divide that space into two bedrooms and a bathroom. The next year two cisterns were dug for water and sewer.
Life in Eston was much easier and more convenient as the children could walk to school. It did not mean that they were less busy as they were always involved in organizations and activities in the town. Zelda held many offices in the United Church locally, was presbyterial UCW president and conference UCW financial chair, CGIT leader, Sunday School teacher and member of the choir. She was first secretary of the Eston Band and the Eston Community Clinic. She served on the Co-op Association Board and was president of the local Co-op Guild. Staff served as president of the sports association which hired the first sports director, was charter member of the Lions Club, was an early promoter of the Riverside Pool and member of the Board, acted as Wheat Pool chairman and served on the Board of Stewards for the United Church and as a board member for the Community Clinic. Both he and Zelda were involved politically, especially at campaign time.
For fun Staff and Zelda participated in operettas which were locally staged and produced – i.e. “Belle of Barcelona”. They worked together on the winter carnival, one year taking on the whole production to raise funds for Zelda’s CGIT to go to summer camp. The carnival brought out Staff’s fun-loving side as his ideas for corny skits took to the ice. He also demonstrated his skill at ice skating by jumping 9 steel drums, skating on stilts and jumping through burning hoops. Although he was a fine skater, he said he was never any good at hockey.
While living on the farm and with the required permits, Staff developed a nesting and banding area for Canada Geese. In town, Staff asked the town council for permission to establish a wild life sanctuary in the park. His request was granted as long as there was no cost to the town. So Staff paid for 6′ chain link fencing to enclose the area, dug a small pond for water with an island for nesting and resting birds and supplied all the feed. He acquired a white tail deer from a friend with whom he had traded sandhill cranes and had connections with Al Oeming, a noted wild life promoter. Each year the deer was bred at the Forestry Farm in Saskatoon and the little fawn became a favorite attraction. For a time he had a wounded antelope and also a bear which he was unable to keep. Several species of birds were added. The park was open to the public after supper, a time enjoyed by children and seniors alike as the wildlife was in fact tame and would eat from the hand. After eight years the space became crowded, and an appeal to Council for an expansion was refused. There was also a problem with drainage at the low end of the park where the sanctuary was located, which left the deer stranded on the mound in the middle of the pond after a down pour. Staff had no alternative but to close the sanctuary and in three trips trucked his animals and birds to Swift Current to the Paul Hodge Sanctuary. It was a sad day for him to have to part with his deer and exotic birds.
Athough Zelda and Staff felt a responsibility to the community, it was their family of whom they were most proud and it was for their benefit they directed their energies. The girls had the advantage of music lessons from Mrs.Willis and Dorothy Gengler, competed in the local Music Festival and joined with their friends in CGIT and Mrs. Holmes’ choir. Staff drove the girls and their friends to camps at Wakaw, Outlook and in the Qu’Appelle Valley. Owen played in the Eston Band under Dr. Kjorven and Mr. Ferrier and was active in 4H. As young teenagers, Gwen and Alma played the organ for church during the summer.
Sunday outings often meant a drive in the country to check on the crops or to look at the water (or lack of) in Snipe Lake. A picnic at the river followed by a ride on the ferry across the Saskatchewan River was as much fun as a ride at the fair. In the fall it was important to spot geese for the morning shoot and to check out the game in the river hills. The huge Owens’ family picnic at the “ferry” or Larsen’s Grove was a much anticipated annual event surpassed only by New Year’s Day dinner at Hazel and Les Johnston’s, Zelda’s sister and brother-in-law.
One of the best things Zelda and Staff did for their children was to work with others for the Riverside Pool at the South Saskatchewan River, about 15 miles south of town. There had been no opportunity to swim as the river was too dangerous and the addition of a pool (filled weekly with fresh, cold river water) was a welcome recreational retreat. Staff and Murray built a cabin which both families used steadily over the summer. Staff retreated to the riverbank to fish, but what he usually caught were moments of peace and quiet.
Zelda had always been an equal partner in the farming operation hauling wheat to the granaries and to the elevator. Somehow she managed to be the “hired man” while getting harvest sized meals to the field on time. At 12 years of age Gwen was hired to drive the tractor that pulled the combine, and when she was old enough to drive legally took over the hauling duties while Alma replaced her in the field. Owen shoveled in the bins until he was old enough to be promoted to the tractor. These were special times, taking off the harvest, and knowing that dad was proud of the job you were doing. He often said he never had better help. The children were less enthusiastic when recruited to picking wild oats by hand. The children understood the vagaries of farming and the inordinate interest their parents took in the weather and were determined to seek other employment.
Gwen obtained a BA from U of S and a social work degree from UBC. Alma trained as a laboratory technologist at Regina College. Owen graduated from U of S as an agricultural engineer.
After the children had left for further education it was difficult to find suitable farm labor. Staff had a self-propelled combine and Zelda ran errands to town and hauled the wheat. It was becoming an onerous task and so the farm was sold to Zelda’s nephew. It was not something Staff wished to do and felt he had lost “something precious”. They down-sized further, selling their house and moving to the Gatenby subdivision at the north edge of town. Once again they turned their hand to cultivating the prairie sod and to the planting of trees and shrubs. Saskatoons, chokecherries and raspberry bushes produced abundant fruit and flowering annuals beautified the yard.
After their retirement they spent 15 winters in the south. They began by going on a church tour to Trinidad. While there they were approached to aid a young girl to come to Canada to further her education. Deidre Nancoo had written Oxford exams for her grade XII and was a teacher. They were able to recommend her for a position in Eston, where she taught for one year before leaving for Winnipeg to complete her degree. Staff and Zelda were pleased to attend her graduation and to substitute for her parents at her marriage.
They travelled throughout the USA, saw a rocket fired from Cape Canaveral, went aboard a naval submarine, visited the Smithsonian and other tourist spots in New York and Washington, viewed the volcano on the island of Hawaii, witnessed a bull fight in Spain, toured the Canary Islands and Jamaica and took several trips into various areas of Mexico. Staff took photographs everywhere and these were turned into travelogues for interested groups.
A debilitating illness, Alzheimers, overtook Zelda and when Staff was no longer able to care for her she took up residence in the Eston Jubilee Lodge. This residence had been promoted by her father and provided shelter for her widowed mother and two aunts and also a brother. Staff managed on his own for several years and then took advantage of home care. In 2000 he moved into the Lodge, living once again under the same roof as his wife, and receiving the same competent care.
During their lifetime in Eston, Staff and Zelda gave freely of their time, talent and finances to a variety of causes. Some endeavors they supported were unpopular at the time, but as stated in a tribute to them at their 50th wedding anniversary, they promoted causes which later had public support. This was their contribution to building a better future. Their children and grandchildren are proud of them and are pleased to tell their story.
Mickleborough Family Tree
Robert Stafford Mickleborough (1905 – 2004) and Zelda Anna Owens (1910 – 2001)
Gwen Zelda (1933 – ) married Walter Belyk (1929 – )
Murray married Lynn Kozicki
Rayna, Haley, Britton and Kade
Robert married Elsa VanDuyvendyk
Alma Catherine (1935 – ) married Jim Nickel (1930 – 1990)
married Ernie Burnett ( 1931 – )
Jim married France Viens
Robert Owen (1938 – 2003) married Margaret McCall (1938 – )
Todd married Kim King