Often I think
of the beautiful town
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Note: Larger Picture Images Are Displayed In The Photo Galleries
by E.L. Rose
In the central plains of Canada there lies a province that is as cold as Siberia in winter, as hot as the Sahara in summer. The wind blows constantly across this vast prairie land, a hot wind in summer, a frigid blast in winter. This province is Saskatchewan, an Indian name for the river that meanders its way from west to east. I would spend the first seventeen years of my life here in the village of Elrose. They would be the most memorable years of my life, for in spite of the rugged conditions I would not have wanted to live those early years anywhere else. The harsh weather taught me that life would not always be easy; the stalwart pioneers showed me how to cope when things went wrong, and the stark landscape gave me a remarkable appreciation for the beauty I would find later that would fill me with a sense of wonder that I would never lose.
My first memories were of the depression years when we suffered from drought. During the next ten years we would suffer seven plagues reminiscent of Pharaoh's Egypt. The first plague was the tantalizing rain clouds that would pass over, leaving not one drop of rain. Then came the further plagues of parched land, dust storms, Russian Thistle (tumbleweeds), hail, gophers and grasshoppers. The dust clouds were the most difficult to bear, that terrible grey dust that seeped under the doors and around the windows, casting a deathlike pall over everything, turning day into night. The marvelous optimism that carried these brave persons through those troubled times was an inspiration to all of us. Perhaps we children suffered the least; we were young and carefree, never to aware that we were in a depression. Farmers from the east sent fruit and fish to help out. The fish was cod, dried to the point of petrification. However, they forgot to include instructions on how to prepare them. It was necessary to soak them in water for 24 hours before cooking them. Without these instructions housewives did not know what to do with this dried fish. One farmer nailed one to a telephone pole with a sign that said they were good only to use as shingles! Although the fish was not appreciated, the fruit was wonderful. Because our father had a monthly wage, we did not have any of this, and we children felt very abused. Our father, in his humorous way, told us that we were headed for the "poor house," so we believed we were a poor as everyone else. Fortunately, our little friends shared bites of the delicious apples with us.
As I look back on those years I wonder how those without an income were able to eke out a living. Everyone had gardens, and a pot of vegetable soup was usually bubbling on the stove, an old standby in depression times. The farmers traded eggs, chickens and butter for sugar, flour and other staples. The shoemaker resoled shoes over and over, and at home mothers darned, mended, patched and used their ingenuity in making things over.
In my mind's eye I can still see this village, so dear to my heart. Main Street stretched for four blocks from the railroad station by the tracks to the school at the other end of town. The first two blocks were the shopping area. In 1914, when the Main Street of Elrose was built, it was considered very modern with most of the shops having false fronts to make them seem larger and up to date. That was a prosperous time. Bold, colourful business signs read: ARCHIE'S BAKER AND CONFECTIONARY, BENNETT'S GROCERY STORE, IRVINE'S HARDWARE, THE QUEBEC BANK. McKellar's General Store had a sign announcing Ladies Silk Underwear and Hosiery; the Murray Made Shoe. But now, sixteen years later, many of the businesses had changed hands.
During these depression years the paint was peeling from buildings that once stood proudly. The signs were faded and weather-beaten. It was difficult to keep things looking trim when the cost of a gallon of paint was needed for food. As a young child I loved to go in to visit these stores, for behind each window was the friendly, familiar face of the shopkeeper. It never occurred to me that they might be too busy to answer the many questions of a six-year-old.
Beyond the two blocks of the business area was the residential part of our village. Most of the homes were one-story wooden cottages; a few, built in affluent times, had two stories. Some even had verandas and swings and rocking chairs, and they were grand indeed. There were some trees but not many because of our harsh winters. Caragana bushes, rather ugly, grew well and formed a green hedge at many homes. There were no lawns for water was too scarce to keep them green during the hot summers. The best they could do was to plant hardy flowers, petunias or nasturtiums, to brighten up a front yard. Housewives were pleased if they could have a cheery red geranium growing inside, at the window. Behind each home was a tidy vegetable garden and a clothesline with its colourful wash blowing in the breeze each Monday morning. There was a race between many housewives to see who could get their wash out first. It seems amusing now, the things that seemed so important then.
Our wooden sidewalks were a constant challenge to our imaginations. The cracks were wide enough to swallow up priceless treasures. A shiny object would bring cries of joy, for surely it was money. We would put gum on a stick to bring it up. Usually it would be a piece of foil, but occasionally it would be a nickel, which was quickly dispatched to Moon Chow's Cafe for treats. The decisions were difficult for one could buy so much with five cents. We would stand in front of the glass jars of candies, agonizing over whether we should just spend a penny or go whole hog. A penny would buy jawbreakers, or a licorice pipe, a sucker or four gumdrops. A nickel could buy a bottle of pop, or an ice cream cone, an Eskimo pie, or a bag of hard candy. Usually we threw discretion to the wind and bought the Eskimo pie.
Perhaps the best example of our Canadian Village Architecture was the hotel with its ornate piazza and stained glass windows. The owner, Fred Meyer, was a clever entrepreneur who knew how to attract customers. He erected a sign at the edge of town, reading:
ELROSE HOTEL: THE POOREST HOTEL IN SASKATCHEWANNaturally, this brought in curious travellers who usually stayed when they saw the inviting veranda, the attractive interior with its massive rotunda, stained glass windows, comfortable leather couches and chairs, heavy oak furniture and crystal chandeliers. On the veranda the elderly men of the village would sit on benches on hot summer days, to swap stories of long ago days when times were better and life was good. How I loved to sit on the railing and listen to these tales; they were the most interesting history lessons I would have in my childhood days. Beyond the business district there were places dear to our hearts. The red brick school, at the south end of town, is perhaps the building we remember more than any other, for it was here we learned to read and write, and hopefully, in civics classes how to become good citizens. And it was here that we forged friendships that would last a lifetime. My earliest memory was the day I entered first grade. In mind's eye I can still see myself skipping along our wooden sidewalks, waving at everyone I might pass for even at six years old I was a friendly soul. Mrs. Geifer told me to be sure to stop after school for a cookie. Nearing school I waved at Mrs. Hillman who was hoeing in the garden. She always had a friendly smile for me. Perhaps I had loitered too long on the way for when I arrived the class was lined up outside the school ready to sing "O, Canada." Fortunately I was able to slip into line without being noticed. When we had finished singing in off-key but exuberant voices, we would march up the steps past the august portraits of King George V and Queen Mary and into our classroom. The custom of lining up and marching in was soon forgotten though, perhaps when winter came, but it was a custom I enjoyed for that brief period. Mr. Hillman, our janitor, would often be there at the entrance, broom in hand, welcoming us to school. He was a gentle, kindly man and the keeper of the keys to the small library in the basement. When we wanted to check out a book we would find him somewhere in the school, dusting or mopping, and he would stop everything to come and open the library. Since I loved to read we became good friends. Our school was the typical four-room brick school that you would see all across Canada. Built in 1926 it had four large classrooms with large windows across one side to give us views of the outside world that we longed to be in. Three grades were taught in each room; the high school and principal's office was on the second level. The long stairway leading to these upper rooms seemed formidable to a small child. If one got into trouble, he had plenty of time for regret as he climbed all those steps to the principal's office. The usual punishment was with a strap, and the very thought of it filled us with enormous dread. At recess time we would play outdoors, eager to be out in the sunshine. The young ones would enjoy the swings or teeter-totter, the older boys softball or rugby, and sometimes the girls would play basketball. In winter, we played in our dusty basement. The concrete must have been the cheapest available, because no matter how often it was swept there was a cloud of dust surrounding us as we played jump rope or hop scotch. The boys had their own basement room for playing marbles, or wrestling when the teachers weren't looking.
One of my favourite buildings was our little white church, the United Church of Canada, a union of the Methodist, Congregational and Presbyterian churches. It was an important part of our life. Saturday evening was spent in preparation for the Sunday Services. Shoes were polished, our one "best" outfit was laid out. The bath was a communal affair. A tub was placed in the middle of the kitchen floor. Beginning with the youngest we were soaped and scrubbed, the water was used to scrub the kitchen floor after the children were tucked in bed. Not a drop of water was ever wasted. Sunday morning we would troop off to church with our oldest brother in charge. At seven we would return for the evening church service. The Mason family of nine children, and the Hillman family of eight, were a large part of the small congregation. The Hillman family came to church on Sunday evening, without fail, scrubbed and neat in their Sunday best, always sitting in the same row. Mrs. Hillman's fingers were never idle and the only time she ever sat down without knitting socks for her many sons was in church. Before his sermon our minister would dismiss the young people and we would go down the basement for the children's class. Our basement was a rather gloomy, dark place with a single bulb hanging from the ceiling giving off minimal light and casting long eerie shadows on the walls. On most evenings this would not have bothered me, but one night we had a substitute teacher who gave a vivid, alarming lesson on Hell. Her description of fire and brimstone was so distressing I nestled up to Doris Hillman, two years older than I. She was so comforting. After all these years I remember Doris with such fondness. Another building that created a lot of interest was the Canadian National Railroad station, where the train would come in three days a week from our nearby city of Saskatoon, and two days a week from the capital city of Regina. It was lovely to go into the waiting room on cold winter days for a cheery coal fire would be burning in the pot-bellied stove, its flames flickering behind the isinglass windows. The big station clock ticked off the minutes. We could hear the tapping of the telegraph key as Mr. Mason, the agent, took down messages. Before long, many of the villagers would come to see the big event of the day, the arrival of the train. And so they came, young and old, the young with a hope that someone might need a hand with the luggage. Any scheme to earn a penny or a nickel was to be pursued. There was such a sense of excitement as the train whistled at the crossing, and came puffing in, surrounded by great clouds of steam. Now the action would begin: the hustle and bustle of persons getting off and on the passenger cars, the cheery greetings and sad farewells, the station agent piling express packages and mail bags onto the freight wagon, the dray man loading them on to his horse drawn wagon or sleigh. In winter the perspiration on these hard working horses would freeze, and they would be covered with white frost. How sad they looked. But soon this great drama would be over. The train would puff its way onward, the engineer waving to the children. Before long everyone would disappear, the drayman with his plodding horses to deliver his goods, the villagers back to shops and homes. Once again it would become a sleepy prairie village. This was a scene that was played out every day but Sunday.
Later in the afternoon we would visit the post office to see what mail the train had brought to us. The postmistress was an irritatingly efficient lady who caused much anger among the villagers. She followed all the rules in the book to the letter. Christmas at the post office was unforgettable. In those days one could send a Christmas card that was not sealed, with five written words or less, for one cent. Sealed letters with a message inside cost three cents. So she decided that every unsealed card must be opened to be checked for the five word limit. There would be no infractions in the Canadian Postal Service while she was in charge. Many of these were gleefully stamped, "postage due." No other Canadian postal clerk would have dreamed of such a policy. We could watch her through the glass boxes, never faltering, keeping everyone anxiously waiting for hours as she examined those envelopes, one by one. Business men would wait for the wicket to open in fury. To be charitable, I must say she was a fine, Christian lady who was doing what she felt was the right thing. But there is no doubt that it was a happy day when she retired.
How we loved our skating rink! An outdoor rink, with no cover, it fell prey to every snowfall and often we spent more time scraping the ice than skating. But the joy of skating under a canopy of stars was worth it. The older group skated in pairs and we younger ones thought this was wonderfully romantic. We would skate in and out among them enjoying bits of their fascinating conversation. Several times during the evening we would go into the shed to warm our freezing toes and fingers by the cozy wood burning stove. When closing time came we would often play a glorious game of "crack the whip." All of us, young and old, would join hands in a long line, then we spiraled round and round, faster and faster, until someone let go, sending everyone crashing into the boards. Once recovered it was time to walk home, crunching through the snow, casting long shadows in the bright moonlight. But surprisingly, the only couple in our age group who married were Lorne Hillman and Eleanor Edwards. The rest of us moved to far away places, made new friends and married others. But those marvelous high school friendships have never ended, and amazingly, we still keep in touch after all these years. On other winter Saturdays there were hockey games and how we loved to go and cheer on the local boys: the McKellars, Hillmans, Pipers, Masons, Jack Hunt and Jack Maines as they battled against the Hughton and Wartime teams. Next door, in the curling club, the older men were curling, and although this wasn't as exciting as hockey, we enjoyed watching our dads throwing rocks and sweeping the ice. I cannot finish without telling you of our grain elevators, standing like sentinels on the other side of the tracks. There was little business for them during those depression years; some were looked after by caretakers for twenty dollars a month. The farms beyond, once so neat and charming, looked forlorn and shabby, surrounded by parched land. As the depression dragged on some of these farms were abandoned by their owners. In despair they moved on to northern Saskatchewan or Alberta where things were better. We would stand by the roadway watching them pass in a wagon. Furniture and belongings were piled high on the wagon, as much as a scrawny horse could pull. Behind this ungainly load the family cow was tied. After all these years I can still see the look of hopeless desolation on their faces. But hope springs eternal, so in spite of this sadness, you would always hear, "Wait till next year."
1. A Prairie Village: Elrose Saskatchewan
2. The Streets of Home: Elrose Saskatchewan
3. Hillman/Robinson Excerpts from the Elrose History Book
4. Elrose Photo Album I
5. Elrose Photo Album II
6. The War Years
7. Scenes of Elrose Today
Visit Our Other Family Tribute
Hillman Family Stories: Navigation Chart
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