The Depression Years

I grew up in rural Saskatchewan – that’s in Western Canada – with my Mom and Dad, and my brothers and sisters. Before I was born, my elder brother and sister and my Mom and Dad lived on a farm where they had next to nothing.  They had a few chickens and they sold the eggs from the chickens, and that was about the only income they had.

I was born in 1934 during the Depression years...

...they called it the Dirty Thirties.  We had dust storms just like they have sand storms in the UAE.  Everything would blow everywhere, the thistles would blow and people literally had nothing.  It was as bad as people were here in Abu Dhabi in the old days. They had very little, mostly they lived on dates and camel milk. Those two staples were their lifeline. Anyway, I grew up during that time, the Depression years in Canada.

Somehow, I’m not sure how, my Dad managed to buy a grocery store in a little hamlet, it wasn’t even a village.  It was a tiny place, but there was a railroad track and a small train station next to a couple of grain elevators. The store doubled as our home. The store was at the front, and my family and I lived in the two room at the back.

There was also a post office, a dance hall, a lumberyard and a general store, but even at the time the village was dwindling, getting smaller and smaller.  I remember when the post office closed down.  And then there were only two families in the village, ours and one other. My Dad ran the Western grain elevator and the other man ran the Wheat Pool grain elevator.

First in the Class

We walked to school, which was about two miles away.  If it got too cold, like below – 20 centigrade – my Dad would hitch up the sleigh and take us to school, but usually we would walk.  The other children at the school came from families living on farms in the area, within a five-mile radius.  We were about 20 to 30 kids in total – all the classes or grades sat together in one room.  I always came first in my class.  Of course that may be because I was the only one in the class: I did real well!!

Anyway, my Dad ran the store during the Depression, when people were on relief. They would get their relief money and then come to the store to get their supplies. He did relatively well and was even able to buy a red Fargo half-ton truck to go back and forth to the city. In later years he bragged about how well he did during the depression. But doing well in the depression meant just surviving.

We lived very modestly.  In fact, really, we were poor. One of the two rooms at the back of the store was our bedroom, which all of us shared: five children and our parents.  Dad built a double decker bed.  The two girls, my older sister and I, slept on the bottom and the two boys slept on the top. My mother sewed flour sacks together and then filled them with straw – those were our mattresses. Once a week we would change the straw.  My youngest sister slept in a crib beside us, and there was a curtain across the room, which separated us from our parents.

Frozen Solid…

Life was hard but we never considered it a hardship. The temperatures in Canada in the winter are very cold – sometimes it would get to -30 or - 40 centigrade. And of course there was snow and wind, which made it even colder.  Because we were poor, we heated with wood, we didn't even have coal.

Nobody got up at night to put wood on the fire, so it would go out when we were asleep. We would wake up in the morning and even the water in the kettle on the stove had ice on it and the water pails were all frozen.  Everything was frozen.

The windows were so frozen that we had to heat up the iron and hold it onto the window to melt the ice so we could make a hole to see outside.  We had to run the iron along the bottom of the door to melt the ice there so we could open the door to get out.  It was horrible!

We wore nightcaps to bed when we were small so our ears wouldn’t freeze when we slept.  I remember the other family in the village telling us that on one particularly cold night one of their children had to sleep between the parents to keep warm, and even at that he got frostbite on his ears.

We had wool quilts to keep us warm.  We carded the wool ourselves and made these great big heavy wool quilts.  That was always a summer job, making sure the quilts were renewed and ready for the next winter.  They lasted for a long time because we would wash them and re-card them and they would be ready for the cold season.

...Yet Happy

We could leave our meat out all winter and it would never thaw.  In the fall, we would butcher four pigs and a beef and we would have 16 huge hams that would last us the whole year.  And we made smoked sausage and spare ribs that would stay out on the porch all winter too.  In the summer they would hang the hams to cure in the granary.  We made baked beans.  We had our own garden, we had everything: potatoes, and all kinds of vegetables to can.

The washing machine was manual - Mom moved the paddle back and forth against the clothes to wash them.  It wasn't easy.  She kept the linoleum floors clean and the house clean, she planted and weeded the garden, she made the meals and then she had to be in the store as well when Dad was at the elevator.

It was a hard life, especially for my Mom, but at the same time we were happy.  I don't remember being unhappy. Mom prayed for us, she loved us, she took care of us, she brought us up as best she knew how.

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Gertrude's story