101 Classic Short Stories: Country Life in Canada in the “Thirties”

By Canniff Haight

Country life in Western Canada in the “Thirties” was very simple and uneventful. There were no lines of social division such as now exist. All alike had to toil to win and maintain a home; and if, as was natural, some were more successful in the rough battle of pioneer life than others, they did not feel, on that account, disposed to treat their neighbours as their inferiors. Neighbours, they well knew, were too few and too desirable to be coldly and haughtily treated. Had not all the members of each community hewn their way side by side into the fastnesses of the Canadian bush? And what could a little additional wealth do for them, when the remoteness of the centres which might supply luxuries, enforced simplicity and made superfluities almost impossible?

The furnishings of their houses were plain, and the chief articles of dress, if substantial and comfortable, were of coarse homespun—the product of their own labour. The sources of amusement were limited. The day of the harmonium or piano had not come. Music, except in its simplest vocal form, was not cultivated; only the occasional presence of some fiddler afforded rare seasons of merriment to the delight both of old and young.

The motto of “Early to bed and early to rise” was, even in winter, the strict rule of family life. In the morning all were up, and breakfast was over usually before seven. As soon as the gray light of dawn appeared, men and boys were off to the barns, not merely to feed the cattle but to engage in the needful and tedious labour of threshing by hand. In the evenings, the family gathered together for lighter tasks and pleasant talk around a glowing fire. In firewood, at least, there was, in those days, no need for economy.

We scarcely realize how largely little things may contribute to convenience and comfort. There were no lucifer matches at that date. It was needful to cover up carefully the live coals on the hearth before going to bed, so that there might be the means of starting the fire in the morning. This precaution was rarely unsuccessful; but sometimes a member of the family had to set out for a supply of fire from a neighbour’s, in order that breakfast might be prepared. I remember well having to crawl out of my warm nest and run through the keen frosty air for half a mile or more, to fetch live coals from a neighbour’s. It was, however, my father’s practice to keep bundles of finely split pine sticks tipped with brimstone. With the aid of these, the merest spark served to start the fire.

In the spring, tasks of various kinds crowded rapidly upon us. The hams and beef that had been salted down in casks during the preceding autumn were taken out of the brine, washed off, and hung in the smoke-house. On the earthen floor beech or maple was burned; the oily smoke, given off by the combustion of these woods in a confined space, not only acted as a preservative but also lent a special flavour to the meat. Then ploughing, fencing, sowing, and planting followed in quick succession. No hands could be spared. The children must drive the cows to and from pasture. They must also take a hand at churning. It was a weary task, I remember, well to stand, perhaps for an hour, and drive the dasher up and down through the thick cream. How often did we examine the handle for evidence that the butter was forming, and what was the relief when the monotonous task was at an end. As soon as my legs were long enough, I had to follow a team; indeed, I drove the horses, mounted on the back of one of them, when my nether limbs were scarcely sufficiently grown to give me a grip.

The instruments for the agricultural operations were few and rough. Iron ploughs with cast-iron mould-boards and shares were commonly employed. Compared with our modern ploughs, they were clumsy things, but a vast improvement on the earlier wooden ploughs which, even at that date, had not wholly gone out of use. For drags, tree-tops were frequently used.

In June came sheep-washing. The sheep were driven to the bay shore and secured in a pen. One by one they were taken out, and the fleeces carefully washed. Within a day or two, shearing followed in the barn. The wool was sorted; some was reserved to be carded by hand; the remainder was sent to the mills to be turned into rolls. Then, day after day, for weeks, the noise of the spinning-wheel was heard, accompanied by the steady beat of the girls’ feet, as they walked forward and backward drawing out and twisting the thread and running it on the spindle. This was work that required some skill, for on the fineness and evenness of the thread the character of the fabric largely depended. Finally, the yarn was carried to the weavers to be converted into cloth.

The women of the family found their hands very full in the “Thirties.” Besides the daily round of housewifely cares, every season brought its special duties. There were wild strawberries and raspberries to be picked and prepared for daily consumption, or to be preserved for winter use. Besides milking, there was the making both of butter and cheese. There was no nurse to take care of the children, no cook to prepare the dinner. To be sure, in households when the work was beyond the powers of the family, the daughter of some neighbour might come as a helper. Though hired, she was treated in all respects as one of the family, and in return was likely to take the same sort of interest in the work, as if the tie that bound her to the family was closer than wages. In truth, such help was regarded as a favour, and not as in any way affecting the girl’s social position.

The girls in those days were more at home in a kitchen than a drawing-room. They did better execution at a tub than at a spinet, and could handle a rolling-pin more satisfactorily than a sketch-book. At a pinch, they could even use a rake or fork to good purpose in field or barn. Their finishing education was received at the country school along with their brothers. Of fashion books and milliners, few of them had any experiences.

Country life in Canada was plodding in the “Thirties” and there was no varied outlook. The girls’ training for future life was mainly at the hands of their mothers; the boys followed in the footsteps of their fathers. Neither sex felt that life was cramped or burdensome on that account. They were content to live as their parents had done. And though we can see that, as compared with later conditions, there may be something wanting in such an existence, this at least we know, that, in such a school and by such masters, the foundations of Canadian character and prosperity were laid.