Archive for June, 2016|Monthly archive page

Eric W. Cormack

In Alix, Alberta on June 30, 2016 at 11:00 AM
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Eric Cormack

In March 1922, I left Saskatchewan and took the train to Edmonton. I turned up at the Corona Hotel where I was befriended by the desk clerk. He put my bedroll and my other luggage under his desk and showed me where I could get a big breakfast for 25 c. Then he took me to where I could catch a streetcar to get me on my way to Mr Gibson’s farm at Oliver. The streetcar took me as far as the Transit Hotel near the Swift’s packing plant and I then had a further 5 or 6 miles to walk. Along the way I got directions from very friendly people. I had walked about halfway to the farm when I was picked up by a fellow with a team and wagon who gave me a ride the rest of the way. The Oliver farm turned out to be a huge place and had a man, obviously the boss, keeping an eye on things.

I said “My name is Cormack and I’ve come from Saskatchewan” to which he replied “Oh, you’ve come, have you? You’ve come at a good time because Jimmy the houseman, has been waiting for two months to get away to see his girl in Lougheed but has been unable to leave because of all these cows. Can you milk a cow?”

“I can milk a cow” I said. This was literally true but it did not mean that I could milk a barn full of cows.

Anyway, Jimmy was another Scot and there were 42 blessed cows to milk. They were Holsteins and on R.O.P, (Record of Production) so you had to milk them, weigh the milk, record it, separate out the cream, feed the calves and so on. The milking was a terrible job for me. I could milk a couple of cows all right but when you sit down to milk more than 20 of them you’ve got a challenge. Sometimes I could hardly sleep at night because my arms ached so much. Mr Gibson was a graduate of McDonald College and he was very good to me. He never said what he was going to pay me and I never asked. The first month he paid me $40.00 which was four times as much as I had been earning during the winter. He increased my wages by $10.00 per month until I was getting $70.00 a month (plus room and board). So I was away to the races!

But what did I do for recreation? I was living in a bunkhouse with 4 or 5 other men and we got the newspaper there. I saw the announcement of an amateur track meet that was to be held in Edmonton. I believe it was being run by the Victoria Police Association. I was given a half day off in order to attend the meet (We normally worked a 7-day week). I went with a couple of the other hired men and won both the quarter mile and the half mile. That was my introduction to track in Alberta. It was a lovely break after having your nose to the grindstone. A day like that was fun -competitive, but nobody was vindictive.

One day Mr. Gibson said to me “Now, you want to go farming but you do no have enough capital. You should get yourself a degree at the University of Alberta”.

I said “Do you really think that’s a good idea?”

He said “Yes, you would then be eligible for a large number of occupations. I do not advise you to go homesteading at the present time”

The next thing that happened was that he invited Prof McGregor-Smith from Agricultural Engineering at U of A to come out to the Oliver farm so that I could meet him. Then I had a visit from Dean EA House of Faculty of Agriculture. The Dean said, yes, I should come to U of A so with all that pressure I enrolled at the University. Dean Howes was very keen that U of A should make a good showing in the Inter-Collegiate track against UBC, U Saskatchewan and U Manitoba.

I went to Saskatoon with the track team and enjoyed the hospitality of the U of Saskatchewan. I won the mile and the half-mile with record times and came second in the 3-mile. When I got back to Edmonton I found that I had made quite a mark as ‘the bald-
headed Flying Scot’.

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E W Cormack, 1924

That fall there was an Inter-Faculty track meet and I noticed an attractive young girl winning the 100- and 200-yard races. I asked who she was and was told that her name was Barbara Villy, that she was a student in Honours English, reputed to be a very good writer.

One afternoon I ran into Len Huskins, a graduate student in Field Husbandry (Genetics). It turned out that he was married to Barbara Villy’s sister, Margaret and that they were living in a little cottage on 88th Avenue. Margaret’s parents had come up from Calgary for the weekend and they were having a little family gathering. They needed another man to balance the party and Len had been sent sent over to Athabasca Hall to find another Ag. man. He ran into me as we were walking across the campus and asked me if I would like to come. I said “Sure” and when I went there was Barbara Villy.. We had a very pleasant evening and one thing led to another.

In those days the U of A had only about 1000 students in all faculties so the university was an intimate, personal thing where you got to know nearly everybody. There were a lot of engineering students and a few in agriculture. There were 20 in my graduating class which was the biggest up to that date. The campus was quite compact with residences for about half the students. In Athabasca Hall where I was resident there was a dining room and a lower gym where you could dance to a record player. It was an awfully interesting university.

Another person I met in 1923 was D E Cameron, the U of A Librarian. He was another Scot and had been a minister in the U.K., (Presbyterian, I suppose) and had conducted a rather unconventional Sunday School in Manchester which Barbara and Margaret Villy had attended about 1912-13. DE Cameron was tremendously well-read and one of the truly educated men I have known in my life.

There were many very bright people around with which you exchanged ideas and some of it rubbed off. One chap was quarterback of the football team and later became Vice-President of Sun Life. In my classes there was tremendous competition and I had to listen hard and work hard to keep up. I think I was 4th or 5th in the class of 20.

I. Did you play football at U of A?

C. I was on the team but they did not play me very much because they wanted to save me for track where I was the star. I was invited to try out for the Eskimos but that did not work very well. My instincts were not for the stereotype game of doing exactly what you’re told by the coach. I would do the unexpected and could not be moulded into the team pattern.

In the second of my two years at U of A I got a job as “Central Check” at $40.00 a month which happened to be just what I was paying for room and board at Athabasca Hall. I had a little office to check the cash flow.

The Students’ Council budget havng been agreed upon the funds were dispersed according to the budget. A statement of the cash flow had to be available at every Council meeting. They had got into trouble the year before so I was the boy who had to keep the books straight. My personal finances were pretty tight but I allowed myself $2.00 a week to take out Barbara who was now “my girl”.

I. Did Barbara think $2.00 a week was enough?

C. Well, she had to put up with it. When she graduated in 1924, a year before I did, she got a job as a reporter for the Edmonton Journal, She got passes, sometimes two of them, to shows and concerts so that she could write them up. We would walk across the High Level Bridge to a theatre downtown and if I was flush we’d have a cup of coffee or hot chocolate and we would have three chocolate marshmallow biscuits. The coffee was 10c and the biscuits 3 for 10c.. Barbara had agreed to get married as long as we did not go farming. As it turned out, we got married and went farming in 1925.

When I graduated in April with the degree of Bachelor of Science in Agriculture I joined forces with another graduate, Bill Gentleman, and rented a half-section farm 6 miles north of Tees, about 20 miles east of Lacombe. The farm came equipped with basic farm implements, 10 horses and one cow.

That spring we put in 175 acres of crop which is a lot to do with horse-drawn equipment so we worked like ‘billio’. Bill and I were ‘batching’ in a two-room shack on the ‘Tees Place’ while Barbara was living with her parents in Edmonton and working for the Edmonton Journal. After the crop was in I got a temporary job in Acme, AB , as a butter-maker a job I had done the summer before. I bought a pony to give my bride as a wedding present. I exercised the pony a bit and then rode up to the ‘Tees Place’ which took two days. I left the pony there and went up to Edmonton to get married.

Barbara and I were married in August 1925 with D E Cameron performing the ceremony. Somebody had hired a piper so we had a bit of a ‘do’ and went to Jasper for our honeymoon.The catch was that the summer staff at Jasper Park Lodge were nearly all U of A students who knew us. We were met by a friend, Ray Stickson who drove a taxi and took us to the YMCA camp on Lake Edith. As we started out there was an awful noise and we found that the taxi was dragging a lot of tin cans. I did not catch onto this but Barbara knew exactly what it was and blushed away. We thought we were being hidden away.

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Barbara and Eric’s wedding announcement

After the honeymoon we moved to the farm north of Tees.

One day when I was cutting grain with a four-horse binder Barabara reported that someone was using terrible language trying to get the horses going fast enough to run the binder. “Who could it be? Surely not Eric, he doesn’t use language like that.” But she learned quickly. Barbara found herself cooking for four hungry men. Two of our staff were young university professors. One of them, Howard Nichols, was a very accomplished musician and later became the U of A’s resident organist.

To purchase food and other supplies she had to take the buggy and a pair of lively horses to the general store in the village of Tees, 6 miles away. There was a well on the farm but one usually had to pump water by hand because the pump engine did not work. Well, anyway, we got the harvesting done and Bill Gentleman headed off to Scotland on a cattle boat. Barbara and I thought about settling in at the ‘Tees Place’ for the winter of 1925-26 as we could have sold enough grain to get along. However, on a trip to Edmonton to visit friends I ran into C P Marker, the Dairy Commissioner, who told me that he was looking for somebody to teach dairying at the Vermilion School of Agriculture. He knew that I was a qualified grader and that I had been working as a butter-maker during the summer. He asked me whether I would go to Vermilion and I said “Yes”. (People have done this sort of thing to me all my life. I guess they think I need being taken care of.) So, after making arrangements for somebody to look after the horses and cattle we left the Tees farm and turned up at the Vermilion School of Agriculture (VSA) in the fall of 1925.

It was very hard to find accommodation in Vermilion in late October. We finally found a very large room in a business block. I think the room had been a store at one time. There was one little toilet around the corner and water in a tap down the passage. At least you didn’t need to go outside for anything. We had a great time that winter at VSA. The Principal was WJ Elliott, a graduate of Guelph Agricultural College in Ontario and one of the pioneer agricuturists in Canada. By chance, WJE had lived next door to Barbara’s parents, the Villys, when they lived in Calgary and Mrs. Villy had given piano lessons to WJ’s son Billy. WJE, therefore knew the family and was very kind to us when we were in Vermilion.

At that time there were several ‘Hoadley Boys’ enrolled at VSA. When Charles Hoadley was Minister of Agriculture for Alberta he had promoted a scheme for Britsh boys in their late teens or early 20’s to come to VSA for a winter term to learn some basic skills such as handling horses , milking cows, using farm machinery and so on. In the spring they would be helped to find jobs on Alberta farms, They could come back for another winter term if they wished to graduate from the school. In the fall of 1925 there were 35 of these British boys at VSA and they certainly stirred things up. One of them, Ronald Purkis, became my partner on the farm near Alix, from 1928 until 1941.

In late 1925 I inherited about $4000 and bought a farm of my own.. I made a down payment on a quarter-section about four miles north of Alix and had $640.00 left. with which I bought four horses, a cow and some farm implements. The farm had a large barn and what we thought at the time was a wonderful house with three bedrooms.

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I. Was it good land?

C. Only fair. Some of it was pretty hilly and some had a lot of boulders and stones. however it was a pretty good farm and I increased it to a full section, 640 acres, as time went on. We had a great life in the Alix district. I would say that the community took to us. I was pretty green in farming operations and made plenty of mistakes. I was much better with horses than with tractors. We had 22 horses when I went off to WW-II in 1940. Horses did not take much to keep in those days. When you threshed you got big straw piles and during the winter the horses you were not using were browsing at the straw piles and doing quite well. We used to have up to 12 working horses and a tractor.

I. What kind of tractors?

C. Our first ones were McCormick-Deerings (10/20 and 15/30) and then we got rubber-tired John Deere tractors. My partner, Ronald Purkis, usually looked after the tractors and I handled the horses.

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We milked up to about 8 cows and shipped cream to the creamery in Alix. The weekly cream cheques bought the groceries – but not quite. We kept cattle, we kept pigs, we kept chickens, we kept sheep. It was an old-fashioned mixed farm.

I. What did you do in the winters?

C. Ronald would look after the livestock wile I went away to teach at V.S.A. Sometimes Barbara would come to Vermilion with me but usually not.

I. How many winters did you do this?

C. Fifteen, from 1925 to 1940. A lot of it was during the Depression and times were very hard. I was away on active service with the Canadian Army from 1941 until 1946 when I returned to the farm. We left the farm in 1950 after a great life in the Alix district for 25 years.










Valentine Schnepf

In Alix, Alberta on June 24, 2016 at 9:00 AM

From “Valentine Schnepf” as told by Maggie (Schnepf) Sanderson 

“Father’s name was Valentine Schnepf.  He came to Canada in 1905 and bought land in the Carroll District.  We didn’t move up until 1911.  We left New Windsor, Illinois, by train. Of course, our supplies, horses, and household things were loaded in a freight car and my brother, John, and brother-in-law, Otis Tomlinson came in the car.  It had all been hauled to the car in a lumber wagon and it all left a week before we did. Dad and our whole family came by train from Rock Island, Illinois.

It was in Moose Jaw we got on this train, “Immigrant”, they called it, and we came right on to Calgary.  The seats were slat seats, just benches really, and you couldn’t really sleep, just sat up….. We waited for the train to come to Lacombe.  Then we waited for the train to come to Alix, so we travelled by train all the way….

We got into Alix on March 10, 1911.  We stayed at the Grand Hotel that was there on the same site that the Catholic Church [later stood].  We stayed there a whole week before our car came.  We had to unload everything, so Dad unloaded the horses first and took them to the livery barn.  Of course, our horses ate corn and ate it right off the cob.  The fellow at the livery put some in for the other horses and it scared them.  I know my brother said the fellow thought it so funny to see the horses eat corn like that…

The Grand Hotel was a two storied building and it had 22 rooms upstairs for bedrooms.  There  was a long hallway and a parlour downstairs, a kitchen…then the dining room and of course the bar and waiting room. It was a big place.  Mr. King bought it from Mr. Bell , then in ’14, I think, he sold to Mr. Frisch.  Soon after prohibition came in, he just left and the hotel stood vacant.  A farmer bought it and tore it down.

It was in March [1911] when we came, of course, but when summer came, it was beautiful….

There were all kinds of fruit, saskatoons and wild strawberries you could pick by the pailful, great big ones.  Mom canned them by the quart.  Then raspberries, pinchberries and chokecherries: it would be purple with them.

How did we wash our clothes?  In those days you didn’t have washers and driers, and you carried your water from the well.  We made soap from grease and lye, Mom even made face soap; the only difference was she put perfume in it and made it like a cake of soap.  Then, too, you had to prepare all your own meat, butcher, make sausage, and smoke the meat. We baked bread using a starter, mostly.  My mother made vinegar so there was always plenty of vinegar.  We made butter with a dasher and a stone jar and later with a barrel churn  as thee was a lot of butter made .The smoked meat was put in sacks and usually buried in grain, as it was cold and kept the meat from moulding.  The sausage and spare ribs were fried down, put in a stone crock, covered with lard and set in a cold place.  Yes, everything was done.  If you wanted vegetables and fruit for winter, you canned them.  You didn’t buy anything in those days.  We had a butter maker made from wood, it had a roller to work every bit of liquid out of it.”

This article is from the book Pioneers and Progress, a history of the Alix-Clive area printed in 1974by DW Friesen and Sons Ltd., Calgary.  Copies of it and of its follow-up Gleanings are available for sale at the Alix Public Library, Alix Wagon Wheel Museum, and Alix Home Hardware.


Coghill Railroad Siding

In Alix, Alberta on June 17, 2016 at 12:00 PM

From “Coghill Siding” by A. Nielsen

Coghill is a railroad siding between Alix and Haynes about three miles south and east of Stanton School.  A section crew lived there until the 50s.  Then there was just a section man lived there for a few years….

It was a very important grain loading place for the farmers of Stanton and Stone districts.  Many farmers would load a large number of car loads of grain to be shipped to Eastern Terminals.  In threshing time, crews were hired to haul the grain directly from the thresher to the siding.  They used teams and many four horse teams hitched to grain tanks holding 125 to 150 bushels of grain, and these hurried to keep the thresher going.

Of course the railroad didn’t always [have cars shunted] into the siding….  Farmers loaded a wagon lightly and put a speedier team on it.  When they saw (from a hill) a railway car or several cars, the race was on.  First man there held the car.

Sometimes the train crew … made a flying switch.  The car would probably stop far past the siding.  Then the farmer had to hitch his team to the car with a heavy chain and double trees.  It was the true pulling team that slowly pulled the car to the siding….

Coghill was a very busy little siding until grain elevators and trucks did away with so much heavy scooping.

This article is from the book Pioneers and Progress, a history of the Alix-Clive area printed in 1974by DW Friesen and Sons Ltd., Calgary.  Copies of it and of its follow-up Gleanings are available for sale at the Alix Public Library, Alix Wagon Wheel Museum, and Alix Home Hardware.

Can you match the railway terms and definitions from Along these Lines ed. L. S. Kozma, Edmonton: Canadian Northern Society, 2004? Answers will be posted on our Facebook page on Monday! 

  1. Wayfreight   l.c.l.
  2. Second trick            
  3. Hogger         
  4.  Midnight speed        
  5. California cab            
  6. Backhead 
  7. “Into the hole”
  8. Hand-bomber       
  9. Rip track             
  10. Spot

a) The back end of the fire box & boiler within the locomotive cab

b) Less-than-carload of freight

c) Slang for midnight express train

d) Tack set aside for the car-men to make repairs to rolling stock

e) Second shift, from 16:00 to 23:59

f) Slang for hand-fired

g) Slang for locomotive engineer

h) Slang for an unenclosed locomotive cab

i) Uncoupling cars from a train and placing them in a siding

j) Slang, a train that enters a siding to admit a passing or opposing movement


Threshing and Stooking

In Alix, Alberta on June 10, 2016 at 1:00 PM

These articles are excerpts from Fred B. Stone’s “Stones on a Farm”, taken from Gleanings, (the follow-up book to Pioneers and Progress), Alix-Clive Historical Club, 1981. Both books are available for sale at Alix Wagon Wheel Museum, Alix Public Library, and Alix Home Hardware.

“The grain harvest followed hard upon the hay making. The binder was powered by four horses, driven abreast. Stooking was a back-breaking job – probably the hardest, most monotonous and concentration of man power that the farm had to offer. It consisted of pucking up the sheaves or bundles of grain deposited in rows on the ground by the binder, standing them on their butts – leaning inwards for mutual support – in stooks of six to ten bundles each. The purpose of this was to expose the heads of grain to the sun and air so that the straw would dry out and the grain kernels would harden – thus permitting the grain to be shaken out of the straw as it went through the separator.

In the early days before there were enough threshing outfits to thresh all the grain prior to snowfall, it was the practice to assemble the stooks into stacks from which the bundles were subsequently pitched directly into the feeder of the separator. Stacking was also hard work, as it involved forking the stoked bundles into a bundle rack drawn by two horses, and then pitching them onto the stack with a man on the stack again forking the bundles into a butts-out- heads-in circular arrangement. The stack was rounded, with the sheaves sloping slightly upward so that rain and snow would not penetrate the stack and dampen the grain.”

“With the coming of more threshing machines, stook threshing became prevalent. Although this was also hard work for the bundle pitchers, and indeed for the grain haulers too – as they had to manually shovel every bushel of grain in transferring it from separator to storage – stook threshing was the most exciting operation on the farm. It revealed, in measurable form, the hitherto uncertain rewards of a year’s work.

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A local re-enactment of stream threshing

Grain could be converted into cash, either by selling it on the market or by feeding it to livestock which, when fattened, could be in turn marketed for cash. There was the stimulating effect of being brought together in large numbers in a combined and sustained work situation. Each participant had to hold up his end, and the number of bushels threshed was a figure that all looked forward to hearing at the end of the day. Any failure, human or mechanical, could adversely affect that figure and, moreover, add to the risk of some farmer’s stooks being caught in the snow before the threshing gang got to them.

Strikes were unheard of and unthought of. Working hours were from “can’t see till can’t see”. Crewmen took their bedding with them as the outfit moved from farm to farm. They slept in haylofts, and granaries. Their appetites were good and the farm women fed them well – serving, in effect, five meals a day, including lunches brought to the field morning and afternoon. Many a farmwife sighed in grateful relief as she watched the threshing machine roll slowly off her farm onto a neighbours’s field, taking with it a dozen ravenous appetites.

The advent of the tractor, powered by an internal combustion engine, eventually put the steam engine out of business.”

1959 DVC, RAP binde, tractor

Photo courtesy of D. Cormack

“Here’s a shot of Ronald Purkis’ tractor with me tagging along on a modified 6′ horse binder which he inherited from Cuthbert Wolfersatn.  My job was to try to drop the bundles in reasonably straight rows for subsequent stooking.”

“One of Nature’s Wonders” by Molly (Rice) Nielsen

In Alix, Alberta on June 3, 2016 at 1:00 PM

“There are some wonders of Nature we see only once in a lifetime, if we are lucky and at the right place at the right time.”

“I cannot remember the year we saw this one, but believe it must have been around the early nineteen thirties. One evening there was a heavy electric storm and a heavy down pour of rain for about a half hour. After the storm, we, the Rice kids, always went to see how deep the puddles were, and how much rain water we caught for wash day, and how far the moisture went down in the garden, etc. Little did we expect to see a large migration of salamanders.

Up until this evening I had always thought salamanders were slow moving creatures. Now there were hundreds of them with tails erect and all going in a northwest direction. We counted over a hundred between the gate and the house, moving quickly. They were all around the house.

My sister, Het, and I slept in a room that was on ground level. Some salamanders in their march had got in there. With the help of a broom and dust pan we carried all we could find outside. We were reluctant about going to bed as they were far from welcome guests. Every sheet, blanket, and pillow case was carefully examined before we climbed into bed.

In the morning there wasn’t a salamander in sight. Where had they come from and where did they go?”


This article is from the book , Gleanings, (1981), the follow up to Pioneers and Progress, a history of the Alix-Clive area printed in 1974 by DW Friesen and Sons Ltd., Calgary. Copies of both are available for sale at the Alix Public Library, Alix Wagon Wheel Museum, and Alix Home Hardware