A PERSONAL ESSAY
By Robert Bak
We see my grandparents John and Robin beginning to pack and start a new epic journey. They have been planning this trip for a long time. Both have decided to leave the dark and dreary northern part of Scotland where they were born and are leaving for the great plains of Canada. There have been exhibitions set up, and lectures were given to immigrate to the “good farming land that was for sale.” The Canadian government was hoping to bring as many new citizens as to work the land. And my grandparents were part of the wave that came across the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life for themselves.
Their choice to uproot their lives, save as much as they could to afford the fare to a new beginning showed remarkable courage and resourcefulness. Finally, their passports were approved, and they purchased third-class ship tickets. After a rough crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, they made their way into the St Lawrence River. The ship docks in Montreal and off to the train station to purchase coach tickets on the Canadian Pacific Railway for a long and arduous train ride to Saskatchewan. The first section of the trip was to Fort Williams at the head of Lake Superior. Then westbound thru Winnipeg, the forests had finally stopped. The prairie stretched to the far horizon and then to their final destination of Regina. They were both overwhelmed by the size and scope of their new country. It was not anything that they had experienced or had seen before.
John had purchased a small farm on the prairie, just outside of Regina, with the main house, a small barn, an outhouse, and a sod-covered deep root cellar. Soon their family is growing, Lloyd is born, and Elizabeth comes to join them a few years later. John is a travelling salesperson for a farm equipment company. He will sell all the necessary implements that need to run a ranch or farm. His travelling will start in the spring after the last snows. It takes many long and gruelling hours for him to get to the small hamlets, ranches, and farms to sell his farm equipment. He has to travel throughout the southern portion of the province, with his sample case to show what is available. Robin is starting to plan her vegetable garden, with the first spring plantings needing to go into the ground.
During the winter months, travel is about impossible with the blizzards blowing off of the Arctic Circle. Their root cellar is a requirement to keep food available throughout the winter months. She has arranged her seeds and where she will plant them. Especially important are her onions, beets, potatoes, turnips, and carrots.
As the spring and summer rains come, her garden is turning many shades of green. Lloyd and Elizabeth help her tend the growing garden choices for the upcoming harvest time. Robin has marked each long row with a stake to show what is growing. Her kids have to keep the weeds in check, or they will hear about it. By late summer, Robin gets ready to jar and preserve her different fruits and vegetables. The many crops start to come to the time to start the process of filling up the root cellar and be stored away for the upcoming months.
Soon the first snows arrive, and John’s selling season is over, and John can return home for the winter. Many things are needed to get ready for the long winter ahead. By the end of the year, they have to make snow tunnels to get to the outhouse, barn, and root cellar. On the windy plains, travel to any city or neighbour is about impossible. They all had to be aware, especially after a fresh snowfall, that when you went outside to be aware of the bright shimmer that was present in the air. If you were not careful, snow blindness could set in.
More from Goat’s Milk Magazine
For the next decade, this is their daily life adjusting to the yearly weather changes. But then something happens. Slowly at first, the spring and summer rains stop. They did not know, starting in 1929, an unprecedented decade of drought set in. The spring rains had never come back. This would damage the agriculture growing possibilities of a vast area of land. Dust storms would blow the dry land around, growing crops would become hard or impossible. You could not go outside during one of these storms. Everything, including the sky, was a dull grey colour. Breathing the air became difficult; it tasted like sand. Then came the vast swarms of grasshoppers; they were in the millions, eating whatever was left.
With all of the new farming equipment, the prairies were being overploughed, and the soil started to dry out. Ranchers and farmers are beginning to see their property blow away with the wind. They cannot grow anything or pay the taxes, and land values start to drop. More of the owners are either trying to sell their land or abandoning the properties. John’s business is quickly losing customers all over the province. Robin’s garden is less and less able to grow anything. She is not happy with the choices she has to make.
John and Robin are now facing a great challenge of what to do. Should they stay and ride out this drought or leave their prairie life and move to a city? So many other families were being forced to move away from their land.
The following spring, the four are packed and go on a long train ride back eastbound to Ontario. This is not an easy trip for them. Leaving their farm and lifestyle for a new start, a new beginning. They take a final look at the farm and get to Regina to take The Canadian Pacific Railway next eastbound train. It will take them to Winnipeg and then east to Thunder Bay. After a short rest, the trip will take them around the Great Lakes and into Toronto. They will then switch to a local train to take them to their destination.
Robin and John have a family that they can move near to. They settle for Peterborough and rent a house, and John can get odd jobs, and Lloyd and Elizabeth can find work. Robin no longer has her root cellar or a need for one. But she does have a garden in the back of the house. And, in the fall, she prepares her mason jars for the winter. But this time, she has a space in the dark and cool basement.
Robin starts writing a women’s column to give helpful hints to the readers every week for the local newspaper. This is during the depression and all of the many challenges that women are facing daily. It also brings in a small remuneration to help with the monthly bills. She uses the pen name of Roberta and titles her column “Just Between Us Women.” It becomes an instant hit in the paper, and she writes for a couple of years.
So many families who lived on the Great Plains in Canada and the US had to move away to have a better life. Some never came back to their farms or ranches after many years away. The rains finally did come back to the land, but it was not the same. A whole generation of families survived the many difficult choices that were made or what the weather made for them.
You had to be a strong and resilient family to survive the challenges they had to endure. John and Robin and their family were indeed strong, and they did survive and flourish. Lloyd and Elizabeth followed in their footsteps, and both had their own families. And I am part of my mother’s and grandmother’s family.
Both of these women had a certain power over themselves. They had survived those many years of drought and then the depression and then the war. You could say they were rooted in their strengths, strengths that their past family showed them.
Robert Bak has written and published over a dozen of his short stories, essays, and short plays in the US and Canada. He has been involved with the entertainment industry for many years. First starting as a stage manager Off-Off-Broadway in NYC, and then working in Los Angeles and Albuquerque entertainment businesses. INK Babies Literary Magazine will publish “Are You Alive” in their forthcoming summer 2021 addition. Wilderness House Literary Review will publish “A Gust Of Wind” in their 61st issue (Vol 16, no 1) spring 2021 issue. Penultimate Peanut will publish “I Like To Aggravate People In Line” in its fall 2020 issue.