“The trip wasn’t bad,” my Dad, Peter, later said.
He was talking about the last leg of their move – from the town of Davidson to his family’s homestead land, forty miles west. I don’t have any idea what he was comparing that trip to, and, perhaps because they made it, he downplayed how difficult it actually was. Or, perhaps, by the time he told the story to my sister, Edna, and she wrote it down, he’d been through worse. After all, he was young, just 15, when they went those last forty miles, and youth has a way of brightening the bad times.
The twins – Peter and Paul – and Johnny Anderson went on horseback to drive the cattle as they headed out of Davidson. The land was pancake flat. Treeless. Seemingly never ending. As they rode along, they once came across a homesteader putting tar paper on a shack, but, otherwise, there was not a single building to be seen. Or anyone else, for that matter. As they got closer to their home for the night – Edgar Book’s homestead, the mercury was rising on the thermometer. For a day near the end of April, this was more like summer than the springtime it was, and by the time they got to Ed Book’s in the middle of the afternoon, it was a scorching 98°F.
Four Seasons in One Day
It was April 27th, 1905.
They milked the cows and then put the cattle in the pasture next to the sod barn. Peter and Paul stayed at the Book residence for the night while the rest of the men and the two Anderson brothers continued on to the homestead site. They’d filled a fruit sealer with milk to take with them on the ride.
As many prairie folks know, rarely does a hot spring day sleep like a lamb as evening comes, and so it was with the Stens, with their first introduction to a prairie storm, Saskatchewan style. The clouds began to rise, climbing higher and higher, turning darker as they rose. The wind stopped blowing, the air was eerily still.
And then the storm began, lightning opening the skies and the booming thunder following. The rain pelted down at first, and later turned to snow. Summer had turned to spring, cold to fall, then back to winter. It seemed they’d spanned four seasons in just one day.
The Big Coulee
Although the prairie between Davidson and the South Saskatchewan River seems pancake-flat, there are crevices in the earth called “coulees” that break up the flatness and, eventually, the farm land around them. These mini-valleys have streams at the bottom of them in the spring, feeding the South Saskatchewan River; the larger ones don’t quite qualify as being a “valley” but as “ravines” or “big coulees” as we called them. As the men pushed ahead in the dark, against the howling wind and snow, they came to the big coulees next to the home quarter, and that’s as far as they got. Try as they might, they couldn’t get the horses to go down the hill. The horses, already spooked from the storm, could probably no longer see their feet, and refused to move.
They camped in the coulee the first night and slept right on the ground. When they awoke the next morning, there were three inches of snow on their bedding. It may have been a new day, but the storm didn’t know better. It wasn’t letting up, in fact it was getting worse. It had morphed into a white-out blizzard. It was now winter at its worst.
The wind forced the snow at them horizontally, moving forward was impossible. Exposed and cold and no change in the weather, they had little choice but to work together, and against the storm, to erect a 12′ x 14′ shack right there in the coulee. They were only a quarter of a mile away from where the house I grew up in was eventually built.
They managed to squeeze the four horses, the two boxes of chickens and the stove into the shack, and got the stove lit long enough to cook some pancakes, using the flour from the grub box and the milk from the fruit jar. There was no room for the men to sit or lay down. Outside, the blizzard was still roaring; Per, his eldest boys Frank and Henry, and Andrew Anderson huddled together in the shack, but there wasn’t any more room for anyone else. Johnny and Axel left on foot for the homestead of William J. Pegg, about a mile away; they stayed with the Pegg’s until the storm stopped.
The next morning, Per took hitched two horses to the wagon and headed back towards Davidson to get my grandmother, Anna and Charlie, the youngest – and the rest of their belongings. He was able to find his way in the storm by following the correction line, which went all the way to Davidson. He made it halfway to Davidson that day, and spent the night at the Chell’s, 10 miles east of Ed Book’s. Per’s fur coat was of little use: he was soaked to the skin.
Per knew Andrew Frederick Chell from Sweden. In fact, while working as a tailor, Per had sewn an overcoat for the man, whose name was probably spelled “Kjell” before immigrating to Canada. They talked. They’d never seen a storm keep up that long and it had one more day to go.
By May 1st, the storm was over, at last.
Per, Anna, Peter, Paul and Charlie arrived on May Day, Monday, May 1st and found the boys had been busy making changes. Henry, Frank, Axel, Andrew and Johnny Anderson had made a corral for the cattle. They had also dismantled the shack and when they took it down, the fruit sealer was knocked to the ground and broke. In later years, that broken jar served as a reminder of that arduous journey. It marked the start of their new life, near where Per ended up being buried two years later, a spot we always referred to in Swedish-English as Grandpa’s Groven Hill (grave hill).
The shack was re-erected on the top of the coulee bank. This would become the home site and where the sod house was built; it was on flat land and you could see the South Saskatchewan River from there.
The Stens got busy, preparing the land. The sod house – and a sod barn – were both built before the winter of 1905-1906 set in.