By Al Brissette – Cranbrook, B.C.
My mother and I moved to a small village in Saskatchewan named Vanscoy to live with my grandmother. She had a small one-bedroom shack with a dining room and kitchen.
When I was five years old, grandmother died. Mother eked out a living from serving meals in her home and boarding two bachelors for $25 per month each.
One bachelor was the Quaker Oats elevator agent who slept on a cot in the elevator office. It reeked of fumes from the engine that propelled the grain to the various storage bins in the elevator. The other boarder was the Secretary of the Rural Municipality of Vanscoy who also had a cot in the RM office.
The only other available accommodation in Vanscoy was a small three-bedroom building known as Kong Lems Cafe. It wasn’t very desirable because the bedrooms were very small and the Chinese owner was often mysteriously absent from the premises.
Grandmother’s shack was very cold in the winter. Heat was supplied from a potbelly stove in the dining area with the stovepipes hanging from the ceiling to connect the stove to the chimney. It was a potential fire hazard. The other source of heat was the coal and wood stove in the kitchen.
During the severe winter days I saw frost on the nails inside the bedroom, ice on the water in the warming closet on the end of the kitchen stove, and ice on top of the slop pail which contained food scraps for the neighbour’s pigs.
The Vanscoy residents had poplar logs hauled in from the bush. A sawing bee would be organized to cut them into stove lengths.
I remember from when I was probably 12 years old how I used to be part of the sawing bee, getting sawdust in my eyes and sore muscles from heaving the cut wood on top of the pile.
I was quite nervous especially when being assigned to grab the wood as the saw penetrated through and then heaving the pieces on top of the woodpile. The poplar wood was very hard to ignite when green.
One of my chores was to split the wood into small pieces that were put in the oven to dry out so they could be used for kindling to ignite a fire in the morning.
Coal was expensive and only used in the wintertime for the potbelly stove because coal lasted throughout the night. When getting out of the bed in a cold bedroom we dressed next to the stove that provided heat from the coal embers. Emptying the ashes from both stoves was a daily assigned task.
In the wintertime ice was hauled from Pike Lake and dumped into a large excavation that had a roof over it. Several feet of straw or sawdust were piled on the ice to prevent melting. When the warm weather arrived the ice would be removed as needed, sawed into appropriate sizes and put in iceboxes to keep food supplies from becoming spoiled.
Another winter project was hauling snow in a tub, placing it on the stove to melt that provided soft water for bathing, doing the dishes, and washing clothes. The village water was extremely hard and curdled from the soap and oxidized the tea kettles.
The snowdrifts were a favourite playing area. Many hours were spent building igloos, tunnels, and playing fox and the goose.
There were many hardships during the Depression: money was scarce, crop failure after crop failure, grasshopper’s prevalent, insufficient food for the cattle and horses. Carloads of food and supplies were received from eastern Canada and northern Saskatchewan.
I remember dried codfish being part of the supplies received from the east. Many people threw out the codfish, which had the appearance of horsehide with no fur. Mother found a recipe, soaked the fish for several hours changing the water and cooked it up in a sauce.
She served meals to the RM of Vanscoy council when they attended for their monthly meetings and served the codfish. It was delicious. The councilors who had received many complaints about the codfish were amazed at the good taste.
Road hockey was a favourite sport but scarcity of money created many shortages. Hockey pucks were sometimes replaced with frozen horse dropping, while Eaton’s catalogues were use for shinpads.