Reflections of Ponoka: A salute to pioneer wives and mothers

In the earliest days of the settlement of the rugged but lush and fertile regions of Alberta, many a homestead wagon would slowly

This classic 1904 photo shows the loyal wives and mothers bringing lunch

This classic 1904 photo shows the loyal wives and mothers bringing lunch

In the earliest days of the settlement of the rugged but lush and fertile regions of Alberta, many a homestead wagon would slowly make its way through the challenging terrain, while facing all manner of weather conditions in search of a new home and a hopefully bright future.

These creaking wooden wagons carried the wives and mothers who had gathered up their most treasured possessions, left familiar birthplaces, and graciously embarked on a rigorous journey after graciously accepting the fact that where husbands, fathers, and sons had chosen to seek out new family opportunities, they would willingly follow.

Over the course of many exciting decades, the presence of these very determined and gritty pioneer women would most often mean the difference between numbing loneliness and companionship, their help would turn squalor into a decent and comfortable lifestyle, and their children supplied ample motive to patiently carve a farm home out of the wilderness. These precious ladies also brought a gentle ongoing softness and stability that slowly ‘civilized’ a harsh new land, and they were a delightful promise of a gracious living, even in an often ungracious land.

Many early and ongoing stories have been told by countless family generations about these early decades of massive growth and success, that were achieved through extreme hardships and joy in both our rural and urban areas. As we share some of these amazing contributions, challenges, and traditions of our brave pioneer women, we must always strive to appreciate and honour their efforts and dedication not only then, but to this very day.

• Many wives and mothers claimed that for the first few years on their new homesteads there would be many times when she longed for some conversation with another woman, but there were many, many months when she was never away from home, and no other women came by. Day-to-day they would have to bravely face many stark realities in their busy lives, but when they did gather together with family and neighbours it was always a cherished occasion of sharing, good fun, and strong friendships.

• The women in those days worked hard, often helping their husbands to stook while pushing the baby carriage between the rows, running the binder and plow, then rushing back home to complete the chores and tend to an ever-growing family. During planting or harvest season they would load up the wagon or half-ton with ample food and refreshments to feed the hungry crews, quite often facing cold and windy conditions, bad roads, and of course hordes of bugs. On these days it would be too busy to do the piles of washing and ironing, but there would always be tomorrow. As well venturing out to pick wild berries, everything in the large garden had to be tended, picked, and prepared for year round survival, while most ladies had to become keen shooters to snare elusive wild game to keep the cold room full.

• Our winters were severe (50 to 60 degrees below zero), so all family clothes had to be woolen, which included black stockings, red felt boots laced up to the knee, and of course long underwear. If we couldn’t afford many changes of woolen undies, mom washed at night and dried them by the stove for the next morning. Mothers usually drove their children to school every morning, on roads that were two-wheeled ruts through prairie and bush, quite often encountering coyotes, wild horses, and other predators.

In the winter the team, and later the vehicle had to lunge through huge snow banks, and in the severe weather she would take her knitting along and stay all day at the little old schoolhouse. On many occasions there were those long trips to town for parts, supplies, and the selling of home made goods, produce, and stock, but later the arrival of the phone made communication and social life a whole lot better.

• These good wives and mothers had sprung from generations of pioneer ladies, who had been handed down the ingenuity and patience to make do with those things they had at hand. Even those essentials to comfortable living such as soap and water entailed a great deal of planning, time, and labour, with early homesteaders getting water from the nearby sloughs, streams and rivers. Progress featured the digging of a well that initially required hauling the water up in a bucket by rope, then later the great luxury of a hand pump. Rain was carefully collected in barrels or cisterns to be used for the Saturday night bath rituals and Monday washdays. Countless tubs of snow were hauled inside during the long winters, which were thawed and heated in the copper wash boilers on the kitchen stove, then hauled back outside when the wash was done. Soap and candles were carefully made with the help of lye, from the fats collected from cooked meats, or rendered from the fat that was cut from the pigs and beef at butchering time.

Let us not pity these hardy pioneer women, for they always had their moments of pride, excitement, and pleasure too. Her surprises came with the cranky old clucking hen as she presented her newly hatched clutch of chicks, while her hope was in the newborn heifer being fussed over by the old milk cow. Her pride was in her garden, in her wonderful cooking, and in bringing her family to church on Sunday morning looking scrubbed, clean, and happy, and everyone singing at the top of their lungs. Her greatest pleasure was her family, and there was and always will be a special closeness among family members who have had to work together to survive.

Many of us will likely remember those cold winter evenings that started with chores for all, including cows to milk, bringing in armfuls of wood and pails of water, the nightly ritual of filling the coal oil lamp, then that magic homey smell of mother’s freshly-baked bread, which quickly beckoned her hungry brood to the table for the evening meal.

Who can ever forget the friendly warmth of her old cook stove with the oven door open and perfect for propping up cold feet or warming frozen fingers. Then after supper there was always lots of sewing, or her knitting needles could click in peace while her family all gathered in the intimate circle of the flickering lamp or the crackling fireplace. Later, as they were all safely tucked into bed, there must have been a special joy for those pioneer mothers and wives that her flock was safely under wing and had been fed and clothed by her own two hands.

The roles of our wives and mothers may have changed just a little over the years, but their special kind of love, kindness, and understanding will always remain the same. May God bless them all.