Reflections of Ponoka: The early pioneer way of work and play

In all of the colorful stories of our early hardy pioneer families, it may have seemed to many

This early pioneer mother encourages her children to get involved with teaching the young calves how to drink and eat out of a pail

This early pioneer mother encourages her children to get involved with teaching the young calves how to drink and eat out of a pail

In all of the colorful stories of our early hardy pioneer families, it may have seemed to many that during most of their long and average days on the prairies, they led a fairly simple and laid back life. To be more realistic, their hectic 365 day-a-year schedule likely started with a very early breakfast, followed by work, chores, get the kids off to school, feed the stock, milk the cows, check the egg shed, work, head out into the field for seasonal planting, clearing and harvest while mother tends to the garden, more chores, does some washing and churns up a batch of butter before preparing more meals for home or to take out to the field and rushes back to pick and clean some berries before the kids get home from school and dad comes in from hunting. This went on and on from dusk until dawn, but then occasionally after chores, an extra family outing and treat day might include a three-four hour trip into Ponoka, church on the weekend, followed by a district family picnic, ball-game, dance or amateur rodeo, then back to the same old grind on Monday.

There was no time to get bored

Most of the rugged and rolling land in those days was cleared by a strong back and an ax, then the brush was piled by hand and burned and the trees were sawed up for fire-wood and fence-posts or fashioned by hand for a new building. Then came along the invention of some fancy new breaking plows, and one of the first and finest was owned by Abe Davidson of the old Buckhorn district, which consisted of a 24-inch plow pulled by five or six yoke of oxen, but it was so heavy that Abe had to build a truck to haul it around to the fields in order to work for other district farmers.

Next was the arrival of an extremely noisy steamer owned by the Schultz brothers, and this powerful 25-horse power Case Steamer could pull an eight or 10 bottom plow. Unfortunately, it was so heavy it got stuck in the mud all the time, so many farmers had to go back to the old reliable handle or gang plows, which had two wheels but no seat, and of course were pulled by teams of eight to 12 horses or oxen. Crops and hay was first cut by scythe, then later with horse drawn mowers.  Over those early years, the farming methods and machines got better of course, but the constant challenges of storms, floods, crop failure, fires, hail, bugs, drought and low prices were always popping up, but were somehow overcome by everyone working together and helping each other in times of need. Many of the babies were delivered at home with the assistance of the neighbour ladies, but if an illness or injury was more serious and they couldn’t make it to town, the doctor was called to come out in his horse and buggy, and was quite often accompanied by the preacher to lend support to the family. The only hospital was in Lacombe, and until the first General Hospital was built in Ponoka in 1947, local patients were attended to in Dr. Graham’s palatial home/office/ hospital at 5112-51 Avenue.

Back at home, vegetables were put into jars and processed for several hours, with the meat cut up and canned in the same way, with some being put into a mixture of salt brine and warm lard, which one set would keep for a long time if kept in a cool place. The real savior of those early homesteads were their huge gardens, as well as the bountiful berries, fish, and wildlife that could be picked, caught and hunted throughout the year, which would always be needed to feed and nourish the large and constantly growing families.  Next to the fences and shelter for the animals, the first thing the homesteader looked for once he had settled in was water, which was dug for by hand or hauled from the creek or spring, while the wash water was caught in a barrel for washing clothes.

The cattle drive was the occasion that most men looked forward to, with the critter being rounded up the day before, then the long trip to the stock yards in Lacombe or Ponoka would begin early the next morning, with early prices bringing 2 ½ cents a pound for live weight. A trip to town with hogs or grain in winter was an arduous one with team and sleigh, but in the late 1920s, the grain hauling was first taken over by Jewel Stretch and Merle Gee, who also trucked gas from Turner Valley for about $8 to $10 for a 45 gallon pail.

There were also lots of fun times

The trip to town at the turn of the century was always completed by horse and buggy, including lots of blankets in the winter, and the possibility of fording or swimming across the flooded Battle River in the spring. After selling the eggs, veggies and bartering for other supplies, there might be some time to take in an auction sale, and while the horses were being attended at one of the many livery stables, mother and the kids would stop at the Ponoka Restroom to relax and visit with other ladies, while father popped into the Royal or Leland Hotel for a beer and a fine cigar.

A rare but very special family day would be a visit to the Capital or Empress Theatre on Railway Street to take in a black and white movie, a Minstrel show or concert, a boxing or a wrestling match, and many other activities that might also include a big bag of candy or popcorn for just a dime. Through the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, both town and country folks became avid baseball and hockey fans as well as attending the annual summer Ponoka Fair/Stampede/Races up on the same ground that they are held today. Later, the era of the automobile changed those early lifestyles just a little, but that same keen and friendly spirit of community and country spirit and camaraderie has continued to carry on long into our busy, bright and successful future.