The John Tennis family…from Russia to Water Glen

From Russia to Ponoka, the Tennis family story in this week's Reflections.

One of the first Threshing outfits operating in the Water Glen district east of Ponoka was owned by early pioneer John Tennis. Shown from left to right with the massive machines are: Julius

One of the first Threshing outfits operating in the Water Glen district east of Ponoka was owned by early pioneer John Tennis. Shown from left to right with the massive machines are: Julius

On or about 1893 some of earliest settlers began arriving in the Water Glen district, which was situated in the rugged countryside near Red Deer Lake.

For these hardy pioneer families the hardships were many as they started from scratch with very few possessions to establish their homesteads, but somehow, through it all they endured and managed to carry on and plant the seeds and build the foundations of our proud heritage.

They survived the Russian winter and found Alberta

John Tennis was born in Barislov, South Russia, where his forefathers had been forced to walk with 2,200 hundred others from a port on the Baltic to Barislov and were among the only 535 souls who survived the trip through a northern Russian winter. He left his homeland with his wife Anna (Albers) and two children in 1889 and arrived in Manitoba, but after learning about the much milder winters in Alberta they travelled by train to Wetaskiwin, arriving in 1891 with their three children Julius, John and Annie.

As they embarked on this new adventure their worldly possessions included two oxen, a cow, a calf, a few geese and chickens, an old wagon, and 25 cents in John’s pocket. With the family spending the winter living in a one-room log cabin at the Malmas farm in Bear Hills, John ventured out to find some land to settle on, and in the spring of 1892 they moved onto their new homestead in the Water Glen district, built a home, then broke some land for a garden and a little patch of grain. Those first years were extremely hard, and having neither the equipment nor the money to get started, all their work was done by hand and that sturdy and reliable ox team. The little wheat that they grew was cut by scythe and cradle and then threshed by hand.

In his family memoirs Harvey Tennis recalled that in the fall his grand-dad would go to Calgary to work in the flour mills, returning with a 100-pound sack of flour, which he carried on his back most of the way. In those very early days they lived on what they grew and what they could catch, mostly rabbits, which were captured in a five foot pit that they had dug along their trail and covered with branches, and then were taken out by a snare at the end of a stick. In the spring of 1893 John Tennis broke up a little more land with his trusty oxen, and then returned to Calgary to work leaving Anna alone again with the children. She was always a brave and determined lady, and when the food supply dwindled to just a little boiled wheat, she would harness up the oxen and begin the long trip to Wetaskiwin to pick up flour, salt, sugar, and other vital supplies. In the summer it was so hot that the flies would attack the animals and they would take refuge in the river or a slough, then in the winter the snow might reach up to four feet deep and the temperatures would dip to 60 degrees below zero for days on end. Their early neighbours, who all worked together to reach their successes and face their challenges included the families of: John Bergman, Elof Peterson, Jonas Kallman, Andrew Lydeens, Erik and Ab Dufva, Tom Chalmers, the Smiths, Olaf Nelson, Anders Johnson, the Lindbloom and the Albers clan, and on and on.

Also highlighted in the Mecca Glen History book is the 1902 arrival in the Water Glen district by Mr. and Mrs. George Root and family, who had purchased several farms in Alberta (totalling 55 quarters). Their extended holdings in this area became known as the Hawkeye Ranch, to which they herded 100-head of cattle from Red Deer, as well as later raising registered Percheron Horses and Shorthorn Cattle and also purchasing 3,000 head of Merino Sheep in Montana, which were shipped to Ponoka and then out to the ranch.

Their first home was destroyed by a terrible prairie fire that ravaged the countryside from Wetaskiwin to Buffalo Lake in 1895, but then the Tennis family would build their palatial two-story two-roomed house further down the trail. They all lived together in this home until 1914, and the structure remained as a storage shed for many decades near the home of Charles Tennis. In 1912 John Tennis bought the first gas operated 30-60 Rumely tractor to come into the district, along with a 48-64, which was used to grade roads, break land, and harvest for many years. They had a very large family, which included nine living and five who died in childhood, and the proud and long-standing family farming tradition would carry on in and around the district for many decades.

It is an honour to relate these colorful stories of our early families as well as historical events and photos on the Reflections of Ponoka page in your Ponoka News. Anyone having story ideas or pictures are welcome to get in touch with me at 403-341-5750 or email, and thank you for all the great assistance I have received from so many over the years.