OSCAR & CAROLINE HOLTHE
by Sydney Holthe
How does one sit in a comfortable chair in his living room in 1976, warmed by the energy of natural gas, lighted by readily accessible electrical power, a few steps away from an apparently unending supply of water, surrounded by the miracles of technology, and hope to adequately portray the ambitions, the hopes, the faith, the travail, the sorrows and joys of the lifetime of one's homesteader parents? To have shared in some way a part of those experiences is not sufficient to make me any kind of authority for I viewed them from my own perspective, using a different frame of reference.
However, I affirm that every man and woman who settled here and persisted through the years and added to the mosaic of community life is richly deserving of a place in our local history. Accordingly, 1 will attempt to chronicle what I see as the significant features of the portion of the lives of Oscar and Caroline (Urness) Holthe that were spent at Elk Point.
Oscar Holthe first visited the area in 1912 when he came in search of land for homesteading. By that date the better land had already been filed on and in fact was largely occupied. There was not any land to be secured at Zumbrota, Minnesota; there were two brothers at home as well; and he had heard the boasts of the Canadian immigration authorities that land was here for the taking, not just ordinary land, but land that would yield 40 bushels of wheat to the acre. At that time such a yield was unheard of in Minnesota; the straw growth there was tremendous, but rust and blight reduced the kernel yield to a relatively low figure.
He came with Henry O'Kane but they had only just arrived when O'Kane received word to return because of illness in the family. They had planned to check another area some distance from Wetaskiwin, but abandoned that plan on receipt of this news, filed on adjoining quarter sections, and returned to Minnesota. It would appear almost predestined that just before his death, Dad would sell the homestead quarter, the S.W. 21-57-6-W4.,to O'Kane's son Edward.
He returned in 1914 with his bride and travelled by train to Vermilion and then by team and wagon to Elk Point. There was never any reference to the difficulties of that journey; but they were adopted by a huge St. Bernard dog that they had found along the way and that they rescued from a collection of tin cans tied to his tail. That dog ultimately became the guardian of my older brother, and always guided Orville back to the farmyard if he managed to escape the vigilance of his parents. The farm and in fact the whole area was wooded and there were swamps, and one can imagine that parents lived in fear of a child wandering off and becoming lost.
The land was rocky and the hoped-for wheat bonanza did not materialize. The grain varieties were late maturing and the seasons too short, and year after year the grain was ripened by frost. Accordingly, there was very little money at all times, and at one stage my parents were down to their last 5 cent piece; however, needs were few and expectations humble, and so the lack of money was not the greatest handicap.
Not everyone was prepared to accept the loneliness, the disappointments, the cold winters, the privation, and some less doughty souls stayed only long enough to prove up on the homestead, enabling them to borrow money by using the land as security, and then to depart for home or greener pastures, leaving the holders of the mortgage to keep the farm to do with as they wished.
Oscar Holthe with his first team of oxen, 1914.
However, Dad had come to stay and, in fact, he did not return to Minnesota even for a visit. My Mother missed the amenities of the more productive and well-established area of her birth, and probably women more than men generally found life in a newly developing area more difficult to accommodate to. They would sense more acutely the loneliness, the fear of sickness, the dearth of social occasions, and the slow rate of improvement in living conditions.
Oscar Holthe's homestead under constructron
I feel that the role of the homesteading housewife should be glorified to a greater extent than it is, and I can only assume that it was the modesty of these ladies toward their accomplishments that has tended to deny them the recognition they deserve. They left comfortable family homes, journeyed through thousands of miles to an unfamiliar destination, lived in a tent until a humble log house could be built, endured heat, cold, insects, rodents, disasters, -- you name it. They toiled beside their men when needed, doing heavy and often dirty tasks during the day, and in the evening created the finest, daintiest works of needlecraft and handicraft. They were cooks, nurses, seamstresses, teachers, for their family; and if ever women deserve praise and gratitude it is those women who graced the pioneering era.
As so often happens, just when life should have become more relaxed for my parents, my Mother suffered a stroke and was unable to care for herself for the last six years of her life. This situation could have been regarded as a difficult burden for my Father, but if he regarded it thus, he did not ever say so.
None of the early settlers found life easy here, and Dad, like the rest, worked very hard. He still preferred the less intensive type of farming practiced here in comparison with the Minnesota farm of his youth. On his own father's farm, there was always the pressure of time; one task might be completed at 10 o'clock one night, and at five the following morning the next one must be started and it could not be delayed. Here at least, farmers could say that they could take off a morning to go fishing if they wished; I didn't notice anyone doing it, but they said they could if they wanted to!
Dad built good, adequate buildings on the homestead but the distance to school was considerable, and the corduroyed road across the swampy area needed constant rebuilding as it settled, and so in 1920, when I was one year old, he purchased the S.W. 4-57-6-W4 from W. Mabley and we moved to that location. I have always regretted the disappearance of the house on the homestead since it was my place of birth, but Dad had converted it to a granary, and someone burned it after first thoughtfully removing the grain it contained.
At one time, Dad farmed 500 acres with horses, and in addition kept a herd of milk cows, and always raised hogs. He tanned leather for harnesses and did much of his own blacksmith work. He broke horses to harness, and in fact would seek out broncos and purchase them. The only explanation can be that this added some element of pride or even excitement - it was perhaps a bit of distraction from the everlasting pressure of hard work and low prices.
In June of 1923, he bought a mechanical milking machine that was a marvel of technological achievement for that time. A handle operated a piston in a cylinder which had a fitting and hoses at each end. These hoses were complete with extensions and fittings that attached to the, uh, udder faucets of two cows. When the handle, and therefore the piston, was pushed forward, one cow was relieved of some of her burden; when the handle and the piston were pulled back, the second cow in turn gave up a portion of the produce of her mammary glands. Thus, two cows were milked, alternately, at one time. It was not really time saving for fast hand milkers, but it made a monotonous task more interesting.
Perhaps not enough credit has been given to the good old dual-purpose Shorthorn cow and her role in the settlement of this area. Immediately after being milked in the morning the herd was turned out to pasture on open land, thus grazing costs were nil; the cows were sought by a son or daughter on horseback in the evening, often miles from home; and that was the pattern for the summer. These cows produced strong, growthy calves, milked heavily during the summer months, and could survive on straw plus a taste of grain in the winter. Cream and beef prices were poor much of the time, but the production costs were low except in terms of labor and no one placed much value on his own labor.
Unfortunately too, not a very high value could be placed on the labor of others, and so the 'hired man' worked alongside the farmer for what must appear now as low wages. However, there were compensations for these young men; they were largely treated as a member of the family, and if there happened to be a daughter of marriageable age, then the employee might gain a bride, and perhaps a start on a farm of his own with his new father-in-law's assistance. It must appear that the only way a young man can expect to secure a farm at this date, 1976, is still to marry into one.
During the depression, unemployed men were directed to farrns during the winter under a subsidized arrangement whereby the farmer paid $5 per month in wages and the Canadian Government paid a similar amount. This situation, unattractive as it might appear from our perspective, was considered preferable to the 'bread lines' and 'soup kitchens' of the city. Anyway the work ethic was still definitely in vogue.
The depression affected nearly everyone in an adverse way, but at least in this area there were crops and gardens and therefore food in abundance. I recall clearly that there wasn't any money, and since it was only on the annual sports day that I would receive as much as 25 cents spending money at one time, I would never part with all of it that day. Five cents would buy a large bag of hard candy at C.A. Johnson's store, and with a bit of discipline that amount could be made to last a week. Farmers were losing money every year, but still I retain the memory of all the good food that Mother prepared for us. People had to become as self-sufficient as possible and so she became skilled in canning meat for summer use, in storing and canning vegetables, in picking and canning wild fruit. Dad smoked summer-sausage, cured beef in the form of â€˜jerky' (this is recommended only for people with strong jaws and sharp teeth), and made quantities of skim-milk cheese. What I am pointing out is that we did not have any money, but neither did we have any feeling of poverty, which would seem to verify the concept that poverty is a state of mind.
LEFT TO RIGHT Sid, Mrs O. Holthe, Mr. O. Hoithe, Orville - taken about 1937 at a friend's home.
The Bennett Buggy became the symbol of the depression, (and perhaps indicated some measure of disenchantment with the Prime Minister of Canada at the time). Car frames were lighter then and it was relatively simple to remove the engine when one could no longer afford such a luxury, and attach a pole and doubletrees. Actually it was a conversion from a Model T to an Oatsmobile! It provided a relatively comfortable utIlity buggy and Dad used one for years.
Marketing of produce before the railroad was completed to Elk Point was an ordeal that necessitated almost superhuman effort. Dad would leave at about or before 6 am. with a load of hogs, possibly walking all of the way to St. Paul behind the sleigh to keep warm. Roads were often drifting or had already drifted and winter temperatures could be severe. On occasion, livery barns in St. Paul might be already filled; in that case, the team would be blanketed outside to rest for a few hours and then hitched again to the sleigh for the arduous trip home. When the snow was cold and dry, the steel on the runners slid reluctantly and on a clear night the protesting squeal could be heard for long distances. Bells on the harness were popular, both to communicate in advance the arrival to those waiting at home, and also because of the cheering sound.
Threshing was always looked forward to with pleasurable anticipation - not only because of the significance of it as a part of the farm cycle, but partly because of the social aspect. Because the outfit and crew moved from farm to farm and the acreage was small in early days, the housewife always fed the threshers like guests; it was a matter of pride to do so because the ladies knew their cooking would be compared by the crew with that of other ladies, and no one wanted the reputation of being a poor cook. The days were long and the work hard and dusty, but a camaraderie always developed among the crew that lightened the burden of their task.
When the stook threshing had been completed, the outfit and the operator continued with the threshing of stacks, and this last part of the run might not be completed until nearly Christmas. Farmers with only a very few acres would stack their crop, mainly to keep it secure from the weather and to allow their livestock early access to the stubble for pasture, but by doing so they produced a most beautiful sample of grain. The wheat goes through some kind of a curing process in the stack, is protected from sun and rain, and exhibits an attractive amber coloring that is not found otherwise.
My impression is that L. Babcock, F. Pinder, and Dad, together bought a Titan tractor and a Goodison thresher quite early, and they undoubtedly gained a good bit of experience with that tractor. I don't think it was customary then to change to lighter oil and grease in cold weather, anti-freeze was not in use, and sometimes the process of warming the motor by building a fire under it was overdone and there would be considerable excitement until the flames were extinguished .
The only source of friction between neighbors that I can recall was caused by turkeys, of all things. Once the poults were hatched and had reached a suitable stage, these birds somewhat ran at large and even intermingled with other flocks. When marketing time arrived in the fall, they had to be sorted out and in spite of everyones' efforts to mark their own in some way, there always seemed to be some birds of uncertain ownership. It was a sensitive time and probably what was at stake was the housewife's pride in producing a suitable number of birds. After all, each had stalked the turkey hens in the spring to discover where they were laying, rescued the eggs from frost and predators until the hen was ready to 'set', watched over and fed the newly hatched poults until they could be expected to survive under freer conditions, and no way did they want to lose any of them when they had finally matured.
Farmers have never permitted misfortune to cause them to become somber, and their talent for laughing at adversity enables them to maintain a sense of humor. They have always cherished the friendship of neighbors, and there was a greater sense of community than there is now that people are so mobile. The Saturday night shopping trip to town, the dances at school houses or community halls, the whist drives, the Ladies Aid for women, the berry picking expeditions, and the ball games, all were occasions to look forward to ~ reminisce about afterward.
Baseball was always enjoyable to Dad. Like other former Americans in the district, the practice sessions and the touraments were very important events.
At one game, Dad was 'beaned' by a wild pitch; the I rebounded off his head and sailed up into the air. He urged to take his deserved walk, but obviously disturbed such treatment, he chose to complete his turn at bat. I know that he was struck as I have described above because he bore the scar on the side of his head; whether in fact did hit the next pitched ball for a home run I cannot However, that is what I have been told, and I am pleased include that detail for it certainly makes for a better end to the story.
He joined in ice curling much later and thoroughiy enjoyed the social aspect of that sport.
He was involved in community development and served a municipal councillor for the area for some sixteen years, in the M.D. of Lincoln No.542, and then in the larger unit after amalgamation with the M.D. of Laurier took place in 1942. He was a board member of the N.E. Alberta Livestock Coop and of the Elk Point Cooperative Association. He worked for the formation of the Elk Point Dairy Pool the municipal hospital, as did many others whose contributions are recognized and chronicled in this book.
Dad really was a pretty fair cook too; he excelled at barbecuing, baked an excellent cake, and his 'sourdough' variety were the tastiest pancakes I have ever enjoyed; the 'lutefisk however, never appealed to me. To relieve the boredom the long winter evenings when he was alone, he took up knitting and kept my family supplied with woollen mittens stockings and sweaters. He took up furniture construction and finishing in a similar way. This versatility undoubtedly enabled him to fill in a satisfying, productive way, ~ otherwise would have been lonely hours.
For several years he travelled Rawleigh products and enjoyed meeting people; he found farm people beautifully hospitable, but gave up this venture, probably because he spending more time talking than selling.
I can recall several of his do-it-yourself techniques that will never aspire to duplicate. Years ago, when he cut his leg rather seriously with an axe, the treatment that he chose to cleanse the gash regularly with pure Lysol. Healing took long, long time, but believe me, there was no infection! He also pulled his own teeth when extraction was necessary. This procedure required several evenings. Using pliers would gradually apply more and more leverage until roots loosened and he could remove the offending tooth is perhaps no anomaly that his grandson Edward would come a dentist and orthodontist.
My Mother passed away in 1952. In retrospect, I must accord her the major credit for encouraging me to pursue education.
A brief listing of the family includes my brother Or, deceased (1965), one daughter Caroline;my wife Muriel (Nee Rushfeldt) and myself, 5 children - Edward and wife Betty, Alan and wife Carol, 2 children, Kirsten and Blake; El and husband Dr. R. Hibbard, 2 daughters, Jennifer and Kathryn; Dennis and wife Sandra, one son, Clayton; Eric ( Raymond), at home.
Dad was still farming vigorously almost up to the last months, and at the time of his death in December, 1966, at age 74, he was planning the next year's farm work and had purchased his field fertilizer requirements for 1967.
Any tribute to his devotion to work and to the satisfaction he derived from it, is in fact a tribute to all of our early settlers. It is to be hoped that their faith in this country, their optimism for its ultimate favorable destiny, will remain an enduring legacy for their descendants, for all who follow.