The Pioneer Woman on the Prairies
(Reproduced from A Romanian Pioneer, Alberta Historical Review, Autumn 1973).
Mrs. Veronia Kototailo came with her parents to Canada in 1898 when she was four years old. Her father had decided to leave the village of Boian in Romania because his native land could no longer offer sustenance to him and his growing family. He owned the house they lived in, plus a scrap of land no larger than a small city lot. Over the preceding generations, the original land holding had been divided and sub-divided among members of his family so that there was hardly enough to grow a garden. How could he hope to raise a family on this meager bit of land? Much less, how could he hope to give anything to his own children when they were ready to go on their own? For these reasons, he decided to emigrate to Canada. Four other families decided to join him, including his father-in-law with a wife by a second marriage.
The sale of his property in Boian brought him enough to pay their passage but little was left over to reestablish them in the new land. They arrived in Canada in the summer of 1898 to settle in a district north-east of Willingdon which was to form the nucleus of the first Romanian settlement in Alberta. Though they left behind them the poverty of the Old Country, they also left behind all things dear and familiar to them – their homes, relatives and friends, church and their way of village life. In exchange, they hoped to establish a better life on the 160 acres of land the Canadian Government was giving away for $10 – never dreaming how hard the transition from „rags to riches“ would be, nor how long it would take to make a decent life for themselves.
They brought with them such tools as spade, shovel, axe, hammer, saw, scythe and sickle. One family brought a quern for grinding wheat into flour, another a spinning wheel and loom. They brought with them their bedding and personal effects. The little extra money they still had went for hiring teamsters and wagons to take them from Edmonton to the area they had chosen to settle. In truth, to them the place was a dot on the map which they chose because there were other settlements nearby – Willingdon, Shandro and Whitford. They planned to call the new settlement Boian, after their native village.
When their teamster dropped them off, they could see little else than a forest of poplar trees and a glimmer of sky above. So this was to be their home in Canada!
„Well“, said Veronia’ s father, „at least we will never run short of wood here. There is more than enough for our buildings and even more for fuel and fences than we ever dreamt of in the Old Country!“
For economic reasons, they decided that for the first little while, it would be better for the two families to live together.
They immediately set to clearing a space in the woods for their primitive shelter which they called a „burdey.“ It was a dugout large enough to accommodate the family with a pole-roof like a tepee over it. The poles were covered with sedge and sod. The burdey afforded them shelter from wind and sun and even kept out most of the rains that fell frequently that summer.
The two men had no sooner completed the burdey and dug a well, when they left the women and children in search of work. They had to earn a few dollars for winter food supplies.
As the women enlarged the clearing for a garden, the pile of logs grew. Then Veronia’ s mother saw the possibility of a log house. She resented living like an animal in a lair and had cried bitterly over it. She longed for the clean, white-washed home she’ d left behind. From then on she worked with the vision of a log house uppermost in her mind. Before the men returned in the fall, the house had been built.
Veronia recalls how hard her mother worked as she cut, limbed and sawed the logs into equal lengths. With the mother-in-law’ s help, they dragged the logs into place and set them upright into the soil, side by side, to make a wall. Her mother was young and her body was yet to be hardened by hard work. Before she was finished building the house, both her shoulders were a mass of raw bleeding flesh. But she refused to give up and in time all four walls were standing. The only thing that baffled her was the roof for which she was forced to call for help from a neighbor.
She left a space for the door and arranged for a window on the south wall. In place of glass she used a linen pillow case. As a final touch to the house, she made a porch over the door. Its walls and roof were made by weaving willows over a frame. She then plastered everything, inside and out, using a mixture of clay and chopped sedge.
Later, when she discovered a deposit of white clay, she carted it home by hand and used it to smooth and brighten the dark walls. The dirt floor bothered her but there was no way to improve on that other than to surface it with clay and tramp it down. She kept the loose dirt down by sprinkling it with water and sweeping it off with a broom made of birch switches.
Now there remained the problems of a door, a chimney and an oven. Again, the willow came in handy. For the door she made a cross frame over which she wove thick batts of sedge. She wove a willow frame for the chimney and plastered it thickly, inside and out. She made a clay bake-oven, the top of which served as a warm bed for the children on cold winter nights. She laid rocks for a cook stove but had to wait until she could get a galvanized, iron sheet for the stove-top. Thus, without spending a penny and improvising as she went. Veronia’ s mother built them a home in which they lived for many years. …
That summer and fall they lived mostly off the woods and meadows around them, picking berries, mushrooms and edible roots. They had some flour and a bag of potatoes which they had used sparingly. Their supplies had to last indefinitely.
The men returned in the fall with enough money to replenish food supplies and to buy the barest necessities. Because it was necessary to live on one’ s homestead part of the year in order to “ prove“ it, they built a shelter on the father-in-law’ s quarter and he moved into it with his wife. About this time, Veronia’ s mother gave birth to another child.
That fall and winter, Veronia’ s parents chopped down trees, enlarging the clearing around the house. Come spring they would hire someone to break it. They did not spare themselves as they worked. When the snows grew deep, they sawed stacks of firewood for fuel and trimmed trees for posts and fence rails. Young as she was, Veronia took care of the baby and her brother and kept the fire going.
Before the spring thaw came, the father went working again. The food supply was running short and they needed money to pay for the breaking and the seed. Soon after he was gone it became necessary to ration their food. When the last handful of flour had been used and the last potato had gone into the soup pot, death by starvation became a very real possibility. The baby cried and the older children begged for something to eat. There was no one to whom the mother could turn to help, knowing other settlers were all in the same predicament.
Without too much hope, she went into the woods looking for mushrooms, though it was still early in the season. However, she did find little yellow button-sized mushrooms growing. These she picked not knowing whether they were edible or not. What difference if they died of mushroom poisoning or by starvation? Beggars could not be choosers. She added chopped green grass to the mushrooms in the pot and boiled it. They ate that day and did not die. Then for two weeks without a break, they ate the same unpalatable food. The mother cried each night and prayed that they not wake when morning came. But every morning they awoke, alive as ever and hungrier than the day before. The mother would go into the woods again and hunt for more mushrooms and pick more grass, and pray for the father to return.
At the end of the second week the father arrived home, carrying on his back 50 pounds of flour and a pig’ s head. He had walked a hundred miles over rough trails bringing food for his family. Later, the mother earned her husband’ s displeasure when she cut off the ears from the pig’ s head and gave them to her parents for a pot of soup.
They broke a plot of land that spring and planted it to potatoes, a bit of garden, and the rest in wheat.
In the meantime, Veronia’ s mother and a neighbor woman, hearing that a Mr. Johnson at Whitford had raised a log barn and was looking for someone to plaster it, offered their services in hopes of earning a bit of money. They walked twice a day to work through five miles of bush. It was a back-breaking job and for lunch they were given raw carrots out of the garden.
One evening on their way back home, they lost all sense of direction. Wandering aimlessly, they began to despair of ever getting back home, when they came upon a path with human excrement alongside it. They fell on their knees thanking God for letting them know that there were people around. They had been afraid they had wandered off into deep wilderness and would never see home or people again. They finally stumbled back to their homesteads late that night. Next morning they took an axe with them and blazed their own trail. At the end of two weeks of hard labor, they each received a pail of potatoes in lieu of payment.
Because her father was away from home to much of the time and her mother worked outside the house, Veronia at the age of five had already learned responsibility. She took care of the younger children and ran errands for her mother.
In 1899, her mother harvested their first crop of wheat by sickle, tying it to sheaves and putting it in stooks to dry. The day she threshed, she took a panful of the previous grain, put it in a big over Veronia’ s shoulder and sent her up the path to a neighbor’ s home where the had a quern. Veronia came back with the flour and by nighttime they were eating buns and potato soup made from the produce of their own little bit of land.
It was a great day for rejoicing when Veronia’ s father bought a cow. Her grandfather had also bought one and when the purchased a plough, the two men teamed their animals. Now, not only did they have milk, but were able to break more land without hiring anybody.
The mother was heart-broken the day their cow died. They had come to depend on the milk, the bit of cream and cheese the cow had supplied them. It was hard to reconcile themselves to the loss. However, being a practical woman, she skinned the cow and tanned the hide. At least she had leather for making moccasins for her family.
Then, in time, her father bought another cow, also an ox. This time he kept the cow for milking purposes only and used the ox for heavy work.
During those first years they were also only a step away from hunger and starvation. Mostly, they lived off the land. Meat was almost an unknown commodity. Though wild game was plentiful, her people were not hunters. Without a gun, they had no way to get the ducks and upland game-birds to their table. …
The lean years continued. What little income rolled in from the father’ s work was ploughed back into the homestead. The clearing in the woods grew ever larger. The family increased and so did the mother’ s responsibilities. Soon Veronia was to shoulder much of the work her mother had done before. She helped clear land, picked roots, and learned to work with the machinery her father had acquired. They grew a large garden and laid in a store of potatoes, dried peas, beans and broadbeans. They krauted cabbage, picked saskatoons and dried them for the winter. The whole family contributed to the welfare of the home for there was no room for a drone in their midst.
As more settlers came in, through brought with them various things like an oil press, mortar, and a grist mill. Her mother availed herself of their use, making oil from poppy seed, sun flower seeds and mostly from the oil rich seed of the cannabis, all of which she grew in her garden. She used the oil in all her baking and her cooking. She used the mortar to take the coarse hulls off the barley, wheat and millet and used the hulled grains to cook as cereal or as filling for cabbage rolls. They caught fish in the river using box-traps. These fish they pickled for later use or salted and dried them for winter eating. They picked mushrooms and dried them.
From the cannabis or hemp plant, they processed a coarse fibre which they wove into horse blankets. From these same fibres, they made strong rope. The mother made her own soap using waste fat and lye made from ashes. She scrubbed clothes on a wooden scrub board. She sewed and mended, first by candlelight, later by the light of a kerosene lamp.
In times of sickness, Veronia’ s mother reverted to the use of herbs and roots to make her own medicinal teas and salves. As a carry over from the Old Country she like the rest of the settlers, believed in the power of witchcraft and the „evil eye.“ Usually in every district of Central European settlers, there was an old woman versed in the art of „pouring wax“ or „throwing coals“ which was supposed to be able to relieve many aches and pains as well as take away illnesses of an emotional nature. These may have been primitive practices but the power of believing in them was strong and seemed to help in many instances.
By 1910 Veronia’ s father had horses for working on the land, a breaker for turning the sod, a plough, a disc, drill, harrows and a binder for harvesting.
The Boian Marea school was opened in 1909 and though fifteen-year-old Veronia wanted to go, her father felt that she was too old for that. Besides, he needed her help on the homestead. Three of the oldest children missed school because they were needed at home. The father felt that though he was illiterate, he had done well. Why waste time on school when there was still more land to be cleared, more work to be done? Perhaps that was why, when Veronia married and had children of her own, she made certain that no sacrifice on her part was too great in order to give them the education she had missed. …
The early settlers survived and made good because of the industry and character of their women. The men would have never lived through the rigors of those frontier days without their support. They were the ones who bore the brunt of the work and worry. The man worked hard, but his woman worked even harder.
Anne B. Woywitka