LAST JULY, 3rd, at half past eleven Winnipeg time, I sat on the steps of a one-room school fifty miles northwest Moose Jaw . While I talked with a tanned farmer, of forty-five years about Saskatchewan ‘s past and present, I watched the daylight fade over the Vermilion Hills. I saw the little shack, east of a house at the bottom of the hill fade into the shadows.
That little shack was the place I stayed in Western Canada , thirty-nine years ago; the school where I had pitched my tent, was my first teaching appointment on the prairie; the farmer, beside me, was one of my six, Grade One pupils. This visit was a return pilgrimage. I had been motoring from Winnipeg to the mountains when I noticed a road leading to Ernfold. Ernfold! The name brought back memories.
The summer of 1915 I had travelled West by day coach to take charge of Tuxedo School, number 3208. Passing through Brandon I had pointed to a large building on the hill. “That’s the asylum.” My companion said. “It is filled with women who have gone crazy from loneliness on the prairie.” I thought of his words as I got off the train at Ernfold and was met by a farmer, a fair haired, little Cockney with a wisp of a moustache. Leaving Ernfold we followed a trail winding past sloughs, bumping over the prairie towards the darkening hills. I heard the mournful call of coyotes but my driver paid them no heed.
At last we carne to Dick Cleland’s two-roomed shack. I was told that I could sleep in the kitchen until I found a boarding place. It was generous of them as Mrs. Cleland was expecting another child. The shack now lost in the night shadows was the same old shack; the boy who had peeked from behind Mrs. Cleland’s skirt that night was the farmer beside me.
I remember I arrived early at my school the next morning, after walking two miles over a rough prairie trail. Then the school had stood at the junction of two trails. (Later moved to present site.) It was painted white, the only painted building for miles. The students hadn’t arrived but there was a welcoming committee of gophers. They popped out of their holes and looked at me in a friendly manner. Later I decided they weren’t so friendly.
The pupils and I started a garden. Our lettuce, onions, and radishes came up only to be eaten by those same gophers. The pupils waged war on them, carrying water for a quarter of a mile to drown them out of their holes; they put cord snares over their holes – but the gophers won the battle.
After a few days I went to board at Oliver Kerr’s. It was a mile closer to the school and I had a room to myself. Today there are trees around the house, but then there wasn’t a tree for fifteen miles. I remember asking one of my pupils, who had made a trip to see the trees, how he liked them.
“Fine,” he said, “but trees don’t look like I though they would.” I asked Oliver’s father, who had come from north of Lake Superior how he liked the prairie. “It would be all right if I could only see a tree,” he said, sighing. “My eyes get tired just looking for trees.”
To partly pay for my board, I helped Oliver with his job as secretary-treasurer for the Municipality. It seemed as if every farmer was behind in his taxes. But no wonder as there had be a crop failure in 1914. Oliver was hard working but lacked patience, and then he farmed with oxen. His language would have blistered the ears off mules, but his oxen simply chew their cuds. I stayed with him for a month; then as Mrs. Kerr was ‘expecting’ I was asked to look for another place.
I had trouble finding one where there hadn’t been a baby just born, or another one expected. I finally moved from Kerr’s to a shack where I was to batch for the rest of the summer. It had two rooms, rough boarded, with a sod wall at the back. It was vacant because the old man, who had lived in it, had committed suicide just before my arrival. I never saw any ghosts. The truth was that any decent ghost would have stayed away from it. Batching then, as now isn’t my forte.
But frequent invitations to Oliver’s for a meal, and getting one meal a day at old Mr. Kerr’s for twenty-five cents, saved me from starvation. I had another bright idea. I would shoot jackrabbits, take one as a gift to a farmers’ wife, and in return I would get invited to a home-cooked meal. To get milk to drink I milked Mr. Boss’s cow and was paid in milk. They lived in a sod shack set in the side of a hill. One evening I stayed for supper. It had rained. The sod roof was overgrown with grass. Their calf, not knowing where the roof began and the hill ended, stepped onto the roof to graze. Just as we were eating cooked dried apples, the calf’s leg came through the roof, sprinkling the apples with earth.
I wasn’t the only student teaching summer school on the prairie. One Sunday morning I borrowed a horse and rode off to visit Isabel McDougall. She was teaching in Log Valley, about seven miles to the Northwest. We had been at Queen’s University together and I just had to see a familiar face to banish a wave of homesickness… and to talk over the problems of teaching summer schools. The trail through the hills was seldom used but I had no trouble following it in daylight. We had our visit, decided that summer schools had disadvantages because they could only be open such a few months each year; the pupils had different teachers every year, and to study in the heat was sometimes torture. Since, I’ve learned that the finest people on the prairies began their education in those lonely, little prairie schools.
But that night it was dark before I started back to my bachelor shack. The darkness didn’t worry me. Western horses, I had been told, always knew their way home. My horse turned out to be an Ontario immigrant like myself. I let him have his head. He trotted for a bit then lagged and decided to graze. I allowed it for a few minutes then urged him on. Again he stopped. I dismounted to see if we were on the trail. We weren’t and all I could see was the dim outlines of hills that looked alike. I was lost. I might ride in a circle for miles without finding a house in this ranch land country.
I listened. There was no sound of even a coyote, but thinking of them I had an idea. I mounted my horse, and howled like a coyote … or as near as I could manage. I listened. Far off I heard the barking of a dog. That meant a house. I rode towards the bark, stopping often to imitate a coyote, then ride on. Finally my howling and the dog’s barking led me to a house. I shouted hello and a farmer stuck his head out of an upstairs window. I told him I was lost. He grunted then turned to explain to his enquiring wife. “It’s that damn fool teacher from Tuxedo .. he’s lost.” But he gave me my directions and I finally reached my shack.
But what about my teaching? I was pretty ignorant about teaching small children. I am not sure that I gave them a great deal. World War One was in its second year and my mind was divided. The next spring I enlisted. They were like able children and mostly eager to learn. Sam Cleland assured me that the ones who still lived there were good citizens. Perhaps that is as much as I should expect.
Finally I said goodnight to Sam and crawled into my sleeping bag. I lay there thinking about the prairie changes. Many of the people I knew had moved away. In 1915 I could stand on the top of a hill and see the sun’s rays on a score of houses; today the farms have become larger; the houses fewer but larger too. They are painted and have trees and telephones and radios. In spite of the homes being further apart there is not the same isolation: the same loneliness. Today they can get a doctor quickly .. get to town .. to church. In those days the road were trails; today there are gravel roads. The next morning, at daybreak, I was driving along one of them to a concrete highway .. away from the past, toward the future.