The seventh in a series of posts about my family tree.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks
Throughout the centuries populations have migrated between countries and regions in search of something new. Whether escaping oppression or simply making a fresh start, they shore up their courage and throw caution to the wind. Hope fuels their intention; fear is cloaked in excitement. They take that step into the great unknown and hope they land.
My Scottish maternal great grandparents’, William Alexander Gordon (1880-1954) and Jane (Robson) Gordon (1883-1959) lived in Motherwell when they made such a leap of faith. Jean, their eldest daughter, had left home at age 19, upon doctor’s advice, to live in a drier climate to help with her asthma. She chose Toronto. When Hilda and Frank, the next eldest children began to agitate about following her lead things got real.
The story of how William and Jane and their seven surviving children ended up in northern Alberta is best shared through the memoir of their daughter, the eighth of their 12 children and my maternal grandmother, Alice Isabel (Gordon) McDonall (1916-1994).
And now let’s begin …
Jean had been in Toronto for two and a half or three years, and Aunt Isabel lived in Edmonton. My mother used her womanly wiles on dad, too, to come to Canada. Hilda said she was going to follow Jean to Toronto and Frank said he was going as soon as he was old enough, so rather than seeing the family broken up like that, they decided to come, too. Dad needed something to come to, so as Canada had a scheme on to settle war veterans on farms in Canada, he applied for that and thus became a farmer under the Canadian Soldiers Settlement Scheme.Source: The Memoir of Alice Isabel (Gordon) McDonall, from the Family Archives
From the city to the farm the land
It’s worth noting that great grandpa William was 47 years old when the family undertook this adventure. He’d already spent an industrious life working on whaling ships in the northern Atlantic (and been shipwrecked at least once), and been employed as an advanced steel smelter near Motherwell. As well, he’d served in the 10th Battalion Black Watch Royal Highlanders, working his way from Private at the beginning of WWI to medalled Company Sgt. Major by the end of it. He served in Greece (Salonika) and fought at Gallipoli. At some point during his service he was wounded in the knee and hospitalized in France during the Armistice. He was also mentioned favourably in two dispatches to the King. Great grandpa William contracted malaria while at Gallipoli, something which plagued him to one degree or another for the rest of his life. All this is to say that William Alexander Gordon can be recognized as a man of character who was accustomed to hard work and challenging circumstances, and so an opportunity to start a new life with his family in Canada would have been something he was prepared for mind, body and spirit.
So, even while the family lived a comfortable life in a gentrified neighbourhood in Motherwell with public parks, stone churches, theatres, and local market places within easy reach, the prospect of a new life in a new land called. As granny Alice notes in her memoir, “… both [dad] and my mother wanted to get us children out of the close environment of the towns and cities. They would have been better off financially and comfortable if they’d stayed in Scotland if it were for themselves they were thinking.” And so, on April 29, 1927, after disposing of most of their possessions and packing only those things which would be of most use and meaning on such an expedition, the family of nine took that leap of faith and set sail from Glasgow to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the good ship MetaGama . Upon arrival some 10 days later they boarded a train for a six-day journey across Canada to Edmonton. “We were, I suppose, like peasants,” wrote Alice’s sister, Evelyn (Eva Gordon) Madu (1921-deceased), the youngest of the clan, in a letter to me some years ago. “There was cooking allowed on the train, but one family had to wait turns for the stove. Must have been dreadful for mother.” This marked the beginning of a rather rude awakening for the entire family.
Let’s talk about great grandma Jane (Robson) Gordon, for a moment. “My mother was about five feet one inch tall and she never weighed more than about 103 lbs.,” Alice notes in her memoir. “She had auburn hair. She had a quick twinkle in her eyes and was pretty. I should maybe say that she was more attractive than pretty. Her eyes were brown and she was well knit together. She excelled at knitting and crochet. … My mother also had a green thumb. Her plants indoors and out were rich in foliage and bloom and her garden produced lots of the best vegetables year after year. It was a great help during the ten years of their farming life.” This petite woman from North Shields, England, bore 12 children between 1903 and 1924, only seven of whom made it to adulthood. Of the five who didn’t make it, the eldest son, William, died of appendicitis at age five; the eldest daughter, Ann, succumbed to meningitis at age eight. In her memoir Alice shares that neither parents ever got over these losses. (A story for another time, perhaps.) The rest of the children were either stillborn or died within days of birth. So we can see that between raising the children she had and mourning the children she lost Jane had endured her own brand of challenges and struggles.
And so, the family arrived in northern Alberta. Then what? Let’s turn again to Alice’s memoir …
This scheme had lots of faults. Dad got one half section, comprising of 320 acres, of which about 20 acres was brushed and broken. The (Board) (Soldiers Settlement) had put a new floor upstairs and downstairs in a log house. A new stairway and chimney. A new cook stove, some chairs and a table. Some beds with no mattresses. A new roof on the log barn and a new floor. There was no well. Dad made a hole in some swampy land, the water filled the hole and we had to boil the water before using it. Naturally, the first things he bought were an axe and a grind stone to sharpen it. He bought a team of horses and a wagon and wagon box. Then a cow and a calf. Chickens followed also, in time, pigs. He worked very, very hard causing many remarks from neighbours. He brushed the land in navy blue suits. The mosquitoes were so bad that his back was grey with them. Horse flies were also terrible. They really bit bad. We had no screens on our windows and the flies, bugs, horse flies and mosquitoes had a wonderful time with our fresh British blood. We all were in agony and covered with red bumps. My mother thought we all had a different type of measles until a neighbour called on us and told us that it was mosquito and bug bites. We got screens for the windows and bought a lot of stuff called “citronella.” We stunk of that stuff. We also used smudges all over the yard to smoke the evil biting devils away from us. My mother had attempted to milk the cow. She was doing not too badly when her eyes swelled completely shut with the bites. I felt so sorry for her that I tried to do the milking. Hence I (Alice) always helped with milking until I left home. I hated it by then and left it alone after that.
We had to give the Board a percentage of all the increase both in stock and grain until the land was paid for. Also had to pay for all the improvements they had made on the house and barn. The Depression came on like a black blanket and it all took some doing. Dad cleared a lot of land with his axe. He had to blow up a lot of tree roots with dynamite they were so big. We had a lot of Tamarack trees on the north quarter. Sometimes Dad was able to sell some of them for fence posts to farmers who had no tamarack as they were a wonderful harder wood and did not rot in the ground. Fire had gone through all the tamarack so there were few with any foliage. It helped us out some times to get the cash for a load or two.
Dad worked on the municipal roads to help pay for our taxes. Sometimes he would go and help other farmers harvest and they would help him in return. That was great when the threshing machines would pull in. The men hauling the stooks to the machine in their big hay racks. The harvest days were golden days. The women cooking big meals for the hungry men and sending them a lunch out to the field, too. It was a bustling, busy time and we had such lovely straw piles for the old pigs to burrow in all winter and for bedding in the barn and for shelter for the cattle and horses in the soon to come winter cold winds.Source: The Memoir of Alice Isabel (Gordon) McDonall
To suggest the change from a comfortable city life to the hard spartan life as a pioneer was a shock would be an understatement. It’s a well known fact among our family that within the first year of landing in Alberta the Gordons became so tired and discouraged that had they the money for passage to Scotland they would have gone back. Still, they persevered and became well respected members of the community. Eventually the children left home, got married and had children. Two sons went to war, and only one, sadly, came back. After 10 years William and Jane were able to sell the farm they’d created out of nothing and moved into Edmonton where he secured a position overseeing prize livestock for the Alberta government.
In summary, we all have high hopes when embarking on a new adventure. In my own life I’ve jumped into new experiences, filled with hope and not knowing where they would land. Adventures are, by their very nature, filled with ups and downs; trials and triumphs, and frequently take us into unknown territories not just of the manifest mundane, but the deeper world within us. As a second generation Canadian with a moderate awareness of the sacrifices and hardships my maternal great grandparents, William Alexander Gordon and Jane (Robson) Gordon, experienced as prairie pioneers, I credit them for their shining example of strength, tenacity, courage and resilience, which feeds my own. Frankly, I’m glad they stuck the landing or I wouldn’t be here to share their amazing story.❦
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