Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Canadian Roots

The 18th in a series of posts about my family tree
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: Social

My Scottish-born grandmother, Alice (Gordon) McDonall, loved her Canadian roots. In fact, she loved them so much that every time we visited her in small town Westlock, Alberta, (about 50 miles north of Edmonton) she’d take us on a short pilgrimage to the family’s pioneer homestead in Sunniebend, Westlock Co., where they settled from Scotland in 1927. At some point during the 10-or-so-mile journey we would stop at Nutt’s Corner ~ a classic old clapboard community store, complete with a wide chip-paint porch and dirt parking lot that had been there forever ~ for a drink and a bag of chips, or an ice cream. We’d also head to Larkspur and the old homestead where she and grandpa Stanley Lewis McDonall had done their best to make a life. It was also where their daughter and only child, Lois Jeanette, was born. Granny would pull the car up at the end of the long dirt laneway that led to an old, dilapidated log cabin given up so long ago, and drift into memory. This happened over here; that happened over there. Sadly, I was too young to take it all in, nevertheless it was easy to feel her affection for the place, and from the seeds of her memories my own affection grew.

Her enthusiasm would rise to another level once we reached the stomping grounds of her formative years a few miles south of Larkspur at the family farm in Sunniebend ~ a place where the gentrified family endured the many hardships of pioneer life. Granny Alice loved the land, still it was the friendly ghosts of times past that compelled her happy memories. Over the years granny’s passion for Westlock Co. became a part of my story. Her roots were my roots, so much so that her death in 1994 uprooted my own life and set me on a course of certain change that I dedicated to her memory.

What was it about that farming community that made such an impact?

The people. Diverse ethnic threads and a common will to survive created a strong and resilient social tapestry. Sunniebend was pioneered in the early 1900s by families from many backgrounds and for many reasons. Like many, great granddad, Sergeant Major William Alexander Gordon, a veteran of the Black Watch and WWI, learned about the Canadian government’s Soldier’s Land Settlement Scheme and made the decision, along with his wife Jane, to give their children a chance of a new life in Canada. The decision was bravely made and the end result not without its challenges. Nevertheless they were welcomed with open arms by their new community and swept into its supportive social safety net.

Who better to share the story of their arrival at Sunniebend than granny Alice herself:

“… after a seemingly endless train ride from Edmonton we arrived in Pibroch where Mr. George Miller, the Soldier Settlement Board representative, and a young man named Wyatt, who had a Model T Ford, met us. There were eight of us altogether, so it took both cars to get us out to Sunniebend. … When we arrived at the farm which was situated one mile west of Sunniebend Bridge, we were not too well impressed as a fire had swept around the building and there were lots of black looking trees and tree stumps.

Mary and Forrest Adair and the schoolteacher Miss Henley were there to greet us. They had brought in a lovely lunch and water to make tea as there was no well on the place as yet. My parents never forgot that kindness. It was very much appreciated. We were later to find out that Mary and Forrest were the best of neighbours and very generous. … We discovered that our trunks were not with us, but by mistake had been left on the train and were well on their way north [to Peace River.] It would be close to two weeks before they came back … Mary and Forrest helped us out with a few dishes and necessities until they arrived.”

Source: Memories of Sunniebend, 1900-1984

Support was to be found everywhere. The Gordons arrived in April and so engrossed were they in the process of getting settled they lost the opportunity to plant a garden. This would have proven a major hardship later in the year with no food to put away for winter storage if not for their next door neighbours, the Marshalls, who were pleased to share from their plentiful garden in exchange for labour. This kindness helped get the Gordons through their first harsh Canadian winter with a full root cellar.

There were many other families who swapped the comforts of city life for the uncertainties of pioneer living.

“My parents made the most of it just like a lot of other people who came over to Canada in those days. Sometimes I think of how hard it was, especially on the women who had left homes with all the necessary utilities like running water and lights and indoor bathrooms, to come and cope with wood stoves, outdoor toilets and cold houses. Life for them had completely changed and I’m sure most of them didn’t think it was for the better. They had to adjust to the new ways. There were no more steady pay cheques … As time went by we did adjust but I often think of the settlers and feel that their days of becoming Canadian and living the Canadian way on farms could not have been easy on any of them.”

Memories of Sunniebend 1900-1984

Ultimately, the way for the community to thrive was for everyone to help each other survive, and thus a solid social fabric was woven into being. Farmers helped one another bring in the harvest, care for the animals, raise barns, clear fields for planting, etc. The women folk tended the gardens, made and mended clothes and quilts, prepared food for winter storage, and maintained a network to watch over the children. Granny Gordon became the area midwife. Granddad Gordon helped build the Sunniebend community hall.

The community became a macrocosm of the functional family, and not just in the harsh reality of the work-a-day world, but also in play.

“Sometimes Pete Pettit would come of an evening to play cards and to socialize. They brought their three youngsters and we had great times. Sometimes other neighbours too would come. We always made room for their horses in the barn. We had long visits. Then one winter Mrs. Marshall and Roy, her bachelor son, got a radio!!! They invited us to go and hear it. I was then 13. Then they invited Archie, Eva and I to go and hear it in the evenings as often as we liked. We walked the three quarters of a mile many a cold winter night to hear it. We heard Fibber McGee and Molly and Uncle Remus and lots of music from Hawaii. … They fed us cookies and hot chocolate then we’d go home. The stars would be so bright. The ground covered by deep white snow. So cold that the frost would be on our eyelashes and our feet would get cold. But we walked there many nights to hear the radio.”

Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall

Granny Alice paints a vivid picture when sharing her memories of the broader social experience. In this instance, Christmas:

“The Christmas concert was a joyous time. We studied plays for weeks and sang solos and recited poems. Everyone came. There were few radios in the district, and people would brave any kind of weather to come and see the kids perform and to get some needed association and enjoyment for an evening. It lasted really late because we danced after the concert. My dad usually played the accordion for that. They all very happily danced to the very old Scottish reels and Scottish waltzes, etc. because that is what my dad knew. We had a huge lunch. The ladies brought cakes and cookies and sandwiches. Every child got a Christmas bag containing an orange, and apple and candy and nuts. Also a gift. What a night it was. This is now 1981 and old timers here never cease remembering and talking of our Christmas concerts. Each community had one. Us Gordon kids loved to act and sing, so for us it was a joyous time, indeed. The Christmas tree was usually huge and beautiful. All the bachelors came. There were a lot of them then, leading lonely lives in their little shacks. Working hard to break up their land and get established. They were usually hungry for some good sandwiches and cake and the coffee that was made in someone’s wash boiler on the big pot bellied heater. They would dance, too. The babies came, too, and usually slept on a pile of coats in a corner on some improvised table.

We all went by sleigh. The men would bring feed and blankets for their horses and try to tie them up out of the wind. They would unhitch them from the sleighs so that they would have a bit more freedom of movement …. There were many sleighs there and on arrival and departure one could hear the sleigh bells, the laughter, the champing of the horses eager to get going in the cold, frosty air. As I said, we had no radios or television then and needed this get-together in the middle of winter.

There were good days in homesteading. The winters long and cold. The men busied themselves at looking after their animals and keeping lots of wood on hand to keep everyone warm. The women made quilts or knitted and sewed and patched and darned. Made meals and eagerly looked forward to the odd visitor. Sometimes one’s husband would go for four or five miles or more by team or cutter to invite some family for Sunday dinner. Great preparations would be made and how everyone looked forward to the visit. Hearing the latest gossip. Discussing politics. Really giving the politicians of the moment a going over.”

Memories of Sunnibend 1900-1984
Stanley Lewis McDonall and Alice (Gordon) McDonall with daughter, Lois Jeanette in front of their log cabin Source: Family Archives

Granny Alice’s musings on the Sunniebend community are fairly extensive and worth saving for another time. Suffice to say it held a special place in her heart all her life long, memories of it sustaining her through many dark times.

Safe Roots

When Alice wed Stanley Lewis McDonall in 1934 they began their married life in his family’s home in Larkspur. The undercurrent of brooding melancholy was worlds apart from the jolly and resilient home in which she’d been raised. Eventually the constant exposure to dark moods and passive psychological abuse combined with the rootless, nomadic existence she experienced with her husband drove Alice into an almost 30-year depression. Finally, after a couple of years trying to make things work in Vancouver granny Alice mustered her courage and left the toxic marriage to build a new life for herself. Where did she go? Granny Alice returned to her safe roots in Westlock and went into business as a hair stylist opening a beauty salon in her home. Among her clients were many of the women with whom she’d grown up.

From summer 1969 to June 1970 my brother and I lived with granny Alice while mom was in Germany pursuing her career on the operatic stage. During that year I met many of granny Alice’s old friends, and their daughters and granddaughters. They were farmer’s wives, school teachers, house wives, the doctor’s wife to name a few. When she was really busy granny Alice gave me the task of removing perm rods and rollers from her clients’ hair. I remember the tiny salon carved out of her living room reverberating with stories and reminiscences of the old days. I felt the embrace of their long-established social circle because of its reflection of granny ~ a strong, loving, caring soul born of such a family and raised in such a community.

Certainly, nothing is perfect. Every social setting has its issues and problem children. Still, when it comes down to it the people always seem to be able to join together for the sake of community. The good times make the bad times tolerable because the fabric of trust has been created. Sunnibend was just such a community. Having said that, granny Alice never discussed her problems with family let alone her oldest and dearest friends. One of the pitfalls of a tight-knit community is the potential for being a source of gossip. Small town grapevines have always been ripe for drama. Knowing this granny refused to make herself the centre of that kind of attention. She often went to extreme measures to ensure no one knew her business, even employing a city lawyer to handle her divorce instead of relying on someone in town. A divorcee running a successful, independent business in the 1960s was enough of a curiosity. No one needed to know the details.

Granny’s return to her Alberta roots brought her life almost full circle. The social fabric that had helped her through the formative years became her safety net when mid-life threatened to pull the rug out from under her. Re-establishing her roots after almost three decades adrift gave her the support she needed to thrive more than merely survive . And thrive she did.

As for me … granny Alice’s tales of community spirit, now refreshed in my memory by way of her precious memoir and contributions to the Memories of Sunniebend 1900-1984 history, remind me of those many happy times when we trundled up the road in her car to see the old homesteads. How I love my Canadian roots. ❦

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2022 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

2 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Canadian Roots

  1. Some very special memories here. It’s intriguing to learn about 20th century homesteaders. The photo of Alice and Stanley with your mom: they seem so modern, but their home and surroundings are from a different era altogether. It does sound quite challenging.

    1. Thank you. Interesting observation. Grandpa Stan made it unnecessarily challenging, which only underscores how miraculous it was that my mother went from that log cabin to the London stage. More stories to come. 🙏💫

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