The Big River Moars 1909 - 1923
Submitted by Myrtle Moar Telford
"Go west, young man." What an influence those few words had on the lives of so many. George Norman Moar was one for whom the words brought a challenge, and an opportunity to live his life according to the desires of his heart. It had been his mother's wish that he be a minister, and so he was sent to college in Montreal. However, his sights were on other fields - the woods. The trees, lakes, and rivers and animals were all calling to him; his dream was to make their destiny his. So it was in the fall of 1909, he bid his family adieu and left Maniwaki, Quebec, for Big River, Saskatchewan, where he had been offered a job as camp foreman. The salary of one hundred dollars a month was a real bonanza compared to the thirty dollars he was receiving. With dad went his brother Percy and Odie Heaffey.
In March 1910, mother Mary Louise Nault Moar, with children Roland, four years old, Ella (Kelly) two years old, and Dorothy, one and a half years, followed the trail west. With them went Mrs. Odie Heaffey and her family, and Mrs. Sweeney, who was to start a boarding house in Big River.
Travel was by C.P.R. tourist accommodation, with the travellers providing their own bedding for the wooden bunks, and their own food and cooking utensils for cooking. They travelled as far as Elgin, Saskatchewan (about four miles from the present day site of Sutherland); the journey took ten days. They crossed the South Saskatchewan River by ferry and boarded a C.N.R. freight train for Prince Albert, Shellbrook, and eventually Big River. Service to Big River was once a week, and wouldn't you know - they missed connections by one day and had to wait a week in Shellbrook.
Dad met his family with a team of horses and sleigh and they left for camp number five, situated on Otter Creek, on Old Sharpe Lake. The family was quartered in a log building dad used as an office. They enjoyed all the luxuries of camp life - eating meals at the cookhouse before the men ate. All this was new to mother a quiet, shy lady. The children quickly made friends with the men and so a new life of living in the bush began, close to nature and God. We were a family that prayed together; mother would get the prayer book and gather us all around her knee. Dad had a lovely voice and sang to us, mostly hymns, he would sing or play the mouth organ.
May, generally a beautiful month, can also be very hazardous as a result of forest fires. May, 1910 was no exception. The camp was surrounded by fire; the men knew they couldn't save it. One day, just at supper time, dad gave the order to evacuate. Following the motto "women and children first", mom and the family were put in a boat, a Dumas, and rowed to an island in the lake. They were left there alone as the men left camp, no one had thought of eating, nor had mother taken any food. On top of being hungry, mom remembered that she was afraid of bears. Her fears subsided somewhat when she realized that one of her brood had saved an alarm clock, while another had found an old tin pan on the island. The constant din of the alarm clock in the pan was enough to scare off both man and beast.
About four a.m the island caught fire. A terrific wind had risen and the waves on the lake were tremendous. Mr. Heaffey, manning the Dumas (the only boat the camp had), rescued a very hungry, frightened, and after the trip on the lake, very seasick group. The family was taken to camp four, where they were met by the camp superintendent and Dr. Fenton, and were taken to Big River. They were given a company house, which added to mom's fears, as it was next to "Bootlegger" Street. All night long business boomed, the continual sound of approaching footsteps kept mother in a state of fear, hoping the steps would not stop at her door.
The next move was to camp number four, where the family remained for one and a half years. This camp was about ten miles from Big River on the west side of Cowan Lake, better known to the local people as Crooked Lake. Here dad was logging superintendent. Before this he had cruised timber, laid out roads, and supervised the building of two or three dams towards Green Lake.
February, 1912, Myrtle was born at camp number four, dad making the delivery as the doctor was delayed by stormy weather.
After spring breakup, the family moved back to Big River. Dad's health suffered throughout the summer, and in November the family left for Globe, Arizona. There dad recuperated from T.B. during the winter months, returning home in time for Fern to make her debut at Uncle Jack's farm at Semans, on July 9, 1913.
The family returned to Big River. This time they were given a house fully occupied with bedbugs. One night was enough in this house and the next day they got a place down by the mill on Cowan Lake.
About this time dad was approached by Mr. Robb, of the Federal Forestry Department, and offered a position as Forestry Supervisor for Northern Saskatchewan. Forestry was in his blood; he was shaping the destiny he had envisioned years before. He accepted the offer, and so our life on the "reserve" as we all affectionately called it, began.
Otter Cabin was built on Otter Creek, twelve miles out of Big River, on the forest reserve, in a beautiful spot. Wild animals were plentiful - bears, lynx, coyotes, rabbits, etc. Camp number one, with about a hundred men, was a mile away; otherwise we were alone with nature, the wild animals and the occasional traveller who passed that way.
As well as being forestry supervisor, dad was also game guardian, and he had to maintain the law of "No Hunting or Trapping" on the reserve. Our house became the halfway stop for anyone going into remote areas like Green Lake. Often dad would be accompanied on his many trips, by the R.C. priest, the Salvation Army Captain and his wife, and the Protestant minister, all travelling together, to visit their parishioners.
Shopping for groceries was done on a monthly basis. We acquired a cow, "Rosie", who became a family pet, and was the cause of many hilarious happenings, about which the family still laughs. Soon horses were added, we children having our own; Buck, a mild big horse, and Mouse, an Indian pony, which was Roland's. We had dogs, cats, chickens and later when we moved back to Big River, we had more cows, and each of us had our own milk customer in town. We always had our own vegetable garden, and wild fruit was available for the picking, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blueberries, gooseberries. You name it, they were there.
In August, 1914, war broke out. Roland recalls being with dad and Herman Walpert, foreman at Sharpe Lake Camp, when the news came. I vaguely recall Armistice and the burning of an efigy of Kaiser Bill on the Big River Hill.
Roland was a tremendous shot, and although quite young, entered the contest for the Dominion Shield, held at Prince Albert, taking the top medals.
On June 22, 1915, Rea was born at Otter Cabin. About this time dad decided it was time to move closer to town so the children could attend school. He chose a site about three miles from town, and built a log house for the family, to which we moved in the late fall of 1915. Once again dad suffered from respiratory infection and rheumatic fever, and spent the winter months in bed.
We had a three mile walk to school - down the road, over the bridge, up the tracks as far as the section foreman's house, then up the trail to the school. A shortcut could be taken by going over Big River Hill through the cemetery, down the other side of the hill, past Maxwell's and Brownfield's and the Catholic Church to the school.
Like many other families, ours was a "do-it-yourself" family. Each one of us had our work to do. Occasionally, we were allowed to play with the "up town" children but mostly they came to our place and enjoyed the outdoor sports, riding horesback, skating on Moar's pond, and sleighing, to mention a few.
Flour sacks, once the flour was used, served many purposes - for dish towels, embroidered pillow slips. table clothes, curtains, but in our family, many were used to make bloomers and waists. Even the black dye mother used did not erase the indelible imprint of such famous brands as "Robin Hood, Quaker Oats, Five Roses", etc. each with their own distinct monogram. These were advertised across the seat of many youngsters, not only our family.
1918 was a good year, but also a bad one. Armistice was signed November 11th, ending the hostilities on the battlefield, but the nations were hit by a worse enemy - the flu. People were dying by the score, and Big River had its toll. Our nearest neighbours lived across the river, all of whom lost their lives to the flu (Mrs. Munns, Mrs. Olson, Mrs. Erickson, Gunna Goodman's sister). Dad, while helping the neighbours, caught the flu. I was the only one who escaped it. God was watching our family, and no one died. Mom was very sick, not only with the flu, but on November ninth, 1918, Kenneth Thomas was born.
Times were getting better, the Department of Forestry had offered to buy our house. Dad felt the time had come for the Moars to have a car. But May, 1919 was a repeat of May, 1910. The forest fires were very bad, and on May 22nd, while dad was in Prince Albert, our home was destroyed by fire. For a while it looked as though the whole town would be destroyed. A special train was brought in to evacuate the town. People panicked rushing to get on the train, some even leaving their babies behind.
As the fire approached our house mom sent Dorothy, with valuable papers tied around her neck in a canvas bag, along with Fern, Rea and I, to the policeman's house. Mr. Cornell. mom and Roland buried some possessions in the garden, and then were forced to leave. Roland remembered the animals and returned to let them loose. Jack Rae, of I.C. Fish Company, was with him. Smoke prevented them from finding the bridge, and Roland couldn't swim. Jack told him to take off his shoes, throw them across the river; one landed on the other side, and one landed in the middle of the river. Jack started across the river with Roland on his back. The current was so treacherous that Jack could not manage and it became a matter of sink or swim for Roland. He swam and later became a very good swimmer, saving two lives.
Having lost everything. there was no need for us to be evacuated, so mom took us back to the forestry office where we bedded down, after a fashion. When the people left on the train we moved back to the reserve. The forest rangers had returned from their field work and were surprised to learn that our home had been destroyed. Dad also returned from Prince Albert. He had heard that a home had been burned but didn't know it was his own until he got off the train. He checked the family, then went to the store to purchase work clothes, he too, having only the clothes on his back. Once more mother was left to fend for the family as dad went to supervise the fire.
We lived in tents from May until November. The cooking was done in the boathouse. Every time there was a strong wind the water would rush in over the floor, washing everything away that was not nailed down.
In the spring of 1920, there was a cyclone. One could hear the noise as the wind approached. Trees (those left from the fire) were uprooted and carried some distance. Roland was returning from rounding up the cows when the cyclone struck. Ken, about eighteen months old, had been in the barn with one of the hired men who had become petrified and ran for shelter, leaving Ken all alone. Ken, unaware of the danger, walked out of the barn into the path of the cyclone. Roland saw him, ran and threw himself over Ken saving him from being carried away by the wind. The cyclone whipped across our yard, tearing off one of the I.C. Fish Company's buildings in its wake, roared up the Big River Hill, skirted the town, and wore itself out.
That spring the river flooded, the water coming practically level with the bridge. We were isolated and had to use canoes to get across to town and school. There were a number of men connected with the Forestry; Jack Phillips, Miles Isbister, Count Botzow, Frank Regan, Howard Currie, Howard Dexter, Jim Miller, to mention a few. Ivery Newton and Jim Fairburn were also game guardians. These people may not be readily recalled by most Big River folk, as some of them relocated at the camps.
July 1st was always Big River's sports day as well as Dominion Day. It was a real picnic day. Every family came, bringing their own goodies, and sharing with others. Kids had a marvelous time. Their elders did too, gossiping and catching up on the doings of each other, and admiring the latest babies since the last sports day. Roland remembers entering a shoe race where the contestants shoes were thrown in a pile. He quickly retrieved his own shoes, he being the only youngster in the race and having the smallest shoes, ran the required distance and won the race - first prize - a pair of ladies high button boots! Another time he won a ninety-eight pound sack of flour. One year "Rosie", our cow, followed us to the event. That must have been the year we got the prize for the largest family (numerically).
One first of July, about 1922, there was to be an added attraction, a horse race. Bert Riel had come to town with a racer. He persuaded Roland to ride his horse in the race, which he did and in turn let Leland Abbot ride his horse "Mouse". Came the big day, the race was to be run on government road, which ran north and south. The horse was "barned" in a stable to the north. The race was to be in a southerly direction. The gun blasted, the horses took off, Roland and his racer going lickety-split in a northerly direction, while Mouse ran in the right direction and won the race.
I would be remiss not to mention the school. After all, that was why we left the cabin, so we could be educated, formal-like. As long as the Ladder Lake Lumber Company was active in Big River, the selection of school teachers was good. We had some excellent teachers, a few I remember are Miss Foley, Miss Freeman, Luella and Bernice Shaw, Christine, Lucy and Jean Murray, Mr Mahon, Mr. Mahoney, Mr. Paton and Freda McKnight. When the company personnel left in 1922, those wanting education beyond the eighth grade had to go elsewhere. So it was that Roland, Kelly and Dorothy went to Prince Albert.
The school concerts were always an event of the year. I remember one concert when Dorothy was swinging in a large wooden moon, all dressed like a fairy, while we sang "Oh mother, how pretty the moon is tonight, it was never so pretty before. Its two little horns are so sharp and bright--"
One year, a day or so before the concert, the school was closed due to some epidemic. It was customary for every child in town to receive a gift at the concert. Dad was asked to be Santa Claus, and deliver the presents, which meant going to practically every house in town. It was a clear, cold starlit night. Reuben and Roy (our driving team purchased instead of a car) were hitched to the sleigh; the sleigh bells were jingling. The Santa Claus suit was too small for dad over his winter clothes, so Roland was Santa. I appeared on the scene as they were exchanging the suit, that was when I found out about the real Santa.
The church too, was dear to our hearts. Dad had helped to build the Presbyterian church. We attended Sunday School and by doing so earned our Bibles; by first saving small testament cards, then exchanging so many small ones for a large one. A certain number of large ones qualified for a large ones qualified one for a Bible. I remember Mrs. Crim played the organ and Mrs. Murphy was my Sunday School teacher.
Was the first Dog Derby in 1921? Shorty Gamache won the race. I have pictures of some of our family watching the event.
We have pictures too, of Bluebird Camp, held at Ladder Lake. Kelly and Dorothy attended the camp. Names that come to mind are: Bunty and Ina and Eva Shields, Dorothy McLeod, Alberta Marsh, the Shearn Girls, Lucille Heinz, Margalee and Barbara Nichols.
Our years in Big River rate amongst the happiest of our lives. There were so many happy happenings that we still recall. The family was separated during the two years we were in Giscome. In 1925, we were all together in Saskatoon. Dad's health became worse in B.C. He developed asthma, and was an invalid the last years of his life. He died in February, 1943.
Mother was determined that the family would get a good education. To attain this, she took in boarders and so was able to keep the family together.
1968 saw the Moars gather at Michel's campsite, at Delaronde Lake. It was forty years since the family had been together. It took a while for us to get re acquainted. Big River had not changed much. We saw some folk we formerly knew, but our time was too short.
What a beautiful memorial there is to dad - the row of evergreens he had planted on the reserve. The houses are gone, being replaced by a lovely park. We picnicked there and we also went out to where Otter Cabin had been. My husband dug up three spruce trees for me, and today I have three beautiful trees in my yard.
Roland lives in Edmonton. Kelly lives in Florida (Mrs, Pflug), Dorothy lives in Saskatoon (Mrs. Thompson). Myrtle resides in Richmond, B.C. (Mrs. Telford), Fern lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Rea lives in Brome, Quebec. Ken lives in Florida.
Submitted by Yvonne Swanston Burgess
'He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed: for he giveth of his bread to the poor'
It was the hungry thirties; I remember our mother crying; there was no food in the house. She had been out to collect a debt to our father, a fruitless task at that time, as no one had any money.
A kindly neighbour, Mrs. King, came over to see mother, bringing with her part of a loaf of bread, milk, a jar of pickled beets and the remains of the Sunday roast.
Our father returned from the harvest excursion with tales of food that made my mouth water. The men ate well where they worked but were not paid until the harvest was over.
Things did not improve as time went on, what little money father earned harvesting was soon gone to feed his family. Troubled times, looking everywhere for work, door to door, searching for employment. Father was tired, discouraged, with worn out boot soles, lined with cardboard, wrapped in waxed bread wrappers to keep his feet dry. Finally came a soul searing shame of applying for RELIEF.
Relief meant that a box of groceries would be delivered weekly from a central depot. A box filled with beans, rice, macaroni, tinned tomatoes, milk tokens and bread tickets, along with a small roast for Sunday. From time to time, a tin of plum jam, apple jam or syrup would be added. Our father worked for the city of Regina in payment for these boxes of food, digging ditches, street cleaning or wherever he was needed. Our father worked hard, it helped drown the memories of his children coming home from school with tales of taunts of "reliefers...reliefers" from their schoolmates. Fighting their battles the only way they knew, kicking, small fists flying, then being sent to the principal's office for fighting. He, a kindly man would tell us to sit down, then after we had been sitting and trembling for five minutes, the principal would smile and gently say, "you may go now."
There was no way of hiding the fact you were on relief. All the school children of relief recipients were given a half pint of milk daily. Delicious cold milk, sucked through a straw, the only milk some of us had, but oh the sorrow and heartbreak it caused!
Then the government sponsored a "back to the land" scheme for the urban unemployed with a farm background.
After a great deal of discussion on the advantages of country life, our father made the journey to Big River to look at the homestead land available. While in Big River he stayed with the McMillan family, old friends from father's early years. On his return he surprised us children with a box that Mrs. McMillan had made up for us. A box carefully lined with moss and filled with wild flowers. I can still remember the scent of them today.
We were moving; it was time to pack; then suddenly the day to leave came; there was excitement and tears that May day in 1932. Soon we began the long train journey north. Victor Swanston, his wife Florence, and their children, Betty, Yvonne, Elaine and Peter with all their hopes and fears for the future, mixed with the joy of a new beginning, were on their way to Big River.
We spent the first night in town, leaving the next morning in a borrowed wagon, all our belongings and enough lumber for a floor, slabs for a roof, nails, tar paper and four dollars that was left in father's pocket. Our homestead was S.E. quarter 36-55 RG.8. By evening father had built a rough shelter to house his family, the kitchen stove at the opening and the mattresses on the ground for our beds. In the meantime, mother had dug a small hole using an old butcher knife and her hands, this supplied enough drinking water for our needs for the night. In less than one month's time, father had a proper well dug and with the help of his family built a small, four roomed log house. A group of neighbours came to help with the house and were surprised to see it almost completed. Their help in finishing the building was much appreciated. Later a barn was built of logs, the floor laid with poles, using an adze, father shaped it almost smooth, much like floor of planed lumber. A lean-to was then added for the cow and chickens.
That first winter the heater, made from an old oil drum, wasn't enough to keep us warm during the extreme cold, so in time our father built a mud and stone fireplace. We children assisted in the mixing of the clay, it was delightfully squishy stuff that oozed between our toes. In the spring, a garden was dug and the precious seeds that had been brought all the way from Regina, were planted. Our meat supply consisted of rabbit and bush partridge. We were allowed to use father's gun, a .22 rifle, but it was a rule, one shell - one partridge. It was as simple as that. The occasional deer, or quarter of moose from a neighbour, plus the government supplement of eight dollars and twenty-five cents a month kept the family going. Later, this was increased to eleven dollars with the change in government.
Sometimes these cheques did not arrive in time. One man walked thirty miles to pick up his cheque and was told to come back the next day. That was the time they were going to hang the relief officer. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.
Big River was the end of the steel. All the excitement of the twice weekly arrival of the train was felt as we heard the long lonely whistle of its arrival.
Sometimes we would walk four miles to town for the mail, especially if mother was expecting a letter from home, home being Manchester, England.
The relief trains brought crisp red apples, and salt dried fish, a treat for us in spite of the fact it was said you could shingle a roof with the fish, no matter how long you soaked them.
I remember driving in to Big River one time when father had hitched up the 'current' cow to the cart, harness and all. Mother flatly refused to go and remained at home. The cow trotted a little faster than our elderly horse but we managed, and it was fun to see the people stare.
Father cut hay with a scythe. We children gathered the hay with rakes made of willow pegs and tamarack handles. We hauled the hay in slings made from sacking.
The government purchased a cow for each settler, generally the animal gave little milk, perhaps because of the poor feed. Sometimes in the late fall, an accident would befall the cow and father would dress out the meat. Everything on the animal was used, even the scraps of fat, for making soap and candles. I remember dipping the string wicks in the tallow until they were the desired thickness. With the dug out cellar full of vegetables, fish speared at the river and put down in sealers or salted and smoked, the family made it through the winter.
Often we would pick cranberries or blueberries and take them to the store in Big River. They brought five cents a pound. The Pruden family took us picking blueberries one time, telling us we could always pick in that patch. Mother filled all the sealers with the berries, and we kept them under the bed to prevent freezing in the winter months. Once in a while a jar would explode and all the white scrubbed floor boards would be stained purple.
Everything was either 'hand me down' or made over. Sometimes a length of dress goods would be payment for working out. Mother could sew and she made many pretty dresses without a pattern. Father made himself a parka one time of canvas. He sewed it on the old treadle machine. Another time he resoled his boots, not with leather, but hand carved wooden soles.
The whole family would help in clearing bush and hauling cordwood home by hand. Father did some carpenter work, being paid ten cents an hour, working ten hours a day. Fighting fire gave the settlers a little extra money as well.
I remember one forest fire, it was so bad we were up on the house and barn roof with tubs of water and sacks to beat out the sparks. By the time we moved all the furniture out to the clearing one could see the flames rolling down the muskeg near the big bush. The flames would die down in the evening with the dampness and flare up again in the morning. It was so frightening to watch.
Sometimes father and I would hurry and catch up with the chores so we could take the day off. With a quart sealer of tea, wrapped in newspaper and a few sandwiches, we would set off to explore the country. The stillness of the big bush sort of bothered a person. You would find yourself looking over your shoulder after a while. Once in a while we would get lost and have to climb a big tree to look for father's lob sticks. These were tall spruce with the tops lopped off. They were our directional markers. We would walk for miles, coming home in the dark carrying a spruce hen and rabbits over our shoulders.
Once father and I visited the relief camp. This was for the single unemployed men. They were building an airstrip at that time. We had dinner with them, great kettles of food cooking on the stove and plenty for everyone.
Life wasn't all work however, we had good neighbours and everyone would get together and take turns having a dance in their homes. The hostess supplied coffee and the others would bring sandwiches or cake. There was always some sort of music. Father played the violin and there was always a guitar and the song "The Little Shirt My Mother Made For Me". There were Christmas concerts and the excitement of the dance afterward. The girls would carefully curl their hair with the curling tongs heated over the coal oil lamp. The old lantern had a potato on the filler opening and one time the potato fell off spilling coal oil down a certain young man's dress suit. There were horse drawn cutters and rides over the snow. Rocks were heated to help keep our feet warm under the bits of old blankets.
Church services were held in our home in the summer months. Student ministers, shy young men, were much embarrassed by the constant giggling of the girls.
We took our schooling by mail in those days, studying a certain number of hours each day. It was so hard to remain indoors on a beautiful summer day.
There were no libraries in those northern towns. Anyone with books or magazines shared them with other neighbours. We would sit in the livery man's shack while father talked and read magazines called "Weird Tales". "Wide World" magazine was my favourite, with tales of pearl divers, gold panning and the Foreign Legion. I travelled across the world while sitting in a hand-made tamarack chair.
Our mother became very ill. The nearest hospital was in Prince Albert and she was away for a month the first time. The neighbours were kind and helped us cope with things. At this time, medical bills were charged against the land, a crushing amount of debt in those days. Then too, there was the cost of breaking twelve acres of land.
The time came when there was talk of General Motors opening up again and father left for Regina to see if he could get work there. The rest of us remained on the homestead until the following spring when we too left for Regina. When we shut the door of that log house, we never thought we would see it again, except in our dreams. The love and laughter, the joy and sorrow, five years of hope and dreams, all over in the quiet closing of a door.
Mother and father passed away within a few months of each other in 1974. One can reach family members of the Swanton family by writing Yvonne Swanton Burgess, R.R. #1, Bulyea, Saskatchewan, S0G 0L0.