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Culture / Travel

A Journey Into Canada and a Family’s Past

Following in the Footsteps of Grandparents Who Settled the Western Plains

BY MARY MARGARET HANSEN // 02.10.19

Editor’s Note: Texas artist Mary Margaret Hansen, who’s known for her photo-based work as well as curatorial and public art endeavors, went in search of her family’s roots. The journey led Hansen to cross international borders and to consider an immigrant’s tale of coming to America. This is part two of a series. Read part one here.

My sister Kate Maher and I handed our passports to the agent at a remote border crossing north of Harlem, Montana. When we said we intended to sight-see in Saskatchewan, she wished us well and smiled. We waved back and were off to the town of Val Marie.

For days, I’d taken notice of connections between Texas and the places we encountered on this road trip through Northern Idaho, Montana and now, Western Canada. We’d seen tumbleweeds against fence lines, a multitude of wind farms, pump jacks pulling up oil in golden fields of grain and always, 360 degrees of big bold skies over pencil straight highways.

I added Val Marie’s Main Street to the list, because it looks a lot like Marfa, with the exception that a looming grain elevator takes the place of the Presidio County Courthouse.

Main Street, Val Marie, Saskatchewan, looks a bit like Marfa. Perhaps.

A commemorative plaque, courtesy of area Rotarians, spoke of an historical connection between the tiny prairie town of Val Marie, Saskatchewan, and the big state of Texas. Val Marie was often the terminus of those fabled Texas cattle trail rides, made famous by Larry McMurtry’s 1986 Pulitzer prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove and a TV miniseries staring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval.

Cattle drives lasted four decades and some 40,000 to 60,000 Texas cattle stocked the ranches of Saskatchewan until open range ranching succumbed to railroads and fencing. PaperCity readers may recall that Lonesome Dove is an actual town in South Texas on the Moody Ranch near the Rio Grande River.

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Kate and I sought lunch at The Val Marie Hotel, which advertised Chinese and Canadian Cuisine. I ordered a pot of black tea and “Chinese Dinner for One, A,” described as a plate of Garlic Dry Ribs, Chicken Balls, Plain Fried Rice and Mixed Veggies for $13.95. Kate opted for a mug of black coffee and a grilled cheese white bread sandwich with Canadian bacon.

Canadian-Chinese cuisine is definitely not Houston Chinese. Canadian-Chinese cuisine is a hybrid developed by Chinese laborers who, after building much of the Canadian railways, opened restaurants that served inexpensive variations of Cantonese food.

We began to notice a restaurant in every prairie town with a sign that read “Chinese and Canadian Cuisine.” I had a flashback to childhood visits with relatives in Ontario, Canada, when, even then, there was a plethora of Chinese restaurants.

Canada’s Chinese cuisine is ubiquitous, so much so the Royal Alberta Museum hosted a 2014 exhibition titled “Chop Suey on the Prairies” that explored the cultural impact of the Chinese in Western Canada.

Fueled with Chinese tea and an extra mug of black coffee, Kate and I left Val Marie for Canada’s Grasslands National Park, a starkly beautiful ecosystem of 350 square miles, so different from Montana’s Glacier National Park, yet just as compelling.

We followed the self-guided scenic drive, and did not resist the impulse to take photos of each other amid the endless expanse of windswept native grasses. There are so many shades of grasses on this protected acreage — amber, gold, russet, sienna, and honestly, I began to see shades of vanilla toffee and Mexican flan.

From the visitor’s guide, we learned that the park is one of the finest remaining examples of natural mixed-grass prairie land, 70 percent of which has disappeared from North America. The park contains archaeological-find sites, stone tipi rings and cairns, evidence of First Nations people who lived here with 30 million bison for thousands of years.

Plants and animals found nowhere else in Canada thrive in the park, and that includes the entertaining black-tailed prairie dog. Kate and I stopped at a pull-off to watch dozens of prairie dogs dash among their house-mounds, and were so mesmerized by their high-pitched barking that we recorded the sounds.

Grasslands National Park is also home to some 240 bison, a small number compared to the millions who thundered across the landscape in the mid-1800s. We sighted clusters of bison, most often in the far distance, and excitedly took inadequate iPhone photos. What we needed to see the park’s bison was a pair of binoculars.

Protected bison graze in Grasslands National Park.

Leaving the park, it occurred to me that national parks in both the U.S. and Canada are unique treasures. They gift us all with glimpses of the richness and diversity of the land before we covered it with highways, railroads, industry and subdivisions.

Heading north, we noted prairie towns named Climax, Big Beaver, Swift Current and Rosetown. We drove toward Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where we’d meet our brother John, flying in from Houston.

We three siblings were on a mission. After months of back-and-forth texts and emails, we decided it was imperative to find and walk that parcel of Canadian prairie on which our paternal grandparents homesteaded from 1916 to 1924.

We’d seen faded family photos. We’d read the prairie memoir our grandmother wrote and tucked away. Now, we wanted to see for ourselves the land that had so influenced our grandparent’s lives.

Lewell and Shirley Keyes Thompson were wed on February 29, 1916 in upper New York State. One week later, the newlyweds stepped off a train in their wedding suits at Biggar, Saskatchewan, a town of 1,000 people some 40 miles west of Saskatoon.

The day was clear; the temperature was 60 degrees below zero. Our grandparents were unprepared for the cold, or for primitive prairie life. Our grandfather was schooled in dairy farming and our grandmother majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago and became a school teacher. Yet, the two had decided with enthusiasm and naivete to make their fortune as wheat farmers on the Canadian prairie.

The newlyweds were met at the train station by our grandmother’s first cousin, and they made the 14-mile trip to their prairie home in a horse drawn wagon – Shirley wrapped in a smelly horse blanket against the cold – for which she was grateful – set between sacks of flour and a hundred-pound weight of sugar.

Wedding day for Shirley Keyes and Lewell Thompson. Newlyweds on the right.

We knew these details from reading our grandmother’s memoir, A Prairie Wife’ Tale, Recollections of Farming in Saskatchewan. Her story recounted what she called, “eight years of rubbing against the elements’ on 640 acres of land designated by the Canadian government as ‘section 32d, township 34, range 15, west of the third meridian.”

Our grandparents discovered “how splendid and dreadful, how breathtaking and back-aching, and how glamorous and humdrum – living and working on a western prairie farm can be.”

Shirley describes their prairie abode: “The shack itself was a low, one-story affair which had humble beginning as a one-room soddy in a side hill. When its owner married a widow with two children, it was moved and another room added with its roof slanting down from the ridge pole. As the family grew, so did the shack when first one bedroom and then a second were added to the rear … the back wall scarcely allowed a five-foot person to stand erect.”

Shirley wrote, “Lewell worked hard to sow 80 acres of virgin plowing to wheat and to cultivate 120 acres of stubble in preparation for planting oats and barley. Plus, there was a garden to make and 100 acres of land to summer fallow.”

She quickly follows with this passage, “I had anticipated unforeseen trials in this prairie endeavor; but the actuality seemed ominous. The novelty of our new life was waning. I became aware that I felt wretched. What was the matter with me?”

“I had started to work with Lewell toward a common end with vim and enthusiasm The vim was gone. Our life was to have been a partnership, each investing equally of strength and time… A bit later it appeared that I was carrying my share of the load in a different way. In fact, I was thoroughly disgruntled to find out that I was going to have a baby. Something had me that I couldn’t get away from.”

“It was becoming clear that the much-written about first year adjustments of married life had not been overestimated… I’m ashamed to tell that when I could manufacture some excuse for getting a horse, tired as he was from a long day’s work in the field, I’d ride to the Argo store, three miles from home, for a chocolate bar.”

Chapters of her book were published in 1992 in Saskatchewan History, a quarterly published by the Saskatchewan History Board, University of Saskatchewan. One can order a back issue, including these articles, by contacting the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan at 306- 933-5832, and citing the Volume Number, the Issue Number, and the year of the back issue which includes the article of interest.

The Shirley Keyes Thompson Memoirs: “A Prairie Wife’s Tale,” published 1992: Vol. 44, No. 1, page 17.

Our grandmother’s account of eight years of homesteading is filled with stories of friends made in a community built by immigrants from the U. S., Sweden, Scotland, Ukraine, and Australia.

She recounts the joy felt when crops brought in money to pay the bills, and the hardships all endured when weather, fire or locusts destroyed a year’s labor.

In the late 1800s, the Canadian government supported the building of a transcontinental railroad in the interest of enticing millions of settlers from Europe, eastern Canada, and the U.S. to populate the land. No one truly knew if the prairie was suitable for farming.

However, “taming the west” and “breaking the land” was deemed paramount.

Oil of the prairie

In A Short History of Saskatchewan, Dr. Ed Whitcomb writes, “As if by fate… the discovery of gold in South Africa touched off an international economic boom. The price of wheat rose as the cost of transport dipped. Limited prospects and political conditions prompted millions of Eastern Europeans, to seek a more promising and peaceful land. Western Canada became the place to immigrate.”

The Canadian government negotiated treaties with Native peoples and then, scuttling the treaties, shuttled these superb horsemen, hunters and traders, onto reserves with no freedom to roam the prairie. Instead, prairie lands were surveyed and identified by section numbers.

Lewell and Shirley Keyes Thompson became part of a grand thrust to settle western Canada, facing drought, icy cold, insects and disease, at the same time building communities and making friends with homesteaders, and in my grandparents’ case, raising two young sons, our father and his baby brother.

Kate and I had done our homework. We made phone calls to the Biggar town clerk and asked for the names of the current owners of our grandparent’s land. We consulted Facebook and found evidence of the family for whom we searched. We followed with a series of introductory emails, attaching a photo of our grandparent’s wedding day and a chapter of our grandmother’s memoir.

Eventually, we received an invitation to visit on a mid-September Sunday afternoon. There was one caveat. The intended visiting day was in the midst of harvesting. Our time could be cut short by the work at hand.

Bessborough Hotel in Saskatoon

We met John at Saskatoon’s Marriott Bessborough, a grand hotel built and opened in 1935 for the Canadian National Railway. The historic Bessborough towers above the Saskatchewan River – which, by the way, originates in Montana’s Glacier National Park – and was designed in a Château-esque architectural style with intimations of Bavarian castles.

Needless to say, the hotel was an enchanting find on this flat prairie land.

Over dinner at the hotel, we plotted how we would set out the next morning for Biggar and thus, begin to retrace our grandparents’ journey. Sort of. Kate’s Subaru is not a horse-drawn wagon, nor would we ever mount three horses to gallop across the prairie.

The day dawned with an unseasonably 43 degrees and rain. We were undeterred. On the bright side, there could be no harvesting in the rain. We drove west to meet Darryll and Brenda Poletz, he whose grandparents immigrated to Saskatchewan from Ukraine. We would all have stories to share.

Stay tuned for part three as Mary Margaret Hansen’s family immigration saga continues.

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