“Lord Selkirk’s Settlement”: A brief history of the Red River district, Manitoba

The following is the introduction to my new novel, “The Wooden Box That Sings” (in progress). Watch at the end of this story to see my other adventures and how to order them.
Thomas_Douglas_5th_Earl_of_Selkirk
Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk

As it is known today, the Province of Manitoba is the gateway to the vast expanse of prairie land that lies between it and the Rocky Mountains. Moreover, it is arguably the birthplace of  Saskatchewan’s grain fields and Alberta’s ubiquitous cattle herds, for both spring from a few seeds and a pair of cattle that were sent to the so-called ‘Selkirk Settlement’ by the Scottish nobleman Thomas Douglas, fifth Earl of Selkirk.

It is also testimony to the indomitable spirit of the early settlers who endured killing frosts; devastating floods; swarms of locusts six inches deep, and being caught in the middle of an all-out, bloody war, between the Hudson’s Bay Company – of which Selkirk was an owner – and its rival the North West Company.

Selkirk was born in 1771, and after the unexpected deaths of his elder brothers, he succeeded to the title in 1797. As a young man, he had travelled extensively and had become interested in colonization as a means of helping his fellow countrymen who were being forced out of their homes in the Highlands. As early as 1802 there is a reference in one of his letters to Lake Winnipeg as a district suitable for an inland settlement, but no Government aid was forthcoming, and so it was not until after his marriage to Jean Wedderburn-Colville, in 1808, that he began to purchase Hudson’s Bay Company stock.

lord selkirk's grant
Selkirk’s grant – 116,000 square miles

The Colville family had for years been large stockholders, and it was through their interest and his own substantial holdings that he was able to obtain control of the Company, and in 1811 he arranged a grant of 116,000 square miles in the Red River district

This acquisition came at a time when the large landholders in Scotland were divesting their lands of tenants to make way for sheep, often employing cruel and callous means to do so, and by way of assisting these displaced persons, Selkirk offered to resettle them in Canada.

Although somewhat altruistic, it was by no means outright charity, for the settlers were expected to pay £10 sterling to cover transportation, entitlement to 100 acres at 5s an acre, and one year of provisions. Moreover, it was anticipated that the first Settlers arriving at Red River would find homes and farm buildings awaiting them, gardens and crops ready to harvest, and in the colony storehouses, food supplies, clothing and implements sufficient to tide them over until they could become self-sufficient. It was a good deal, and if it had worked the way it was planned, it would have almost certainly been a success.

The fly in the ointment was the North West Company, Hudson’s Bay Company’s chief rival for a lucrative fur trade that covered nearly half the continent. Unfortunately, Selkirk’s proposed settlement sat at the heart of one of the North West Company’s trade routes. To complicate matters even further, several of the North West’s directors also held large blocks of Hudson Bay stock and were in a position to cause much difficulty for the noble Lord and his visionary scheme. Consequently, when the advance workers reached their port of embarkation, there were delays caused by lack of ships, shortage of officers and sailors to crew the ships, last-minute desertions, and pettiness on the part of the customs officials.

Practically all these troubles could be traced back to the North West’s interference, either in London or at the Northern ports.

york boats - jeffriesAs it was, the ship didn’t set sail until July 26th with one hundred and twenty men on board, and with bad weather adding to the delay they didn’t arrive at York Factory on James Bay until September 24th, 1811. By this time, it was too late to make the trip south before freeze-up, and so they spent the winter hunting and building York Boats[1] for the trip inland. It was also discovered that several of the men were quarrelsome and unsuited for the purpose, so these were returned to Scotland in the spring, leaving only thirty-five to make the trip south.

Nevertheless, they set out in three boats and a canoe down the Hayes-Nelson River Route.  This route was four hundred miles long with an ascent of seven hundred feet. There were thirty-four portages varying in length from sixteen feet to one mile, over which cargoes and sometimes the boats themselves had to be carried.

HAYES-nelson river route
Hayes-Nelson river route from York Factory to Lake Winnipeg

For example: On leaving York Factory the route followed the Hayes River to the forks of the Shamattawa and Steel Rivers, up the Steel to the forks of the Hill River, up the Hill River and through Knee Lake and Oxford Lake, then by Franklin and Echemanis Rivers to the height of land at Painted Rock, a short portage over this into the West Echemanis River, through Hairy Lake and Blackwater Creek into the Nelson River and on into Playgreen Lake on which Norway House was situated.

From Norway House, it was another three hundred miles across Lake Winnipeg and up the Red River to the site of the settlement at “The Forks” – the informal name for the settlement at the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. If one can imagine covering this wilderness route in a forty-foot, York Boat, it will provide some idea of the conditions under which the settlers travelled to reach the Red River.

The second and third arrivals – 1812, and 1813-14 – were made up of families containing women and children. These years were particularly bad times for crofters in Scotland with one landholder discharging over one hundred tenants, and the Countess of Sutherland resorting to burning homes and the killing of cattle when the progress was not fast enough to suit her.

Learning of their plight Lord Selkirk determined to help as many as he could to immigrate to the Red River. Seven hundred and twelve applications were received, but due to the interference of the ‘Northwesters’ only about one hundred could be transported due to a shortage of ships – the Northwesters having leased all available ships in the area to block Selkirk’s plan. Nevertheless, the settlers set sail on June 27th in a ship that was badly crewed and beset by bad weather. Moreover, to add to their tribulations, ‘ship’s fever’ (typhus) broke out as well.

ships arriving in james bay
Ships arriving at York Factory, James Bay

The captain then landed them at Churchill—one hundred and forty miles from York Factory, where both accommodation and supplies awaited them. Nonetheless, they wintered at Churchill, and in the spring twenty-one men and twenty women set out on snowshoes for York Factory with a stalwart piper leading the way. They paused at York Factory for only a week before they set out inland to arrive at the Red River settlement on June 21st, 1814.

Having failed to discourage the incoming settlers, the North West Company then resorted to intimidation, including trying to persuade a band of Indians to attack and destroy the settlement. However, they relented when Governor Miles MacDonell agreed to surrender to exile in Montreal, which was done. In the meantime, however, the Northwesters attacked and destroyed the fledgling settlement, anyway.

Undeterred, the settlers rebuilt their houses under the protection of a Hudson Bay brigade that had been brought in from Montreal, and a new band of immigrants arrived from Scotland. Therefore, the settlement was rebuilt as Fort Douglas.

Equally determined, the Northwesters under Cuthbert Grant attacked Fort Douglas at a place known as “Seven Oaks,” and twenty settlers were slain in the resulting skirmish. This skirmish became known as the “Seven Oaks Massacre,” and once again the settlers were displaced.

Meanwhile, Selkirk had arrived in Canada, and while in Montreal he arranged for four officers and one hundred and forty other ranks of the recently disbanded De Meuron regiment to settle at Red River in return for military service when needed. Therefore, he was at Sault Ste Marie when he heard of the massacre. Outraged, he immediately set sail for Fort William (now Thunder Bay) where he attacked the North West Company’s headquarters, releasing a pair of his men in the process. A small expedition was then sent ahead to liberate the settlement, doing so without firing a shot.

Lord Selkirk reached the settlement in June 1817 and remained there until September arranging for such things as a Presbyterian Church and school to be built. In the meantime, he was served with a summons to appear in Montreal to answer to charges brought against him by the North West Company. For the next two years, therefore, he fought a losing battle in the Canadian courts that were stacked by the powerful friends of the Northwesters, and returned to Scotland in 1819 a very sick man. He subsequently died in the south of France in 1820.

Ironically, under pressure from the British Government the two competing ‘superpowers’ were persuaded to amalgamate, and did so in 1821. Thereafter, the settlers were able to develop their farms without fear of attack.

fireaway-in-canoe
‘Fireaway’ being transported to the Red River Settlement by canoe

On the topic of farming, no farm would seem complete without livestock, but being an isolated settlement everything that wasn’t available locally had to be imported from the Old Country via York Factory and along the aforementioned Hayes-Nelson waterway. However, according to Grant MacEwan,[2] fortune smiled upon them when a yearling heifer and bull were discovered at Oxford House, about halfway to the settlement. Therefore the two young critters – appropriately named “Adam” and “Eve” – were bundled into separate canoes for the remainder of the trip; roughly 350 miles.

A mention need hardly be made of the dangers of transporting a young bull in a canoe, especially through fast water; however, Adam and Eve seemed to have been on their best bovine behaviour, and apparently learned to step in and out of the canoe with exercised care. They also grazed quietly while the men were carrying bales and boats over the numerous portages. Consequently, approximately thirty days later, Adam and Eve were grazing contentedly on the banks of the Selkirk Settlement.

Three more head were acquired after that, a bull and two cows, but the bull proved vicious and had to be slaughtered that fall. By this time the good cow Eve had a calf, and the settlement – and all of western Canada for that matter – could boast a beef population of six animals in 1813. Unfortunately, some of these were killed and eaten by marauding Indians, and the growing of grain was not experiencing any greater fortune. The first year, 1813, the wheat proved to be the wrong variety and did not mature. The next year’s planting was lost to frost, and the conflict with the Northwesters prevented harvesting for the next two years. In 1817 frost once again claimed the crop, and locusts attacked it for the two subsequent seasons.

Nonetheless, the hardy Scots – now Canadians – proved triumphant over men and nature, and we are the better for it.

[1] The York boat was a large rowboat (40’ long x 8’ wide) used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to carry furs and trade goods along inland waterways in Rupert’s Land, the watershed stretching from Hudson Bay to the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

[2] MacEwan, Grant, Blazing the Old Cattle Trail, Fifth House; Revised edition (2000

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Jerry Potts: Scout, Native interpreter, drunk, and unsung hero…

HAPPY CANADA DAY 150!

“We should write our own history books … because … a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul” ~ Sir Seretse Khama, President of Botswana, 1970.

By Hammerson Peters

Originally publish in Mysteries of Canada

1. Jerry Potts

jerry-potts

When the sun-burnt, mosquito-bitten officers of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) rode into Writing-on-Stone in the fall of 1874, they were disheartened, saddle-weary, and lost. The previous winter, they had first come together as a unit in Fort Dufferin, Manitoba. That summer, after months of training, they rode out west bound for the notorious Fort Whoop-Up, determined to bring law and order to the Canadian Wild West. Unfortunately, some of the Metis guides they hired had a less than complete knowledge of the western territory’s geography. By early fall, the Mounties found themselves straddling the Boundary Commission Trail on the Canadian-American border with no idea where they were in relation to their destination, Whoop-Up Country.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

The Force’s Assistant Commissioner James Macleod and a handful of officers rode south to Fort Benton, Montana, in the hopes that they might find some directions. They found better. Two of the town’s most prominent businessman hosted the Mounties. During dinner, the Montanan merchants suggested that Macleod and company hire a short, bowlegged Scots-Blackfoot frontiersman named Jerry Potts as their guide. Despite learning that the unimposing mustachioed plainsman was a man of few words who had an enormous appetite for whisky, the commodity which they hoped eliminate from the Canadian plains, the Mounties took their suggestion and hired Jerry Potts as their chief scout. They couldn’t have been happier with their decision.

jerry-potts-photo

Jerry Potts returned with Macleod to Writing-on-Stone, took up a position at the head of the column, and led the bedraggled Mounties northwest over prairies and coulees. Said Mountie Sam Steele of the quiet, mysterious guide, “he never talked with others when he was at work. He would ride on ahead by himself, keeping his mind fixed on the mysterious business of finding the way. He was never able to give any clear explanation of his method. Some mysterious power, perhaps a heritage from his Indian ancestors, was at work.” In no time, Potts led the Mounted Policemen to Fort Whoop-Up, on the banks of the Oldman River. Shortly thereafter, he led them upriver to the location at which they would build Fort Macleod, their first permanent headquarters.

In the ensuing months, Potts, who was fluent in a number of Indian languages, also served the Mounties as an interpreter and Indian ambassador. While the Policemen were building Fort Macleod, he traveled throughout the territory to speak with the local Blackfoot chiefs, on whose lands the Mounties encroached. Potts informed the chiefs that the red coats were there to suppress the whisky trade which had brought the Blackfoot people so much grief, and that they had their interests at heart. The officers who accompanied Potts on these excursions noticed how the powerful Blackfoot chiefs treated the wiry half-breed with deference and respect and took him at his word. The scout, they soon realized, was well-known and highly respected among the people of the plains.

Over the years, various Mounties got the taciturn frontiersman to open up and reveal his mysterious past, which, if the manner in which the Blackfoot treated him was any judge, had evidently earned him a ferocious reputation throughout the Canadian-American plains. As it turned out, Jerry Potts was a man of two worlds. He spent half his time among his father’s people, the predominantly-white traders and ranchers of Fort Benton, Montana, working for various fur trading companies. While at the Fort, one of his favorite past-times was to fortify himself with whisky before playing a gutsy game with his co-worker and fellow half-breed George Star, in which the two of them, armed with revolvers, would stand 20 paces apart and literally trim each other’s mustaches with bullets.

Fort Benton, Montana.

Fort Benton, Montana.

In the white man’s world, Jerry Potts’ primary function was that of a scout. As a result, he often found himself far from the Fort in hostile Sioux territory. One time, while on a scouting expedition with two white men, Potts and his charges were set upon by a war party of about 200 well-equipped Sioux braves. At first, the half-breed ordered his charges to flee on horseback. When he realized that some of the warriors mounted on faster horses would inevitably catch up to them, however, Potts suddenly ordered his two clients to wheel around and ride through the Sioux ranks. After passing through the horde unscathed, Potts had his clients take shelter in a nearby abandoned cabin, where he, armed with nothing more than a revolver, managed to fend off the enterprising braves who rushed their location. That night, after sneaking into the Sioux camp and stealing three of their best horses, Potts and his two charges rode back to the Fort, escaping certain death.

When he was not working for the fur traders of Fort Benton, Jerry Potts lived among his mother’s people, the Blackfoot. He participated wholeheartedly in various raiding parties and war parties against the Sioux, Crow, Shoshone, Cree, and Assiniboine, and quickly established himself as a formidable warrior and horse thief. On October 25, 1870, Potts participated in the Battle of Belly River, the last great battle between the Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies and the last great inter-tribal Indian battle in the world. It was due to Potts’ leadership that the Blackfoot were able to take advantage of a Cree-Assiniboine retreat, turn the tide of the battle in their favour, and completely route their enemies. Due to his martial prowess, and the fact that he, despite his extensive combat experience, was never wounded in battle, the Blackfoot began to regard him with superstitious awe. Potts himself was imbued with the superstitious nature of a Blackfoot and, due to instructions he received in a dream, wore a catskin amulet around his neck day and night for good luck.

battle-of-belly-river

In 1869, Jerry Potts guided John Healy, Alfred Hamilton, and a handful of American whisky traders from Fort Benton to a place on the Oldman River. There, the whisky traders built Fort Whoop-Up, the notorious whisky fort which’s calamitous traffic, in essence, became the main reason for the formation of the North West Mounted Police. Throughout he early 1870’s, Potts watched in horror as the Canadian whisky trade, which he helped establish, succeeded in all but destroying his mother’s people, the Blackfoot.

In the spring of 1872, Potts’ mother and brother were killed in a whisky fueled argument. When Potts received word of the incident, he avowed to avenge their murders. About two months later, while watering horses near a Canadian whisky post called Fort Kipp, Potts spotted his mother and brother’s murderer riding out from the fort. The half-breed, furious, pursued the Indian and killed him just a short distance from his own camp.

jerry-potts-family

Following the death of his mother and brother, Potts sought an end to the whisky trade, and was more than happy to assist the Mounties when they rode into Fort Benton in search of a guide.

Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot orating at the signing of Treaty 7.

Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot orating at the signing of Treaty 7.

After joining the Mounties, Jerry Potts performed the functions of scout and interpreter. By all accounts, he was a magnificent scout, and an abysmal interpreter. In the winter of early 1875, he led his respective Mountie charges through blizzards on two different occasions, during one of which he was rendered snow-blind. Said Sam Steele of his scouting ability,“he possessed an uncanny sense of locality and direction. Others could guide travelers through country they had visited before, but this man could take a party from place to place by the quickest route, through country altogether unknown to him, without compass and without sight of the stars.” On the other hand, during the signing of Treaty 7, during which the Blackfoot Nations made an agreement with the British Crown, Potts served as interpreter between the Blackfoot chiefs and Government of Canada representatives… that is, until called upon to translate Governor of the North-West Territory David Laird’s eloquent speech into Blackfoot. Potts, a man of limited frontier vocabulary, had no idea what the well-educated governor was saying, and said as much when called upon to interpret.

As a scout and Indian ambassador, Jerry Potts proved to be an invaluable asset to the Mounties. However, his love of whisky often strained his relationship with his superiors. For example, during the early days of the suppression of the whisky trade, Potts and a few officers of the NWMP accosted a pair of bootleggers smuggling whisky across the 49th parallel. The half-breed, who was tasked with keeping an eye on the prisoners in the back of their wagon, broke into the contraband and shared it with the men he was supposed to be guarding. In the words of Constable Robert Wilson, one of the Mounties who accompanied Potts on this mission, “the two prisoners and Jerry were soon howling drunk…” The three men promptly quaffed all the evidence of their wrongdoing, much to the displeasure of Potts’ superiors once they got wind of the incident.

The Battle of Fish Creek during the North-West Rebellion.

The Battle of Fish Creek during the North-West Rebellion.

During the North-West Rebellion of 1885- fomented by Metis revolutionary Louis Riel; in which the Metis people of the Red River and Qu’Appelle Valleys, and their Cree and Assiniboine allies fought against the Canadian government- Jerry Potts served as a peacemaker. While Metis and Cree ambassadors rode into Blackfoot reserves imploring their old enemies to take up arms with them against the Canadian government, Potts reminded his Blackfoot friends of their century-long feud against the Cree and Metis, and the good decade-long relationship they had enjoyed with the North-West Mounted Police. Due in part to Potts’ efforts, the Blackfoot refrained from joining the rebellion, thereby preventing what would likely have a huge amount of bloodshed. In the words of North-West Mounted Police physician Dr. George Allan Kennedy, “had the Blackfeet forgotten their own enmity and joined hands with the Crees, it is hardly possible to calculate the enormous loss of life and property that would have followed…”

On July 14, 1896, 56-year-old Jerry Potts succumbed to throat cancer, which was likely attributable, at least in part, to his life of hard drinking. This paragon of the Canadian Wild West was buried in the North-West Mounted Police cemetery in Fort Macleod with full military honours. His obituary in the Fort Macleod Gazette reads:

“Jerry Potts is dead. Through the whole North West, in many parts of eastern Canada, and in England itself, this announcement will excite sorrow, in many cases sympathy, and in all, interest. His memory will long be green in the hearts of those who knew him best, and ‘faithful and true’ is the character he leaves behind him- the best monument of a valuable life.”

 

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Valour At Vimy Ridge: Canadian Heroes of World War I, by Tom Douglas

They said that it couldn’t be done…

Non-fiction works of this kind are not star-rated

A defining moment in Canadian military history. A much-needed Allied victory. A show of valour and heroism. The battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 saw Canadian troops storm a strategic 14-kilometre long escarpment that was believed to be impregnable. This was the first time in the nation’s history that a corps-sized formation fought together as a unit under its own meticulous planning. Canadian troops persevered under heavy fire to take the ridge, demonstrating incredible discipline and bravery. The battle became a symbol of sacrifice for the young nation and a turning point in its role in the global theatre of war.

Amazing Stories Series–Altitude Press, 2007

Tom Douglas, an award-winning journalist and author, lives in Oakville, Ontario with his wife Gail, also an author in the Amazing Stories series. Tom’s father, Sgt. H.M. (Mel) Douglas, was part of the Invasion Force that stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Tom is a member of the Royal Canadian Legion, worked as a Communications Advisor for Veterans Affairs Canada, and has written speeches for the Minister of National Defence. Recently, he self-published a book, Some Sunny Day about his family’s experiences in Northern Ontario following his father’s return from World War II.

Review by Gerry Burnie

They said it couldn’t be done, and thousands of French and English had tried it, but four battalions of Canadians succeeded; not without 10,602 Canadian casualties, including 3,598 fatalities, however.

It was known as the “Great War,” and “The war to end all wars,” but history has proven that World War I was not the war that ended all wars. What it was, was a bitter, bloody conflict with over 15 million (combatants and civilians) killed, and 22 million wounded between July 28, 1914 and November 11, 1918.

This conflagration started with the assassination of an obscure prince, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which led to posturing between two, now forgotten states—Austro-Hungary and Serbia. Serbia’s ally, Russia, then began to assemble troops, which brought in Germany as ally to Austro-Hungary. England and France then came to the aid of Russia, and this automatically brought Canada—as a dominion of England—into the fray.

Nevertheless, a nationalist fervour gripped Canada to aid the “Mother Land,” even though the militia numbered just over 3,000—and volunteers poured into recruiting stations so that by September of 1914, more than 30,000 set sail for England; making it the largest convoy to cross the Atlantic.

However, these patriotic young men who had dreamed of glory in a far off land soon learned that they had been sold a bill of goods, and that there was nothing glorious about existing like an animal in filthy, disease-ridden trenches that scarred the landscape, or seeing your friend—or lover—blown to bits by an enemy mortar shell.

Indeed, the recruiting posters showing clean-cut lads in freshly pressed uniforms sipping wine at outdoor cafés in Paris didn’t contain any scenes of a corpse-strewn no-man’s land—that stretch of barren ground that separated the trenches between the two opposing sides. “Nor were there any close-ups of a diseased rat crawling over your face as you tried to grab a few hours’ sleep before having to go “over the top” to raid the enemy trench just a few metres away from yours.”

“No mention of German snipers waiting for you to emerge from the relative safety of a muddy shell hole so that he could blow your head off. No depiction of life in the trenches, where foot rot, lice, and the stench of death were your constant companions,”

Vimy Ridge was a promontory near the River Aisne where, after a failed attempt to take Paris, the Germans were ordered to dig in to protect themselves. When the allies realized that the German trenches were a formidable obstacle, they dug in as well.

“After a few months the opposing trenches stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier. For the next three years, neither side was able to advance more than a few kilometres along the line that came to be known as the Western Front. But living conditions in what amounted to little more than deep ditches wasn’t anything like the cozy bungalows or college dorms or rural family homesteads the young Canadians had left behind.”

Life in the Trenches

As part of this introduction to the battle, Author Tom Douglas describes the conditions:

“[N]o story about World War I—and in particular the magnificent achievement of the Canadians at Vimy Ridge—would be complete without a basic understanding of these inhuman and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that had to be overcome on the road to victory.

“The excavations along the Western Front were built in threes—the front line, support, and reserve trenches. This trio of long, snake-like ditches covered between 220 and 550 metres of ground from front to back and could wind for several kilometres across the terrain parallel to the enemy fortifications.”

“Running perpendicular to these channels were communication trenches for fresh troops, equipment, and supplies to move up the line and wounded soldiers to be taken to the rear.”

The trench was too deep to allow its occupants to be seen over the top, so a small ledge called a fire-step was added. The soldiers would crouch down on this protrusion, then pop up to take potshots at the enemy before ducking down quickly to avoid having their heads blown off by a camouflaged sniper who’d been lying motionless for hours in no man’s land.”

“The front-line trenches were protected by gigantic bales of barbed wire placed far enough forward to prevent the enemy from getting within grenade-lobbing distance. So impenetrable and tangled were these obstacles that they acted like the steel web of a monstrous spider, impaling any hapless soldier who came close enough to get tangled in the trap. Before a battle troops would be sent out with wire cutters to chop a path through the razor-sharp wire. It was one of the more hazardous duties to perform because of those ever-present snipers.”

 To make matters more difficult the Germans occupied the high ground, forcing the attacking allies to charge uphill while loaded down with weapons and equipment. Moreover, the allies—French, British and Canadians—were only a few feet above sea level, and would frequently find themselves standing ankle deep in water.

“Waterlogged trenches meant wet feet for days and weeks on end—and wet feetled to frostbite or the dreaded trench foot that, if left untreated, could result in amputation.”

“Dysentery was another killer that accounted for thousands of death in the trenches. Needless to say, sanitary conditions in these waterlogged ditches were appalling. Latrines were dug behind the lines, but these soon filled up and spilled into the trenches. In addition, many of those excavations had been dug in areas were corpses from earlier battles had been hastily buried, and the decaying bodies were another source of deadly germs.”

“A steady diet of canned beef, mouldy biscuits, boiled sweets, and coffee made from ground turnips left the men susceptible to boils, scabies, and other skin eruptions.”

As the author points out, a great number of soldiers suffered from mental illness after weeks and months of living under such conditions. The term “shell shock” was coined to describe this condition, but many officers and even doctors refused this as a reason to remove the victims from the battle front.

“The rallying cry “for king and country” soon took on a cynical overtone.”

The Author then goes on to document the charge up Vimy Ridge from the personal perspective of the soldiers and officers who took part; many of them being awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery—some posthumously.

 

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Memories of Maple Sugaring Time…

Gathering sap in the frosty stillness

 

Maple sugaring time is, to this very day, a cherished memory for me. Each stage comes back as special, and each one is as vivid as the day it happened nearly eighty years ago.

My father and my favourite Uncle Fred shared a ‘sugar bush’ together, and each spring, when the sap started to flow, they would emerge from their long winter doldrums to start ‘spiling’ the trees. This involved going from tree to tree (nearly 200 of them) with a hand auger and a pail of spiles to ‘tap’ the trees – sometimes three to a tree.

Maple spiles as they were in my time.

My job was to hammer the spiles into place when father bored the holes. Nonetheless, it was a father-son collaboration that is hardly known today. In my mind, we were ‘men’ working together, and whether or not it was cold and damp, I persevered as men did in those days.

The next stage was the gathering of the sap. this was done in two wooden barrels affixed to a ‘stone boat’ (a skid with two log runners) that was pulled by “Dolly and “Molly” – our two Clydesdale horses.

A similar evaporating furnace and pans

It was then poured into four ‘evaporating pans’ that were placed atop a brick fireplace. As the raw sap ‘boiled off’ in the first plan it was transferred to the next until the last pan held the pure elixir – golden and sweet, and as pretty to look at as it was to taste.

But here is where the real memories take shape. Most of the boiling off took place at night, and so, on weekends, my sister Beverley and myself were allowed to join father and Uncle Fred until the day’s batch was finished – around 10:30 or 11:00 PM.

Included in these memories are the crackling of the fire echoing throughout the forest, and the mouth-watering aroma of maple syrup as it nears perfection – not to mention the taste of ‘maple snow’ in a cup – which we just happened to bring along.

Then, with a cream can full of syrup (about two or three gallons), we would start for home under the light of a full or crescent moon. Nonetheless, the stillness of the forest seemed to accompany us with only the jingling of harness and the plop-plopping of the horses’ hooves to break the frosty silence of a March night.

Therefore, there is not an early spring goes by that I don’t think of these tumes and the people – long gone – that accompany them.

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How a Canadian engineer fuelled the battery industry

Lewis Urry - The Canadian inventor of the modern-day battery powered the consumer electronics revolution that forever changed the holiday shopping season. The alkaline cell he created in 1957 brought portable power to the masses, making batteries a consumer staple used around the world.
Lewis Urry – The Canadian inventor of the modern-day battery powered the consumer electronics revolution that forever changed the holiday shopping season. The alkaline cell he created in 1957 brought portable power to the masses, making batteries a consumer staple used around the world.

Lewis Urry was particularly proud of his life’s work at Christmastime.

The Canadian inventor of the modern-day battery powered the consumer electronics revolution that forever changed the holiday shopping season. The alkaline cell he created in 1957 brought portable power to the masses, making batteries a consumer staple used around the world.

The global market for household batteries is worth about $4.5-billion (U.S.) a year. A growing list of products ranging from toys to household appliances run on battery technology inspired by Mr. Urry’s innovation.

“He took special pride around Christmas, when there was a rush for batteries,” his son, Steven Urry, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper after his father’s death in October, 2004. “He didn’t brag on himself. It wasn’t until we got older that we realized what he had done.”

Consumers still gripe about limited battery life, but we live in a paradise of cheap, portable energy compared to the batteries available in 1955, when Union Carbide Corp., owner of the Eveready battery brand, brought the 28-year-old chemical engineer to its Cleveland-area lab from Toronto. There, Mr. Urry joined a team working to address this long-standing drawback of the technology, which dates back more than 200 years.

The very first battery was developed in 1799 by Italian inventor Alessandro Volta. Known as Voltaic piles, those batteries were stacks of different metals separated by brine-soaked paper that generated just enough electricity to operate simple mechanisms.

Just one of Mr. Volta’s batteries could be as big as a modern toaster, but only generate a weak current. Still, they proved that electricity could be generated chemically. Although the technology has evolved over the years, modern-day batteries still function in a similar way. They produce a current when an electrolyte material separates but connects two other materials: a cathode and an anode.

Over the next 150 years, an increasing number of devices were made to exploit the smaller batteries that were being developed by later scientists including Canada’s Mr. Urry.

Born in Pontypool, Ont., a village near the Kawartha Lakes, roughly 100 kilometres northeast of Toronto, Mr. Urry graduated from the University of Toronto in 1950 with a degree in chemical engineering. He had served in the Canadian military from 1946 to 1949, and joined Eveready right after graduation.

Speaking to the Associated Press in 1999, Mr. Urry explained that after moving to Cleveland he quickly abandoned the idea of working with the company’s preferred chemistry. Eveready made carbon-zinc-based power cells. They were stable and safe but had a weak charge that expired after a few minutes use with a motorized toy.

Instead, he followed earlier experiments with alkalines as the electrolyte to see if they could be made commercially viable. Manganese dioxide and solid zinc worked fine with alkaline, but Mr. Urry claimed his eureka moment was when he realized powdered zinc would allow for more surface area. He was testing these materials in a hollowed-out flashlight tube, working on the large D-cell-sized batteries most modern electronics eschew.

To prove that he had developed something special, in 1957 he put on a demonstration for R.L. Glover, Eveready’s vice-president of technology. He bought two electric cars, put his battery in one and a conventional cell in another, pitting them in a head-to-head race.

“Our car went several lengths of this long cafeteria,” Mr. Urry told the Associated Press during his induction to the Smithsonian Hall of Fame in 1999. “But the other car barely moved. Everybody was coming out of their labs to watch. They were all oohing and aahing and cheering.”

Mr. Urry’s prototype battery is housed in the same room at the Smithsonian Institute as Thomas Edison’s light bulb, along with the first commercially produced Eveready alkaline batteries, which went on sale in 1959.

Over the years, the company has wrung up to 40 times more battery life out of Mr. Urry’s design, and went through some dramatic changes of its own. In 1980, Eveready changed its name to Energizer. Years later, it debuted its signature pink bunny mascot.

For his part, Mr. Urry spent 54 years with the company, eventually becoming an American citizen. He collected more than 50 patents, including some on the lithium batteries that dominate digital cameras and make smartphones possible.

After retiring in 2003, he passed away in Cleveland the following year at the age of 77. He kept a low profile, but remains the pride of Pontypool.

“Lewis Urry’s intelligence and determination revolutionized the battery industry 50 years ago,” says Shawn Bhasin, Toronto-based marketing spokesman for Energizer. “We all need to be reminded that with hard work and persistence, anything is possible.”

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Story From Pioneer Days Illustrates The True Christmas Spirit!

Christmas Eve 1881

Christmas 1876
Christmas 1876

Pa never had much compassion for the lazy or those who squandered their means and then never had enough for the necessities. But for those who were genuinely in need, his heart was as big as all outdoors. It was from him that I learned the greatest joy in life comes from giving, not from receiving.

It was Christmas Eve 1881. I was fifteen years old and feeling like the world had caved in on me because there just hadn’t been enough money to buy me the rifle that I’d wanted for Christmas. We did the chores early that night for some reason. I just figured Pa wanted a little extra time so we could read in the Bible.

Music has always been part of Christmas, and in pioneer times you made your own.
Music has always been part of Christmas, and in pioneer times you made your own.

After supper was over I took my boots off and stretched out in front of the fireplace and waited for Pa to get down the old Bible. I was still feeling sorry for myself and, to be honest, I wasn’t in much of a mood to read Scriptures. But Pa didn’t get the Bible, instead he bundled up again and went outside. I couldn’t figure it out because we had already done all the chores. I didn’t worry about it long though, I was too busy wallowing in self-pity. Soon Pa came back in. It was a cold clear night out and there was ice in his beard. “Come on, Matt,” he said. “Bundle up good, it’s cold out tonight.” I was really upset then. Not only wasn’t I getting the rifle for Christmas, now Pa was dragging me out in the cold, and for no earthly reason that I could see. We’d already done all the chores, and I couldn’t think of anything else that needed doing, especially not on a night like this. But I knew Pa was not very patient at one dragging one’s feet when he’d told them to do something, so I got up and put my boots back on and got my cap, coat, and mittens. Ma gave me a mysterious smile as I opened the door to leave the house. Something was up, but I didn’t know what.

Outside, I became even more dismayed. There in front of the house was the work team, already hitched to the big sled. Whatever it was we were going to do wasn’t going to be a short, quick, little job. I could tell. We never hitched up this sled unless we were going to haul a big load. Pa was already up on the seat, reins in hand. I reluctantly climbed up beside him. The cold was already biting at me. I wasn’t happy. When I was on, Pa pulled the sled around the house and stopped in front of the woodshed. He got off and I followed. “I think we’ll put on the high sideboards,” he said. “Here, help me.” The high sideboards! It had been a bigger job than I wanted to do with just the low sideboards on, but whatever it was we were going to do would be a lot bigger with the high side boards on.

After we had exchanged the sideboards, Pa went into the woodshed and came out with an armload of wood – the wood I’d spent all summer hauling down from the mountain, and then all Fall sawing into blocks and splitting. What was he doing? Finally I said something. “Pa,” I asked, “what are you doing?” “You been by the Widow Jensen’s lately?” he asked. The Widow Jensen lived about two miles down the road. Her husband had died a year or so before and left her with three children, the oldest being eight. Sure, I’d been by, but so what? Yeah,” I said, “Why?”

Christmas in a pioneer village. The general store with its display of candies was always a popular spot for children.
Christmas in a pioneer village. The general store with its display of candies was always a popular spot for children.

“I rode by just today,” Pa said. “Little Jakey was out digging around in the woodpile trying to find a few chips. They’re out of wood, Matt.” That was all he said and then he turned and went back into the woodshed for another armload of wood. I followed him. We loaded the sled so high that I began to wonder if the horses would be able to pull it. Finally, Pa called a halt to our loading, then we went to the smoke house and Pa took down a big ham and a side of bacon. He handed them to me and told me to put them in the sled and wait. When he returned he was carrying a sack of flour over his right shoulder and a smaller sack of something in his left hand. “What’s in the little sack?” I asked. Shoes, they’re out of shoes. Little Jakey just had gunny sacks wrapped around his feet when he was out in the woodpile this morning. I got the children a little candy too. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a little candy.”

We rode the two miles to Widow Jensen’s pretty much in silence. I tried to think through what Pa was doing. We didn’t have much by worldly standards. Of course, we did have a big woodpile, though most of what was left now was still in the form of logs that I would have to saw into blocks and split before we could use it. We also had meat and flour, so we could spare that, but I knew we didn’t have any money, so why was Pa buying them shoes and candy? Really, why was he doing any of this? Widow Jensen had closer neighbors than us; it shouldn’t have been our concern.

We came in from the blind side of the Jensen house and unloaded the wood as quietly as possible, then we took the meat and flour and shoes to the door. We knocked. The door opened a crack and a timid voice said, “Who is it?” “Lucas Miles, Ma’am, and my son, Matt, could we come in for a bit?”

Widow Jensen opened the door and let us in. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The children were wrapped in another and were sitting in front of the fireplace by a very small fire that hardly gave off any heat at all. Widow Jensen fumbled with a match and finally lit the lamp.

“We brought you a few things, Ma’am,” Pa said and set down the sack of flour. I put the meat on the table. Then Pa handed her the sack that had the shoes in it. She opened it hesitantly and took the shoes out one pair at a time. There was a pair for her and one for each of the children – sturdy shoes, the best, shoes that would last. I watched her carefully. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling and then tears filled her eyes and started running down her cheeks. She looked up at Pa like she wanted to say something, but it wouldn’t come out.

“We brought a load of wood too, Ma’am,” Pa said. He turned to me and said, “Matt, go bring in enough to last awhile. Let’s get that fire up to size and heat this place up.” I wasn’t the same person when I went back out to bring in the wood. I had a big lump in my throat and as much as I hate to admit it, there were tears in my eyes too. In my mind I kept seeing those three kids huddled around the fireplace and their mother standing there with tears running down her cheeks with so much gratitude in her heart that she couldn’t speak.

My heart swelled within me and a joy that I’d never known before, filled my soul. I had given at Christmas many times before, but never when it had made so much difference. I could see we were literally saving the lives of these people.

I soon had the fire blazing and everyone’s spirits soared. The kids started giggling when Pa handed them each a piece of candy and Widow Jensen looked on with a smile that probably hadn’t crossed her face for a long time. She finally turned to us. “God bless you,” she said. “I know the Lord has sent you. The children and I have been praying that he would send one of his angels to spare us.”

In spite of myself, the lump returned to my throat and the tears welled up in my eyes again. I’d never thought of Pa in those exact terms before, but after Widow Jensen mentioned it I could see that it was probably true. I was sure that a better man than Pa had never walked the earth. I started remembering all the times he had gone out of his way for Ma and me, and many others. The list seemed endless as I thought on it. Pa insisted that everyone try on the shoes before we left. I was amazed when they all fit and I wondered how he had known what sizes to get. Then I guessed that if he was on an errand for the Lord that the Lord would make sure he got the right sizes.

Tears were running down Widow Jensen’s face again when we stood up to leave. Pa took each of the kids in his big arms and gave them a hug. They clung to him and didn’t want us to go. I could see that they missed their Pa, and I was glad that I still had mine. At the door Pa turned to Widow Jensen and said, “The Mrs. wanted me to invite you and the children over for Christmas dinner tomorrow. The turkey will be more than the three of us can eat, and a man can get cantankerous if he has to eat turkey for too many meals. We’ll be by to get you about eleven. It’ll be nice to have some little ones around again. Matt, here, hasn’t been little for quite a spell.” I was the youngest. My two brothers and two sisters had all married and had moved away.

Widow Jensen nodded and said, “Thank you, Brother Miles. I don’t have to say, May the Lord bless you, I know for certain that He will.”

Out on the sled I felt a warmth that came from deep within and I didn’t even notice the cold. When we had gone a ways, Pa turned to me and said, “Matt, I want you to know something. Your ma and me have been tucking a little money away here and there all year so we could buy that rifle for you, but we didn’t have quite enough. Then yesterday a man who owed me a little money from years back came by to make things square. Your ma and me were real excited, thinking that now we could get you that rifle, and I started into town this morning to do just that, but on the way I saw little Jakey out scratching in the woodpile with his feet wrapped in those gunny sacks and I knew what I had to do. Son, I spent the money for shoes and a little candy for those children. I hope you understand.”

I understood, and my eyes became wet with tears again. I understood very well, and I was so glad Pa had done it. Now the rifle seemed very low on my list of priorities. Pa had given me a lot more. He had given me the look on Widow Jensen’s face and the radiant smiles of her three children.

For the rest of my life, whenever I saw any of the Jensens, or split a block of wood, I remembered, and remembering brought back that same joy I felt riding home beside Pa that night. Pa had given me much more than a rifle that night, he had given me the best Christmas of my life.

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