Homesteading, Southern Alberta 1910

Pen sketch of a homesteaders shack, drawn by Wendy Harty 2020

Gordon Reid Waddell 1891-1978 and Olive Ruth Gibbs Waddell 1899-1988

If only I had recorded the stories and listened more attentively as a child to these two grandparents of mine! The telling of their story would be much easier today.

Gordon came west at the age of 19 with his friend Bert Guess, from Kingston, Ontario. He was definately looking for an adventure. Gordon, a bachelor filed on a homestead in Davis Coulee, location 7-01-12 W4, east of Coutts, Alberta just under the shadow of the Sweetgrass Hills which were on the American side.

Back in the year of 1874, the border between Canada and the United States in the vicinity of the Sweetgrass Hills was surveyed. For the next 35 years the county was left untouched until the Treaty of 1908, where permanent markers, four sided, tapered with a pyramid top and read, “Canada, United States of America, International Boundary, the longest, undefended border in the world.

In the year July 8, 1874 a North West Mounted Police force numbering 275 men, 30 Metis, 310 horses, 142 oxen, 114 Red River Carts, 73 wagons, 33 beef cattle, 2 cannons left Dufferin Manitoba. A journey of 1000 miles commissioned to bring law and order to the Canadian west. They got lost and due to lack of grass on the prairie, exhaustion and starvation, the stock were in bad shape and the decision was made to move south to the Sweetgrass Hills. They camped at Trois Buttes where splendid water, good grass, rock caves and curious rock formations with Native paintings and etchings were found among the tepee rings. Large numbers of buffalo were migrating south and an early winter storm that September were recorded in their arduous trek. In 1889 the NWMP established a post at Writing-on-Stone and it is from their records I glean the early homesteading days of Gordon Waddell. In the early 1900’s Ben Sickler (later sold to Plumas Gaines, Frank Thielen) and Frank Webster had most of 1-12 for grazing. Webster’s, then Gilchrists and Sammons were Gordon’s neighbors at Deer Creek Ranch. Their closest neighbor would be Dave and Beatrice Harvie Sweet across the line. Dave’s history started in Minnesota with a family of 14; he had 2 years of college; came west and killed thousands of buffalo, selling the hides and tongues to the Northern Pacific Railroad builders. Gordon would marvel at his 53 pound mattress made of chin whiskers and fetlocks of the buffalo that made him a soft bed. He passed through Custer’s Battlefield and saw the skulls, ran a stagecoach station and was shot at. When gold was discovered at Gold Butte, he hastened there. He mined gold and silver at the head of Deer Creek in the Sweetgrass Hills. It would be good neighbor Mrs. Sweet that would hasten down the coulee to deliver the Waddell children.

By 1909 people were pouring in and Gordon came west with his friend Bert Guess bringing a carload of horses on a freight train to Lethbridge, 1910. They would have seen the engineering feat of the CPR Bridge completed across the Old Man River that year. They rode the single rail train called the A.R. and I Co to Coutts and from there they hired a buggy and horse to take them the 20 miles east. In March 1911 records say the weather was exceptionally cold and stormy. People feeling keenly the failure of last years crop, cattle loss huge. The sheep herder were using disc harrows to break the crust of snow to allow the sheep to feed. Gordon would have been visited by a patrol from the detachment as they visited every settler and reported all cases of destitution. The spring brought considerable moisture , making hopes for a good crop. What horses are left alive are in such condition they will be unable to use them for spring work. June was favorable for a bumper crop. but November 1911 the worst fall known, only 50% of the crop harvested, the rest frozen in the ground. 1912 reported shortage of cash and shortage of rail cars to ship the grain. June 1913, prospect of a good crop but on the 19th one of the worst rains and wind storms damaged property. Gordon’s mother Eliza Jane brought his five sisters out to stay with him and help the bachelor. The next June 1914, a complete failure in crops, burnt up for lack of rain. Grass is short and water scarce. It was crowded in the little shack in the bottom of the coulee. Gordon planted flax and it rained for 18 days in June and he was anticipating a very good crop. He needed money and went away to earn some money with his four horses. He heard of work in Glacier Park, Montana, freighting supplies from one hotel to another. While out working, he met Olive Ruth Gibbs and she became my grandmother.

The marriage license was obtained on August 30, 1915 stating Gordon Waddell was 23 years, 7 months and 26 days born at Kingston, Ontario, father John, mother Eliza. Olive’s details say she 19 years, 4 months and 6 days, born in Kalispell, Montana father George Gibbs, mother Lydia White. (should be Wise) witness: James Gibson. They were married the next day by Justice of the Peace Charles N. Thomas, at Cut Bank, Montana, so they celebrated each August 31st.

Oops ! looked like they might have told a fib? Olive was only a girl of 16 according to her birth certificate. Her mother was daughter of James Alexander Wise and Angelina Catherine Penrod who named her Lydia May Ruth Wise born August 12, 1883 in Troy, Iowa. The family moved west looking for opportunities in the logging industry at Kalispell, Montana. Lydia’s father James died young, age 38, in 1891, leaving Angelina a young widow pregnant and giving birth a month later. Lydia was the only girl in amongst four brothers with another brother born three years later. Lydia Ruth Wise aged 15 married George Arthur Gibbs age 23 on May 6, 1898. Olive Vivian was born April 23, 1899, Arthur Howard born Nov 15, 1900 and Maria Minerva born 1901. This young couple moved to Fort Assiniboine before Alberta was a province in 1904. Olive remembered pressing her nose to the glass of the train and looking out at huge piles of dead cows piled in the fence corners where the bad winter storms had killed them and being afraid of the natives riding fast beside the train. The 1910 census found Lydia and the two young girls 10 and 8, Olive and Mary (Arthur Howard had died) living without George at 1st Ave E, Kalispell, Flathead, Montana where she worked out for a family and she obtained her divorce Oct 28, 1910 from George Gibbs. The divorce papers say he departed in February of 1910 and had not provided the necessities of life and had not aided in anyway because of his idleness, profligacy, and dissipation. (Oh my! did she call him names, and I had to look them in a dictionary. Lydia must have been well educated to use such words. This George Arthur was a great great grandson of Keziah and Abraham Gibbs. And Abraham had been accused of the same behavior before Keziah married him, when their marriage was forbidden in the church records.)

Lydia Ruth Wise Gibbs with daughters Olive standing, Maria seated about 1910.
George Arthur Gibbs 1875-1963 Olive’s father

Lydia then remarried to Ray Himple in 1919 and they farmed at Youngstown, Alberta. Here, in the Plaindealer newspaper was reported Sept 25, 1919 Fatality in South Country. A sad occurrence took place, Miss Marie Gibbs, daughter of Mrs. Himple came to her death by self imposed gun shot-wound Deceased was 18 and had been resident of Viking, Alberta from March 1918 until April of this year, when she came to live with her mother. She is buried in the cemetery at Youngstown, Sept 24, 1919.. Four years later, Lydia was undergoing operations for tumors at the Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary when she passed May 23, 1923 at age 39.

For a honeymoon, Gordon and Olive Gibbs Waddell,

Olive Gibbs Waddell

left Glacier Park with a team and wagon, going as far as Cut Bank Creek. There they camped for the night. During the night, the horses got away and left them afoot, miles from nowhere. It wasn’t long and Olive was helping to feed the threshing crew. On October 29, 1915 threshing flax at the Gordon Waddell’s the wind so strong had to shut down the operation of Ted, Alex and Mac Verburg who owned the threshing machine. Threshing machines were so few that farmers had to wait a long time to get one to pull into the community and several neighbors had to pledge their threshing to the machine owner before they would come. The neighbors cooperated by furnishing teams and hay racks and manpower and no wages were paid. The new bride would work with her mother-in-law and those sisters who had not married to feed the crew – no running water, and no electricity. The winter of 15-16 was tough. It turned -52F for two nights. The frost on the window was so thick you couldn’t see through it. The school was closed as attendance was so poor. There were many stories to share and neighbors to meet. A neighbor Julius Fornfeist had the first Waterloo Boy tractor in the 1-12 area. In 1918 he rode to Kalispell, Montana, rode back and moved in 1919. He just turned his horses loose and left behind his tractor. Dave and Beatrice Sweet, during these lean years, included them in picnics, rodeos and dances, besides a circus once a year. Dave with his collar of sheepskin around his ears and a wagon with hay covered with quilts and rocks that had been in the oven all afternoon, would take them to dances in 1-11, 1-12 or 1-14, dozens of miles away in sub-zero weather. The dances were free in the Alberta schoolhouses, with musicians on piano, violin and banjo. Prohibition was in place. They knew how to have a good time without “getting lit up”. They would make it home by daybreak to do the chores. People crossed the border freely, never reporting. Gordon and Olive would always spread the word when there was to be a dance at Sweet ranch. They boarded the Sweet’s first son Donald who started school at Indian Rock until there was a school on the American side. Dave and Lizzie Thomas were married in 1919 and were the next neighbors up the Davis creek. They ran a ranch with 100 head of horses. Dave Thomas took a stock train to Chicago with six hundred sheep and could not sell any of them. There was no money. Imagine sitting around a stove listening to all the stories told.

Just after the threshing crew left Olive would be experiencing morning sickness. All five children were born with no doctor in attendance, only a good neighbor woman to help. By the time Olive was 17, Dorothy Olive Waddell was born June 19, 1916. That November the weather was again unsettled for threshing. There were two early snowstorms. In 1917, Gordon had the mail route from Coutts to St. Kilda. Arthur Gordon Feb 7, 1918, Grace Olive Mar 23, 1920, John Gordon Oct 17, 1921 and Alice Ruth Jun 1, 1923 were born: five children in 7 years and Olive was only 24.

Olive loved her flowers and soon had them growing around the little shack in the coulee. The Virginia Creeper grew over the walls. Eventually a two story house would be built on the hill, and a large dam would capture much needed water from Davis Creek for the many dry years to follow.

Olive, Dorothy, Arthur on swing, Grace, Johnny sitting and Alice about 1924

The kids all attended school at Indian Rock and St. Kilda, obtaining a grade 8 education. They started at Indian Rock a two mile walk to 18-1-12. The school was built by neighbors Herb Sammons and Tom Ramsey. They found Indian artifacts when they they were preparing the site and hence the name. My Uncle Art said there were 3 Ashes, 2 Waddells, Blanche DeMuelenaere (later Mrs. Jack Drader) and 3 Murphy’s when he started at Indian Rock, a one room school house. The Murphy’s were motherless kids. The father went away working and the kids had to get up early and milk, separate, feed the calves, pump water for the cows, make a school lunch of hotcakes with butter and sugar, and walk to Indian Rock. They got a black mark if they were late so would run 3 posts, walk for 2 and run again. They were seldom late. The teacher lived with a neighbor Tom Grahams. She got sick and had to go for medical care, there was no to replace her and the school term got out early. Usually school ran until December 20, there would be a nice Christmas program and then vacation until April. The winters were just too cold and stormy for the children to be out in on foot. This young Murphy girl was just a kid who made sure her younger siblings got to school on time and did the farm chores eventually her father did not/would not have the money to buy school books and at age 16 she married Linc Sammons. At one time there were homesteads to be seen out the windows but soon, one by one, the dry years forced the people to seek better living conditions. The Waddell’s stayed. The Indian Rock school was cold, built before insulation was used. It was heated with a CPR stove in the middle of the room. There was no water supply and each kid had to pack his own. On a warm day it didn’t last. The kids then went to a bigger school at St. Kilda. Mrs. Day was the teacher they liked and she was good and kind. My dad Johnny, was taught by Mrs. Susan Harvie in 1928-29 who would later teach us kids. He helped plant the grove of trees there that would become known as the Bowery. It was 5 miles to this school.

On the first of July there were games, races, calf roping, bucking horses and ball. Cream, eggs and ice were donated and the children could eat their full of ice cream which was churned by the teenage boys under a tent. Blanche DeMuelenaere came and lived with the Murphy kids to go to school at St. Kilda as she lived on the north side of Milk River but to far to walk to school. They wrapped gunny sacks around their feet to walk to the school to keep from freezing. Her brother Henry passed away in 1930 leaving an empty seat in the one room school room where all knew all.

Among other problems facing the new homesteader was fuel for the winter. Wood was non-existent and the supply of buffalo chips soon ran out. It was a day’s round trip for coal with a team and wagon over prairie trails. Gordon hauled coal from the Mueller’s and Taylor’s mines for years with 4 horses on a wagon to haul coal from the pit mine, crossing the Milk River to get there. Around the year 1924 oil wells came into the area and one started drilling on Sept 1925, completed in 1927 and had a flow of 10,000 mcf at the Rogers Well, drilled to 3668 feet, The gas was capped off. In Lethbridge a best equipped plant made kerosene of exceptionally fine quality and fuel oil. For over 5 years people could hear the gas well roaring like a high wind on the mountain tops, as gas escaped to see if the pressure would hold up. When it did the gas was piped to St. Paul, Minnesota. It was said to be the world’s largest gas producer.

Charlie Russel partnered with Con Price on Kicking Horse Creek in the Sweetgrass Hills. (Walter Clark’s now). He had fenced in 3000 acres of land and ran 300 cattle and 60 horses. Olive took some art lessons from Charlie and drew and painted thereafter.

When Gordon first came to the country there were just prairie trails, but as the homesteads filled and developed the road was built from Coutts east and the land was fenced. At one time there were 26 gates to open and close on a trip to town. To get to the Waddell place was a long hill called Orr’s Hill before Davis Coulee. John McDougal loaded his wagon with lumber and himself with spirits in Sweetgrass and started home. He got up the Orr’s Hill, and shut Ben Sickler’s gate (Frank Thielen later) when he tripped on the brake pole and the frightened horses bolted. At the Davis Coulee the wagon upset, the box came off and the front front running gear unhitched. Mrs. Guess Bert’s wife) saw the horses running and ran to the Waddell’s the nearest neighbor. Mrs. Eliza Jane Waddell and four daughters all ran to the upset wagon. Mac was unconscious, but revived opened one eye, looking up saw six pretty faces bent over him. “my look at all those pretty gals” he said and went back to sleep. In 1917 there was a race from Aden to Sweetgrass between Phil Becker’s Model T (Aunt Vangie’s dad) and Jimmy Calder with his little bay team. They left the Bear Gulch together, headed west over rocks, hills and coulees. Jimmy won, had his horses stabled and was at the bar when Philip arrived. The nature of the trail was still in favor of the horse and buggy. In 1922 the jack rabbits became so numerous, the ground was alive with them. The homesteader made wire pens and herded the jacks in, to protect their grass.

The Waddell’s milked cows in the dry thirties and did well. They shipped the cream to Purity Dairy in Lethbridge. Louis Nelson, the mailman took the cream if the can was at the road, Tuesdays and Fridays. The winter of 36/37 was nasty, early snowfall, then more till the coulees were almost full. January never got above zero and there was very little feed put up. The mail man hauling from Coutts to Aden asked Dorothy Waddell to come and stay with his wife and wee daughter while he was away. Dorothy walked the 13 miles behind the sled. It was so cold if you rode you would start to freeze. The old house had only the outside boards, no insulation. At night they would put a big lump of coal in the cook stove and mornings the water would be frozen on the stove with fire still in the stove. The bread was frozen, the potatoes, meat, all had to be thawed out to eat. The boys didn’t like school much and Art went to work at aged 14 getting grade 8. The first tractor was bought in 1938 and Art rode it from morning til night. With tractors replacing horses, Uncle Art had a job taking retired horses and trailing them to be sold in Raymond. A big mean black stallion and a grey Percheron had the worst fight he had ever seen, biting kicking and screaming. At Ross’s he had to cut out 400 head of grass fed steers and trail them to Pakowki to the train. They camped over and next morning had the steers heading out when the train blew the whistle. Those cattle stampeded and ran til their tongues were hanging out. They finally got them to circle but it was late night before they got them on the train. My dad, John went out working for Joe Gilchrist and Ross Ranch at Aden. He worked for a $1 /day. In 1941 he bought land from John Kennedy and helped at home. He married and rented, then purchased the Waddell homestead, where I was raised.

Olive Ruth Gibbs and Gordon Reid Waddell were married for 62 years.

Gordon and Olive Waddell retired in 1949, moving to Coutts, travelling to Arizona and California many winters. I still have a labelled rock collection my grandmother made for me and they had 4 showcases from their hobby of rock collecting. A short stint at Creston, BC and then back to Coutts where they lived until 1977. Gordon broke his hip and moved to a nursing home in Fort Macleod passing on August 1, 1978. Olive passed on May 25, 1988 both buried at Sunnyside Cemetery at Aden.

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