How Old Are You? The Stories of John Waddell 1921-2003

“Daddy” sketched by Wendy Harty, 2012

“Not nearly as old as many of my ancestors”, I say! This was also the answer Pharaoh got from Jacob, Genesis 47:9. And then I read in Psalm 90; The span of our lives is seventy years, Or given the strength, eighty years, But the best of them are trouble and sorrow, (and labor). They pass by speedily. My father, John Gordon Waddell was born October 17, 1921 and lived to be over the allotted three score and ten. Daddy, as I always called him lived to be nearly 82, dying August 15, 2003.

The following is a summary from his autobiography written in 1989. It was on a wintry night in October, Mrs. Sweet, the neighbor lady was sent for. In a blizzard of 1921, John Gordon Waddell was born on the homestead in the St. Kilda district of Southern Alberta late on a Monday night, October 17. In the morning, he was greeted by his three older siblings, Dorothy, Arthur and Grace. His parents were Gordon and Olive (Gibbs) Waddell.

John Gordon Waddell was born here in 1921, in Davis Coulee.
Olive Waddell, Dorothy, Grace, Art, Alice toddler and John on ground, Davis Coulee, St. Kilda district about
This home was moved in 1929, where Johnny grew up, (I lived in this house for my first 4 years).

The family was 20 miles from the nearest town of Coutts. His playmates besides his siblings were the kids growing up in Montana, in the Sweetgrass Hills and the McLachlan’s over the hill to the west. He loved cats and dogs and had many pets. As a kid he could travel the country side on a stick horse and played with paper people snitched from old colorful Sears and Roebuck catalogues found in the outhouse of Dave and Lizzie Thomas. Johnny told us girls about catching frogs in the coulee. He cooked and ate them using an old metal tea kettle for a stove and an old jam lid for the frying pan. (I vividly recall the day he helped us girls do this!) Johnny didn’t want to go school; he’d heard “stories” and was afraid and scared. His oldest sister Dorothy, carried him screaming into his first day of school. He had a good pal in James McLachlan but they also wrestled and fought during recess. The grade one teacher Ken Scott used to take off his belt and whip the boys – then they’d go outside and cry together and say, “I wish his pants would fall down.” The kids were ragged and some had very little food, he went to school with. This made a vivid impression and he talked about how poor they were. It left with him a great determination to provide for his family in later years. The games at school were anti-I-over, pom-pom pull away. Johnny had a deep scar on the back of his head as a result of falling backward into a barbed wire fence at school. (no stitches).

School was held at the Plumas Gaines house about 1 1/2 miles west of home. A sheepherder named Bill Gordon lived in a sheep wagon in the yard. The kids spent their noon hour with him. He played the spoons to entertain them and had a trunkful of circus clothes. Susan McKnight (later married Bill Harvie) (and still later taught me in Grade 6) was Johnny’s Grade two teacher. He still wasn’t impressed with school. For grade 3, the kids were moved to Indian Rock School #2540. Miss Doan, the teacher, boarded with the Waddell family. At age eight, she taught him how to read and spell and gave him excellent math skills. An excellent sympathetic teacher for an eight year old boy. Then disaster the next year! Fife came to teach at Indian Rock. She used to “forget” to bring matches to light the fire so Johnny was usually sent home to get them – 1 1/2 miles and back before a fire could be built. She forced Johnny to sing solo in front of the class until he fainted. She whipped the kids whenever she took a notion to. Each of the boys had a special board on the outside of the school on which they scratched their names and recorded the beatings they got. The school was a cold school, being built before insulation was used. It was heated with a CPR stove in the middle of the room. Many times the children sat in a circle around the stove, with their feet on the railing which encircled it. Their feet would have been frozen had they been kept on the floor. There was no water supply at this school, so each brought in a bottle or syrup pail. On a hot day playing ball, a bottle of water didn’t last long. The five Waddell children (Alice had been born) and four McInnes, an immigrant family from Scotland, were its last pupils. (1932).

1928, Johnny was 7.
Johnny Waddell

In the 1920’s drilling companies arrived and a gas well was drilled one mile north of home. This site became known as the Oil Well Corner. The Waddell’s sold milk to the cookhouse and the kids liked to go along on the milk delivery buggy to visit the cook who gave them pie and other goodies. There were picnics, on the river at Howard Leslies. By this time there were many cows to milk at home and they had to leave early and miss the picnic supper.

Johnny used marks like IIII with a line through to count 5. On old wooden granaries you may still find these marks where early farmers measured out their grain by the bucketful. The next four years of school were spent at St. Kilda. Johnny helped plant the trees, hoed and carried water to them. They were all promised a gift from the local board for their efforts that never materialized. There were races and prizes of balls that he could win. Johnny rode to school on a Shetland named Cappy. He would often buck him off. Johnny found memory work difficult and useless but was whipped many times and kept after school. Then he would have to gallop all the way home in order to arrive at the same time as the other kids to avoid another whipping; five miles of hard galloping but Cappy was a hardy little pony. His grade six teacher used to tell him how dumb and stupid he was and that he would never amount to anything. When Johnny finished grade nine he threw away his passing certificate and galloped home happy to think those awful years were behind him.

Johnny did chores at home and at age 14, was hauling bundles to the threshing machine. He also trapped coyotes to provide for himself. The years of the mid 30’s were dry years and difficult. 1936 winter came early with deep snow and -40F for over a month. During these years many of the homesteaders moved out. Jimmie McInnes gave Johnny his first calf in return for taking a four horse team and wagon load of good to the train station at Coutts. Jimmie gave him his old N.W. mounted police saddle. Johnny trailed cattle to Coutts and Sweetgrass for various cattle buyers. On one occasion the buyer shipped out without paying him or for his hotel room and Johnny had to ride the 20 miles home without breakfast. Another occasion, Johnny and his brother, Art, with two others were trailing 200 head from 1-9 to Sweetgrass. They were caught in a violent rain storm. The electricity in the air caused balls of fire to roll along the telephone wire, bouncing as it went. The horses ear’s glowed in outline in the dark.

When Johnny was 18 he went to work for Joe Gilchrist. Joe was an excellent boss and teacher. With his help Johnny perfected his skills of a cowboy and rancher. The dream of owning his own ranch was shaping in his mind. Johnny developed an acute awareness of his surroundings and of various animals. His powers of observation were sharpened. He wished he had the education to become a Mountie or a vet. As Johnny worked for Joe he trailed cattle east to Bedfords in the spring, west in the fall. Gilchrists’s summered 1000 head of steers in Saskatchewan. On one occasion he was lost in the fog, another set afoot in the fog and at times lost in open country with no fences for miles. He saw many dinner times with no dinner. Once moving animals from the Cross Z to Lost River the animals didn’t want to move in the rain. It took all day to move them 13 miles. After supper they had to ride back to the Cross Z – in the dark their horses took them home- it was the blackest night he had ever seen. The CPR built a corral and chute at Bain on the railroad leading southeast from Manyberries to ship cattle from. The cowboys would gather the three year old steers, corral them and load out the cars. The men worked from a rope corral. At night their horses were turned loose, except for a wrangle horse. They changed horses several times a day as each field was 1 or 2 townships in size.

The horses needed for round-up held in a rope corral.

Joe and Muriel were good to Johnny. Muriel doctored him with hot salt packs when his sinus problems occurred. The ranch cook, kept him well fed. They were very appreciative of their men. Many years later when Joe suffered a broken leg when his horse fell, the horse came home alone. Muriel called Johnny to come search, “You are the only one that knows this land and where Joe will be.”

At the Milk River ranch Joe let Johnny keep his horse, Brown Bomber, for his personal use. Sometimes he would ride 10 miles to a dance at Massinasin, arrive back at the ranch in time for breakfast, to face another had days work with no sleep. He continued working out when asked. For Doug Weir, he gathered cattle from a community pasture west of Milk River. Here they slept in tents often cold and snowy in late October.

When World War II came, Johnny was classed as 4-F and exempt from military service. The community built the bowery – the cement dance floor at St. Kilda. They held Red Cross dances and rodeos there. The main social life was picnicking and berry picking.

In 1945, Johnny went to a turkey supper at Allerston, where he met Jean Miller who was a teacher at Coutts. On the 6th of January, 1946 Johnny bought his first car a 1935 Chev Coupe. There were many wedding dances that winter as the soldiers returned home with their brides. Johnny worked late at night to put in the spring crops so he could take a few days of at Easter time to go meet Jean’s family and to be married at Red Deer Alberta, April 26, 1946.

Jeane Miller and Johnny Waddell, courting

My dad and mom, Johnny and Jeane worked side by side and were married for 57 years. They worked for his dad for the first ten years and lived in the same house, for several. On October 19, 1956 they bought the ranch and began to build it into their dream and have the cattle Johnny wanted. The ranch expanded in 1958 when they purchased Plumas Gaines lease land. The ranch was paid in full October, 1972.

Haying memories: The job went from an overshot stacker and bull rake toa W-9 tractor with a push off stacker in front of it. Finally a baler in 1955. The oat crops were half bales and half bundles – cut with a 6 foot binder and a three horse team. Johnny hated stooking! In Johnny’s words, “hard work and honesty pays off – and being considerate of the older generation”. They taught him lots. Johnny suffered many accidents and illnesses; being bucked off as a youngster there were neck and headaches. He was injured from a fall from a hay sweep in 1950 and again in a fall in 1967. He had thyroid problems, many bouts of sinus and pneumonia, kidney stones, a broken foot. Surgery included spinal fusions, one in 1962, another in 1968. Skin cancer in 1989.

Besides his ranch, his chief joy was his family. Marlene Beryl born 1951, Wendy Jean 1955, Dawn Elizabeth 1957 and Dixie Gwen 1967. One of his saddest days was the death of his oldest, Marlene, Sept 6, 1982. Johnny and Jeane retired from the ranch in 1979 where he says he has everything he wanted, “a home, a car, a horse and a family he is proud of!” Johnny did volunteer work for the Lethbridge Handicapped Riding Association and fed and exercised their horses for years, enjoyed old time music and rodeos. He enjoyed his grandchildren: Jennifer and Andrea Neil, Philip, Lorne and Lorraine Harty, Ryan and Jordan King, Morgan and Raymond Husereau. And he asked each of us girls if we were sure before walking us down the aisle to son-in-laws: Jim, Brendan, Brian and Maurice!

Waddell family picture about 1994

My Dad and his family wrote many letters, here’s some snippets from 1937-42. To Dorothy, you old stick, I went to Daroes dance, it was 10 below out side and about zero in that barn, had to keep moving to keep warm. Art was working out on paper to find out who loved him. He had Ethel’s, Marie and Sophie’s name. I don’t believe anything he’s peddaling. Gracie kissed John, I saw them. The bull ran away and Gracie took Rambler to get him back. She thinks he fell with her and she was knocked out. She was white as a sheet and doesn’t know how long she was out. From Alice: Dad froze his ear lobes today, Art rode for the cattle in the storm and froze his face. Gracie and I had to churn a gallon can of cream. We all have colds, mine is in my lungs, feels like on fire to cough. Art made a sleigh big enough for 3 of us. Damn magpies are bothering the cattle in the corral. I let the dog in to sleep out of the cold. Johnny and I (Alice) frosted our feet and they were poofy on the bottoms. Dad rubbed kerosene on them at bedtime. His strong, warm hands gave us a good rub. April 1, 1938 Gracie made a swell angel food cake. Old Pete caught a gopher, there are big drifts on both sides of coulee, Dad is afraid if it melts fast. When we started at St. Kilda we were the new kids and got bullied. One day someone dared Johnny to yell, “Dago”. I came around the corner at recess and saw the Italian bullies had him on the ground destroying him. I grabbed a big stick and got in a few good whacks. The recess bell saved me from these older and bigger bullies but Johnny’s nose really bled. When I (Alice) had my 3rd baby born at Mom and Dad’s I had fever and pain in my face with deliriums. Johnny made small bags of salt and heated them on the stove. He stayed up all night for days to help me and sat by my bed (1945 Johnny was 21).

These special moments of you will always bring a smile: the night you held the pillow against the hail stones on my bedroom window; the day I never undid the back cinch on Goldie and you never scolded; the day you and I were loading bales and when I was hot and tired you said, “If I sat down every time I got tired, nothing would ever get done,” and together we kept going, that moment when it was you and me and you quietly, peacefully slipped away. Forever in my heart, daddy, 100 years ago you were born. Love Wendy

John Gordon Waddell 1921-2003

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