I am thinking today of my father Rudy Gruending who would have been 96 years old on November 15. He was born on a farm in Saskatchewan in 1918 several years before the Canadian Pacific Railway built tracks nearby and a small, false-fronted village called St. Benedict was built beside them. My dad was to live there for his entire life save for a year working in the nickel mines in Sudbury, Ontario and a couple of years with a brother trying to create a new farm near Leoville, Saskatchewan, which was then on the northern fringe of the grain belt. They were wiped out by a forest fire.
He was one of nine children although a tenth died of appendicitis when he was 14 years old. His parents were farmers and pioneers in the area, arriving in 1904 from Minnesota. They were among a group of Germans who had arrived there to find that the farmland had all been taken. A group of them decided to move north to Canada and to file homesteads on land that the federal government was making available to settlers.
Working hard, playing hard
My father would have been of working age on the farm by about the early 1930s. That was a time just prior to the introduction of rubber tired tractors into the community and my grandfather tended to his growing farm using horses to pull ploughs, seeders and (later in the season) binders to cut the grain, which was then put through steam-driven threshing machines. It was a hard life but one which dad always recalled with great fondness. It was also a good training ground. At one time or another in his adult life, dad worked as a mechanic, a truck driver, a cat skinner, and a lumber jack – in addition to farming, which was always his first love.
He and his five surviving brothers worked hard and played in the same way. They loved baseball, which the settlers had brought with them from Minnesota, and the six Gruendings formed the nucleus of their local ball team. My father was slender as a boy but he grew into a big and powerful man who was a workhorse as a baseball pitcher and was someone who could hit a ball a long way.
He and my mother Anne were married in 1946, when he was 27 and she 22. They both attended the local school and she would always say that for her it was love at first sight. Their life on the farm began hopefully enough, but they, like all but one of dad’s brothers and many of our neighbours, found that their farms were too small in an era of increasing consolidation.
Life in the village
We moved into the village in the early 1950s and my father continued to operate the farm from there. At its peak our village had several hundred people although there are fewer now. There was one street strung out along the railway track and the grain elevators, and a few other streets that ran perpendicular to it.
We did not have electricity at first and I remember the flickering light thrown by what my parents called a coal oil lamp. The province’s rural electrification program was just being completed at about that time. Nor did we have indoor plumbing or what we called running water. One of my jobs as a boy was to walk several hundred metres with water pails to the home of neighbours who had a well. I would work the handle on the pump, which usually screeched, and then carry home two pails of cold, fresh water. Another of my jobs was to split lengths of wood with an axe and carry it indoors to be used in our wood stove.
A photo speaks
In the photo that you see above, my father is giving me a ride in town on an early version of a home made snowmobile made from scratch by someone in our village. This was at least several years before Bombardier got around to introducing a commercial product in eastern Canada.
My dad was fond and he liked to take me along when he went places or did something special. I don’t actually remember this snow boat ride but he told me about it in later years when we looked at the photo. Behind us, you can see the railway fence which was built to keep snow from drifting across the tracks. You can also see a portion of the railway station and the back end of what appears to be a late 1940s model car – aficionados can help me with the year and make of the vehicle.
I am wearing a warm parka for this outing along with a cap, mittens and boots. You can see that I have a lot of snow on my pant legs, which may mean that I have taken a tumble from the machine, or that I had to walk through deep snow to get onto it.
I see that in the photo my dad is wearing a cap as he always did when he was outdoors, winter or summer. This one appears to have an insulated liner, useful in winter. Dad has a cigarette dangling from his lips. He was pretty well a chain smoker and he usually prepared his own using a cigarette roller comprised of a wooden frame with rubberized cloth stretched over it. Eventually the long cigarettes that he rolled had to be cut into shorter lengths using a razor blade, a job that I loved but which he allowed me to do only under his supervision.
A moment in time
This was a moment in time in about 1952. It is so easy to forget these things. I am grateful that somehow this photo survived and that I can share it.
What a wonderful picture, Dennis. I have been going through my own family pictures and am always overwhelmed by the affection and love I bear the people in them. There’s so much in all of them besides the details. In yours, there’s the love and care of your father loving to take you with him, and the love of your mother, making sure you are dressed and warm. Love your dad’s beautiful face. You look a bit like him I think.
I really enjoyed the story, but, then, I’m a sucker for family histories and pics. I’m also struck by how similar my own youth was to yours, even though we lived in a different part of the province and, in my case, I lived right on the farm–the nearby village was a veritable New York City to me.
I had thought my own experiences of rural Saskatchewan in the 1950s was unique, but on reading and hearing more stories by people my own age, I’ve learned that our youths were remarkably similar and this is especially true when we also shared the same cultural and religious upbringing. This provides us with a privileged understanding of one another, share meanings and ways of being in the world.
I’m currently writing a historical novel based on my own complex family. I became the family genealogist by default when I accepted the responsibility of keeping and digitizing my mother’s old photos, about twelve years ago. Two or three websites, a video, short-form family history book and two family reunions later, I’m hopelessly addicted to sorting out the genealogical puzzles. And I enjoy all this very much, something that I know is not shared by all, or many.
A final thought: Many of us have read your blog, Dennis, but in presenting this picture and the short story you have added a new dimension to our understanding of your writing by having a better understanding of you. I think that not having at least A story about our family history, if not THE story (which does not exist, in my view), we are a locus without a radius, a point in time vs a point on a timeline.