Gigantic Vegetables*

19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Frontier Days
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon

“Weather means more when you have a garden. There’s nothing like listening to a shower and thinking how it is soaking in around your green beans.” ~Marcelene Cox

The summer passed uneventfully. Day after day we watched for the white-covered mail wagon, pails dangling underneath it, dogs trotting behind, rousing as they passed countless wild brethren from every quarter of the prairie. At sight of the wagon, we put on our hats and went to the post office for letters from home, then drove across the prairie to Silver Heights, or down to the English cathedral, which stood on the fairest bend of the river, and in a pretty, wooded dell—but, alas, it was encircled by a tangled, uncared-for churchyard, overgrown with weeds and thistles, the tombstones broken and prostrate, the fences so dilapidated that stray cattle leaped over them and grazed among the unrecognized graves.

I was told that arrangements had been made for a city cemetery on the prairie, but the ground was merely staked off. A man who asked his way there was directed to go straight across the prairie to the east, until he came to where grass and sky met. Forgetting that as he advanced the horizon receded, he thanked his informant, and went on his fruitless search; but after wandering many hours—like the boy after the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—he returned weary and unsuccessful.

At the cathedral we heard the chorister boys chant the evening psalms, then went on to the little village of Kildonan, standing among green fields and thriving farms, or turned in another direction across the Assiniboine, up a lovely road leading for miles through the woods.

One morning we went to the immigrant sheds to see several hundred Icelanders embark in their flat-bottomed boats, with their quaint wooden chests, on their way to Gimli. On another occasion we helped to organize a Sunday school festival; and after giving the children an unlimited supply of cake, strawberries, and lemonade, we amused them with some tableaux [costumed pantomine]. Taking possession of a disused old church, we made an impromptu stage, by laying boards across the chancel railings. The effect was so good, that some play-loving people, enlarging on our idea, put up rough side-scenes and gave a series of entertainments there the following winter, with the average amount of amateur skill.

One hot Sunday, when we were without a servant, I rashly left our joint of roast beef on the kitchen table, while we discussed the pudding. Suddenly an ominous noise was heard. “O Miss F—!” exclaimed my hostess, starting up, “Do stop that dog! The wretch has stolen the beef—all tomorrow’s dinner!”

To rush out of the house and over the prairie after the brute was the work of an instant, not so to catch him. On I ran, urged to redoubled exertions by Mrs C—, who pursued me, excitedly flourishing her table napkin, while her little girl scrambled after her, screaming at being left behind. Every now and then the dog would stop to take breath, sitting still with aggravating coolness till I almost touched him, when off he would start again, at redoubled speed. At last, after wildly throwing two or three handfuls of stones at him and all the sticks I could pick up as I passed, I aimed furiously at the barracks and hit the dog on the head, when he dropped the beef, and I returned, hot and breathless, but triumphant.

The days were sultry, but the nights cool enough to make a blanket necessary, except just before the frequent thunderstorms. Well might the Indians call the province Manitoba (“God speaking”), in their awe of the Great Spirit whose voice alone is so terrible.

October is the most beautiful month in that region, bright, clear, and balmy—the true Indian summer, with cool, dewy nights, when the aurora sent its long streaks of white and red light from the horizon to the zenith, to fall again in a shower of sparks, each night more beautiful than the last.

Till, early in November, a storm of rain, succeeded by snow and frost, ended our Indian summer, and in 48 hours we had winter. Not weeks of slushy snow, changeable temperature, chilling rains, and foggy skies, as in Ontario, but cold, frosty, bracing winter at once. By the end of November the river was blocked, the boats had stopped running, and our only communication with the outside world was by means of the daily stage. But the wretchedness of a journey over the prairie to the nearest railway station was encountered only by those whose business made it unavoidable.

Before navigation had quite ceased, a provincial exhibition of the agricultural and other products of the country was held in the townhall. Many of the vegetables were so large, that a description of them was treated with incredulity until some specimens were sent to Ottawa, to be modeled for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition (1876). One Swedish turnip weighed over 36 pounds; some potatoes (early roses and white) measured 9 inches long and 7 inches round; radishes were 18 inches long and 4 inches round; kail branched out to the size of a currant bush; cabbages, hard, white, and good, grew to 18 inches in diameter, and there were cauliflowers as large. Neither Indian corn, melons, nor tomatoes were exhibited, chiefly because most of the farmers in Manitoba have cultivated wheat rather than gardens, as the former brings in the largest returns for the least labor.

Corn is grown in Manitoba larger and far taller than any I saw in Ontario. Tomatoes will grow in profusion in a dry spot, especially where, as in Kuwatin, a 100 miles from Winnipeg, a southern exposure on sandy soil can be found; the same may he said of melons. Fruit trees are most difficult to cultivate, the frosts being so severe. Yet with care that obstacle may be overcome, and a few apples, grown and ripened in Mr Bannatyne’s garden, in Winnipeg, were exhibited. Every other kind of garden and farm produce was shown in abundance. The prairie soil is so rich that it yields a hundredfold, and the absence of the great preliminary labor of “clearing,” which the early settlers in Ontario had to contend with, renders it a most advantageous country for immigrants.

The chief difficulty is the scarcity of labor. All men not going out to take up land for themselves are employed on the railway; and women either are married and obliged to work on the farms with their husbands, or get married before they have been long in Manitoba. Many were the complaints I heard from people who had taken out female servants, paying their expenses and giving them high wages, only to lose them before they had been a month in the province. Their sole resource then was to employ Icelanders, who often could not speak a word of English, so that all directions had to be given by pantomime. Anyone seeing the strange gesticulations and frantic efforts of some of the more energetic mistresses might be excused for thinking himself let loose in a city of lunatics.

Mrs C— had one of these Icelanders as nursemaid, and she did well, picking up enough English in a few weeks to understand all we wanted. But I noticed that, however quickly she walked about the rest of the house, the stairs were as carefully traversed as though she had been an Indian.

One day, hearing her in great distress on the kitchen stairs, I went to see what was the matter. The staircase was a narrow one between two walls, but without banisters; on the third or fourth step from the top sat one of the children, aged four years, and a few steps below stood the maid clinging to the smooth wall, her face white with terror. When she attempted to advance, the child made a feint [pretense] to oppose her passage and push her back. Afraid to turn around or retreat, she stood trembling and calling for help; and it was impossible to avoid feeling amused at the absurdity of that big girl being intimidated by such a mite—who, with the original depravity of human nature, was enjoying the fun.

A friend of mine went through some odd experiences with these Iceland maids. A fresh domestic was ordered to wash down the hall and doorsteps. Next day, at the same hour, while a party of visitors were in the drawing room, the door burst open, and Christian, scrubbing pail and brush in hand, plumped down on her knees in the middle of the floor, and went through a vigorous pantomime of scrubbing. Her mistress was too astonished to speak for a moment or two, until the girl, surprised at her silence, looked up, uttering an indescribable “Eh?” of anxious inquiry, which was well-nigh too much for the gravity of her listeners.

Often, after ten minutes’ patient endeavor to explain something, one was rewarded by a long drawn out “Ma’arum?” infinitely trying to one’s patience. Yet, in time, they often make excellent servants, and many people prefer them to Ontario or English immigrants. And certainly in point of economy they are infinitely superior to both; for not only will an Iceland maid waste nothing, but she is content with $5 or $6 a month in wages while girls from Ontario or England expect $9 or $10. Servants taken out on the line of railway demand and receive $15 to $30 a month. These exorbitant wages are, however, lessening as immigration increases.

Society at Winnipeg is pleasant, composed chiefly of the old families who formed the Hudson Bay Company and their descendants, many of whom have Indian blood in their veins. Their education, carefully begun by their parents, is often completed in Scotland, and they are well-read, intelligent people, as proud of their Indian as of their European descent. Many of them are handsome and distingué-looking [distinguished-looking]. Their elegant appearance sometimes leads to awkward mistakes. One of these ladies, meeting a young Englishman fresh from the old country, and full of its prejudices, was entertained by him with reflections on race, and condolences at having to associate with half-castes. At last he inquired how long she had been in the country.

Making him a stately curtsy, she answered— “All my life! I am one of these despised half-breeds,” and instantly left him. She said afterward she was sorry for the poor fellow’s discomfiture; but he brought it on himself by disregarding all her efforts to change the conversation.

When younger sons of good families are sent to seek their fortunes in the New World, their social standing is not fixed by their occupation, and a man who has served behind a counter all day is as well received in a drawing room as one who has sat on the bench or pleaded a case in court.

Of course, in such a state of society impostors often effect an entrance, and their detection makes their entertainers afterward chary [wary] of strangers. But so long as a man behaves himself like a gentleman, he is treated as one. Many officials, sent by the Canadian Government temporarily to fill responsible posts, and officers whose regiments have been disbanded, remain in Winnipeg, preferring it to any other part of Canada, and illustrating the adage, “He who once drinks of the Red River water cannot live without it.” It is a muddy stream, however, and not at all inviting as a beverage.

A great many visitors, chiefly Englishmen, go to Manitoba for the hunting and fishing, which are excellent. A friend of mine last year bagged 400 ducks, several geese, great numbers of partridges, loons, and as many hares as he would waste shot on in a fortnight’s holiday. No doubt, when Manitoba and its capabilities become better understood, and the line of railway is completed, the number of tourists in search of sport will much increase.

How little the new province has been known the following fact will show. A letter for me, mailed in a county town in England, in September, and merely addressed to Winnipeg, Manitoba, omitting Canada, traveled to France, where it received sundry postmarks, and such sensible hints by the post office officials as, “Try Calcutta.”

At last, someone better acquainted with the geography of this side of the globe added, “Nouvelle Amerique,” and my letter reached me, via New York, Christmas week, richly ornamented with postmarks, and protests from officials that it “came to them in that condition,” tied together with two varieties of string, and frankly exhibiting its contents—a pair of lace sleeves, which, but for the honesty of the mail service, might easily have been abstracted [stolen].

“There will always be a frontier where there is an open mind and a willing hand.” ~Charles Kettering

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Giant broccoli

*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 5. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.

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About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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