The Best Room*

19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon

“He conquers who endures.” ~Persius

When we resumed our journey, the weather was hazy and seemed to threaten a thunderstorm. Accordingly, we made great haste, in the hope of reaching Pointe des Chênes [now Ste Anne] proper before the storm broke. But when all else was ready, neither our Jehu nor his steeds could be found; he had taken them about a mile farther on, to spend the night at a friend’s, and did not make his appearance until 8 o’clock.

As I bade our old hostess good-bye, she seized hold of my ulster [overcoat], and feeling its texture, said, “Are ye warm enough, child, in that thing? Ye’ll feel the cold drivin’. Ye’d better have a shawl.”

Thanking her for her inquiries, I assured her that I was quite warm.

“Ah, well,” she said, patting me on the arm, “take care of yourself. Good people are scarce.”

Poor old creature! Her good nature made me glad she was my countrywoman. A kind thought expressed in the familiar accents of “Ould Oireland” is welcome to the wayfarer in strange lands, though it may often be “only blarney” after all.

Reaching a bend in the little river Seine at noon, we halted for dinner, and lit a fire. But not daring to waste much time in unpacking, we took what we could eat in our fingers, and fed the children. Before we had finished, we were joined by a party of Mennonites, in a comfortable covered wagon drawn by two powerful horses. The family consisted of an elderly man; his wife, a pretty, quaint-looking little woman; a daughter, apparently sixteen; a boy of twelve; and two little girls of about six, looking like twins. They were well dressed, in the quaint costume of their country.

The man, who alone could speak English, told us they were going to Winnipeg to hear the war news, and gave a look of utter astonishment at our ignorance of the latest telegrams. It made me feel quite ashamed of not having taken more interest in the progress of current events, to meet a party of immigrants driving miles through these solitudes to hear what I had passed heedlessly by when close under my hand. The Mennonite elder was polite; but, judging from the shrugs indulged in by the family after a remark uttered in their own language, they did not think highly of our intelligence.

Before we were packed into the wagon again, the rain came down in earnest, and the whole afternoon was spent in vain endeavors to keep ourselves dry. Waterproofs, blankets, umbrellas, all were soaked, as hour after hour we were dragged slowly through the muskeg, or marsh, following no apparent track, and with the water often up to the “hubs” of the wheels.

No sooner were our umbrellas placed in a suitable position to keep off the rain, than Jehu would make one of his détours, and the wind and rain meeting us on the other side, away flew our wraps, and all the umbrellas had to be rearranged. The difficulty of doing this, and yet keeping them from dripping down someone’s neck, was almost insuperable [impossible]. Mosquitoes, too, flying about in swarms, added their quota to our discomfort. The poor canary had a hard time of it, for in spite of all our care the cage repeatedly filled with water, which I had to empty over the side of the wagon. Luckily, the cats kept quiet, and no one was anxious to know whose feet were in the box of plants!

About three miles from Pointe des Chênes, a herd of buffalo feeding in the distance made us forget our misery for a moment. They had not been met with so near a civilized neighborhood for years; the wet and stormy weather was the cause of their approach. I was disappointed in their appearance; they looked to me like a herd of farm cattle, but, it seemed, fed closer together. I had, however, not much chance to study their peculiarities, another détour speedily requiring my attention. When again at leisure, I looked for the buffaloes, but they were nowhere to be seen.

Pointe des Chênes is, without exception, the muddiest village I ever experienced. We drove through streams of mud. Fences were built in mud. Mud extended on every side for acres. The houses were so surrounded with mud, ankle deep—nay, knee deep—that one wondered how the inmates ever got out. Yet they told us that in a few weeks all would be quite dry, that what were now some of the largest mud lakes would then be the finest wheatfields, that mud here may possibly have the same fertilizing properties as it has on the banks of the Nile, and that agriculture may be carried on using the same principles in this part of Canada as in Egypt.

At the Dawson Road wayhouse [rest area] we were received by a white-haired old man en route to take a situation as cook in one of the houses on the line—though certainly no one ever looked less like a cook. He ushered us into the kitchen, the only room boasting a fire, and we were there met by the proprietor, a depressed and apologetic sort of person. After several whispered consultations with a hopeless wife, who moved in melancholy protest, or sat with her head leaning against the wall, applying the corner of her apron to her eyes so constantly, that that particular corner would not lie flat when allowed to drop, he put up a stove in the front room, which was soon festooned in every direction with our drenched garments.

Two rooms upstairs, clean-looking, but almost devoid of furniture, were allotted to us, and finding that we should be unable to continue our journey for at least 36 hours, we tried to make the best of them. Fearing that we might encounter further delays, where it would be impossible to get food, we decided to husband [conserve] what we had, especially as we discovered that our Jehu, whenever he got into the wagon from the wet muskeg, had sat on the bag of bread, which still further reduced our supplies.

Accordingly we determined to content ourselves with whatever might be set before us, which proved to be pork, bread, and tea for breakfast; bread, tea, and pork for dinner; and tea, pork, and bread for supper. As we ventured to make a mild remark on the monotony of the bill of fare, a bottle of pickles was produced next morning, our dejected hostess informing us, in a sepulchral tone, that it cost “$1, Hudson Bay Company store prices.”

Toward nightfall the French teamster arrived, with his load rather mixed. He had been compelled to unload and reload so often, that everything was where it should not be. Stovepipes, down which the rain poured in rusty streams, were lying on the top of the best mattresses; and, generally speaking, all the light things were underneath, and all the heavy ones on the top.

Soon afterward “Stick-in-the-Mud” arrived alone, drenched and miserable. His load was again “stuck in the muskeg, a matter of two mile off, he guessed.” If left there all night, it would sink so deep in that quicksand-like marsh that there would be little hope of ever extracting it. The poor lad said his team was too done up to be of any use, and he was so “dead tired, he hadn’t a leg to stand on.” Still, he didn’t object to go back if men and teams were sent with him. And after a great deal of tramping through the muddy village, our people succeeded in getting a yoke of oxen to send to the rescue of our Saratogas [trunks].

Meantime the best room of the inn had been “tidied up”—I suppose in our honor, for next day our meals were served there instead of in the kitchen as at first. It resembled the “best room” of most Canadian farmhouses. A four-poster bed stood in one corner, covered with a patchwork quilt, generally the work of the wife when a girl; a bureau was decorated with the few books possessed by the family—usually a Bible, almanac, and photograph album—the best cups and saucers, a looking glass and a pincushion; an old-fashioned roomy sofa filled another corner. The dining table in the center had extension leaves, far from level; the wall was decorated with a big clock, a couple of bright-colored prints, a portrait or two, and a sampler; and the floor was covered in patches with rag mats.

If we flattered ourselves that promotion into the “best room” would ensure privacy, we were doomed to disappointment. The whole family, from the doleful mamma to the youngest olive-branch, favored us with their presence, sat on the sofa, and, looking through the album, were kind enough to discuss their relations and friends pro bono publico. The youngest child, aged five, having an occasional inclination to lay violent hands on portions of our dinner, was pounced on by one or other of her family, roughly shaken or thumped, and banged down on a hard wooden chair; while from some other loving relative came the remark, made between set teeth, “I’d slap her, I would!” Poor little thing! She did not seem “a’ there,” as the Scotch say; the frequent boxing and banging her poor head underwent probably increasing, if it did not occasioning, her stupidity.

Early on Friday morning we set out again, under more favorable auspices, though the day was cold and cloudy. One of the division superintendents, or “walking bosses” as they are called, employed by the contractors, had arrived at our resting place the day before, en route for the “Angle” [Northwest Angle] and he offered to exchange teams with us, if we would allow him to accompany his good horses. This proposal was gladly accepted, and with the utmost satisfaction we saw our French-Indian Jehu depart with his ill-conditioned brutes.

After leaving Pointe des Chênes, the road for some distance lies up a long rocky hill, and then passes through a comparatively well-wooded country. But we thought little of surrounding scenery. The wind was so cold, and the frequent snowstorms during the day were so disagreeable, that we had quite enough to do to keep ourselves and the children warm.

We had our dinner near a dismantled loghouse on the bank of a narrow creek, and reaching Whitemouth River about 7 o’clock, put up at a shanty built by Government to shelter travelers on the Dawson Road. It is kept by a Norwegian named Nord and his wife, and can boast of only three small rooms and a kitchen. It was too cold to camp out, so, spreading our rugs and blankets on the floor, we lay down and slept, too tired to heed the hardness of the boards.

On Saturday the air was warmer, and the road comparatively good, and we were sufficiently at ease to look out for and admire the wildflowers that grew on every side (Mr R— good-naturedly stopping to gather some for us), and watch for the young rabbits startled by the dogs, who yelped loudly when in full chase after them. We had two dogs when we left Winnipeg, but now our pack numbered eight, some joining us at every halting place. But in the same proportion that the dogs increased, the cats decreased, a kitten being begged at every house, as they were overrun with mice; and our cats were received with almost as much delight as Dick Whittington’s historical speculation. Unfortunately, however, the recipients were too poor to make our fortunes in return.

At noon we passed our teamsters, and Mr R—’s gang of navvies [“navigators”: road or rail construction crew], rather picturesquely grouped round their campfire, where tea was boiling and pork frying. The untethered horses were feeding by the roadside, and “Stick-in-the-Mud,” for once superior to his name, was alone plodding steadily on. This was our easiest day’s journey, and it was scarcely 4 o’clock when we reached Birch River, a dry sandy hill round which wound a tiny creek. We were glad of a few hours’ respite to run about and stretch our weary limbs. One of our party discovering that the banks of the shanty was full of mushrooms, we gathered a great many, and took them to the kitchen to be cooked.

This wayhouse is kept by two brothers, who have literally nothing to do but cook, eat, and sleep, bare shelter being all that the Government supplies to travelers. One of the brothers was making doughnuts and boiling them in a pot of fat; and though they did not look tempting, I had the greatest curiosity to taste them. However, as he did not give me any encouragement to ask for one, my curiosity remained unsatisfied, and I had to content myself with the mushrooms, which had full justice done to them.

As night came on, the mosquitoes were terrible; smoke was of no avail to keep them away. The cook told me that the season for them was only beginning, and that they were nothing to what they would be in a month. The previous summer their cow had literally been tortured to death, between the mosquitoes and the deerflies [horseflies]. Mr C— had a mosquito netting tent, which was put up in the room in which we slept, so that we had comparative exemption from their torments; but it was too hot to sleep, and all night long I heard the men outside fighting with and swearing at their winged enemies.

We set out early on Sunday, as we had a long day’s drive before us, and were to have our first experience of a corduroy road [tree trunks laid across a swamp]. one in question was a bad specimen, a succession of deep mudholes, round some of which we skirted cautiously, wondering how “Stick-in-the-Mud” would get through, and plunging into some swamps, which seemed to tax all the strength our team could exert to lug us out again.

We soon arrived at the great caribou [type of deer] muskeg [swamp or bog], on the smooth squared-timber road. This muskeg must, at some earlier stage of the world’s existence, have been a great lake full of islands; now it is a grassy swamp, the water clear as spring water, studded with groups of high rocks of varied size and shape, overgrown by tall pines, birch, scrubby underbrush, ferns, and moss.

We had been getting on with such comparative ease that we began to think our fears of the corduroy road had been groundless, but before night we experienced the wisdom of the warning not to “halloo before we were out of the bush.” We took our lunch on some flat rocks, near a place known on the road as “six-mile shanty,” not without difficulty, as the dogs, like ourselves, were hungry. While we were in chase of a refractory umbrella carried away by the wind, one dog demolished the butter and another ran off with our roast beef. When we reflected that it was the last fresh meat we were likely to taste for months, we saw it depart with regret, though the ham had been left us.

If the roads were bad in the morning, they were ten times worse in the afternoon; and nothing, I think, will ever make me forget the last five miles of real corduroy road we traversed before reaching the “Angle.” It consisted of round logs, loosely bound together, and thrown down on a marsh, no two consecutive logs being of the same size. There had originally been some foundation, and there were still deep drains dug on each side; but the logs had given way at different ends in some parts, and altogether in others. It was bump, bump, bang, and swash; swash, bang, and bump; now up, now down, now all on one side, now all on the other. Cushions, rugs, everything that could slide, slid off the seats; the children were frightened and fretting; the bird fluttered itself almost to death in vain attempts to escape; the kittens were restless; and all our hairpins, slipping down our backs, added a cold shiver to our other miseries.

One longed to cry out and beg to be allowed to stop, if only for a moment. But of what use would that have been? We had to endure it, so it was best to get it over quickly. In many places the old road was completely gone, and we had to drive through such dreadful holes that we wondered the wagon survived intact. [Much of this part of the road is now under water and well-nigh impassable, the prospect of soon having the Canada Pacific Railway in working order making it seem waste of time and money to repair it.] Never was smooth road greeted with greater pleasure than we hailed the last mile from the “Angle,” and never did more stiff and weary travelers arrive at any bourn [small stream] than our party when alighting at the “Angle” that night.

“Life is not about how fast you run or how high you climb but how well you bounce.” ~Vivian Komori

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Muskeg or bog Churchill, Manitoba

*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 8. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.


About Christseekerk

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