by Russell A. Holoboff
Russell A. Holoboff (1918-1991) was born in Veregin, Saskatchewan to Independent Doukhobor parents. In 1922, at the age of four, he accompanied his family to Los Angeles, California seeking a better life and warmer climate. Life stateside, however, proved to be disappointing, and in 1929, at the age of eleven, he returned with his family to the Veregin district where they resumed farming. Russell’s boyhood during the Depression was filled with hard work and responsibilities beyond his years, but there was also laughter, adventure, and the love of family and friends. Russell would later write that, “there was no money for anything…one just did the best with what he had…but in spite of all this, there was still joy and laughter.” His memoirs of his boyhood, reproduced here by permission, are an evocative picture of a way of life that will bring back memories of anyone who grew up there, and make the Prairies come alive for those who didn’t.
Russell Holoboff, my uncle, was the fourth son of my grandfather, Alexei A. and Mary J. Holoboff, a pair I have always known as simply “Baba and Dyeda”. Ever since finding a copy of my uncle’s memoir among my late mother’s things, it has been a lamp that has helped to illuminate the darkness of my knowledge about my Russian background. I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to Jonathan Kalmakoff for allowing me to contribute my Uncle Russell’s memoir to the Doukhobor Genealogy Website which he so generously shares with us all. His research has been profoundly helpful in my understanding of my Russian Doukhobor ancestors, a lineage of which I am very proud. I would also like to thank my cousin Laurie Holoboff Verstegen, Russell’s daughter, for her kind permission to publish her father’s invaluable memoir. To my dear departed Uncle Russ: “Я люблю вас.”
Lisa Holoboff, Los Angeles, California, 2006
As I sit back in my easy chair, my mind drifts back to where I first experienced life in a very small village in the northern part of Canada, the province of Saskatchewan…
It was late at night when the Holoboff family disembarked from a train on the C.N.R. rail line. The train is one of those old locomotives, with live steam and a long, mournful whistle only the old people can remember.
We are arriving from California (circa 1929). We are met by my brother Alex, his wife Polly, and their daughter, Nora. Nora is only a couple of years younger than me. I knew her when they lived in Los Angeles, and since she was born, of course. This little village that we have come to is my birthplace. It is called Veregin. It is also the birthplace of all the Holoboff children except one – my brother, Fred, who is now long deceased.
The season is early fall and the night is dark. There are no electric lights, only the flickering of a few gas lights. All this is so new to me. I am not aware of all that is taking place – that I am going to make a new life for myself here. I asked Nora what street she lived on, and she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Central.” Central was not a street at all, just a spot of recognition. Central was the building where the telephone operator worked. I thought every place was like Los Angeles – what a rude awakening I am about to receive. My cousin, John (Holoboff), had brainwashed me into believing that I would have a horse of my own and all the good things that go with it. I still believed in things like Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, and the like. Well, it didn’t take too long until I did get a horse: eight of them in harnesses all hitched to a bunch of harrows, and a hundred acres of land to work!
Alex and Mary Holoboff with children Mary, Frederick (front), and Russell (back), c.1935, Veregin, Saskatchewan.
I was enrolled in the school in the town. Sorry to say, but right off the bat, I didn’t fare too well. The Canadian standards of teaching were higher than the United States, so I was immediately set back a grade and was laughed at. This broke my desire to learn. If I had started at the beginning of the semester, I would have been more prepared. But here it was, almost at the end of the year, with everyone busy with harvesting, and no time to see how I was doing. Can I blame them? Not really. I don’t think any of them had any time for anything but work. The harvest was very important in this part of the country because of the weather – snow could fall at any time. The ground was frozen and the nights were very cold with heavy frost.
I enjoyed a couple of weekends at the threshing machine with its steam engine puffing away. The fun was to blow the whistle. Before I go too far into my story, I must try to clarify a few things that I have already left out. The reason we are in this part of the country is that it is the very first beginnings of the Holoboff family (after leaving Russia). Starting from the immigration of my father into Canada, his first ventures began in the rural parts of the village of Verigin. And at one time (circa 1922) he left it behind for the golden shores of California, which lasted only a couple of years. So now we’re back to where it all started. This village of Verigin is located in the middle of the province. The capital is Regina. It’s the home of the Mounties – yes, the real ones. On numerous occasions, I had the chance to be in the company of them.
The easiest way I can describe the climate is that it’s eleven months of winter and all the rest of the year it’s summer. Ruthless and mean winters. They made many a strong man drop to his knees and beg and caused many families desperation, despair and hunger.
We spent that first winter after returning from Los Angeles in town with my brother Alex and his family. Alex was a businessman, the owner of the Holoboff & Co. General Store. He sold everything from groceries to farm equipment. At the time, he was very successful. When I think of his store and supermarkets of today it makes my head swim. It’s a story in itself to describe that store. Everything was shelved behind the counter. Everything that you bought was clerked to you, weighed, packaged, and wrapped. If you bought coal oil and had no cork for the spout they would plug it with a big gumdrop. It never lasted very long because one of us kids would steal it and eat it. And you know what? We never tasted the coal oil.
Speaking of the store…one time in the spring when the snow had almost melted, the gophers were starting to come out of their winter sleep. The county was paying two cents for every gopher that was destroyed. To prove it, you had to strip him of his tail as proof. We would hang the carcasses on the barbed wire fence in hopes it would ward off more gophers. It didn’t. It just made the crows breed more. They were a deterrent for the farmer. The county also paid five cents for a pair of crow’s legs. So this is what my friend and I did: We caught a gunnysack full of gophers and took them to Alex’s store, stripped them of their tails, and collected the bounty. But we left the dead gophers tucked away in the back of the store. In a few days they started to smell something awful. It almost drove Alex insane until he found the source of the smell. Don’t you think we didn’t hear about it. Poor Alex. He was one hell of a nice fellow. We got along just swell throughout all the years of our relationship.
Everything was an adventure to me. There wasn’t very much I didn’t tackle, which included a few shiners that I wore for a few days. This one big kid would get me and another kid into the livery barn and make us fight for no reason at all. He would tell this one kid one thing and me another and then it wouldn’t take much for a fight to start. I was well known among the young and old, but I was liked by all and respected by many, including some of the young maidens. It was fun living in town. I had little supervision, but I knew better than to do something bad. What made me so popular was that I spoke good English compared to the rest of the kids. The reason for this is that they were taught to speak their native tongue, Russian, and their parents were illiterate in English. Like their parents, the other kids could only read and write in Russian.
Russell Holoboff, c.1935, Veregin, Saskatchewan.
I guess I was also different because I had known life in the big city of Los Angeles. But I sure wasn’t in any way smarter. I was just a city kid. Anyway, my town life near Verigin was coming to an end and I would be moving to my new home out in the country. The place is a farm that belonged to my mother (Mary nee Petroff). It was three miles from town and it was a very pretty farm. The reason it was my mother’s is that it was part of a legacy from her first husband (Nikolai Shcuratoff). Yes, both Mother and Dad were married before. I will explain all that later.
But mother’s inheriting the farm was the big inducement for Dad to give up Los Angeles and the job he had at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant. He had a pretty good job there, too. Our whole family was a part of the Goodyear plant – pioneers, so to speak. Dad opened the plant and I closed it years later. You see, this all came about because of a man named John Holoboff, my first cousin on Dad’s side. After Dad came to the United States and settled down, the correspondence started with the folks back in Saskatchewan, with Dad telling them how nice and warm it was in California. To hear this at a time when the temperatures in Saskatchewan were in the forties or less, California sounded like heaven. This news brought John Holoboff to California and Dad got him a job at Goodyear. It was hard and dirty work, but that’s where they started a new man there. John couldn’t take it and he started to miss the come-and-go, as-you-please lifestyle of the farm, with no lunch box to tote around. So he started to brainwash Dad, and he did a good job of it. Mother didn’t approve of this but lost the battle. Until her dying day she didn’t like John.
The move back to Saskatchewan broke up some of us kids in the family. Sam, Honey, and Mike stayed behind in Los Angeles. They wanted no part of Canada. They were old enough to know the difference. Afterward, Mother’s life was not at all that easy without the conveniences of a large family to help her. She worked during the walnut harvest. I think she liked living in California and having the family all together. She gave a lot and received little. She never once said these are my children and these are my husband’s children. We were all her children. Now I will name all of the family.
There was Grandfather (Joseph Petroff) on Mother’s side, a very adventurous man. There was (half-brother) Alex Holoboff who also moved to California but didn’t like city life and not being his own boss. With some persuasion from his wife, Polly, they returned to Canada before we did. Sam, Honey, Mike and Alice were Dad’s kids from his first marriage. Peggy and Molly (Shcuratoff) were from Mother’s first marriage. Me, Fred and Mary, were from Mother and Dad’s marriage. Fred was born in Los Angeles (1925) and Mary was born in Canada (1930) after we returned. So, that makes quite a table-full.
I don’t remember when we first moved to Los Angeles. I was very young, but I remember growing up there. I went to Miramonte School. It was right across the street from us. I remember two teachers: Mr. Henderson and Mrs. Holt. She used to snitch in the kids’ lunch bags. And who can forget Mr. Walker, our principal? No comment. I remember this one fellow who lived on our street who had an airplane. He crashed it on our street, showing off. Boy did Grandfather give him a tongue lashing – “sookin sin,” etc. – for trying to fly. But I wish Grandfather could see the progress that has been made in aviation since then. Lindbergh flew over Los Angeles after his world flight. That was a big day in Los Angeles. The Blimp was also something to see.
There was this family across the street named Lewis. They had a son my age and the sun set and rose on him. They liked me well enough that they took me every place they went. Especially to the beach for an overnight stay. Mrs. Lewis was very nice to me. After many long years I had the honor to be her pallbearer. What a coincidence. The son, Buckey, never respected his parents after all they had done for him.
I remember hiking to the Los Angeles River in the summer to swim in it and just bum around. Also the Christmas the Shriners held for us. The Red Car Line to Balboa; the fare was three cents to Los Angeles and parts unknown. The young kids dancing to the Charleston. Rudy Valentino, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, the Our Gang comedies, and ten cent movies. It was the beginning of a new era.
A pensive Alex Holoboff.
Driving to Long Beach by car was an all-day trip. It was sure to consist of a flat tire or two. If that happened, us kids would play in the orange groves. The people my parents associated with were friends of theirs from Canada, and all they had cars. At this time Dad didn’t have a car. One time he was talked into buying one but he didn’t keep it; he got tired of buying someone else’s gas, as he never drove the car. I remember it well. It was an Overland Touring. Sam sure looked good behind the wheel. The city limits of Los Angeles were small then. Huntington Park and Southgate were in the orange groves and there was hardly any streets in them. The Lyric Theatre in Huntington Park was the one of the last big movie houses to open and it was very popular. There was no public transportation to reach it, so we had to hoof it on Saturday matinees. Anyway, my life was very happy then, except that we weren’t a rich family and I always envied other kids. But as I see it know, they just lived a different life.
Before I go any further, I would like to tell you a little about Grandfather (Petroff). He was born somewhere in Russia and spent most of his life living among the Turks and Cossacks. He told us many a hair-lifting tale of true adventure. He was really not a bother to anyone, but few wanted to admit they were related to him. He spoke no English, but swore a blue streak at the kids who passed by our house on their way home. He had some small parts as an extra in movies during the early days of Hollywood. Had one studied him more sincerely they could have learned a lot about the ways of life. He was always very daring. Anyway, I had some good and bad times with him. He smoked pipes that were so strong the smoke would not disappear. When he passed away I became heir to them by knowing where they were hidden. One puff from one of them would make your head swim all day.
Yes, I had many good times in California. Maybe that’s why I came back to live here. Perhaps I lived in a boy’s dream. Eventually it was time to say goodbye to sunny California and 1418 70th Street. If one goes by there they will see the house still standing and not much changed since we left. At the time we lived there it was a very nice part of town – not rich or poor, but it was centrally located in Los Angeles and close to the car line and to Dad’s work. Now the area is nothing compared to the old days.
We boarded a steamer for Canada. A steamer was the most reasonable fare to Canada, but it only lasted until we reached Seattle because everyone got sea sick. From there, we took a train for the rest of the journey north to our destination. Or maybe I should “our destiny” because that’s what it really amounted to. Why Saskatchewan, Canada? It all stems back to Dad’s and Mother’s beginning their new lives in a new part of the world, away from the steppes of peasantry in old Russia. Saskatchewan is where the immigrants settled after they landed in Halifax, Canada.
I don’t know too much about Mother’s immigration to Canada; she was not on the same boat as Dad, and she came from another part of Russia. I do know that her first husband (Nikolai Shcuratoff), Peggy’s and Molly’s dad, was a Yakut (exiled Doukhobor) from northern Russia. He spent quite some time in Siberia in the salt mines.
Dad was from the southern part of Russia. And an orphan. He was taken under someone’s wing and landed with a sect of Russian people called Doukhobors, a very religious group. They later formed a community called the Christian Community of (Universal Brotherhood) Doukhobors. They worked and lived in a community and shared the results of their toil. Eventually they owned thousands of acres of land, had their own flour mill, and large brick buildings for homes. They had a leader named Peter Verigin, and so named the town after him. Their leader was well respected by all, even Queen Victoria. He was the forerunner that made all this possible for some of these people. There is more to this – community living and so on – but I can’t possibly tell it all. And it doesnt really mean that much to the Holoboff family because Dad didn’t belong to the sect or live with them for long. He preferred to freelance and go it on his own (as an Independent Doukhobor). And that’s what he did but it was not as easy as you might think. I will tell of some of his hardships.
It was said that Dad was so young when he married (first wife Vasilisa Perepelkin) that he fell asleep in the bride’s arms on this wedding night. The young had very little to say as to who they were going to marry; it was all matched and planned by their elders. So his first wife was the mother of Alexei, Helen, Samuel, Mike and Alice Holoboff. While on the subject of names let me further enlighten you. Mother’s maiden name was Petroff and her first two daughters, Peggy and Molly, had the last name Shcuratoff. Peggy and Molly never used their real last name, but always went by the name Holoboff.
Dad had a brother named Vasya. He was older than Dad and he had three sons, Pete, John and Nick, and a daughter, Lesunia, of McCloud, Alberta. Pete died at an early age from cancer. I liked him the best of the brothers. Uncle Vasya’s life was short-lived. He was gored to death by a bull. Dad’s dad (Alexei Holubov) died after being chewed up by a badger. Gangrene set in and resulted in his death. I did not know him and neither did Dad.
I think this covers all the history that I know about the family. One other thing…the name “Doukhobor” means “spirit wrestler”. They did not believe in bearing arms and that was one of the reasons for their migration to Canada. Russia would not tolerate them. Their religion was very strong; that is why they had the name of Christian Community (of Universal Brotherhood) of Doukhobors. In Brilliant, British Columbia, they had a large cannery of great renown. They grew and made strawberry jam that was know the world over. It is no longer in existence.
Alex Holoboff with son Fred, feeding the chickens, c.1932, Veregin, Saskatchewan.
Okay, let’s get back to the farm, our destination. It was Fall 1929 when I got my first glimpse of the farm. I really don’t know how I felt at that time, it just seems hazy to me. I think there was nothing eventful about it, maybe because nothing there was like I expected. There was no livestock yet; Dad was out, busy buying livestock. Uncle Vasya gave us an old gray horse who was more than ready for the glue factory. But we used him to haul water for our use. Yep, you heard right: hauled water.
Farm or no farm, I still had to go to school. I was enrolled in a country school two and a half miles from home and the only way to get there was by Shank’s Pony (this is an old euphemism: “Shank’s Mare” – to travel upon one’s own “shanks” – to get there on foot). It was not the kind of school I expected: a lonely one room building on the corner of someone’s farm. Grades 1 through 8 were all together in the same room. Inside was a world globe suspended from the ceiling and a big pot-bellied stove for heat. It was the pits. Lunch was not much to be desired: homemade bread and honey packed in a honey can and a whiskey bottle full of cold tea. It was like something you see in an old movie and couldn’t believe it. Tobacco Road, I called it. Sometimes a kid had something better in his lunch that you envied. The fall of the year was nice, like Indian Summer, but then the snow fell and winter came.
I’m going to try and explain how things were, as I see it now. I was too young then to know what it was all about. Everything was new and strange and there was no one to explain anything to me. I had to find out for myself and I still don’t know why it was so. There are many spots in my young childhood that I can’t explain. But I will do my best.
Winter was in full force: freezing temperatures, cold blizzards, winds up to sixty miles per hour. Child’s play was limited mostly to the house or barn – snow balls and sledding was out of the question. The only thing in my favor was that school had its summer holiday break during the winter, to spare us kids from freezing to death. Somewhere close to Christmas, we had our school Christmas party. A homemade stage was set up for our plays; you had to be careful not to stand too far at the edge, as the other end would raise up. We used sheets for curtains and a borrowed gas lamp for light. We didn’t have a Christmas tree because in spite of the cold north country, fir trees didn’t grow there, as it was all bald prairie (and it would have been ridiculous to go further north for one). So we did without a tree. But we did have a Santa. Everyone for miles was invited to the party because there was always a big dance held after. That was really the big event. We kids exchanged gifts. The boys desperately tried to impress their best girl with a small bottle of Orange Blossom perfume, a shining brooch, or a box of chocolates costing a total sum of twenty-five cents. I wasn’t in that class, but I did impress in my own way.
After the kids did our bit we were taken home by our parents so that the grown-ups could have their party. Well, I got to stay because my parents weren’t there to take me home. I acted big for my age and I liked to dance. The older girls didn’t mind dancing with me. The older boys were too busy getting drunk on white lightning – and on many occasions I was encouraged. There was nothing backward about me and I caught on easy. Somehow I acted older than I was (and I was always full of the devil) and I fit in with the older crowd. Even Dad would comment to some of the older boys who insisted that I partake in their activities. Like going to Vecheruskie parties (evening parties for young Doukhobor men and women) with dancing, singing and parlor games like spin-the-bottle. Most of them were fun. Despite the cold we would hitch up a team of horses to a sleigh and go from one farmhouse to the other picking up friends until we reached the designated house for the party. Sometimes they would last into the wee hours of the morning.
Somehow winter passed quickly and I really didn’t know what to expect. I really didn’t know anything about seasons. Some things I had to learn for myself. My friend (horse) Levon, didn’t make it through the winter. I can still see his remains, which by spring was pretty much a skeleton.
As yet I have still not gotten the steed that I was so ready to have at my disposal. I will never forget the rotten joke that was played on me. Dad and I were going to Alex’s in-laws (the Kabatoffs). They lived about seven miles away from us. We spent the night there. Anyway, when they were putting me to bed they told me that there would be a big white stallion all saddled and ready for me in the morning. I was more than sure that this would be true. Even when I woke up in the early hours of the morning, they encouraged me to hurry and eat my breakfast as the steed was waiting for me at the door. Well, if you ever saw a broken hearted child, I was one. How could they have played such a bad trick on me and get some fun out of it? Even my own Dad! I have lived with this all my life, and will to my dying day. I had finished my breakfast, rushed to the door, and opened it to find no such promise there. I was stunned beyond belief. There were much more such surprises in store for me in the years to come.
Spring was a beautiful time of year. The fields were full of little lakes from the winter snow. The streams of running water and the budding out of the pussy willows…everything seemed to smell fresh and clean. The most memorable thing about this part of the world at this time of year was the full moon of springtime. Just to hear the babbling streams and the croaking of the frogs – our farm had all of this! Being a kid, I didn’t want to come inside. Also at this time of year was the dropping (birthing) of new animals. I especially liked the horses, but as yet we didn’t have any. At any rate, spring was a blessing as I didn’t have to plow through the snow going to school. I could take a shortcut through the farm to lessen the distance. I could enjoy the wild little creatures that came to life with the warm weather – especially the red-breasted robin. When you saw the robin you knew that winter was well past. I also remember the big slough that I had to pass on the way to school; it was full of blackbirds. But the birds that stood out the most were the red winged (blackbird) – truly beautiful. And the chatter they would make if you disturbed them! There were a lot of things to amuse a child and cause him to be late for school. And I was late many times. As I see it now, school was no big thing to me then and I fared well below average. I was by no means a bum, more like too smart for my britches. I need guidance then more than anything. I will try to explain this more in detail as I go on.
Now it is late spring or early summer. I am witnessing death in the family for the first time. Grandfather (Petroff) passed on and we are very sorry for the loss. He passed away in the night, and in the early morning, Dad and our handyman acted as morticians. They gave him a bath and a shave, and got him all dressed up for his last rites. The neighbors pitched in and made a casket, a pine box. It looked very professional. The funeral was held in Russian style – lots of prayer and singing and feeding to no end. There must have been a hundred people at the funeral. Even the big dignitary, Peter (Chistiakov) Verigin, was there as he and Grandfather had been buddies in Russia. This was a big hour for Grandfather and the community as Mr. Verigin was a big wheel. Everyone was amazed that Grandfather knew him as well as he did. Funerals and weddings were big things and they brought many people together for the occasion. Grandfather’s funeral was a big step in my life, as I was only a young boy. It was a strange feeling. But with loss we also have our gains – births.
Very much to my surprise I suddenly became a brother to a sister, Mary (1930). I was not the least bit aware of this and even to this day I don’t know how it happened. We were all happy with her arrival and she was a very pretty girl. When she was a little girl she had a very bad accident. Mother was washing clothes one day and while she was transferring some boiling water from one pot to another, Mary dashed underneath the pot causing Mother to stumble and spill the water on Mary’s back. It was more than a first degree burn as her clothes stuck to her skin. There was no doctor handy so the folks did the best with what they had. The doctor was of very little help; the medication he prescribed was of little help. The skin would not heal. As a last resort, Dad used some of his own medication and healed the wound. It consisted of charred bulrushes. So it wasn’t just the Indians that made their own medicine – the old Russians did, too.
It’s the first year that we planted a crop. It should have been the last. From there on it was nothing short of disaster farming. The crops consisted of wheat, oats and some barley. Year after year, the same routine with the crops. The farmer fallowed half the acreage and sowed the rest. There wasn’t any help from the agriculture department to advise the farmer whether his soil was suitable for this or that particular crop. In many cases it was not. After years of disaster farming, the government stepped in to help. Necessity and politics.
The crop that we first planted was doing fine. It was all headed out and not too far from harvest time when one afternoon – wham! – it started to thunder and rain. The sky got really dark and it was suddenly very cold for that time of year. All of a sudden it started to hail and the hailstones were as large as chicken eggs. I am not exaggerating one bit. In about five minutes the crops were flattened to the ground and animals were killed. But just as fast as the storm appeared, the sun came out and the ground was covered with inches of hail. The crops, our main source of a livelihood, did not survive. This and the stock market crash was the beginning of total depression and near-survival for the farmer. This was only the beginning, there were other years to follow just as bad. The next year rust set in to the crops, which was also another total loss. The grain buyers would not accept this crop at any price. It wasn’t even suitable as cattle feed.
The price of grain on the stock market dropped to ten cents a bushel for No. 1 Northern Wheat, a drop from over two dollars a bushel. In many cases the grain buyers refused to buy at all. Cattle prices also dropped so low that the farmer owed money for shipping his cattle to market. Butter and eggs were five cents per dozen or pound, but even at this price there wasn’t a market for anything the farmer had to sell. We had to go as far as twenty miles for wood in the winter, in the worst cold, never more than thirty or forty degrees below zero. This wood would be cut to stove length and taken to town to sell at a dollar-fifty a cord. Many times we made just enough to by coal, oil, sugar and salt, a very sad situation, to say the least. There was no such thing as welfare, one just did the best with what he had. There were some people who had money stashed away and lived quite well. This was the time that my brother Alex lost all he had because he had allowed too much credit to the farmers who were not able to pay their debts. In spite of all this, there was still joy and laughter.
I really didn’t know what it was all about and went along with the times, always wishing. But I recall lots of enjoyment in my time, the type that no one will ever witness in his entire life. Like when Dad got me a pony and we became inseparable, just short of taking him to bed with me. I remember the little hunting trips I used to go on in the fall in a little meadow which had once been someone’s home site. I spent hours loitering there, and would admire Dad’s first farm nearby. It had a big red barn, the most outstanding of all the buildings in the area. But this farm held something more important to me. It was my birthplace: Northeast Quarter, Section 28, Township 30, West of the Second Meridian, in the Province of Saskatchewan, Canada. This took place on the 16th of May, 1918. What a button-popper I was to my Dad.
Frederick, Mary and Russell Holoboff, c. 1944, New Westminster, British Columbia.
This is about the only time there was any deep affection ever shown to me. This lasted only a few years, to my knowledge. If it ever existed beyond this, it was well hidden inside of Dad. But I will say that a lot of it showed up later in my life, with some guilt written on Dad’s face. For all of this there was a reason, I’m sure. It’s hard to give something when you never received it yourself. But I never felt bitter about it. I just carried on, not knowing the difference. It’s only now that I sometimes analyze these things.
Anyway, the farm. It still holds lots of memories for me, like the big red barn and the beautiful horses that Dad had, especially one we called Nell, a very pretty mare. She was very tame and gentle until one day I snuck up behind her and hit her with a switch. It startled her and she retaliated with her hind leg, grazing me at the temple of my head. I went flying over, ass-over-tea kettle, blood all over my face. Everyone panicked as they thought I was dead. But I survived with nothing less than a scar which I still bear.
I remember a horse we called Twilby. She was really my brother Mike’s pony, but we all enjoyed her. I remember the big pond by the house; in the fall it would be full of migrating foul – a hunter’s delight. Wildlife was plentiful in those years. Killing, to us, was a bit on the religious forbidden side. I doubt if Dad owned a gun.
The first marriage in our family took place at this farm. It was the wedding of my brother Alexis and a local farm gal named Polly Kabatoff. I have heard that cousin John talked Alex into getting married, and I wouldn’t doubt it because Alex was young and timid. But the wedding was a blast. I remember drinking a lot of bubbling water – I think they called it lemonot. After the wedding, Alex brought his new bride home to a little house that we built for the young lovers. I liked to visit with them. The house had no kitchen, so we ate at the big house; it had a large kitchen and a long table. There were eleven of us sitting at that table, country-style.
Another incident was in the spring. Mother had some newborn chicks she was keeping behind the stove. Well, I got wind of this – just a little boy – and played with them. Before Mother knew what had happened, I had them all strangled with loving care. They were so soft and cuddly. But my rear end was red and sore afterward.
Playing in the huge loft of the big red barn was a lot of fun. If I went back to that part of the country, I would make sure to visit the old barn as I hear it still stands.
Alex’s and Polly’s first child was born at this farm. Her name is Nora, my niece, and she now resides in Grand Forks, British Columbia, with her husband, Pete Semenoff.
Another memory was my pony, King. I could write a book about our adventures. I remember being buried in snow drifts that rose over our heads, in freezing temperatures, going to and from school. I remember having visions of being a cowboy, and for all purposes I was but didn’t know it. Because anything on the farm pertained to being a cowboy. But in my vision I was wearing a tall Stetson, with boots and a gun. I wore out the pages of the Eaton’s Wish Book. About the closest I ever got to any kind of cowboy regalia was a western bit for my pony’s bridle. Times were too tough for any luxuries. The harness was more important for the work horse, and they were fixed and re-fixed. But I never gave up hope, as I liked all accessories pertaining to horses. I did manage to get together a set of fancy harnesses for my favorite team. I even had brass bells that I put on the harnesses in the winter. I just liked horses and I still do. I had the opportunity to breed them and raise them from birth. I doubt if there is any other animal so rewarding as a colt of your own.
Besides my little pony King, we had eight horses, all bred from one mare. Her name was Lady; she was a Belgium breed. Her first colt was a little sorrel filly. Her face was blazed and her tail and main were flaxen. She was very pretty and gentle. Lady’s colt eventually also produced quite a few colts. In all we managed to breed seven generations, which made the last purebred. In spite of hard times, our horses brought top dollar at auction. When they were sold, there were a lot of tears on my part.
About my pony, King…it was early winter when Dad and I set out to buy the little critter. The owner told us that he was with the rest of the horses at the straw pile. Finally we saw a little black spot and it was him. After some time spent trying to catch him, we put him in the sleigh box and started home. I was so happy I almost choked him with joy and love. He was only a year old then and it would still be some time before I could ride him. About the only thing I didn’t do was take him to bed with me, but I did sleep in the barn with him.
One adventure with my pony is clear in my mind. When he was old enough for me to ride him, I trained him to run a blue streak. It was always a full gallop. I must say that he was darned fast and on several occasions I raced him against big horses. Not too many would out-speed him.
In the Fall there was an annual fair held at a bigger town nearby called Kamsack, about fifteen miles from our home. People came from far away, despite poor times. Farmers took their wares to exhibit and the youngsters went for the excitement of the merry-go-round and the Ferris Wheel, the sideshows, cotton candy, and yelling barkers selling the all-cure medicine. All of this was very exciting because very little else went on during the year. Despite hard times, with the harvest done, everyone managed to scrape together a few nickels.
My main purpose for going to the fair was that horses raced there, with a special division for ponies that carried a purse of $2.50 for First Place. Need I say more? Yep, I was determined to go to the fair and win. Before I go on about this adventure, let me tell you a little about this fair. One will never again see a fair like fairs back then. Tents pitched all over the grounds, with all sorts of enticements: Lena the Tattooed Lady, sword swallowers, Harem girls, the old shill game of guessing where the pea is, Kewpie doll winnings for your best gal, barkers shouting, a caravan of Real Gypsies…ah, come, let me tell your future.
After telling the folks what I had in mind, they agreed to my adventure and the next day I was off to the races. I had no money, nor any idea how all this was to be executed, but more than halfway there I was stopped by some young farmer and his wife. They were very nice people and they didn’t know my folks, so they talked me into staying the night with them and then in the early morning I could pursue my journey to the fair. After they took me in for the night, it seemed that they immediately took a liking to me. The man helped me stable my pony and took me into the house to clean up for dinner. His wife was very young and kind to me. Their house was big, fairly modern for the times, and made of brick. Well, I was plenty hungry and I ate to my heart’s content. They just kept passing food to me, including dessert. After dinner, the lady showed me to my own room which was nicely furnished and had a very comfortable bed. Looking at it now, it seems that this young farmer and his wife wanted me as their own son. Maybe they had some difficulty having children of their own and took a liking to me. I was happy with it all and it fit in with my journey. I stopped at their place on my way home from the fair as they had insisted. But I did not spend the night with them again. I guess I was getting tired and homesick so I made it home that day.
Now, my day at the fair: When I got there I registered for the pony race and was told what time I was to be ready. It was to take place after the big horses raced. There were many Indians who entered in the big race. They were notorious horsemen. When the pony race was called, we brought our steeds to the race track and arrived at the starting point. It just so happened that the stewards forgot to close the gate where we had entered, and at the sound of the gun, my pony headed straight back for the little pasture I had come through, and there was no way I could get him back to the track. So they had to rerun the race due to negligence on the stewards part. Race we did, and I came in first in my class with a total purse of two dollars and fifty cents – which took a whole year to collect.
Time passes. I am growing up and changing. I quit school – I made a thorough mess of it. One year I missed fifteen days in one month. Yes, I was lectured on this quite severely, but it was a rather hopeless case to make up for all this. Today it’s much to my sorrow, but at that time I knew no better, so the choice I was given was to take a man’s place in the world and go to work. I accepted this role. I was used to work. As a matter of fact, that’s all I knew.
My first real job was at harvest time. Our neighbor had a threshing rig and he hired me as his assistant to operate the tractor and threshing machine. I felt really good about this as no other kid had this type of opportunity, to learn mechanics. What the job really meant was that I was to be grease monkey. But I learned to drive a car and a tractor. In order to learn this and a lot of other things I had to get up at four in the morning with heavy frost on the ground and on the machines. I dipped my hands into cold grease and oil to get the rig ready for when the men got there to thresh. Believe me, this was not fit for man nor beast. I had a lot of other chores that were back-breaking, like pulling the separator belt to the tractor. It was about a hundred feet long and weighed a ton. After I got the rig running I would go have breakfast, or what was left of it. But the prestige was something else at my age. I even had my own tobacco to smoke. Of course I hid it from my parents, but I wasn’t fooling anyone. I was about twenty-five before I smoked in front of Mom and Dad. In our belief smoking was very much taboo.
Taboo or not, I was growing up pretty fast – too fast for my own good. There are other things I started trying, like white lightning – homemade grain alcohol, over a hundred percent proof. We young ones thought this was great and a part of growing up, and the older ones thought we were funny and encouraged us. What drinking really was, was an escape from our depressing times. It could be a serious situation because whereas some could control themselves, some went on to the bye-and-bye as a result. Because it was easy to make, bootleggers sprang up all over the place.
Russell, Alex, Mary, Fred, and Mary Holoboff, c. 1944, New Westminster, British Columbia.
Anyway, back to my job. Harvest lasted about six weeks and I was anxious to receive my pay. I had no idea what the pay would be. One night, when I was asleep, my boss came to our house to treat Mom and Dad with a drink and pay my wages. He woke me up to tell me that he wanted to square up with me for my services and asked me what I thought would be a fair price. As a young boy I was not allowed to say, so I left it to his discretion. He handed me eleven dollars. I nearly died. I had worked really hard for him, and many times I had to cover up for him because he was a playboy and hit the bottle often. Dad should have spoke up for me, and why he didn’t I don’t know. Well, it was better than nothing and it wasn’t likely I could find any other job that would have paid as well. The experience had been worth it and I worked for him the next year, but after that, not much more.
My next problem was what to spend the money on – you’d have thought I was a millionaire. It was the first time I had my own money to spend on myself and I did so wisely. The first thing was to get out Eaton’s Wish Book. What a decision I had to make! Would it be a saddle, a bridle, or that navy blue striped suit for seven dollars? It took some time to make up my mind and the suit won out. You see, although I was young and small, I had already had lots of briefings about the birds and the bees and the penalties that went with them. But I was entering manhood and girls and dancing were entering my mind a lot. After all, during the winter, dancing was our only fun and entertainment. I liked to dance and did a very nice job of it – not many girls refused to dance with me. So I needed to dress up and try to make a good impression.
By the time I paid for the suit and a few things to go with it, I was broke but happy. The day the suit arrived, I got all spruced up and felt like Clarke Gable (movie stars being our ideals and inspiration). I looked pretty sharp for the first dance of the season.
The dances were held mostly in town or in schoolhouses. The orchestras were very simple – an accordion, a violin, and a guitar, more or less. The music was mostly Western style and also lots of polkas. We would dance until the wee hours of the morning, and in many cases, we’d have to walk home in a blizzard. Sometimes there were house parties and sometimes we would dance to just a Jew’s harp or a kazoo. We played parlor games like spin-the-bottle, anything to get a kiss from your favorite girl.
There was this family, close neighbors of ours, who had three girls and one boy. The girls were musically inclined without any training and they made wonderful music on their accordions. They were God-gifted with an ear for music but it took an awful lot of persuasion to get them to play. Who could blame them? Playing the music left them out of the fun. But they were always available for hire. With the few pennies they earned they could buy lipstick. For eye shadow, girls used charcoal. But these girls were very beautiful. Most girls were natural wholesome beauties without makeup, but they liked to live in the world of Hollywood.
In spite of the cold winter, the months went by fast. There were lots of weddings and different kinds of celebrations that kept us happy. On the subject of weddings…I don’t think one ever lived until he or she participated in our kind. Food, liquor and dancing for days with as many as a hundred people in attendance.
There was one wedding I will never forget. It was a Ukrainian family, one of our close neighbors. They were fairly wealthy and this was the marriage of their only son. They went all out for this wedding and it lasted three days and nights. People would sleep wherever they fell. The orchestra was authentic. There were Russian troubadours with cimbalas and balalaikas. In no way could you refrain from dancing when they played. This wedding was also my first experience getting bombed. I don’t remember, to this day, taking a shortcut home in waist deep snow. How foolish – I could have easily passed out and froze to death. But I don’t regret the experience I had at a real Ukraine-style wedding. Only in the Ukraine could you experience a ceremony like that.
I would like you to understand one thing. The people in this era still had morals and scruples. It was different and far better than today’s standards – the body and soul were not abused. But more specifically, this was some fifty years ago, before the modern age. The telephone and the radio were marvels. The first thing anywhere near to a radio that I had was a crystal set. There wasn’t too much to it – it had a piece of crystal metal, a coil, and a set of earphones. Reception was best at night. With a small piece of steel spring you would start scratching the piece of crystal until you were able to pick up a strong station in the wavelength. If you were lucky you would get a good station with good sound and a good program. If there were others in the room they would almost tear your head off to get the earphones.
That was the beginning of radio. After that came the modern tube type radio. Most of them were the cabinet type – no one knew what portable was. As I remember, a person’s wealth could be judged by the beauty of the cabinet: solid hardwood, highly polished and lovely. People that enjoyed radio the most were the ones who lived in towns with electricity. For us rural folk, reception wasn’t good. We had to run our radio off batteries and the reception wasn’t good, plus you never knew when the radio was going to die. Just like everything new on the market, not everyone could afford a good radio; we certainly could not. But we were fortunate to have a nice neighbor about a half mile away who was generous to share his radio and we took advantage of his generosity. My sister Peggy and I couldn’t wait to get the evening chores and dinner over with, then off we would go, tracking through the snow drifts to the neighbor’s place to hear our favorite programs. We listened to Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, and the Lone Ranger, a very popular series. We heard a lot of good western music; a few programs came in quite good like the one from Del Rio, Texas. Also, Kate Smith and her theme song “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountains”. The thing that was nice about radio instead of modern television was that you had to picture the characters. Movies were out of the question. There was only one movie house in a small town about ten miles away. In all the years I lived in Saskatchewan I went to only one show: “The Silver Bullet”.
This is what it was like in this remote part of the country. Not all of the people were so backward, mostly the older folks who had not been in this country too long. Children only know what is taught to them. The younger generation of parents were different. Most of them had some education and passed it down to their children. I can’t say the same for my parents. If you started to play some sport you were told it was a waste of time. If you had some idea, to prove something, all you heard is “it won’t work.” Like when Grandfather used to say, “Look at that damned fool trying to fly.” I wish he could see what it’s like now. Progress didn’t seem very important to my parents and their generation, only their one knowledge: work, work, and more work.
Doctors and dentists in those times was almost nil. We had a country doctor but we couldn’t afford him, and he was tired of getting paid in calves, pigs, and such. I can remember having a toothache once in the middle of winter. The closest dentist was fifteen miles away. We had a farmer nearby who was a kind of self-made dentist and he only charged what you could afford. He was five miles away and I rode horseback in a blizzard to get to him and have my tooth pulled. The pain was so bad, I didn’t care.
As I said before, all we ever heard from our elders was “no”, “what for?”, “it’s not important”, “tomorrow”, “maybe” – teachings that always seemed negative. It was fear, their fear. It was the depression and hard times, another era not like today. There was no such thing as credit cards. To buy anything you had to have the full amount, even if you ordered from the Wish Book. So we had to make do with whatever we had. Only during the harvest season, after the crops were sold, did we have any money. I know hardship well.
Back to family events. My sister Alice married her beloved, Charles Schram. He came from a very large German family. He had six brothers and three sisters, and like everyone else, they were poor as church mice. But the family had a lot of love for each other and it really showed. Their mother was a frail, little woman. I fit in to their family well, and with the other boys, most of them were in my age bracket. I spent a lot of time there during winters. We went to a lot of house parties and raided the smokehouse and smoked like steam engines. The Schram boys had a bunk house all to themselves so we got away with a lot of things. I can still see Mr. Schram waking up the boys. It was like a ritual, the same thing every morning: “Charlie! George! William! Robert! Albert! Steve!” But the boys would merely grumble some cuss word and go further down into their blankets. It took an Act of Congress to get them up.
Russell in later life, c. 1980.
Charlie Schram was a prince of a man. He was about five feet, ten inches tall and nearly two hundred pounds. A very solid, very handsome man. I liked him very much and still do to this day. When Alice told the folks she was going to marry Charlie, the folks weren’t pleased because they knew nothing about his family, and because he was not the same nationality. At that time, in this region, intermarriage wasn’t heard of very often. But eventually they got the folks’ blessing and were married. It had to be true love because Charlie had nothing to offer Alice except love. Alice and Charlie lived with the Schrams after their wedding which was not all that great. Alice had little knowledge of their way of life and it took some time to get used to. Eventually they were able to move out on their own and it was better. They rented a farm in God’s Forsaken Acres, about as far north in the province as a white man wanted to go. Their nearest neighbor was the Indian agent on the reservation. It was a struggle for them. They raised three wonderful children. My sister Molly was midwife at the birth of their oldest child, Richard. Then came Shirley and Douglas. The story of when Molly was a midwife at Richard’s birth is somewhat funny. Alice was very near to her delivery and Molly was visiting them at the time. One night while they were playing cards, Alice felt tired and wanted to go to bed. In her preparation to go to bed she decided to use a portable john in the house (there was no such thing as an inside bathroom and the night was frightfully cold). As she sat down she started to give birth and Molly was the closest thing to any help. It was quite an experience for them all.
Peggy was married next. One day in the barn, while she was milking the cows, she asked me what I thought about her getting married to this fellow named Mike Gizowski. Hell, what did I know about marriage? I told her it was for her to decide. She was afraid she would be left an old maid. She married Mike and they raised a great family of three girls and one boy: Barbara, Mona, Linda, and Fred – a great bunch of kids. Mike was a Polish immigrant from Warsaw who was raised with strict Polish military training. He was old-school and he had an excellent trade as a shoe and harness maker. His work was something to see. His life came to a close at an early age – he died from arthritis. To my deep regret, Peggy’s life ended tragically. She was killed in a car accident on her way home from visiting the folks. But she left a nice family. I have nice memories of Peggy. Her housekeeping was not the best, but her warm heart and hospitality, along with her good cooking, was out of this world.
Not too much later after Peggy‘s marriage, my sister Molly had her wedding bells ring. She married a local boy of the same background and faith. He was a farm boy named Paul J. Rieben; his family lived near us. Molly and Paul had two boys, Paul, Jr. and Donald, and two girls, Debbie and Julie. Their marriage was good and lasted right up to Paul’s death.
So, between droughts, cold, no crops, and working for ten cents a day, the family grew with no sign of a light at the end of the tunnel and it gradually got to Dad. All this time, his heart was still in California and so he began to seriously consider going back there. I acted as his legal aid, getting birth certificates, passports, and other legal documents together. Eventually we got an appointment with the U.S. Immigration Department for a final interview. After all of our efforts, Dad failed to qualify for entry into the states. I still think he needed someone other than me to help him with this – after all, I was just a kid. It was a disappointment to everyone after all the trouble we’d gone through. But Dad was no quitter. He had another plan. Before I tell you about it, I want to back up a bit in my story.
I have been talking about all of the family, but I have said very little about Mother (Mary nee Petroff). Good old mother, how dear a mother she was and how little rewards she received. I remember how hard she toiled from sunup to sundown, then many a night up with one of us kids. I can remember Mother and me in the hot sun, out in the field, making hay, then she would have to come home to milk cows and make dinner, or stand over a hot tub scrubbing clothes. There was no end to her work but I never heard her complain, not until after the birth of Mary. With all the hardship and things getting worse, it put an awful strain on her nerves which eventually resulted in her having a complete nervous breakdown. The fact that she was going through the change of life then only made matters worse for her. There were times she was completely out of her mind from the suffering she went through. What she really needed was total rest away from all the worry. But that was like wishing for the moon. As a result Mother suffered for the rest of her life.
Back to Dad’s plan: British Columbia, here we come! Dad was determined to get the hell out of Saskatchewan. No matter what happened, it couldn’t be any worse. We had some friends and relatives in Grand Forks, BC. and that was to be our destination. I don’t recall the exact month this took place, but it was in the early spring. All I know is that it was damned cold.
The date was set and all the arrangements were made for the auction sale. Lots of comments were heard, like “Are you crazy?” But Dad was determined to leave so there was very little feedback on the sojourner’s part. Mother gave him static. I was all for it. My brother, Fred, and my sister, Mary, were too little to have a say. The girls were married and on their own and would stay behind. Peggy and Molly had a farm that was willed to them by their real father, so they decided to stay. They were sad to see their mother go, but the trek was destined.
As I said, Dad got a lot of remarks from lots of neighbors and friends. But in the end he actually started a whole movement west. The day of the auction was a very sad day, especially when I had to lead out the horses for the auctioneer. I sure hated to part with them. I told all the new owners to treat them as I did, with loving care. Each one brought a fair price and it was time for the last farewells.
It was a cold, blustery morning when the neighbor came for us. We packed everything on the sleigh and off we went to the railroad station. The train was to leave at 9:00 a.m. The station was full of friends and relatives, there to wish us well. Also, quite a lot of my school friends and sweet ones. The whole thing was quite an affair as nothing like this had happened here before. No one could believe that there was any place else than here.
Still, I was sad to leave all my dear friends and the place itself, so vital a part of my life, and all the things I had learned growing up there. The experiences I had living on the farm – even during bad times – I don’t regret at all.
A faint sound, a train whistle, is heard in the distance. The train is on time and we will be boarding it soon. All the farewells have been said. The train blows the high ball whistle and the conductor yells “Alllllll-aboard!” With the clack of the wheels and in a short time of travel, my birthplace is now a memory.
Russell Alexander Holoboff, the writer of this memoir, married and moved to Downey, Los Angeles, California, where he and his wife Bess raised three daughters. Russell passed away on 4 March 1991 in Downey, CA, leaving ten grandchildren. One of his favorite places was the Fraser River in British Columbia where his family scattered his ashes as he had requested.