by George P. Stushnoff
In his later years, George P. Stushnoff (1922-2001) wrote about the history and settlement of his family in the Langham district of Saskatchewan and of growing up there in the Twenties to the Forties. In simple and straightforward style, he recalls the everyday scenes of Doukhobor life on the Canadian Prairies. Written in 1990, his “Life Story” was published posthumously in 2003 in “The Stushnoff Family History: Kirilowka and Beylond” by Fred & Brian Stushnoff. Reproduced by permission.
Alexei and Anna Stushnoff were the earliest settlers of my family name. Born in Russia – he moved to the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus Wet Mountain region, east of the Port of Batoum on the Black Sea, and some 50 miles west of Tibilisi (Tiflis) Georgia. To escape from religious persecution, they came to Canada because the Canadian government by Order-in-Council granted them religious freedom and military exemption from war service, which was not available in Russia. They traveled by refurbished cattle freighters from Batoum and arrived at the Port of Quebec on June 21, 1899, then went by train to Manitoba, Yorkton, and Saskatoon. A much larger contingent went on to Rosthern to settle in the Blaine Lake area. The Saskatoon group, including my parents, settled originally in the Doukhobor village of Kirilovka, 4 miles west of Langham. Others of this group settled at Bogdanovka village at Ceepee and still others settled the Pokrovka village in the Henrietta school district. My grandparents arrived in Canada with no personal possessions except their clothing. Their two sons, Peter (my dad) and my Uncle John were 10 and 16 years of age respectively. Peter married Helen (Hannah) Voykin. John married Dora (Doonya) Woykin while living in the village of Kirilovka.
My grandfather Alexei had one married brother who arrived at the same time and settled in the same village. His name was Dmitry and his wife was Maria. Dmitry and Maria had one son and four daughters. Alexei’s twin sister Anyuta also arrived married from Russia. Her husband was Savely Dimovsky. Alexei and Anna had a daughter who died back in Russia at 16 years of age.
Alexei Stushnoff family c. 1914. (Back L-R) John, Nick, Pete; (Middle L-R) Dora, Alexei, Anna, Helen; (Front L-R) John, Pete, Bill. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.
Prior to 1906, the village produced goods more or less for self-sufficiency as lands were broken up gradually. The first crops were used predominantly for feeding the increased livestock herds of cattle and horses. My parents did not move into the Lutheran-Lynne school district until 1919. At that time, cattle and grain were taken to Langham and shipped to Winnipeg. Sometimes the returns did not cover rail shipping costs. Saskatoon and Rosthern were the nearest trading centres and sources of supplies. In the first two years, groceries were brought in by backpacking. Even bags of flour were carried this way in emergencies. Other times, several men would pull a load of wheat to Saskatoon and return with a load of flour. Garden vegetables were hauled occasionally to Saskatoon by team and wagon and sold from door to door. By late afternoon, any unsold vegetables were sold at minimum prices to restaurants so that groceries could be purchased before store closing and returning home during the night. We depended on the horses to take us home while we slept in the wagon box. The return trip took two nights and one day plus a day in digging and preparing the vegetables for sale.
Development took place by working communally in the village. My dad Peter was only 10 years of age upon arrival in Canada. As he grew up he began earning and saving his own money building railroads. Upon getting married to Helen Voykin, he and his brother John struck out on their own by jointly renting out a 1/2 section of land, which was later purchased by Paul Edie (East 1/2 of S-31, T-38, R-8, W-3M). On August 30, 1919, my dad made a purchase agreement on the home place (NE 1/4 of S-29, T-38, R-8, W-3M) from Tumble Company Ltd. as the original owners of title granted to them on August 19, 1919. The home quarter, without any buildings, was valued at $5000. Title was attained on December 30, 1925. It had originally been designated as school land with a legal right-of-way for the Battlefords Trail. The countryside had lots of bush and grass (parkland) with a few scattered settlers. No graded roads existed. The Saskatoon/Battleford Trail cut diagonally across the Northeast quarter.
Most of the prairie sod was broken a little at a time with a two-furrowed gang plow pulled by 4 horses. After all the grassland was broken, additional acres were made by pulling trees out by their roots. The trees were either chopped down or bulldozed and the land ploughed with a tractor and breaking plow.
The first set of buildings on our farm consisted of a house, granary, horse bam, cow barn, and a chicken coop. These were made of logs, with clay-mudded walls and a sod-covered roof. They were all set in a row and adjoining one another. Later, a modest two-storey wood-frame house was built, with dimensions of 14′ x 20′. A year or two later, a lean-to kitchen was added on the end. It had a clay-mudded floor to begin with, and later, a wooden board floor was put in. The farmyard also had a clay-mudded, log-walled, sod-roofed steam bath house (banya) which was put into operation every Saturday night. Neighbours were always welcome. Our Norwegian and English neighbours often paid us a visit. It became my job to heat up the stones and supply the water.
Peter A. Stushnoff family c. 1927. (Back L-R) Bill, Pete; (Front L-R) Mary, Helen, Annie, George, Peter. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.
No modern buildings were put up until I started farming in 1948. In 1928, after a Model T Ford was purchased, we managed to build a little garage for it. It was made out of axe-hewn and split poplars with a cedar shingled roof. This was a big spending splurge just before the great Depression of the 30s when land was sold to pay the taxes.
Later, Uncle John and his family moved to the Canora, SK, area. His son Alex remembers riding on the freight train in 1934 with their horses and cattle to the Canora district. Later, most of Uncle John’s family moved to British Columbia.
There were no roads to speak of in these early times. There was a Saskatoon/Battleford Trail that ran diagonally across the farm that dad bought in 1919. As lands became cultivated and fenced, people were forced to develop trails along the surveyed road allowances. So the Trail became a hit-and-miss affair and was eliminated by the mid-Twenties. I was born in 1922 and have a recollection of one Ford Model T traveler who tried to follow the Trail. I remember opening a gate to let him through our land. We privately kept a trail across our farm to shorten the distance to Uncle John’s place. We used to visit back and forth with our cousins quite frequently. We were almost like brothers and sisters. There doesn’t seem to be such closeness between cousins anymore. As cars became common, municipalities started grading up the low spots so that the cars wouldn’t get stuck in the sloughs of water in spring and after heavy rains. More popular roads became graded their full length. Grading probably began in the mid-Twenties and accelerated in the Thirties. Farm grid-roading and gravelling started in the Fifties and completed in the Sixties. As Councillors of the R.M. of Park, Norman Westad and myself had the grid road built through this community, past the Lynne School and connecting the No. 14 highway with the No. 5 at Ceepee. For my ancestors, modes of travel commenced with walking, then proceeded to the use of oxen, horses, buggies, wagons, bicycles, cars, trucks, trains, and finally, airplanes.
Our post office was 10 miles away at Langham and neighbours would take turns bringing out the mail, which probably averaged once a week. Rural mail delivery came to our place, I believe, in the early Thirties, every Tuesday and Friday. In winter it was delivered using horses and sleigh. There was no mail for us before the establishment of the Langham post office.
Most illnesses were treated at home with home remedies. We didn’t seem to have needed any doctors except when my younger sister was born. Dr. Matheson from Asquith came out to the farm. Mother had arranged for our cousins to pick up my sister and me and go out for the whole day picking strawberries along the roadsides. When we came home, we saw our new baby sister and other evidence that a doctor had been there. When I was in about grade six or seven, I sprained my ankle playing football at school. My dad took me to a Mennonite self-taught chiropractor (naturalist). He had my ankle set and bandaged. I limped for a while and it gradually healed perfectly.
Lynne School was located 2 miles south of our farm and was of frame construction with stucco finished walls and tin roof shingles. It had a full basement with a coal-fired furnace. When I started school, there were about 40 students from Grades 1 to 8, plus my brother Bill and Clifford Lindgren taking Grade 9 by correspondence. Later I also took my Grade 9 and 10 by correspondence and finished Grade 11 and 12 at the Langham High School in 1941. I also earned enough money, being a janitor for Lynne School, to buy myself a brand new bicycle. I was so proud of it! I didn’t mind the extra early hours I had to get up on winter mornings so I could fire up the furnace and have the school warm enough for classes. Of course, when it was -40, it never warmed up till the afternoon. Kids spent the mornings huddling around the floor heat register.
Looking back on harvest, to me it was the best of times and the worst of times! The crops were cut with horses and binder and I usually ended up having to do the stooking with my sister Annie. The first day was an adventure, especially if the crop was good and the stocks were free of Russian thistle. Day after day the job became more tedious! My dad bought a George White threshing machine and a Lawson tractor. Every fall, Dad would line up about eight or more farmer customers for whom we threshed. While Dad and my brother Pete operated the threshing outfit, my brother Bill and I would haul sheaves, each with a team of horses and a hayrack. This job was really a test of endurance. There were eight teams on the crew, four to each side of the threshing machine. You had to load up your rack while three unloaded. Of course most people took pride in their work by bringing in a reasonably good load and on time so that the machine didn’t run half-empty. There was always one or two workers who rounded off their load a little smaller and always had time for a rest in between. Not me! My foolish pride made me work till I ached all over! Since the family owned the threshing outfit, I felt obligated to set a good example of work ethic rather than slacking off and embarrassing them. However, the social contacts were a good experience plus the most wonderful food was served. The servings of food were only equaled on festive occasions such as Christmas or weddings.
Winter evenings were a time for sitting around the wood heater and eating sunflower seeds and visiting relatives. To help prepare the wood supply, trees were chopped down and hauled into the yard. Many wood-sawing bees were held in the neighbourhood. There were never-ending chores of feeding cattle and horses twice a day, and palling water from the well to water them. And, there was the stinky job of cleaning out the manure from the barn and hauling it by stone-boat to spread out in the fields.
Young unmarried adults used to take turns hosting parties in their homes over the weekends. This meant overnight stays, so you can imagine wall-to-wall people sleeping on the floor on all available homemade mattresses and blankets. Some of these were brought along to keep warm in the sleigh, since the party goers came from as far as 10 miles away. These were not exactly pajama parties; people slept in their clothes, if sleep were possible. My 12 year old cousin, Johnny Malloff, who came along with his older brother Bill, kept annoying one of the older guys by repeatedly tickling his feet.
George & Laure (Petroff) Stushnoff wedding photo, 1946. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.
In summer we used to gather at the ball diamond and play baseball with pickup teams. The better players were selected for the ball team that competed at the various sports days. We had some winners! Our team even played at the Saskatoon Exhibition. I am referring to the Doukhobor boys from Ceepee/Henrietta communities when I talk about our team. We maintained close cultural ties. For several years the ball diamond was located on my brother Bill’s farm. It was also a place for picnics and Peter’s Day. As I was growing up, I was really a part of two communities. I played on the Lynne School softball team, which was one of the best in the district, and I was goaltender for their hockey team. When I attended Langham High School I was also on the softball team that played against Borden, Radisson, and Maymont. My schoolmates from Lynne School (Ivan Thue, Larry Aune, and Norman Westad) were also on the team. In hockey we sometimes played against the adult Doukhobor team from west of Langham, with whom I also had close relationships.
Christmas was celebrated strictly as celebrating Jesus’ birthday through worship services. There was no gift giving. However, it wasn’t long before the commercialized Canadian custom had its negative impact. So much to be said for assimilation! Our most important cultural/religious event was the commemoration of Peter’s Day on June 29 of each year. On June 29, 1895, our ancestors, while still in Russia, collected all of their personal weapons and made a huge bonfire out of them as a sincere declaration of refusal to bear arms or participate in military service. It stemmed from the religious belief, “Thou shalt not kill,” or destroy the body’s temple in which God resides. The soul, being the image of God, resides in every human body, without exception. It was the Burning of the Arms that precipitated severe religious persecution and consequent migration to Canada. The Doukhobor decision to migrate to Canada was made only after Canada passed an Order-in-Council. Some boys were imprisoned while others served in labor camps. I, personally, was exempted from service because I happened to be employed in two high-priority essential industries: education and agriculture. The government seemed to respect that more than the legal religious freedom that had been granted by law.
I started my off-farm career teaching school after a short 12-week stint at the Saskatoon Normal School. I taught at Worthington School, southwest of Loon Lake; Morin Creek School, west of Meadow Lake; Henrietta School, west of Langham; and Smeaton public and high school. I resigned in June 1947.
My dad operated the farm till the spring of 1948 when I took over by renting. Dad gave me 4 horses and 2 cows plus the old horse machinery consisting of a gang plow, 4 sections of harrows, a disc, a seed drill, mower, and binder. Since Dad decided to retire at 60, I quit teaching school and took up farming. After the war, there was a shortage of new tractors so my first attempt at motorized farming was the purchase of a Wyllis-Overland Jeep in 1949. It served the double purpose of tractor and automobile. After a good crop in 1950, I managed to trade the Jeep as a down payment on a new International 3/4 ton truck and a W6 tractor. We grew wheat and raised cattle, milked around six cows and sold cream. Later, we raised 4000 broiler chickens per batch, turning 3 1/2 batches per year.
While farming, in 1952 I volunteered to canvass the district for interest in Rural Electrification. It was a successful venture and electricity came through in 1953 to this particular region. SaskPower put in the power after I proved that 75% of the farmers would sign up and pay their deposit of $750.
In 1955, I organized the Central Park 4-H Beef Club which later became a multiple project club including beef, grain, automotive, gun safety, and home economics. In all, I was 4-H leader for 13 years, with 3 of those years as the district chairman. I served as a trustee on the Lynne School Board until its integration into the Saskatoon West School Division at Langham. I also served a 3-year term on the R.M. of Park municipal council. My voluntary services also included the chairmanships of the Farmers Union Local and the Langham Doukhobor Society.
In 1968, at 45 years of age, I quit farming and took on a job with the Federal Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs. I leased the farmland to Mitch Ozeroff for 8 years, and then made an agreement for sale to my daughter Sandra and her husband Edward Walker in 1976.
In 1973, I transferred to the Dept. of Secretary of State to administer the program of Human Rights and Multiculturalism. In these past years I lived in Prince Albert, Yorkton, Regina, and finally in Saskatoon, where I retired in 1988. Laura and I now live in the Brandtwood Estates, a seniors condominium in Saskatoon.
George & Laura Stushnoff, 1999. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.
As Russian speaking people of the Doukhobor (“spirit-wrestlers”) faith, our people have retained the traditional worship and funeral services to this very day. Traditional clothing was always worn for worship services, but lately, it is only worn on occasion, such as a choir costume for special festivals. Traditional foods of borshch, blini (crepes), perohi (vegetable and fruit tarts), ploe (rice and raisins), vereniki, and lapshevnik (a noodle and egg cake) are still very much in vogue. We are just beginning to conduct our worship services in both Russian and English languages, eventually becoming English for the sake of all the intermarriages taking place.
Doukhobor to Doukhobor marriages are becoming a rarity. With freedom and democracy breaking out in Eastern Europe, we feel that our pacifist beliefs are coming of age and should be shared with the rest of society.
George P. Stushnoff (1922-2001) exemplified the Doukhobor ideals of toil and peaceful life. Chairman of the Saskatoon Doukhobor Society and the Doukhobor Cultural Society of Saskatchewan for many years, George strove to preserve and share the Doukhobor way of life, and to promote inter-cultural harmony in his community. He once stated that “I find it spiritually fulfilling to participate in promoting local and international harmony among all people.” In 1995, he recieved the United Nations 50th Anniversary “Global Citizen” Certificate for contributing to the advancement of peace and global harmony.