Transplanted Roots

by Albert J. Popoff

The following three stories are selected from 120 articles in a recently printed family history book (April, 2003) complied and edited by Albert J Popoff. The book, entitled “Transplanted Roots”, is a collection of family histories, stories, memories, photos, poems and genealogical information about his Popoff, Androsoff and Makranoff grandparents and their many descendants. Mr. Popoff states in the Introduction to his book, “We let the media worry about the big events and record the history of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. But the big story is only part of history. Each of us has an interesting story to tell. Our small stories are just as relevant part of the historical record as the big picture. We need to take time to make sure that the smaller details of life are preserved. If we don’t do it, no one will and in the long run we will be the poorer for it”.Mr. Popoff hopes that by sharing these stories, it will encourage others to preserve their family histories.

I. Grandfather Could Make Something Out Of Nothing

Of all the Popoff cousins of my age, I was fortunate to have spent the most time with my Popoff Grandparents.  My parents farmed only a half-mile from the grandparent’s farm, so it was convenient to visit and spend time with them.  Later, when grandmother and grandfather retired to the Town of Blaine Lake, we moved into their farmhouse because it was larger and the yard had better water quality.  The grandparents came often to help with the farm work and to visit, especially when company or relatives arrived.  When my sister Lillian began high school in Blaine Lake, she and I stayed with our Popoff Grandparents, especially in the wintertime when roads were not passable for vehicles and the four mile trip to town took over one hour by horse drawn sleighs.  I started grade one in the Blaine Lake Public School and continued there for 4 years.  When my sister graduated from grade 12, I switched to the rural Greystones School and was then responsible for transporting my two brothers to school to begin grade one.  Grandfather restored an old one horse buggy for his grandchildren to use in the summer and a cutter (sleigh) in the winter time

Grandfather was not a huggy/kissy type of person.  He could be quite stern and did not tolerate much foolishness from the grandchildren when they were underfoot.  On the other hand he had the patience to teach us skills and allow us to hang around as he went about his work.  I can attribute my woodworking interest and the ability to fix things to my grandfather, who thoughtfully transferred his knowledge and skills to me.  I liked to work alongside my grandfather as he seemed to be able to make something out of nothing.  He could make or repair a harness from tanned leather, craft tools and parts from scrap pieces of iron, make wagon and sleigh parts from dried hardwood trees, and build most anything from scraps of wood and boards.  I was fascinated how useful articles were created from very basic raw materials

Alexey and Katerina Popoff with their grandchildren, Albert, Lloyd, Jack and Lil.

Working at the forge in the blacksmith shop was a special experience.  My job was to turn the crank of the rotary “bellows”.  In the centre of the forge grandfather would light the anthracite coal.  I would turn the fan that brought air to the burning coals so that they became white-hot.  Grandfather would place the iron that needed shaping into the glowing coals.  I had to keep the air flowing, not to fast and not to slow, but with ongoing verbal instructions, I was able to get the air flow just right.  Grandfather would keep checking the iron until it reached the correct temperature.  After what seemed to be long time, he would take out the white-hot steel with long tongs and begin fashioning the metal into a different shape, using a heavy hammer on a large anvil.  I admired his strength and skill as he raised the hammer over his head with one muscular arm, while holding the hot iron with tongs in the other hand. He would then bring the hammer down at just the right place and speed to create the shape that he had in his mind. Sometimes grandfather would put the hot iron into a pail of water or oil to create the right hardness and temper. Other times he was able to “weld” two pieces of white-hot iron together.  Sparks would fly; smoke and steam would fill the shop as a steel bar would become a garden hoe or a part to fix a broken wagon.

We worked together for an hour or two at a time.  I would become tired and hot but I would stick to my assigned task.  Grandfather and I would emerge from the shop all covered with soot and dust.  I gained a good appreciation why it was called a blacksmith shop.  Grandfather and I both had that feeling of satisfaction as we admired the finished products that we created together. 

Grandfather also enjoyed making things out of wood.  There were parts of an old loom on the farm that was crafted by hand from wood that was harvested from the woods along the river.  I also found a homemade wood lathe that was powered by a foot treadle.  I salvaged the pioneer piece so I could turn wooden items.  I did not have the strength to operate the treadle and work on the spinning wood at the same time.  I installed an electric motor that made it a lot easier to fashion interesting shapes on the wood lathe with tools that were handmade on the forge.  Grandfather used to make toy wagons for the grandchildren to play with around the farm.  The design was a two wheeled version similar to a chariot.  The box was large enough for one child to fit into.  The handle was made from a dried hardwood sapling.  It was an all-wood design.  Even the wheels were wooden discs. Grandfather took the time to create dovetail corner joints for added strength.  Even modern day carpenters find it a challenge to make dovetail joints using electric power tools, but grandfather made these unique and strong joints using basic hand tools.  I never did learn that skill.

We had much enjoyment playing with the small wagons that grandfather made.  The wooden wheels would squeal as they turned on wooden axles, not unlike the larger version Red-River carts that brought goods, and settlers to the prairies.  The last large project that we worked on together was building the kitchen cupboards in mother’s summer kitchen.  I operated the electric table saw and Grandfather made sure that everything fit together as he patiently assembled the cabinets.

Living with the Popoff Grandparents in the town of Blaine Lake was a pleasant experience.  Grandmother doted on us.  Her cooking was excellent and always a big hit with a hungry boy.  Grandfather had diabetes so he followed a strict diet and prepared his own meals.  One of the staples that he baked was a dark rye bread.  I never developed a taste for his heavy and strong tasting bread.  I preferred grandmother’s light and fluffy white or whole wheat bread and buns.  Grandmother would drink scalding hot water that she cooled down by pouring it into the saucer and then sipped the hot water, sometimes loudly.  To flavour the drink, she would put a sour raspberry candy in her mouth.  I liked the candy but never did develop a taste for hot water.  It was years later that I learned that drinking tea from a saucer was not acceptable social behaviour.

The grandparents were very involved with “vetcherooshky”.  These were evening get-togethers with other Doukhobor couples, in each others homes.  The evening consisted of visiting to catch up with the latest news, then singing Doukhobor psalms for an hour or so, followed by a lunch.  I was too young to be left alone, so if my sister was away for the evening, I had to accompany the grandparents on their social outings with their friends.  It was not much fun for an active boy like me to be seen and not heard.  Now I wish I had paid more attention to what was discussed and sung. 

When I started grade one my Russian speaking abilities were better than my English language skills.  My theory was that people spoke only Russian when they became old.  Mrs. Macdonald was my grade one teacher and she had a daughter Jean, my age.  I was so surprised when I went to the Macdonald home to attend Jean’s birthday party and Jean’s elderly grandmother spoke excellent English and did not know any Russian at all.  That experience ended my language theory.  My Russian speaking abilities remained at a basic level to be able to communicate with my two sets of grandparents as I was growing up.  I took a few months of Russian School but never did learn to read and write but now I wish that I had put more effort into it.

One of my grandparents best friends were the Podivelnikoff’s.  She was a tall woman and her husband, Henry, was less than 4 feet tall, about my height.  I found it amusing to see this odd couple.  She seemed always to be in command of this little man.  Henry was my size, and I seemed to inherit his clothes when he no longer had use for them.  Needless to say his tastes were very much different than those of a somewhat shy farm boy trying to fit in with the town kids.  I resisted wearing Henry’s clothing and did not want to be seen in old people’s clothes.

These are just some of my memories of my Popoff Grandparents.  The memories are very pleasant and I was privileged to spend a lot of quality time with my Grandmother and Grandfather Popoff.  I was very saddened when they died in a car crash.  I was 14 years old when they passed away.

II. Picking Mushrooms with My Grandmother

Activities around the farm were segregated in to men’s and women’s work, so it was not often that I had an opportunity to work alongside my grandmother Popoff.  One of the activities that we both enjoyed was picking wild mushrooms in the nearby pastures.

There were the ordinary white prairie mushrooms that sprung up after a rain.  Everyone, even the children, knew that these were edible, so we used to pick those anytime we saw them and brought them to the kitchen.  The only problem with this variety was that they got wormy within hours of coming out of the ground, so it was a challenge to find mushrooms without worm holes.  There were also round white fungi that we called “puff balls”.  These were not edible but fun to whack like a baseball, especially when they ripened and had brown powder inside.

Grandmother would take me on special mushroom picking excursions. We hunted for interesting mushrooms that grew within the poplar bluffs about a half-mile from the house.  I would go the day before on my bicycle and scout out where the bush mushrooms were abundant.  Mushrooms need very special conditions to grow, so they were not always available nor in the same location.

Grandmother taught me the different varieties of edible mushrooms.  There were the delicate mushrooms that were white underneath and had colourful tops that were depressed slightly in the centre.  Grandmother referred to these mushrooms mostly by their colour.  Most were delicate shades of gray, but there were also yellow topped ones and some that were a beautiful purple.  These were my favourite mushrooms because of the many interesting colours and they were usually plentiful, so more time could be spent picking and less time hunting for them. 

Another interesting variety were tan coloured with tops that were very deeply depressed in the centre, often exposing the yellow webs underneath.  I was informed that were called “poddoobniki” which in Russian meant that they grew under oak trees.  I kept reminding grandmother that we did not have any oak trees growing anywhere, and she would laugh heartily.  An interesting feature of these mushrooms is that they never had any worms in them dispelling the theory that such mushrooms are poisonous.  These were grandmother’s favourite because they had a strong flavour and were meaty when cooked.

Grandmother was very careful to point out to me the mushrooms that were very poisonous and warned me not to even touch them.  She called most of them by a Russian word, meaning “flykillers”, because even the flies died when they landed on these deadly mushrooms that looked pretty because they had an orange top with a white lacey design.  I learned later that this variety was called “the angel of death”.  An interesting mushroom that mimicked the deadly ones, grandmother called “krasniye holowky”, meaning “red-headed”. The name was very descriptive because they had a brick red domed head.  This mushroom grew very large and instead of the typical web system beneath the head, it was white and spongy.  They never had any worms, regardless of the size.  It was not unusual to find some that were 10 inches across and 12 inches high.  One mushroom would almost fill a pail that we brought to carry back our treasures to the house.  When the pails became full, grandmother would gather up her large apron, making a hammock-like container that held many mushrooms very well.

Katerina Popoff poses with her spinning wheel. She spent many hours spinning wool to knit stockings, mitts and sweaters. 

We would bring the bounty of mushrooms and spread them out on the table in the summer-kitchen.  I would cut off the dirt covered ends and grandmother would chop the mushrooms up into large frying pans on the wood-burning stove and slowly simmer the mushrooms for hours.  When most of the moisture evaporated, Grandmother would add a generous amount of butter and fry the mushroom into a tasty and fragrant dish.  These mushrooms tasted like mushrooms should taste and not like the store-bought variety that we now use for cooking.  Why is my mouth watering as I write this account?

Years later while on a visit to the Natural History Museum in Regina, I was drawn to the mushroom display. I recognized the varieties of mushrooms that I used to pick with my grandmother Popoff.  All of a sudden I spotted the “red-headed” mushroom but it was labeled as poisonous.  Reading further I learned that if cooked for a long time the poisons were drawn off.  I was even more impressed that grandmother not only knew what variety of mushrooms to pick, she also knew how to cook them and make them safe for all of us to enjoy. 

One time I picked and brought some wild mushrooms to my mother that I was sure were safe, but my mother was not familiar with them and would not take the chance to cook and feed the mushrooms to us.  After grandmother was gone, I never had the courage as an adult to pick and eat wild mushrooms, but I was often tempted, because I remember the tasty mushroom dishes that grandmother prepared for us. 

What an impression my grandmother left with me!  So much so, that almost 50 years later, I can vividly recall picking and eating wild mushrooms with my grandmother Popoff.  It was something special that her and I shared together. 

This is just one account of the many memories that a Grandmother left with her grandson.

Alexey Ivanovich Popoff was born February 8th, 1876 in the province of Elizavetpol, Russia, in the village of Spasovka.  At the age of two, his parents, together with a sizeable group of Doukhobors immigrated to a territory near the Turkish border known as the Oblast of Kars.  They founded the Village of Spasovka.  Alexey lived here until the age of 21 when he was called for military service.  He refused to take part in the training and the taking of human life.  For his refusal, in 1898 he, together with other colleagues, was exiled to Yakutsk Siberia, for a term of 18 years.  In 1905 a Manifesto of Amnesty was issued by Russian Emperor Nikolai when a son was born to him.  The Doukhobors exiled in Siberia were given their freedom.  Alexey and his new bride Katerina came to Canada to join the rest of the Doukhobors who arrived some 5 years earlier.  Alexey lived for a time in the Doukhobor Community but he soon became an Independent, taking out a homestead at Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, where he lived until his death on August 14, 1955. Alexey and Katerina had one daughter (Anne) and four sons (Nick, Leonard, Fred and Eli)

Katerina Timofeevna (Makrranoff) Popoff was born November24, 1889 in the village of Baranchi in the province of Perm, Russia. Katerina’s father was a follower of a writer, mystic and religious leader, Captain Ilyin.  Contrary to the strict edicts of the State Orthodox Church, they gathered secretly for religious meetings, singing religious hymns and prayer services.  They were known as Jehovists”, practiced temperance and were against military training.  When Katerina was 6 years old, her father was exiled to the Yakutsk district in Siberia.  Katerina’s mother, Anna Grigorievna, with her five little children decided to voluntarily follow her husband.  After living together several years in Siberia, Katerina’s father was recalled to Russia to be tried on more serious charges of sedition against the state and church.  He was convicted and sentenced to more remote and severe parts of Siberia away from his wife and family.  The family went through very difficult times.  Katerina, at the age of 10 had to go out working among the more established settlers in the region known as “Skoptsi”  When she reached the age of 15 Katerina accepted a proposal of marriage from Alexey Ivanovich Popov.

III.    Flashbacks

My memories are fleeting thoughts. They seem to come as flashbacks at various times while I am doing something else, but disappear when I pick up a pen and paper to record them. I have been able to capture a few memories of growing up on a farm 4 miles from the small town of Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan.  I was fortunate to grow up on a mixed farm and experience many interesting events during a time when there was a major transition to the “modern world” that we know today.

The main street of Blaine Lake, circa 1930.

Birth and Death on the Farm

Birth and death on the farm was almost an everyday occurrence.  Births were always taking place, especially in the spring.  Chicks and ducklings would be pecking their way out of their egg shells, kittens were born in the barn loft with their eyes closed, twin lambs that had to be hand fed from a bottle, frisky calves and long legged colts.  Bunnies and baby owls found their way into our ever changing menagerie.  Assisting my dad with “midwife” duties for calving cows was a learning experience.  I felt very sad when a cow or calf (sometimes both) would die in the birthing process.  Dad spent many a sleepless night in the barn helping the animals give birth.

I soon learned that everything that was born eventually had to die.  Life cycles on the farm were short.  Pigs, sheep, and cattle were slaughtered for food, usually in the late fall so that the meat could be frozen.  It was a difficult day for me when my pet steer Donald, which I raised from a small calf, had to join others from the herd to be trucked for sale to a slaughter house.  Getting to keep the proceeds from the sale of Donald helped to soften the blow somewhat.  Children would help with the beheading of chickens by catching and holding the victim on the chopping block.  As I got older I was able to wield the axe.  “Albert, go and kill a chicken for lunch”, mom would say.  It was traumatic when pets died, often accidentally run over by a vehicle or machinery.  Most enjoyed a respectful burial out behind the barn because it was easy to dig in the sandy soil.

Horse power

I witnessed the transition from 4 legged horsepower to the gasoline variety.  Draft horses were used to pull hay racks, wagons, sleighs and stoneboats.  A stoneboat was a simple platform on skids that was used like an utility vehicle around the farm.  The horse was a much respected animal and farmers took good care of them.  Horses provided year round transportation.  In the summer my brothers and I travelled the 2 ½ miles to Greystones School by buggy.  In the winter travel was by a horse drawn cutter (sleigh).  Although I was only about 12 years old, I was responsible for feeding, harnessing, hitching, and driving the horses.  In addition to transporting my younger brothers, we would pick up some neighbours along the way.  One particular horse we used was old, white, and heavy set, called Kaiser.  Kaiser would never want to leave his stable and take us to school.  It took a lot of coaxing to get Kaiser to slowly plod along; often making us arrive late for school (it was a good excuse).  The farm schools had a barn for the horses to stay in.  The return trip from school was the exact opposite situation.  Kaiser was so anxious to get back to his own stall, if we didn’t quickly jump into the buggy or sleigh, Kaiser would leave without us, galloping all the way home like a young race horse.

Dad brought us a small brown pony we called Tootsie.  Tootsie was never broken for riding and that was a challenge for me.  I was finally able to get an old saddle on her back and climbed on for a pony ride.  Tootsie took off like a bullet and although I hung on for dear life, I fell off as the saddle rotated because it was not cinched tight enough.  Poor Tootsie spent most of the summer in the pasture with a saddle hanging under her belly.  I also tried to ride another horse that we had, bare back.  As the horse started to trot, I was not able to stay on because the horse was so large around and my legs too short.  I fell off and landed on my back across a corral rail and injured myself.  That ended my horseback riding attempts.

Farm Work and Harvest

There was always much work to do on the farm.  All the family was expected to pitch in and help with whatever one was capable of doing.  One of the assignments for the youngest was to feed the chickens and gather their eggs on a daily basis.  Sometimes the old clucking hen did not want to part with the eggs she just had laid and would give your hand a mean peck.  This was overcome by grabbing the hen behind the head and holding it while the other hand retrieved the eggs.  Another obstacle was the big white leghorn rooster who would attack anyone coming into his domain.  The only recourse here was to outrun the rooster back to the house with a tearful tale, explaining why all the eggs were broken.

A very young Albert is struggling with the controls on the binder while his dad drives the John Deer tractor.

As I got older, the work became more difficult and the responsibilities became greater.  One of the enviable job assignments was to drive the tractor.  Later when my feet could reach the pedals, driving the truck was a big thrill.  Dreaded jobs were gathering stones, roots and potatoes.  Shovelling grain in a hot dusty granary was a chore hated by everyone.  Young children were often recruited because they could work in a very small space and the grain could be filled up to the very peak of the roof.  If you didn’t keep up to the input, either the grain would spill on the ground, or the grain auger would get blocked.  Either misdemeanor meant getting a stern lecture.

Harvest was always the busiest time of the year.  It was a crucial period because of the weather, availability of threshing crews with their horses and the threshing equipment.  Before self-propelled combines took over the harvesting operation, the process was very labour intensive.  First the standing grain was cut down with a binder that tied the grain stalks into sheaves.  A stooking crew had to pick up the sheaves and set them up in stooks so that the grain could dry and be ready for threshing.

Threshing was a very big operation that involved a dozen or more men, 5 or 6 teams of horses hitched to large racks, a large stationary threshing machine driven by a long belt from the flywheel of a tractor.  The men would gather the sheaves from the stooks and load them on the horse drawn racks.  The big load would be driven to the stationary threshing machine.  Sheaves were dropped in one by one into a feeder that ingested the sheaves into a revolving cylinder that threshed out the grain.  A variety of shaking sieves and wind tunnels separated the grain from the straw and chaff.  The grain was elevated by a chain and bucket assembly into an adjacent bin or a wagon.  The straw was blown by a large fan like device through a long tube, into large straw piles.  My dad was usually the threshing pit-boss who ensured that everything was running well.  He took pride in being able to set up his threshing machine with precision and he took special care to create well shaped straw piles.  This was a challenge when the direction of the wind would change frequently.

Albert and his dad at the threshing machine.

The men worked hard and were paid a decent wage, but the unsung hero during harvest time was my mother.  She worked twice as hard as anyone and received little recognition for her dedication and superhuman efforts.  Mother had to cook three large meals a day, plus a mid afternoon lunch that had to bundled up and taken to the field where the men were working.  I enjoyed this time the best.  The sandwiches made from fresh baked bread, sugar coated homemade donuts, cakes, pies, fresh squeezed lemonade and that special “harvest coffee” that was made sweet with great quantities of sugar and fresh cream.  The hungry men devoured a mountain of food.  I felt grown up eating a field lunch with the harvest crew and being able to drink tea and coffee.  I was proud of my dad who was always so organized and efficient as he managed the harvesting operation.

Mother seemed to take all the work in stride.  Besides cooking for 10-15 men, she was left alone to do all the other farm chores such as milking the cows, separating the cream from the milk, and feeding the animals.  She would have to kill half dozen chickens, pluck them and prepare them for the main meal.  Vegetables had to be picked or dug from the garden and added to the nutritious meals.  Food was cooked on a wood burning stove under unbearable heat.  Sometimes mom would have some help, but often she carried on by herself, never complaining and always cheerful.  In addition to all the work, mom still had to keep house and take care of us children and anybody who happened to drop by for a meal or visit.

The harvest crew would work till dark, tend to their horses, have a late supper and go to sleep in a bunkhouse on wheels.  The men would get up at the crack of dawn, feed and water their horses, have a hearty breakfast and be off for another day of threshing.  If it rained or the machinery broke down, the men and horses would get a welcomed rest, but not my mother.  She still had to feed the crews, even if they were not working and waiting for the weather to break.  An added chore for mom was to wash the men’s work clothes with equipment that was not automatic and required hand work to wring out the clothes and hang them on a clothesline to dry.

Hired help was needed throughout the year for large projects like haying, land breaking and building construction.  Free room and board was expected by the hired hands.  Sometimes immigrant individuals or families would be available to help.  At other times native individuals or whole families would be recruited from the nearby Indian Reserves.  Sometimes the native families would set up a camp on a remote part of the farm, living in tents and generally being self-sufficient.  This was a better arrangement than constantly picking up and returning the native workers to their homes on the Indian Reserve.

As a child, it was always interesting to interact with those who were hired to help on the farm.  Teaching English to the new Canadians was a challenge.  I can clearly recall trying patiently to demonstrate the difference in pronunciation between “rake” and “rack”.  I guess I did a good job, because that particular individual became a well known doctor and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, College of Medicine.

Life Before Electricity

Electric power was installed on our farm in the mid 1950’s, even though there was a major power line running by the farm since the 1930’s.  The CCF Provincial Government had a farm electrification program that provided a connection to the power grid for all farm families at a flat rate (I believe it was about $600).  Prior to electricity, life was different.

Lighting at night was achieved with kerosene lamps.  The light from the flickering flame was marginally better than a candle and much better than sitting in the dark.  It was a constant chore to fill the glass lamps with kerosene, trim the wicks and clean the glass globes (sometimes called chimneys).  It was not easy to read and do fine work by the light given off by these devices that had improved only slightly since Biblical times.  A more refined light source was a pressurized gas mantle lamp that was known by the brand name of Coleman.  These lamps were difficult to get started and keep going, so they were used only during special occasions, usually when visitors came.  A small pump was used to pressurize the high test gas.  The gas vapours went through a “generator” and burned within a “mantle” made of delicate fabric ashes that would break with the slightest jarring of the lamp or when a moth would fly into it.  When that happened, it was a major operation to get the Coleman lamp repaired and working again.  The gas lamp made a constant hissing noise and was usually hung from a hook in the ceiling to keep it safe and to better distribute the light.  My dad was an expert at keeping this cranky system working properly.  Of course he sometimes got upset because of the money and time spent to provide light, especially during the long winter nights.  Lighting in the barns was obtained from portable kerosene and gas lanterns.  Battery operated flashlights were used for emergency lighting, like when one had to go at night down the path to the outdoor toilet.  The batteries did not last a long time (this was before ‘energizer’ batteries) so it seemed that when one needed the flashlight, either the batteries were dead, the bulb burned out or the flashlight misplaced.

Cooking took place on a wood burning stove.  In the winter the kitchen was a cozy warm place to be, but no one wanted to be there during the summer heat.  It was torture for the ladies to stand over a hot stove for hours on end, cooking large meals.  One of my basic chores was to make sure that the wood box was kept full.  The wood had to be carried from a large woodpile located somewhere in the back yard.  Needless to say the supply of wood did not always keep up with the demand.  An associated chore was to keep the water reservoir on the side of the stove full of soft water.  The water became warmed and was used for washing and bathing.

Cold drinking water had to be drawn from an outside well in the yard and carried into the house in pails.  A communal dipper would sit in the drinking water pail for a quick sip.  Our yard water well had a rope and pulley affair to raise the water.  One of the signs of a child’s strength was being able to pull up a full pail of water up from the bottom of the deep well.  My parents were not impressed when I accidentally dropped the pail and rope into the well.  Dad would have to get a grappling hook affair at the end of another rope to snag the pail and bring it to the surface.  Large containers of cream would be lowered inside the cool well to keep the cream fresh.  I was not a popular person when the rope slipped and I dropped the cream container into the well.  The water in the well was polluted for a long time and not suitable for drinking.

Leonard and Sanny Popoff’s wedding picture, November 1932

Another deep well in the barnyard supplied the livestock with water.  Sometimes there were 50 or more thirsty animals to keep watered.  On a hot summer day the cattle drank huge quantities of water.  A hand pump was used to pump water into a large trough.  This was another task that I did not like.  It was not only boring, but in the heat of the sun, very tiring to manually handle the big metal pump for hours at a time.  To mechanize this task we had a large stationary one cylinder engine.  It was next to impossible for me to start the engine by turning the big flywheel with a crank with one hand while manually “choking” the carburetor with the other.  It took more effort to start the iron beast than to pump the water by hand.  If the engine backfired it could do serious damage to one’s knuckles.  What a relief when electric power came to the barnyard and an electric motor was installed.  All it took to fill the cattle water trough was a flip of the switch.  Of course I had to come back in an hour or so to turn off the motor because the water would overflow and make a soggy mess for the cows to stand in.  I spent one summer trying to invent a way that would turn off the electric motor automatically when the trough got full.  I planned a float and lever system that would flip the off switch when the water level reached the top of the trough, but I never got it implemented.

To wash clothes, mom was fortunate in later years, to have a gas powered washing machine.  The gasoline motor was hard to start, noisy, smelly and difficult to keep running.  In spite of these problems it was much easier than washing clothes the old fashioned way; by hand on a scrub board.  Solar energy was used to dry the clothes.  The wet clothes would be attached with clothes pins on long wire clotheslines.  They dried quickly on a hot day with a gentle breeze.  High winds, dust and frost made drying clothes more challenging.  Often in the freezing weather wet clothes were hung about the house over doors and chairs to dry.  Bed sheets smelled so fresh and clean when they were freeze dried in the winter time.

Human power was used for many things.  In the blacksmith shop, the drill, the saw, the forge and the grindstone were all operated by hand.  That was often my job.  I enjoyed being with my father and grandfather as they worked making and repairing things, unless I wanted to be doing something else.  Even the homemade wood lathe that I had was turned by pumping it with one foot, much like the sewing machine that mom used in the house.  It wasn’t easy to keep the lathe turning fast enough and at the same time applying the chisels to the spinning wood.  Another manual job that I did not look forward to was churning butter.  It seemed to take hours of cranking the churn before the cream would begin to change into butter.  Like many chores, the first 5 minutes was okay; then I would become bored and wanted to do something that was more fun.

It is easy to imagine how farm electrification was welcomed and the labour saving devices that electricity enabled.  We never had much money, so it took a few years to purchase the power tools and appliances that are common today.  A refrigerator and electric stove were welcome additions for my mother in the kitchen.  I installed an electric motor on the old lathe and enjoyed making things on it.  When I was in high school, circa 1956, dad bought me a table saw, a scroll saw, and a power drill.  I learned carpentry from my two grandfathers and was able to adapt power tools to my woodworking projects. 

Horsemen Enjoyed Mother’s Cooking

There were many interesting characters that I was able to observe from a boyhood perspective and imagination. One such person was Pat Keeney.  Pat would travel the local area on a buggy leading a beautiful stallion that he sold for stud services to local farmers.  Pat always seemed to come to our place at mealtimes because he knew that mom was hospitable and an excellent cook.  He would not leave hungry.  If we were not home when he arrived, Pat would just make himself at home and take a nap on the cot in the summer kitchen.  I would be startled when walking into a room and finding an old man snoring away.  I don’t recall that we ever used the services of his stallion.  The Blaine Lake History book relates a colourful history about Pat and his family.

Another horse person was Gus Basiove. Gus immigrated to Canada from Armenia and married a local Doukhobor girl, Elizabeth Popoff (no relation to us).  Gus usually showed up at our place at mealtime, making extra work for mother who was already overworked with other chores.  He drove a flashy convertible, wore a red brocade vest, with a gold watch chain and sported gold teeth.  He certainly made an impression on me because most local men dressed in drab overalls and drove plain vehicles.  Gus was a horse buyer and trader.  I later learned that the old horses that he purchased ended up in a ‘glue factory” or were shipped to Europe for human consumption.  Horses were plentiful and cheap because farmers were making the transition to gas powered tractors.  Sometimes Gus would leave horses and other animals at our place in appreciation for the hospitality he was shown.  I believe that is how Tootsie and Kaiser came into my life.  I also obtained a dog this way, called Rover.  Gus said that the dog was a special cattle and sheep dog, but to me Rover was just a good and faithful companion for many years.

Blaine Lake was honored to be the home of Senator Ralph Byron Horner.  Senator Horner was an avid horseman who imported horses from eastern Canada.  Senator Horner always wore old clothing when in the community saying he looked forward to getting out of the formal wear required in Ottawa.  He was skilled with a stock knife and came every spring to our place to perform that surgery on male bull calves that turned them into docile steers.  The Senator felt that a hearty meal prepared by mother was sufficient payment for his veterinary services.  The Senator’s son, Norval, provided the same service for us after his father died.  Albert Horner, (a nephew) farmed near our place and was noted for raising and showing draft horses that won many prizes at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto.

Travelling Salesmen

In some ways the marketing and distribution system 50 years ago provided better service and was more instantaneous than the e-commerce of today’s internet.  Travelling salesmen would come to our farm with their line of products and demonstrate their application, usually to the house wife, who purchased what she liked or needed.  It was an appreciated service—most of the time.

Back Row: Leonard, Lillian, Sanny. Front Row: Lloyd, Albert, Jack.

The Watkin’s man would have suitcases full of sweet smelling spices like cinnamon and vanilla, food colouring, herbs for pickling and other products that were needed in the kitchen.  The Rawleigh’s product line was more medicinal in nature and was required for the many home remedies of the day.  Iodine, liniments, salves and camphor were always kept on hand to cure aches, pains and ailments such as colds and flu.  The Fuller Brush man would arrive with cleaning supplies and equipment.  Mother would get a break from her work, have a chance to sample some of the goods, purchase what she needed and usually get a small gift as a token of appreciation.  Of course the salesman would not turn down the invitation for tea and fresh baking.

Another type of salesperson would show up on occasion with more expensive products, such as encyclopedias, vacuums, pots and pans and vibrating massage chairs.  These people used high pressure sales techniques because most farm families did not have spare money to purchase the expensive products.  Mother was talked into buying a set of encyclopedias because the salesman convinced her that they were required for the better education of her wonderful children.  Of course, if she bought that day, she would receive, absolutely free, a cabinet to store the large set of books.  The only income that mother had was the receipts from the sale of farm produce such as eggs and cream.  Five gallons of fresh cream would net her about $5.00 each week.  Mom had to use the “easy payment plan” to pay for the encyclopedias.  It took her many years to discharge her financial commitment.  Father was not impressed with mom’s decision, but there is no doubt in my mind that the very informative set of reference books did contribute to my education and motivated me to higher learning. 

Our family also obtained vacuum cleaners, stainless steel cooking pots, and a vibrating massage chair, in a similar manner, but dad was more directly involved.  He did not always have the resistance to withstand the big sales pitch.  Years later the government passed ‘cooling down” legislation that permitted a person to legally back out of an at-home purchase after 48 hours of more rational reflection.

The Golden Age of Radio

Radio provided some entertainment in the busy life of farm living.  The radio also brought a bit of the outside world into the home.  Mother enjoyed listening to the serial ‘soaps’ such as “Ma Perkins”.  Dad would listen to “Hockey Night in Canada” and get the latest grain and cattle prices.  As children, we tried not to miss the adventures of “The Lone Ranger” and we knew when it was “Howdy Doody Time”.  Sister Lil would get a chuckle from “Our Miss Brooks” and “Fibber Macgee and Molly”.  There were dramas like “Boston Blackie” and the Lux Mystery Theatre was another favourite.

The radio was powered by large batteries and had to be connected to a long outdoor antenna.  The main problem was that the rather expensive batteries would go dead and the tubes would burn out with prolonged use.  This meant that the radio time was rationed out. 

Money was Scarce

Our family never had much money, or so it seemed to us youngsters.  We would receive a token allowance of about 10 to 25 cents a week.  For that amount it was possible to buy a few soft drinks and chocolate bars.  We were also encouraged to save money and put it into the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Blaine Lake.  I still have my first bank book with the regular hand entries of my deposits and the earned interest.

Nothing was purchased that could be made at home.  The men folk were handy at carpentry and ironwork.  The ladies would grow all their own food and make the clothing for the children.  Only staples like flour, sugar and salt were bought.  It seemed a luxury to order some clothing items from the Simpson’s (now Sears) and Eaton’s catalogue.  As I got older I became conscious that the “town kids” dressed a lot better and more stylish than the “farm kids”.  I was very embarrassed and self-conscious to be seen in farm overalls. 

My parents were very thrifty and not extravagant in their spending or lifestyle.  This was a common trait of many people who went through the great depression and drought of the 1930’s.  Even now, 50 years later, I find it difficult to break the frugal habits of my childhood.  I still go through an effort to shop for the best price and have a real feeling of satisfaction to “save” some money on a purchase.

About the Author

Albert J Popoff was delivered by his Grandmother Katerina on January 26, 1941 on the family farm near Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan as the eldest son of Leonard and Sanny (Onishenko) Popoff.  Albert grew up on the family farm that his grandfather pioneered and attended nearby rural and town schools.  Albert obtained a Civil Engineering degree at the University of Saskatchewan where he also pursued his post graduate studies.  Mr. Popoff was the traffic and planning engineer for the City of Saskatoon for 7 years and in 1973 he joined the Saskatchewan Department of highways and Transportation where he held a number of challenging and responsible positions.  In 2001 Mr. Popoff was presented with a distinguished service award by his peers in recognition of extraordinary service in the field of transportation engineering in Canada.  Mr. Popoff is married to Grace, daughter of Helen (Boulanoff) and Peter Strelive.  They have 2 sons, Jeffrey and Russell.  Grace and Albert are now semi retired and live in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley.