Christmas: Old Style on the Canadian Prairies

Editor’s Note: I first published this story back on my old “QuesnelCaribooSentinel” site on December 23, 2011. That site no longer exists on the net so I thought I’d re-post it again for posterity and for the enjoyment of new readers. In doing so I’ve also revised it and added some additional photos that I didn’t have back in 2011. Enjoy and share if you like it. Comments are always appreciated here on the Cariboo Sentinel.


Old Style on the Canadian Prairies

By Arthur Topham

Growing up on the prairies of Saskatchewan back in the late 40s and early 50s, to say the least, was a far cry from the world we’re living in now as the year 2022 draws to a close.

We did have two modern-day pieces of technology though back then; one a telephone and the other a 12 volt battery operated radio. As for the telephone it was a community effort so to speak with a number of neighbours in the surrounding area also enjoying this modern new device and quickly learning how to eavesdrop in so that conversations of a supposed private nature sometimes became just the opposite!!

My parents were farmers – born on the prairies – Dad coming from English stock and Mother from Russian Doukhobours who had immigrated from Ukraine back in the 1890s thanks to the assistance of the famed Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. They grew grain and gardens, milked cows, cut their own firewood, hunted wild game and raised pigs, chickens and beef on their quarter section of land in order to feed and clothe themselves and four children. It was no easy task and they worked hard in order to survive.

My Father Roy Alfred Craig Topham with his favorite team Dick and Star.

We lived about five miles west of the nearest small town called Togo which was right next to the Manitoba border. It was our local shopping area where one could buy essentials and haul your products to town in order to sell them. Apart from the actual grain crops that went in to the wheat elevator in the fall we also would take in milk and cream and butter every Saturday which would then be sold to the local buyers.

This current Google Earth image of the town of Togo tells me that it hasn’t grown in size since we left Saskatchewan back in December of 1956 headed by train for British Columbia where my Father had found steady employment with the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan) at Kitimat.

The CN ran by Togo and Saskatchewan Pool had their grain elevator next to the tracks.

It was a simple life and a challenging one but at the same time it was also a life full of riches that no money could buy or no computer might simulate. Our food came from the sweat and toil of our hands. My mother would grow a big garden each year and then in the fall can and preserve all the essential items necessary to keep us healthy throughout the long, cold, windy winter months ahead.

This photo was taken in the spring of 1949-50. That would be me learning to harrow the family garden plot! Brother David and sister Audrey are standing by observing.

Every year when winter came my Father would go out with the horses and the sleigh and chop with his axe enough standing poplar to last for the next year’s winter wood supply. Each tree would be loaded by hand onto the sleigh which had bunks on the sides similar to what we now see on the logging trucks of today. At one point the neighbours would arrive with a mobile sawmill unit and wood cutting would commence for a day or two and all the trees bucked into stove length.

Dad’s woodpile.

In our case we used the wood in our wood cook stove that my Mother had in the kitchen. It would go throughout the day and for the most part heat the kitchen and the living room areas of our small house. When the temperatures plummeted to the minus 20 – 40 below levels we also had a small coal burning heater in the living room that my dad would load up for the nights.

The kitchen in our house was originally a granary that my dad had hauled over to the main house and butted up against it. It was finished inside and contained the wood cook stove and a table that mom used when baking. The door in the back of the photo was the main entrance into the house. From all appearances it must have been bedtime for my brother David and me. I appear to be holding a muffin or something similar that mom probably baked during the day.

As winter approached and the first snow falls began it was time for my dad and his buddies to go hunting. Wild game, especially deer that had been feeding off the grain crops throughout the fall, were always in demand. Below is a photo of my dad and my Uncle Jim with their trophy “jumpers” as dad used to refer to them as.

Winter was a special time in that much of the hard labour of the spring and summer and fall months was over and done with and we would have way more time for recreation. Once the winter wood was cut and split and stacked and the hay and grain were in the barns and the canning and veggies were in the root cellar below the kitchen floor us kids would be free to spend our non-school hours and holidays basically doing our own thing.

Here’s a photo taken with our Kodak Brownie camera back around 1952. My sister Audrey is on the far left grinning like a Cheshire cat. Next to her is my older brother David (covered in snow with his hood of fringed fur around his head) and then my eldest brother Ray with the stick in his mouth. That’s me in on the right, cozy and warm in my winter coat. My Mother was a fine seamstress and would make most of our clothing on her Singer sewing machine or else knit our mitts and gloves and socks by hand. In the forefront is our dog Pal who was my constant companion for the years that I lived on the homestead. The snow is piled up and we’re all enjoying it.

When we weren’t building snow forts or digging tunnels we could be found either skiing or tobogganing on the hillside that sloped down to the creek next to where we lived. We would shovel off the frozen ponds by the creek and have skating parties or else play hockey or a somewhat crude form of curling. The game of curling was a lot of fun. We filled jam cans or other tin containers with water, let them freeze, then used them for curling rocks.  We had little in the way of store bought articles so being innovative and creative was not only the one option available to us but it also served to build a sense of self-reliance and ingenuity that would be useful throughout our lives.

When winter began rolling in on the prairies it also created certain challenges for those who lived out of town. As long as the snow wasn’t too deep our family would be able to make it into town in our 1928 Model “A” Ford that Dad had scored somewhere along the way. Here’s a shot of the family just prior to leaving for Togo on our Saturday run to deliver the cream and milk and eggs and pick up maybe $5.00 in spending money that my parents would then use for other essentials deemed necessary. That’s me standing in front of my Mother. From the looks of it I would guess it was around 1950 or ’51.

Of course when winter set in and the snow began mounting up and the winds began to blow as they always did the car was parked and left until the springtime. No such thing as plugging it in to keep it warm. There wasn’t any “plug in” and all the current bushes at that time were under snow and not producing any voltage! 🙂 It was the wind that played such a determining role in all of this. Whenever a snow storm would hit, the dirt road that led into town would be subjected to strong winds that would produce snowdrifts of varying sizes and shapes some of which would pile up anywhere from 4 to 6 feet deep or deeper. There was just no way that you could take a chance of getting stuck somewhere along that 5 mile stretch of barren landscape with the temperatures down around 30 or 40 degrees below. It would have meant freezing to death within a very short time.

Our mode of transportation during these cold periods was a small, rectangular shaped wooden van (as we called it) that had a back door and no windows other than a very small one in the front right above the open slot where the reins from the team of horses entered into the van. Inside was a small wood heater and two benches running along the two outer walls. The whole thing sat on sleigh runners.  You can see the van behind my Father in the photo above. We would go into town during the daylight hours and usually we didn’t return until after the sun had set. I can remember those trips home as vividly as though they were just yesterday. Dad would stoke the little stove up before we were ready to leave Togo and after we were all inside he would give the team a signal to go and they would head off into the darkness steadily plodding their way westward toward our farm.  It was snug and cozy inside the van and pitch dark except for the glow from the damper on the little stove. Many times on our trip home we would encounter high snow drifts and the horses would have to sometimes leap into them at which our little house on sleigh runners would jerk and sway and tip at times right over on its side as the horses struggled and lunged and pulled their way through the drifts. Once through the van would right itself and we’d carry on in the night. I recall many a trip while the moon was bright in the night sky and this gave us kids an opportunity to peek out through the little window to view the frozen white landscape glowing in the winter night and gaze at the twinkling canopy of stars above.

Another photo of myself and brother David along with our dog Pal. Behind us is the van and the entrance to our home.

The other mode of transportation around the farm and within the local area was the larger sleigh that Dad would use for various tasks, be they hauling hay or wood or grain or whatever.

Here you see my sister Audrey, myself and brother David getting ready for a journey. Our cat is also giving some serious consideration to joining us on this trip.

Another photo showing Dick and Star along with Pal and the three of us.

Along with the approaching festive season our one room school house called Mylor School would hold its annual Christmas concert. It was a time when all the parents would attend and the students would perform and sing Christmas carols.

Mylor School

Mylor School was a very special place for our local community as we never had a community hall and so it was basically the hub for most social occasions. My dad, seeing as we live very close to the school, was also the janitor and he looked after the care and heating of the building. During the winter months it was heated by a coal burning furnace that was located in the basement. There were times when I would accompany him when he went to load the furnace and do regular maintenance. One special memorable event for me was when he would do all the chores we would go upstairs into the classroom and he would sit down at the piano and play beautiful music. I never knew at the time how he came to learn to play but later when I was older I was told a rather sad tale (oddly connected to the present day) of how when he was born on November 2, 1918 his mother came down with the Spanish Flu and within a month died. My Grandfather remarried not long afterwards as he already had three young daughters and his second wife was a piano teacher.

Anyway, getting back to the Christmas concert. I only recently discovered in my late Uncle John’s (mother’s brother) belongings which were bequeathed to me at one point, a letter he had received from my mother with some photos taken when my oldest brother Ray and sister Audrey were up on the stage along with some of the other older students doing a square dance for the audience! My mother had written on the back of the photo, “This is the night of the Christmas Concert at our school. They are doing the Tennessee Wig Walk! 🙂

Sister Audrey on the left and brother Ray on the right.

Heel toe and away we go… but it looks like Ray ain’t goin’ nowhere! 🙂

As Christmas arrived my mother would begin baking goodies and bringing up treasures from down in the root cellar. We always raised chickens and turkeys and pigs and so there was no shortage of fine “organic” turkey for the table along with all the vegetables and fruits also grown in a natural fashion. And I can’t forget those late summer days either when mom would take us kids out with our berrie buckets to pick wild Choke Cherries and Saskatoons that would later manifest as delicious jams and jellies. Fresh butter, fresh cream, fresh milk from the cows. As kids we took this all in stride never given a thought to the fact that later in our lives things such as these would eventually become the exception rather than the norm.

Gifts were rare and in many instances were things that we would make for each other. But one thing we could count on was getting at least one individual gift.

Here is my beautiful mother Pauline holding a Christmas gift that she had received in the mail from her younger sister Nora. When I think about all the effort and loving care that she put into our home on the farm I thank the Lord for having placed me in this family upon my arrival. My mother was born in 1916 and this photo taken in 1953 would make her 37 years old at the time. May God bless and keep her always.

Here as well is my father Roy on Christmas morning. It’s the only photo that I could find of him taken around the time all the others in this story were. The inscription on the back of it by my mother read, “Father looks kind of sick, but he hasn’t had breakfast yet. That’s his three big boxes of cigarettes he got for Christmas.” Having been born in 1918 he would be 35 years old when this photo was taken. May God bless and keep him also. He was a wonderful father from whom I learned many lessons that served me well throughout my own lifetime.

My parents would always do their best though to purchase at least one present that could be shared among us kids. Seeing as how 3 out of 4 kids were boys it usually meant the present was something that normally males would appreciate more. My sister Audrey though was not one to be dismayed by it all and she learned at an early age how to do boy things just as good or even better than us. One Christmas we would got a Crokinole Board and it would become the center of attention throughout the long winter nights with everyone joining in to see who could shoot the best.

The next Christmas might bring us a hockey game which we would set up on the table after dinner in the evenings and everyone would join in playing. My Father was a big fan of hockey and like most of the young men of his time he had learned to skate and play the game when he was young and also played with the local team that was usually composed of the neighbourhood boys. They would travel from one small town to the next during the winter months and play for the sheer sport of it all.

When winter came that was when hockey also started on the radio the only other modern piece of technology that we had in our home. Saturday night was Hockey Night in Canada on the CBC and it was the big event of the day. Dad and whoever wished to would sit around the radio listening intently to the game. When hockey wasn’t on though there were all sorts of other radio programs that we could tune into for entertainment.

This is a photograph of that little technological wonder that used to keep us listening for hours throughout the winter evenings. It was only about a foot long and maybe 7 or 8 inches high. It was a tube radio that Dad would hook up to a car battery. We had an antenna running up the side of the house on a long pole and that was our link with the outside world. No satellite dishes, no high speed internet, no television, no cell phones. It’s hard to image really just how quickly we’ve developed the technological skills over the past half a century and longer.

Apart from our immediate family we would of course get together with our relatives who also lived on farms around the area. Cousins and close friends would gather at someone’s home and while the adults would gather round the table for drinks and card games and lively talks all the kids would play outside until they were either half frozen or they heard the call to come in for supper. It was all so simple then and so uncomplicated. Little did we realize that within a decade or so the intensity and commercialism of today’s Christmas season would soon be upon us. Looking back now I can appreciate just how lucky I was to have grown up in that environment and had the opportunity to experience life in that way.

In closing I would like to take this time to thank all those who have subscribed to the Cariboo Sentinel as well as friends and family who have been so supportive over this past year. It’s my wish and hope that the New Year will bring a semblance of peace and harmony and justice to the world.


10 thoughts on “Christmas: Old Style on the Canadian Prairies

  1. And a lot of those pictures remind me of my young life raised on a country farm with wood stove in the kitchen and oil burning stove in the living room while the wind howled through the fields and the frosted up windows. Gramm stoking the wood fire. Merry Christmas to you and family.

    • Yes Mike those of us who were privileged to have experienced that lifestyle can relate to the images. I like the way you put it in words. A Merry Christmas to you too old friend.

  2. Thanks for relating your childhood stories Arthur. It brings back fond memories of my childhood adventures in Cottonwood B.C. not far from you. We had a few more conveniences but not too many. Christmas holidays were magical events that brought us all closer together. We wish you and yours all the best for the new year. Condolences on your son’s passing.
    Wade and Kotomi Davies

    • Hi Wade. Most pleasing to hear from you and for your comments on your time spent in Cottonwood as a young lad. For young folk Christmas truly is magical. Thank you too for your condolences. One never realizes how precious life truly is until they lose one of the own. All the best for you and Kotomi in the coming New Year.

  3. Arthur. THANK YOU. I just LOVED reading this story of your early years. The photographs are very special and deeply touch my heart. I grew up a fisherman’s daughter here on the east coast of Vancouver Island in the 50’s-60’s. We lived on a number of Gulf Islands….and like you….NO modern conveniences. No phone until I was in my teens…and no TV until I was 13 or so which we were only allowed to watch on Sunday evening. I too am SO grateful that I had those early years to spend most of my time in nature. I read ALOT. Dreamed alot and imagined a future with no war. Now here we are!!! What a life we have had….and are still having! Every day PRECIOUS and another opportunity to work toward a future without war. OH MY!!!! If only the Commandments and Beatitudes had caught on!!!!!!! My heart with your heart always on this amazing journey of a human life on planet Earth in the end days of 2022. m.

    • Dearest Radical Heart! Thank you for your wonderful comments about your own early years. They were precious indeed. Blessings & Peace for you and family and the whole world too!

  4. I quite enjoyed reading about your life on the prairies and seeing the pictures of your blessed family! You look very much like your mother, Arthur! I’m too 37 now, and having my 4 young kids, being -40C outside today, I can appreciate the conveniences of our modern day! On the other hand, I feel the nostalgia for a world long gone and made incomprehensible because of today’s technology and industrialization.
    Wishing you a Merry Christmas!
    God Bless! 🙏💖🎄

    • Thank you for sharing that Mimi. I see the similarity between you and your family and my own. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year! God bless you all!

    • But…but John! I’ve got this beautiful set of snowshoes that I’ve been waiting for you to try out for years now! 🙂 Oh well, maybe next life eh?

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