Every Thorn Has Its Rose
Published in The Wood River Free Press, June 5, 2006

Every Thorn Has its Rose

By Lee Harding

Hard work, mischief, untimely deaths, guns, and good clean fun were all part of growing up on the Harding farm. Carving out a new life on the prairies was a combination of hardship and adventure, helping neighbours and helping yourself, sowing and reaping, bitter winters and hot summers, and having the satisfaction of seeing how far you got from what little you started with.

The first Harding homestead, which led to this adversity and adventure was founded by my great-great-grandfather. John Thomas Harding, an Englishman who had worked in Adamsville Quebec since 1895, built his first sod shack at NW 32-9-4 in 1907. He walked all the way to Moose Jaw to get his land title. Two years later, the fifty-year-old brought his wife Katherine, and youngest children Clara (13) and Joe (10) to live with him. They hired a wagon from Caron to bring them, their kitchen utensils, bunk beds, and wooden chests of clothing to a barren prairie void of fence lines, roads, or even markers.

But it was JT’s oldest son Fred who would be best remembered. Fred, the oldest son of John Thomas, moved to the farm in 1917 with his wife Rose Young (formerly of Halifax), and his oldest children Marjorie, and John Douglas (my grandfather). By this time Fred’s sister Clara had already married Bob Fogal (who lived close by), and Joe had left to fight in the war. Fred was 34 at the time, Rose, 22.

The adjustment was thornier for the young Rose, who got quite a shock seeing the mud walls and cobblestone floor of her small new home. She washed the clothes by hand, and learned how to cook and bake. “There, it’s done,” she told her husband after making her first loaf of bread.

“God sent the food,” her father-in-law hesitated, then added, “but the devil sent the cook.”

But Rose would have the last laugh. While she was in labour some years later, her father-in-law stood on the roof, waving a lantern to guide the doctor to the mud shack. Rose had to smile when she looked up and saw J.T.’s foot coming through the sod above her head!

Fred built his own house on his dad’s farm, then moved it to his own after purchasing the Fred Kennedy Estate, S½ 33-9-4. Here, they raised the children born to them on the prairies: Rita, Elsie, Earl, Basil, Ella, Ronald, Morris, and Dennis. Basil died of a ruptured appendix short of her third birthday, and Rosie died of measles and chicken pox at eight months of age. All rest of the children, including Marjorie and John, attended Jesmond School, 4 ½ miles away. Marjorie remembers driving the horses with buggy or sleigh to get there. She still remembers those early years and her grandfather, who lived until 1943.

 “John and I used to walk from our farm down to Grandad’s,” recalls Marjorie, now living in Heffley Creek, BC, “and there he’d be sitting at the table eating limburger cheese and a slice of bread. And he’d say to John and I, ‘Well, would you like some?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, a little bit,’ and John would say, ‘No, I don’t want to.’ And he’d keep the fly swatter on him. A fly would land and--swat, down would go the fly [on the cheese] and he’d go right on eating. John and I used to just cringe. . . But I liked old granddad.”

Another time John noticed his grandpa eating mushrooms with worms crawling out of them. “Why do you eat them if there’s worms coming out?” the boy asked.

“Because that’s how you know they’re not toadstools,” J.T. replied. And, once again, he kept right on eating.

Some days during the depression, those mushrooms, worms or not, were what the children had for breakfast. The hard work of the parents was shared by the children. All of them helped with the farm. Marj herself shot guns, broke horses, and worked in the field on the stook wagon.

“Before I went to school I had to milk two cows,” remembers Marj, “After supper I did the same thing. I used to harrow the crops. I’d be about eleven or twelve, four horses on the harrow, nothing to ride on, walk behind the harrow. It didn’t hurt me one dang bit!”

If all work and no play made Jack a dull boy, maybe that’s why no Harding was ever called Jack. “We never lacked for fun,” Marj recalls, “Everything was fun for us. We were kids.” She remembers cutting out pieces of wood and bark to build a little barn, carving out horses, and tying them all together with string.

In the summer, the children camped with other kids on the Wood River between Gravelbourg and Lafleche. Every Sunday, the neighbourhood kids gathered to play baseball in the Harding farmyard. In the winter, they skated on the pond, or played hockey, using a horse turd for a puck.

The quirky Harding sense of humour made the difficulties of farm life bearable. Rose was especially known for her jokes. Marj says, “You could tell mom a joke, a cute joke. She’d repeat it. You’d never recognize your joke; it was twice as funny when she told it!”

“I remember one time Dad was sitting in the front room reading a paper and that and Mom got dressed in a man’s outfit. She’d be quite young. And she had a man’s cap on, put her hair up underneath. And she had a little suitcase, knocked on the door.” Fred answered, thinking his wife to be a salesman. “She started to giggle. Dad knew then, so then chase was on. I can still them scurrying, running around the house outside, Dad trying to catch Mom, laughing their heads off!”

That same sense of fun was in their children, not to mention the mischief. As a nine-year-old, Ronny tried to lasso one of their pigs. The pig ran around a barrel of used motor oil, and from the force of the rope, overturned the whole barrel, leaving the big squealing in the black ooze. Ronny tethered the pig to a tree, and hid in the bushes, hoping to somehow avoid a spanking.

Ronny also remembers “tin-canning” the neighbours’ bull--covering its eyes with a pail wired to its neck.

“Dwight Sewell, he had this old gramophone you could beller through,” remembers Ronny, “They’d call the bull over with it and put him over in the box stall, rub his ass with a steel brush, put turpentine on him and can him, and growl! {It] raced to the dugout and took down about half a mile of fence! Poor old Ted [Bourassa] was fixing the fence the next day.”

One Halloween, Ronny, Earl, Dave Foster, and two others tried to tin-can Bill Olderking’s cow. But as it turned out, the wire got wrapped around its neck and choked it to death. Olderking recognized Foster’s raspy voice and the five boys were on the hook for the bill.  The cost was $75, 15 for each of the boys, and they decided to recoup some of the costs by skinning the cow. They were surprised again when, having found the remains of the animal, they discovered the pigs had eaten it all!

“We had nothing hardly so we had to make our own fun,” remembers Ronny. Morris used to say, “We were so damned poor, we had to cut holes in our pockets just to have something to play with!”

Earl inherited more of his mother’s mischief this than the other boys it seems, and got a charge out of pulling pranks. He almost broke Morris’ foot when he hid a battery inside of the box they used for ‘kick the can.’ Another time, he connected a battery to the doorknob of the farmhouse, hoping to shock a neighbour who visited. His mom was the victim instead.

But the worst shock Earl gave his mom required his mother’s assistance.

“He was downtown in the truck in the old Model A and I was on my motorbike,” remembers Ron. “He said, ‘Let’s scare mom. I’ll put your motorbike in the back and I’ll drive into the yard. And I’ll get out and tell her.’ I was laying there with dirt all over my face, looked like I had an accident. And Earl told her, ‘Mom, we’ve got bad news.’ No damned wonder she was so jumpy! Looked in the back of the truck and of course I’m laying down. She got quite a shock!”

Another time, Earl had a very real accident, but managed to play it up. He rode with neighbour Warren Bourassa down a grid road and lost control. The dust stirred up could be seen for miles, and caught the attention of Dennis, Ella, and others. When they got to the accident scene, the car was turned over, and Earl and Warren were laying on the roof of the car. But Dennis remembers that as the concerned friends and relatives got close to them, Earl and Warren jumped up and “laughed like hell.”

 

It was sadly ironic then, that Earl met an untimely death with the family watching. They were gathered at the pond swimming that day. Someone had shot a duck, and Earl swam out to get it, carrying his son Joey on his back. Although Earl was a good swimmer, something went wrong, and both Earl and Joey drowned. The coroner said Earl had a heart attack, and that they found no water in his lungs. Joey, seven, did not know how to swim and went down with his father.

The family pulled through this devastating loss, and stood by Earl’s remaining family. They helped his widow, Rollie Roy, and their remaining children Larry, Delores, Wayne, and Jeannie. In time, Rollie married Ken Free, and to this day the children and grandchildren from this marriage still come to Harding reunions.

             Thank God no Hardings died of gun shots. Guns were as much a part of growing up on the farm as the chores. Young Dennis began hunting gophers when he was seven, and never stopped shooting. “We’d shoot inside the house just for luck, right in the corner of the porch or the kitchen or some place like that,” he recalls.

            Maybe this was why the house seemed like the best place to try out a new gun Ronald bought from Eaton’s. “We shot all the ornaments off of every shelf in the house,” said Dennis. “You know, we had to practice; we had to do that!” he jokes.

            Ronny does remember firing a gun in the kitchen, but can’t recall shooting ornaments, adding, “I don’t remember shooting any knickknacks but he [Dennis] might have done it while I was gone”!

            But Ronny and Dennis both agree on one thing: Jack Brown was bewildered when he tried to put electric wiring in the Harding farmhouse in the 1950’s. “Was this house ever wired before?” Brown asked.

            “No, that’s why I hired you,” replied Fred.

            “Well, I was just wondering because the whole house is full of holes.”

            Even the outhouse wasn’t spared the peppering. Occasionally, the boys got a kick by firing over the heads of people on the can. “You don’t stand up when you’re on the toilet,” laughs Dennis. “You might get hit!”

            Some boys never grow up. Dennis remembers when they played the prank on their brother-in-law, George Mattson in the early ’70’s. “We shot at the toilet just a little bit above his head, so he comes running out with his pants down!” recalls Dennis. “That was one of our tricks. But we used to shoot cigarettes out of each others’ mouths, too, you know. Morris and I used to shoot cigarettes out of Ronny’s mouth. But we wouldn’t let Ronny shoot them out of ours because he was left-handed.”

            “We were pretty wild with guns. We were good shots at that time. We thought we were, anyway.”

Ironically, Dennis’s scariest gun stories were the unintentional misfires of a 12-gage pump-action shotgun, an 1897 Winchester, to be exact.

            “John [his brother] was out hunting partridges with it, and he hung it up on the pegs in the porch out of the road of the kids, eh? So the neighbour come over, and my dad says, ‘Well I’ll show you my new shotgun.’ So he pulls it down—John had left the shells in it—and as he had it down, he must have been squeezing the trigger. It went off and just about blew the neighbour’s head off.”

            Sometime later, Ronny sat on the open door of the wood stove, taking the shells out of the gun. Morris sat in a chair a few feet away, and, seeing the barrel pointed straight at him, scolded his brother to put the gun down. Ronny did, and, to his own surprise, blew a hole right through the kitchen floor!

            By the early 1950’s the gun belonged to Dennis, and he sold it to Joe Walters. But Walters had an accident of his own. “The side of the shotgun had blown out and pretty near took his thumb off!” remembered Dennis. Hearing of this, Dennis bought the gun back from him for ten dollars.

            A few years later, Alf Bourassa, who lived on a neighbouring farm, saw the gun and wanted to buy it.

            “It’s too dangerous! I won’t sell it to you,” said Dennis, telling him about all the mishaps.

            “Oh, I’ll be careful,” replied Bourassa.  But one fateful day he thought it would be alright to unloaded the gun in the house while his father slept in the next room.

“It went off,” says Dennis, “and it went through the clothes closet where [Alf’s brother] Ted had hung his brand new suit. And through the clothes closet his dad was sleeping on the other side of the petition.”

The bullet shot through the wall six inches from Ovala Bourassa’s head. “He got up pretty quick!” says Dennis.

Alf’s brother Ted complained to Rose Harding about the suit, which now had a hole in the crotch. “It’s a good thing you didn’t have the suit on!” Rose quipped.

What was wrong with the gun, Dennis can only guess. “There’s probably a lot of worn parts, eh? When you take the shell out it would cock the hammer back. And when you pull the slide back forward again to get another shell, the hammer would go off.”

Whatever the problem, Harding bought the gun back a second time, and dismantled it. “I’ve just got the barrel and a few spare parts. But I pretty much destroyed it because it almost killed three guys!”

While there were no shotgun weddings to speak of, the Hardings had their share of funny stories from dances.

“I can remember going to a dance on Friday night and getting home late,” says Marj. “We had to get up at almost sunrise in the morning, and I’d say to Elsie,

‘Did you see Dad anywhere?’ and she said ‘no.’ And I said ‘Well, you do a little bit of stooking and walk, I’m going to have a little sleep.’ So I’d fall asleep behind the stoking, until I heard, ‘Dad’s coming!’ Hurt like heck!”

            When Marj was 18, she was quarantined for measles. The disease was going around, but she didn’t have it herself, as things turned out. But she told her parents she was going to the dance anyway. That night she put the ladder up to her window before she went to bed. Later that night, she climbed down from her window, walked to the trees in her nighty, and changed into her dance clothes. Her friends picked her up there and brought her to the dance.

Later that night, she returned to the trees, changed back into her nighty, and walked into the house. But on her way upstairs, she fell over the coal pail and woke up her father.

 “Who is it?” he growled.

            “It’s me,” said Marj, yawning. “Who put that coal pail there?” I had to go to the outhouse. I could have hurt myself.”

            “Go to bed,” he replied. And that was all.

            Fred advised his boys to watch how the girls they dated treated their mothers and sisters, and how those girls’ parents treated their husbands. He said if they treated each other well, that’s what they would get in a wife. Apparently, the Laymans were nice to each other, because Ron, Morris, and Dennis each married a Layman sister—Mildred, Lois, and Evelyn, respectively. “You’d almost think that [we sisters were] the only ones around there,” says Mildred.

Ron remembers how Morris waited for Lois for their dates, sometimes in vain. “Morris would go up to get Lois in the old Essex, he had an old car. And he wouldn’t go in the house, eh, [just] sit in the car. And Mrs. Layman wouldn’t let Lois go out unless he come in. And so one night he fell asleep! I think they had to wake him up to tell him to get the hell home!”

            The grandchildren that followed also enjoyed the sights and sounds of the farm. Inspired by his grandson Danny, Fred built a treehouse that his grandchildren enjoyed for many years. John passed away in 2001, and Morris in 2004. Marj Mehain; Ella Schumay, Rita Matheson, and Ronald Harding of Moose Jaw; Elsie Hoskin of Wetaskawin, AB, and Dennis Harding of Melaval remain to pass on the stories of life on the farm.

            Our family left their mark not only on the history of the land, but also its landscape. Fred and his sons laid down the sidewalks in Limerick, Melaval, and Lafleche. Later, with Inland construction, Ronny, Morris, and John built a number of buildings, including the Department of Highways building in Moose Jaw and the Town N’ Country Mall. Cancer overtook Fred on July 10, 1967, fifty-five years after he married Rose. Rose continued to live on the farm for many years, surviving a tornado which blew out the windows of her house in 1977. She spent her last days at the care home in Gravelbourg, her wit and humour still with her. When she died in 1994 at the age of 98, she had one hundred descendants—testament to a full and rich life and a legacy that lives on.