My most popular post for 2022 was not a story or devotional I wrote. It was a real-life account written by my mother, whose 100 hundredth birthday I hoped to celebrate on December 28th, 2022. Instead, she graduated into the presence of Jesus six months short of that centennial milestone.
My mother, Wanda Kitz, was looking forward to getting her congratulatory letter from Queen Elizabeth II. (All Canadians who reach 100 years get a signed commendation from the reigning monarch.) But alas, the Queen too passed away before my Mom’s 100th birthday. Perhaps, they met in person in the mansions of glory to celebrate her birthday. That thought puts a smile on my face.
In many ways for me 2022 was a milestone year. I lost two queens, my mother and the only reigning monarch I knew. I was born in 1952, seventeen days after the death of King George VI, and Elizabeth’s ascent to the throne. Her reign and my mother’s life have been two constants throughout my seventy years on this planet.
Here then with fond and thankful memories is my mother’s story.
Two Boxcars and Two Cents
By Wanda Kitz
My father Gotlieb Ziebart was born in Russia in 1886. He came to Canada in 1912, just before the First World War. He came to Wolseley, Saskatchewan. He helped build the number one highway. Later he took up a homestead, section 35, township 16, range 24, West 3 degrees, new, Maple Creek – Piepot on the prairies of southwestern Saskatchewan.
He married my mother, Emily Wuschke in 1917. She was from Bateman, Saskatchewan. Her parents came over to Canada from Poland in 1911 when my mother was ten years old. There were nine children. The youngest was born in Canada, and she was only nine months old when her father passed away. The oldest boy in the family was sixteen. When his father died, he stayed at home to farm and the other kids went working. The boys were hired to tend cattle for neighbors and the girls babysat. They stayed wherever they worked. Their pay was a place to sleep, their daily food, and maybe a secondhand pair of shoes or a coat. They got home once in two or three months. Things were tough.
My parents lived on the homestead for about five years. I was the third child born there. Their farm was seconded by ranchers, and they wanted dad’s land, so he sold it and moved to Bateman and then to Mankota.
My father was a good farmer and by 1928 we had a car, a tractor, and a threshing machine and two lines of horses. He also had cattle and five kids. But he lived on rented land.
So he bought a farm at Mossbank. Mother had three brothers living there. His hopes were high for a great future for his family. He put all his money down for a down payment on the farm. Then the depression came. Markets crashed, not just the stock market, but the market for grain and everything the farm produced.
He lost everything.
The drought lasted for eight years. Things were rough. The government gave us relief – two dollars per person per month. By that time there were six children, but dad wouldn’t take anything for the baby.
He said, “I have milk. I will feed him.”
So we got twelve dollars a month. That was during the winter. When the grass got green, the government relief was cut off. My father was a proud man, and he didn’t take anything from anyone, least of all the government.
As the drought worsened, the people that had a little money just packed up and left for the Peace River country in northern Alberta, or they moved to B.C. There were beautiful homes and farmyards left vacant. They were simply abandoned. The land didn’t get seeded. The wind and the grasshoppers took care of it.
By 1937 things were so bad, the government offered to help the farmers to move out. Dad was one of them. They could move you, or watch you starve. There was no feed for the cattle. The government wanted you to sell them. I remember having to go and pump water every two hours until the well was dry. Then we would wait two hours and go pump again.
Dad and three of his friends went land hunting. Dad came back and said he had bought a farm. The other men said they were going to buy later, but they never did.
We were moving – moving from the treeless prairie to the bush country.
The prairie was all we knew.
Mother and us kids were not happy about the move. At Mossbank, mother had brothers and sisters and a mother. We kids had all our cousins and friends. But we moved to Aaron, Saskatchewan – post office White Beach. Dad had sold horses and cattle and made a down payment of $150.00 on a farm on the west end of Thunder Hill. It was more than four hundred miles to the northeast, very near the Manitoba border. For us it was like moving to another world.
How did we get there?
The government gave us two boxcars on a freight train. They said they would pay the passenger tickets to get the family there, and it would take two days for the freight train to arrive. The freight cars came, but nothing to move the family. No money. No money from the government, and dad didn’t have any.
You are on your own. You do what you must.
We had two days to load. In one freight car, dad put the cattle at one end, and the farm implements at the other end. Everything was taken apart. The seed drill, the binder, the hay rake, the wagon, and the horse drawn sleigh, everything was packed into the rail car. On the other end of the car were the nine horses, pigs in a crate, chickens, a dog and a cat, and then more farm implements piled up on one side. On the other railcar he put a wagon box. On the far end of the box was the furniture stacked from bottom to top. The dining room buffet was at the bottom, the dresser on top, and then the sewing machine on top of that. I can still see it all stacked and crammed in.
Mother and five kids lived in the wagon box. Dad and my oldest brother could stay with the cattle in the other car. They were legal. But the rest of us, the family, we were stowaways.
Right on the top of all the implements dad put the harrows, and we unrolled a mattress over them. We could lie up there, but couldn’t sit. It was too cramped. I spent most of my time up there.
The train stopped in every town, and every time it stopped or started it gave this awful jar. Our heads would hit the steel bars on the roof of the car. It was terrible. Terrible!
It was so hot! No air!
We were shut up with the animals. The stench!
Dad was told it would take us two days. We left Mossbank on the thirteenth of August in the afternoon at about three o’clock. We were prairie refugees. Dust bowl refugees. We traveled from Mossbank to Avonlea, and they left us sitting there until the next day, about thirty-five miles from Mossbank.
The next day we went from Avonlea to Moose Jaw and then on to Regina.
The third day we went to Saskatoon and sat there in the stifling prairie heat.
On the fourth day we started east and made it to Humboldt. We stayed there overnight.
On the fifth day we got to Aaron at about suppertime. We had traveled five days. The cattle and horses had little or no water or feed. The cattle were let out of the cars once, into the stockyards, but not the horses.
We had very little food and water. We almost died in the heat. It was August 13th to the 18th, 1937.
Hot. Dry. Dusty. Unrelenting heat.
Mother had prepared some food for on the way, enough for two days. She had roasted two chickens. When the railway station agent in Mossbank couldn’t sell us tickets, he was mad. Dad had no money. The agent wanted to squeal on him, so dad gave him the two roasted chickens and then dad told him to keep his mouth shut. But we starved.
I will never forget all this as long as I live.
That first evening in Aaron, mother and my sister and I stayed with the people from whom dad had bought the land. They gave us supper and a bed for the night. Dad and the boys stayed with the boxcars. They looked after the cattle and started unloading and setting the wagons together.
The next morning, I and two of my brothers were put in charge of the cattle. We were to take them to our farm ten miles away. We were strangers in a strange land. The cattle had never seen trees before. All this bush was foreign to them. They went through everything, fences and all. They wanted to go home, and so did we – back to where we came from.
By noon we were about halfway. There was an open field where the hay had been cut, so we let the cows graze and rest there. We went to a farmhouse and asked for water. Then we went back to the cattle and waited for dad to come with the wagons.
The people in the farmhouse were good to us. When afternoon began turning to evening, they came and asked us to come and have supper with them. We waited until midnight before dad finally came. Then we took the cattle the rest of the way. They followed the wagon in the dark, and this time they had sense enough to stay on the road.
When we got to our home, there were renters living on the land. It was August and they had to take off the crop. They were Ukrainian and couldn’t speak any English, but they had two boys, eight and ten years old. They could speak English because they learned it at school, so that is how we communicated with them. They gave mother and my sister and me a spot on the floor to sleep. Dad and the boys found some hay to sleep on. The next day they gave us a granary to use as a house until they moved out.
I was fourteen years old when we moved north to Aaron. Come September, my sister and one brother and I went to White Beech School. I was in grade eight. We got to know some very nice people. After all these years I still keep in touch with my old school pal Eva. She lives in Benito.
When we got there in mid-August, we had to make hay and feed for the winter. The people around us were very kind. They helped us out by giving us patches of hay land that they hadn’t cut. They gave us potatoes and vegetables too. We had never seen tomatoes in a garden before, or carrots or dry beans. In the south there was no such thing. There was no rain, only grasshoppers and dust storms. Here in the north everything was green – grass so tall you couldn’t walk through it. And it rained!
But winter came.
The government was supposed to send us relief for a year from Mossbank, but it didn’t come until Christmas. Dad had no money. The storekeeper at White Beech gave us credit so we could get coal oil and matches and a few groceries, or we would have starved in the dark.
For Christmas we kids wrote a letter to our friends and cousins in Mossbank. We were so homesick for them and our old home! We gave the letter to dad. But he couldn’t mail it. He didn’t have the two cents for postage stamps. He carried that letter in his pocket. He didn’t have the heart to tell us. Eventually in spring we found the crumpled envelope in dad’s jacket pocket.
That spring dad planted wheat on Thunder Hill. It came up and grew like nothing we had ever seen. We had high hopes. But everything rusted out. A rust fungus killed the wheat as it headed out. Most of the wheat was burned in the field. There was nothing in it. That first year in the north was harder to take than all the years of drought on the prairie. There the land had taught us to expect nothing. And we got nothing. But here the land, the sky and the falling rain promised to give us the moon. But come September, it too gave us nothing – a harvest of hardship.
After I passed my grade eight, I went out working for $5.00 a month. I finally worked my way to Roblin, Manitoba, and then to MacNutt, Saskatchewan where I met Ewald Kitz. We were married in 1943. A year later my parents moved to Dropmore, Manitoba where they farmed until they retired to Roblin. Mother passed away in 1970, and dad in 1977 at the age of ninety-one.
As long as I live, I will never forget that train trip from Mossbank to Aaron. Even now if I happen to be at a railway crossing when the train goes by, it still sends hot and cold shivers down my spine. Unbelievable!
I still can’t throw anything away. I always think of the hard times I went through growing up. I guess that’s why I make World Relief quilts. I know what it’s like to be without, what it’s like to be forced to pack up and leave home.
Note: My Mother was welcomed into her heavenly home on July 9, 2022. Here is an account of the hardships of her childhood that she wrote about a decade ago. We have much to be thankful for.