My father, Peter Kutsak, turned 83 last January. Eight years ago, he sat down in front of a computer for the very first time in his life and taught himself how to use Word Perfect. Over the next four years he typed up pages and pages of notes, written with his age-wobbly hand, of his memories and life experiences. To him, it was a labour of love for his family. He had left school after completing the eighth grade and as he says, “In comparison to today’s standards of education, I rate my status as nearly illiterate.” Although he struggled at times for the right words, before his book was printed, those doing the editing changed very little of what he had written. Peter Kutsak’s words and stories reflect him as a man. They’re full of life and spirit, honesty and humour, hardship and elation.
As a storyteller, Peter’s words come alive on the pages and through them the reader is transported back to homesteader days in eastern Saskatchewan, to the front lines in World War II, and to post-war life in Saskatchewan.
Over the next few weeks, with his permission, I’ll share some of his stories with the readers of The Voice.
From Echoes of my Past by Peter M. Kutsak
The image, although it is now a little bit blurred, is still in my mind of three oxen hitched to a breaking plough with Tato holding the plough upright, one rein over his left shoulder, the other rein under his right arm and both reins tied together in the back.
In my memory the oxen are unruly because of the flies. Tato, grasping the handles, tries to keep the plough in the ground, battling the bounces each time the plough hits a rock. Sweat drips off his face onto a shirt that is already soaked with perspiration. Using his shirtsleeve, he wipes the sweat off his brow in an effort to keep it out of his eyes.
“So this is the life awaiting me,” I must have thought as I followed Tato in the eighteen-inch furrow”?a crease created with curses, blisters and sweat in the precious virgin soil of our homestead.
That is the picture of what those pioneers endured. The toil that went into trying to make a living can only be described in the present age as extreme torture. Life was not easy. Just as you began to see a glimmer of hope you were always faced with more adverse conditions to dampen those hopes. Just as those adverse conditions were dealt with, there were other unexpected occurrences.
Tato worked all summer for a farmer to get our first horse to replace the oxen. I was six years old when I saw a strange sight: hitched to a wagon were one horse and one ox. We had to work with this mismatched combination for a couple of years until we had enough horsepower to replace the oxen.
I recall a few years of crop failure when drought, frost or hail reduced the fields to total destruction. We were then faced with a year of no crop and no supply of straw for cattle feed for the cold winter months ahead. During these unfortunate years we had to haul straw from farmers up to eighteen miles away with a team of horses and a hayrack. The normal price for the straw was a dollar a load. We had to sell some of the cattle to buy the straw so that the rest of the livestock could survive through the winter.
We faced considerable hardship in hauling this feed for the cattle. Going with two racks helped us cope with the hazards. One of the hazards was the single-track road. With a load of straw, as you approached another sleigh coming towards you, someone had to yield. If the snow buildup was high around the track ruts on the trail, the load would upset the instant one runner sank into the deep snow. People would usually give way when they saw that they were in a minority against a double load. Another hazard was getting stuck in snowdrifts. When that happened we could hook up the extra team from the other load to pull the stuck load through.
Each year we put up a lot of hay at home in the forest reserve. But without a good quantity of straw, the hay supply would not be sufficient. Haying at that time was not as simple as it is today. With the huge balers today, no hay is handled by hand. One lift of a forklift tractor now and you have one ton of hay loaded. In our times, the hay was cut by horse-drawn mower, allowed to dry a few days, then raked and stacked into coils and left to settle down. The coils were loaded on a rack, then forked off the rack onto a stack.
I used to enjoy haying on the reserve meadows. It was like a camping adventure. Usually it was a family affair. Sometimes the haying took a whole week before it was completed.
I recall coming from school one summer day and being given the chore of taking a meal and a jug of cold water to Tato and cousin John who were clearing the willow trees on the hay meadow. After eating, Tato sharpened his grub axe with a file, ready to get back to work. He took a good swing with the axe to cut a root under a willow but he hit a rock. He swore in anger, as he had just sharpened the axe. Now he had to do it again. After filing the axe a second time he went back to the willow to try in a different place. On the first swing he hit a rock again. This time he was so angry that, as he swore, he threw the axe about eight feet away. When the axe hit the ground it again struck a rock.
Tato turned to John and said, “I quit. I am going to Peace River.” That was the time when the Peace River area opened land for homestead settlers. He never did go to Peace River, but continued suffering with the rocks, roots and other adverse conditions until the day he retired.
In later years, with heavy tractor equipment and the invention of rock pickers, it became easier to cope with the elements, as they eliminated the use of human labour in dealing with the dreaded chores.
photo provided by Shirley Barg