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 Poverty Years
In our world a family’s fate hung directly upon the whims of Nature: drought, blizzard, hail, fire, frost, and yes, even gophers and grasshoppers. Some people could cope with their losses; they would be able to pick up the pieces and carry on. But my vision of our dear Mama is of one whom never took a loss with heartbreak.
In my memory I see tears. I see Mama sobbing after each and every tragedy that befell our family. Whether it was a frozen garden, hailed-out crops, or the death of a horse or cow, she took it bitterly. It would sometimes be days before she removed her tear-soaked apron and counted her blessing that at least the family was all well.
It bothered her terribly that her children had no shoes and few clothes to wear. On cold winter days, we supplemented the shortage of warm socks by wrapping our feet with strips of blanket or other cloth material, which we called “onuchi.” We then topped that with a pair of socks that had been darned numerous times. Mama was relieved when any of us managed to earn whatever we could to help out.
In 1928, Tato got some sheep. He handcrafted a spinning wheel to convert the raw wool into yarn so that each of us could knit our own socks and mitts. Mama took it upon herself to spin the wool into yarn. Two years later Tato bought an old knitting machine that brother John, who was the most mechanically inclined, put in good working order. John then became the official knitter of all the socks our family would need. Mama, of course, still spent countless hours spinning the wool to supply John with the large amount of yarn he required.
We were self-sufficient in producing all our food with the exception of salt and sugar. Even sugar we attempted to produce ourselves one year by growing some sugar beets. We tried to extract the sugar by condensing the sugar beet pulp into syrup. The experiment failed to produce a good enough result so we scrapped it. The venture, however, was not a total loss. Our pigs for a time had the sweetest diet in the entire neighbourhood.
Our meat requirements were mainly met by wild game. Besides moose, deer and rabbits, we had an abundant supply of prairie chickens and partridges. With the addition of our own pork, beef and mutton, plus eggs from our hens, we were on top of the list of the well-fed.
Tato tried to satisfy his smoking desires by growing his own homestead tobacco. He put his whole heart into it. The leaves had to be picked in their prime, then laced on a string of binder twine and hung from the attic rafters. Care had to be taken to ensure ample air space between each leaf. When the leaves had reached the proper dryness, Tato would remove the leaf core, stack the leaves in a shoebox-sized container and weigh the leaves down with a heavy object to form a solid block. He would later slice the block very thinly with a straight razor. The sliced tobacco was sprinkled with brandy and various other additives. I must admit that after being cured in a glass jar, the sliced tobacco smelled almost good enough to eat.
As a substitute for coffee we used toasted rye, wheat or barley with some added chicory. The coffee tasted like Postum. It makes me wonder if this beverage Postum is a carryover from the pioneer era. The tea we had would be our present day chamomile that was homegrown. It grew like weeds everywhere in the yard. We also used rose hips, wild rose stems or branches from the wild raspberries. No one bothered to plant raspberries as they were already plentiful everywhere. Only on special occasions would we be treated to store-bought tea or coffee.
Nowhere in any of the stories of the past have I seen any document revealing that we developed our own Popsicles, in spite of the fact that Popsicles themselves had not yet been invented. Our version of a Popsicle was to pour some sweetened coffee into a metal container like a cup then stick a teaspoon in the middle. It was placed outside in the winter to freeze, then used as a special treat, just as Popsicles are used today.
In earlier days, there was no such thing as a weekly allowance or spending money for the children. Youngsters had to earn their own. This was not always possible, as there just wasn’t much money to be had. Children earned their money through various projects.
There was a bounty on gophers paid by the government to eradicate the infestation of these rodents, which were detrimental to the efforts of making a living in farming. The government paid a bounty of one cent for each gopher tail. Gopher tails could be sold at any store, but only a few would pay cash, which is what most of us required. The stores preferred to accept them in trade for store goods. At that time there were also bounties on crow and blackbird eggs.
We did some trapping of weasels, muskrats, and mink. It was more difficult to trap the elusive mink, which could detect the scent of a steel trap from a distance of three or four feet. We hunted squirrels and muskrats for their pelts and sold them for cash to fur buyers.
Another opportunity for making some money was by digging seneca roots. These did not grow just anywhere; they grew mostly in the open fields where there were no trees or shrubs. To find them we had to go to Peepaw and Rhubarb Plains, which were about twelve miles from where we lived. Some seneca roots could be found along the Swan River, but they were scarce and far apart.
Seneca is actually a low-foliage weed that grows in the open fields. A person with a keep sense of smell could locate them by their scent, but I was not gifted in that way. We sold seneca root to the stores in exchange for store goods, or sold them to the fur buyers for a better price. Seneca root was used for medicinal purposes.
The money we earned was ours to spend as we saw fit. However, the list of priorities was far too lengthy to do it justice. Number one on the list would be clothes, although we, of course, would look forward to a bicycle. A guitar was on my list of wants for a long time. A .22 rifle, the newer model featuring a repeater action was also on my list of needs. I must have wanted things beyond my means because I never did buy a repeater rifle until the 1970s. By then, automatic action was the fashion.
In the early thirties, poverty was the word of the time. Relief was available, but only for those people who were in the most dire need. Who was to dispute that we were not in that category? We applied for relief and hoped to receive some funds to buy clothes, or some flour or sugar. Two weeks later a huge parcel came from the Red Cross. The contents of the parcel were mostly army uniforms, some suits, coats, sweaters, shirts and dresses. Only very few items fit anyone in the family. But my sincere thanks go to the Red Cross. The package was gratefully received.
Now Mama, busy as she always was, had even more work to do. She ripped apart the relief clothing and retailored it to fit. Nothing of the relief parcel was wasted. Mama was happy that, for once, we did not have to resort to Buckeye Flour bags to make all of our clothes.
I cannot forget a period during the hard times when none of us boys had suitable boots or shoes to wear for the winter. What little wheat we had threshed had to be sold to buy the winter supply of flour. Tato was quite industrious, though. To him, there was never a problem that couldn’t be solved. He took a moose hide and tanned it. In spite all the detailed information he got from the Indians about tanning hides, something went wrong. The tanned hide didn’t measure up to his expectations.
“Just a minor problem,” he said as he proceeded to cut the hide up for moccasins for himself and for each of us boys. Because of the stiff leather, he couldn’t roll the front of the moccasins into a curve to fit into the low-cut rubbers. So he altered the pattern to form a rib on the front tip to sweep into an upward point like a ski. The finished product he called “postoly.” The ankle wrap was one piece, with flanges to wrap around and overlap in front. He cut lacing from leather and soaked them in harness oil to make them pliable. The ankle wraps had thirty-six inch long leather laces to be wound round and round then tied together.
How did they wear, you ask. They had an equal balance of pros and cons. They were strong and snug around the feet with plenty of ankle support. Fitted with insoles, which were handfuls of hay and plenty of socks, they were very warm and snow-proof. On the other hand, they had no heel and were very slippery to walk with.
They also were ugly. When we wore them to school the children would stare and laugh. But my main objection to wearing them was that I was in the habit of kicking a frozen horse turd down the road as I walked to school. Wearing those ugly postoly, I was totally handicapped. As you can imagine, with the front being pointed, there was no predicting what direction the turd would travel when I kicked it. But wear them I did, and liked it. It sure beat walking around with cold feet.
In the summer months we all walked barefoot, unless we were lucky enough to have a pair of running shoes. Running shoes did not last long before the tips of our toes protruded through the canvas. Most of the time we wore running shoes with no socks. If you wore socks you would run into problems of mud or dust messing them up. With runners and no socks you could walk through a puddle and wash them off. The only advantage over bare feet was the protection of your feet form thistles, thorns and sharp stones.
Photo credit: Shirley Barg