Sunday, February 28, 2010


Earth, Fire and Water is my father's title for the album page. This is spring, 1920. I always thought my father had potential as a scholar -- indeed, so did everyone else -- but I was the only one who slowly realized that he was weighed down by conventionality. What he thought was an education was merely information. Education is about learning how to think. It also has to do with developing oneself morally and ethically, even emotionally. He was so rule-ridden that he never did grow much. He never allowed himself the experiments that might have opened new territory.

If you remember that hay meadow that used to be a beaver pond, here it is again, temporarily restored to pondness by the spring runoff. The back says, "May Strachan and Rose Henderson on flooded meadow on SSS Farm." The album caption says "Launching the New Boat." It looks suspiciously like a box to me.

People of this kind, once called "mechanics" are constantly inventing and improvising. I suppose it is one of the things that keeps them from feeling like "peasants" when they are farming, since they take a great interest in the machinery. In those days (and still, to some degree) farmers invented and improved machinery. The back of this post card says "Roaring River. Strachan kids in paddle-wheel boat." The album caption is "The boat becomes a paddle-wheeler on the Roaring River." May, Bruce and either Seth or Glenn in the boat, leaving either Glenn or Seth to take the photo.

Even modern prairie roads are never finished. Grading, compacting, graveling, scraping go on endlessly. Of course, it was arguably more fun as well as more stately when the machines ran on steam instead of diesel.

The back of this photo says "Burning willow brush on SSS Farm." The album says "Glenn feeds the fire to burn off land before the breaker." The breaker is undoubtedly another of those big slow steam bulldozer ancestors that will tear out roots and make furrows in the earth. The ash from the burning is good for the soil. No worries about air pollution in those days.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Eventually the seasons swing way up north. When that happened in Minitonas, a young man's fancy turned to. . . bicycles! A stage of locomotion between horses and automobiles, it is a mode that occasionally returns. On a place where every swelling of the land is considered a hill, even old-fashioned bicycles are practical.

This album page is headed "Sundry Sunday Snapshots."

The photo says "June 1920. Looking south Minitonas Hill." The album says "Bicycle to the top of Minitonas Hill."

Sometimes on the prairie it seems as though there are two seasons: snow and dust. This drydock says on the photo "Spring on Minitonas Hill." The album adds the information that it is the west slope of Minitonas Hill. It looks more like a bank to me.

This was actually an earlier photo, marked "May,1920. Chipmunk on log barn." The album says "Venturesome Chipmunk."

In case you couldn't spot the little animal, here's a fuzzy closeup.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"GIRL STUFF" (Bruce's label)

In that place and at that time, girls and boys were separated in terms of what they did. Clearly boys did athletic feats and girls did silly things.

The back of this photo says in May's handwriting, "This was tken in 1920. It is Rose Henderson and I down on the river near here. Don't you think it's a dignified pose." She was thirteen years old. My father's note says, "May and Rose Henderson find a contented cow.

The back says "May Strachan and Rose Henderson on Roaring River Bridge."

The back of this one says "April 1920, May Strachan and Rose Henderson." The album says, "Rub-a-dub-dub, Two girls in a tub." Not quite accurate since there are two tubs.

This one says "May Strachan and Rose Henderson on West Favel river flat." I assume that's what we would call a "flood plain," where the regular overflowing of the river deposits silts and washes away hillocks. The album says "Jack the Airdale leaps and leaves only his shadow." The dog belonged to the Hendersons. Airedales are supposed to be good bear dogs, but I don't know whether that's why they kept one. There probably were black bears around. (Airedale is more conventionally spelled with two e's.)

The back says "May Strachan and Rose Henderson at C. Henderson Farm. The album says, "Jack is more contented here."

The back of this one also says "May Strachan and Rose Henderson at C. Henderson Farm. The album says, "Jack turns his back while the girls play with Billy." Billy is an angora goat. A sheep's head on the left edge.

The Hendersons and the Strachans may have been friends in South Dakota. Certainly the Hendersons were the link to Swan River and helped the Strachans migrate up there to resettle.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Spring on the northern prairie is intense but slow. It seems as though it will never come. Then there are a few small signs. Suddenly it's there.

Running water doesn't freeze until it gets very cold indeed, which is why they advise people with less-insulated pipes to leave water running a little bit. But the Favelle farm DID get plenty cold. This is marked April, 1920. It appears the thaw has just begun. No way to tell what left a track down the middle of the streambed.

Now the ice is gone and the water is free. The back says "High water in Roaring River."

This one says on the back "Seed buds on poplar trees. SSS Farm." Under the photo in the album it says "poplar catkins." At the base of the trees stands May Strachan, the shy girl of the family. I don't know who climbed up to get some catkins. It took me a while to realize there was someone up there!

Monday, February 22, 2010


The date now is March, 1919. This pile of logs was cut near the Roaring River. To an Oregonian they don't look like much, but that far north it's hard to find big trees. These are black poplar. There is no photo of them being cut down. It appears there are about a dozen trees represented in these sections. I presume they've been lying here "curing" for a while.

One log is marked on the end because it was the largest of their logs: 27" across! Impressive to Dakota guys, I guess. These were people who could get excited about small events and benchmarks.

These intrepid guys appear to be Bruce, the older, and Glenn, the younger, again. Maybe Seth is taking the photo. I have no idea how they managed to get the logs onto the wagon. Maybe the horses pulled them up some kind of ramp or worked a winch.

It doesn't take much to constitute a bush sawmill. A steam engine plus a circular saw of major dimensions. The name of this sawmill was "Martin's." There's no note about what the boards would be for.

This is my father, Bruce. I suspect that a real injury was somewhat augmented to make the original injury (maybe the hand?) more theatrical.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The ancestor of Snapfish, Shutterfly, Picasa and the like. Eaton's was the source of many good things and now we know where the Strachans were getting their postcards made. I expect they were developing their own film in a kitchen dark room.

The date is March, 1920. Minitonas, Manitoba. The family is moving to their own place now because it is what passes for spring in the high north, though you'd need one of those photo calendars from Eatons to know it. It's clear that no one fussed about plowing the road, but cars and trucks -- to say nothing of wagons -- had more clearance then and the going was probably better with the ground frozen and snow on top than with newly thawed mud. I love this sort of gate, though it's a simple matter of having to put a pole across the top to keep the two side-posts from gradually spreading until the gate doesn't fit anymore. Few can resist putting some sort of name or decoration at the top? (These days they are incredibly detailed silhouettes cut in steel by lasers.) I don't suppose "The Ponderosa" would work. The photographer (my father) wrote on the back "hoarfrost" which looks like "hoorfrost," but I don't suppose either of them would work either. Their principal crop was potatoes, so maybe "Spud." Proudly.

I see now that this house has a fancy pane at the top of the front window. Some salesman was right on the ball. Note how the dirt is banked up around the bottom of the house to keep the seam between foundation and sill sealed. I should try that here. The photographer was again trying to capture the magic of hoarfrost, which we have had in Valier this winter so much that it's no longer so appealing.

This is one of my favorite photos in this album because it is such an illustration of a tight-knit family in modest circumstances countered by a bookcase with its ornate clock on top. That clock is still in the family somewhere. The camera is hanging on the wall to the far right, carefully folded into its leather case. The pretty blonde typist is my Aunt May, whose daughter looks just like her. My father, Bruce the family scholar, is sitting at the table. The boy, Glenn, with the book on his lap turned out to be a California realtor in Santa Ana in boom years. The youngest boy is Seth, who would be the pilot who flew the top US editors and journalists into Germany at the request of President Truman, who felt that no one would believe the concentration camps unless they saw for themselves. Indeed, there are still people who refuse to believe it. Seth grew into a big man who loved flying, even if it was bombers, and who had a long career with TWA and ended up in Pebble Beach, CA. These four people are long gone and some of their children as well. But in this room is the root of the family mythology.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


As things worked out, the Favelle farm wasn't ready to move into until spring, so the Strachans rented the J.F. Smith farm which had a nearly identical farmhouse, though this one had a window in the front door and stained glass inserts at the top of the windows. Also, there's a sort of built-on part at the back, maybe a kitchen. January, 1920. Minitonas, Manitoba.

"Fish caught in Swan River By Strachan Bros. Nov., 1919. I'm not quite sure how one ice-fishes with a spear -- maybe it's an art of shallow water, but they seem pretty big and fat. I think that's my father, Bruce the oldest, on the left and Glenn, the middle boy, on the right.

The back of this photo, printed on post card stock, says, "Strachan boys in a tree that a bear climbed on the J.F. Smith Farm." The date is Jan, 1920. The Strachan boys, who grew up in flat Faulkton, South Dakota, where it probably got just as cold, never saw anything they didn't want to climb. If a bear cold do it, so could they.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


A place is an ecology. Settling into an ecology means recognizing it accurately and then responding in a way that fits. So here we are: flat land, slow streams, low vegetation.

This stream is not identified and I've never seen a map of this farm's boundaries, so it's unclear to me whether this is the Favell River and whether it's the boundary. On flat land there's more of a tendency to survey everything into squares, but a stream is so real and strong that it can be almost irresistible as a boundary.

This photo might simply be a closeup of the previous snapshot. I see the same leaning tree on the right and pattern of stones on the left. If so, they are both the Roaring River, which is written under this photo. To a mountain person, it hardly appears to be "roaring" and the "rapids" look more like "riffles," or maybe just a good place to ford.

The caption says, "Our Hay Meadow was once a beaver pond." I would cap it the other way around: small letters for hay meadow and caps for "Beaver Pond," which is a such a significant engineering force in the West. Finding a riffle, they began to cut and drag the nearby trees, which were just the right size, into the fast water until they had plugged it up enough to create a dam with a pond behind it. (See earlier post about gradients!) The dam then gradually caught sediments that sank to the bottom of the pond until a good habitat for trout had become level muck that either required a higher dam or meant looking for a new riffle. This is true of all dams, even the mighty concrete man-made ones. Probably the beavers of this former dam were trapped and converted into gentlemen's hats long ago. We don't usually do that to the human builders of dams (no fur), but we do knock dams down eventually. All dams. By now the famous Aswan Dam in Egypt, a marvel of my youth, is filled up.

The muck behind the dams is fertile and till-able, wonderful natural meadow. The trees seem to have grown up together, the right hand set a little older (taller) and thicker than the left hand set which might have been thinned. Or maybe they somehow didn't get their share of water. Where are their lower limbs? There's foreground vegetation with the right hand row. Every ecology is a point in a process, a history, making a record of the past as well as controlling the future.

Corn, potatoes and cabbage -- right? High nutrition, store-able. Row crops. Annual. Sort of "low class" peasant food maybe, because people close to the soil survive on them.

This ecology reiterates everywhere: the same trees over and over, the same prairie perennials over and over, the same leaf pattern, over and over. So the potato plants and all the others over and over. If they weren't, it would signal a problem: pest, poison, lack of fertility, trampling.

So the people are capable of repetitious work, repeating schedules of planting, cultivation and harvest, eating the same foods again and again. Without flagging, without getting bored. Not unlike a computer data entry job. My grandmother coped by memorizing poetry she could repeat while hoeing. You can't do that when making computer data entries.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Around here a road like this is called a "two-track." As opposed to a "two lane." Not much trouble if one meets oncoming vehicles, since there's no borrow pit -- one can simply swerve. When such a road is wet, it is mud, possibly bottomless enough to be impassable. Then one needs the nearest ox team. The electricity has arrived -- at least the poles.

According to the album notes, the farm Sam Strachan bought was in Favell, which was four miles north and one mile west of Minitonas, Manitoba. The farm was being rented by the Atkinson family. Jennie and Ella Atkinson posed at the corner of the house. Note the ruffle along the hem of the taller girl. Maybe she's the daughter.

None of us has figured out what's along the side of the house -- a gutter system? Or the beginning of porch construction? Or the end of the siding scaffold? It appears the upstairs rooms have screens. I'd bet there were two bedrooms, one at each end, with a hall between where the window is in the side. I can't quite tell whether the curtains match. But maybe there were more rooms up there. The Strachans included three boys and one girl.

Looks like tomatoes growing in the foreground. Potted flowers in the downstairs window -- geraniums? Lace curtain. A buggy almost outside the photo on the right.

The earth is bermed up behind this barn so there's access to the second level by walking in. There's a nice horse for that buggy. Gates were a matter of lowering or lifting the poles across the gap, not swinging.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Swan River could not have been a very swift river since there was no incline to hurry it along. When I was little, I read my father's Booth Tarkington books ("Seventeen," "Penrod and Sam") which were really more about the midwest, but also had that small town feel. A place of no extremes, a place where one could creep into the bushes to make a little hiding place, a safe place where people shared standards and ways of doing things.

I suppose that protected gardens must be European in origin, that love of borders with tall spires of delphinium or foxglove and then "beds" of certain plants. Strawberries? I can't tell.

Neighborhood infrastructure of sidewalks and picket fences, so familiar and yet unique. It looks to me as though that fence might be solid on the bottom to keep out rabbits. Small pickets, close together, a little reminiscent of Ukraine fences of sticks woven together. If those parking strip trees were this size in the summer of 1919, they will have matured and possibly by now, depending on the kind of trees they were. I'm interested in the stones parked in the corners of the walk and the little wagon in the distance, but don't have any theories about them. Do you?


This website is meant to bring to life that ghastly eco-catastrophe of the southern plains when all the topsoil left for other places.

Similar but not the same as what I'm doing.

Prairie Mary

Monday, February 15, 2010


When Europeans first got to the land it was only "empty" of built environment rather than an ecology based on spontaneous vegetation and inhabited by animals suited to that environment. But soon they had brought in domestic livestock and big plans.

These two photos were taken near Dauphin which is south and a bit to the east of Swan River. It's probably significant that one of the small communities nearby is called "Ukraina." The northern interior of the American (in the continental sense) prairies is not that different from Russia, Ukraine or Siberia.

Clearing trees meant using more force. The advantage of these steam tractors is that they could use the trees for fuel. Able-bodied men (and, it appears, one intrepid woman) found work with the Downie Land Co. When Sam Strachan was up against it, he joined the winter crew. Maybe it was better to clear trees with snow preventing fire and making skidding easier.

These photos were taken near Bowsman, just a jot east and north.

In looking for research sources, I brought up "Swan River, Manitoba" on YouTube where I found video of today's town that would have knocked the socks off these hard-working folk. The place is still flat and the buildings are mostly one-story, but it is everything my grandfather could have imagined -- and more.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


"Favellebank" was the name of Chris Henderson's farm near Minitonas. I don't know why he called it that. The photos are from August, 1919.

These were the kinds of row crops that Sam Strachan was used to growing: potatoes, corn and rhubarb. This land is fertile, partly because it's newly cleared maybe, and flat, which makes it easy to work with machinery. Crops must be annuals, like corn or potatoes; easy to ship, ditto; or very tough like rhubarb, welcome because it is an early "pie fruit," so good in spring. This land is far north and for plants capable of growing fast, there are long long days.

Sam (b. 1875) was 44. There was no social security or retirement pension plan. Either he made enough money for his old age, would be dependent on his children, or would have to keep working. He needed to make money.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


This blog (not mine but a favorite of mine) is simply a photo a day, taken near Swan River at sunset from pretty much the same vantage point. Though I was glad the camera caught that owl!


These photos were taken by my grandfather, Sam Strachan (or as he embellished it, Sam S. Strachan, though he had no middle name) when he took a scouting trip to "the fertile Swan River Valley." His father, Archibald Strachan, had moved the family from Kilmarnock, Scotland, to Faulkton, South Dakota, where he had intended to become a gentleman farmer in the style of Thomas Jefferson. Since he was a carpenter (though a very fine finish carpenter) he did NOT have the knack for farming. Sam, educated in Scotland, was the county superintendent of schools and married a teacher, Beulah Finney. Each of them "proved up" a homestead but it was tough to make a living there, even with four nearly grown children.

Following in the family pattern, Sam decided to go north.

This information is partly from Wikipedia.

Located in a valley between the Duck Mountains and the Porcupine Hills, the town of Swan River is close to the Saskatchewan boundary in west-central Manitoba.

The town is situated along the Swan River which flows into Swan Lake, believed to be named from the swans that frequent the lake. Henry Kelsey became the first European explorer to visit the area in 1690.The name of the lake is first noted on a map created by [Peter Fidler] in 1795 and again on a French map in 1802 (as L du Cigne). The first permanent settlement dates back to 1770 when fur traders from both the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company bought and sold goods by way of birch bark canoes. The Blackfeet from the east slope northern Montana traded with the Cree people who operated the canoe shuttles.

In 1876, the musical band of the North-West Mounted Police, the forerunner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, made its debut in what was later to become Swan River. The instruments used in the band were purchased by the 20 officers in the band and shipped from Winnipeg by dog sled.

The first pioneers arrived in the Swan Valley through the Duck Mountains in 1897 and quickly developed the farming potential of the area. The proposed construction of a line of the Canadian Northern Railway was announced in 1898 and the town was founded in 1900 though it was little more than a post office at the time. Swan River was officially incorporated as a town in 1908.

The economic base of the town lies in agriculture and forestry along with support industries for same. Almost fifty percent of the surrounding area is under cultivation, most of which is seeded to cereal grain, oilseeds, and other specialty crops. There are also many mixed farms producing cattle, pigs, and farm-raised wild animals.

Provincial highway 83 goes south, crosses the border and transforms at Westhope, ND. into U.S. Route 83 and continues to the to the Mexican border near Brownsville, TX.