Birch Lake: A New Begining – Chapter 2 of 4

Written by Harold McNeill on August 24th, 2010. Posted in Tim Hortons Morning Posts


Birch Lake Early Years

Photo (Collage of Mom’s Photos):  Family and friends in Saskatchewan provided a strong draw, but earning a living on the farm was becoming increasingly difficult.

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Blizzard of Forty-One
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Community Dance:  March 1941

It would be the first time since Harold was born that the new mom and her husband had attended a dance at the Meadstead Community Hall.  In those days almost everyone in the family attended the dance including kids and babies.  Because their were no carriages or baby baskets, makeshift items were used to carry the baby, diapers, bottles, etc.  Laura used an old suitcase for this purpose.  She would just pop open the top and she had a ready made bed for her little boy.

Arriving at the hall after a few months of being absent at the dances there were many people to greet who had not yet seen her baby and proud mom she was, took him around to meet everyone.  When the dance began, Laura tucked him in his bed in the cloakroom and like the good little boy he was, promptly fell asleep so mom could go our and dance.   Fifteen or twenty minutes later when she went to check on him, the suitcase now had the lid closed and it was covered in coats and scarves.

Frantically Laura began fling coats, hats, scarves, mitts and gloves about the cloak room of the Medstead dance hall as she uncovered the suitcase. From outside appearances she had gone stark, raving mad.

“How could I have been so stupid?  My baby boy is probably dead and it is my fault – how could this have happened? Please God, please, please let him be OK.”  These dire thoughts swirled through her mind as she searched for her baby boy.

Only two months earlier, Laura had returned to her new home at Birch Lake where she was the epitome of the doting new mother. At night she listened intently for the sound of his breathing. Sometimes she would stand over the crib to listen closely as she could hear nothing over Dave’s heavy snoring. When the baby cried, she cuddled him. When he was hungry, she fed him. When he slept, she admired him. He was the loveliest baby she had ever seen.

As great as it was having this darling new addition, Laura still found it difficult adjusting to married life and to being away from her family and friends.

She reflects:

“Dave was so confident and self assured and I was just the opposite. As a teenager and young woman, I was much more of a homebody, I guess. I had many friends in school and around the district but still felt I was not as good or as pretty. I was teased about my teeth and for much of my early life I would hold my hand in front of my mouth when I laughed so people could not see them. It was a habit that took me years to break even though I came to know my teeth were probably better than most.

When I married your dad, I was 22 and had only worked outside my home on one occasion. At sixteen I had gone to work for a family on a farm near Battleford. I became so homesick after a couple of weeks that I sent a message to my dad pleading with him to come and pick me up to take me home. After I returned, I never again left until I married Dave.

I guess that was part of the reason I felt so lonely a lot of the time after I married. Having come from a home where there were always a lot of people around and even though I had my new baby, it was very difficult being without other adults around for days on end.”

Laura then went on to describe her husband who, at 34, was an opposite in almost every respect:

“Dave was a very confident, outgoing man. He went to almost every dance and community event in the area. He was very popular, especially with the women. He was good looking, a great dancer, had an infectious personality and boundless energy. What woman in her right mind would not be attracted? He was definitely spoiled, yet his sisters were always fiercely protective. Even later in life when things periodically went off the rails, his sisters would defend him until the last ‘dog was hung’.

At community events, he was often the centre of attention as he called the dances. Calling a dance meant picking out which dance would be next; for example, a two-step, waltz, chautese, fox trot or one of the many others. He was always good at calling square dances and knew dozens of different drills.

In addition, he was an accomplished fiddler and would often join whichever group happened to be playing. That group was often two or three of his sisters and his mother. His family would even load the family piano onto a wagon and pack it off to the dance hall. Music was a family affair with the McNeill family.1

During a visit with Aunt Pat in June 2010, she added more information about those early years:

“The entire McNeill family had a musical bent. My mom, Els or Ella, as she was called, was an excellent piano player and taught piano for years. She encouraged all her kids to take up playing an instrument with the most popular being the piano, violin and guitar.

El had an amazing ear for music and she could tune any instrument by ear 1. For the piano she would have one of the kids ‘plunk’ on a key that was slightly out of tune while she went behind the piano and turned the tuning key until the tone was right in tune. It would only take her a few minutes as she knew the pitch of every note by heart.

At dances, the kids would trade off playing various instruments while your dad called the dance. When he got tired of calling he would pick up an instrument, usually the violin or guitar and start playing.”

As Aunt Pat reminisced, she suddenly recalled a special time of long ago. As she did, a tear came to her eye. It happened at one of the community dances where funds funds were raised to buy Christmas presents for kids and families who were going through tough times. It was called a “Box Social”. She had just turned sixteen a few weeks earlier:

“At a Box Social, the women would prepare a box lunch (about the size of a shoe box) which contained a variety of foods (fried chicken, fruit, salad, etc.). The box would be wrapped and sold at an auction just before midnight. No one was supposed to know who made what  particular box but there was always a lot of ‘cheating’ going on because the men, particularly the single men, wanted to try and buy a lunch prepared by that ‘special girl’.

One time when I was sixteen, one young man had tried to bribe my school teacher, Helen O’mara, to tell him which lunch package belonged to me. He told her he only had five dollars and wanted to make sure he got my lunch. She did not take his bribe but whispered the answer in his ear.

As for your dad, who was single all those years and very popular, it was the lucky girl whose lunch he purchased.”

That dad stayed single until his early thirties at a time when most were married by their early to mid twenties, says a lot about his personality. How these two very different personalities came to be married is no real mystery. It had a lot to do with the times in which they lived rather than a fairytail story of meeting and falling in love.

Laura Wheeler as Young Woman BabysittingWhile mom may not have thought of herself as attractive, she was indeed as were all the McNeill and Wheeler women. No doubt Dave had taken some notice of this shy, attractive young woman (they were neighbours) but not until her late teens or early twenties. In the earlier years, he was much too busy playing the field.

As happened many times during those years when a couple found themselves in the family way, marriage was the natural outcome – a ‘shotgun wedding’ as they used to say. Later in life, when mom was in her eighties, I would often tease her about my being a “year and a half pre-mature”. I wasn’t of course (only a few months) but mom used to blush and get all fussed when I kidded her.

Although dad was working much of the time he always took mom to the dances and other community events. Even shortly after I was born, mom would bundle me up and trundle me off to a dance as she had done that evening when she and dad had gone to the dance in Medstead.

She still shudders as she relates the story:

“I would make your bed in an old suitcase and place the suitcase on a table in the cloak room at the entrance to the dance hall. One time when I came back to check on you I couldn’t find the suitcase. I noted a whole pile of winter coats lying on the table. I was hysterical and started throwing coats on the floor thinking you must surely have suffocated under all those coats.

At the bottom of the pile I found the lid on the suitcase closed tight. I threw the lid open and there you were sleeping peacefully as if nothing had happened. I gave a silent prayer of thanks and resolved never – never, never, never – to be so careless in the future.”

While mom might have had a difficult time understanding her new husband, perhaps even resenting his ‘gallivanting ways’ she also came to understood her husband held a deep sense of responsibility toward his family, in particular his mother and sisters as we shall see more clearly in the next Chapter.

Harold McNeill

Link to Next Post: A Place in the Sun
Link to Last Post: 
Blizzard of Forty-One
Link to Family Stories Index

1 The ability to clearly know the exact sound of a particular note is also exhibited by a few of the many cousins with Helen Pylypow being one of the most notable. It is uncanny how she can pick out notes. Many of the cousins and their children have become music teachers and accomplished musicians.

(2006)

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Comments

  • Harold McNeill

    February 28, 2022 |

    Hi Robert, I do remember some of those folks from my early years in Cold Lake (Hazel was my aunt and our family spent many fond times with Uncle Melvin, Aunt Hazel and Family. I knew Lawrence and Adrian. Having read a half dozen accounts it is clear their were many false narratives and, perhaps, a few truths along the way. I tried my best to provide an even account from what I read. Cheers, Harold. (email: Harold@mcneillifestories.com)

  • Robert Martineau

    February 25, 2022 |

    Its been a long time since any post here, but its worth a shot. My Grandfather was Hazel Wheelers brother Lawrence, and son to Maggie and Adrien. Maggie Martineau (nee Delaney) is my great grandmother. The books and articles to date are based on the white mans viewpoint and the real story as passed down by the Elders in my family is much more nefarious. Some of the white men were providing food for the Indians in exchange for sexual favors performed by the Squaws. Maggie was the product of one of those encounters. Although I am extremely proud of my family and family name, I am ashamed about this part of it.

  • Julue

    January 28, 2022 |

    Good morning Harold!
    Gosh darn it, you are such a good writer. I hope you have been writing a book about your life. It could be turned into a movie.
    Thanks for this edition to your blog.
    I pray that Canadians will keep their cool this weekend and next week in Ottawa. How do you see our PM handling it? He has to do something and quick!
    Xo Julie

  • Herb Craig

    December 14, 2021 |

    As always awesome job Harold. It seems whatever you do in life the end result is always the same professional, accurate, inclusive and entertaining. You have always been a class act and a great fellow policeman to work with. We had some awesome times together my friend. I will always hold you close as a true friend. Keep up the good work. Hope to see you this summer.
    Warm regards
    Herb Craig

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Hi Dorthy, So glad you found those stories and, yes, they hold many fond memories. Thanks to social media and the blog, I’ve been able to get in touch with many friends from back in the day. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Well, well. Pleased to see your name pop up. I’m in regular contact via FB with many ‘kids’ from back in our HS days (Guy, Dawna, Shirley and others). Also, a lot of Cold Lake friends through FB. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Oh, that is many years back and glad you found the story. I don’t have any recall of others in my class other than the Murphy sisters on whose farm my Dad and Mom worked.

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Pleased to hear from you Howie and trust all is going well. As with you, I have a couple of sad stories of times in my police career when I crossed paths with Ross Barrington Elworthy. Just haven’t had the time to write those stories.

  • Howie Siegel

    November 25, 2021 |

    My only fight at Pagliacci’s was a late Sunday night in 1980 (?) He ripped the towel machine off the bathroom wall which brought me running. He came after me, I grabbed a chair and cracked him on the head which split his skull and dropped him. I worried about the police finding him on the floor. I had just arrived from Lasqueti Island and wasn’t convinced the police were my friends. I dragged him out to Broad and Fort and left him on the sidewalk, called the cops. They picked him up and he never saw freedom again (as far as I know). I found out it was Ross Elworthy.

  • Herbert Plain

    November 24, 2021 |

    Just read you article on Pibroch excellent. My Dad was Searle Grain company agent we move there in 1942/3 live in town by the hall for 5 years than moved one mile east to the farm on the corner where the Pibroch road meets Hwy 44. Brother Don still lives there. I went to school with you and Louise.