Birch Lake – The Blizzard of ’41 – Chapter 1 of 4

Written by Harold McNeill on January 18th, 2010. Posted in Family 1940 1965


Blizzard of 41

Photo (Farm Life): In the early years of living on the farm in Saskatchewan, winter blizzards could arrive suddenly and last for days. Travelling in such such weather was a dangerous affair.

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Deep Winter, 1941: Northern Saskatchewan

It was just after 10:00 am when the pain struck causing the soon to be mother to double over. She grabbed the kitchen table to keep from falling as the pain slowly eased. Home alone and two miles from the nearest neighbour, ten miles from the village of Glaslyn, and forty-five from the hospital in Edam, she was frightened as she had no idea what time her husband might return. Outside, the bone-chilling cold of the January blizzard continued to dominate everything in its path.

Map: Open in a new window for full size.

The high winds rolling off the southwest shore of Birch Lake pounded their log cabin and although partially sheltered by a thick of caraganas and grove of poplar, the wind treated these barriers as minor annoyances. Each time a gust hit, it felt like her little home might be shaken from its foundation.

To make matters worse, the wind created a forlorn howling sound as it whipped through the trees around the house. Those sounds seemed to the expectant mother to be among the most lonesome in the world, right up there with wolves howling in the wilderness or a loon calling across a dead calm lake at dusk. What would she do if the baby could not wait?

While the temperature had remained steady near -20F, Laura noted that later in the morning it started to drop and was now nearing -25. Over the past few winters, it was not uncommon to see the temperature drop to -50 or -60F during a cold snap. It was always hard to tell the exact temperature as the mercury froze at -40. Add to that the wind chill and exposed skin would freeze within seconds and breathing super cold air could damage lungs so quickly that, in her condition, walking to a neighbouring farm would be a risky, perhaps deadly proposition. She knew of people who become lost in such storms and froze to death.  No, her best bet was to sit tight and wait for her husband. If the baby came she would just make due. It would be a January blizzard forever etched in her mind.

Years later when telling the story, she still shuddered at the memory:

Why on earth Dave would go out in such a storm to haul another load of logs when he knew the baby was due any day was beyond me? He was a man who just did those things and while he was a loving person, he never let a little storm or a person – even a baby on the way – interfere with his plans.

He was a hard worker and that morning, as usual, had been up early, stoked the fire for the umpteenth time and put on the coffee pot. During these cold snaps and particularly during a driving blizzard such as we were experiencing, he would often get up several times during the night to add a log to the fire otherwise everything in the house would freeze solid. Even with the warmth provided by the log, the water pail by the door always had a layer of ice in the morning.

After the fire was roaring, Dave went to the barn to feed the stock and harness his horses. The barn always seemed to be warm due in part to the heat generated from the animals and rotting manure. Some people were known to keep livestock in part of the home in order to capture some of that heat. The musty, sweet smell of the manure was actually quite pleasant to those who lived around and worked with livestock. For the animals fending off a winter storm outside, Dave always fed them in the shelter offered on the leeward side of the barn or the twenty-foot high haystack. When out of the wind the stock weathered these storms pretty well, but the horses, Dave’s favourite animal, were always kept in the barn as they were required to work as hard as Dave. Laura continued:

“Dave was a horseman first, last and always. He took great care of his horses and in return expected them to work just as hard as he did.  By 8:30 he had finished a large breakfast of crispy fried salt pork and milk gravy poured over bread, baked the day before, a breakfast that was his favourite. At home, his sisters used to tease him by calling him ‘Davie, Davie, bread, and gravy’.  This morning, as usual, when he finished, he was up and gone.

On his way out, I reminded him again the baby was due any day and that I wanted to get to town or to the hospital. He just smiled and told me in his usual nonchalant way not to worry, that he would be back about noon and we could head into Glaslyn. He then put on his heavy winter parka and mitts, then disappeared into that howling blizzard.”

From experience, Laura knew Dave might return by noon or, then again, he might not show up until late in the evening. The late returns usually meant he had run into some buddies and the group decided to spend a little time socializing over a few mugs of moonshine that was always in plentiful supply throughout the district:

“Dave and his friends had a ‘stills’ they rotated around the farms so it was almost impossible for the police to catch them as they each had a little shack that was well hidden in the bush.  During those years, distilling liquor was a serious offence, but Dave and his buddies never much worried about getting caught as they had always been several steps ahead of the law. I suppose, they also enjoyed the challenge of winning that little game. It was easy enough to hide the stuff as it certainly would not freeze and, anyway, the reward for them was having a plentiful supply of ‘hootch’ as they used to call it. No country dance was complete without a few ‘little brown jugs’ that kept everyone in high spirits.”

After breakfast and once Dave had left, all Laura could do was wait and hope he would return early and that the baby would decide to wait for another day or two. Her fear of being alone when the baby came was well-founded as being the third born in a family of eleven, she understood the challenges of childbirth. As she grew up, she had been present for the birth of three of her younger siblings (2)(3). She recounted some of the challenges faced by her own mother:

“The older four kids, Leonard, Evelyn, Kenneth and myself, were born in Southern Alberta near Sibbald, with the last five born at Birch Lake. Mom (Lillie) was pregnant with Clifford while we were moving from Sibbald to Glaslyn by wagon train.  When Clifford was born, he had a distinctive birthmark, about the size of a quarter on his forehead which mom (Lillie) said was caused by the scare she had when Kenneth (age 4) almost fell out of the wagon when crossing a river.

All the younger children were born at Grandma’s home with the help of a midwife, all that is except for my youngest sister, Shirley, who was born at home without the help of the midwife. Mom, Lillie, desperately wanted to get to the hospital in Edam, but Shirley decided to come early so mom never made it. Even more, than being in the hospital for the birth, mom wanted to get there for a few days rest from the endless work of looking after our large family. In those days women were usually kept in the hospital for a week or ten days, so the rest would make things so much better.”

While she had been present and even helped with the home birth of the youngest of her siblings – Marcia, Helen, and Shirley – what she now faced was completely different, and if her husband did not show up, she would be home alone.

Laura had also heard many stories of others who had either died or nearly died while giving birth. She tried to set aside these dark thoughts but it was not easy. When the pain subsided, she busied herself making lunch hoping that Dave would show up as promised. Making lunch and working around the house helped her to focus on something besides her fear.

Just before noon, she heard the welcome sound of the horses and sleigh pulling into the yard. It was piled high with logs. As was his usual practice, dad unhitched the horses, took them to the barn and gave them a good feed of oats and hay before coming to the house to eat and warm himself. When he came in, mom told him the baby was on the way and she needed to get to the hospital right away:

“In his off-handed way, Dave said we could leave right after the horses had eaten and he had loaded the caboose. He told me that would take about an hour. He also told me the roads were badly drifted in many places. At that moment another pain hit. I doubled over and groaned. It wasn’t until that moment that Dave seemed to realize he better shake a leg or he would be delivering the baby on his own.”

Less than half an hour later, Dave, had the caboose loaded, a fire built in the wood heater and they were on the road to Glaslyn. In those days, travelling in a caboose, even in the middle of a heavy winter blizzard, was comfortable. The heater kept the caboose toasty warm Grandparents Wheeler Cabooseand there was always of a pot of hot coffee at hand. The caboose had a bunk, blankets, and table so everyone was comfortable.

Often family and firends traveled together as there was room for six or eight people in the caboose. A caboose ride was a great way to party while traveling to and from the local dances. The horses were always ‘sober’ and knew the roads so well they were just left to saunter along at their own pace (1). We would drop people off at their homes along the way and when we arrived home the horses would just pull up and stop.  Sometimes we would just sleep in the caboose after the horses were put in the barn.

Today, as they continued toward Glaslyn, the young couple sat at the table drinking coffee and playing crib. But as soon as they hit the first drifts and on occasion, Dave had to get out and clear a partial path through an exceptionally drift as the horses could not drag the sleigh through. To Laura’s great relief, she experienced no further pains and even had time for a short nap.

About 3:30 that afternoon, they reached Glaslyn and Dave drove straight away to the home of his best friend who had a farm just outside the town. Although the roads were bad, he hoped they would be able to make the remaining trip to the Edam hospital by car.

Dad put his horses in the barn, fed them and, along with his friend, managed to get the old Ford started. By 4:30 they were on the road for the thirty-five-mile trip from Glaslyn to Edam.  As you may not on the above map, there were several routes and I’m not sure which way they travelled as they were all about the same distance.

Laura was bundled up in blankets in the back seat, but at -25F it was a far cry from the comfort of the caboose. Cars in those days had only rudimentary heaters and were not well sealed against the elements. A broken window covered with loose-fitting cardboard did stop much wind.

It was almost as cold inside the car as out. Mom was also worried that if she had a contraction in the back seat she would barely have room to move. While she had feared to have the baby at home alone, she now feared the baby would decide to come in the car. The thought of giving birth in the back seat in the middle of a raging blizzard was terrifying.

Ordinarily, the 35 mile trip from Glaslyn to Edam might take an hour or so, but with the current road and weather conditions, progress was painstakingly slow. The two men often had to get out and shovel through the large snow banks, then had to backup and take several runs to get through. In order to fend off the bitter cold, they had a couple of bottles of moonshine with which they liberally plied themselves.

After four hours of hard work and a half bottle of moonshine (it was strong stuff), they had barely traveled half the distance. It was dark and cold and the conditions were miserable. If they became stuck and unable to move, they would all be in serious trouble as one of the men would have to leave to get help while the other stayed to help Laura.

It was some time after ten pm, while the men were again out shoveling, that Laura’s water broke and the labour pains became more frequent. While both men had, to this point, treated the trip as a bit of an adventure, they suddenly seemed to grasp the graveness of the situation – the baby just might come before they reached the hospital. They put away their bottle, stopped chatting and doubled their efforts to clear a path for the car.

At just before midnight they arrived and the nurses rushed mom to the delivery room. Shortly after midnight on January 13th, 1941, Harold David McNeill (named after Dave’s best friend, Harold David) made his appearance.

The next morning the blizzard broke, temperatures moderated and the skies cleared. After visiting his wife and the baby, the men returned home to look after their stock. A week later dad returned to pick up his wife and baby boy to take them back to their home at Birch Lake. Laura was happy as she would now have full-time company.

Parksville, BC
May 2009

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(1) While visiting Aunt Pat (dad’s youngest sister) in the Stoney Plain Hospital just outside of Edmonton in June 2010, she related the following story about dad’s horses finding their way home on their own:

“One particularly cold winter day while Laura was waiting for your Dad to come to their home she heard the sound of the horses arriving in the front yard.  She looked out the window and the horses were just standing there hitched to the sleigh. After a few minutes, when Dave did come in, she put on her coat, went outside, but he was nowhere to be found.

She led the horses over to the barn, gave them some hay then went back to the house to wait. After a half-hour, she became more worried as she felt something might have happened to Dave. She knew he most often worked alone and it was dangerous work falling trees and loading logs.

After an hour Dave came stomping into the house. He was steaming mad and cursing his horses. After he got his coffee he told Laura what had happened. While driving he became cold sitting on the logs so he got off and started to walk behind to get warmed up. The horses continued to walk on their own lead but, suddenly, they began to trot and he could not catch up. He hollered “whoa” several times but they just kept going. He was furious. When Dave issued a command to his horses, he expected them to obey. Pretty soon they were out of the site and he ended up walking all the way home, about an hour by foot.

Laura then asked him if he was going to go out and take the harnesses off the horse and feed them but he just said: “To hell with them, let them freeze for awhile, that will teach them to leave me behind.”

A little later, feeling sorry for the horses, Laura went out to unhitch them and put them in the barn, a job she had never done before as neither her dad nor Dave had ever taught the girls these jobs.  She managed to get them unhitched from the sleigh and into the barn but she had no idea how to get the harnesses off.  She worked away undoing buckles and straps until she was finally able to pull the harnesses off over their behinds. She dragged them into a corner and left them laying in a heap.

Now she could not figure out how to get the sweaty collars off not knowing they were buckled at the bottom under a flap. When undone this allowed the collars to split in two. Not willing to give up, she finally decided to just pull them off over the horse’s heads. She stood on the stall railing and started pulling. As the collars were fairly tight, the horses must have wondered what in hell this crazy woman was doing. They probably had sore ears for a couple of days.” 

I guess Dave never said another thing about the incident nor did he ask Laura why the many straps and hitches on the harness were undone, nor did he ask how she managed to get the collars off. I guess Dave was smart enough to know when to let sleeping dogs lie.

(2)  Laura McNeill — siblings

1914  Leonard
1916  Evelyn
1918  Mom, (Laura Isabel Skarsen (McNeill)(Wheeler)
1920  Kenneth
1922  Melvin

1924   The family, Bill and Lillie and above children, leave Alsask and head to Birch Lake. Lillie was in the late stage of her pregnancy with Clifford.

1924  Clifford
1928  Tonnie
1932   Marcia
1934   Helen
1938   Shirley

1940  Their father, Bill, passed away before mom was married in the spring of 1940, leaving Lillie with six children ranging in age from tw0 years to their late teens.  The oldest brother Leonard drowned in 1938 while booming logs on the Shuswap in BC.

(3) David McNeill – siblings

1893    Parents, James and Ellen married in Chamberlain, South Dakota
1910    Moved to Battleford from Chamberlain South Dakota
1911    To Birch Lake, SK

1894 – 1959     (Mac) James
1896 – 1974    Curtis (Clifford)
1898                 Ruby
1901 – 1964    Irene
1902 – 1990    Hazel
1905 – 1985     Elizabeth
1908 – 1965    Dad, David the last of children born in the USA.
1910 – 1982     Armina (twin) born in Saskatchewan
1910 – 1990     Almira (twin)
1914 – 1976      Floyd
1916 – 2013      Patricia 

A full list of grandparents, parents, and children is available by sending an email to Harold McNeill at lowerislandsoccer@shaw.ca

 

 

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Comments (2)

  • Dianne
    March 17, 2014 at 7:05 am |

    Loved this tale, bro! Great writing!

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Comments

  • Harold McNeill

    April 14, 2020 |

    Hi Rick,
    Great to hear from you and trust all is going well. Our family members are all doing well but it must be pretty tough for a lot of people. I had once heard you were going to do some writing but never heard anything further. I would be most interested, but do you think the OB News have archives back to that time. Any link or information you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Did you keep copies? Regards, Harold

  • Rick Gonder

    April 14, 2020 |

    Hi Harold
    About 22 years ago I spent several weeks going through the OBPD archives. I wrote several stories that were published in the OB News. Feel free to use if they are of value to what you are doing.
    Keep this up, I’m enjoying it and it brings back memories.

  • Harold McNeill

    April 12, 2020 |

    Hi Susan,

    Glad you had a chance to read. I decided to update these stories by proofreading as there were several grammatical errors in many. Hopefully, many of those glaring errors have been removed.

    Many of the stories carry a considerable amount of social comment regarding the way the criminal justice system is selectively applied. Next up involves a young woman from near Cold Lake, Alberta, who was abducted by an older male from Edmonton. Her story is the story of hundreds of young men and woman who have found themselves alone and without help when being prayed upon unscrupulous predators.

    Cheers, Harold

  • Susan

    April 8, 2020 |

    Great read, Harold!…and really not surprising, sad as that may sound.
    Keep the stories coming, it is fascinating to hear them.
    Love from us out here in the “sticks”, and stay safe from this unknown predator called Covid.

  • Harold McNeill

    February 17, 2020 |

    Update:  Times Colonist, February 16, 2020, articles by Louise Dickson, She got her gun back, then she killed herself,” and,  Mounties decision to return gun to PTSD victim haunts her brother. 

    Summary: I don’t know how many read the above articles, but they contained the tragic details about young woman, Krista Carle’, who took her own life after suffering for years with PTSD. While tragedies such as this play out across Canada every week, the reason this story resonates so profoundly is that the final, tragic, conclusion took place here in Victoria. Continued in the article.

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  • Harold McNeill

    February 15, 2020 |

    Testing the comments section after changes made. Updated: February 10, 2020

    Further to the update below (February 1, 2020), I note that since the government announced a “No-Fault” insurance plan for BC, Robert Mulligan is taking a slightly different tack, suggesting that no-fault will only increase the problems by taking away the right of an injured party to sue.

    I’ve copied just one sentence from Mulligan’s longer discussion, “And I think people don’t like the idea that somebody who’s, for example, was drunk and ran into you and you become a quadriplegic is going to be treated exactly the same way you would in terms of getting benefits (go to minute 00:15:26 to see his full comment)

    Statements like this appear to be simple fear-mongering. As was the case in the past, people who commit criminal offences, as well as other forms of negligence while driving, may well lose their insurance coverage and in all likelihood would be sued by ICBC to recover costs of the claim. (Link here to Mulligan’s full conversation on CFAX radio)

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    […] 28. The past as a guide to the future (Part III): Over the past 60 years, many activities the police once performed as a natural part of their daily duty, eventually became incompatible with achieving their basic goals. What happened? (August 2019) […]

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    September 18, 2019 |

    […] The Federal Conservatives and Seymour Riding Association complied but one day later those memes will be shared by every third party social media site and by thousands of supporters where the message will be taken as a statements of the fact.  Five years from now those memes will still be circulating. (Link here to background on the SNC Lavalin matter) […]