Laura Isabel: The Young Woman – Chapter 3 of 5

Written by Harold McNeill on October 19th, 2010. Posted in Biographies


Laura Isabel: The Young Woman – Chapter 3 of 5

During her teen years, Laura and her family went about the daily routine of cooking meals, working in the garden, mowing hay, looking after the animals, cutting wood and all the chores that were part of early farm life on the prairies. Because they were so close to Birch Lake, the kids had many fond memories of swimming and boating on those hot summer days when they could sneak away from their daily chores.

Always a homebody, Laura traveled for the first time, at age 16, to work on a family farm outside Battleford looking after five kids under the age of four.  She became so homesick after a couple of weeks that her dad traveled to Battleford in his Model T to pick her up. Her next job was working as a cook for a road construction crew as they rebuilt Highway 55 (now Hwy 3) out of Glaslyn.

When Laura was 21, the family suffered a double tragedy when her brother, Leonard, then twenty-five, was drowned in the Shuswap River while trying to save a friend’s life after the friend had fallen from a log boom on which they were working.  While the whole family grieved over the loss, their father Bill took the death particularly hard. Later that winter he contracted scarlet fever and, tragically, in the early spring of 1940, he died at the age of 51 just a few months before Laura married Dave McNeill.

Following the death of her son and husband, life for her mother and the family became very difficult.  Shirley was barely two, Helen and Marcia were five and seven and Tonnie had just turned ten. Melvin returned home to help his mom, followed later by Clifford who had served in the military until the end of the Second World War. In order to help make ends meet, Lilly, Helen and Marcia worked on neighbouring farm but the nearly all the money they earned was deducted for room and board and any remaining, which was pitifully little, was deducted from her meager widow’s pension of $30 per month.

On June 24, 1940, Laura married Dave  and, while living in the home Dave built at Birch Lake, they had two children, Harold (1941) and Louise (1943).  In October 1944, the adventure and promise of a new life led Dave and Laura along with their two children, to Cold Lake, Alberta. Over the following years, the couple worked in a logging camp (Martineau River), mink ranches (Smith place on Cold Lake, then Marie Lake) and later on road construction and on farms at various locations around Alberta. Laura became a master cook and her pastry skills were second to none. Over her life she mentored her entire extended family in the culinary arts.

Photo: Mom and Dad on their wedding day with Davie and Tinnie Lockheart and flower girl Joyce Hayden. Standing outside mom’s family home.

Life in the often remote areas was not without hardship or danger.  While at the Martineau Camp, Louise became very ill with Erysipelas and nearly died before reaching the hospital in Cold Lake. The trip to hospital was extremely difficult as the roads were blocked with many snowdrifts and for the first twelve miles they had to use horses to pull the truck.

Then, a year later, at Cold Lake, Louise very nearly drowned after falling off a wharf on which she and Harold were playing. If not for the quick action of her mother, who pulled Louise from the water and quickly performed artificial respiration, Louise would not have survived.

At Marie Lake, in the summer of I947, Laura was seriously burned when the cook stove exploded while she building a fire to make coffee for Dave. The explosion set all her clothes on fire and she only managed to put out the flames by running outside and rolling in the sand of their lakefront home. The trip to hospital, nearly 30 miles away by boat, then car, on a very rough road was one of the most harrowing experiences in her young life.  After her return home, life continued at Marie Lake and Laura took on a new role – that of teacher – first to Harold and then Louise as they completed their early years of education.

In 1949, wanderlust again struck Dave and over the next four years the family covered much of Alberta as Laura and Dave first followed road construction, then back to mink farming in Edmonton and LacLaBiche with a brief stint of farming in Pibrock. In order to continue their schooling during this time, Harold and Louise often stayed with family and friends -spending time with Uncle Warren and Aunt Liz Harwood (McNeill) in Harlan (near Lloydminster), then Aunt Jean and Uncle Cliff (Wheeler) in Edmonton. When Dave and Laura returned to Edmonton, they rejoined their children and moved to a home at 12237 – 95 St., just one block from the extreme western edge of the City.  (The house still remains today, but is now several miles from the edge of the city!)

It was in Edmonton that Laura began work for the first time in a large department store and became somewhat accustomed to life in the big city. As usual, Laura was able to quickly make new friends. Mabel Pester, who lived directly across the street with her family, and Laura, maintained a friendship that continued until Mabel passed away a few years before Laura.

Louise, Harold and DianneThe time in Edmonton was all to brief when, in 1950, Dave was offered a job in the small community of Pibrock where Laura and Dave both worked on the Murfitt farm. This came to an end when the farm was sold to a Hutterite Colony. The family then moved to LacLaBiche where Dave re-entered the mink ranching business. It was during this time Laura renewed her lifelong friendship with Edna Gatsky, with whom she had become such close friends while at the Martineau River Logging Camp.

In I953, the family returned to Cold Lake in what was their last major move. Both Laura and Dave took up employment at the Cold Lake Airbase and, while it was clear Laura was not going to match her mother in numbers of children, she became a proud mother for a third time when Dianne was born in 1954 .

At the Cold Lake Airbase, Laura, who was always a popular and skilled employee, worked her way through a variety of cooking assignments in the military mess halls until eventually landing at the base hospital from which she retired in 1979.

It was not long after Harold moved to Victoria in the sixties that Laura’s husband of 25 years, David Benjamin McNeill, passed away. While those early years with Dave were defined by his wanderlust, Dave was another of those early pioneers who worked hard, played hard and touched a lot of people along the way with the loving and caring side of his personality. He was well known as the life of any party and true to his family background, and, for that matter, many who pioneered the west, nurtured a real love for music and dance.

Harold and Lynn McNeill
June 2008

October 2010

Link to part 2 The Early Years

Link to Part 3 The Young Woman

Link to Part 4 A New Beginning

Link to Part 5 The Final Chapter

 

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Comments (1)

  • Diane Wheeler
    September 29, 2011 at 11:20 pm |

    Hello, I just started reading this as had this email written down. Howard & Myrtle Wheeler are my husband’s parents. This is very interesting and will share with others in the family. Am not on facebook though, so may not get any other information about the stories. Am doing family tree on the Wheeler family.
    Great site.

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  • 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.