Sod Roof Building

This photo was taken in 1917 and is my father, James Jeremiah O’Shea, sitting on the peak of a sod roofed building. The O’Shea family had moved out to their Padstow district homestead in the spring of 1915 and Dad was born that October. Padstow district is south of Mayerthorpe, Alberta.

If you look you can see that there is another similar building in the background and a pole corral. Homesteaders had to make do with whatever materials were available for several reasons. Cash money came from savings because they were not yet producing anything to sell, hauling building material many miles with a team and wagon was a huge undertaking as well as time consuming, and there was a time pressure since the animals had to have shelter before winter set in.

A sod roof used the materials at hand and went up relatively quickly as well. First pole rafters were cut and put into place with smaller poles running horizontally to support the sods. The sods were then cut from a level grass covered area into pieces somewhat longer than they were wide. These were laid onto the skeleton of the roof in an overlapping fashion in order to shed the rain. The construction of these roofs is actually very similar to the thatched roofs that were used in Europe and other places for centuries.

I can remember my father commenting on sod roof buildings:

“They were alright; if it rained for three days outside you were dry, but then it rained for three days inside!”

Apparently the sods would soak up water during an extended rainy period and then release it slowly as dripping on the inside. They did have a sod roof on their house until lumber could be obtained to construct a permanent one.


Ice House

Refrigeration in the 30’s and early 40’s had a whole different meaning than it does today. What you see here is my father and a helper shoveling sawdust into the open doorway of our Ice House. An ice house was about the only method for keeping foods cool in the summer.

You didn’t just plug it in, that’s for sure. Dad had begun the previous year by constructing the building, a wooden structure about 10′ x 12′ in size. This was then partly filled with sawdust hauled from the local sawmill or gathered up from around the buzz saw where we cut firewood. A door was put on and there it waited until the Paddle River, a half mile north of our farm, was frozen to it’s maximum thickness.

When the ice was considered “good for cutting”, which Uncle Glen told me was in March just before it started to get water on top, Dad began preparations for the day of ice hauling. One of the most important of these was to shoe the horses with ice calks so they would not slip on the river ice or on the hill as they pulled the heavy load of ice up towards home. These were special horse shoes fitted with tapered metal studs that projected down from the bottom of the shoe. The horse and buggy age’s version of the snow tire.

The last step was to prepare the ice house to receive the ice. The deep layer of sawdust filling the ice house was shoveled to the outside edges and packed against the walls with the extra piled at one end, ready to cover the ice as it was laid in.

The day of cutting ice for the ice house was a family affair. Since the O’Shea homestead was the closest to the river it became the base of operations. Grandpa and Grandma Kezar and whatever uncles and aunts were around came to lend a hand and make sure that everybody got the ice they needed for the coming summer. Grandma would bring some food and Mum would be busy the day before baking and getting ready for company. Sometimes they would also use the day for sewing while the men folk cut and loaded the ice.

Grandpa had an ice saw for cutting the blocks of ice from the river and tongs for lifting the blocks after they were cut. Uncle Glen described it like this:

“It was a hell of a lot of work to get a load of ice. You would take the sleigh or wagon right down to where you were cutting the blocks and once you had a hole you would start cutting the blocks. Ropes were put on the handles of the tongs and then two men could lift on the block.

You would get the block bobbing in the water and on about the third pull, with the water helping, lift it out onto the surrounding ice. You had to be real careful not to slip and end up in the hole. The blocks were cut about two feet by two feet depending on the thickness of the ice and seven to eight blocks was a load. It was lots of work, but the only way we had to make ice-cream or keep things cool in those days.

We got ice at Alan Lewis’ place too. It was on the Paddle River flats on the way to Mayerthorpe. You just crossed the river and went to the top of the hill, then went a half mile east to his place and he was right down on the river. It was easier to get ice there because you just drove onto the river. ”

The whole adventure was exciting for me as a young child, but the part that fascinated me was watching the big teams pull the heavy loads up “The Big Hill” as it was called. The driver usually walked along beside and coached his team up the steep incline. He had to protect his team from injury by being aware of the weight of the ice and what he could expect of his horses. An additional person walked along on each side of the load with blocking in hand to throw behind a wheel or runner in case a horse lost it’s footing or tired out on the way to the top.

We milked cows and separated the milk to obtain the cream, which was cooled in the ice house. The cream was collected in an eight gallon cream can which sat on the ice and was buried to it’s shoulders in the sawdust. Each week the cream was hauled to Mayerthorpe and shipped by train to the creamery in Sangudo. This was one source of income for a homesteading family. The skim milk was used to feed the young calves and the remainder was given to the hogs to keep them healthy.

The ice house was a beautiful place on a hot summer day. It was one of my favorite jobs was to carry the cream, or whatever else needed cooling, out to the ice house. There was about 18 inches of sawdust on top of the ice and I would sit, wiggle my toes down near the ice and luxuriate in the coolness. Of course if I was caught I would get a lecture; “That ice has to last all summer and there you are wasting it!”

Hauling Lumber

The back of this picture was marked “Winter 35 – 36” by my Uncle Bill (my mother’s oldest brother). It was taken at Swanson’s Planer Mill near Blueridge, Alberta.

If you study the picture you will notice that things were done on a much smaller scale in 1935. Note the size of the load of lumber and the truck that it is being loaded onto. It would be dwarfed by the massive rigs that now travel our highways yet I am sure that it seemed to them a vast improvement over hauling even smaller loads with a team and wagon.

The sawdust and chips are being moved up onto the larger pile by a man using a slip. You can see him in the background, arms widespread to grasp the handles.

If you don’t know what a slip is imagine a giant sugar scoop with a flat, slightly curved bottom. It was pulled by a team of horses and operated by one man. When it was time to dump the load the operator would lift up on the back end causing the leading edge of the scoop to bite into the ground and the pulling of the horses would lever the back end up to empty the box. Level ground was necessary as humps, hummocks or protruding tree roots could catch the front edge of the slip and prematurely dump the load — an occurrence usually accompanied by considerable cussing!

My father worked for this company in the 30’s and I guess so did my uncle since he was the one who had the photograph. Working in lumber mills or logging camps was common for the homesteaders as it gave them a way to make a bit of cash money in the winter when they weren’t farming.

My father told of the first time he worked at the logging camp for the winter. Men went into the bush to the camps in the fall and stayed there pretty much the whole winter. While they were there they received room and board and some salary which accumulated on the company’s books. If you needed additional personal items there was a “store” where you could buy those things and have the price deducted from your earnings.

At the end of the winter logging season when his take home pay was calculated he only had enough money left to purchase a small stock of necessities; maybe a couple bags of flour, one of sugar, salt, beans and some canned goods. I bet there was some tobacco in there too because his dad smoked a pipe and my dad smoked roll your own cigarettes.

Dad would have been twenty years old at the time and Uncle Bill about the same. How many young people would be happy with that today?

School Rig

I’m not sure who is in this picture — anyone know?  The reason I include it here is that it shows a rig similar to one that Grandpa Kezar built for the children to go to school in.  They had moved to Mayerthorpe district where they were  three and a half miles south and east of the school.  At this time there were four children going to school:  Bill, Charlie, Florence, and Ruby.  My mother, Florence, remembered going to school in their closed in coach and feeling quite safe with the older boys handling the horses.

Winter Travel

The picture above is taken in the yard of Jim and Florence O’Shea.   The Kezar family had come to visit one snowy day.  In the picture are Grandma Kezar, Ivy and Glen.  

The following is a memory sent to me by Ivy:

You asked about snow plowing, I only remember Carl Denniger coming down our road with the grader, I was older then, so I think we didn’t have snowplowing in the early days. I also remembered at trip to town in a buggy; it was quite fancy, with narrow wheels & a moulded seat.  I remember Glen & I sat in the back, and my Dad always whistled, so he whistled all the way there & back. I asked Glen about that buggy and it turns out it wasn’t ours. We had borrowed it from Harry Charlebois and as soon as he said that I remembered seeing it in one of his sheds. I know in the spring when they couldn’t use the cutter or buggy, Dad used to ride his horse to town for the mail & groceries. There would still be huge snowdrifts at this time year along the roads.

Shingle Mill

Once again we aren’t going to town for materials!  Shingles are needed for a building, but money is short so the industrious homesteader makes his own.  Bill Kezar is on the saw making the shingles and I would assume that Glen Kezar who has the fork is moving them onto the table where Grandpa Kezar would bundle and tie them so that they stayed flat.

 Note that the building is constructed of slabs that would have been left over from sawing dimensional lumber.