This is a personal story of Helen Kassian, whose parents, Sam and Anastasia Shmon moved to Canada in 1899 and settled in Sifton, Manitoba. Helen, who was born in 1902 and died in 2003 at the age of 101 years old, reminisces about her childhood on the farm, family settlement, field works, old country traditions and celebrations, school, family responsibilities, etc.
Her story offers extremely valuable material on Ukrainian pioneers in Canada.
Helen Kassian's family story, period of 1902-1921.
I was born in Wenlaw, Manitoba. I was the eldest daughter of Sam and Anastasia Shmon. My parents came to Canada in 1899 and settled in Sifton, Manitoba. They were from Tartakiv in the Sokal District of Eastern Galicia, Lviv province of Ukraine. It was at that time under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My father was illiterate. He could neither read nor write. My mother had a few grades of public schooling. I was born on February 11, 1902. The life on the homestead I can remember very vividly. It was a lot of forest and swamp. We lived very, very primitively. Our house had two rooms and its roof was covered with earth, on which wild flowers grew in the summer. We had a dirt floor, which my mother smeared with a thin coating of mud every Saturday. All around the house there was a bench on which visitors used to sit in the summertime. Our furniture consisted of a hand-made folding couch which could be opened up for the night to sleep on, a table, two benches, many religious prints, a range with four plates to cook on and some shelves to set the kitchen utensils upon.
The second room served as a pantry. We kept flour and other food items there. On the wooden pegs were hung sheepskin coats, jackets and other clothing. My mother kept the setting hen with her chicks there in the spring because it was too cold in the chicken coop. Some of our nephews also slept there when they spent the winter at our place in order to help our father cut wood which he hauled with his oxen to the small town of Gilbert Plains. He sold the wood and with the money received he bought sugar, kerosene, matches and other provisions. In the autumn, my father took wheat to Sifton where the mill ground it into flour, bran, cream of wheat and "chop" for the pigs. He also got barley there.
I remember how my father was once caught in a blizzard when he went to the mill before the Julian Christmas. Snowdrifts had blocked the road and he wasn't able to get back in the usual time. At home we were crying because we were hungry and there wasn't a crust of bread in the house. Our mother gave us some potato to eat and this relieved our hunger somewhat. But we children still wanted some bread. And then, finally, in the late evening of the fifth day, we heard our father coming. I ran out to meet him: his moustache was covered with snow and frost and icicles were hanging from the oxen. I greeted him with the news that the neighbour's wife "had brought us a little boy".
Our parents observed old-country traditions and celebrated the religious holidays. On Saint John's Eve, my mother decorated the house with green boughs and at Christmas time she put hay on the table. She also spread hay on the floor on which we were to sleep. She prepared the traditional twelve courses for Christmas Eve. Whatever we were unable to eat was left for the "saints".
On one occasion I accompanied my father to Gilbert Plains. The trip with oxen took two days. When we had gone halfway, we stopped for the night at the farm of an Englishwoman whose name was Edie. My father knew her well because he had worked there during the harvest. There were three girls in the house. They spoke to me in English, but I couldn't understand them at all. In the morning, we had pancakes for breakfast and we were also given some sandwiches for the rest of the journey. Those pancakes made a great impression on me; I couldn't get them out of my mind.
One Sunday my parents went to church, leaving me behind to look after the house and to watch that the hawk didn't carry off any chickens. It was a nice summer day. I thought to myself: now I'll make myself some pancakes. I mixed a pot of batter and began frying pancakes. They stuck to the pan and were burnt, and some were half-raw. I ate until I'd had enough and threw the rest out for the pigs, so that my mother wouldn't find out.
After looking after his ten acres of cultivated land, my father used to go to work for other farmers, leaving my mother alone with the children. Once, my mother went into the wood to fetch the cattle. A severe rainstorm blew up. There was lightning and thunder. My mother lost her way in the woods. We children were terrified; we cried and went to sleep without supper. Our mother, soaked to the skin and hungry, wandered through the woods until morning.
We lived on that homestead for eleven years. Our father decided to leave the farm because there was no school in the area and we children were growing older. Although my father was illiterate and couldn't even sign his name, he wanted us to get an education. We moved to Gilbert Plains in 1912. My father bought a two-roomed shack and two lots of land. We took with us all our "furniture", our one cow, two piglets and a few chickens. I was around ten years of age at the time. Father enrolled us in school. We found it difficult because we didn't know any English and there was no one in town who understood Ukrainian. The teacher was very kind and tried to help me. After the summer vacations, the class I was in was moved to a church. I came to my old place in school and sat waiting in the seat. Other children came and were saying something to me and started shoving me out of the seat. I talked back to them in Ukrainian. A fight started. Then the teacher came in and picked up my belongings while one of the girls took me by the hand and led me to the place where my other classmates were. Only then did I realize what it was that they wanted of me.
Our life was very poor in Gilbert Plains. My mother worked as a domestic in private homes, while my father did whatever work he could get. After school we children used to go on the railroad track and gather pieces of coal into our little wagon. We also picked up what was swept out of the freight cars that were standing in the switchyard. Once my brother untied the cow and it was killed by the train as it was crossing the track. We all mourned the death of our milk-supplier. It was some time before my father was able to buy another cow. We bought milk from a neighbour and had to be careful about how much we drank. We only had milk with our porridge, but couldn't allow ourselves the luxury of drinking a glassful. Only the small children had that privilege. The older people drank tea.
I studied well in school and the teacher held me up as an example. Although I didn't know any English when I first started school, I successfully passed from grade to grade.
When World War I began, my father was listed as an Austrian and was questioned about which side he supported. Rationing was introduced. There was no refined white sugar, only brown sugar. When we bought flour, we had to take it half white and half whole-wheat. In the stores they sold margarine instead of butter.
After the war, when the soldiers were returning home, my father found it hard to find any kind of work. Once he got a job digging sewers. There was a cave-in and he was covered with earth. He was barely alive when he was freed.
We received no assistance of any kind and found life very hard. I quit school and went to work in a hotel. I was sixteen at the time and had completed three years of high school. A girl stayed at this hotel who was a telephone operator. She agreed to teach me this profession. I used to take her place on her days off. After some time, they needed a night operator and I was called to work.
In March of 1921, a letter came from Regina, Saskatchewan, stating that a new telephone exchange had opened and that experienced telephone operators were needed. I was advised to put in an application. I was accepted and told to appear for work on the 21st of March. I was very excited because this was the first time I was going to work away from home. My mother and brothers cried when I was leaving.
When I arrived in Regina, I got a room at the YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association).
Helen Kassian's story was written from her words by her son-in-law, William Morris, in 1999. The written story is kept in their family archive.
On the homestead of the Shmon family
Sifton, Manitoba, Canada
William and June Morris
A photo of the Shmon family
Sifton, Manitoba, Canada
William and June Morris