Taylorton- Jane McElwee Memories

Taylorton, Saskatchewan, Canada

Memories of Taylorton, Saskatchewan 1953-1960

What Lasts?

Dedicated to John And Margaret McElwee

If I painted a dream-like image of Taylorton, like Chagall did of his Russian home in “I and the Village”, what would I place on the canvas?

I would re-create the forty or so company houses covered in red insul-brick siding, our two-room school, the silver corrugated sides of the enclosed well, the tipple against the sky-line, the slag heap, and the spilt-piles of dirt from the strip-mining that ringed our camp. I would want small details in the picture too: crocuses, kids on bikes, pussy-willows and frogs from the slough, wild roses, coal smoke from the chimneys, frozen sheets hanging on clothes-lines, and men walking with black lunch buckets. I would want the painting to be permeated with the smell of lilacs and the sound of the mine whistle and a meadow-lark’s liquid notes, the taste of Jean Panteluk’s holubtsi, and the hardness of the ice as I slipped on it while hauling water.

Our parents were John and Margaret McElwee; we kids were Janie, Joan and Allen. I am grateful to the person who drew the map1 of Taylorton in 1955 which I found on a Saskatchewan web-site, because it is a concrete record of the place that I have tried to draw from memory. I remember more houses than appear on it, and wish to add them to the document, with the hope that others will offer corrections and additions as well, because it is forty-five years since our mining camp disappeared.

We had one grocery store, and a post office in Mrs. Prescott’s porch. The big shovels and the Euclid trucks going by, often with bug-dust flying, were important parts of our landscape. Parker Dunbar’s grader scraped the roads in the winter. Clothes and sheets, washed in wringer washers, were hung out to dry even in thirty-eight below zero weather. Bug-dust and coal-dust settled inside the houses women tried to keep clean. It seeped in every door and window, but Mum arrayed her doilies, special tea-cups, and pictures such as “Blue Boy” in the battle to keep some standards. One day when a thick black dust cloud enveloped the school, making the day as dark as night, our teacher told us this was how it had been in Saskatchewan in the thirties.

Against the odds, the adults established a community where people worked hard and helped each other, miners could be proud of their production, some union members worked to advance labour dignity and rights, and kids could grow up safely. Skilled, conscientious teachers taught us well, although our lives bore no relation to the Dick and Jane and Pleasant Street world of our readers. We enjoyed the few times when popular culture melded with our experiences, as when Tennessee Ernie Ford sang, “You load sixteen tons, and whadda ya get?” I don’t want the history and experience of Taylorton to disappear as all physical evidence is disappearing under deepening grass. I don’t like to think that there will be nothing left of all that human work and community.

I think of Taylorton when I hear Bruce Springsteen sing his elegiac “My Home Town”. My home town was dispersed suddenly by the mine owners in 1960. Our family lived there from 1953, when I was six, to June of 1960. I had heard of “Old Taylorton”, a previous mine site near Roche Percee, but to me, the landscape, home, and my Dad’s job seemed permanent. We had moved to the mine from Estevan, fourteen miles away, where we owned a home, when Dad began working in the boiler-room. He had to be sure of getting to work even in the worst winter conditions. Dad had worked for the mine before World War II and, except for a brief stint with an oil company that meant too much travelling for a family man, after his war service as well.

Dad served as Secretary for the small union the men established after the war. He and others travelled to Regina to meet with Tommy Douglas and the labour minister at the time, who supported their efforts to unionize and to set up a pension plan to help older coal miners. Dad was impressed that the leaders took time to meet with such a small union of perhaps one hundred and fifty men. He told the story that when the company lawyer, a big man, began swearing abusively, Premier Douglas (as we know, a small man) said he would eject him, and a headline in the Regina Leader-Post the next day read: “Premier Threatens Estevan Lawyer”.

In Estevan in 1931, my father, sixteen, witnessed the RCMP shootings of unarmed striking miners, many of them Ukrainians up from surrounding mines, on the street. The young friend next to my father, there like Dad to hear the speeches, got a bullet in his hand. The police were not, as Dad thought when he heard the first shots, shooting blanks at the crowd. The three murdered miners are now honoured in the Bienfait cemetery. Labour conditions improved bit by bit, and I am proud that Dad had a part in the struggle.

Our camp was surrounded on three sides by spilt-piles, the piles of dirt dug up and left in the strip-mining. On the fourth side the horizon stretched to the M&S Mines, hazy outlines down the road past our school field. Not much grew on these piles of dirt except weeds that dried out and became tumbleweeds blowing around, but the hills were beautiful in winter when they blossomed with purple snow-shadows . Our mother wouldn’t let us play in them most of the year because water collected in the pits, but one winter when the Holizki boys got a toboggan we had great runs down the slopes.

It was a safe known landscape with its own beauty. I remember darkening skies before a storm, the fresh smell of plopping rain pitting dry dusty earth, red prairie sunsets, the first purple crocuses ringed by snow, furry white pussy-willows that we gathered for our mother every Easter, and fluffy brown cat-tails in the ditches by the road. The scent of lilacs always takes me back to our home. Our front door was never used, because the path that passed by everyone’s houses went by back doors, but in spring when the two hardy purple lilac bushes bloomed by our front steps, I loved inhaling the perfume. I also liked settling on the wooden cover of the coal chute, a good sheltered reading spot when it was warmed by the sun.

We had four cotton-wood trees in front of our school, (I remember about ten trees in total in the camp) and I loved the smell of the sap when the cotton-bits drifted around. But nothing was better than the feeling of lightness when we smelled spring in the air and snow began melting. My sister and I could run up and down the board walk to our outhouse in our shoes, heels kicking up as light as cat-tail fluff, after five months of life in heavy winter boots.

We kids biked all around on the flat roads, knowing every slight dip. The mine whistle blew every day at eight o’clock, noon, and four o’clock, telling the rhythm of a unified day and place. The men walked to and from work-shifts, we walked to school and home for lunch, the women worked in the homes, and everyone knew everyone. It was my world–most of my sense experiences, history, and knowledge of the grown-up world were there. When my parents got the letter from the company saying we were all to go, I remember them sitting at the kitchen table with their green coffee mugs and the can of evaporated milk, staples of talk and daily company, trying to come to terms with what could happen next.

Christmas concerts were a major event in Taylorton, held in our Hall across the tracks near the office and the mine buildings. We put on little plays and recitals, and drills that usually featured crepe paper costumes and crepe paper flowers. In Grade 7, I hurt my knee while skating. Even though I was in a leg cast for the concert, Mrs. Dzuba pinned me into a light green crepe costume and redesigned the programme so that I sat in the centre while the patterns marched around me. I also played Mary in the Nativity scene, another stationary role. We learned new carols every year, unusual ones such as “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” and “Star of the East”, as well as novelty songs such as “Jolly Old St. Nicholas”. Someone provided a large lighted tree for the Hall, our teachers dressed up in new clothes, everyone came even if they didn’t have children in the school, and we all sang together. No wonder it was a central magical event.

When my cast came off, I was supposed to soak my leg in a bathtub every day for awhile. Very few houses in the camp had bathtubs, but the Panteluks generously offered me the use of theirs. I don’t remember who hauled the water to fill the tub day after day. Except for this time of my injury, hauling the water was one of my daily jobs. In winter we used sleds, and the rest of the time every family had a jerry-rigged low wooden cart with bicycle wheels that did the job. Invariably on winter mornings, one of the first sleds with a full barrel hit a patch of dirt that the grader had scraped through the snow, tipped over, and spilled out water that instantly turned to ice. The people who came next had to contend with the dirt patches and mini ice-rinks.

While I was still on crutches, I slipped on ice near our house one morning. I hobbled home, ready to call it a day and curl up to listen to “Laura Limited” and “Our Miss Brooks” on the radio from Regina, like we did when we were sick. My mother got out our little sleigh and told me to get on. At first I thought it was funny, being pulled as if I were a little kid, but as we got nearer the school I realized how bad it looked. I said, “Mother, stop! Mother, if you don’t let me off, I will never speak to you again.” But education was paramount, and she didn’t stop until we reached the school steps.

Mum grew up in Swift Current, where my sister and I spent our summer holidays with Grandma and Grandpa. Like Estevan, Swift Current had telephones, sidewalks, lots of trees, and lovely lawns and flowers because they had running water. Despite the Depression, Mum’s family had managed to keep her in school until Grade 12, in 1937, and she had sung in high school operettas and been a Rainbow-ette in the parades. She had worked in Regina as a secretary, and travelled to the Rockies. Because her father was an engineer on the CPR, their family had passes that allowed them to travel to opposite coasts, visiting family in Vancouver and Nova Scotia in alternate years. Mum had not been enthusiastic about moving to the mine–I remember her sitting in our Estevan kitchen looking at boxes, deciding whether or not to pack, when Dad took the boiler-room job. She was pregnant with my brother at the time, and it didn’t help that the mine water made her sick. Dad had to bring water down from Estevan for her.

I loved the three teachers I had in Black Diamond School: Mrs. Wetsch for Grades 1-4, Mrs. Holmgren for Grade 5 (we had fourteen kids in total in the room that year, only one in Grade 8), and Mrs. Dzuba for Grades 6 and 7-8. Mrs.Dzuba offered my friend Tina and I the chance to skip a grade by doing most of the Grades 7 and 8 work in one year and then writing the Grade 8 provincial exams. We and our parents agreed, but Mrs. Dzuba said later she would not have proposed it had we known the mine would break up and we would be who-knew-where the year after our compressed studies. Mrs. Dzuba studied fossils, so if the men noticed any interesting pieces during mining they took them to her. When I visited the Science Museum in Regina as an adult, I saw samples she had contributed. She also had a great collection of many-coloured costume jewellery and clothing, a variety which gave interest to our classroom. Adults called her “Judy”, but her real name was Julianna Helen, a name I thought quite exotic. I still remember some of the stories she read to us in the fifteen-minute period after lunch; “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” was my favourite. She was energetic and bustling, but one day her feet hurt, and that was the day the inspector showed up (I think his name was Mr. Hunter). Mrs. Dzuba said to us after he left, “Wouldn’t you know that the one day I wear slippers…..” which made us feel grown-up and included. We corresponded until her death. I admired her greatly. When my husband and I travelled with our family to Estevan, we made plans with my father, a good friend of hers, to visit Mrs. Dzuba in Bienfait. She woke up in the middle of the night and thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a fresh cake for the visit,” and got up to prepare a lemon poppy-seed cake which my seven-year-old loved, insisting that I phone later for the recipe. It has been our special birthday and celebration cake ever since.

The slough across the road from the Holizkis, in the outlying row of three houses, was the only bit of water in the camp. We enjoyed playing around its tadpoles and frogs and willows, and in winter we liked to walk on its ice. It was especially fun when the ice started cracking, and we could test its limits. One day I was in charge of my three-year-old brother, who was so bundled in his red padded snow-suit that he was as wide as he was tall. Walking on the ice, excited by the cracks snaking out in all directions, I misjudged the risk and my foot crashed through. I tried another step, with the same result. I was hitting bottom, but knew there was a deeper part somewhere. I had the presence of mind to stop, push my brother ahead on ice that was still solid under his lighter weight, and stay still until he was pulled up the bank. Then I trudged step by breaking step, and Kenny Holizki, shouting encouragement, hauled me out. I don’t remember the freezing walk home or the trouble I must have gotten into with Mum.

In 1973 I took my husband to see where I grew up. I could find where our house had stood because roads were still visible, and so was the board walk to our outhouse, even though some of the planks were missing and crumbling. I followed old routes around the camp, and picked up a child’s forgotten toy car. The land had been leased to a farmer, and cows munched the growing grass. The cement foundation of the school was easy to see, as was the concrete that had surrounded the office safe. It was harder to find things when we took our kids back in 1991, but the cottonwoods in front of the school were markers. I encouraged our children to get out and climb the very trees I had climbed, but they were swarmed by mosquitoes and we all retreated fast, reality defeating that exercise in nostalgia. When my Dad drove me down for the last time before he died, we saw more shrubs and trees and longer grass, and hardly any traces of our time there.

In 1960, when the mine was dispersed, my family headed off to B.C. My parents said, “We might as well starve where it’s pretty.” We had heard rumours that some mine houses had been trucked to near Macoun, so we kept our eyes open past all those little towns, but we never spotted our house.

by Jane McElwee

March 2005

Article printed with Jane's permission, with Thanks!


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