Cemeteries and Family Histories

(Originally published on the Clayton McLain Memorial Museum blog.)

The Cut Knife Cemetery, like so many others in Saskatchewan, is over one hundred years old and, meandering through on a Sunday afternoon, it’s easy to recognize the older graves. Lettering has eroded on many of the softer marble stones, and names and dates on others have filled with mosses and lichens, both of which make the inscriptions difficult to read, and the graves to identify. A few headstones have broken, a few plots have remained unmarked for reasons unknown. Perhaps, there are records that can fill in the gaps, perhaps not.

Cemetery records everywhere, especially the older ones, are notorious for having been lost, or damaged, or destroyed in fire and flood. This makes it especially difficult for families who are searching, at a distance, for an ancestor. A grave connects a person to a place, and provides a context; a grave marker records vital statistics. Sometimes, a marker can also shed light on a personality through the choice of epitaph, the presence of religious or association symbols, nicknames, etc. When both records are no longer accessible, a vital piece of family history is lost.

Many rural cemeteries are cared for by volunteers, and are just not in a position, financially, to undertake large restoration projects. In addition, the volunteer hours required to clean, photograph, and annotate a whole cemetery of headstones is probably not realistic, either. Maybe, a simpler approach would work . . . providing online accessibility to researchers. . . 24/7?

Grave markers in disrepair

CanadianHeadstones.com is a volunteer-driven, not-for-profit organization that archives photos and text of cemetery grave markers submitted by individuals, or cemetery committees. The Clayton McLain Memorial Museum has listed it on their Family History | Canada page as a genealogy resource. The Cut Knife Cemetery, and the Carruthers Cemetery are already represented online with a number of photos to view for each.

The next time you’re wandering through your local cemetery with your phone or digital camera, consider digitizing your family’s headstones, and sharing them online with those who may be searching for them. In all probability, if any part of the headstone is illegible, you or a family member would have the knowledge needed to record the correct information.

Bert Martin’s Cabin

(Originally published on the Clayton McLain Memorial Museum blog.)

Homesteading in the early 20th century, on the wind-whipped stretches of prairie was no easy task for new immigrants. Often, they knew little about farming and, even if they had experience working the land, surviving a Saskatchewan winter would still be a bitter struggle. Much of their success would depend upon how well they were able to make preparations before the cold weather hit.

Bert Martin's Cabin-front

First shelters were often considered temporary, constructed quickly with whatever materials a settler could afford, or could find on the land. Tents and caves, sod, or tarpaper shacks were common, replaced by log, frame, or stone houses as the homesteader’s fortunes improved. Severe weather events like droughts, floods, and cyclones were widespread as were their consequences – fire, insects, mud, and hailstones.

Bert Martin's Cabin-sideWinter would be the worst. Blizzards with extreme temperatures and wind chills, little visibility, and drifting snow could shut down an entire area. A settler needed a supply of food, and firewood to survive until the roads were passable, again. He would need wool blankets and quilts, lamp fuel, and something to occupy the long days of solitude and isolation.

Bert Martin's Cabin-rearImagine living in a shelter like Bert Martin’s: A log cabin, plastered with mud to keep out the wind, a small wood stove for heat, and a few small windows to let in the weak winter sun. There’s a dirt floor, a single bed, a table and chair, a few pictures to decorate the walls but it’s a simple dwelling. Could you imagine living like that for a year or two? It’s humbling to think about how many homesteaders did.

[For more details and some great pictures, visit the Saskatchewan Settlement Experience at the Saskatchewan Archives Board website.]

Winter Travel Clothing, 1865

Métis in capotes hunting buffalo in the Red River area 1822
by Peter Rindisbacher, (1806-1834)

Perhaps I am the best clad in the party, and my clothes altogether will not weigh much. A flannel shirt, moleskin pants, full length leggings with garters below the knees, duffil socks and neat moccasins, a Hudson’s Bay capote, unlined and unpadded in any part, a light cap, and mittens which are most of the time tied on the load, while I wear a pair of thin unlined buckskin gloves. This is in a sense almost “laying aside every weight,” but the race which was set before the ordinary dog-driver in the days I am writing of was generally sufficient to keep him warm.

In my own case, I did not for several years wear any underclothing, and though in the buffalo country, and a buffalo hunter, I never had room or transport for a buffalo coat until the Canadian Pacific Railroad reached Alberta, and the era of heavy clothing and ponderous boots came in, with ever and anon men frozen to death in them! Not so with us; we run and lift and pull and push, and are warm.

– by John McDougall, describing winter travel by dogsled circa 1865 in Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie: Stirring Scenes of Life in the Canadian North-West, 1898.

Sleeping Rough

The effect was alchemical. When I stuck my head in the light of dawn… somehow I belonged in a way that I hadn’t before. Sleeping out produced a sense of enhanced connection with the land, a feeling almost akin to ownership: the paradoxical entitlement of the rough sleeper; whose lack of rights somehow grants him a greater right than anyone else.

– by Nick Hunt, describing his first night ‘sleeping rough’ on his long distance walking expedition across Europe in Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn, 2014.

Page Edges

(Originally published on the Windscape Book Company blog.)

Fore edge:  the edge of the book directly opposite the spine, and may refer to either the boards or the pages. Top edge specifies the top of the book, and tail edge, of course, describes the bottom.

Fore edges may appear rough, or deckled, which used to indicate that the paper had been hand-made, and was, in fact, characteristic of quality books into the late 19th, and early 20th centuries. Today, limited edition books, or private press releases may still be constructed of hand-made paper, but machine-made deckled fore edges are now common, too, in large print runs of popular authors.

Deckled-edge pages

With the Industrial Revolution, book publishing became mechanized and page edges were, finally, able to be cleanly and evenly trimmed. Machine-trimmed pages are considered cut, and described as smooth, or clean edged.

Uncut pages are exactly what you might think – pages that have not been cut, or trimmed, in any way, during manufacturing i.e. deckled pages, or unopened pages cut before reading.

Unopened pages

Photo credit: By London School of Economics and Political Science’s Library

Unopened pages may occur during the binding process when pages have not been properly trimmed. Years ago, long, long before I was ever aware of book collecting, I received a biography of Edgar Allan Poe, whose stories I was avidly reading at the time. When I sat down with the book, I discovered the pages were ‘stuck’ together at the top at regular intervals. I think part of me knew that I might have been holding something old and valuable but, on the other hand, part of me said, “to heck with it, read the book.” So I did.

And, in case anyone is wondering – no, I didn’t take much care cutting the pages. I used my fingernail, not a paper knife or a playing card. Unfortunately.

Photo credit (top): diannehope via morguefile.com.

Half-Title Page

(Originally published on the Windscape Book Company blog.)

Half-Title Page:  In publishing’s early days, books were sold unbound. This custom allowed the purchaser to select their own binding material in a colour of their own choosing when they could afford it. Unfortunately, this also meant that the loose piles of paper were subjected to extra handling, and were at risk of being damaged. In order to protect the manuscript’s, often decorative, Title Page during transport, booksellers topped the pile with a single sheet of paper holding only the title.

Half Title & Title Page

Half-Title Page (left) and Title Page (right)

Originally called the Bastard-Title Page, this practice has become tradition and, even though we buy our books bound, today, with the title on the cover, the half-title page is still a part of every book.

Photo credit (top): ttronslien via morguefile.com.

Guess What I Found?

(Originally published on the Windscape Book Company blog.)

A few months ago, our local library held a book sale; it was their semi-annual fundraiser of library discards, and patron donations. I was joined by a couple of dozen others, and ever so carefully, each of us made our way through all the tables, and inside all the boxes underneath them. I think most of us were a bit excited, but then again, searching for buried treasure is like that.

One of the books I picked up was called Icebound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle For Survival At the South Pole by Dr. Jerri Nielson with Maryanne Vollers. The blurb on the back described a doctor who, while wintering over at the South Pole, discovers she has breast cancer and is forced to treat herself until help can arrive in the spring. It had a familiar ring to it. I was sure I’d caught the tail end of a made-for-TV movie, a few years back, based on this very same account.

When I flipped open the front cover, I found a label there. Not just any label, though, it identified this book as a Bookcrossing release. (More on Bookcrossing here.) Aha, I thought, a treasure – and into my box of books it went.

I was anxious to get Icebound home; open up the website and trace its journey to North Battleford, SK. Online, I discovered it had been purchased at a Saskatoon Symphony sponsored garage sale, read, then passed on to the purchaser’s sister. That’s where the record stopped but it didn’t take long for me to log on, and to record its new location as Cut Knife, SK.

I’ve since read the book. It’s an amazing tale of courage in a truly inhospitable environment, described by Dr. Jerri Nielson with honesty and candour. She tells her story with such affection for that icebound continent that I’ve been inspired to read more on arctic exploration.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I passed Icebound on to a friend in a controlled release. And, now, because my curiosity will force me to, I’ll have to check in occasionally to follow the rest of its journey!

Photo credit (top): Plume via morguefile.com.