The first harvest of new potatoes, baby carrots, new onions, tender peas and beans…always makes me think of my Grandmother’s (and Mother’s) Depression Stew1.
The railway is credited with helping develop this country. The settlement of western Canada did depend heavily on the railway, but the role of the railway in development of industry and the transportation of goods to market in all parts of the country was also significant.
Beginning in 1890 the railway became a tool for increased settlement in the Prairies, with onset of “Harvest Excursions2“. Shortage of workers in the region was a problem generally but during harvest particularly so. A campaign of propaganda designed to lure young men to the prairie harvest, with the eye on many deciding to settle, began.
Fueled by the overwhelmed cries of desperate wheat farmers, and by the railway’s desire to settle the land they owned and served in the prairies, the campaign focused on the nation’s need for a successful harvest. Drawing on nationalistic pride which grew fiercer during the war years. Ads, flyers and the rumour mills presented the ‘best case’ and were often more than a little exaggerated from reality.
Harvest Trains offered cut rates from a main line anywhere in the country to Winnipeg, then a penny a mile for the remaining distance, depending upon where workers were headed.
My Grandfather William James Walls went to Saskachewan in 1903, and soon after acquired a property to work. Several years later Grandfather returned to New Brunswick, married my Grandmother and in 1910 they returned to homestead, settling near Halbrite Saskatchewan. In addition to my Grandparents, his parents Isaac and Dorothy (McKinnon) Walls and several of his siblings went west on the same Settler train. Where my Grandparents and one of Grandfather Billy’s brothers, Charles Walls eventually returned to New Brunswick to live, the other family members remained in Sackatchewan.
I suspect Grandfather Billy made his first trip on a harvest train. It is unlikely he would have had the money for regular fare. He would have joined his comrades on the stark wooden bench seats night and day for the entire 5 day trip. The fares were cut rate, and so were the accommodations. No dining cars, meals were the sandwiches carefully tucked in their cases sometimes accompanied by alcohol. For those who did not bring their own, others were more than able to supply it.
Harvest trains quickly became notorious for the acts of vandalism, theft and violence which followed in the wake of hundreds of bored young men, some fuel by drink. Reputation aside the collective and individual effort of the harvest workers was essential to the development of the region and continued from its first inception in 1890 until 1930.
Drought and the Great Depression would see many young men from those same Prairie communities jumping fright trains in search of work. Their reputation as Bums and ne’re-do-wells was just as erroneous as their harvester predecessors being labeled as thugs, drunks and thieves. Grandmother Edie knew the difference and did what she could to help those with less than her family.
During the depression, despite having little money to buy food, particularly meat to feed her family, what she had she shared with anyone who was in need, including the travelers who found themselves at her door on the Station(train) Road in Blackville, NB.
Many years later my uncle Isaac Walls while in Saskatchewan with the United Church of Canada, was asked by a church member where he was from in New Brunswick. Ike replied that his home of Blackville was a small community and it was likely the gent would never have heard of it. The man laughed and explained he had visited Blackville on a fright train during the depression. He went on to inquire if my uncle knew the kind woman who had fed him, she and her husband had once homesteaded in Saskatchewan…it was Grandmother Edie.
What exactly Grandmother Edie fed this man I can’ t know, but if his visit was in summer there is a good chance she might have fed him some of her Depression Stew.
The My Mother’s Cookbook’s Depression Stew, the meatless stew presents the delicious tender veggies in a rich cream sauce. Not a health food version of veggies but one which I permit myself once each summer…and it is worth it.
A selection of fresh, young ‘baby’ veggies including but not limited to: Potatoes, carrots, onions, peas, beans, swede, etc.
2 Tbsp Butter
1 tsp Salt
1/8 tsp Pepper
1. Clean, and pare veggies to assure even cooking time;
2. Place in a large pot and add salt and water to just cover;
3. Bring to boil over high heat, reduce to simmer and cook until tender;
4. Drain about half of the remaining water;
5. Add enough cream to cover the veggies;
6. Add butter and return to a low heat to heat through;
7. Season to taste, ENJOY.
Explanations and Resources:
1. Depression stew is the name my family call this main meal veggie dish, made with fresh tender veggies and cream. Some versions are known as Summer stew, Brugoo; and Veggie stew. Other less rich versions use canned condensed milk, and a slurry of flour and water to thicken the sauce. A version I encountered in the Acadian Community of Isle Madame uses salt fish in the stew.
2. Harvest Trains operated from 1890 until the summer of 1930. Homesteading farmers could sow more acreage in spring than they could harvest. The cutting and thrashing of wheat was highly labour intensive, requiring a team of men for the farm’s harvest period. The maritime provinces, Quebec and Ontario supplied the harvest workers, as loggers, miners and labourers seeking new opportunity joined their ranks. Some harvesters traveled home after each season, using the extra income to support their lives, and families in the east. Other’s like my Grandfather and his kin homesteaded and remained (at least for a period). The descendants of Isaac Walls and Dorothy McKinnon Walls can be found a variety of areas (and countries) most especially New Brunswick and Saskatchewan.
3. The Harvest Train — When Maritimers Worked in the Canadian West, 1890 to 1928 by A.A. MacKenzie Breton Books 1982
4. The Canadian Encyclopedia – Harvest Excursions https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/harvest-excursions