As we were just coming through a serious deep freeze in Calgary as I write this column for the March 2 issue of Grainews, it made me think about some of the winters as a kid growing up on the farm in eastern Ontario.
As I recall through the later 1950s and ’60s, we always had about three feet of snow, and the temperatures were usually 10 below Fahrenheit, common enough to be 20 below and usually there were at least a few days of 30 below. (On the Celsius scale that would be ranging between -23 C to -28 C and -34 C, respectively.)I never remember references to windchill, but 20 below or more is when life around the dairy farm began to seize up.
The stables themselves, where Mom and Dad and for many years my grandfather milked the cows, stayed reasonably comfortable thanks to the body heat from the cows. But you didn’t have to move too far away from the cows before anything the least bit liquid would freeze up. The cats didn’t want to dawdle or otherwise their dishes of milk against the exterior wall of the stable might get icy.
There were two milking stables in my earliest years. One was in the main barn and it held about 15 head of cows in a single row. That stable had electricity so Dad was in charge there of the Chore Boy milking machines.
Across the barnyard was an older log building (at one time used by original homesteaders a sheep shed), but in the Hart years it was refitted with stanchions and used as a smaller stable probably for about eight or 10 first and second calf heifers. That building had no power, so milking those few head was done by hand, with that job falling to my grandfather and my mother.
As I got older, I might have milked a few cows by hand, but mainly my job would have been to carry pails of milk from the log stable across the yard to the main stable, where that milk was poured into strainers on top of eight-gallon milk cans. And, of course, the main objective was not to spill any. A new barn with stable was built in 1963, which brought all the milking cows along with room for about 15 more under one much more comfortable, well-lit roof.
In another part of the farmyard was the pigpen. It was a tired old building even when I was a kid, and a whole different world, but it worked to provide housing usually for three or four sows — each had their own pen and then there were two larger pens for growing pigs. It was a dark place. There were two or three light bulbs dangling from the ceiling over the sow pens, but they never seemed to cast much light, so there were many dark areas in the pigpen, especially on short winter days and who knew what creatures were lingering there.
Dad would crate up the sows to take to a neighbour’s farm for breeding or the odd time a guest boar would be brought to our farm for courtship. But then look out, three months, three weeks and three days later (that was always how my dad described pig gestation) the bred sows would be farrowing.
There always seemed to be litters of new piglets in the winter, which meant extra effort to keep the little beggars warm. Each pen had one corner boarded off to create a triangular creep area for the piglets. The litter of 10 to 15 piglets could scurry away under the boards into the well-bedded corner. Coming into the creep area from the top was a dangling heat bulb. The piglets would sort of dog-pile it into this protected creep area, heated by the heat bulb and it could really be quite comfortable, even on the coldest nights.
Often enough with bigger litters there would be a runt or two, not eating as much, not as robust, getting a bit chilled and those guys would find themselves in a cardboard box behind the wood cook stove in the farm kitchen. One of my chores would be to bottle-feed these little pigs for a few days until they gained some size and vigour. A rubber nipple on the end of a Coca Cola bottle worked pretty good as a piglet baby bottle.
Out in the yard, the snow piled up and blew around, until Hart Snow Removal Services fired up. I always remember my dad having a tractor, although for a few years in the mid-1950s he also had a couple of horses. But for the most part, Queenie and Babe had been replaced by the Allis Chalmers D45 workhorse of the day. Dad would bundle up and use the five-foot-wide front-end loader on the tractor to clear snow around the yard and out the lane to the road so the milk truck could get through. It did the job.
Sometime in the 1960s, he bought a diesel Allis Chalmers tractor along with a three-point hitch snowblower. He and my older brother built a plywood cab for the diesel tractor (no heat, but at least it blocked the wind) and then that tractor became the snow removal workhorse. My brother was still at home or lived near home, so he was the primary snowblower operator. That tractor and blower served us and neighbours well for many years.
In the meantime, my poor sister and I had to walk five miles to get to the one-room schoolhouse, uphill both ways, usually in a blizzard. It was a tough life. To be honest, I don’t think we ever walked during the winter. Spring and fall, yes, we’d either walk or ride bikes, but in winter, I always remember my mom driving us to school.
And in my eight years of going to that one-room school, I don’t remember there being a winter school-day morning when caretaker and neighbour Peggy Wright didn’t have that woodstove fired up early, keeping the main part of the school warm. You might have frozen a few parts if you lingered too long in the cloakroom outhouse, but we were always comfortable at our desks.