Mrs Ruth Hedges Recalls Pioneer
Days in Canada on Her 100th Birthday

From The Ayr News, May 9, 1990

It would be hard indeed to find as poignant a story of pioneer life as that of Mrs Ruth Hedges who recently marked her 100th birthday.

A remarkable lady — blessed with good health and a wonderful memory, Mrs. Hedges lived through the trials of homesteading, drought, prairie fires, and the untimely deaths of a child and her husband, never once shirking her responsibilities of a mother, providing food, clothing and a loving home for her family.

 

Naomi Ruth Danbrook, the second child of Helen Ross and George Danbrook, was born on their third wedding anniversary, April 13 1890 on a farm in Oxford County south east of Woodstock in the province of Ontario. From there they moved to a farm at Muir on 53 Highway. After her brother took over the farm, she moved with her parents to the tiny hamlet of Gobles. Helen Ross was of Scottish descent, and George Danbrook's grandparents came to Canada in the 1830s from Darsham, Suffolk, England.

Ruth learned to milk cows when she was ten years old, and helped with the milking every morning before going to school, and also every night. The barn had been located far from the house and the milk all had to be carried in large creamers all the way to the house. The house was small with only two bedrooms, one occupied by Ruth's parents, the other by the hired man and her brother Jim. Ruth and sister Marion slept on the living room floor. Ruth had always wanted to be a nurse. When she was fourteen, and about to go into her third year at Woodstock Collegiate, her parents thought that they needed her to help at home. She did not go back to school. Ruth's mother was a professional dressmaker and her aunt was a tailoress. Since Ruth did not return to school, she learned from them and took up the dressmaking trade. In those days, very little ready-made clothing was available. People came for miles to have dress-making done. Ruth worked with her mother, and by the time she was nineteen, she had taken over the business.

When the Danbrooks moved to Muir, they changed to the nearby Muir Presbyterian Church, for the children went to the Muir school and their friends all went to that church. It was during the time that they had gone to the Eastwood Church that the Henry Hedges family moved to Oxford, and attended the same church, where William Andrew Hedges, Ruth's future husband, when he was age 15, got a glimpse of her. In the summer of 1912, a garden party was held at the Muir church. After the party, Will asked to drive Ruth home, and thus they started to go together. Meeting and falling in love with him, they made plans to be married late in 1915 after he returned from working on a harvest gang in Saskatchewan. A bumper crop that year saw the harvest run much later than usual, leaving William unable to leave the threshing gang — even to get married.

Not to be daunted by this situation, Ruth simply packed her bags, boarded the train in Toronto and went to Saskatoon. Getting off the train there, she and William were married on September 28th, 1915. That evening they attended a lecture by Nellie McClung, one of Canada's first "women's libbers". Then they hastened to the home on the prairie where work was waiting, riding horseback the ten-mile trek south to Oyen. Will hadn't announced his plan to anyone. Neighbours were surprised to see his new auburn-haired bride, and when asked about it, Will would reply, "I sent to Eatons for her." Ruth remarked, "I was so filled with excitement and joy that never for a minute did I ponder about the fact that we were starting out with few material things. That didn't seem to matter. We had each other".

Ruth was an innovator even in those early days. She made curtains for the windows of the primitive home, rather an oddity in the pioneer West. And wallpaper on the walls and paint on the outside of the house! It was a far cry from most of the houses in the area. Their tall Ontario-style barn was one of a kind in the area, and soon became a landmark.

Mrs. Hedges went on with her life story. She asked the question — "Do you really want to hear about the good old days? Some evenings, as I lay in my comfortable bed, as I shut my eyes, I think back to the nights I lay on a feather tick for a bed, watching dust or snow blowing through the cracks of our tiny shack.

I think of heartaches, when a crop was nicely out of the ground and droughts and fires destroyed everything. Of the twelve years we lived at Oyen, in nine of those years drought left us without a sheaf of grain. Those were frightening times when a baby was on the way and I was never quite sure that William would return in time with the doctor or a neighbour lady. After several experiences at that, I became an 'old hat' at knowing what to do at birthing time — the end result being that I performed the duties of a midwife on many occasions, in the west and after we came back east.

1916 was the year of the prairie fire, the scourge of the prairie. I remember it all so well. Will could see it coming away to the south, headed for the farm buildings. He went out with a four-horse team to plough an extra fire guard in a little coolie, or valley. I stood in the door of our home watching. No more had he dropped the plough into the ground when flames literally jumped in the air a distance of some 35 feet dropping down on William and the team. As I ran towards him he fought desperately to get the team into a slough close by. Will was badly burned about the face, arms and lower legs, so he became a patient for me to care for, as well as badly burned horses to be tended. The buildings were saved for they were in the curve of a slough and the fire guards did the trick.

When winds blew the flat prairie was just a dust bowl. William got so fed up, that eventually he conceived the idea of putting in place a wind-break. As a result, we were the first to do so out there, planting close to 20,000 cuttings." Ruth harnessed and hitched a team of horses to the plough, and Will was able to drive them with his bandaged hands to make the furrows in which Ruth planted the little trees. When the trees got some growth, neighbours came for clippings, and many trees growing in the area got their beginnings in Will's windbreak.

1916 was another good crop year with soldiers' farms and rented land planted as well as the home farm. A gang was hired to help with the harvest. Each day Ruth made lunch and sent it out to the field, for the men stopped working only long enough to eat. Ruth also cooked for Charlie's (Will's brother) whole threshing gang.

Six children were born to the Hedges at Oyen. Unfortunately, when diphtheria struck, they lost a son Donald at the age of four and a half. Still bearing a little bitterness, Ruth suggested that his death was due mainly because someone had erred in not making sure there was ample serum available for the community.

After that the crop, years on the prairies were never the same as in 1915/16. Some were down-right poor. Ill health befell Ruth; she had to go to Calgary for no less than three operations. After riding in a buggy to Saskatoon, she traveled alone by train to Calgary. Ten days later, following three operations, she made the trek home alone. "We were tough birds back then", she quipped.

"When the news broke that the Peace River District, in the eastern interior of British Columbia was about to be opened up to homesteaders, William and I decided to give the fertile lands a try. The assistant minister of agriculture promised government assistance for families traveling to their new-found land beyond Edmonton. Arriving in Edmonton with our worldly possessions — horses, a few cows, pigs, chickens and a little furniture on two flat-cars — I made my way to the Immigration Hall. This is where I showed my spunk! Shot full of questions as to where I was from and where I was going, the man behind the desk said, "We have no money for you women — our assistance is solely for new immigrants." Well, I really got my dander up. I let him know that I was about to contact the deputy minister of agriculture. You never saw anyone do a turn-around like he did. Right away, he told me there would be money available for us, at the same time pointing out that I was the first non-immigrant to receive assistance.

Wembley, Alberta - the end of the railway line - was a stopping off point for us. We lived in a settler's campsite outside town until Will found a house. For a year William traveled from farm to farm purchasing grain for a large elevator company. In the summer the girls and I picked berries to make into preserves for sale.

In May of 1928 we made their way 150 miles to Fort St John, BC in the Peace River District with all our belongings on a flat-rack wagon. Our trip took thirteen days. Nights we camped outside except for two nights when we found trappers' vacant cabins. The road, called a highway, was actually just a wagon trail. There were no bridges on the rivers or creeks, which had to be crossed where there was a ford, or shallow place. The water often came up to the horses' bellies. For me, meals for seven people was somewhat of a challenge. I remember that we ate a lot of oatmeal porridge which could be cooked over a campfire. There were high hills, deep valleys, and steep riverbanks, covered mostly by virgin forest. On the steep places, everybody got off the wagon and walked because of the danger of an accident. "It was a long, difficult trip", commented Ruth. There were times when the trees were so thick you couldn't see what was ahead. The girls herded the twenty or so horses along the unfenced road, stopping occasionally for the horses to pasture while the wagon caught up. After we had gone about 100 miles, we lost the horses. We hunted all day through the forest but couldn't locate them, finally continuing the journey without them.

As we neared Cold Creek, we hit a trail where one side was a drop of at least 1000 feet. I recall another day the wagon got stuck in a bog hole. As we attempted to pry it out, over it went, upside down. Would you believe — not a jar of preserves or a dish were broken. We finally arrived at the Peace River, over a mile wide and deeply flowing, with terrifically steep banks up which the teams struggled to the flat lands above.

After arriving at Fort St John, we set up home in quarters at the rear of the agricultural building on the fairgrounds. William went first to the land office to begin the process of claiming some land. Money was none too plentiful. I had bags of flour brought in to make bread to sell. I can recall leaving 8-year old Myrtle alone watching the bread bake as I went out to pick berries to sell. On the days that the town council met, I would cook up a nice dinner for the men. That was our way of making a living. One always had to look ahead. If you bought chickens, you always got a few more than you needed so that you could sell eggs and fowl on special occasions, like Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Although our official land title had not yet come through, William went ahead and cut down trees on a ten-acre field. Sad to say, he never did see his land title. Two men, who had a homestead at Rose Prairie, about twenty miles north, camped in a field across the road from us. They had no equipment or horses, but they wanted to get out to their place. Will offered to take them there, to lend them a team of horses and some of his meager equipment, which they loaded on a wagon. On the way home he had an accident which caused his death on July 25, 1928 a few hours later. We think that when he was going down the steep bank of the Montenay River, something broke on the wagon, throwing him into the horses' heels where he was caught and dragged by the runaway team. We buried him about 100 feet above the waters of the Peace at an Anglican Church cemetery.

There was another baby on the way shortly; I knew there was no way I could manage. Finding out that there was a widow’s allowance of $40 a month available in Ontario, I decided to pull up stakes and go back east. I knew the children would have a better chance of an education and there would be the support of both sets of parents nearby.

I arranged to have an auction sale to get rid of everything including the lost horses which had been found in a forest approximately 30 miles across the river. An auction sale had never been held in these parts. The sale went off successfully on August 10th and the next morning, Bill was born, named William Andrew after his father. We left Fort St John for Wembley in early September, and then by train for Ontario. It wasn't easy traveling on a train with a newborn baby. However, the other children cooperated, so we managed.

We arrived at Gobles in September of 1929, making our home with my parents until sometime later when I was able to purchase the house across the street - a former Baptist manse, situated on a 3/4 acre lot. We raised a couple of pigs a year, and chickens, in the little barn. A large garden with fruit trees supplied food. Dad supplied us with apples from his orchard.   We were given milk by my brother-in-law. Each evening one of us would walk the mile over to the farm for a pail of milk. Devastated to learn that the widow's pension had been put on hold for three years, I went out to work.

The Great Depression was just beginning at this time, but somehow we managed to live through it. What did I do? Well, I brought quite a few babies into the world. Someone asked me a short time ago how much money I made. Thinking back, the pay was pretty meager - $10 for ten days work and that included doing such things as helping with the birth, all the washing, ironing, cleaning, preparing the meals and sending the other children off to school. As if that wasn't enough, if the baby had a restless night — so did I. As well, I made a nice bit of money making rugs and selling them at $5 a piece, and working in a dress shop in Woodstock. Later, three years to be exact when the pension was re-instated, $30 a month went for coal and other necessities, and the remaining $10 put away so that Helen could go to teacher’s college.

Things were tough, but the children were great to help out. I could never have managed without their help. At the age of 13, Myrtle used to help people clean their homes for $1 a day. She worked in a restaurant for $3.50 a week. I was always indebted to the farming community around Gobles who provided jobs for the boys, such as working in tobacco, picking berries, and helping with the harvest. Every one of them helped out financially at home and earned money for their education. Times may have been tough, but I can assure you they were made easier with the support I received from each of them.

I have had my sad time, losing Donald so young, my husband, and in recent years, another son Walter; but all in all, I have been blessed with so much. I have 97 direct relatives, including 25 grandchildren and 88 great-grandchildren, and I can tell you every birthday and age. None of them ever forget this old lady. Of course, my daughter Myrtle's right here. She has made a wonderful home for me and then there are Helen, Bruce and Bill down in the Courtland/Delhi area and Hank at St George. All of them and their families help to make me feel young.

Everyone knows I am stubborn and full of determination, that's been my lifesaver. As long as I have good health, I hope to see many more episodes of Dallas. My son-in-law Beryl says JR is my boyfriend — so be it." She chuckles.

What has Mrs Hedges done to occupy her life for the past 50-some years since her family all left home to begin their own lives? In 1955 she had sold her Gobles house and moved to Beamsville to live with Myrtle and Beryle. She didn't work out any more, but she and Myrtle set up a dress-making/drapery business in the basement, a business that lasted for several years. Ruth was now relatively free. Until she was in her nineties, she spent few winters in Canada, but chose a sunny southern vacation in Florida or California. One time she visited Will's brother Charlie in San Diego. After one son bought his place in Florida, she spent several winters there him and his wife. Besides that, she traveled to England to visit her cousin Aline, and traveled around Scotland. In 1967 she and her daughter Helen went to Hawaii, a trip of a lifetime. Almost every year, as long as she was able, Ruth visited her other children for two or three weeks, making side-trips to Harrow and Detroit to visit Hedges relatives. During the summer of 1973 Ruth and Myrtle travelled to Buenos Aires in South America to visit her grand-daughter Ruth, husband Tom and the new great grand-daughter.

In the summer of 1976, after almost 50 years had passed Ruth was privileged to again visit the West along with her daughters. The occasion was a trip to the Yukon, Alaska and the Rockies. She saw again the prairies, that "never-ending sameness of the never-ending plains", just as beautiful as she had remembered. One of the overnights was at Fort St John, where they visited the farm, and Will's grave on the banks of the Peace River. Then they traveled to the homestead near Oyen on the prairie, and visited her son's little grave in the Shaw Cemetery on a lonely hillside. The farm was now part of a large cattle ranch. The buildings were gone. A depression left by the house basement and the foundation of the barn were all the signs remaining of a homestead. The railroad grade still snaked across the farm and the wild rose bushes caught at their ankles. It was a sad home-coming.

Ruth was a very talented person, not only as a seamstress, but also as a handicrafter. At last count she has made over 100 of the most beautiful afghans, graced the Beamsville home with pictures of landscapes, flowers, birds and much more. Born with a green thumb, she was an avid gardener with her several varieties of raspberries and vegetables which she tended as long as she was able. Each spring she arrived home from Florida in time to plant the greenhouse to garden vegetables and flowers for the many flower beds. She generously shared the young plants, especially flowers, with her family to brighten their homes. Of particular note, was her rose garden of which she was justly proud. Many of her fine talents have worn off on her family.

On June 3 1993, Ruth Naomi Danbrook Hedges had a fatal heart attack, passing away at the age of 103. That morning she sat down after breakfast to read the morning paper, and lapsed into a coma from which she never awoke. She passed away just before noon. Left to mourn were her five living children, twenty-five grandchildren and forty-two great-grandchildren. She is buried in the Beamsville Cemetery.

Once asked to what did she attribute her longevity, Ruth replied "Keep an active mind." She lived through two world wars, a great depression, saw the invention of the automobile, television, and computers; she traveled by covered wagon and saw men land on the moon. An unassuming woman of steadfastness, great determination and patience, she was a "woman for the twentieth century". A visit with this grand lady, cheerful, alert and extremely proud of herself for reaching her 100th birthday was most refreshing. Listening to her story of pioneering days makes one appreciate the many blessings we have today.

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