Renovation & Design

This cold house

Back then winter on the prairies was all about staying warm

Geoff Fierce PHOTO

This old home east of Winnipeg, captured by photographer Geoff Fierce, was surely cosy in its day, but it was never energy efficient.

Today I’m sitting here in my nice warm house thinking back to when my dad was a little kid growing up on the farm, in the house my Grandpa Mustard built in the late 1800s — and I’m wondering how they survived?

The exterior walls, two-by-four construction, might have had some sawdust insulation, or straw, or nothing, and there wasn’t a double- or triple-pane window in sight.

In the bitter winter -40 C was normal back then and with the windchill it felt like -50 C.

I bet on the coldest days that house felt like it was built with newspaper.

Through the late 1800s and early 1900s there were nine kids raised in that smallish two-storey prairie home, with most of the kids sharing the upstairs bedrooms.

I remember walking around the upstairs of that long abandoned farm home in the 1980s. Looking down at the heat vents, you could see the main floor through them; there wasn’t any furnace ducts attached, all they did was allow heat from the kitchen cook stove and maybe a parlour stove to rise upstairs.

When it was really cold, like we are presently experiencing, Dad told me they’d often wake up in the morning to ice on the wash-basin water.

Those kids must have slept glued together and under maybe five or 10 comforters to survive the wicked winter shivers in that chilly old farm home. No doubt there were times, under extreme circumstances, when the whole family slept downstairs circling those wood-hungry stoves.

Among my many books, I have The History of the Riverside Municipality (home of the Mustard farm), offering numerous stories of cold winter nights spent in those breezy old farm houses.

Here’s a cool memory from the Gullet family: "The first winter the house was so cold at nights that when the wood fire burned out, the bread would freeze by morning and have to be held by the fire before it could be cut."

Sheesh. Now that’s harsh, before sliced bread too.

And it wasn’t like there was a stove-length ready wood delivery every day. From the Stewart Deacon and Family memoir: "Getting firewood was a problem in that day. Dad used to leave before daylight in the fall (after freeze-up) for Turtle Mountain. There he would cut his load of wood, stay overnight and return home the next day. This would be, I imagine, a 15- or 20-mile trip. He procured a crosscut saw and every day we would take turns (the kids) in helping to cut then split the wood."

I can’t see that going well with today’s kids, or the parents either for that matter. The occasional chilly trip to the thermostat is hardship enough, thanks. Trips to the outhouse were no fun, either.

Of course back then, as with now, you could always warm up with a nice cup of tea. However, not without water you couldn’t, and there was no tap to get it from.

We will wrap today’s tales with a toasty look back at Grandpa Mustard going for water, as recalled by my Aunt Emma Love: "Water was often drawn up from wells by bucket to water the stock, and supply the house. I remember one bitterly cold winter day, my father had gone to a shallow well on the Haight property, a half mile from home to fill two barrels with water for the stock. Raising it by bucket the mouth of the well soon became coated with ice and the inevitable happened. Father fell in. How he got out, alone and unaided I do not know, but he got on the stoneboat and came home with the horses on a gallop." Aunt Emma wrote, "he was ice from head to foot and presented a comical spectacle as he attempted to walk to the house — although he was a man of good humour that was one joke he failed to appreciate."

Can’t say I blame him, and I repeat — how did they do it?

Stay warm! 

Comments and feedback always welcome!



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