Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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The education of a pioneer bride

The first settlers on the Saskatchewan plains were faced with a quandary – there were no large trees that could be cut to build log houses, and lumber yards were usually far away. So they set to work to build their first homes out of the material under their feet – the sod.

This was actually quite a practical choice. This was native grass prairie that had never been cultivated. The dense root structure made sturdy building materials. The sod was cut into strips two feet wide, about six feet long and two to three inches thick and they were laid much as one lays bricks, with alternating joints to tie the structure together. The sod was removed from around the growing house, providing a fire guard to protect against prairie fires.

Poplar poles were cut from nearby ponds or streams and lashed together to make a framework for the roof, which was then covered with sod strips. There was usually one door and two windows cut into the walls and a stovepipe stuck out the roof. The inside walls were often covered with a material like canvas. The result was a cozy home that was well insulated from the winter cold and the summer heat. Sometimes the roof would get saturated from a heavy rainfall and it would be necessary to move the bed and table away from the leaks.

Many a bride spent her first few years in a home such as this until her husband could accumulate enough money to buy lumber to build a wood frame home. No doubt the promise of that soon to be built two-storey home with a proper roof made life in the sod home easier to bear, but those early prairie brides had an amazing ability to adapt to conditions as they were.

Nevertheless, sod homes did present some unexpected challenges. Early one fine summer day a new bride set to work to bake some bread before her husband came home for dinner.  She measured the flour and other ingredients, soaked the yeast in water, then mixed it all together and set it aside to rise. But it didn’t rise. She checked it anxiously as the morning hours went by. There was never any change, it sat there in exactly the same shape as when she had first mixed it.

She set about making dinner, without the hoped for bread. She checked it one last time, then, not wanting her husband to know of her failure, she took the bowl outside and with a large spoon dropped a portion of the dough into the gopher holes around the yard. She felt a little solace in knowing that at least she had hidden the evidence.

When her husband came in for dinner, his first words were: “I just saw the most amazing thing. There are big white mushrooms growing out of all the gopher holes in the yard.”

I think it was the sudden flush of red in her cheeks that gave her away. Together they realized that she had done nothing wrong, but it was just too cool in the sod house to activate the yeast. The ground outside had been warmed by the sun and the hidden dough just couldn’t stay hidden.

But God can save us yet

The winter and spring of 1834 had passed away. The latter was uncommonly cold and backward; so much so that we had a very heavy fall of snow upon the 14th and 15th of May

A late, cold spring in Canada is generally succeeded by a burning, hot summer; and the summer of ’34 was the hottest I ever remember.  No rain fell upon the earth for many weeks, till nature drooped and withered beneath one bright blaze of sunlight; and the ague and fever in the woods, and the cholera in the large towns and cities, spread death and sickness through the country.

Moodie had made during the winter a large clearing of twenty acres around the house. The progress of the workmen had been watched by me with the keenest interest. Every tree that reached the ground opened a wider gap in the dark wood, giving us a broader ray of light and a clearer glimpse of the blue sky. But when the dark cedar swamp fronting the house fell beneath the strokes of the axe, and we got a first view of the lake my joy was complete: a new and beautiful object was now constantly before me, which gave me the greatest pleasure.

The confusion of an uncleared fallow spread around us on every side. Huge trunks of trees and piles of brush gave a littered and uncomfortable appearance to the locality, and as the weather had been very dry for some weeks, I heard my husband talking with his choppers as to the expediency of firing the fallow. They still urged him to wait a little longer, until he could get a good breeze to carry the fire well through the brush.

Business called him suddenly to Toronto, but he left a strict charge with old Thomas and his sons, who were engaged in the job, by no means to attempt to burn it off till he returned, as he wished to be upon the premises himself in case of any danger. He had previously burnt all the heaps immediately about the doors. While he was absent, old Thomas and his second son fell sick with the ague, and went home to their own township, leaving John, a surly, obstinate young man, in charge of the shanty, where they slept, and kept their tools and provisions.

The day was sultry, and towards noon a strong wind sprang up that roared in the pine tops like the dashing of distant billows, but without in the least degree abating the heat. The children were lying listlessly on the floor for coolness, and the girl and I were finishing sun-bonnets, when Mary suddenly exclaimed, “Bless us, mistress, what a smoke!” I ran immediately to the door, but was not able to distinguish ten yards before me. The swamp immediately below us was on fire, and the heavy wind was driving a dense black cloud of smoke directly towards us.

“What can this mean?” I cried. “Who can have set fire to the fallow?”

John Thomas stood pale and trembling before me. “John, what is the meaning of this fire?”

“Oh, ma’am, I hope you will forgive me; it was I set fire to it, and I would give all I have in the world if I had not done it.”

“What is the danger?”

“Oh, I’m terribly feared that we shall all be burnt up,” said the fellow, beginning to whimper.

“We must get out of it as fast as we can, and leave the house to its fate.”

“We can’t get out,” said the man, in a low, hollow tone, which seemed the concentration of fear; “I would have got out if I could; but just step to the back door, ma’am, and see.”

I had not felt the least alarm up to this minute. Judge then my horror, when, on going to the back door, I saw that the fellow, to make sure of his work, had fired the field in fifty different places. Behind, before, on every side, we were surrounded by a wall of fire, burning ferociously within a hundred yards of us, and cutting off all possibility of retreat.

I closed the door and went back to the parlour. Fear was knocking loudly at my heart – I felt stupefied. The girl sat upon the floor by the children, who had both fallen asleep. She was silently weeping; while the fool who had caused the mischief was crying aloud.

A strange calm succeeded my first alarm; tears and lamentations were useless; a horrible death was impending over us, and yet I could not believe that we were to die.

My eye fell upon the sleeping angels, locked peacefully in each other’s arms, and my tears flowed for the first time. Mary, the servant-girl, looked piteously up in my face. The good, faithful creature had not uttered one word of complaint, but now she faltered forth, “The dear precious lambs! Oh such a death!”

I threw myself down upon the floor beside them, and pressed them alternately to my heart, while inwardly I thanked God that they were asleep, unconscious of danger.

The heat soon became suffocating. We were parched with thirst, and there was not a drop of water in the house. I turned once more to the door, hoping that a passage might have been burnt through to the water. I saw nothing but a dense cloud of fire and smoke – could hear nothing but the crackling and roaring of the flames, which were gaining so fast on us that I felt their scorching breath in my face.

“Ah,” thought I – and it was a most bitter thought – “what will my beloved husband say when he returns and finds that poor Susy and his dear girls have perished in this miserable manner? But God can save us yet.”

The thought had scarcely found a voice in my heart before the wind rose to a hurricane, scattering the flames on all sides into a tempest of burning billows. I buried my head in my apron, for I thought that our time was come, and that all was lost, when a most terrific crash of thunder burst over our heads, and, like the breaking of a water-spout, down came the rushing torrent of rain which had been pent up for so many weeks. In a few minutes the chip-yard was all afloat, and the fire effectually checked. The storm which, unnoticed by us, had been gathering all day, and which was the only one of any note we had that summer, continued to rage all night, and before morning had quite subdued the cruel enemy whose approach we had viewed with such dread.

The imminent danger in which we had been placed struck me more forcibly after it was past than at the time, and both the girl and myself sank to our knees and offered up our hearts in humble thanksgiving to that God who had saved us by an act of His Providence from an awful and sudden death. When all hope from human assistance was lost, His hand was mercifully stretched forth, making His strength more perfectly manifested in our weakness.

“He is their stay when earthly hope is lost,
“The light and anchor of the tempest-toss’d.”


Excerpted from Life in the Backwoods, by Susanna Moodie

The Strickland sisters told it like it was

Sisters Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill were Canadian pioneers. Their husbands brought them from England to Canada in the early 1830’s, settling near Peterborough, Ontario where Samuel Strickland, a brother of Catherine and Susanna had earlier settled. The sisters had each written and published books before marrying and coming to Canada and both continued to write in what little time they could spare during the long hard days of raising their families and establishing new homes in the midst of the forest where practically everything had to be made at home. They wrote books for children and nature studies, but their most famous books describe their lives in the backwoods of Upper Canada (as Ontario was known at the time). Their most famous books are Roughing it in the Bush, by Susanna Moodie and The Backwoods of Canada, by Catherine Parr Traill. They were among the literary pioneers of Canada, helping to establish a literary tradition that realistically depicts life in a harsh climate.

The following excerpt is taken from Roughing it in the Bush and describes a time when Mr. Moodie had been called away for militia service after the rebellion of 1837. Jenny is their elderly Irish servant and nursemaid.


When the trees came into leaf, and the meadows were green and flushed with flowers, the poor children used to talk constantly of their father’s return; their innocent prattle made me very sad. Every evening we walked into the wood, along the path that he must come whenever he did return home, to meet him; and though it was a vain hope, and the walk was taken just to amuse the little ones, I used to be silly enough to feel deeply disappointed when we returned alone. Donald, who was a mere baby when his father left us, could just begin to put words together. “Who is papa?” “When will he come?” “Will he come by the road?” “Will he come in a canoe?” The little creature’s curiosity to see this unknown father was really amusing; and oh! how I longed to present the little fellow, with his rosy cheeks and curling hair, to his father.

June had commenced; the weather was very warm and Mr. T—– had sent for the loan of old Jenny to help him for a day with his potatoes. I had just prepared dinner when the old woman came shrieking like a mad thing down the clearing and waving her hands toward me. I could not imagine what had happened.

“Joy! joy!’ bawled out the old woman, now running breathlessly towards us. “The masther’s come — the masther’s come.”

“Where? — where?”

“Jist above in the wood. Goodness gracious! I have run to let you know — so fast —that my heart — is like to — break.”

Without stopping to comfort old Jenny, off started the children and myself, at the very top of our speed; but I soon found that I could not run — I was too much agitated. I got to the head of the bush, and sat down upon a  fallen tree. The children sprang forward like wild kids, all but Donald, who remained with his old nurse.  I covered my face with my hands; my heart, too, was beating audibly; and now that he was come, and was so near me, I could scarcely command strength to meet him. The  sound of happy young voices roused me up; the children were leading him along in triumph; and he was bending down to them, all smiles, but hot and tired with his long journey. It was almost worth our separation, that blissful meeting. In a few minutes he was at home, and the children upon his knees.  Katie stood silently holding his hand, but Addie and Dunbar had a thousand things to tell him. Donald was frightened at his military dress, but he peeped at him from behind my gown, until I caught and placed him in his father’s arms.

His leave of absence only extended to a fortnight. It had taken him three days to come all the way from Lake Erie, where his regiment was stationed, at Point Abino; and the same time would be consumed in his return. He could only remain with us eight days. How soon they fled away! How bitter was the thought of parting with him again! He had brought money to pay the J—–‘s. How surprised he was to find their large debt more than half liquidated. How gently did he chide me for depriving myself and the children of the little comforts he had designed for us, in order to make this sacrifice. But never was self-denial more fully rewarded; I felt happy in having contributed in the least to pay a just debt to kind and worthy people. You must become poor yourself before you can fully appreciate the good qualities of the poor — before you can sympathise with them, and fully recognize them as your brethren in the flesh. Their benevolence to each other, exercised amidst want and privation, as far surpasses the munificence of the rich towards them, as the exalted philanthropy of Christ and his disciples does the Christianity of the present day.  The rich man gives from his abundance, the poor man shares with a distressed comrade his all.

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