Unearthed tapes allowed me to explore my grandmother's upbringing on a Saskatchewan homestead
Emma Kramer-Rodger's grandmother grew up in Ravenscrag, Sask., during the early 1900s
This first-person piece was written by Emma Kramer-Rodger, an associate producer and audio technician with CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning.
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I thought many of the stories my grandma used to tell me disappeared with her.
But while cleaning the attic during the pandemic, my father uncovered 15-year-old cassette tapes in which she had documented some of her life stories.
I grew up hearing these stories about her childhood around the beginning of the 20th century in Ravenscrag, Sask., a now mostly abandoned community located about 60 kilometres from the Alberta and United States borders.
In the summer of 2005, my father took my grandmother back to Ravenscrag and gave her a tape recorder. They walked through the remnants of this small homestead community, recording her favourite memories of her childhood and formative years.
LISTEN | Hazel Rodger recalls memories of growing up in Ravenscrag as she walks down main street decades later:
As someone who works with audio as part of my job, I felt it made sense to digitize some of these cassettes. Listening through the tapes, I heard the voice of someone I have not seen in over eight years. It was comforting, and gave me the feeling of a cozy family gathering.
LISTEN | Hazel remembers the first blacksmith shop in town, which her family used:
I realized that elements of these stories were surprisingly relatable, despite the two generations and nearly 100 years that separated me from them. The early 1900s saw fundraising events focused on the First World War (not so relatable), then the quieting effect of the Spanish flu (very relatable). This was a pandemic not even a small homestead community in southern Saskatchewan could escape. My grandma would have been only about four years old when the Spanish flu came to Ravenscrag, but she still had distinct memories of how it affected her family.
LISTEN | Hazel describes the time her parents became ill, and she was sent to live with a neighbour for her own protection:
Tie Rail Ranch
The town of Ravenscrag, established in 1912, was once a community of just over 100 people. Hazel Rodger (nee Corry) was born on a homestead named Tie Rail Ranch in 1915, in a house that now resides in the Eastend Historical Museum nearby.
Ravenscrag no longer exists as it once was, but I remember trips there as a child to visit a few of the buildings that were still standing. My grandma would tell stories about the schoolhouse, the church and many other places, bringing to life a community that had long since disappeared.
Life was hard back then. My grandma tells stories of her family working in cattle ranching, wheat threshing and in the clay pit industry to make ends meet.
But in the retelling, my grandma often focused on the positives. She loved the wheat threshing season best because it kept her busy. She also enjoyed riding and herding the cattle. And in the spring, the rewards included homemade ice cream.
LISTEN | Hazel tells of the lengths they went to, to make ice cream:
My grandma always held her church community in Regina close, and looking back through the early days of her life, I can see where that came from.
A church was not built in Ravenscrag until 1925. Prior to this, the church services were held in the homesteads, with community members taking turns hosting. A portable organ was brought to each service. The organ is what my grandmother remembered best, and given her love of music her entire life, this does not surprise me.
LISTEN | Hazel shares her memories of the community's portable church organ:
Church was a popular place for community gatherings, and so was the dance hall. My grandma remembers her husband, Stewart Rodger, wheeling his piano out of the house and down the street to the hall to play at these events. They kept that same piano for years and transported it to many different houses.
When Stewart passed away, my grandma couldn't bear having a silent piano in the home and gave it away.
Fun and games
As a small and somewhat isolated community, they took play very seriously. In addition to the dances and church services, the community held rodeos and game days. These included the typical rodeo events, but also had pole balancing across the river and the ever popular bridge jumping competition.
The neighborhood came together to support each other. This included during times of war. Fundraisers were held to finance war efforts overseas.
LISTEN | Hazel recounts one particular fundraising event:
In listening to my grandma's tapes, I've learned from her perseverance. She survived Saskatchewan winters with no power, a global pandemic and two world wars. She grew up to marry Stewart and have four children, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
I am grateful that I was able to spend so much time listening to my grandmother tell these stories while she was still alive, and especially thankful to be able to hear them once again years later. The stories she retold the most were the ones that expressed her love for her family and our history.