The Criddle Family
by Lillian Gibbons with postscript by Alice Brown
Manitoba Pageant, January 1961, Volume 6, Number 2
"Anywhere the wild rose grows is good crop land," said confident Manitoba Government bulletins circulating in England in 1880. Such confidence attracted nature-loving Percy Criddle and his wife Alice, of Addlestone in Surrey, who with their four children and the Harry Vane family, came to Manitoba in the early 1880s. "Of course the wild rose grows everywhere," notes mild Evelyn Criddle who was eighty-four years old in November, "But it turned out all right," he added.
The homestead of the Criddle family, in the sandy, rolling cattle country north of Treesbank and across the Assiniboine River, grew into a kingdom comprising 6000 acres and 500 head of beef cattle. In 1960 the family sold the homestead and moved to 136 acres on Vancouver Island. The cattle will still bear the brand "C", and the new owners, a business syndicate, hope to develop the place as a dude ranch.
To say farewell to this unique family The Winnipeg Tribune made a special tour last September. The party discovered that finding the place was like discovering the legendary home of Lorna Doone in the English valley beyond Exmoor and as dangerous. As we approached an ominous booming from the firing range at Shilo filled the air, and no directions were posted to give comfort to the enemy. Suddenly the narrow track led out into an open space. Beyond the white poplars lay an apple-green painted big square house. Out came an applecheeked man with a thatch of white hair, and a gay stride in those high rubber boots. Was this the Criddle place, we asked him. "Yes, I'm one of them," was Evelyn's friendly greeting.
In the kitchen, more a museum than a place for eating and cooking, was his sister Maida, seventy-eight strong and tall, smiling and self-possessed. "This is St. Alban's" we were told, named in the English manner like "Jalna," Mazo de la Roche's fictional home of the White-oaks family. Because the Criddles were English many visitors are struck with the similarity. "It's Jalna all over again," they say.
Invisible beyond the thick spruce grove was a red brick cottage, the home of brother Stuart Criddle, eighty-three. Through the years his wife, who passed away a few weeks after our visit, learned to accept such things as the yellow plastic pail of baby snakes that were shuffling off their skins in her living room window. "Little is known of their life habits," murmured the naturalist.
Another nearby house is hidden in the trees. It was Norman Criddle's "Lab". Norman was Manitoba's pioneer entomologist. His painstaking research provided a sound foundation for later studies of the life habits of Manitoba's native insect population, and a number of our province's foremost entomologists began their careers under his tutelage. After brother Norman's death his laboratory was used as a house. He developed a grasshopper poison, known as the "Criddle Mixture." "It has saved the West a few million dollar crop losses," said sister Maida proudly.
Miss Maida herself played a part in the family's scientific investigation, for she kept the weather station records since her father's death some forty-two years ago.
Evelyn had helped his brother Norman collect and mount butterflies, and the dining room was piled high with shallow glass-topped cases from the "Lab.". When Norman died his collection of insects went to the Provincial Entomological Laboratory at Brandon.
Gerald Malaher, Manitoba Director of Game and Fisheries, has been to St. Alban's many times. "The family is outstanding," he said, "in their quiet way as pioneers in this province." Stuart has contributed a great deal of knowledge to entomology, ornithology, archaeology, zoology, mammalogy and botany. His articles have been published in scientific journals and he is an honorary member of the Manitoba Museum Association.
Last summer Stuart's experimental garden produced a new sun-flower with fringed, feathery leaves which he hopes to develop as fodder. They are much more tender than the great smooth-edged leaves.
The Criddles the four English-born children and the four born at St. Alban's were an original do-it-yourself family. During the long winter evenings they carved picture frames and inlaid cribbage boards and boxes with ornamental patterns of great intricacy. They used bits of ivory keys from an old piano brought from England one that Lord Nelson had played on at their great grandfather's house in London. They built their own billiard table out of packing cases, rubber boots supplying the resilient inner edge of the playing surface. Cues, made by hand, hang nearby in a hand-carved wall rack. Maida and Evelyn are still adept, leaning on a newer billiard table to line up the shot. They carved their own golf balls too from cherry wood and made golf clubs from hard pin cherry wood and the iron from old bed springs. Life was a pleasure full of challenges. It appears that their father's study of music at Heidelberg, Germany provided a background for endless happy hours of music and composing in their Manitoba home. His knowledge of medicine came in handy as well. "A doctor is not supposed to look after his own family but he attended us," said Maida.
His wife Alice had a degree from Cambridge University, although, as she used to say, "Algebra isn't much use on the farm." Husband and wife both died in 1917, two weeks apart, and are buried on the Criddle estate, along with a son, two daughters, and Mrs. Harry Vane, the widow with five children who accompanied the Criddles to Manitoba.
No dog barked, nor cats stalked on these ancestral acres for the Criddles could not have the birds frightened from their bird-banding station. As evidence of the bird sanctuary which they provided we watched the purple martins sit thick on the wires, and forty bluebirds were counted from the kitchen window in the pond-sized bath below.
The old log barns are leaning lazily and will soon be burnt down. Pictures show the first house they raised in 1883. It was an eight-roomed log structure, hip-roofed like a barn. They had lived in two tents in the Fall of 1882 when they first arrived. In 1906 the present house replaced the log home. "We all helped. I nailed five thicknesses of newspaper under the tar paper," admitted Maida.
Percy Criddle's diary, which he kept in Latin, English or French, records a visit from Ernest Thompson Seton, who had walked there from Carberry. He writes "... spent the night here in the shanty, much scientific talk ... wish he lived near us, though the simple joys connected with farming might be neglected for noble pursuits."
The Criddles pioneered in sport as well. How many farm homes could boast tennis courts and a golf course in the years before World War I. Many sports-minded people of Western Manitoba remember the exploits of a younger brother, "Tolly" Criddle, golfer and tennis player extraordinary. "Tolly," properly Talbot Criddle, still farms a few miles north of Wawanesa.
Of the children who came from England in 1882 only Harry Vane remains in the Treesbank district. He too followed the family passion for research. At his home, "St. John's" on the bank of the Souris River, a mile south-east of Treesbank, hedged in by a tight-massed bank of sheltering spruce, one may see what is probably the most magnificent display of hybrid roses in all Manitoba. A few years ago the horticulturist at the University of Manitoba reported to inquiring rose fanciers that Mr. Vane had evolved the best method of wintering delicate roses in our climate.
Of the district's pioneers who would remember the very early days and the Criddle's Christmas parties of those years, only Mrs. H. N. Clark survives. Of those parties it has been reported that when the cutters swung up to the door to unload, their hostess this trans-planted English gentlewoman, welcomed the guests looking gracious and queenly "in a dress as beautiful as Queen Victoria's".
To the old district of Treesbank, (originally Millford), that has said good-bye to them this Fall, the departure of the Criddle family seems the end of an era. They will not be forgotten there.
Page revised: 1 July 2009