Nice to Grow Up In
by Hilda Hesson
Manitoba Pageant, January 1960, Volume 5, Number 2
It was a good many years ago, and Brandon was a tiny town perched on the gentle slope of the wide valley of the Assiniboine River. and facing the hills at the north where the buildings of the Asylum, the Experimental Farm and the Indian School made spots of color against the green of the hills. It was across the tops of those hills that on hot August days dust devils whirled, carrying the soil from one farm to the next, and in winter the clefts and the valleys among them were deep with snow. Two bridges crossed the river, at 1st street and a mile away, at 18th street. Farther east was the old Iron Bridge, across which the trains rattled, and near which, on the river bank, we often had picnics. The railway lines and the elevators divided the town from the valley and "The Flats", where many of the newcomers from across the seas had built themselves small houses smothered in gardens of old fashioned flowers, and often fenced with hand-woven willow fences. In the rich river-bottom soil, vegetables and flowers grew to a great size, and the floods which sometimes devastated the valley left behind a gift of richer soil.
In the town itself, all the streets ran uphill from Pacific Avenue and the railway, south to the Johnson Estate and Van Horne Avenue. There were wooden sidewalks on the most important streets, Rosser Avenue, 6th, 10th, 12th, and probably on Princess and Lorne Avenues. There were wide open patches of prairie everywhere, and here we searched for the first furry crocus in the early spring before the snow had all gone, and later found buttercups and vetches, cowslips, wild roses, buffalo beans, and luscious wild strawberries that could not hide themselves from the experienced hunters. There were the strawberries too that grew on tall stems in the ditches, larger and far easier to pick, but never as sweet as those hidden in the grass. In bushes in odd places, the dry but sweet Saskatoon berry hung in blue bunches ready for the picking. I remember a little patch of willow bush on the corner of 15th Street and Rosser Avenue where sheltered from the wind, rarer flowers grew, white violets, and even the occasional yellow lady slipper. We were told not to go into the bush, but I'm afraid the temptation was too great, for it was a treasure trove for pussy willows when the snow began to go.
It was a wonderful place, Brandon, or at least we thought so. There was so much to do. School of course, and except on very stormy days when we were driven in the old cutter drawn by "Jess", the cream colored pony, we walked to the new Central School a mile or more. When we came home there were hills to slide down, a home-made rink for skating, the cow, the horse and chickens to be fed; the dog to romp with in the snow. When summer came, there were some things we didn't enjoy too much, weeding the garden for one, but there were rewards here, for we could gather the fruit and vegetables as the summer grew, and no strawberries or raspberries or wild plums ever tasted better than those we gathered, warm with the sun, in our Brandon garden. Dad was an expert with tomatoes too and once we even grew peanuts and a sweet potato. The one time rink became a tennis court, the pony became a prancing charger for us to ride, and the dog romped with a lamb and barked in a purely friendly way at the big hare that sat in the doorway of the hay loft.
There were no movies in those days; no television: no radio, but there were Festival Days just the same. The 24th of May, the real one, was always Race Day, and we usually managed to see the trotting races, and share the special meal at which there were always guests. A home-boiled ham and the first strawberries were the menu for that evening. And then there was the day the circus came to town. It was a circus that brought the first "horse-less" carriage to Brandon, and it was as rare and amusing to us as the clown and the screaming calliope. The lions always seemed to roar at the right time, just as they passed us, and the beautiful ladies on horesback sitting side-saddle, and wearing braided skirts and coats, with veils trailing from high silk hats, were our idea of pure romance.
Once there was a Calathumpian Parade. I don't know what for, probably July 1st, but there were masks, and clowns, and beautiful local girls with diamond dust in their hair.
Perhaps more important to us than even the circus with all the thrills of the animals, the high wobbly seats, the sticky popcorn, and the elephants, was the anticipation of the important parts we would ourselves play when the Christmas concerts came round. It was then that we took our places on the stage of the old City Hall, and sang our song, or "said" our piece, or for the time being, became angels.
In the summer there were picnics beginning usually with the Sunday School picnic, and it was a great thrill when we came to the place where we had to use a train to visit a park in nearby Souris, or Wawanesa. I can still smell the smoke and feel the gritty soot of those green plush, lamp-lighted cars. Most of all though, we enjoyed family picnics when in phaetons and buggies we drove out to Lake Clementi, a tiny slough on a farm south of Brandon. After the horses had been tethered under the trees, the children were usually taken out in a boat and the mothers set out the wonderful picnic food on tablecloths on the grass. What food no sandwiches here but veal and ham pies, cold roast beef, the most luscious desserts, and because some of the friends who came were able to afford it, we actually had plums, and sometimes even peaches a rare treat in that prairie town.
There's not much doubt that Christmas was one of the great times in Brandon. There were no street decorations or strings of light (electricity was far too rare and expensive for that) and often the lights in the stores only gleamed faintly through the heavy white frost on the windows. A few stores had some bits of evergreen, but decorated or not, they were thrilling to us, especially the butcher shop, dim behind its thickly frosted windows, and shivery cold, as you scuffled through the clean sawdust on the floor and looked up at the huge sides of beef, and the stiff frozen pigs hung from great hooks and garlanded with paper roses and chains. We watched with awe while the butcher with his long knife and saw cut off a 24 lb. roast that was to be spiced for the New Year. Our turkey never came from the butcher shop, but from a farmer, and never again will I see such turkeys and chickens and huge brown eggs, as those that had travelled perhaps five miles into town in an open sleigh carefully wrapped in many coverings.
Brandon's single fruit store, which belonged appropriately enough, to the Orchards, had something very special to see one Christmas, and we peered through a hole breathed in the frost of the window, at the first grapefruit we had ever seen. Speculation about this lemon-colored orange, ran high. How would you eat it? What would it taste like? Fruit was so rare that it was a treat to get an orange in the toe of your stocking for Christmas, and it's hard to forget how martyred we were when one year we were asked to be big-hearted, and give up our oranges to three children on a farm.
Most of our Christmas shopping was done in a small, dark, crowded little shop, heated by a round coal stove, where a little man slid in and out among the shadows, and the shelves held entrancing gifts for a few cents. At least we thought them entrancingmy seventy-five cent budget had to be spread out! My brother and I combined to buy our father's gift, a shaving mug. As he wore a beard I'm afraid the gift was an ornament only!
The house at Christmas time, always seemed warmer and lighter, and for weeks there were especially spicey odours, as Christmas puddings burbled in the boiler, mincemeat matured in a crock, and fruit cakes, coming out of the oven filled the house with a wonderful fragrance. There was mystery in the air too. Cupboards that we were not allowed to open; interesting looking parcels brought by the express man in his red wagon; more mail than usual, as so, on slow feet, we approached "The Day."
It probably was about 6.00 a.m. when the first footsteps creaked on the stairs, and a sleepy parent bribed us with one parcel each, to go back to bed while he poked up the furnace and lit a grate fire. How exciting it all was! We hardly noticed breakfast, and it was a scramble to get off to church, where red flannel panels bordered with evergreen and sprinkled with imitation snow, decorated the pulpit, and the screen erected for that occasion. Someone's pet house plants were banked on the altar, and it seemed very Christmasy to us. After church, Christmas greetings, and the odd little parcel tucked into a muff and then, sleigh bells jingling, it was off home to the long-awaited dinner, and to play with the new toys.
And from then on the days got colder and white frost covered fur collars, and snow piled up along the sidewalks, and the horse-drawn wooden plough progressed down the main streets slowly. It was a long, cold winter always, but we never had time to think of that. There were parties after school, rehearsals for this and that, but sometimes, when stiff with layers of clothing and with 'clouds' (woolen scarves to you) tied around our heads, we struggled home in the snow, against a west wind, and as we watched the foreboding sundogs that told of coming storm, we wondered what it would be like in California where our neighbours had recently gone to live. But it was a nice town, Brandon, to grow up in.
Page revised: 27 November 2011