CHAPTER 1 - Toni

Antonia "Toni" Hoffman, age four, clings to the rail of the ship, gazing dully across the grey, wind-whipped waves of the Atlantic Ocean. It seemed to her to have been an eternity since they left their home - she was tired of seeing water everywhere, she knew being on land would make her feel much better. Food was the farthest thing from her mind - for days now she had suffered from sea-sickness, and her parents reassurances they would soon reach port became more blurred with each passing day.

The scenes change quickly - Toni is now spending her time watching trees and farmland, villages and waterways slip past the windows of a train. Her appetite has returned, she is alert, observing the attractive countryside, watching birds and the few animals that dash away at the noise of the engine. But there are very few people - it all seems very strange - where is everyone?

Now they are in a city - her mother tells her it is Edmonton, Alberta. In Canada. Toni is delighted to see her aunt again, but a little shy with her new uncle.

She and her mother go for a walk - the streets are muddy, but the houses are fascinating. They are so tall, so new and there are so many of them. Toni's attention wanders from the houses - for she is wearing her prettiest blue coat - the one her mother made the fancy lace collar for, and she wants everyone to see and admire it.

Toni drifts off to sleep in the golden sunshine of an Alberta afternoon. She is warm and happy, her slumber pleasant. Suddenly, loud crashing noises and cold, wet air frighten her into wakening. Crying out in alarm and apprehension, she glances around - the room is now dark, the shattered window pane lies scattered across the floor, in pools of rainwater and hailstones. Her mother hurries in, and Toni is once again secure.

Her father begins to talk of moving. Toni would be content to stay where they are - they are living in a comfortable house, and the family has recently acquired both a dog and a pony. These are the things that are important to Toni and her siblings - what is a homestead, anyway?

Picture 1-1 Gustie age 6 and Toni age 4

Once again they are in the country. Toni slowly turns around and glances in all directions - the land is flat, with seemingly endless expanses of grass. On one side she sees a body of water with some trees around it. Toni and her sister, Gustie, age six, (Picture 1-1) wander off to explore the area, and find a broad, deep coulee where they discover curious circles of stones and their young imaginations run wild. The circles of stones, which they later learn are the remains of a camp of nomadic Indians, the natural shrubs and the springs of water in this coulee all combine to make this the favourite play area for the two little girls. Here they fill numerous golden days, discovering the secret places and natural wonders of their new world, all within calling distance of their new residence on their parents Alberta homestead.

While the little girls were fascinated with their new playground, their parents, Julius and Augusta Hoffman, were ecstatic with their new home, and the new opportunities they saw their immigration to Canada would be providing to their children.

Julius and Augusta Hoffman had lived in the region of Germany that touched on the Polish border. They were peasants, the sturdy individuals who abounded in Europe, but found the increasing restrictions on their livelihood frustrating. Julius loved agriculture - the tilling of the soil, nurturing growing crops, caring for livestock, charting his own course - those were the factors he looked for in his lifestyle. Now these were the very things the officials were taking from them. No longer did a farmer have the choice of what he would plant and grow - he was told what crops were needed, and how many acres of each he must seed. Construction of a new building brought another wave of officialdom - informing him where the structure must sit on his land, what its dimensions might be and what it would be used for. To an independent and thinking man, this was too much. Somewhere on the face of the earth there must be a place where a man would be allowed to make his own plans to manage his own acres in his own way.

In 1908 the Canadian Government was advertising in many European countries, extolling the virtues of the prairie provinces with their vast unsettled regions and 'free' land. The lure of free land caught Julius' imagination. His sister had recently moved to Edmonton, Alberta, where she had joined and married her fiance. Edmonton sounded like a great place for the Hoffman family to start out from in Canada.

Julius had been raised on a farm - his formal education was limited, but he had learned much working with his father and brothers. His father raised thoroughbred race horses, and Julius and his brothers were well acquainted with working with these, and other, animals. He also possessed a passionate love of the land. And since it is always better to have more than one trade in life, Julius learned cabinet making and also worked for a time as a saddler, making mostly harnesses for horses. All these abilities would be beneficial in an adopted country.

Augusta Weiss, later Mrs. Julius Hoffman, was born into an influential family in their small German town. Her father was the local teacher, preacher and doctor, all rolled into one. He was held in such high esteem by the local citizens that he was thought of as the 'first man' of the town. He was educated, and insisted on all his children, the girls included, being educated. Life for the family was a pleasant, satisfying experience until Augusta's mother died.

When Augusta was thirteen, her father re-married. His new wife was a woman with children from a previous marriage, and it soon became evident, that, to her, her own natural children came first and Augusta and her siblings would have to leave home and fend for themselves.

She became a nurse-maid to two small daughters of a well-to-do family. Augusta tended to the girls daily needs, cared for their clothing and performed other related tasks. She was captivated with the laces and other trimmings the German gentry used on their children's clothing, and she learned to make many of them, using crocheting and tatting techniques. Many items of clothing she later prepared for her own four daughters showed the influence of this period of employment.

The Hoffman's had a family of seven children. All the children came to Canada with them, some remaining in this country, others moving to the United States in later years. The two eldest were Tilley and Sam - who both found employment immediately after their arrival in Alberta, and were only occasionally on the homestead.

Rosella, Karl and Sig ranged in age from fourteen to ten, respectively, and Augusta II, known as "Gustie", and Toni were the youngest.

The Hoffman's sojourn in Edmonton ended when Julius located a suitable homestead. In 1909 the family moved to the Dowling Lake District, about fourteen miles from the present day town of Hanna. Julius could scarcely believe his good fortune for a nominal fee and the preparation of a specified number of acres for crop, he would have one hundred and sixty acres of land! Land that would be HIS! He could decide what crops to plant, where to build the house and the barn, and make a dozen other decisions denied him in Europe. He and Augusta knew the work would be hard, but the accompanying freedoms made the task lighter from the outset.

Both Julius and Augusta spoke German and Polish fluently. Their move to Canada necessitated learning English and each, in their own way, accomplished this. Julius would talk with anyone, anywhere, and was not concerned about his pronunciation or any grammatical errors. That he might have an accent was irrelevant - and through time, his English improved and expanded. Augusta Hoffman was over-conscious of her speech, and learned most of her English from their children, as the youngsters learned the language in school.

The Dowling Lake school was built on two acres of the south-west quarter of Section Seventeen, Township Thirty-Two, Range Fifteen, west of the Fourth Meridian - on the corner of Julius Hoffman's homestead. The children in a radius of about five miles attended classes there from March until close to Christmas. There were no classes in the coldest part of the winter because of weather conditions and the difficulty in keeping the school heated. Toni started her education at age five, since seven year old Gustie was going to school, and "what Gustie can do, I can do, too!"

The sisters shared a double desk, and the school teacher's first assignment to the students was for them to copy a passage from the blackboard. In having all the students write the same paragraph, the teacher would be able to better assess their scholastic standings and divide them into grades. The children all used slates - paper was a luxury no one on the Canadian prairies could afford school children.

Toni looked at the slate, and at the jumble she had been asked to copy from the blackboard. Slates were for drawing pictures, weren't they? She knew nothing of writing, what was she to do?

Gustie, who had some knowledge of writing, copied the passage onto her slate, then re-copied it onto Toni's, and handed both in to the teacher.

Summers on the Canadian prairies were often punctuated by electrical storms. Alarmed, Julius always awakened all the family, fearing a lightning strike would necessitate a speedy evacuation. Toni watched and listened to many thunderstorms, but never had lightning come close - however, the memories of the alarm the storms created in the Hoffman household remained with her all her life, and electrical storms remained something to be wary of, and when she was alone, to fear.

One day, Julius sent the two little girls on an errand to nearby neighbours. The distance across the fields was much shorter than walking around by the road, so they struck off across the growing field. The girls started out merrily, the crop was only a few inches tall, and it seemed like walking on fresh grass. However, they quickly found the plants were intertwined and seemed to cling to their legs and shoes, entangling and tripping them. After the first two or three falls, they realized these were not accidents, and they glanced around them. They were close to the middle of the field - they did not know it was flax - and they suffered many more tumbles before they reached the far side and the neighbours yard. They completed their errand, and when they returned home, said nothing of their walk to their father, fearing his concern for the crop and his quick temper. Their walk home was a little longer, much more pleasant, and by the road!

The little girls were all but inseparable. The pony Julius had bought while the family was in Edmonton was their constant companion. They rode "Dewey" double wherever they went - to get the mail, or out herding the family's cattle on the unfenced grassland adjacent to the homestead. Gustie learned to handle a rifle, and shot many gophers while tending the livestock. Gustie could shoot while sitting on Dewey's back - he would merely flick his ears at the report of the gun-it never alarmed him. Occasionally, Gustie would shoot a rabbit and take it home to her mother and Rosella who cooked it into a tasty meal. Fresh meat was not easily found on the open prairies, and frozen meat was something you only had in the winter.

Toni and Gustie sometimes accompanied their father on trips to Hanna. The town was built up in the first few years the family lived on the homestead, and on one trip to town in very cold weather, Julius left the girls in the new restaurant where it was warm, while he went to fetch the team and wagon. The pervading fragrance of the fresh-sawn lumber has remained with Toni ever since.

Water on the Canadian prairies was often hard to find. Julius drilled wells, but was not successful in locating a good supply of water until he decided to utilize the springs in the coulee. There were a number of springs and boggy areas - some so large as to be a hazard to livestock. One of the Hoffman's cows fell into a large bog and was unable to extricate herself. Julius tried to help her, but succeeded only when he harnessed a horse to provide the extra muscle required to pull her out.

The girls also had a misadventure early in their explorations of the bogs. Gustie fell in and quickly scrambled out, but was covered in mud to above her waist. In tears, she ran for the house, smearing gobs of mud on the grasses and bushes as she went. Toni followed, also in tears, trying , in vain, to avoid Gustie's muddy trail. Both girls needed a bath and full change of clothing!

With rocks gathered from his fields, Julius and his sons built a dam across an area of the coulee, producing a shallow pond in the centre. Seepage from the springs fed the pond, and any drainage out of the dam flowed into the Dowling Lake. The Hoffman's livestock drank from the pond, and Augusta's ducks claimed it as their swimming hole - on hot summer days the children borrowed the pond from the waterfowl. Julius built a rowboat, and the pond was an extension of the coulee's playground.

Time means little to children. The days blended one into the other - in summer they went to school, helped with outdoor chores, tended the cattle and picked saskatoons along Wolf Creek. Idle time found them in the coulee, playing in or around the pond. The winters were long and more difficult. Augusta taught her daughters the needle skills she possessed, and they became proficient in tatting, crocheting and knitting. Mitts and socks were always in demand! Nothing the children made went unused pillowcases, undergarments, and other items had decorative trimmings made on long, cold winter days when the temperatures or darkness precluded outdoor activities.

One winter, when Augusta had been confined to her bed for some weeks, Julius came downstairs one night, his face creased with worry, and told the children if they wished to see their mother alive one last time, they had best go up to her bedroom now. They all did so. Augusta had been haemorrhaging for quite some time, and was becoming weak. Julius feared she would not live through the night. She did recover in time, but more of the heavy housework fell to Rosella. A few years later, when Augusta was in a similar condition, Julius sent Sig, on horseback, to bring the doctor from Castor. The trip was over thirty miles one way, and both horse and rider were exhausted when they arrived at their destination. The doctor owned a car, and after examining Augusta, recommended surgery in Calgary. It was a frightening prospect for all the Hoffman family, but the children managed alone while Julius accompanied Augusta to Calgary on the train, and stayed with her during the time of the operation and initial recovery period. He returned home and when his wife was discharged and returned to Hanna by train, Julius rented a car to meet her and bring her out to the homestead. The youngsters had all missed their mother, and especially so the little girls, but with the total absorption youngsters bring to the matter of the moment, they were utterly engrossed in drowning out the spring crop of gophers when Augusta and Julius arrived home.

Picture 1-2 Augusta Hoffman with her grandson, Jack Clark, Tilley's son

The members of the community had to make their own entertainment - most of which revolved around games and dancing. The three Hoffman brothers all played the harmonica and Augusta (Picture 1 - 2) taught the girls to dance to this music. Early prairie settlements all had their share of bachelors - men of a variety of ages who missed female companionship, and took special enjoyment out of any community function where both sexes played a role.

Toni and Gustie began attending dances when Toni was six years old. Their parents would dance the first waltz together, then Julius would retire to spend the balance of the evening talking with the other men. Augusta loved to dance, as did the little girls, and the community's single men often partnered them. When they had no one else to dance with, the girls danced together.

They found the dances and parties wonderful entertainment in an otherwise quiet lifestyle. Games of many kinds were played - dominos, cards, crokinole. So called 'children's games' such as Hide and Seek, and Drop the Hankie were played by the youngsters, and some individuals even into their early twenties - fun was something you took as you found it, and people were hungry enough for fun and laughter that playing children's games was not dismissed as unsuitable. There were house parties throughout the year, but especially so in the summer when the dancing could be held in an empty granary, or some games could be played outdoors. The host family provided lunch, and there never were any alcoholic beverages served at any of these events.

Picture 1-3 Toni and Dewey

The years rolled by and the land was good to the Hoffman's. Julius found he had paid all his debts and had some money in hand. He was growing older, and the farm labour was becoming increasingly more difficult. His sister and brother-in-law were living in Castle Rock, Washington, and wrote glowing letters about the mild climate, abundance of rain and good growing conditions, plus many job opportunities. Sam and his wife, Magdalena, also lived at Castle Rock - one winter Julius decided he would travel to the west coast to see his family, and to judge for himself if moving from Alberta would be a reasonable decision.

Sig and Gustie were employed in Seattle, Washington. Karl had recently been married and was living on an adjacent rented farm. Augusta, Rosella and Toni, (Picture 1- 3) with help from Karl, would remain on the homestead to care for the livestock.

Julius was most pleased with what he found in Washington State, and determined to live there. Returning to Hanna, he arranged to rent his farm to Karl, and the various items the family would not take with them to Washington, and that Karl could not use on the farm, would be sold by public auction. In a remarkably short time, the family was enroute to a new home.

For a time they lived with Sam and Magdalena, until Julius located and purchased an orchard and built a home there. Julius and Sam traded work, since Sam was also building a new home at that time. Mild, rainy winters, flowers in February, tall trees all around - this was quite a change from the dry, flat, almost treeless vistas they were accustomed to in Alberta. It was wonderful - and the Hoffman's enjoyed their new surroundings for three years.


©1992,2006,2007 E.Woytowich