Solitary life still left time for neighbours

SASKATOON — For Harold Hathaway and many other farmers, one of the best things about working on a single family farm was working alone.

His wife never understood how he could stand it, but it suited him. He loved getting up early, doing his own thing without the need to co-ordinate tasks with someone else, and doing it his way without having to consult and agree with a co-worker. He had had enough of that when, from age 14, he farmed with his dad and they often didn’t see eye-to-eye.

He was so passionate about farming that his dad soon let him take over while he worked at custom blacksmithing and taught violin lessons.

Hathaway farmed from 1934-87, a time when one didn’t always need money to get things done and, when help was needed, neighbours worked together, creating friendships in the bargain.

Harvest is a time when help is most often needed. In the 1930s, the work was physical and the machinery required more than one man to operate. The binder or hay mow needed at least two men: one to drive the horses or tractor and one to sit on the equipment and operate it. Threshers, the precursor to the modern combine, required a crew of many men.

As a teenager, Hathaway worked on a threshing crew in the Marwayne, Alta., area.

Neighbours help seed a crop. | Hathaway family photo

One day, he recalled, the crew worked late into the night so rather than spending precious time walking home, Hathaway grabbed a blanket and laid down under a wagon. This was common practice among threshing crew.

Soon the mosquitoes became unbearable so he made a smudge to drive them away. After only a short sleep he was awakened to learn his blanket had caught fire. Between feeding the mosquitos and extinguishing fires, he got very little sleep and “morning came early” as he put it, referring to the start time for the crew.

In the 1940s, the combine came into common use and a large threshing crew was no longer needed, but the price of a combine was prohibitive for some. Hathaway owned a combine and worked with neighbours so they could help finish each other’s harvests.

He also helped Walter Kvill for several years, who owned a small farm and didn’t own a combine. In return, Kvill helped Hathaway with his harvest or haying. The Kvills and the Hathaways became good friends, often visiting over supper.

Hathaway also helped Alex Kettles, a farmer with one arm. Kettles impressed Harold because he could shovel grain as fast as anyone, despite his disability.

Of course, in times of crisis everyone pitched in to help. When someone was unable to complete their field work, the neighbours made sure it got done, or if a fire occurred, every able-bodied man was considered a volunteer firefighter.

For those close enough to hear it, the fire siren in the town office gave notice of urban as well as rural fires. During the days of the party line and the local telephone operator, one long ring to all homes notified residents of a fire. A call to the operator would then follow, when they would learn the exact location. Neighbours then loaded their vehicles with shovels, pails, blankets and anything else they might need and sped off to help.

The Marwayne elevator fire of 1973 destroyed two elevators, full to the top with canola. Everyone turned out to do what they could. Because he lived close to town, Hathaway was asked to bring his tractor and pull the rail cars away, also filled with grain and standing just behind the burning elevators. Hathaway came up with a way to hitch them up and pulled them to safety. The fires burned all day and residents stayed to keep an eye on it, preventing further damage and injuries. It is a day not forgotten by those involved.

Working alone is fine most days for many farmers, but certain times demand a supportive effort. Distance between homes, limited communication and other non-existent services in earlier days created a co-operative spirit, and while working together, many good friendships formed.

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