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Pioneer’s memories kept alive

Alda Dale Randall kept a journal detailing the challenges of homesteading at High Prairie, Alta.  |  Randall family photo

“I know, no more than you, how this story is coming out but I shall write it day by day and we shall see what we shall see with a wee bit of prayer that it may be brave and bright.” — Diary of Alda Dale Randall, 1920

Alda Dale Randall braved the harsh conditions of northern Alberta, gave birth in a tent and often went hungry.

Her granddaughters, Lisa Randall, Heather Killeen and Kitty Eichman, marvel at such female homesteaders of a century ago.

Families hunted for their food, cleared land without tractors and used livestock to pull plows.

“They worked 16 hours a day just to put food on the table,” said Lisa Randall.

Born in 1887 in Ohio, Alda Randall attended Wittenburg College and worked as a teacher before meeting and marrying a Wyoming cowboy and homesteading at High Prairie, Alta.

Detailed accounts of Randall’s experience during 1920 are documented in a journal that was donated to the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA).

It became part of a three-dimensional mixed media art exhibit created by artist and former archivist Marlena Wyman.

The PAA exhibit included a painting of Randall peering out of a tent in the rain.

“The artist transposed her thoughts and sketches into paintings,” said Lisa Randall.

Added Killeen: “That was grandmother and what she went through.”

Eichmann said it must have been especially hard for an educated city woman who wrote of wishing to see an opera or having more books.

“She missed the finer things of life,” she said.

Her husband, Guy, was often away working or finding food, leaving a pregnant Alda to care for children inside a tent. The weather didn’t co-operate with snow coming in June and returning by September that year.

“A lot of the time they were very hungry,” Killeen said.

Neighbours and local natives often shared their food and expertise on how to survive in such a harsh place, but there were numerous setbacks.

They built a cabin where there was no water and had to start from scratch at another site.

In the midst of these hardships, Randall found time to keep a diary, write fiction, shoot and develop photographs and make crafts.

She had concerns about her children’s diet of moose meat, potatoes and bread and their education, which she had to provide in the absence of schools.

The children had to be herded outside, regardless of the weather, when their mother was in labour.

The granddaughters say this life took its toll on her.

“She didn’t accept it all the time,” Eichmann said.

“Grandma was a force, but on occasion it would become a little too much for her and she would go to bed for days.”

She likely suffered from depression, perhaps post-partum depression, from giving birth to seven children.

Life improved in later years when the family moved closer to town. There, Randall started a museum and art classes and became active in farm women’s groups, but Guy died at age 51 in 1939 when she still had children at home.

“I could never have lived like my grandmother lived, gathering birch bark and making crafts,” said Eichmann.

“She had no choice. She carried on. There was a job to do and she just did it.”

Alda Randall’s daughter, Leila Lawrence, donated two of her mother’s diaries to the provincial archives in 1994.

“She wanted to keep her memory alive for future generations,” Killeen said.

Leslie Latta, the archive’s executive director and provincial archivist, encouraged others to do the same.

“If you have records in the attic or basement, we encourage you not to throw them out before considering moving them to the archives,” she said.

“What’s of most interest to us is the everyday life. They identify how people lived their lives.”

Latta said so many records of life today are digital, such as photos taken on cellphones that could be wiped out in an instant.

“Records captured in print actually have a longer life,” she said.

WANTED: Personal records of individuals and families

Alberta’s provincial archives is interested not only in the records of public figures but also in records that show what individuals and families did in their daily lives, including materials they have created, used or kept during their life. These records provide insight into the interests, occupations and life of an individual and reflect the values of the larger community.

Records of interest:

  • letters and correspondence
  • photographs
  • home movies, films and videos
  • sound recordings
  • diaries, scrapbooks and journals
  • sketchbooks

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