Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Petrofka Ferry

Saskatchewan boyhood memories by Nick Troubetzkoy
Never before published tales of Doukhobor rural life in the 1940s  family farm, banya, baseball field, uncle John's general store and petro station, brick making, folklore, river, water hand pump, electricity, vodka still, cows, fishing, chickens, berries, outhouse, ice skating, ... 

For a kid there was an exciting grab bag of things to see and do along the North Saskatchewan River near Petrofka and on the ferry crossing the river, and on the farm, which was Uncle John's farm.

Orange markers show locations added to map: 'Blaine Lake and Langham, 
SK Doukhobor Settlement, 1899-1932', by Jonathan Kalmakoff.
Green insert map shows location of Petrofka north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Uncle John had kids, Phil, Donnie and Sonia, and his wife was Mabel. They all lived together in a farmhouse with my grandmother and grandfather on my mom's side (the Gulioffs).

Uncle John, my mom Lucy, Uncle Eli, Uncle Jim and Auntie Fannie, were all brothers and sisters.  There were five of them and they all lived around the great river and near John’s farm at that time. 

The farm was the first place you would hit when you crossed the river on the ferry and reached the shore on the other side.

Just drive a city block along the old dirt road from the ferry landing pad and there you are at a big flat area where Uncle John had put in a baseball field and where people from the entire area would come and play baseball.

Uncle John sold two types of gas and diesel and K-oil [kerosene] there outside of his local general store just by the ball field, with four grand old mechanical pumps outside. You had to pump fuel into the tall glass cylinders at the top of these pumps by hand and keep them topped up ready for action.

Us kids were given the task of keeping the glass cylinders on top of these tall gas pump housings full, by pushing and pulling the long wooden handles back and forth that were at the bottom of each the pump housing.  Why a hand pump?  Well of course this was because we did not have any electricity anywhere in the region.

When you looked up you would see a small amount of gas squirting and spilling into the tall glass cylinder with every stroke of the pump handle.  

The glass cylinder was really like a giant measuring cup with marks at every gallon, half gallon and quarter gallon.  If you wanted gas you would just pour it into your car’s gas tank with the gas hose and nozzle from the pump.  For example, if you wanted two gallons of gas, you would check to see that the cylinder was full and then you would pour two gallons into your car and you would physically see the gas dropping downward two gallons in the glass cylinder.  Fun to watch, and hypnotic for a kid. 

The gallon level marks in the cylinder were half an inch wide so you could have a good argument about whether you were measuring the gas from the top of the mark or the bottom of the mark. A favourite threat which was shouted at the skinny kid attendants by the burly farmers was 'Hey kid are you sure the gas was at the top of the mark before you started?'  One half an inch of gas in the glass cylinder was a meaningful amount of gas back in those days

The reason there were two gas pumps was not for regular or premium gas, but for regular gas and farm gas.  That’s why the gas in the pumps was of two very distinct colours.  Purple for farm gas and orange for the regular gas. If you were a farmer, you would get your gas tax free which meant at a very considerable savings. But if you weren't a farmer, you would have to pay for gas with the government tax added onto the price.  A big price jump.  Right there you had the purple gas, the orange gas and temptation.

If you put purple farm gas into your car and you weren’t a farmer, you could be heavily fined because if RCMP would stop you, they would take a syringe, plunge it into your gas tank, pull it out and say, 'You sir are a criminal, you have put farm gas in this here car, mister and you are therefore not paying the provincial Saskatchewan Gas Tax which is a serious offence.  Consequently sir, we're going to fine you, or put you in jail, or lock up your car, or take it away from you.  Mister, you are in a big bit of trouble. '

If our family didn't have a car because sometimes we were too poor to have a car, we'd catch a ride with people who were going in the direction of Blaine Lake and the farm.  Then we would be dropped off and stay in Uncle John's housing complex, which was really just a bunch of dirt buildings. The walls of the house and the other buildings were all made from mud.  Made up of a mix of dirt, clay, straw, cow dung, horse dung, and water which was shovelled into wooden forms which were left in the sun to dry and become building bricks.  The bricks were made by mixing this dirt formula in a grave shaped ditch dug in the ground into which you dumped all the forgoing ingredients and added water and women with bare feet to mush everything into a muddy dirt mixture just like kneading bread dough and then dumping the dirt dough into the forms to dry in the sun thereby creating mud bricks for constructing walls.

These architectural wonder houses were very, very primitive, very tiny and with only one wood burning stove in the middle of the house. Separate interior spaces were defined by woven willow tree branch privacy walls and the roofs were of woven straw placed over small willow tree trunks.

Behind the main house was a separate building which in Russian was called the banya.  The word banya translates as bath house which is the place where everyone would go to have their Saturday bath. The banya consisted of two rooms, one room which was a dressing room area where everyone would take of all of their clothes and hang them on hooks all around the room, and it also was the location of the front of a wooden stove made from oil drums with a door for loading wood into the stove and with its chimney in the dressing room to carry the smoke away.

Banya example

The oil drum stove protruded a long way into the banya and was completely clad all over in river stones which would get almost white hot from the wood burning in the stove under the stones.  On top of the stone clad stove sat a huge tub of water with a wooden ladle floating in the tub.

They call it a banya and I don’t know how to differentiate it from a sauna [Finnish], but it was hot dry, dry heat. That is, it was dry, dry, heat until somebody would surreptitiously approach the hot rock stove, take the ladle from the water tub, fill the ladle full of water and throw the water onto the red hot rocks.  This would result in an explosive blast of steam that was so hot it became invisible immediately.  If the ladle holder was one of the old troublesome grandfathers, then they would dip and blast and dip and blast repetitively until every one in the banya was shouting stop you durak, which in Russian translates to 'you idiot'.

The more steam created, the more foggy it ultimately became in the banya until you could not see anyone at all.  The banya benches were stacked in different levels rising from the front to the back where the back benches were just a few feet below the ceiling. This is where the highest heat was and where the old timers hung out in the hottest of hot heat. The lowest benches were about two feet above the floor and every layer going back from there would be about 18 inches higher.  The benches were about two feet wide and ran from side wall to side wall of the banya so that several people could lie flat out on each of them. 

On the wooden floor was the coolest level and that’s where the kids wrestled and played with everyone shouting at them all the time, watch the stove, watch the stove which was in the front of the banya in the central place of honour.

This was an every Saturday communal event with sometimes even relatives and neighbours coming over.  There were thin young willow branches with the leaves still on them lying everywhere that people would flog themselves with because it would stimulate your skin and also could make young women more fertile according to Slavic legend.

Willow, don't forget, is the source of acetyl-salicylic acid [aspirin] and grew in abundance all along the river.  It is a great stimulator and rejuvenator of the skin.  I think that it is in very expensive women's beauty products  which also come from the natural source called aspirin.

Of course, if there was snow outside, then if you had the nerve, you would rush outside and lie in the snow completely naked and make snow angels, screeching at the top of your lungs, burning with both cold and heat and then rushing back in to the banya and then whipping yourself with willow branches again and again.  With that, everybody was positively glowing and laughing hysterically.  Unless some undisciplined giggling brat locked the entry door and you could not get your naked body back into the banya.

Was there any drinking taking place?  Well the kids didn't know about it or if it was happening.  But those uncles, don’t forget those uncles had stills all over the place. Well why not? They were growing wheat and of course they'd without a doubt have stills and make their own vodka. 

Everybody would have a little bottle hidden away somewhere and of course Uncle Jim the vodka maestro had several stills on his farm hidden away in the bushes and behind rock piles.  Making vodka out of wheat is so easy to do and a still is not complicated. 

Little nips of vodka were available for everyone, little nibbles of vodka here and there through out Saturday night, which would go on and on.  In the meanwhile back at the ferry there was often a minor crime scene going on of course and people running away from the police every which way.

With all this booze floating around, you would have these ferry situations where the cops seemed to be always chasing after somebody but not always catching them.  The bad guys might cross on the ferry ahead of the cops and the cops would be left behind stuck on the wrong side of the river blowing their horn at the ferry and the infamous people who were driving off with nobody going to stop them until they were long gone on the other shoreline. 

The other thing about the North Saskatchewan River, is that it was lined with berries, 'Saskatoon berries'.  There were endless trees and trees and trees and you would be sent out with baskets to pick Saskatoon berries, buckets and buckets of Saskatoon berries.  They were really way better than any other blueberry.  Enough berries to eat and to make pies and jams and jellies.

The cows would have been let loose in the morning and would go wandering all along the river, and at the end of the day towards dusk, the kids would have to go out looking for the cows and round them up using willow switches to whip them on their butts so they’d shuffle back to the barn and get milked. 

Uncle John's store was always full of people, really full and he would have big pickle barrels, a 45-gallon wooden barrel with pickles in them that you’d stick a big pickle fork into and pull out pickles and there were barrels and barrels of peanuts and many more other treats to dig into.  That general store was such a very nice place to hang out in, full of people all the time all gossiping and having a great friendly social  experience.

There was a stream running through the property behind the store and behind the house, running completely right through the length of the farm.  I don't know what the source of the creek was, because this was prairie land, so it must have been a spring with the source higher up in the hills.  But it ran right through the farm, past the house, and right past the store. 

Because the creek was running into the North Saskatchewan River, being practical farm people, the family did block up the stream at a certain point near the house and created a big pond. That's where they would keep live sturgeon that they would catch from the North Saskatchewan.  They would catch live sturgeon and keep them fresh and alive for a long time in that pond and would sell the fish and caviar to passing people for ten cents a pound.

Don't forget that the sturgeon fish and its caviar were just the most common thing living in the pond  and if you liked caviar you could  just eat it by the handful if you wanted to.  But this caviar in our pond was not like the caviar you buy in a glass jar in a big city gourmet store which has salt added to it, because that glass jar, rich people caviar, is really very salty.  Fresh caviar from our river sturgeon didn’t have that salty chemical taste, it had a clean, fresh from the fish, fresh from the river flavour.

Whenever the sturgeon was killed, the kids would gather around for the exploding of the fish swim bladders that were smashed with a hammer and would explode sounding like a gunshot. 

Uncle John had built out a twin bay outhouse on top of the stream, but down stream a bit from the pond and away from other idyllic surroundings so all of those special areas would remain fresh, pure and park like and clean.  So this outlying loo [lavatory] was further away, but was where everybody went to the bathroom.

It was down hill a bit and away, down past the sturgeons and so everybody would use that outhouse to go and have a poo and if you were a kid, you would do whatever it is downstream from the outhouse and have what I called the outhouse poo races.  It was literally an outhouse built over the stream and as a kid, why would you not be interested in the outfall and having races between the turds?  This would cause the adults to go nuts if they saw the kids downstream poking at mysterious objects in the creek water and shrieking.

Of course, there were lots of chickens everywhere, and so if you have chickens you eat their eggs for as long as they produce them, but then when eggs come no more, you have to kill them and eat them.  Of course if you want to eat them, you have to catch them. This was kids work.  Imagine four kids running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to catch four chickens for that weekend’s large family gathering.

After the kids caught the chickens their favourite harassment was to gather around and try to convince the axe man to chop the head off a chicken and then let the chicken go so the chicken could run around like a chicken with his head cut for up to ninety seconds just going full blast with the head lying there on the chopping block and the running body spouting blood and the chicken just running and running, all over the yard, but running silently since the cock-a-doodle-doo part of the chicken was lying back there on the chopping block.  Now imagine four chickens that we kids caught all running around at the same time with four mute heads on the chopping block.

K-oil lamp
It was at this point when the chicken fell over sideways, that we would take off like rocket ships so that we did not get stopped and recruited as child chicken feather pluckers which was quite a difficult job and probably illegal. 

What a place, it was full of stuff to do, and in the winter, there were hills that we used to go sleigh riding on. And of course they would flood the flat baseball field and you could go skating there as it had turned into a big skating rink for everybody who wanted to be in and around there to meet up.

Oh yes by they way, no electricity anywhere and therefore no magical electric light bulbs.  It was all kerosene lamps all the way everywhere you go.  Not your benign flickering flame K-oil lamps, but the mean hissing lamps that you pump up to pressurize the K-oil tank to then create the fine spray that shoots onto and ignites the fragile carbon filament sack. A filament so fine that if you breath too hard on the filament it turns into ash before your very eyes. 

Replacing that filament in the dark if you can even find where they are hidden is one of life’s most difficult tasks.  Certainly subject to failure and the humiliation of your mother’s complimentary words 'chavo eta dyela, chorta dva durak' which as you know full-well means 'what is going on here, are two devils attacking you, you idiot?'  'Why is that filament not replaced yet.  We are the living blind in here.'

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