Typical “turn of the century” farm woman, washing clothes on a scrub board while looking after the little ones.
Over the past year or so we have related stories about the early history and development of Leduc and area. Most of the stories were about the men who came, stayed, and contributed to Leduc’s rich heritage, but behind these men were the real unsung heroes, the women of Leduc.
Some like Ma Aicher or Maria Ann Heath were known for their business sense and contributed to the development of Leduc’s downtown. However, most made their contributions behind the scenes. They were the true homemakers and when times got tough it would be their resourcefulness and ingenuity that provided the key to the survival of a homestead.
The 1890’s were hard on the first settlers of Leduc and District. Winters were long and cold followed by wet springs and crop failures were not uncommon. When food was low and the roads impassable, it would be the ladies that would find a way to feed their families. They were able to adapt a coffee mill into a grinder for flour. Wheat would be sifted through with the coarser meal being turned into porridge or puddings and the finer for bread or biscuits.
Long before Robin Hood or Pillsbury, the most popular flour was called Strong Bakers. It came in three grades, dark, darker, and darkest. Not many used the darkest grade as they thought it was made up from the mill’s sweepings! Strong Bakers not only fed homesteaders but in many cases it also provided the table and bed linen, curtains and drapes, as well as clothing including sunbonnets.
The most popular drink was called tea-dust, which contained a little tea and a lot of dust! Coffee often came from bread crusts that were dried and browned in an oven. Some times barley was substituted for the bread.
Most homesteader wives learned to adapt their cooking with the animals found on the land. Prairie chicken, wild duck, and partridge, along with fish, provided a change from the normal diet of rabbit. Rabbits were found everywhere and became the main stable for many homesteaders’ families. Women learned to boil, stew, fry, and roast rabbit. They could dry, hash, frizzle, and corned rabbits. They would make pies, croquettes, or sausage rabbits at a drop of a hat.
Like rabbits vegetables were served in a variety of ways. Carrots could be found in soups and stews, mashed, creamed, or fried. Some also found their way into desserts when they were covered in sugar and cream. Early pioneer women learned to preserve the berries that grew wild, but the favorite desert was dried apples with syrup.
From 1900 to 1905 there was so much rain most “root cellars” became flooded making the normal way vegetables had been stored unusable, so the women arranged to have root houses built into the side of a hill.
Women were able to adapt the environment to their families needs. Mrs. Mary Simonton, from Conjuring Creek, is credited with being the first person to tame fruit shrubs. By 1902 she had successfully ripened red and white strawberries along with raspberries and currents. She would also be credited of being the first to raising less hardy vegetables like corn, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
Pioneer women were good cooks and would become know for their skills in preparing a special dish. Some were noted for their pies, others for their baking skills, and still others for their fried chicken or roast mutton. Whenever there was a social or a wedding, the women would come together and bring their best efforts to the occasion to the delight of all those in attendance.
Eventually, they would become a major factor in the success of farm fairs as their skills and efforts would become a main attraction for people attending the fair.
The times were hard and often settlers had to go without, but the women of the day seemed to always find a way to make things better, from a good home cooked meal, to a simple cup of tea-dust. Their ability to adapt and make things better is a major reason why Leduc has been able to grow into the rich and diverse community of today.