These are the stories of Ulric Charlebois, born 1904 in Ste. Marthe, a small western Quebec town , as told to his son, Richard.
- GO WEST
Ulric’s father, Hermenegilde Charlebois, was a farmer near the small town of Ste. Marthe, QC, 80 kilometers west of Montreal. It’s fertile farmland and Hermenegilde was a prosperous farmer. However, he suffered from asthma and the humid climate of Eastern Canada greatly aggravated his condition. His doctor suggested he could live a more comfortable life in a drier climate such as in Saskatchewan. A friend, who had connections in Saskatchewan, suggested he relocate there. His asthma would be less severe, and farmland was a good deal. He was given details of land availability in the central section of the province near the town of Marcelin. He sold his farm in Quebec and was able to buy a larger farm in Saskatchewan. In 1907 he rented a box car with living arrangements and loaded up his wife Alvina, eight children, livestock, farm equipment, furniture and all their worldly possessions and headed west. His move proved to be good one. He built a successful farm enterprise in Saskatchewan and lived to be 85. Alvina lived to 100. They had twelve children and their descendants spread the Charlebois name throughout western Canada.
Ulric’s grandfather, Joseph, was also a farmer in the same area as his father, Hermenegilde. In 1913 Joseph decided to travel from Ste. Marthe to Montreal to buy livestock. He left home with a pocket full of cash and travelled the 80 kms to Montreal on foot and by train. He stopped to visit his daughter along the way. She was the last person to see him. Joseph was never seen or heard from again. He just disappeared off the face of the earth. The police were advised. Their investigation found people who had seen him, but there were no suspicious issues and no evidence of foul play. It was likely that he had been robbed and dumped in the Saint Lawrence River. Years later a clairvoyant claimed that indeed he had been killed and his body dumped in the river or one of the many canals in the area.
3. STRANGE LIGHTS
Ulric’s father built a multi room two-story house for his large family. Eventually the family dispersed, and Ulric took over the house. At some point in the 1930s and 40s a strange light began to appear in the adjacent fields in winter. A light that was easily visible from any elevated point among the unobstructed flat prairie wheat fields. The light would appear as a round white globe, sometimes stationary, often floating over the fields and moving from one farm to the next. Neighbours called each other to advise that the light was out and what direction it was travelling. Apparently, it was like watching TV. Dad and family would go up to the top floor of the house and watch the light. There was lots of speculation… the ghost of a dead farmer wandering his fields… a natural phenomenon connected to the Aurora Borealis. Whatever it was, it was entertaining and provided a great pastime before the age of television.
4. DANDY UNCLE
Ulric had a favorite uncle named Ovila, who spent his whole life as an office worker in Montreal. He was an enthusiastic hobby gardener. He was proud that his sister and brother-in-law had left Quebec and established a successful farm in the west. He spent many summer vacations there, enduring a long train ride to spend two weeks on a dusty, gritty western farm. He was a formal man and always wore a shirt and tie, even when visiting my dad and his brothers working in the fields. Politically, he was a staunch Conservative; the old-timers would call him a “blue man” … blue being the colour of the Conservative Party. He was a serious gardener and had a fine collection of garden tools. While away on vacation, his nephew in Montreal went to his home and painted all the handles of his garden tools red, Liberal Party red. When “True Blue” Uncle Ovila came home and discovered all his beloved gardens tools now had red handles, he was upset. Ulric loved his uncle Ovila and loved telling this story.
5. JOE’S WELL
Ulric’s family owned a separate parcel of land a long distance from the main farmhouse and down the road from the “Joe Laprairie” farm. When it was necessary to work this land Ulric and his brothers would pack a lunch and water for the day. Getting there required a drive past Joe’s farm. Joe had three daughters, so it was always good fun for the boys to stop in and socialize with the girls. You needed a valid reason to visit on a workday. Ulric and his brothers would empty their water jugs prior to their travel past Joe’s just so they could stop and request water. Joe had a poor well that often ran dry and was always slow to replenish after pumping but western hospitality would not allow refusal of a simple request for water. The boys would pull in, ask for water and flirt with the girls despite Joe’s grumblings. Then the next day, they’d come back for more water. Joe suspected it was all planned but put up with the shenanigans. In the end it was worth his patience as Ulric married one of Joe Laprairie daughters… Marie Rose … my mother.
6. HORSE TRADING
Ulric’s father wasn’t highly educated, but he was a good businessman, never needed credit and saved his money. When the Depression’s “Dust Bowl” hit, he had funds to buy more land that became cheap. The dirty thirties sidelined most farm machinery as people could not afford gasoline. Horses and horse drawn transportation saw a rebirth. Ulric’s father prided himself on having had the best draft horses. He never allowed old draft horses to be put down. Horses that were replaced by mechanization were allowed to retire… put out to pasture and die a natural death. As a result, when the Dust Bowl of the thirties struck, he had a stable of draft horses to breed and sell. Ulric and his brothers would drive herds of Charlebois horses throughout Saskatchewan to sell for use with farm implements and for transportation. Driving a herd of horses was hard work, as was making camp, especially in winter. They would make the horses lay down, stretch buffalo hide blankets over them and sleep between the horses to keep from freezing… those were tough men.
7. ALVINA THE HEALER
Ulric’s mother, Alvina, was a very religious woman who apparently had the power to heal sick or injured livestock. If your animal was sick or injured, you would call Alvina. For example: you might explain to her how your horse got tangled up in the hay rake, ripped open his neck and was bleeding profusely… what to do? She may have suggested some home medication or treatment, but so long as you gave her a detailed description of the animal’s condition, she didn’t have to see it. You just had to call, follow her instructions and the animal would be healed. She was highly regarded and trusted for effective results.
8. THE HIRED HAND
Ulric had a large farm and always had hired help, especially in the spring and fall. Many were native men from a nearby reservation. They had hunting rights and could supplement their income by selling animal pelts. One young man named Johnny, was a good marksman and had bagged a fox while working at the farm. He cured and stretched the hide and had it hanging in the barn to dry. Ulric removed the pelt from its stretcher, fashioned a firewood body to wrap it around to look like fox which he propped up near the chicken coop. As they washed up for the evening meal Ulric told Johnny, “Quick, get your rifle. There’s a fox trying to get into the chicken coop”. Johnny grabbed his gun, took deadly aim right from the porch and shot the imposter “fox”. He was a good shot and put a fresh bullet hole in his pelt, reducing its value. Johnny was upset, Ulric thought this was a great joke.
9. THAT POOR DOG
There were always pet dogs on the farm. It was fall and Ulric was combining a field a long way from home. One of the dogs got into the field, probably chasing rodents. The wheat was a metre high, so any dog would disappear in it. Ulric didn’t see the dog and ran over it with the combine cutting off one of the dog’s front legs. He was miles from home and under pressure…no time to save a dog when there’s thousands of bushels of wheat to be harvested. He felt the best thing to do was to put the dog down and out of pain. He took a hammer from the toolbox and hit the dog twice on the head, but the dog got away and disappeared into the wheat. He felt terrible, but what could he do, he had to get on with his work. In the evening, when he got home, his father was waiting for him and asked, “What the hell did you do to that dog?” Ulric explained the events and said he would get the rifle and put the dog down properly. His father stopped him and said, “No… he’s under the porch whimpering, you’ve made that dog suffer enough. Leave him to his own devices. If he survives, he survives.” The dog spent a week under the porch licking his leg wound. Despite the amputated leg and the two bumps on his head, he regained full strength and lived a long healthy life on three legs.
Ironically, a dog saved Ulric’s life, years later. He had a farming accident when his tractor bogged down in a muddy field. He fell off the tractor and got pinned between the tractor and the plow it was pulling resulting in serious injury. He had a dog with him. He instructed the dog to go home for help which the dog did…likely saving Ulric’s life.
10. THE HAIRCUT
Ulric’s sister-in-law, Martha, lived in Toronto and her first born was her son Raymond. She was very proud of him as he was the first grandchild for the Joe Laprairie clan. Martha came visiting out west to show off her six-year-old, good-looking boy. Ulric offered to give him a haircut and suggested several style options: football, baseball, or soccer cut. “What’s the difference?” Martha asked. “Well, a football haircut is shorter, and a baseball haircut is curlier, soccer cut is smoother”. They were all the same haircuts. Regardless of selection he was shaving the kid’s head. Little Raymond had gorgeous locks, but after the haircut he was left with only a few millimeters of hair. Martha was furious and still talked about it 50 years later. Ulric always claimed that Raymond loved his new haircut.
Thank-you for reading my father’s stories. His retelling of these stories always entertained me regardless of how often I heard them. As a young lad I would often ask to hear the same stories several times a week. I would interrupt him with questions for more details about the characters and events in his stories… that’s why I fondly remember them…65 years later. My dad died before the internet age, but I know he would be happy that his stories will live on for generations to enjoy in this digital archive.