OUNGRE, Sask. -- A new book shines a light on the life of a local homesteader, preserving the history of southeast Saskatchewan.
John Hansen, better known in this corner of the province as JB Hansen, was born in Norway, where he learned the basics of farming.
Early in life, he left the old country behind for the beckoning opportunities of the new world. He arrived in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century. Hansen stayed in North Dakota for about five years and even went to a business college to learn English for one winter.
In 1909, JB Hansen moved to Canada. He eventually settled on a homestead about seven kilometres west of Oungre, where he spent most of his life and raised 10 kids. JB Hansen then retired to Estevan in the late 1940s, where he passed away in 1965.
And 110 years after his arrival to Canada, his granddaughter, Elaine Melby Ayre, released a book based on his memoirs, sharing the challenges and victories of his life, and also details of his lifestyle.
The Mercury spoke to Melby Ayre about her family, her times in the southeast and the new book, which took about five years to complete.
"It was a thrill to actually have me hold this book in my hands," Melby Ayre said.
She took her grandfather's memoir, handwritten in the mid-60s and later translated by her mother and aunt from Norwegian into English, and around 2017 she decided to turn it into a book. By augmenting it with a variety of interesting primary sources, and her personal comments, she brought new life to the realities of southeastern Saskatchewan homesteading in the Rural Municipality of Souris Valley in the first half of the 20th century. A variety of primary sources such as postcards, letters and journals used in the book help readers indulge in the times described.
"I use the memoir plus a lot of other descriptions, so it helps you understand the location and the way they did things and all that kind of stuff," Melby Ayre said.
The book gives readers of today a better understanding of everyday life in those homesteading days. Many examples show changes in the forms of travel, cost of living, farming methods, food preparation and daily activities, all to help understand the history of the region. Characters' personal stories show they found ways to thrive and have good times despite the challenges of the times, through which the book serves to inspire readers in dealing with the problems of today.
The book covers historical facts about the area and is filled with many insightful and funny comments opening up the world of farming in southeast Saskatchewan in the first half of the 1900s.
"This is a good friend of mine's … description; she said, 'This book is meticulous in detail and description. Elaine pours her heart and soul into this book, as she did in The Princess Doll's Scrapbook. It is a labour of love, but also a gift of first-hand memory and experience shared generously with generations to come. I am grateful for this contribution to the preservation of Saskatchewan's history.'
"For this book, I used a lot of not just my grandfather's notes, but my mother had a habit of writing little stories down on pieces of paper, and she'd have little books where she had kept things like a diary of a trip or stuff like that," Melby Ayre said, explaining the style and the contents of her book.
The book also has sidebars, which may share advice on how to build a fire from The Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook or look into the history of a Winnipeg couch.
"I added a lot of details like talking about using all but the squeal. There is that little episode where he was talking about how the wet feed got scarce and the pork prices were low. And they got [someone] to come and butcher the pigs, so they froze them. And they had lots to eat that winter. Then I did an article about what they did back then using all but the squeal. They would make their own salt pork, or they'd render out their own lard to make their fat, they were making soap at home and stuff like that. I even put in some recipes here and there. And there's a lot of stuff about the school," Melby Ayre shared.
Even though the book was started in 2017, a medical emergency – a gastrointestinal tumour that resulted in surgery in 2018 – put work on pause. This reality made getting this history written down before it's too late even more significant. The book was finally completed in 2022, and the first copy was delivered to the author's door on April 13.
The Homesteading in the Last Best West also complements The Princess Doll's Scrapbook, the first book written by Melby Ayre and published in 2015, which is also based on emigration and immigration history but looks at Melby Ayre's grandmother's side. It started with an old porcelain doll, given to Melby Ayre by her grandmother, who came to Canada in the 1870s.
"I have this doll. And I wanted the family to know about it. I did write a little short five-page thing that I sent out to my family back in the early 1990s. And then when I got married and my son was born, and then my granddaughter was born, then I got to thinking that I should get this story put together," Melby Ayre recalled.
Melby Ayre's mother, Edith Melby, was the oldest of 10 in the JB Hansen's family, and Melby Ayre, also the oldest daughter in her family, naturally inherited the task to preserve family stories, as she was there to watch everyone in the family being born and grow.
Melby Ayre, who now resides in Peace River, Alta., where her husband and one of her sons are running a safety training company, was raised at a farm not far from her grandparents' homestead by Oungre. In the 60s, she lived and worked in Estevan and she also got to live at her grandparents' Estevan home in 1966-68 when she taught home economics at the Estevan Collegiate Institute.
She is currently trying to reduce her stock of The Princess Doll's Scrapbook and is selling it for $22.50, including shipping. She also has an errata copy with a correction sheet for just $8 including mailing. She plans to put the money raised from this book’s sales towards relief funds in Ukraine.
Melby Ayre said that while she will try to come down to the Estevan area around Canada Day to promote the new book, she is mainly doing sales by mail and online now. Currently Homesteading in the Last Best West is available through Friesen Press, at Henders Drugs, potentially soon at the Beaubier Co-op and directly from Melby Ayre, as she ordered 500 books for herself, her loved ones and anyone who may want to learn about her family and history of the area.