They lived off the land



photo credit of Pat Wahoski
Pat developed a lifelong love of woodcutting while helping with his dad at the sawmill.

By Wayne Hildebrand
The Neepawa Press

Pat Wahoski’s grandparents, Thomas Jr. and Frances Wachowski (the Polish spelling) arrived in the Empire District, west of Polonia, with their eight children in 1901.  They followed 17 immigrant families originating from East-Central Europe who homesteaded Polonia (originally called Huns Valley) in 1885.  When they arrived, they lived at their relative’s farm, in a small grainery.  The first winter, they had to cover the grainery with snow to keep out the cold. Can you imagine a family of 10 living in a grainery through a Manitoba winter?

Was this the better life they were seeking?  The Wahoski,s; emigrated from Danzin, Poland to Buffalo, New York in the early 1880s.  In Poland, they were landless peasant farmers with no future.  They sought a better life and freedom from communism and German and Russian occupation.
In 1885, the Canadian government, Manitoba and the Northwest Railroad were targeting East-Central European immigrants to colonize a block of “free land” in the north west corner of the Rural Municipality of Rosedale.  As an added bonus, the land was “without cultivation or settlement restrictions” that normally applied to free homestead land.  Why would that be?  It was because it would take a super-human effort to make a viable farm out of the hilly land covered with thick timber and bush, interspersed with ravines, swamps, creeks and springs.
It was not long before Thomas Jr. and Frances Wahoski bought 80 acres of land and built a log and mud house three miles west of Polonia (Empire District).  Their neighbors included the Szucki, Lewandoski, Nagorski, Ostrowski, Kingdon, Carter and Zynger families.  One of their sons, Robert Wahoski (1896), took over the home farm and married Martha Lewandoski.  They had six children: Paul, Beatrice, Florence, Rosie, Annie, and Donald (called Pat).  Martha died young, and Robert then married Effie Bialkowski, and two more girls, Jean and Lillian, joined the Wahoski family.
Pat Wahoski was born in 1927 at the home farm.  He attended Empire School, a typical one-room, one-teacher pioneer school.  When Pat started school, he spoke only Polish.  He completed Grade 2 and then went to work on the farm.
The log house Pat lived in had no electricity or running water.  The plumbing was the outhouse.  It had wood stove and cook stove heat and coal oil lamp lighting.  Everyone worked to support the mixed farm.  That included cultivated cropland, hay and pastureland, cows, pigs, chickens and horses.
They lived off the land, eating and preserving wild berries and garden produce and harvesting deer, elk, moose, ducks, geese, grouse, pigeons, rabbits and jackfish and suckers from Kerrs Lake and Otter Lake. Selling cream to the Minnedosa Creamery was an important source of farm revenue.  Everything they did required hard physical labour.
In 1938 Pat’s dad, Robert, bought a sawmill two miles north of Scandinavia near Riding Mountain National Park.  Pat developed a lifelong love of woodcutting while helping his dad at the sawmill.  Winter was not a time to relax.  Cutting and selling wood for building and heating homes and businesses in Minnedosa and Neepawa was one of the few ways to earn money.  At the time, the Wahoskis were paid $4 for a delivered cord of hand cut and split wood.  A cord of wood would fit in a box that was 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet high.
Many small sawmills operated in the south Riding Mountain area in the 1930s and 1940s.  Permits for cutting wood in the Riding Mountain Forest Reserve and later Riding Mountain National Park were given to small sawmill operators and local settlers until the late 1940s.  There were larger sawmills in the Riding Mountain Forest Reserve as well, such as the Rat Lake sawmill.  It employed many settlers from Kelwood, Riding Mountain, Eden, Birnie, Mountain Road, Polonia, Empire and Bethany.  The Saturday night dances in the Rat Lake cookhouse and many other sawmills were important community social events.
As a young teenager in the early 1940s, Pat recalls a tornado that knocked down a wide swath of jack pine and spruce northwest of Mountain Road. Mike Kindrad, Pete Kostchuk and Pat cut trees all winter with cross cut saws, all manual labour.  Pat hauled 30,000 feet of lumber to his dad’s sawmill that winter.
Pat married Gertrude Kasprick (born 1926) in 1955 at the St. Elizabeth Church in the beautiful Polonia Valley.  The Kasprick family farm was 1 mile north of Polonia.   Pat and Gertrude had six children; baby Wahoski, Doreen (1959), Maxine (1960), Valerie (1964), Shelly (1967), and Robert (1968).
Pat took his new bride Gertrude to the bush near Crawford Park (west of Onanole) for a 6-month honeymoon.  They stayed in a spacious 12 by 16 foot wood shack on skids, nicely furnished with a table, bed and cook stove. Pat cut 500 cords of wood that winter and Gertrude made the meals, cleaned and kept the stove burning in the shack.
Pat travelled to earn income in sawmills in The Pas, and to Fort McMurray and Hinton in Alberta.  Pat loved working with horses at the lumber camps.  Pat recalls that one day the Hinton camp foreman brought a horse from a neighboring camp that was prone to chasing lumberjacks onto woodpiles.  The foreman told Pat he could have the horse if he could handle him.  It took time and patience, but when the work ended Pat loaded “Topsy” into the back of his half-ton truck, and with no side rails on the box, they drove from Hinton, Alberta to Polonia.  Pat’s wife and children looked after the 100 head of livestock and did all the farm work while Pat was away working.  Everyone worked!
Like many of the immigrant families in the Polonia and Mountain Road area, the Wahoski family worked hard to better their life.  Canada gave them an opportunity to reap benefits from their hard work.  Pat said, ‘’there were hard times, but there were many good times too.”  He especially remembers visiting and playing cards with neighbors and attending local dances at Polonia, Mountain Road and Kerrs Lake. “Kerrs Lake Hall dances were the best”, said Pat.
Today, at 90 years of age, Pat lives in Yellowhead Manor in Neepawa.  He misses his wife Gertrude who passed away in May. Pat is proud of his children, 9 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren.  True to his character, he is not one to sit in his apartment.  He plays cribbage almost every night with his friends at the Manor; he enjoys having a few dances at occasions, especially with his daughters, and he insists on mowing the lawn for Maxine, and for Robert (his son in Eden).  At the end of our conversation, I suggested to Pat that at 90 years of age he might consider slowing down, to which he replied, “I have been active all my life and it never hurt me.”