Wednesday, November 15, 2006


The Strachan Homestead

By 1907 the Sam Strachans had built a more comfortable house than their claim shanties. The construction was “balloon framing” with a four-sided pyramid roof, which probably helped keep the square house rigid in the face of high winds. Many buildings around Valier with double-slant roofs have gradually converted to being parallelograms. Sometimes it is the gumbo ground, which expands when wet, then contracts as it dries, that distort a house unless it’s well-braced. None of my doors are square in their frames unless the weather is about the same as when they were hung.

After WWII many veterans built houses in stages, starting with the basement, where the family lived until there was money to put up the rest, but many prairie homes from that period had no basement or even cement foundations. The climate is so dry that one can often get away with building on railroad ties.

Balloon framing is a system of wood-frame construction, first used in the 19th century, in which the studs are continuous from the foundation sill to the top wall plate. Floor structures (one, two, or more) are hung from the studs. Balloon framing, which replaced post-and-beam construction, was made possible by the availability of structural lumber sawed to uniform sizes. A balloon frame, which is held together entirely by nails, could be erected faster than a post-and-beam frame, with the use of less-skilled labor; and the end result was stronger and more apt to be square and plumb. Balloon frames have one serious drawback: unless firestops are installed at the level of every floor, the stud spaces form what are essentially chimneys from cellar to attic, greatly accelerating the spread of fire.

In spite of the many fires these prairie houses still abound in small towns and modest farms. There are a number of them in Valier, with the same characteristic “lean-to” shed-style addition to a side and the small dormer window for light in the attic so it could be used for sleeping, or for cooling ventilation in summer. The SSS house had a nice big window in the front. The top of it probably tilted for air or maybe one couldn't buy a sheet of glass big enough for the entire opening. If one manages the shades and windows properly, one can keep even a small house on the baking prairie a little more comfortable. Ideally, there would have been a porch across the front. These houses could be bought as kits with the wood pre-cut to spare labor and waste. If the family had stayed, maybe they would have built a porch. There are few porches in Valier, though there are a growing number of decks.

In 1919 the family went far north to Swan River, Manitoba. For some reason the Strachans remodeled the barn before they left, making the roof “hipped” like a mansard. Maybe it was a condition of the sale of the farm.

Why did they leave? I have a fascinating book, “The Timetable of History, Horizonal Linkage of People and Events,” that reveals 1919 as both tragic and hopeful. WWI had just ended and the League of Nations was forming. (Beulah was a little nervous about being partly German in the post-war bitter times.) Sir Wilfred Laurier had just become the first French Canadian premier. I suspect this could only encourage a massive surge of French immigration to Canada, which the country would welcome and guide to their empty prairies with liberal homesteading policies. At the same time the population of the prairie small towns had just been reduced by 10% in the world flu pandemic and war veterans everywhere were badly damaged by the use of poison gas. Europe was laden with the bones of the dead. In the US prohibition had just begun. (Beulah Stachan was a strong WCTU supporter, I think because of a brother lost to alcoholism.) Thinkers and artists were releasing a lot of pent-up energy in what is now called “modernity.”

The American prairie weather had taken a turn towards drought, crop prices were low, the government was less interested in subsidies, and probably the railroad had some good deals for emigrants. In a sense the Strachans were staying in the same ecosystem, since they were moving north through the ancient drainage created by the melting of the glaciers and, before that, the uplifting of the Rockies which bent the continent like a piece of paper and drained the EXTREMELY ancient inland sea into the Gulf of Mexico.

On the personal scale, May Alice, who was twelve at the time of the move and defined herself as shy (though I suspect it had as much to do with emotional attachment and fear of loss as with being bashful), impressed it upon her adult children how traumatic that move was for her, not least because they got to Swan River, Manitoba, just as a plague of equine encephalitis killed their horses. In extreme old age (she lived to be over ninety) the last of her memories to fly away were those of the horses. She deeply loved them. She often spoke of my father, her big brother protector.

My father, eighteen, was rarin’ to go. These were his college years coming up -- at least once they got the family economics stabilized again -- and most of his lifelong ideas came from the thinkers of this period.

Moving to Manitoba meant that for a while the family would not own their own house.


Anonymous said...

The house above, with its shed is so similar in construction to my paternal grandmother's that I can smell the dust smell in the attic. You really know your way about construction, don't you. Wonderful! The picture of your paternal grandfather, below (at least, I assume that it is he) is a dead ringer for my father when he was of the same approximate age. Please keep writing this fascinating tail, Mary.
Cop Car

Mary Scriver said...

I'm glad you're enjoying the pioneer posts, Cop Car. I'll take a break now and then to keep some other threads alive. Will you write a bit about your own "house past?"

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Yes, you do need to keep your other threads going. Thanks for the idea of my writing on houses, Mary; but, it doesn't fit well with my engineer soul. Even though I shall put it on my "to blog" list, I must tell you that I've never checked anything off of that list.

Most of my professional life involved some sort of report/plan writing--and I was good at it. Mostly because I would start with the skeleton, add tendons, then muscle, then skin--and quit. Too many of my engineers started by writing lots of fat, then a smattering of skeleton, tendons, and muscle throughout--which meant that most of my review/editing time was spent slashing. Without a real goal in mind, writing gets extremely tedious for me. We shall see.
Cop Car