Friday, July 12, 2013


The young man in the middle of the back row is Sam Strachan.

My birth family has suddenly acquired an interested historian, Elliott Hanowski, who is exploring prairie culture on both sides of the 49th parallel, specifically what I’ve always called “prairie humanism” but he calls “rationalist, humanist thought.”  Basically it is the gradual forming of what many saw as a structure something like conventional religion but outside it.  Partly it came from Darwin’s theory of evolution enlivened by an agriculture base interested in improving species vegetable, animal and human; Biblical exegesis and archeological investigation of the Holy Lands; growing industrial power on the prairies where railroads, combines, dams and grain elevators could seemingly control the environment; and Marxist politics that recommended community over individual capitalism and wealth in practical material culture rather than capitalism.  Hanowski found Sam and Beulah Strachan on the membership rolls in Winnipeg.

Christian thought-structures persisted as what some call “Civil Religion,” not meaning “polite” but citizen/government based.  Homesteading land was newly available only by the clearance of the indigenous people, but the early Euro settlers evidently had no awareness that the Highland Clearances were the pattern.  They could see the necessity of governance, law and order, but cherished an abiding bitter resentment of lords and kings.  Inside that opposition was a yearning for middle-class prosperity, enough to guarantee safety for families.  That meant science and the invention of cooperatives for the pooling of wheat, and the founding of schools at every level.  It also supported the new industrialism, even the exploitation of land resources.  In such a broad landscape, shortages didn’t seem possible.  Heaven was simply stars, but an infinity of them.

Newly turned sod carried accumulated fertility so the crops leapt out of the ground.  But then came weeds on the wind and a need for their removal.  Into this environment entered my family, or at least the Strachan thread, who achieved a little prosperity through the assembling and marketing of the Kovar Krabgrass Cultivator.  This success was dispersed by tightening national policies: a tariff on the machine parts imported from the United States, and would have ended anyway with the invention of herbicides.

The name Strachan emerges from a place phrase:  “strath au cairn” -- the river of rocks.  In ancient times those stones were used to build a fortification at the top of a hill, which was later dismantled to build a bridge.  Nice symbolism.  The name is not so unusual in Canada as it seems to be in the United States, though my father once went to investigate a possible relative, a musician, who turned out to be a black descendent of West Indies slaves owned by Strachans.

The Clan Strachan has recently reconvened itself out of the diaspora and takes a keen interest in the next king of Scotland.  Those in my family who still feel attached to our roots have been traveling to see Strachan for themselves.  In actual fact, our grandfather’s birth family came from Kilmarnock, not at all near Strachan, and probably emigrated to America because the coal and carpet businesses there were in a state of recession.  Archibald, my great-grandfather was a finish carpenter, but longed to own land.

The following remarks were a response by Scott Maclean, my cousin, to Hanowski’s inquiry about how to pronounce the name.

“Pronunciation of "Strachan" varies considerably across the family, which I find unusual.  Usually folks are very insistent about the pronunciation of their names, even mildly irked when people get it wrong.  I confess it grates on my nerves when people pronounce my last name "Mc-Cleen" rather than "McLane" as any good Canadian knows.  So it's a matter of curiosity to me as to why the pronunciation of "Strachan" in this family diverged.  

“Of the families of the children of Sam and Beulah Strachan: Bruce, Glenn, May and Seth, I have heard multiple pronunciations.  Now that we have representatives of all these branches of the family except Seth's in the conversation, they can speak for themselves.  

This is what my ear hears:
- In the family of Bruce and Lucy Strachan, I don't know how they pronounced it. Mary will have to fill us in.  [Strahn, close to Strawnmhs]
- In the family of Glenn and Elsie Strachan, I have heard cousin Ross pronounce it "Strawn".
- In the family of Murdock and May Strachan McLean, it was pronounced STRA-han (both "a's" soft, as in "bath").
- I have heard members of Seth Strachan's family pronounce it "STRAY-han" (2nd "a" soft).  [This is because Seth was a TWA pilot who flew the Pacific where English was often a second language.  He was asked to use this pronunciation so it wouldn’t get confused with Strong.  mhs]
- My mother May used to occasionally pronounce it as with a Scottish brogue: STROCK-un, with a rolled "r" and gutteral "CK".
- While visiting the town of Strachan in Scotland last summer (site of historic clan lands), I asked a local resident how he pronounced it, and he said "Strawn". 
- I don't know how Sam and Beulah pronounced it.  [Me, neither.  mhs]

Everything evolves, responding to the context.  So Sam and Beulah Strachan, both former school teachers and feeling the limits of their South Dakota homestead, took advice in the form of booklets and pamphlets and answered the call of Canada to populate the northern prairies.  They went to Swan River, Manitoba, where Sam fed the family in part by laboring on the creation of roads, fortified by moose meat.  

Sam Strachan is the man on the left.

Eventually the Kovar business moved them to Brandon in a surge of prosperity that ended with the tariff.  Worsening health -- and the need for ever more possibility for the now adult children who had been educated in Winnipeg during the prosperous years -- meant a move to Oregon.

They arrived in Portland just as the Depression hit.  Even with a pocket of money, things spiraled down.  The planned conversion from Kovar Kultivator to the Kozy Kamp tent trailer was the victim of rationing: tires, gas, steel.  After 1945 the industrial and chemical revolutions that had fueled the war were pushed aside, so now it was Rodale and his ideas of organic and sustainable gardens that sustained the aging Strachans, who still maintained an acre of garden and still sat by the radio in the evening listening to political talks.  One afternoon Sam lay down for a nap and never rose again.  Beulah went to her daughter for her last two years.  The war had opened doors for Doc to start a career in drafting and a bit of speculative building, enough prosperity to build a house on a hillside with an apartment in the basement.  My own family stayed in place.  The Glenn Strachans held their own in Santa Ana, CA.  Seth’s family grew prosperous in Kansas City, the base for TWA.

The values of these people: family, education, community solidarity, economic equity, industrial ingenuity, and attachment to the land itself have persisted until they re-emerge in my thought and writing.  Population limitation and respect for all peoples reinforced the habits of respectable prosperity.  (Beulah’s brother, Orra Finney, was afflicted by PTSD as a result of fighting in the Philippines and died of alcoholism.  She therefore became a lifelong vigorous member of the WCTU.)  They saw no need to reject Christianity, but simply developed their parallel beliefs which didn’t clash with the community faith of country neighbors.  My father was the exception, looking for more, occasionally attending the Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon.

Now the name “Strachan” leaps to my eye from a lot of sources, often Australian.  Literary characters as well as real people carry the name.  They are often bookish, sometimes lawyers.  Only occasionally is there a disgraced politician or renegade.  There is a motto and crest.  The motto is "non timeo, sed caveo."   Not timid, but cautious.

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