September 2nd, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 34
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Tales from the Wella Board
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Herald contributor photo
Stinging nettle buds
I got to wondering what it must have been like growing up as a boy in a mountain landscape such as ours back at the turn of the century. Then I remembered that I own a wonderful series of books by a depression era survivor who grew up in Fernie back in the early days of the twentieth century. He took the time to write down his childhood memories and they were published in three small booklets called: “The Wella Board, The Curse and Depression Stories. The Fernie Museum still carries copies of them and they make for some fascinating and thought provoking reading.

The author’s name was Sydney Hutcheson and he arrived in Fernie on August 1st, 1908, at the age of four months old, just in time to see the whole dam town burn down. Some of his early recollections of growing up in the pioneer days of the Fernie area give us some food for thought.
As a young boy I recall munching on things like wild onions, carragana flowers, gooseberrie and chokecherries but Sydney recalls some rather novel natural foods that kept hungry boys going through the spring and summer: “When I was a boy, as soon as the snow was off the ground, the gathering of the new dandelion roots was the order of the day. The tiny new leaves and the roots would taste good in a salad with salt and olive oil.... It was a good “conditioner” in the spring of the year.” I wonder what conditioner means in this case?

He goes on to say: “Next the “sweet maria” (wild raspberry shoots) was gathered and eaten raw like candy. You pulled the shoot out of the ground and snapped the tip off. If it snapped it was tender and real tasty to eat. When you snapped the shoot the outside cover or skin that had fine needles would split and you peeled it off like peeling a banana and you ate the flesh inside. This was a favourite of all the boys and girls and we could hardly wait for the shoots to appear.
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The tiny buds of the tip of the stinging nettle were delicious but were so hot they made you jump when they hit your tongue. Wild rose petals were next to eat, and from then on everything came in a rush: lamb’s quarters(also called goosefoot), pig weed that made better spinach than spinach itself, wild peas, pea vine flowers, white dutch clover, red bob clover blossoms and scotch thistle nuts which are real tasty and which I still eat. Next came huckleberries, horse berries or hawthorn berries, saskatoons, wild raspberries, wild strawberries, water cress, thimble berries and Oregon grapes.

Right after school started in September everything would be nipped by frost and that would be the end of nature’s gift to us for the year. Sydney points out that:”We all found out when we were young that by eating the wild stuff that nature provided we kept in good condition and we did not have to take the hated castor oil (raw) or the senna leaves, molasses and sulphur in the spring”. Yikes!

I remember well my days as a young boy walking to the local swimming hole on the river, freezing to death in it icy cold water and then getting warm by the ever present bonfire. Mr Hutcheson remembers that: “A ritual of the days was that a boy had to know how to swim in the Elk River (real cold), catch a trout and hit a gopher with a slingshot before you started school. I managed to pass these tests and the slingshot was a dilly. The city had put up the poles, strung the wires and put in the street corner lights. I hit the corner light with the first try and when the globe exploded everyone hit for home. An example had to be set so my father and I appeared before Magistrate Whimster. Dad was fined two dollars and costs, a lot of money at that time. The Magistrate asked me if I could hit another light and I said “Every time”. He told dad to take me home and give me a damn good hiding which he did.”

Unlike today’s kids, we could eat just about anything new or old and not suffer consequences. We have so sanitized our world that our children cannot tolerate anything but the cleanest of clean. In Hutcheson’s book “The Wella Board” he makes the following sobering comment. “Summer complaint ran rampant among the children every summer and at that time it was sure death, so when school started again quite a few playmates would be missing.”
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Summer complaint is defined as: an acute condition of diarrhea, occurring during the hot summer months chiefly in infants and children, caused by bacterial contamination of food and associated with poor hygiene.

I wondered why the book The Wella Board was titled so until I got to page 29 and found the following explanation by Sydney: “When anything exciting was going on I almost never heard the call to supper and if I missed it I would stay until curfew bell, nine o’clock. When I got home dad would ask me where I had been and what I was doing. I usually said:”Well, ah” about three times, then I got a licking. My uncle made a paddle and printed “Wella” on it and hung it on the wall. The wella board as it was called didn’t hurt after a while so dad brought home a well oiled strap, two inches wide and twenty inches long with a wrist lace on it. He lined up the whole family in the kitchen and then hit the pantry door with it. The last time I was in my old home the indentation he made was still there and he nor my mother never had to use that strap.”

No kidding! For me it was a piece of conveyor belt and one exposure was enough to keep me on the straight and narrow. Ah, the good old days!!!
September 2nd ~ Vol. 85 No. 34
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