December 16th, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 49
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Remember When – Michel/ Natal Reflections
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Photos courtesy John Kinnear
1914 image of Michel looking south. In the middle of the photo are 5 kids walking down the railroad tracks, girls are wearing white dresses
Most people have their own specific memories of that now lonely little coal mining valley that once held the thriving communities of Michel, Natal and Middletown. And most know the story of its ultimate demise but before that time there is a wonderful history of families and industry and blended cultures that is heart warming and worth exploring. Almost seventy years of this remarkable boom and bust story have been preserved in a very special book entitled “Remember When”. It was published by the Michel-Natal Heritage Society in 2000 and its 600 pages provides an important documentation and acknowledgement of the rich stories and pictures that comes with this legacy.

Like Crowsnest and Its People, it has a wide variety of topics covering things like sports, churches, clubs, entertainment and industry. It also has 400 pages of unique family histories. From A to Z, each one is a journey unto itself, from Joe and Almida Altomare (the Italian town baker) to Katie Winters (nee Rothel, born in Inverkidden, Scotland) and James Winters, crushed between two coal cars. Unlike its Alberta counterpart Remember When takes a novel approach in the first thirty three pages in which one man, Ron Kordikowski, shares his wonderful memories of the valley’s commercial buildings, people and events. It is a lighter side of all things Michel/Natal and leaves no stone unturned as he mentally wends his way through growing up in what were very special times.

I laughed out loud at his description of Jimmy Bosworth, an accordion instructor who systematically walked from Michel to Natal conducting lessons as he worked his way up the valley and who never refused a beverage on his rounds. He also played at weddings and of course there were “a few pints of beer between songs.” He goes on to say: “By midnight Jimmy would be defying gravity. He would be seated in a chair, his entire body leaning to the left at a forty-five degree angle and, with each outward pull of the bellows, the angle would increase. But he never did fall off the chair. His polkas would (eventually) have the same tempo as a waltz. That was the signal for guests that it was nearing time to go home.”
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Whether it was somewhere like the Natal Garage, the Canadian Cafe, John’s Barber Shop or the Kootenay Hotel, Ron had special and oft times hilarious memories. Again I laughed at his description of the Billiards Parlour owned by Umberto DePaoli. The old-timers referred to those who hung out there as hooligans, with their black jet boots, jeans rolled up, trucker’s wallet with a long chain and a rat tail comb in their back pocket. Talk about a multi-functional place. According to Kordikowski, John Gadeski cut hair in the front of the parlour, collected money from the players and his customers could watch a game as they waited. Oh, and get this. Ron says: “At the rear of the hall, in a separate section, was where Fisher had his funeral parlour! Here, he would do his work before the deceased was placed in a coffin and taken to the home of the bereaved, where it would remain until the day of the funeral. It was also the place where, on Saturdays, people could take their cases of empty beer bottles for a refund.” Pool hall, barber shop, undertakers and bottle depot all in one!

The last seventeen pages of the book are from the memoirs of a well known and respected former director of the Michel -Natal Heritage Society and former valley resident Mike Paskovich. Like Kordikowski he recalls: “the many caring and loving families of my community, the goings-on of the kids, the working life of the adults, the good times and the bad....”. Mike’s memories takes you through the seasons of the year in the valley and it is his recollections of Christmas time that I thought might be appropriate to share this time of year.

Paskovich talks a lot about kid’s activities and in winter it was maintaining homemade ice rinks and sleds that he called hitchie-bobs that were mere planks with runners lined with pipe to slide better. But it is his childhood description of what he remembers as Ukrainian Christmas that is fascinating. He says: “On or about January 4th or around the 7th, depending on the Julian calendar, the Greek Orthodox faith celebrated their Christmas. Everyone called this either Russian or Ukrainian Christmas and friends and relatives would gather towards the evening. Children were sent to look out the window for the first evening star while the adults would sit around and talk, the women checking the food on the stove. As soon as the first evening star was sighted, everyone took a drink and toasted each other and wished everyone the best for that Christmas and the future.
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Then everyone sat down at the table, which was covered with hay along with the floor to symbolise the Christ’s manger. As everyone sat around the table the ladies of the home then covered the hay with their best homemade tablecloth. Braided loaves of bread, the staff of life, were then put on the table with a centrepiece made of fir boughs and a candle. A candle was also placed in the window as a welcome beckon to anyone that came by. All were welcome, neighbours or strangers, on this holy night. Then the meal would start after a prayer was said.”

It was his description of the meal that really topped off this seasonal recollection. (Warning- you are going to be hungry after reading this). He goes on to say: “The first dish was either poppy seed or boiled wheat mixed with honey and chopped or crushed nuts. This was followed with a cold dish of pickled herrings or rollmops made from whitefish and pickled mushrooms. Then a clear borscht was served with small stuffed dumplings. The stuffing was made of wild redtop mushrooms that had been picked the summer before and dried and kept for this meal, then soaked and cut up and fried with onions and then wrapped in dough. These were then boiled and put in each soup bowl.

There were three kinds of perogies. Two were made of dough filled with potatoes and cheese or with sauerkraut, onion and cottage cheese. The third was also sauerkraut, onion and cottage filling but put into a thin potato pancake batter and then fried in butter until they were golden brown. All these perogies were smothered in butter and sour cream. The meal ended with dried fruit and Christmas pasties, kolach- rolled stuffed sweet dough filled with poppy seed, crushed nuts and honey. In some homes there were also plates of cold cuts, pickled eggs, jellied or pickled fish, salads, antipasto, canapés, pickles and assorted vegetables as well as dark and white breads or rolls. This all went down with a hard drink, no mix and a beer chaser.”

Told you you would be hungry after this! It is both Mike and Ron’s remembrances of the good cheer at Christmas that brings back similar memories. Like them I recall walking from house to house for a quick visit, good food and a snort or two. If you had a lot of friends and family to visit you were pretty wobbly by the time you headed for midnight Mass.

The end of the book has an alphabetical list of about 300 nicknames listed with, in most cases, the person’s true name. These unusual monikers occur often in Ron and Mike’s stories also and were usually pinned on an individual because of some desirable or not so desirable trait they had. How each got there name is a story unto itself.

Whether it was Calcimine Joe, Crying Irene, F.B.I. George or Little Lola they were nevertheless all special characters that were part of that amazing coal mining complex known as Michel/Natal. Copies of Remember When are available at the Sparwood Public Library and from the Michel Natal Museum in Sparwood and would make a wonderful Christmas gift.
December 16th ~ Vol. 85 No. 49
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