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Topic: The Women of Aspenland
Article: Elsie (Schmeelke) Leonhardt
Date Posted: December 12/2005
Main District: Lakedell
Decades: 1900's to 1960's
Elsie Leonhardt and her husband Victor were born of pioneering families. Victor was from the Drumheller area and Elsie from the Champion district. Her grandparents, Henry and Mary Schmeelke, her father, William and two sisters came from Fairbank, Iowa to Nanton, Alberta in 1906. Henry and William were able to buy land for their homesteads at $3.00 per acre. Her grandfather, Henry was a carpenter by trade and the original house he constructed was sturdy and of unique design to the Canadian west and is still home to family.
While William was working on a ranch between Nanton and Vulcan he met Carrie Dibb who would later become his wife. Carrie and her father had come west from Ontario to work on ranches in Alberta. The rest of the family arrived later and also became ranch hands.
Elsie was born on May 30, 1923, the youngest child of Carrie and William. All her preschool and school years were spent in Champion and she graduated from the high school there. Her initial plans were to teach school but she met Victor and things changed.
Elsie and Victor were wed on November 7, 1942 and began their married life living near Drumheller on the farm where Victor's grandfather homesteaded. As well as farming for twenty-one years, Victor also operated a small strip mine from which he sold coal to the residents of Drumheller. Their seven children, one daughter and six sons were born in Drumheller and all but their youngest child attended school there.
About 1960, Victor became interested in land around Pigeon Lake and purchased some land through the Government and private sales. In 1962, the family made the decision to sell the home farm and move to a farm at Westerose, on the west side of Pigeon Lake.
As Elsie wrote in Trail Blazers " …. and in 1963 moved up, family, furniture, livestock, machinery and our Lancaster Bomber. This "Lanc" has been our trademark ever since it was purchased at Penhold in 1949, taken first to Drumheller and then up here". The Lancaster initially sat near the driveway of the Leonhardt cedar log home. Eventually the bomber was sold and finally ended up being donated for parts to Squadron 408 in Namao in the late 1980's.
Elsie and Victor quickly became involved with their community. They attended and were very involved with the Battle Lake Baptist Ecumenical Church. Elsie was the church pianist on many Sundays. She lent her helping hand to the Battle Lake Christmas concerts and was known to have taken her electric organ out at forty below zero to play. Her easy going, cheery and caring nature made visitors welcome in her home and she always willing to help others. As she wrote in Trail Blazers, "We found in this district, good neighbours, and neighborliness, good friends, and a deep contentment with our natural surroundings".
In 1966, Elsie began writing for the Wetaskiwin Times as the Battle Lake Community correspondent. This eventually extended to a weekly column entitled Beans and Buttermilk. Her column told of her experiences growing up on the Prairies during the Depression and of stories retold of her pioneer ancestors. She was also known to write an occasional social or political commentary. Several weekly newspapers in Alberta carried this popular column at one time. Her columns were eventually compiled and published as three books also entitled Beans and Buttermilk.
Elsie continued to refine her writing skills. The Edmonton Journal offered a writing course through correspondence, which she took as well as attending seminars. She enrolled in a short story writing contest sponsored by the Edmonton Journal and was commended for her excellent story. As well as writing her column, Elsie wrote poetry, the family history for Trail Blazers, and various other articles.
Elsie was a member of the Battle Lake Ladies Club and the Yeoford Ladies Club. The Battle Lake Ladies were formed in 1933-34. During the war they made two quilts a week which were sent to England. After the war, they still made quilts that were raffled to raise money. The club contributed money to the Cancer Fund and Red Cross, a trophy for the Mount Butte 4H, baseball uniforms for the school team and aided district residents who had suffered from fire or accident. Elsie wrote in an article on the "Battle Lake Ladies Club" which stated, "Ridiculed and scorned by men, the butt of many jokes, Ladies clubs survive and serve. The community is richer for their existence, in intangible ways too for when people work together to improve their district, they enrich their own lives and those of their families."
As Elsie's friend Dorothy Patterson explained, "She was a beautiful quilter". Another friend mentioned that until Elsie came to the community, the quilts were not finished quite right. Her knitting and crocheting were works of beauty. According to her friends, she had a good sense about her, was a great cook and hostess and had a strong sense of family. Dorothy said of Elsie, "She worked on the grandchildren having something to remember about the family."
Elsie had to retire from writing her column, Beans and Buttermilk in 1991 as the devastation from her long struggle with Multiple Sclerosis took its toll. She loved books and much of her time was spent reading. On Friday, November 23, 2001 after a short battle with a cancerous brain tumor, she passed away at the age of 78 years.
Further Articles regarding Elsie Leonhardt:
No Tears for Maggie
Maggie Ramsey kept her eyes averted from the bare corner of this large room, and her mind firmly on her work. Only in the trembling of the hand that dipped hot water from the range reservoir into the enamel dishpan, was the turmoil of her feelings revealed. Two, three, four times the dipper lifted its precious load; she limited herself to the minimum required for the greasy breakfast dishes, for Joe had to carry the water up from the well near the barn. Though why she should continue to scrimp and save for his sake she couldn't quite fathom this morning - but four was enough. A brisk shake of the stove grates, two scoops of coal on the fire, an approving glance at the big pan of dough up on the warming oven, and she was ready to begin the dishes. She lifted the dishpan over into the sink under the window.
From years of habit, she paused to rest her fingers on the wide rim of the dishpan. By closing her eyes, she could imagine that the black-and-white rim was the keyboard of the organ in her childhood home, and she would practice the familiar scales and exercises to keep her fingers supple despite the enlarged knuckles. Abruptly she stopped, and plunged her hands into the hot soapy water.
"Oh Joe," she cried soundlessly, "How could you do this to me?" The heartache she had carried through the night swelled until her throat ached, but no tears came to bring relief.
The morning sun, streaming across the floor of the combination kitchen-dining-living room, pitilessly accentuated the cracks and patches in the worn linoleum. Though large, the room was cluttered with old and child-scarred furniture, and yet there was that air of comfort and ease that a room acquires when it is loved and cared for. Red geraniums bloomed on the window sill, the curtains were crisp and white, and a bright flowered oilcloth covered the table.
"Hey Maggie." Joe Ramsay's booming voice preceded him to the door. "Them new pigs are out. Give me a hand, will ya?" He peered in the door, his twinkling brown eyes as much at variance with his gruff voice, as were the good humor lines on his weather-ruddy face. Seeing her standing motionless by the chipped enamel sink, he bellowed, "Hustle woman! Can't have them heading back home."
"Hustle yourself," she replied with asperity, but Joe was out of earshot, off at a jog towards the pasture. She shook the water from her hands and dried them on the gingham cover-all apron. As she went out, she slammed the door so hard in a burst of annoyance, that some flakes of the peeling paint fell to the wooden door-step.
As Maggie stepped away from the shelter of the frame house, the prairie wind caught at her skirt, wrapping it about her lean legs. The angularity of her gaunt figure had been unsoftened by the bearing of three husky boys and two plump girls, but her large frame had served her well - especially when it came to milking cows or retrieving pigs - she smiled wryly. Motherhood had failed to soften the lines of Maggie's body, but it had brought lines of tenderness, laughter and patience to her face.
She ran through the garden to waylay the pigs, so that they wouldn't get in and root up all her fall vegetables. She had rows of carrots, turnips and parsnips designated for the children, and those beasts were not going to get them if she could prevent it. The girls in the city were expecting their babies in the spring and needed good country-grown vegetables through the winter.
Maggie sighed. She hadn't heard from Jean and Janet - from any of the children - for some time. She had been certain that there would be something from them today - of all days, but Joe had returned form the village post-office after train time this morning, carrying only the farm journals. Joe Jr. and Dave were probably working with the threshing crews and Brian, the youngest, would be settling in for his last year at the Agricultural College. She was proud of all of them, but today and unbearable pang of loneliness smote her. Besides, she had planned for so long to fill the gap left by the children's departure with her beloved music. Now it seemed she was to be denied even that comfort.
Eyeing with disfavor the sagging, crooked fences surrounding the pasture, Maggie decided that she would be very thankful when Brian returned to the farm. Anyone looking at those fences would judge their owner to be either an alcoholic, or incurably lazy - neither of which was the case. Joe was just - Joe.
There wasn't a harder worker in three counties than her husband, Maggie conceded, as she crossed over into the meadow that Joe had rendered rock-free by back-breaking labor. The trouble was that he possessed a garrulous nature, and craved companionship as he worked, so he was always finding an excuse to help a neighbor. Everyone around knew that underneath Joe's gruffness was a heart as soft as putty, so they always came to him when they needed a hand. Yes, Maggie sighed, helping neighbors with sore backs and flat wallets had always been Joe's way. But this time, and again Maggie felt emotion closing her throat, Joe had gone too far.
Of all their neighbors, Maggie liked Bill and Sadie Jones the least; they were always whining. It was just like Bill to come to Joe and beg him to buy their underfed pigs on the pretext that money was needed for Sadie's operation. But how could Joe have taken - stolen - her hard-earned money yesterday to buy those pigs? - the money she had saved to buy an organ. Why couldn't it have been Jim and Thelma with a sob-story? They had an organ to sell, not pigs.
A sense of outrage gripped her anew as she stalked across the pasture and saw her husband and young Lonny Jones rounding up the runaways. Getting young pigs back in a pen, Maggie reflected, was like trying to put mercury back into a thermometer. Get them in a bunch, and one was sure to make a break for freedom; soon all ten were scattering in all directions. Now, with a squeal, one little porker darted off. Maggie moved into his path and shook her apron at him. Joe rattled the feed bucket. "Soo-ey, soo-ey," he coaxed. Apparently a feed bucket was familiar wherever the home, for all ten made a bee-line for it and noisily followed Joe into the pen.
Leaning over the fence, Joe gloated over his purchase. "Ain't them a fine bunch, Maggie?"
"Now Maggie, I know you wanted it bad, but what good does an organ do? Pigs now, they're an investment. The market will go sky-high this winter." Joe seemed oblivious to her hurt and anger. "Besides, you haven't time to mess around with one now, with canning and garden and everythin'."
"I'd have time, if you'd look after your investment yourself," she retorted, stalking off toward the house.
"Hello?" She spoke into the mouthpiece extending on a swivel from the wooden box of the phone. "Yes Thelma, I was going to call you about the organ." (Click, click. "There's two rubbering on the line," she counted.) "Well I don't know," she hesitated, then the words tumbled out. "Could you hold it for a little while? A month or two? Something's come up. I'm sure I could have the money then." (Click, click, click went the receivers. "Most of the line must be listening in now," she fumed.) "Yes, I see," she answered after a long pause. "Yes - well better let the Jones have it then. I'm sorry too. Good-bye Thelma."
She sat down heavily in the cushioned rocker. Sorry? What an understatement! She was furious. Her money had gone to Bill Jones for the pigs. Now Bill was the one buying the Dorin's organ. Yet he had told Joe that he needed the money for Sadie's operation! Huh!
A lifetime of practicing control over her emotions, instilled in her by stern Scottish parents in childhood, stood Maggie in good stead now. A few minutes of quiet rocking, then, "My bread," she gasped. The high white dough was almost falling over the edge of the pan. Deftly she turned it out on the floured bake table, and moulded it into neat loaves, setting them back on the warming oven to rise. She moved the heavy irons to the front of the stove. Might as well get the ironing done too, while the stove was hot.
Yesterday she had scrubbed, cleaned and polished the house in a frenzy of joy. At last she was to get an organ - the Dorin's organ. She had moved the furniture and re-arranged it so the corner would be ready for the instrument. She had chosen this special corner long ago, when Joe and the boys were building the house. "I'd like to make this room bigger, honey," he had told her then, "but this will have to do for now. And someday, me and the kids are going to get you the biggest and purtiest sounding organ ever made, Maggie. You'll see."
She had dreamed of her organ for so long, but there was always machinery to buy, or cattle, or a bull - always something to delay her dream. Then as the children grew up and left home, she found that at last she could begin to save; a few pennies here, a dollar there. Eggs brought little, but her excellent angel food cakes found a ready market at the little store and service station where tourist stopped for gas and souveniers. Then she started selling fat brown doughnuts and sugar cookies. On real busy weekends she had even taken freshly fried spring chicken over in carefully wrapped boxes. During the winter she had done housecleaning for the town ladies; when music was concerned, Maggie Ramsay could lower her pride to do any honest work.
Her organ fund had grown steadily, but little financial emergencies drew from it often enough to dampen her hopes. To overcome discouragement at such times, Maggie pored over the descriptions of organs in the catalogue, and read avidly the classified ads in the farm papers. Then, last week word came that Thelma and Jim Dorin were selling their organ. Their girls had gone to work in the city and Thelma had never learned to play it. Besides, she wanted a new linoleum for the kitchen. Her heart pounding in her throat, Maggie had hurried over to inquire the price. She had just enough money saved! That organ could be hers, and Joe and Jim could truck it over tomorrow evening. Last night, weary of body but jubilant in spirit, she had lifted the huge old silver bowl down from the shelf in the bedroom closet, to count again that precious horde - not copper, silver and paper, but music. It lifted easily - too easily! Empty! It can't be empty! She peered in. A few pennies rattled about in the bottom as if to mock her. Panic gripped her - then slow realization. Only Joe knew that she had that money - and Joe had brought those pigs home this afternoon. Clutching the bowl to her leaden heart, she had returned to the kitchen where her husband was pulling off his boots and socks.
"Joe? Where did you get the money for the pigs?" Even as she spoke she knew the answer; read it in his sheepishness, his blustering.
Now as she passed the heavy hot iron back and forth over the dampened clothes making her print dresses and aprons and Joe's shirts, satin smooth, Maggie wondered if perhaps the leaden feeling inside her might not ease if the tears would come, but tears never came easily to her. It was somehow much easier to let a laugh mask her feelings; but this time she couldn't laugh either - not yet. "Well, reckon all I can do is start saving all over again," she told the four walls, as she folded the last flannel work shirt, and set the iron back on the stove. But joy today, had fled from Maggie Ramsay.
When Joe came in for supper, she dished up the food listlessly. He finished the last bite of pie, mopped his plate with a slice of fresh bread and ate it with gusto. Tilting his chair back on its reinforced legs he mentioned casually as he filled his pipe, "Saw Granny Marr this morning. She don't look too good. Think maybe we should take a walk over there this evening to look in on her?"
Maggie roused from her lethargy in alarm. Although the old lady was prone to attacks of illness, she insisted on living in her own home. She was a dear and Maggie loved her. "Oh Joe," she chided. "Why didn't you tell me earlier today? We'd better go right now."
"Oh no big rush," he answered easily. "Give a guy a chance to digest that good supper." Then, "I'll give ya a hand with those dishes."
Despite her day of resentment, she was touched by his unwonted thoughtfulness. Joe had never offered to help her with the dishes before; but then he was probably just feeling guilty. They did the dishes in silence, she hung up the pan, and gave a final touch-up to the already tidy room. Removing her apron and running a comb through the stiff curls of her iron-grey hair, she announced that she was ready.
"Better put on a sweater, air's a mite cool." Joe slapped his cap on and they stepped out into the September twilight. The walk across the field with the stars appearing one by one, and the reflected glory of a prairie sunset still tinting the sky, soothed Maggie.
They found Granny Marr rocking contentedly as she listened to "Fibber McGee and Molly", and neither looking nor acting like she was under the weather. Baffled, Maggie looked at Joe for enlightenment, but he had joined Granny in a mutual enjoyment of "Fibber's" current dilemma. When the program ended, he opened the floodgates of Granny's reminiscences by asking her about this former neighbor or that one.
Maggie was bone-weary; she had slept little the night before, and had worked hard all day. Now that her concern for Granny appeared unwarranted, she longed to go home; but Joe seemed bent on ignoring all her hints to leave. He had taken a rocking chair near the window, and seemed more interested in looking out towards home than in taking part in conversation. Of course, once Granny got started, there was little chance for any one else to say much; and Joe was probably worrying about his blessed pigs. When Grann's wheezy old clock struck nine, Maggie managed to break Joe away by suggesting that it was the old lady's bedtime.
The return path was lit by a full moon. Maggie could never resist the soft beauty of moonlight. As they neared the house she thought once or twice that she caught a glimpse of light in the kitchen window, but dismissed it as a reflection of the moon.
"Go on in Joe," she said. "I'm going to stay out for awhile."
Joe could have lit the lamp, she thought, walking up the path to the house, but perhaps he had decided to undress in the dark rather than to bother. She came in quietly so as not to disturb him. But in the moonlight of the room she saw Joe sitting at the kitchen table.
"Why didn't you light the lamp if you were going to sit here?" she chided gently as she reached for the matches on the shelf behind him. It was then that she saw her empty silver bowl there on the table. Ah Joe, she thought, somewhat puzzled.
He reached up and caught her hand. "Leave the lamp for now, Maggie." He drew her down to his knee. With his free hand Joe lifted the lid of the silver bowl for her to see inside. There, just as if it had never been out of the bowl, was her organ money - the dollar bills in flats of ten, the fives with an elastic band around them, the few tens held by a paper clip, and the silver strewn over all.
She looked around at Joe in utter bewilderment. Even in the dim light she couldn't mistake the puckish twinkle in his eyes.
A stifled giggle and a rush of feet from the bedroom brought Maggie to hers. The children were home! Joe Jr. and Dave, Janet and Jean and their husbands, and tall young Brian, all surrounding her, engulfing her in embraces. "Happy Birthday Mother, surprise, surprise!" they were shouting.
"You kids," she said lovingly, feeling flushed with happiness.
With a gasp of joy Maggie moved towards it, fearful that it might disappear as miraculously as it had come. As the family gathered around, she caressed the satin-smooth wood, the scrollwork, the red velvet inset.
"We said we'd get you one someday, mother," said her first-born. "And then…"
"And Lord how it hurt to have you think I took it," said Joe gruffly. "That, plus letting you think we'd forgotten toady was your birthday."
How long ago that misery seemed, thought Maggie, as she sat on the stool, reviewing the stops. At last she let her trembling fingers touch the keys. Was it all a dream? And would she awaken to find only the old dishpan rim beneath her fingers? She began to push the pedals with her feet. Hesitatingly, shyly, Maggie played a wisp of melody -- and then another. Suddenly her fingers became live things and all unbidden they were skimming and darting among the keys bringing forth rich glorious music.
Then Maggie -- the one who never would, never could shed a tear - Maggie wept.
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