OWEN FENWICK, and Oxdrift History

THE CONTRARIAN

I like to write about individuals who are part of the history and colour and character of our community. In many cases this means folks now deceased, but not all – Owen Fenwick is a healthy-looking 98 year old who is still mentally sound and a pleasure to be around.  He is a lifelong entrepreneur and pioneered much of the progress in our rural community.  This was published in the Observer in four parts, shown here as chapters.  For Dryden (and pioneer!) history buffs.

CHAPTER 1

Owen grew up on the family farm at Griffon, Saskatchewan, near Weyburn. He was 19 when his father Fred travelled to Dryden to attend the funeral of his sister-in-law, a Mrs. Ankney;  this was in 1937, in the depth of the depression.  Fred was impressed that everything here looked green and fresh, and everybody seemed to be working, in contrast with drought-stricken Saskatchewan, no employment, no crop and soil drifting over the fences.  Perhaps this was also a scouting trip; at any rate he arranged to rent a farm here, and moved his whole family to the Dryden area that same year.

Many present Dryden families originally came here during those depression/drought years; parts of Saskatchewan were not able to grow anything for several years on end, the soil was blowing away apparently along with any future – remember, western Canada was still primarily an agrarian society. At least here in the Wabigoon Valley, one could grow a garden, catch a fish, perhaps shoot a deer, there was occasional opportunity for paid employment, while at home was starvation. Owen says there was little or no rain for their last three years there, and jokes that they planted an onion on each side of each potato so the eyes would water and save the crop.

There had been several waves of settlers from the west including Saskatchewan earlier in our history, and no doubt relatives or acquaintances already here made the move easier.  Farming on the prairies was a very risky business before Crop Insurance and Marketing Co-ops, and many a Saskatchewan farm was saved from bankruptcy by the farmer and his horses spending the winter in one of our bush camps.   The Dryden/Saskatchewan connection was strengthened by Dryden boys joining the contingent of eastern men riding the ‘harvest trains’ out west to help with the harvest – there were nowhere near enough men in Saskatchewan to harvest and thresh the wheat crops in the days before combines, and large numbers from all across Canada travelled west each fall.

Fred Fenwick had made an agreement to rent a farm east of Dryden, but when he arrived with his family the landlord had changed his mind, and as a result the family settled on a farm at Oxdrift, next door to Charlie Skene’s place, now the home of Ken Lovenuk.

CHAPTER 2

Owen quickly became part of the community. He had lots of farm experience out west, he recalled that before he was 10 he worked with the threshing crew – he would be boosted up onto the seat of the horse-drawn grain wagon, and drive back and forth delivering loads of grain to the grain elevator.

My dad tells a similar tale about his youth in Saskatchewan – as the greenest member of the threshing crew, his job was to park a horse-drawn wagon where it would get blown full of straw from the threshing machine; the dust and chaff and noise was not real popular with the horses and required some horsemanship. The horses would then draw it over to the steam engine driving the whole operation, and the straw would be used as fuel.  He and the horses would be transferred to the wagon just emptied to take it back for a refill.  He preferred the next most junior job, which was to drive a team of horses pulling a water wagon to the nearest reasonably clean creek or slough, fill it and bring it back to keep the steam engine  water tank filled.

Owen had not been here long when he got asked to go work on a threshing crew; Ves Richardson’s rig was working on Billy Parkers place. The pace of a threshing operation depends on the ‘spike pitcher’, working at top speed to feed the machine, and the crew take turns at that job.  When small, teenage Owen stepped up for his turn, Billy looked worried as to whether Owen would be able to handle it, but Ves said “let the little bugger go”, and Owen surprised them all with what he could do, size isn’t everything.

A threshing crew would consist of at least 8 hard-working and hungry men and neighbour girls would be enlisted to help the farm family feed them all. The Oberg homestead was nearby and teenage Mary Oberg was helping in the Parker kitchen.  Owen was smitten, and a few years later, she became Mrs. Owen Fenwick.

Owen worked on the construction of the Beaver Creek Bridge at Minnitaki, and then when the Contractor got the contract for the Eton Rugby bridge he worked on that. He jokes he is the only surviving member of those construction jobs.  He gained mechanical and equipment operating skills on these jobs, which he built on in later years, becoming a talented, if self-taught, mechanic.

Within a few years Owen bought the farm (lot 6 Concession 2, Eton) across the road from his parent’s rented home, and this became his and Mary’s long-time Oxdrift home. He says he bought it from F T Brignall, but he is not sure if Brignall was acting as agent for the previous homesteader, or had acquired it and was reselling.   F T was a prominent Oxdrift farmer/equipment dealer/ entrepreneur at the time.

Owen’s parents moved to town where his dad worked at St Regis bag factory, later worked for a plumber. The plumbing openings in the slab at Dryden hospital, then under construction, were in the wrong place, so they had to drill new ones from the bottom up, working in a crawl space. Owen blamed his father’s untimely death on the dust and dirt he was working in and breathing for this extended job.  Owen’s mother Bessie Fenwick rented rooms to country girls working in town after her husband’s passing; one was my present wife Louise, shows again what a small world we live in.

CHAPTER 3

Owen’s farm developed slowly. In the mid-forties, the country road in front of his farm was upgraded into the main route from Vermilion Bay to Dryden.  Owen had acquired mechanical experience in his work off the farm; he had a natural talent for mechanical things, and he built a commercial garage/service station beside the now well-travelled road.  He had the usual small business problem of people not paying their bills, and to keep the cash flowing he bought a truck and in winter he hauled wood for small contractors – this was still in the days of horse and swede saw logging.  He has some stories to tell about some of those customers, including one camp where he went to collect his pay, and found one partner dead, and the other mortally ill (food poisoning?).

Another of Owen’s stories – he saw a very nice-looking car beside the road up at Sioux Lookout with a ‘For Sale’ sign at an extremely low price, so he stopped to ask why.  He was told that two local ladies were out driving, and bumped into a hydro pole which caused a live line to fall on the car.  The driver attempted to step out, and became the ground; the passenger jumped out thereby avoiding being shocked, but then also became a ground when she tried to help the driver.  Both were electrocuted, and nobody in Sioux Lookout wanted a car with such a history at any price!

In the mid-fifties the highway in front of his farm was reconstructed to Trans-Canada highway standards, and this was a turning point for Owen. The Contractor in the Oxdrift area (Eric Reilly Construction, I will write about this unusual outfit later) made Owen’s place its headquarters.  His garage became their heavy equipment repair shop.

Owen was a very progressive farmer.  He says he was the first to have a combine here, and he pioneered this new way of producing clover seed, which was still one of the main cash crops in the district.  He also had one of the first pickup hay balers in the district.  This was a huge change in how hay was produced.  Previously, hay was made by various horse-drawn and manual means and gathered into a stack or into the big hip-roof barns of the day.  It was fed to the livestock from the barn, or baled by a large portable custom baler for off-farm sale. The pickup baler pretty much made these barns obsolete, but a few can still be seen.  The one on Owen’s farm, already there when he bought it, build by Percy Shields of Minnitaki, was only recently demolished.

This new method of making hay saved a lot of labour, no more gathering and stacking hay with pitchforks, although Owen’s manual machine needed two people riding on the baler feeding in the wire and tying it. The first baler on our farm was an old one of these (perhaps the same one?); not the most attractive job on the farm, the baler puffed out regular clouds of dust and chaff right in the wire guys faces.  Teenage friend Wilbert remembers riding the seat on one side of the machine; when brother Dan on the tractor looked back, the other seat had detached itself from the machine, and there was our dad, still sitting on the seat, way back there among the bales!

CHAPTER 4

Owen was a leader in the community, and a good neighbour to all. He liked to work, and he liked to get things done, and could become quite hyper when things did not go well.  My dad recalled going to find Owen to discuss some farm thing or other. Owen was out on his back 40 clearing land with his bulldozer, but when my dad got there, Owen was sitting on a stump beside his dozer.  He was red in the face and sweating profusely, trying to recover from his frustration at a stump too big for his tractor and wondering if he was having a heart attack.  Dad’s interruption might have saved the day. By the time they got done solving the world’s problems, or at least Oxdrift’s, Owen had cooled down and was able to carry on.  All this was about 40 years ago and he didn’t have that heart attack, he is still going strong.

Owen’s experience with trucking and equipment operation and repair rubbed off on his family, and his son Jim and daughter Sharon with son-in-law Wilfred became substantial contractors in their own right, with Owen in the background when needed. His grandsons are still involved in heavy equipment and woods work as Fenwick Chipping.  Sharon and Wilfred showed their entrepreneurial bent in building and operating Dryden’s only drive-in theatre, in partnership with Reg and Yvonne Crigger.

Owen says he was Oxdrift’s first fire man. When rural fire departments were new, and one was being organized in Oxdrift (1980-81), Owen bought a thousand gallon tank and pump and mounted them on his truck and kept it in his garage.  This was Oxdrift’s first ‘Fire Truck’ and he was their ‘pump man’.  When Oxdrift Fire were able to buy a proper fire truck, it was all metric.  Owen did not want to be Pump Man any more as he might make a mistake with the metric, so he became Ladder Man.

Oxdrift Fire was important to Owen, and he talks about fire events and calls, example, lightning hit the church at Oxdrift, Mrs Tuckey at the store across the highway phoned Oxdrift Fire, and Roger Nordlund, first fireman on the scene, was able to climb up and put the fire out himself before the crew got there. Roger recalls being called to a fire; when he went to Owen’s garage to get the truck, there was no steering wheel on it! Obviously Owen was in the midst of a repair job.  Owen says he hopes to have involvement of the Oxdrift Fire Team when he passes on.

Owen got involved with antique cars, and until recently he could be seen in parades proudly piloting his 1941 Chev.  He was involved in the restoration of a number of others cars over the years.  My family member Laurence Fecho is restoring an antique wooden speed boat, brought to Lake Wabigoon some 80 years ago by a wealthy American for quick access to Gold Rock where he had interests.  Lawrence reports that Owen rebuilt the engine for him, and whenever Laurence bumps into him he gets scolded because he has still not finished the boat and taken it for a run.

Owen sold his farm in 1984, and he and Mary moved to town. After a happy retirement, Mary passed away in 2005, and Owen carries on, but at age 98, he has slowed down. He sold his beloved ‘New Yorker’, and recently parted with his prized 41 Chev, but still proudly drives his 20 year old pickup.  Carry on, Owen, we will check in with you again on your 100th!

 

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