Let me preface my grandmother’s story by stating she is representative of a generation of pioneer prairie women. Her story is no more remarkable than thousands of others who came to live the Western Canadian dream of a new and better life. It is safe to say that none of May Honey’s descendants can truly imagine what her life was like. The details I know and speculate about make me proud to tell about her unique journey through life.
There is very little known of May Honey’s upbringing in Ormskirk, Lancashire, England other than her birth date of May 24, 1883. She had a younger brother Fred and a brother David who was mentally handicapped. The only story verbally passed down from generation to generation was that she was often sent to get her stepfather’s pint of ale from the local pub. Her brother Fred left for Canada at the age of eleven; one speculates that it was to find a better life. We do know that she followed him out to Canada, apparently arriving at her destination before Fred. Our first written Canadian record places May Honey in Moose Jaw, NWT in 1904. Her eldest children do recall that she came over as a Salvation Army Lass. There are no English records surviving of the Salvation Army immigration program from Southport during the early part of the 20th century to verify her departure from England. The Salvation Army assisted those living in poorhouses to immigrate to “better” conditions. The Salvation Army Archives stated that women mostly worked as domestic help; this is what employed May Honey on the Hayes farm near Moose Jaw. This transition must have come about with much trepidation.
Bowyer Bradford and his friend Ben White left England in 1901 with a dream – free land in the Canadian west. They travelled to Ontario to work for three seasons, earning enough cash to venture west. North of Moose Jaw Bowyer found employment with Steve and Lilly Hayes; meeting a young woman who championed his dream and stole his heart.
May married Bowyer Bradford on December 24, 1906; the ride to pick up the ring is chronicled in Bowyer’s journal. The wedding occurred at the Methodist rectory. The formal picture of May and Bowyer from Cunningham’s in Moose Jaw taken in 1906 shows a young couple with sturdy hands and sensible clothing. May’s light coloured serviceable dress is topped off with a dark hat which is the only bit of fancy in the picture.
Bowyer and May Bradford
Life for May and Bowyer in the first two years of marriage was dedicated to securing money to homestead. The land was free but equipment and lodgings were still to be purchased. The first winter of their married life they rented a house in Moose Jaw and sold milk from their cows to city residents. The following spring found them just south of Moose Jaw renting land. They planted potatoes and continued to keep city folk supplied with milk. May had her first introduction to life in a prairie shack. Bowyer employed native women to help bring in the potato harvest. May told her children about the native woman who helped herself to the biscuits from May’s table; returning the next day with a basket full of saskatoons for May. Bowyer left May to finish up the harvest and sell the potatoes to their city customers, while he and Ben traveled to the “promised” land. Bowyer commenced building the shack and then returned for the cows. On November 20, 1907 May followed by train to Chaplin. The young couple purchased their groceries for the winter and travelled by horse and wagon to their quarter section of land. As winter approached they started their homestead life. May was two months pregnant; they were the youngest couple in the district at ages 26 and 24.
Life in England had been harsh with little hope of a better life; life as a domestic in Canada was busy and demanding but with a security net. Life as a homesteader was full of trials and tribulations and the quest for survival gave no time at all for looking back but probably many a cold night was spent worrying about what came next.
May and Bowyer returned to Moose Jaw just in time for Arthur’s birth on June 6, 1908, returning to the homestead by buggy two weeks later. That fall found them again in Moose Jaw to work for another year as more funds was needed. In May 1909 news reached them via Ben that their homestead was destroyed by fire along with all their belongings. Their second child (Fred) arrived in July; two months later their first born died. Although the death of a child was a common occurrence it was devastating for the young couple as was the prairie fire. They struck out in November of 1909 for the homestead and never left again for seventeen years.
From 1909 to 1926 May and Bowyer had more children; Dave (1910) Frank (1913), Nellie (1915), Lloyd (1917) and Bowyer Jr (Bud) (1921). Each year they broke more land and had a bigger harvest. They bought another quarter section of land in 1920 and moved across the road. In 1921 they joined three shacks together to have enough room for their expanding family. The coulee quarter, as it was called, had a deep ravine with a stream. A dam provided a constant supply of water. The coulee offered a fabulous place for the children to play and a local school was built ½ mile north & ½ mile east of the house. May gardened, canned, cooked, sewed and took care of their six children and the farm animals. Tragedy struck again in 1922 when all the children came down with whooping cough; Nellie died at the age of seven. Bowyer’s journal catalogues their struggle to carry on and reiterates how it was for the boys that they found the strength.
Dave, Bowyer, Fred, May, Frank
In 1922 May’s mother, Martha Ashton, and handicapped brother, David, arrived in Canada. May’s brother Fred came up from El Paso, Texas for a visit. This would be the only reunion of the family that split up over 30 years prior. Gramma Ashton secured work as a housekeeper in Central Butte and son David was committed to the Weyburn Mental Hospital. Upon the death of his mother in 1926 David was deported back to England. He had attempted to live with May and her family but his wandering and erratic behaviour was too difficult for a family of five children and a farm to run. One wonders how May felt knowing that she would never see her brother again.
More fortitude was required for in the spring of 1925 Bowyer slipped in the granary; resulting in a strangulated hernia. Emergency surgery was completed by a visiting surgeon to the local hospital. Bowyer would require further corrective surgery following spring seeding. May and Bowyer reversed roles; he looked after Bud and did light housekeeping while May, with the help of Fred, Dave and Frank completed the seeding. While Bowyer was in Regina having surgery May was totally responsible for the children, tending the livestock, cooking, gardening and cleaning. This same crew was responsible for the harvest. Bowyer was never very robust following his surgery and the role reversal carried on although May did more than just the farming as there was laundry, sewing and mending, gardening and canning to be done. It must have been a relief for May when the boys eventually took over the farming.
Dave, Lloyd, May, Fred, Bud, Bowyer, Frank
1926 was a momentous year. The crops continued to be successful so money was available to start building a house in the spring. They also purchased a new Ford car and took a holiday in July to Saskatoon. Ben White’s sister invited them to for a weeklong visit and a trip to the big fair. In September, at the age of 43, May delivered their last child, Thelma May. In 1927 they celebrated a wonderful Christmas in their new house with all of their children present. 1928 was a bumper crop and the family fortunes continued on the upswing.
Dave, Bowyer, Thelma, May and Fred
Just when it seemed that indeed they were living the Western Canadian dream the skies darkened in many ways. The 1929 stock market crash closed the local bank and with it went the credit for their spring seeding. Once seed money was found the clouds failed to produce any rain. From 1929 until 1939 they had no crops to harvest. The two eldest boys; Fred and Dave put up a bit of thistle and some poor quality wheat for the livestock. Frank, at the age of seventeen, left home to seek work elsewhere. During this time period Fred and Dave married local girls and eventually settled into farming after working off farm for much of the dirty 30’s. Lloyd and Bud took over the family farm. The garden was watered from the dam and vegetables were grown; pigs and chickens helped keep the family fed but still the family was on government relief for groceries, a tough pill to swallow.
War provided the next challenge for the family. Frank and Lloyd signed up in Ontario where they had been working. Frank was injured during the final training days and was given a medical discharge. Lloyd did a tour of duty overseas. While in England he met some of Bowyer’s siblings but there was no one left in England of May’s family. May faithfully sent him letters and parcels from home and was always cheered up when a letter arrived in the mail. Lloyd was discharged and returned to Ontario. Shortly after this he arrived back at the coulee farm with his four year old son Garry in hand. This provided significant change in the life of May and Bowyer. Lloyd required a job and Garry needed stable parenting. In 1947, after 40 years on the farm, a move was made back to Moose Jaw by the three generations. This left the coulee farm in the hands of Bud and his new wife Irene.
The adaptation back to life in Moose Jaw resulted in partial retirement from farming with a very busy household to meet young Garry’s needs. The following year found them all out on the farm for the spring and summer with a return to the city in the fall. A freak accident that took the life of Garry on January 3rd, 1948 plunged May and Bowyer into despair. In time they rallied and found joy in the lives of their other grandchildren but it was a very difficult blow to take.
May and Bowyer took the second holiday of their lifetime in the winter of 1952 when they journeyed via train to El Paso Texas to spend the winter with May’s brother Fred and his wife. It had been over 25 years since the siblings last saw each other and this would be their final reunion. During retirement years Bowyer and May travelled to Lake Louise and the Rocky Mountains. They travelled by train east to Fort Francis to see their son Frank and grandchildren. There was never a return trip to England.
During May and Bowyer’s retirement years they renewed some old friendships in Moose Jaw and often visited out to the coulee farm and district to see family and friends. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Moose Jaw surrounded by their sons and daughter plus 21 grandchildren. Bowyer died in 1964 and May spent her final years at a nursing home in Moose Jaw before her death in 1969.
To sum up my grandmother’s life is a difficult task. There was no time for a daily journal and precious few pictures but all of her children turned out to be persistent strong individuals with gentle and caring souls. And in this way throughout the next 5 generations we see the real legacy of May Honey Bradford.
This is a much longer post than my usual evening ramblings. It is the full version of my submission to “Women Pioneers of Saskatchewan”, published by the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society in 2009. I have seen more pictures that go with the story but as of yet haven’t scanned my mother’s copies into my computer.