A trip to the northern backroads of Alberta
My wife and I recently drove to a sparsely populated area of Alberta northeast of Edmonton. This was a road trip to photograph historic places of interest and just escape the crowds of the city. Our journey took us to where the land is no longer open prairie with pockets of trees but verdant boreal forest and small lakes. Old schools, churches and houses, my primary photographic subject material, can be found even here in this heavily treed area. Indeed, despite the thick forests, people once came here to homestead.
It was tough work for the homesteader because they had to remove the trees, roots and all, with just hand tools and an ox or two. I can’t begin to imagine the amount of work that kind of homesteading required but perhaps these early pioneers didn’t see it that way. For them it was peaceful because they came here to be free of the fear of government agents or soldiers banging on the door in the middle of the night (as they experienced in the “old country”). These people wanted a life where all that mattered was feeding the family with what they grew on their very own land. That’s exactly what they found here so maybe the hard work was not such an issue to them. Of course this is just my theory.
As we drove along these backroads we would be scan the countryside for places of photographic interest. I spotted something unusual. A single grave just a short distance from the road. I’ve seen all sorts of cemeteries from fenced areas where nearly all the burials were unmarked and unknown, to fully overgrown cemeteries where trees hide everything including the few remaining legible markers. This was different. A single grave with not wood but a wrought iron fence that’s in pristine condition. I parked the vehicle and walked up to the grave. There within that fancy fence I saw a newer looking gravestone with the decedent’s name clearly legible. It said, “Boleslaw Kilar”, “1932-1933”, “Holy Child of God Pray for Us”. That was it. A child’s grave. His parents buried him on their own land rather than in a cemetery and now, I presume, other family members are taking such good care of this site. If the child had lived he would be around 88 at the time of writing this blog. His parents are likely gone and even brothers and sisters, if any, would be getting on in years. It’s impressive to see the work of descendants willing to do more than occasionally cut the grass around such gravesite, especially for someone they likely never even met. What motivated the child’s family to bury him here and what became of the family that once farmed these lands? These are the questions that I contemplate as I’m standing by the grave.
I could now see an old abandoned house through the trees as I looked up from the from the gravesite. I approached it cautiously because tall grasses can hide dangers such as old wells or small farm tools. The house was made of hand hewn lumber. The construction is similar to that of a log cabin where log after log is stacked upon each other and some form of joinery is used to lock them together at the corners. This method is used where trees are abundant and lumber mills few and far between. The house was built to last a long time but nothing lasts forever. The elements and trees as well as birds and other small creatures have taken their toll over the years. Still it showed pride in workmanship with a large front porch where the family may have sat after supper to pass the time. It also faces the solitary grave that is about 100 meters away. Did the owners leave after the child died or did they farm this land until they couldn’t manage it anymore? The forest would have reclaimed the land if it was untended for a long time so this land must have been cultivated even after the house was abandoned. Perhaps later in the season the owners take a crop of hay off. So many unanswered questions. Well, instead of questions, here are some photos so you can experience, from the comfort of your home, the sites that we saw. I hope that you enjoy them and feel a little of the loneliness of this place. After the photos I’ve added additional information that I learned from the family of that child in the solitary grave.
Boleslaw Kilar 1932 – 1933, Holy Child of God Pray for us.
Windows to view another family’s life in another time.
And now for the rest of the story
Thanks to some skilled sleuthing by blog follower and mystery solver, Sara Pierce, and my wife Evelyn who took the sleuthing a step further by practically documenting their whole family tree, I have some answers to the many questions raised in this blog. I’ve decided to avoid using full names to protect the privacy of the family involved. Sara provided the main link from an obituary with sufficient common elements to conclude that the person in the obituary was related to the child in the grave. Sara was correct. From that information I selected the most likely descendant and found a phone number and phoned him to ask some questions. This is not an easy thing to do. How do you start a conversation out of the blue about a matter such as this. Do you say, “hello, are you the fellow who owns a northern Alberta farm with a child’s grave on it?” Well basically that is what I did. This is what I learned.
The land is still owned by descendants of the family that gave birth to that child in the grave. Jozef and Emilia arrived from Poland in 1926 and settled on the land in question. It was rugged country with few roads and no nearby Catholic cemeteries. In fact, Jozef helped build some local roads to the west of the farm by using logs side by side as the paving material. This method, called “corduroy roads”, was necessary because the soft muskeg was nearly impossible to build on. Muskeg is quite common in the north. It’s basically a bog type material being a mix of water and sphagnum or other mosses. The logs gave it some stability so that eventually older trucks could maneuver on those roads. So Jozef literally helped to open up the west. Jozef and Emilia had a big family and Boleslaw was neither their first nor their last child. Little Boleslaw died of pneumonia at the tender age of 9 months. Jozef was a very dedicated Catholic who wanted his son, Boleslaw, to be buried in a Catholic cemetery so they chose to bury him on their own land, possibly with the intention of moving his remains later (which, another source told me, was not an uncommon practice in those days – sometimes even moving the remains a third time). Jozef’s grandson continues to farm nearby land and the land in question. The grave used to have an old wooden fence around it but after all these years the fence was falling down. A sibling had purchased a granite marker not long before that but with the fence falling down there was a risk of hitting it with farm machinery because it’s hard to see in the hayfield without a fence. The local grandson is a skilled welder so he made the wrought iron fence himself. I thanked him for the information and asked if he was okay with me showing these photos and he said that was fine with him.
So there you have it. The facts may seem unremarkable to some but not to me. I feel that I’ve briefly stepped into the lives of people who not only settled in western Canada, as many of our own families have done, but also people who pushed the boundaries of settlement through their road building. In fact it was the road building, called “corduroy road” that my contact, the grandson of Jozef, was most keenly willing to talk about. It was people like Jozef who opened up the west and that enabled the transport routes to expand and make Alberta what it is today. I think that in addition to the boy child Boleslaw’s grave marker, there should be a commemorative plaque for Jozef as an Alberta pioneer in the truest sense of the word.
I hope you enjoyed traveling with me through the backroads of Alberta.