The Gray Homestead is a place well known to many photographers of rural and abandoned Alberta. The old homestead sits upon a prairie hill and it makes for particularly striking photographs. As a bonus to the visitor there is also a small plaque on the side of the house that reads:
A photo of the plaque is shown below. So what was the Gray Homestead all about and who was Marion Edith Dahl (Gray)? In this blog post we will peel off the dusty layers of time and try to learn something about the Gray and Dahl families.
Before we continue I will explain to you how I found this location. The Gray Homestead was on my photography “wish list” for a number of years. I had a rough idea of where it was located but hadn’t given it much thought because the location was at an out of the way area that I rarely have a reason to go. During the summer my wife and I like to haul our little trailer to various campgrounds in BC, Alberta or Saskatchewan. That was our plan for the summer of 2020 but since 2020 was also the year of the Covid-19 pandemic we tried to stay in Alberta. Little did we know at the time that every other Albertan with a tent or a trailer had the same idea for a summer activity. As a result our provincial campgrounds, that were already under pressure because they were restricted to less than 100% capacity, were frequently fully booked. At least the most popular provincial campgrounds were full. We scanned our maps trying to find a provincial park that was sufficiently out of the way that it would still have vacancy for our reservation and that campground was Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park. To be honest I hadn’t even heard of it prior to last summer. The park turned out to be a delightful place with plenty to see and do nearby but that’s a whole other story. It was during that camping trip that my wife and I were driving down a nearby highway when one of us yelled “stop the car, stop the car” and I pulled over, turned the vehicle around and then parked safely to photograph this fine looking old house. I posted the photos on social media and people responded to say that it was “a fine photo of the Gray Homestead”. I thought they commented on the wrong post so I asked them what they meant. Apparently I had found the Gray Homestead without even realizing it. I was so busy photographing the house that I didn’t even get close enough to notice the small plaque on the side of the building that would have told me what I stumbled upon. There is an old saying about not seeing the forest for the trees but I did the opposite and failed to see the trees for the forest.
The Gray Homestead is located in Special Area No. 3 in Alberta. Special areas are similar to counties except that the province takes a larger role in the administration process. Rather than try to explain the special areas to you I’ll just quote directly from a website: About the Special Areas – Special Areas Board
“Parts of southeastern Alberta were hit particularly hard by the Depression and drought of the 1930s. In 1938, the Provincial Government established a special governing body – called the Special Areas Board – to provide municipal services and supports in place to enable this region to recover and thrive. Like a municipal government, the Special Areas Board looks after roads and parks, provides water and emergency services, manages public land and community pastures, and develops economic development and agricultural conservation strategies”.
There is a Special Area No. 2, a Special Area No. 3 and a Special Area No. 4. Special Area No. 1 was split up between Special area No. 2 and Cypress County. Apparently there were six special areas at one time.
Who Was Marion Edith Dahl (Gray)?
I thought the details of Marion Dahl’s life would be easy to find because it’s unusual for anyone to go to the trouble of installing a plaque on an old homestead. I thought Marion must have lived her entire life there and accomplished great things. During my searches I found at least two other blogs that featured this homestead but neither had any information about this lady. On one blog I even found an unanswered question asking who she was. Clearly posterity would not easily reveal the story of Mrs Dahl’s life. However at least some of the story must be out there because a plaque is meant to be read and appreciated, otherwise it’s just a piece of brass. So let’s start with her family tree just so that we can see where she fits into the scheme of things.
In order to keep some of the names straight as you read this blog post you might want to refer back to this family tree that I created. I could have listed Marion’s children as I found their details but one daughter (Cheryl) might still be alive. For Cheryl’s privacy I’ll leave those details out. There were 3 daughters and 2 sons. One daughter died as recently as 2015.
In The Beginning – The Gray Family
Let’s start with Marion Edith Dahl (Gray)’s parents. Marion’s father, Thomas A Gray left his farm and family in South Mountain, Ontario to secure a half section homestead in the Cereal area of Alberta in 1911. Each fall he returned home to his family in Ontario and in the spring he returned to Alberta. In 1913 it was time to commit to the Alberta farm on a full-time basis so they sold the Ontario farm and headed west to the homestead. Tom used the money from the sale of their Ontario farm to buy whatever they needed including horses, cows, a pure-bread Jersey calf, machinery, canned fruit and household goods. Tom’s wife, Anna Gray (Gilmour) took the train with their son Roy and daughters Gertrude, Eva, Wilda and Marion – who was 3 years old. One daughter Ida Murdock, had moved to Alberta the previous year to join her husband who also homesteaded in Alberta. Another daughter Laura, would move out west with her husband in 1917.
One day a storm came up and he (Thomas Gray) said he hung onto the door until the roof blew off and then he went outside. It was quite a windstorm. On Charlie Robinson’s farm, a mile west of him, it lifted a wagon with a cream separator in it right over a granary and set it down on the other side without doing any damage.Down Cereal’s Memory Trails, 1910-1967. page 71
Anna Gray must have been shocked when she saw the homestead for the first time. The “house” was a 14′ by 16′ shack. It was so small and crowded that they had to use a tent to cover some of their belongings that remained outside. Cots were brought in at night for sleeping and moved outside in the morning so that they could move around in the little house. Tom built an addition to the house in the fall of that first year. By 1915 Tom had a second storey built and that greatly relieved the congestion. If you look very closely at the second photo below you will see where the part of the house facing the fence seems to have a straight vertical line (next to a light coloured door) so that’s probably the 1913 addition. Two of their daughters remained in Ontario although Laura Baldwin (Gray) also moved west with her husband in 1917.
Tom and Anna Gray brought a lot of fine equipment with them when they came out west but it wasn’t the equipment that caught the interest of the local bachelors, it was Tom and Anna’s four unmarried daughters. The Gray household was the centre of attraction each Sunday after church. The next 16 years saw four daughters get married, including Marion Edith Gray who married Helmer (Hjalmer) Dahl. Marion and Helmer had two sons and three daughters.
Marion’s, mother Anna Gray died on 1938-06-20 at age 69, and Marion’s father Thomas Ambrose Gray died on 1946-05-03 at age 81. Both are buried near Cereal, Alberta.
The Dahl Family (Marion’s In-laws)
The Dahl family is important because Marion Edith Dahl (Gray) married Helmer Dahl. So lets start with the parents just like we did with the Gray family. John Dahl left Jemptland, Sweden for a new life in Minnesota. He prospered in Minnesota as a lumberman, farmer and carpenter. John Dahl met his wife, Ragna Brekke in Bagley, Minnesota and with their first son, Clifford, they moved to Watrous, Saskatchewan where they had two more children, Hjalmar (also spelled Helmer) and Myrtle. In Saskatchewan John Dahl was the first mail carrier for a once per week route.
In Saskatchewan John Dahl was the first mail carrier for the Mandal-Peacock-Taylorboro-Strasbourg route. He made the round trip every week. Sometimes he travelled by Democrat and a team of horses. In those early days, especially in winter, it took a real pioneer spirit to carry on and give regular service. With no highways, roads or telephone lines to follow, and with the early blizzards to contend with, it was especially dangerous to attempt a trip of this kind.Prairie Reflections, Watrous-Venn-Manitou Beach-Renown-Amazon-And Districts, Page 71
It was purely by coincidence that the Dahls moved to the Sedalia area in the same year that Tom Gray secured a homestead not far to the south. The Grays and the Dahls followed very different paths that led them to become rural neighbours to each other. A lot of people from Sweden moved to Minnesota and then to Alberta with some stopping off for a while in Saskatchewan. The Sedalia area became home for dozens of people who were originally from Sweden. These people were likely familiar with each other because they followed the same route from Sweden to Minnesota before homesteading in the same general area of Alberta. This familiarity would be strengthened by a common language which no doubt helped when one couldn’t find the English words to say what needed to be said. The Gray family didn’t know any of them prior to moving to Alberta as they were not themselves expat Swedes. The Gray family came from Ontario and homesteaded just south of Sedalia in Riddellvale which was slightly closer to Cereal.
It was the Spring of 1911 that John and Ragna Dahl moved to the Sedalia area of Alberta. John Dahl built a two room house with a sod barn. Three more children were born; Norris, Hazel and John Raymond. John Dahl’s mother-in-law, who came out a little later with her other daughter Carla Rude (Brekke), died in 1912 and she was buried on the corner of the farm because there was no cemetery in the area yet. Another person – Melvin Satre – was buried there as well but I don’t know exactly what his connection was to the Dahl family. However I’ve read that at least some of the Satres also came from Bagley, Minnesota (where John Dahl and Ragna Brekke were married in 1902). Also John Dahl built the Cop Hill School in 1913 and Hula Satre was the first teacher so clearly the Dahls knew the Satres. Regardless of what the connection between the Dahls and the Satres was, both of the bodies were later moved from John Dahl’s farm to the Cop Hill Cemetery when it was established.
John Dahl’s mother-in-law, Kirstine “Kirsti” Olson Brekke, came to Alberta with John Rude and his new bride Carla Rude (Brekke). Kirsti Brekke or grandma Brekke was suffering from an illness so she stayed with John Rude at first. “Grandma Brekke was later moved to a room at the John Dahl home where she could be more easily taken care of by her two daughters, Carrie and Ragna Dahl (Brekke). Our dear grandma passed away in June of that same summer and was one of the first ones to be burried at the Cop Hill Cemetery”Wind, willows, and prairie wool – Martin Holman Family Story
John Dahl was one of the first farmers in the area to buy an automobile. There is a story about him driving along and looking at the wheat growing in a neighbour’s field when the Ford automobile drove straight into a slough that just happened to be on Thomas Gray’s land. He walked over to ask Thomas Gray if he would hitch up a team and pull him out and of course Thomas was more than willing to help. When they arrived at the slough Tom asked, “John how in the world did you get in there? Mr Dahl responded, “I’m looking at Robinson’s wheat crop and where I look I go.”
The Dahl family suffered from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919 but all recovered. In 1923 or 1924 they bought a new farm from the Petersons which was right next to the community of Sedalia. John Dahl hired a different Peterson, a big strong man named Anton Peterson, to dig a well in preparation for the move. It was here, close to the railroad, that they built a modern house and barns.
Tragedy in Sedalia
The following information came from the on-line newspaper called The East Central Alberta Review as well as page 56 of Wind, willows, and prairie wool, 1867-1967.
Tragedy was no stranger to the early pioneers. The tragedies that most families experienced included some or all of; the death of a child, the loss of a house or barn from a fire or bad storm, the Spanish Flu epidemic and certainly the loss of crops or livestock. Yet there are some tragedies that stand out from the others and are remembered for a very long time. Indeed the January 2019 date of the article that I read in The East Central Alberta Review is proof that this tragedy is far from forgotten.
On June 28, 1935, John Dahl and son Norris were cleaning out the well at their new farm, bought from the Petersons in 1923 or 1924. John Dahl, 66, first entered the well to repair its frost plug line when he became distressed by carbon monoxide that lingered inside. Then his son, Norris Dahl, 22, went in to help him when he too succumbed to the noxious gas shortly afterward. John Peter Durksen, a Mennonite immigrant who lived at the next farm to the Dahl’s, heard cries for help and attempted to rescue John and Norris Dahl, who were located at the bottom of the septic well. Durksen risked his own life to save the father and son but, in the end, he perished along with them, having just turned 30 earlier that month. A doctor summoned from New Brigden, a community located 15 kilometres away, attempted to resuscitate the three men but to no avail. Death certificates and other documents obtained by family members confirmed the cause of death to be Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning. As documented by the Consort Enterprise, over 1,500 people attended the funeral on July 1, 1935 at the Sedalia Hall for all three men. Given the location and the year as well as the photo below, I think that 150 people is more likely than 1,500, but who am I to argue with the veracity of this story?
“My mom – she baked some buns and walked to town and she told us ‘Kids, go into the house,”’Thulien began. “She was going to be right back. She was taking some fresh buns to Dad for dinner and she walked back home. My sister was only nine and I was eight. She walked about half a mile and left home and back and by that time my grandfather had heard [about my father]. They had called him to come in and get my Dad’s body.”Anne Thulien (Durkssen) age 91
Anne Thulien goes on to say, “The body was prepared right there on the farm; something vastly different to life in today’s world. I can still remember the back seat of the car where they brought him home. They did things differently then. They never had undertakers like they do now,” said Thulien.
This tragic story and strong act of bravery meant that Mr. Durksen was eligible for the Canada Bravery Award, an award that recognizes deserving Canadians for their acts of bravery. The Royal Canadian Humane Association (RCHA) has presented John’s family with a posthumous medal for his selfless efforts that day in 1935. The medal was received a few days before Christmas 2019.
The three men can be found laid to rest in the Cop Hill Cemetery near Sedalia.
Durksen’s selfless act of bravery continues to inspire his family many years later as an example of humanity and the call for acts of kindness towards others each day.
I would encourage anyone to read the full story at the website of this tragic incident at the East Central Alberta Review by clicking on the link Sedalia Well Tragedy Hero Receives Posthumous Award – ECA Review. For a community as small as this and especially where many members of the community followed the same route from Sweden to Minnesota to Saskatchewan and then Sedalia, Alberta, these deaths would have changed everything. Most of the article deals with the Durksen family as it was written because of the posthumous presentation of the Canada Bravery Award to Walter Durksen. It goes on to describe the hardships endured by John Durksen’s widow Helen. I have not included it all here because this post is about the Dahls and the Grays.
Below you will see snips of the cemetery website tombstone data. I hope to replace this with actual photos of where they are buried but that will have to wait for warmer weather. Perhaps I’ll go back in the summer of 2021.
Back to Marion (Gray) and Helmer Dahl
Helmer Dahl likely attended Cop Hill School as it was next to their first farm until they moved beside Sedalia in 1923 or 1924. Helmer’s younger brother, Norris (the one who died in the well as described above) also attended Naco High School. The school building photo is from Wind, Willows, and Prairie Wool.
What Became of Marion Edith Dalh (Gray)?
We know that Marian Edith Gray married Hjalmar (Helmer) Dahl, son of John and Ragna Dahl. Helmer was a grain elevator man for several years. Helmer served overseas in WWII. He returned after the war and, according to the book, Down Cereal’s Memory Trails, 1910-1967, he worked at the “Army and Navy Legion” after returning to Canada. That description of “Army and Navy Legion” left me uncertain if they referred to the discount stores called Army and Navy or if they meant that he worked for one of the many Canadian Legions in Alberta. Army and Navy stores were very well known in Edmonton; I remember that whenever I needed a pair of running shoes my parents took me to the Army and Navy store. I’ve learned from Helmer’s granddaughter that it was the Royal Canadian Legion that he worked at.
I believe that Helmer probably finished his working life in Edmonton. This is because the 1946 obituary for Marion’s father, Thomas Gray lists his children and for Marion Dahl it says “of Edmonton”, so we know that in 1946 Helmer and Marion lived in Edmonton. Helmer Dahl died on December 11, 1975 in Kelowna, a very popular retirement city. Marion died in Victoria, BC so she likely moved there after Helmer’s death because Marion had two daughters and one son living in Victoria and area. She also had two sisters and one brother living in Victoria.
Back to the Plaque on the House
We are arriving at the end of this story. I suppose I can’t definitively say why someone placed a plaque on the family homestead in honour of Marion Edith Dahl (Gray). Oh I’m sure that she deserved it but there were so many others, including her father, that also warrant some sort of memento. Perhaps one of Marion’s children was particularly fond of her and decided to honour her this way. Maybe Marion was the only one who asked to have her ashes spread at or near the homestead and thus someone felt that a record of “Marion’s coming home” was needed. I don’t really know. It’s enough that we know a little about where she came from, what her family was like, what her life must have been like and where she ended up. Actually that last point requires some conjecture on my part. I believe that Marion’s remains were cremated and likely buried or spread somewhere near the Gray Homestead. This is because there was no funeral or mention of internment in her obituary and the plaque on the old house says that she “came home August 7, 2000”. Since she died on June 19, 2000, the only way she was going to go home in August is if it was her ashes that were returned home to the land where she grew up. There is no record of her or Helmer in the local cemeteries, although I’ve only checked those that are documented on-line.
We may not know a lot about Marion Edith Dahl (Gray) but we do know that she was a pioneer in a dry part of Alberta that was not kind to pioneers. The dirty thirties were especially difficult in this part of Alberta. In fact the drought started in the 1920s in the dry areas of southern Alberta so good crops were the exception rather than the rule. We know a fair amount about her family and her husband’s family. We know that Marion and Helmer lived in Edmonton after the war. They retired in Kelowna, BC and, after Helmer died, Marion moved to Victoria. A number of siblings and children also moved to Vancouver Island. What could be more Albertan than someone who retires in BC? We also know that the old homestead meant a lot to her as she likely asked that her ashes be scattered there. In this way, Marion Edith Dahl (Gray) has not only come home, she is also now a part of the prairie itself, drifting with the endless winds.
Update November 2021
I received some answers to explain why there is a plaque on this house. It sounds like my conclusion was correct that Marion Dahl had her ashes spread at the old homestead. In the comments below you can read this directly from Marion’s granddaughter, Gaelene Estlin. Ms. Estlin also confirmed that Hjalmar (Helmer) Dahl worked for the Royal Canadian Legion rather than an Army and Navy store. That was one of the historical facts that I previously had difficulty confirming from the local history book.
The above image shows Marion and Helmer Dalh. I obtained the image from their granddaughter, Gaelene Estlin. I don’t know the year of the image but there are some clues. The first clue is that she looks like she is pregnant, (although it’s rare to see a photo of pregnant women from that era). Most of Marion’s children were born in the 1930s so I expect that’s when the photo was taken. I’m no expert on antique cars but that looks like a Ford Model T and it was the most affordable car available at that time. Model T’s were built from 1908 (coincidentally the same year Helmer was born) until 1927. A young family likely wouldn’t be able to buy a band new car so buying a used 1920s era Ford in the 1930s sounds about right. Helmer is sporting a swanky fedora. This tells me that they are getting established and have a few extra dollars to spend on nice clothes and a car. Then as now, a young family with their first or second child is usually pretty strapped for cash. I’m going to guess that this is their third child or later. This photo may have been taken in one of 1935 or 1937, but that’s purely a guess. It may also be earlier than the 1930s because Marion and Helmer look very similar in the image below which is dated 1929. The images below are expandable by clicking on them.
All of the above three images were provided to me by Gaelene Estlin, Marion’s granddaughter. The first two are dated 1929 and the third one is 1930 of Helmer Dahl. He is either washing clothes or fixing the washing machine.
Another House in the Area
Do you recognize the house below? If so could you send me an email by clicking on the link below? It’s located approximately 10km south of the Gray Homestead. I don’t believe that there is any other connection to the Gray family but it too is very striking and I’d like to know more about it.
There is a good possibility that the above two storey house was the home of one of the two brothers, Ed and Even Onshus. They were from Guldbrandsdalen, Norway. In Norway Ed graduated as an agriculturist and Even graduated as a civil engineer. With all that education a person would think that they would have the latest technology of the day. However the brief amount written about them says that they never owned modern machinery. They farmed with oxen and horses. They each had their own house and farmed together on two quarter sections of land. They died two years apart, and are both buried in the nearby cemetery.
- Down Cereal’s Memory Trails, 1910-1967 – Women’s Institute (Canada) 1967-01-01: This was used for Thomas Gray’s history.
- Wind, Willows and Prairie Wool – a local history book of the Sedalia area. There are two versions of this book, one from 1967 and another printed in 2005 but I haven’t located a copy of the newer version yet. This book was very helpful in learning about the Dahl family and the many others that came from Sweden to Minnesota before arriving in Alberta.
- Prairie Reflections, Watrous-Venn-Manitou Beach-Renown-Amazon-And Districts – This was used for John Dahl’s Watrous, Saskatchewan history, especially as the mail carrier.
- East Central Alberta Review, Sedalia Well Tragedy Hero Receives Posthumous Award – ECA Review This on-line newspaper was used as the source for the posthumous award to the family of John Peter Durksen, although the incident is also described in Wind, Willows and Prairie Wool.
- Alberta Provincial Archives – Without the help of the archives I would not have found the obituaries of Marion and Helmer Dahl. They also were the source of other details specific to the Gray family.
- Empire of Dust, Settling and Abandoning the Prairie Dry Belt – David C Jones. I didn’t quote from this book but it sure gave me a better understanding of the hardships that tested and broke many farmers who tried to provide for their families in this area. The Gray Homestead would be right at the northern edge of what David C Jones calls the dry belt. The Dahl farm was only slightly further north than Tom and Anna Gray’s homestead. I certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in the impossible conditions that existed in southern Alberta’s dry belt and by the dry conditions I’m talking about even before the drought of the 1930s.
If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old and potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.