Jeff Green | Aug 19, 2015
Agnes Morrow is 101 years old, and when she was born on March 9, 1914, World War One was still six months away; oil had not yet been discovered in Alberta; and James P Whitney was the Premier of Ontario.
When historians look at the 20th century, 1914 is seen as a pivotal year, because it was the start of the war that profoundly changed the political landscape around the world and in Canada, and left millions dead and millions more displaced.
But in the community of Donaldson, where Agnes Morrow was born in the farmhouse of Louis and Julia Morrow, the third of eight children, world events had little impact in those years. Donaldson, which is now merely an access road to a small number of properties, was at that time a community made up primarily of Morrow family farms.
“There were around 39 Morrows living within five miles of one another. Uncle Neil had a farm; Uncle Louis had a farm; Uncle Henry had a farm; Elmer Morrow had a farm; they were all little farms,” Agnes recalled when interviewed this week from her home near Lavant Station, a few kilometres from where she was born.
Among the first things that Agnes remembers, besides the death of her sister at the age of five, six months after an appendicitis operation left an incision that did not heal properly (the rest of the family lived into their 80s and 90s), was the day in 1919 when her father got his first team of horses, greatly expanding the family's prospects.
One of the things her father did with the team was clear a swamp on the farm in order to create a small hay field. “But like a lot of the work done to clear land it has gone back to the way it was over the years,” said Agnes.
When Agnes was very young, six or seven years old, she started helping to milk the 13 cows that her father, Louis, kept. The cream was delivered to a cheese factory at Lavant Station or the creamery at Snow Road, and in the 1920s there was a bread truck and a meat truck that came around on a weekly basis.
Some of the other memories that Agnes has are about the food that her mother, Julia, prepared for the family.
“Mum and dad were good providers, and mum was an awful good cook. She could take an old hen and make it taste like a spring chicken, and she made the best apple pie. We had an orchard and we picked berries in season, but the apple pie was the best. I made pies all my life, many pies, but never like she made.”
In addition to the orchard, the Morrows grew fields of turnips and beans and other vegetables for fresh eating and for winter storage.
“My oldest brother Alfred was very good to us little ones as well,”Agnes recalls, recalling one event in particular.
“One day mum and dad were off to Perth and Alfred was home with us. A storm came up and it was a bad one. Hail came with it and was laying on the ground in sheets, there was so much of it. Alfred had the little ones gather it up and he got a ten gallon syrup pail and had them pack it with the hail and added salt to keep it frozen. He put a pail of cream in the middle and I flavoured it with vanilla and we started stirring it and shaking it one way and another. It never quite made it to ice cream but it tasted good all the same. We cleaned up and put everything away and thought that was the end of it. But at supper time my little brother John said he wasn't hungry and mum asked him what was wrong. He said he was still full from the ice cream, and then we had to answer for it.”
Agnes attended school at both Mundel's school near Donaldson and at the Lavant School.
When she was 17 she met Archie Thomas at an event at the Lavant schoolhouse. There was man who had a bear that did tricks and people had gathered to see his show. Archie was the youngest of a family with 10 children in Ompah.
In 1933, when Agnes was 19, the couple married. They both started working on a farm near Agnes' family farm that was owned by the Ferguson family. Two years later the elder Ferguson died of a heart attack while checking on his cattle, and in 1938 the Fergusons offered to sell the farm to Archie and Agnes Thomas.
To this day Agnes lives on that farm, in the farmhouse, built in 1840, which she has now looked after for 77 years.
In 1938, when they bought the farm, eggs sold for 11 cents a dozen; butter for 15 cents a pound; and syrup went for $2.90 a gallon.
While she does not remember World War One, the Second World War had an impact on Agnes' life, and that of the local community. Dozens of local men went to war; a number came back injured and several died overseas.
The biggest improvement on the farm took place in May of 1949, when it was hooked up with electricity.
“We had all the wiring done for lights in advance, so we were ready for it. The first thing we bought was a washing machine. One of the cottagers sold fridges and he had a second-hand one that he sold to us. I was in hillbilly heaven when we got that washer. Then, when we could afford it, we added a refrigerator. Before that we had an ice box, and had to go to Sunday Lake in the winter to cut blocks of ice, haul it home, and store it in sawdust for the summer. The refrigerator was a big, big improvement.”
Archie died a number of years ago, and the children are living away from the farm, although one of Agnes and Archie’s daughters, Shirley Whan, lives in Sharbot Lake.
But Agnes has never seriously considered leaving the farm. “I wouldn't have lived here for so long if I didn't like it here,” she said. “I've had a good life in this house.”
She has slowed down, of course. In place of the large garden she used to keep she now has a “box garden with cucumbers, beets, tomatoes and carrots” and the house is still surrounded by flowers, including her favourite double impatiens and begonias.
She walks with the help of a cane and uses a speaker to help her hear better, but with the help of relatives and friends, and six hours a week of housekeeping help, Agnes says “I thought about leaving but I decided to stay here for another year.”
She said that one of the secrets to her long, relatively healthy life, has been the fact that she never drove a car.
“I saved all that stress, and here I am,” she said.
(note - an earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Agnes' husband name was Charlie in two places. This version has been corrected)