When you’re born in 1914, one sees a lot of changes in a lifetime.
Even when he came out west, Gerard Mercier’s original plan was to settle his roots down in the Vancouver area, where he could live by the ocean. Sometimes things don’t always go as planned.
Born in a small home in St. Ephreme de Beauce, Quebec, Gerard was the fifth child of 10. By the age of six, he, along with his parents and siblings, moved to Lac Megantic where his father had purchased 100 acres, all along the lake, and farmed the land. For extra income, they sold cream to a company in town to be used to make butter that would pay them about $4 a month.
Gerard’s father was also on the town council and a Justice of the Peace. His mother raised her family and was a midwife, where she was well-known for medical help, and also being very knowledegable in natural medicine in the community.
One incident that Gerard had remembered very clearly, was when he was around eight years old. An aunt had unfortunately died while giving birth to her first child prematurely, and his uncle brought the tiny frail baby to his mother. His uncle told her to try to save his son, knowing full well that it would take a miracle to save him.
The baby was so tiny that it fit in the palm of the hand. Its chances of survival back in the early 1920s was slim to none. His mother made a bed for the baby, using a brick, to which she had carefully heated it to the right temperature on the woodstove, and then wrapped a thick wool cloth around it. This kept the baby warm for many hours. One side of the brick had a recessed indentation in it, and the tiny baby would fit perfectly in it. She fed the baby rice water from a medicine dropper every so many hours. And by the grace of God, the baby survived, to grow up healthy and strong.
Gerard had many childhood memories, and was fortunate enough to know his grandparents, and be a part of their life, too.
When he was about five years old, he remembered watching his grandfather work the land with an ox. Back in those days, there were large trees to cut down in order to open some land, to where everything was done by hand with a saw and a lot of patience. Trees were cut, leaving the stumps about two feet out of the ground. They had no machinery to pull out the stumps like we have today.
To work the land, his grandfather would cut a log about three feet long, leaving the branches on it. He would cut the branches down to about a foot long. Attaching a hook at each end of the log, he would tie a chain to each hook at each end of the log, and attach the chains up to the ox. The ox would pull the log around and use this to work up the soil in-between the trees. Once the soil was ready, he would seed the crop and it grew amongst the stumps. He continued this over the years until the stumps were dry enough to chop the roots with an ax or burn and remove them. This was how they opened up land back then.
At the age of six, Gerard began school, and continued for three years. At nine years, he was old enough to help his father on the farm. In September, he attended school until the crops were ready for harvesting and then he stayed home to help his father.
This would go on for about three weeks, and then, he’d go back to school until there was enough snow on the ground so that his father could go logging. And again, Gerard would stay home to do the chores, and basically school was not an option until the next spring when the snow melted and his father couldn’t go to work anymore, due to the spring breakup.
By the age of 13, he got a job working at a factory for seventy-five cents a day, constructing clothespins, butter boxes, snow fences, etc. He even built plywood at one time made with maple, birch, elm and also reed to build wicker furniture, baskets and ribbing for boats.
At 24, Gerry ran a crusher for the Duplessis government, to make gravel for the roads He knew he wanted more out of life and finally that chance came a year later. Little did he know that at the age of 25, he would be heading out west.
A priest was looking to recruit citizens from Quebec to settle in Western Canada to develop a community. His intentions were to start a “small Quebec” in Alberta. Gerard had heard about the priest and was curious. He went to Mass one Sunday, and listened to the priest explaining about how he was looking for young people who might be interested in moving west. Gerard wrote to him requesting more information, and the priest came to visit at his parents’ home. The priest spoke of the land, and the rich black fertile soil, making it sound so wonderful.
With his decision made, Gerard decided to head west. He needed $500 to make the journey, and to be able to afford to buy some land to get himself started.
There were 12 people who made this journey altogether, including one priest. Amongst those were folks like Albert Robertson, Paul-Emile Cote, Gerard Audet, and two brothers, Joe and Ben Chouinard.
They left June 15, and arrived July 1. It took two weeks to make the trip. Gerard and his friend, Gerard Audet, got a ride with a young Fernand Girard who was delivering a newly-purchased automobile to a bishop.
They made it to Edmonton, and then left for Falher at eight o’clock the next morning, where they finally rolled into town at midnight. They hit mud, gumbo, and lots of rain. The wheels would plug up with mud and they would try to scrape the mud off with sticks. Their shoes would get so big as they tried to walk around.
When they finally arrived, the three men took a room at the Falher “Hotel Adanac” which is Canada spelled backwards. It was run and owned by Pitou Tremblay. He and his wife were good people. In their hotel room, the men noticed a chamber pot, which basically was a five-gallon pail, western style, on the floor to do their business.
“I remember my dad telling me that they found this to be a little strange for them, considering that back home in Quebec, they had sewers and flush toilets. He also stated that he had left home where they had paved roads, automobiles, electricity, running water, and sewers, to come out west to see the people still riding in horse and buggy, traveling on dirt roads. There was no electricity, running water, or sewers,” says Lucie.
Gerard immediately began working for Mr. Romeo Desfosses, by helping him with his farming. He did swathing, combining, and hauling grain to the elevators. He worked for him for a summer and two autumns.
He had left Quebec with $500 in his pocket, and paid $200 as a down payment to buy 160 acres, six miles north of Donnelly Corner. This ended up costing him $700 in total from a farm credit organization, called Soldiers Settlement Board, and $200 every year until it was paid off.
Mr. Finley, an old soldier from the First World War, lived on this farm and wanted to return home to Ontario. Gerard gave him $300 and with the money, Mr. Finley bought himself a new pair of overalls, and built himself a suitcase made of wooden boards with enough spare money to buy some land when he arrived back home. As a favour, Gerard brought Mr. Finley and his wife to the train to see them off.
On the homestead, there was a small plank board house, with two bedrooms, a log barn, a team of two horses, about 30 chickens, a plow, some furniture, a buck-stove, table and chairs, and he even had running water. Which was a water-well behind the house.
Lucie remembers how her father would joke around by telling her, “Oh, we had running water. Each day I would run to the well to fetch water, and then run back to the house with it.”
During the winter months, his good friend, Albert Robertson, and Gerard worked at a place called Chisolm, out by Athabasca at a logging camp. They were lumberjacks, cutting down pine trees with an ax and saw. When they first arrived, they worked the first week and ended up getting very ill. They stayed in the camp shack, sleeping on a straw mattress. Slowly, Gerard’s health improved, but Albert ended up in the hospital. He never came back to work. Gerard stayed on and continued to work as a lumberjack, starting work at seven in the morning, until six o’clock at night. He worked for three months at that job, and at the end his total wage earned was $100.
One of the nuisances that Gerard and the other lumberjacks had to deal with were the fleas and ticks getting into their clothes. Back in those days, sanitation was not exactly at the top of the priority list, as access to a bath was not available for these men. Washing oneself from a small basin of water was the only thing they had. Every Sunday was a day off from work. And so, Gerard would take advantage of the day to boil his long johns in order to kill the fleas.
At the end of winter, he went back to his farm and began preparations for seeding in the spring. He purchased another team of two horses and harnesses, which gave him four in total. With extra money, he bought grain for seeding and in the end, he was left with 75 cents in his pocket. His crop looked amazing! But, unfortunately, on Aug. 12, about a foot and a half of snow fell, making it impossible to harvest until the month of November. By then, the quality of the crop was not as good.
He managed to sell some of his grain here and there, and with the money, he bought himself some pigs from Ferdinand Levesque’s father. During the winters, he was able to find a job near home, working for Mr. Alex Hachey, helping on his farm by caring for his animals while he and his wife went to work out in the logging camps. He worked for the couple for three years, during which time, he tended to his own farm animals, and then he’d go over and do the chores at Mr. Hachey’s place.
Then came the day, when he was called to serve as a soldier in World War II. Failing his medical examination, he was exempted from going, and he returned to his farm to tend to his land and animals.
Around 1943, he met his wife Anna, daughter of Joseph and Georgina Gaboury. Anna was working for Mr. and Mrs. Ed Emard, as their housekeeper. Gerard was also employed by the couple, and would do odd jobs for them from time to time. Gerard and Anna were married on Nov. 12, 1945, the day after the war finished.
Approximately four years later, they sold their farm, and with their three older children, moved closer to Donnelly to be in the school district. They continued to farm, and sold milk as a supplemental income.
In 1964, Gerard developed an interest in beekeeping, and purchased hives from Mr. Desilets, to which he spent two years learning the trade under his mentorship. And by 1968, Gerard sold the farm, and moved his wife and seven children to an acreage by Donnelly Corner, to continue his beekeeping business on his own.
Each year, the couple would hire extra helpers, usually high school kids, to work during their summer holiday. Some of the older siblings worked in the bees alongside their father, too.
“Even though I was too young to help out, I still had an interest in bees, which is why I am a hobby beekeeper today,” says Lucie.
In the laundry room, it was very normal to see the mountain of beekeeping suits in a large pile on the floor. Washing suits seemed to be an ongoing thing for Anna. Just like the endless meals she supplied, not only for the family, but also for the employees who worked and slept in the bunkhouse provided on the property.
In 1975, they sold their acreage, along with the beekeeping business, and moved to Falher. With being semi-retired, Gerard was never the type to sit still. That first winter, Gerard worked as a maintenance man and ice maker at the Falher curling rink. And during the summer months, he worked as a maintenance man at the hotel, plus doing repairs on RVs for Paul Ruel’s business. Later on, he worked odd jobs as electrician, and janitor until he finally decided to officially retire in 1980.
Things took a turn for the worse, when his wife Anna, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and passed away in the spring of 1981.
Gerard managed to keep himself busy, and was grateful for having family close by. His love for fishing and hunting helped him get out and enjoy nature at its best. During the winter months he spent a lot of days doing woodworking. He was lucky to still have good health and still be in good shape well into his eighties, and nineties. It was nothing for him to jump on his quad and take off for a ride to go visit someone up to five miles away.
“Not many folks in their eighties can still do that nowadays,” says Lucie.
As the years went by, his family continued to grow, giving him many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. By the age of 92, he sold his house in Falher, and moved into the Villa Beausejour senior lodge. He always prided himself at still having his driver’s license, and he enjoyed his independence tremendously.
Unfortunately, at the age of 94, he was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, cancer of the bone marrow.
Despite the unfortunate news, Gerard still kept his sense of humour, and once told a close friend, “I guess my warranty is up.”
Gerard passed away on June 6, 2008 at the age of 94.
And although his original goal was to live out his life out west by the ocean, he found his home and planted his roots in northern Alberta instead.
When asked what was his advice for a long healthy life? His answer was, “If you stop moving, you’ll become soft. So stay active.”