Gertrude (Morris) Lees
Rocky Mountain House
Life and Work
Five foot two, copper-brown hair and hazel eyes, this feisty little lady was not subdued by hardship. Born in Melling, Lancashire, England on December 7, 1905 her early life was plagued by war and death. When she was eight her brother died of pneumonia, making her the eldest of the six remaining children. Ten year-old Walter had been her idol and his death was followed by the trauma of the first great war.
Between the time of Germany's introduction to organized air tactics in 1915 and the huge German offensive in 1918, Britain was under attack from the air. It is said that bombs aimed at the munitions works in the nearby Manchester often exploded in the Southport area where Gertie's family made their home. At the sound of sirens, lights were doused and Gertie and her siblings were hustled to the safest place in the house, under the oak table in the dining room.
Wreckage from ships regularly washed up on Southport's beach and, because adults could be jailed for salvaging, little Gertie was sent to the beach to pick up canned goods which washed ashore. With her father (a gunner-instructor) stationed away from home and food rationed, Gertie knew salvaging was important for survival and quickly learned how to select the best cans of food. If a can was bloated with sea water, she left it, and ran home with as many undamaged cans as her small arms could carry -- before the beach patrols caught her. Gertie and her mother also worked in farmers fields picking potatoes during those lean years. Later, Canadian soldiers, billeted at their house, brought extra food to satisfy small hungry tummies.
At nineteen Gertie, who had fallen head-over-heels in love, married a handsome mechanic, only to be left a widow the following year when he died of peritonitis. Pregnant at the time of his death, Gertie's first daughter was stillborn and later that year she lost her best friend to tuberculosis.
At twenty-four, she remarried a Canadian soldier and came to live in Calgary, Alberta. Their first daughter, Dorothy, born in 1931, died a few days later, and soon the depression struck. Her husband, William Lees, had been a top salesman for Sun Life, but no one bought insurance in the depression years, so he found himself on relief. He was digging ditches and eating in soup kitchens, when Gertie suggested they move to the homestead William had taken, several years before, in the Leslieville district west of Red Deer.
Living on a backwoods farm was a rude awakening for a city girl. The house she came to was a two-room shack with a lean-to kitchen. Former tenants had cut a hole in the floor to let the water from a leaky roof escape and the bedroom had loose oats init from being used as a granary. Yet, Gertie never complained. She cheerfully set about turning this neglected building into a home, by making bright curtains for windows and apple box cupboards. In this house she raised three daughters, two of which she brought into the world assisted only by a neighbour lady.
There was no money for medical care and often not enough to buy stamps for letters to her family in England. In those early years, Gertie dreamt of going "home" to live in England, as originally planned, but that never happened. There was never enough money for passage.
Gertie loved to dance and had a beautiful singing voice. She organized many house parties and community socials, helped campaign for the Social Credit political party and, when her children were ready for school, took an active part in school events. She walked miles to attend the monthly meeting of the "Aurora Ladies Sewing Circle" which she helped organize.
As the years flew by, times improved; besides farming, her husband became the postmaster and mail courier of Carlos, a small country post office which was located in their home for twenty-nine years. She enjoyed sorting mail and, of course, invited the mail patrons in for tea. Being asthmatic, she was unable to help with outdoor chores, but learned to bake wonderful bread, cakes and cookies in the oven of a finicky wood stove. During the depression years, she picked many pails of blueberries, selling them for three cents a pound in order to purchase the binder twine needed to harvest the crop. She was also a great seamstress, designing her own patterns and making her daughters new dresses from hand-me-downs received from England. Christmas concerts were big events and she sewed costumes by the light of a coal oil lamp for her own and the neighbours' children.
Small as she was in stature, on occasion she could present a formidable force; she had strong values and never wavered from them. Insisting her daughters receive more than a grade nine education, she single-handedly petitioned the School Division for a school bus to transport students to Leslieville High School -- and got it.
When her husband became ill with Parkinson's Disease, she was determined to get the best care possible for him. To be close to a doctor, she moved with him to Rocky Mountain House, living there for a year before retiring to Red Deer, where she continued to be active in community events until her death in 1993. While in Red Deer, she joined a choir, a book club and, with Mrs. Ethel Taylor, for whom Taylor Drive is name, organized "Pensioners' Concern," a society which continues its advocacy for improved conditions for seniors. Gertrude was president of the Red Deer Chapter and received a citation and life membership form the Canadian Pensioners Concerned Association in 1976.
- Contributor: Annette Gray