I'm sure we have a photo somewhere!

Irene (Johnson) Lyle




Life and Work

"Hello, Mom," Irene Lyle's husband called from the bedroom where he was installing wallboard.

"Hi, Eric. How's things?" came the calm reply as Irene stepped into the house after a hunting trip. Then almost as an afterthought, she added, "I wonder if I can ask you to get me some water in a basin as I cut my hand."

- Gram's 'ventures: Irene Lyle, self-published, 1970.

That was something of an understatement. The "cut" was a bullet wound, sustained when Irene's rifle accidentally discharged as she was holding her hand over the end of the barrel. The bullet had cut a main artery. Still, by using her teeth and her good hand to tighten a polka-dot bandana around her wrist, Irene was able to slow the bleeding enough to get on her horse and cover the three miles (4.8 kilometres) home at a brisk lope. Now that she was home she maintained a calm exterior in the hopes of avoiding shocking her husband too badly.

This story exemplifies Irene Lyle's tough and adventurous nature. Whether she was riding rodeo broncos in her teens, coping with six babies born over seven years, completing long hours of farm work when her husband was sick with rheumatism or hunting and trapping to feed her family, Irene Lyle always maintained a sense of humour and enthusiasm.

Despite the volume of her work, she found energy to commit outrageous pranks, such as dumping a boxful of frogs into her husband's bed or dressing up like a bandit to "rob" the neighbours. She also taught dancing to teens at the local school and took up taxidermy, mounting a collection of animals for display at the Sundre Museum, where it stayed for several years.


Letter of Appreciation by Melva Ratcliff

Next to my own mother, (who was "best friends" with Rene), I would not hesitate to say that Rene Lyle had the most influence on my formative years. As a pre-schooler, living in the Nitchie Valley, I spent many happy hours with her while all of her children and my sister were attending the one-room Eidswold school west of Bergen. I was treated almost as her "seventh child."

Although her days were filled with long hours of such hard work in a log house with no conveniences and many outside chores, she always made me feel welcome and special as I followed her around with my constant inquisitiveness, chatter and singing.

This wonderful Swedish lady, with such resourcefulness, humour, artistic and other abilities, influenced and brightened so many of the lives around her throughout the Great Depression, WWII, and all the rest of her years.

Even though, in those days, the Lyle place was almost at the end of the Valley road, I am sure many people found an excuse just to "drop in" for Rene possessed a natural ability to nourish the individual soul as well as the body. Sometimes there would be five or more families there in a day, uninvited, but always made to feel welcome.

Rene loved nature and lived in harmony with it, using only what was needed to survive. She possessed a natural ability in understanding and working with domestic or wild animals and birds. It was wonderful to watch their response to her. She would not hesitate to chasten those she saw abusing either "man or beast."

The legacy Irene left behind will never be measured in dollars but has been, and will continue to be, felt and spread through the influence she had on those who were fortunate enough to have known her.

With loving memories always, Melva

Irene Lyle: Survivor with a Smile by Marilyn Halvorson

Irene (Johnson) Lyle was born in Minnesota, July 26, 1900. More than half a century would pass before women officially became "liberated." But Irene didn't wait for that. From the time she was a little girl she was her father's "right-hand-man." At 12, she was driving a wagon loaded with lumber the 26 miles from town to the family's new homestead on the South Saskatchewan. Not long afterward, the family established a stopping place for farmers hauling grain by team and wagon to the nearest town some 20 miles away. Just before spring break-up the ice would still be strong enough for the wagons to cross but there were air holes scattered over its surface. Irene's job was to ride ahead of the teams, picking out a safe route for the drivers to avoid the holes. Sometimes she did it at night by lantern light.

When Irene was 15, she and her brother, Henry, each had a fast pony so they took up horse racing. They rode all the way to the Swift Current Exhibition to race for four nights then gradually worked their way home, racing at all the small, one-day events along the way. Their horses did very well, often beating the real racehorses. Once, a jockey leaned over and hit Irene's pony with a stick. She jerked it out of his hand, threw it into the infield, and told him she would have him barred from the track if he tried it again. After that, Irene's horse usually won.

By age 18 Irene was ready for a new challenge, bronc riding. Exhibition rides by cowgirls were an attraction at rodeos at the time and Irene and another girl first tried it at Clearwater Lake, Saskatchewan. As Irene told the story, while she was choosing a horse from the unbroken herd the local minister was doing his best to talk her out of riding. Apparently he had better luck with convincing the horse than he did with Irene. She went ahead with her ride but the big dapple gray mare refused to buck. Irene got paid anyway. "The easiest $25 I ever made."

When Irene was nineteen she embarked on a whole new phase of her life. She met Eric Lyle, the "fine-looking cowboy" who would become her husband a year later.

The next few years would be challenging ones for the young couple. They bought a piece of land and struggled to set up their own farm and support their fast-growing family. In December 1921, Blair was born. He was joined by Ronald in August, 1923. Almost three years later, Leslie was born.

During that winter Eric was sick in bed for weeks at a time with inflammatory rheumatism so it often fell to Irene to run both the farm and the household. There were 78 cattle to look after plus 67 calves in a feedlot and four work horses in the barn. Hay was hauled seven miles with the four-horse team and the snow often drifted into the trail so Irene had to stop and shovel on her way home.

After the cattle were fed, the horses un-harnessed and fed and watered, the barn cleaned, the cows milked, and the calves fed and watered, Irene could at last take care of the household. That job included bathing and feeding two toddlers and the baby, getting supper, washing the dishes and tidying up the house. These tasks completed, she could rest and prepare to do it all again the next day.

On September 18, 1927, Irene spent most of the afternoon riding, looking for strayed milk cows. She spent the evening writing letters and, after midnight, retired to bed. Before the doctor arrived the following afternoon Irene had given birth to twins, Ethel and Cecil. Ethel weighed less than three pounds and would, no doubt, have been put in an incubator nowadays. Irene improvised and kept the tiny baby in a sewing basket on top of the warming oven. At night little Ethel slept on her father's chest to stay warm. Both twins survived and the following year were joined by a brother, Gordon, the last-born of the Lyle family.

When Gordon was 10 months old the family moved to Alberta. Their first farm was at Tilley but that was a very dry area so in 1932 they took a homestead in the Nitchie Valley west of Bergen. There, in the Hungry Thirties, it was a struggle to make a living and Irene worked hard to help support the family. She learned to hunt and brought in a steady supply of wild meat for the family. For a while she ran a trapline to bring in a few extra dollars but soon decided trapping was cruel and turned to shooting fur-bearers so they would die instantly without suffering.

It was on one of her hunting trips that Irene had a serious accident. She was holding her horse's bridle and her rifle at the same time when the horse pulled back, causing her to accidentally pull the trigger. Her other hand was over the rifle barrel and the bullet went through her hand and wrist, cutting a major artery. She remained calm and, using her teeth and her good hand, tied a bandana around the wound, mounted the horse and loped three or four miles home to get help.

In 1939 Blair and Ronald were drafted to fight overseas and Eric enlisted in the Home Guard to guard prisoners of war in camps in Canada. Irene was left, along with the younger children to keep the farm going.

Through all these hard years Irene not only managed to look after her family but she reached out to those around her as well. When a neighbour woman with a large family and a young baby was sick Irene brought the baby home and took care of him for several months. She was constantly looking after someone or something. If not a baby, then a baby animal. The "runt of the litter" always found a protector in Irene and a neighbour remembers her fondly crooning "eetsa baby" to a baby lamb or a little pig or to whatever needed a little love that day.

With limited financial resources Irene still managed to entertain with flair. At Christmas the house was always decorated with white cotton "snow" under the tree. She made beautiful roses from paper and her boxes for box socials were works of art. Company was always welcome at the Lyle house and no one went away hungry even if, at times, there was only bread on the table. Irene often made donuts and bags of these were sent home with the old bachelors who came to her for their haircuts. From gunny sacks Irene made wonderful costumes for Halloween or other "dress-up" occasions.

One of these occasions got Irene into trouble and left her with a black eye. She decided it would be a great joke to take a toy pistol and, masked and disguised, "hold up" the neighbours. The woman of the house was in on the joke but when "the bad man" burst through the door the neighbor man jumped up and punched "him" before his wife could intervene.

Irene loved music and encouraged her children to learn to play musical instruments. At the local dances, she took on the job of teaching all the awkward youngsters how to dance.

By the 1940s Irene's children still at home were old enough to look after themselves so she was able to set out on another adventure. Her parents in Saskatchewan raised pinto horses and had a good stallion they were willing to give her to start her own line of pintos. However, at that time it was not a simple matter of hooking up the horse trailer and bringing the horse home. Irene could think of only one way she could afford to transport the stallion that distance. She packed up her saddle, boots and suitcase and took the bus to Saskatchewan.

She was able to get the horse trucked as far as the Alberta border. After that, Irene, the horse, and a little dog who rode behind the saddle with her, were on their own. It was a long ride and some nights were spent bedded down in old sheds along the way but Irene and her animals made it safely home.

In 1963, Irene's husband, Eric, died, leaving a great void in her life, but Irene still found new challenges. She taught all her grandchildren the secrets of hunting and shot her last deer when she was in her 70s. She learned the art of taxidermy and mounted the collection of animals now on display at the Sundre Museum. She planned extravagant parties for children, setting up adventures where they might walk around a bend in the trail and come face-to-face with a big stuffed bear.

Still enjoying "dress-up" Irene put on her old-fashioned long dress and bonnet to help add a pioneer flavour to various occasions at the museum. At Christmas she took great delight in dressing as Santa and going to visit her grandchildren or neighbourhood children. Irene Lyle died in 1976 at the age of 76.

In the words of Rudyard Kipling's poem, If, she truly did fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run. Her life was never easy. In the words of one good friend, "Irene looked after others; they didn't look after her." But, perhaps Irene's greatest talent was not just surviving all the hard times but actually enjoying them. She could always find that bit of extra energy to play a joke or have a party. Truly, Irene Lyle was a survivor with a smile.