Elsie (Schmeelke) Leonhardt
Life and Work
Elsie Leonhardt and her husband Victor were born of pioneering families. Victor was from the Drumheller area and Elsie from the Champion district. Her grandparents, Henry and Mary Schmeelke, her father, William and two sisters came from Fairbank, Iowa to Nanton, Alberta in 1906. Henry and William were able to buy land for their homesteads at $3.00 per acre. Her grandfather, Henry was a carpenter by trade and the original house he constructed was sturdy and of unique design to the Canadian west and is still home to family.
While William was working on a ranch between Nanton and Vulcan he met Carrie Dibb who would later become his wife. Carrie and her father had come west from Ontario to work on ranches in Alberta. The rest of the family arrived later and also became ranch hands.
Elsie was born on May 30, 1923, the youngest child of Carrie and William. All her preschool and school years were spent in Champion and she graduated from the high school there. Her initial plans were to teach school but she met Victor and things changed.
Elsie and Victor were wed on November 7, 1942 and began their married life living near Drumheller on the farm where Victor’s grandfather homesteaded. As well as farming for twenty-one years, Victor also operated a small strip mine from which he sold coal to the residents of Drumheller. Their seven children, one daughter and six sons were born in Drumheller and all but their youngest child attended school there.
About 1960, Victor became interested in land around Pigeon Lake and purchased some land through the Government and private sales. In 1962, the family made the decision to sell the home farm and move to a farm at Westerose, on the west side of Pigeon Lake.
As Elsie wrote in Trail Blazers “ …. and in 1963 moved up, family, furniture, livestock, machinery and our Lancaster Bomber. This “Lanc” has been our trademark ever since it was purchased at Penhold in 1949, taken first to Drumheller and then up here”. The Lancaster initially sat near the driveway of the Leonhardt cedar log home. Eventually the bomber was sold and finally ended up being donated for parts to Squadron 408 in Namao in the late 1980’s.
Elsie and Victor quickly became involved with their community. They attended and were very involved with the Battle Lake Baptist Ecumenical Church. Elsie was the church pianist on many Sundays. She lent her helping hand to the Battle Lake Christmas concerts and was known to have taken her electric organ out at forty below zero to play. Her easy going, cheery and caring nature made visitors welcome in her home and she always willing to help others. As she wrote in Trail Blazers, “We found in this district, good neighbours, and neighborliness, good friends, and a deep contentment with our natural surroundings”.
In 1966, Elsie began writing for the Wetaskiwin Times as the Battle Lake Community correspondent. This eventually extended to a weekly column entitled Beans and Buttermilk. Her column told of her experiences growing up on the Prairies during the Depression and of stories retold of her pioneer ancestors. She was also known to write an occasional social or political commentary. Several weekly newspapers in Alberta carried this popular column at one time. Her columns were eventually compiled and published as three books also entitled Beans and Buttermilk.
Elsie continued to refine her writing skills. The Edmonton Journal offered a writing course through correspondence, which she took as well as attending seminars. She enrolled in a short story writing contest sponsored by the Edmonton Journal and was commended for her excellent story. As well as writing her column, Elsie wrote poetry, the family history for Trail Blazers, and various other articles.
Elsie was a member of the Battle Lake Ladies Club and the Yeoford Ladies Club. The Battle Lake Ladies were formed in 1933-34. During the war they made two quilts a week which were sent to England. After the war, they still made quilts that were raffled to raise money. The club contributed money to the Cancer Fund and Red Cross, a trophy for the Mount Butte 4H, baseball uniforms for the school team and aided district residents who had suffered from fire or accident. Elsie wrote in an article on the “Battle Lake Ladies Club” which stated, "Ridiculed and scorned by men, the butt of many jokes, Ladies clubs survive and serve. The community is richer for their existence, in intangible ways too for when people work together to improve their district, they enrich their own lives and those of their families.”
As Elsie’s friend Dorothy Patterson explained, “She was a beautiful quilter”. Another friend mentioned that until Elsie came to the community, the quilts were not finished quite right. Her knitting and crocheting were works of beauty. According to her friends, she had a good sense about her, was a great cook and hostess and had a strong sense of family. Dorothy said of Elsie, “She worked on the grandchildren having something to remember about the family.”
Elsie had to retire from writing her column, Beans and Buttermilk in 1991 as the devastation from her long struggle with Multiple Sclerosis took its toll. She loved books and much of her time was spent reading. On Friday, November 23, 2001 after a short battle with a cancerous brain tumor, she passed away at the age of 78 years.
Compiled by: Sylvia Larson and Viki Ruben
Sources: Don and Gloria Leonhardt, Ernie Leonhardt, Dorothy Patterson, Mary Blackmore, Marie Hauge, Dora Schmeelke, Rosemarie (Leonhardt) Creighton.