Olivine (Delorme) Miquelon
Life and Work
Olivine was a quiet and resourceful woman. She was born in 1863 at La Valtrie, Quebec. She had two sisters (one of whom may have been named Louise) and a brother Joseph. Her brother came west in the late 1800s, believing that buying a hoe and a shovel was all that was needed for homesteading. He returned to the east after a couple of years.
When Olivine was about nine years old, her father, Cleophas Riel dit Delorme, was killed at a railway crossing by a train. Her mother, Valerie (Hervieux) Delorme, and the children then moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, where Olivine's sisters worked in garment factories.
Olivine received her education in a convent and later, sometime around 1884, entered the Convent of the Good Shepherd in Montreal. While there, Father Albert Lacombe approached the convent in search of persons to go west with him to teach the Indians. In 1886, Olivine decided to go west with Father Lacombe and taught school at the mission at Lebret, in the Qu'Appelle Valley, which was the headquarters of the Oblate Missionaries. She taught reading, writing, arithmetic, cooking, sewing, keeping house, and French to the Indian girls.
At Lebret, Olivine met Louis Timoleon (L.T.) Miquelon, who worked on the building of the mission house, sang in the choir, and drove the buggy for Father Lacombe. He owned a homestead quarter section near Lebret. In 1888 Olvine and L.T. were married and moved first to Regina and then, in 1890, to Calgary. L.T.'s father, Zoel, was the immigration agent in both Regina and Calgary and L.T. had worked on the building of immigration sheds in both cities. In July 1892, with their first two children in tow, along with L.T.'s mother and father, they moved to Wetaskiwin where Louis opened a butcher shop. The shop not only sold meat, but nails, hardware and, in general, things that farmers might need. The main floor was the store and Olivine and L.T. lived upstairs. Zoel, who was now justice of peace and postmaster in Wetaskiwin, and his wife,Nancy, lived in a smaller structure built on the back. This store was familiar to a later generation as the Wetaskiwin Produce.
The Miquelons lived in town from 1892 - 1902. However, in 1893 L.T. went to Calgary, tore down their house and brought the lumber back to Wetaskiwin to help build themselves another house in town. In 1902 they moved to a half section north of town, which L.T. bought from the Canadian Pacific Railway for three dollars an acre. Olivine became, for the first time, a farm wife. They returned to the city in 1909, when L.T. was appointed Government Road Foreman and Weed Inspector. However, in 1914 they returned to the farm.
Olivine's life was typical of the time - she cooked on a big wood stove with a boiler on the side. She was an excellent cook, as threshing crews well knew. She baked twenty loaves of whole wheat bread for the farm and a further ten loaves that might be given to Indians or to hobos. She also baked dozens of cinnamon rolls, pies, and breads for the general store in Wetaskiwin. In the fall a pig was killed and Olivine would make blood sausage (boudin) and head cheese. An Acadian lady, by the name of Mrs. Casey, who spoke French and always wore white, helped Olivine at these times. There was also a hired girl. Most especially remembered is Annie Holtner, who was with the family for ten or fifteen years.
Olivine could sew like a tailor, having been taught by sisters who worked in the garment industry. She owned a Singer treadle sewing machine and sewed all the clothing for the family. This included suits and beautiful dresses with bustles. She mastered several patterns, including those for thirteen different women's suits. She also crocheted and made a few crocheted outfits for the porcelain doll her daughter Cordelie received in 1910 from her sister, Marianne. She taught Cordelie to sew using flour sacking.
Over the course of 16 years, from the date of marriage in May 1888, to the birth of their last child in August 1905, thirteen children were born. In other words, from the time she was 25 until she was 42, Olivine was always looking after infants or small children, and most of the time she was expecting. Her husband, however, was the one to get up with the babies and toddlers at night - and if the baby was fussing, he put a little brandy in its milk. When Olivine was exasperated with children under foot, she would declare that she would have been better off to have stayed in her Montreal convent! ("J'aurai bien dû rester dans mon couvent!")
The children were bathed in a big washtub on the kitchen floor. Out of modesty, children were bathed in their undershirts. There was always a lot of laundry to be done with washtubs and a washboard. All the water for laundry as well as bathing was heated on the stove. But as the children grew, Olivine also took laundry to town, where it was done by a French-Canadian woman. The weekly trip to town was naturally an exciting prospect for a child. Daughter Cordelie, aged 5, once hid herself in the big flannelette laundry bag, but was then unceremoniously dumped at the laundress's house, and therefore had no tour of the Wetaskiwin shops. Olivine often scalded and laundered the clothes of passing Indians or hobos, their clothing being infested with lice.
Olivine was very strict, especially with her daughters. Boyfriends had to be Roman Catholics and Cordelie had to chaperon her elder sisters Marianne and Eveline on their dates. On one occasion, Cordelie was sent to chaperon Eveline and Ted Reynolds. They bought Cordelie a ticket to the Bijou Theatre and said they would pick her up after the movie. Cordelie in fact arrived home alone, and Olivine was extremely angry.
L.T. Miquelon, while not a tee-totaller, drank little alcohol. His brother Romeo, proprietor of the Great West Liquor Store, is said to have given the family a case of liquor at Christmas that provided for the holiday entertaining with some left over. White Horse whiskey was the liquor of choice in the period. In the house, there was always a number of mugs provided by Romeo and bearing illustration of the White Horse. Olivine did like a glass of wine and she thought of this as a tonic. In particular, she thought it was a useful tonic while she was pregnant. She had some casks of wine in the dirt-floored cellar. Every three or four days she would go to the cellar and pour a jigger glass for herself. The older children would get a jigger too. These casks came from Father Van Wenten and a French priest whose name is forgotten. The wine served a duel purpose: as tonic and as communion wine. There is a story that many times at confession, the priest would say to Olivine, "After you have done your penance come over to the house for a glass of wine."
Olivine was a very reserved, very quiet and conservative person. She spoke very little of herself, and her children grew up knowing little of her family background. She was often fearful and never felt entirely at home in the west, but felt rather that she was living in a strange country. She did not speak English well and kept to her home. So, she was in many ways the opposite to her husband, who was self-assured, out-going, light-hearted, and much more liberal. Together these opposite personalities made a very happy couple.
The food Olivine prepared was traditional French Canadian fare, substantial and perhaps not what we would today think of as most healthy. It depended a lot on pork, potatoes french-fried in lard, and, of course bread. Her son Hector (Buster) remembered her moving around the dinner table with a big loaf held against her stomach and cutting thick slices for each person at the table. He also attempted on several occasions to duplicate the large and very thin crepes, or French pancakes, that he remembered from home. His favourite dessert was raisin pie, a typical dessert in pioneer days when fresh fruit was rare. Cordelie remembers in addition to head cheese and boudin, jellied pork hocks, tourtieres, boulettes, and boeuf a la mode.
Mealtimes were the principal time that Olivine sat down to conversation. L.T, was forever correcting the children's French. Meals were taken at a huge wooden table that he had made. As the children left home and the family became progressively smaller, L.T. would cut off the ends of the table until one day the table was small. The Miquelons had a piano, and the eldest daughter, Marianne, was an accomplished pianist. The killing of the pig in the fall was itself festive. Olivine called this "la boule butte". At Christmas and New Years there were reveillons (receptions after midnight mass). Olivine called New Year's Day "French Canadian Day," as it was the special occasion for French Canadian friends to visit.
The family house in Wetaskiwin doubled as a church on many occasions. Father Albert Lacombe, Damase Dubois, Peck and De Lestre, as well as Bishop Emile Legal often said mass there. Olivine's huche a pain, or dough box, served as an altar. Olivine would cover it with a linen cloth. She always had holy candles on hand for the masses in her home and would be in charge of lighting them. The huche, which has disappeared, was built by L.T. It was similar to illustration 175 from Jean Palardy's "The Early Furniture of French Canada ". The outside of the box was stained dark red, with an insert of light colored wood in the centre of the lid. The inside was light and unstained. Father Lacombe is said to have remarked, "Your breadbox will never be empty, Mrs. Miquelon." There would be many neighbours in the house for mass and others, including many Indians, outside in the yard.
Olivine was a stout person. She weighed about 195 pounds but weighed only 80 pounds when she died of liver cancer in 1925. "God afflicts those he loves the most," she said.
Letter of Appreciation by Dale Miquelon
Both of my grandmothers died long before I was born. They were shadowy figures to me. Olivine, feeding her chickens, smiled down at us from our kitchen wall, silent and unchanging. There were a few stories about her: her as youthful novice in a Montreal convent, her coming West with Father Lacombe in his special railway car, destined to teach at LeBret, Saskatchewan; her meeting and marrying my grandfather and eventually settling in Wetaskiwin – a very romantic story, we children thought. I don’t think we saw her 13 children, born and raised in pioneer conditions, as a burden. After all, we were children ourselves. Truth to tell, we knew much more about our grandfather, whom we pictured as a hero. Olivine’s daughter once remarked that her mother had been “too busy to be important”: Olivine baking bread, Olivine sewing clothes, Olivine cooking the foods and keeping alive the religious festivals of Québec. Now we have all come to appreciate this history, the “history of everyday life” that is our surest link with out past. Now I look at the grainy photograph and I want to know this woman, stopping her work for just a moment to smile for the photographer.
- Research and Writing: Evelyn Blanch, Janis Ruitenbeck
- Contributors: Pat and Dale Miquelon, City of Wetaskiwin Archives
- Curator: Janis Ruitenbeck