Mary Shantz Baker
Life and Work
The Mary Jane Baker story is about a woman, despite her short life, who held a prominent place in the community of Wetaskiwin. She was a member of various organizations, actively participating in community work. Mary Jane's daughter Oriole Wilson reminisces that her "mother would sooner go to a lodge meeting than cook" . Even so, she was a devoted mother and wife, who brought joy and laughter to anyone who was blessed to be in her presence.
Mary Jane Baker was born in the town of Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Nov. 27, 1893. It is said that she was the third white girl to be born in Wetaskiwin. She was the eldest of nine children born to Benjamin Franklin Shantz and Margaret (Wallace) Shantz. The family of five brothers and four sisters, were raised in town.
To fully grasp Mary Jane's enthusiasm for family and community life, one must look at her family history especially how her mother inspired her, shaping her view of family and community involvement. Mary Jane's mother, Margaret, had been "one of the first white women to live in the Wetaskiwin district" when she arrived from Ontario with her parents, in 1890, at the age of 19. In 1892, Margaret married Benjamin Shantz who was then working as a city policeman. Benjamin's family had moved to Canada from Kansas, U.S. where Benjamin was born, settling in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. They were amongst the first pioneers to settle in the area.
In 1910, Benjamin was promoted to Chief of Police. Unfortunately, on March 25, 1914, at the age of 50, Benjamin died suddenly from complication of a flu leaving Margaret with eight children to care for. This sad event took place three days after Mary Jane's marriage to David Samuel Baker.
Mary Jane's mother was a resourceful woman. Despite her circumstance she managed to provide for her family by being a practical nurse, sewing and housekeeping. After the First World War, Margaret and the younger children moved in with her unmarried sons who took homesteads in the Lone Ridge area once returned from the war. By 1920 the sons had married and so Margaret moved her family to Edmonton. However, Mary Jane and Dave, remained in Wetaskiwin.
Margaret always managed to have time to participate in community activities. She was an active parishioner and member of the McDougall United Church Women's Auxiliary. She was president of the Canadian Daughters' League Assembly 18 and later a lifetime member of the Northern Alberta Pioneers and Old Timers Association. Her mother's commitment to family and community surely set the standard for Mary Jane's own life journey.
Mary Jane's Early Life
Mary Jane grew up in Wetaskiwin surrounded by her younger siblings. No doubt Mary Jane would be called on to assist her mother with her chores and looking after her brothers and sisters. At the age of 10, Mary Jane enrolled to attend the Alexandra School when it opened in 1903. She especially enjoyed school sports activities. In 1909 she played on the ladies basketball team. Sports continued to be an important part of her life.
After high school, Mary Jane began her career as a nurse. It is unknown where she received her training but we do know that she worked at the two storey brick Community Hospital on 47th Street. It is estimated that Mary Jane worked from 1912 to 1914 prior to her marriage. At that time it was not customary for women to work once they were married.
March 22, 1914, Mary Jane Shantz married David Samuel Baker. David came to Wetaskiwin in 1911. He had previously spent four years apprenticing as a blacksmith in Ontario. At the age of 19, young and ambitious and without a penny to his name, David decided to head westward “sure the West had more to offer” . Upon arriving in Wetaskiwin, he was immediately hired by Bill Eggleston as a blacksmith. Two years later he took over the business. Despite his successful beginnings, he was lonesome and homesick. His daughter Oriole recalls her father saying that he cried for the whole first year after his arrival. Although David was shy by nature, it did not take long to fit into community life. A year after his arrival in Wetaskiwin he joined the fire brigade. "Part of his duties [were] to shoe the fire horses and keep them in good walking condition”. He remained a member of the Wetaskiwin Fire Department for 44 years, the last 23 years serving as chief. He retired in 1951 receiving a plaque of recognition from City of Wetaskiwin for his “stalwart service with the brigade”.
Mary Jane and David Baker had four children, Oriole (1916), Earl (1918), Ross (1920) and Eva Marie (1922). The youngest daughter, however, died shortly after she was born in 1922. David Baker provided for his family by pounding on the anvil and he did very well. They never went without anything but the motto he and his family lived by was, “it isn’t what you need, it’s what you can do without”.
Mary Jane was a Methodist and attended the Methodist Church that was located where the Queen Elizabeth Junior High School now stands. She and the children went to church every Sunday; however, David did not join them. Mary Jane was very active with the church. She loved to sing and was very involved with the choir once she joined the First United Church. There were always two church services in those days. The junior choir sang for the morning service and the senior choir sang for the evening service. Mary Jane sang in the senior choir. Since her daughter Oriole sang in the junior choir, Mary Jane found herself going to church twice on Sunday.
Mary Jane not only sang, but acted as well. In the late 1920’s she participated in plays directed by Mrs. Cecelia Enman and performed at the Audien Theatre. Her daughter Oriole would often help her mother rehearse her lines.
In 1931, when Oriole left the Girl Guide Company of Wetaskiwin, Mary Jane decided that she would lead the Girl Guides and became captain, the highest-ranking leader for the group. Assisted by the lieutenants, she was responsible for teaching the various skills outlined in the Guiding textbook. The meetings were held in the Anglican Parish Hall.
She was President of the Wetaskiwin Branch of the Alberta Athletic Association. During her term as president, the Association held the Alberta Provincial Track Meet in Wetaskiwin, where Norma Chiddy McEachearn of Wetaskiwin won a medal. It should be mentioned that during the first half of the twentieth century, Wetaskiwin was a very important city, even surpassing Edmonton and Calgary.
Mary Jane was also a charter member of the Royal Purple. She served as secretary-treasurer. The Royal Purple was a benevolent association connected to the Elks. Elks were the men’s association while the Royal Purple was the women’s. The Royal Purple assisted the Elks with various activities. Both associations did a lot of good work for the benefit of Wetaskiwin. They would raise funds in different ways like carnivals and dances. They had their own hall that was built with money David Baker loaned to them. He received all the money back with interest paid.
Mary Jane Baker was a dedicated mother, wife and community member. In her short life she accomplished more then many accomplish in a lifetime. She embraced life and made the most with what she had. She gave of herself fully to family and friends, without concern for her own needs. No one knew that she was suffering from cancer until a few days before she died. On August 1st, 1933 at the age of thirty-nine, Mary Jane Baker died leaving behind her beloved husband David Baker, daughter Oriole and sons Earl and Ross. The over crowded church of family and friends who came to pay their respects is representative of the legacy she left upon the community.
Remembering My Mother
Daughter Oriole (Baker) Wilson’s Personal Reflections
In the Kitchen with Mother
We had a big kitchen when I was growing up and we used to sit around the kitchen and read. My mother used to read to us at night. That was kind of our pasttime. I can’t remember any of my books but my brother got Ted Scott books. It was a series of books and he used to get one for his birthday and one for Christmas and we all liked them. She read all those books to us. A lot of reading went on in those days.
We had a big radio that sat in the kitchen. We enjoyed listening to the radio when we were not reading or doing other activities. I can remember Tarzan of the Apes would come on either at noon or suppertime and my brother Earl would get down by the radio and chew his nails because he was so excited.
We always had fun – played lots of cards with my mother. We created fun.
We lived in the kitchen because of dad’s work clothes. He was a blacksmith, which is a very dirty job. But he was the cleanest blacksmith you ever saw in your life. He would come home for dinner and scrubbed his hands like you wouldn’t believe. He was a very meticulous man.
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Both my mother and my grandmother were excellent seamstresses. I remember my grandmother making me a dress for the fair. It was white silk and it was a two piece dress embroidered in blue. She had entered it in a contest at the fair and won first prize.
My mother used to say, “the dress made the woman”. Although she was modest in her own style of dress, she paid attention to how I looked. My mother made my clothes. If I were writing exams, I’d put on one dress in the morning and put on a different dress at noon. That way I would go back all nice and clean in the afternoon. My mother made me 19 dresses the year she died.
Family Drives to Grandmother’s House
We went to visit my grandmother in Edmonton every Sunday. Father spent all morning getting the car ready while mother would get us kids ready for the drive. He had the first closed-in car in Wetaskiwin. It was an Essex. He had to warm the water and run it through the radiator, drain the oil out and put it on the stove to heat. The car had to be cranked in the early days, of course.
The road to Edmonton was a mud road. It wasn’t graveled until 1933. We looked forward to having a gravel road. I remember going to Edmonton one Thanksgiving weekend to bring my grandmother home. I think we were driving in the 1918 touring car. I swear my dad went to Edmonton sideways. I was so scared. I covered my head up with a blanket. When we got to Edmonton I said that we had something to thank God for today. We got there. I remember that vividly.
We always had Christmas at home and then drove to Grandma’s in Edmonton. So we had two Christmases every year. However I do remember going to Rocky Mountain House for Christmas one winter in the touring car. We were bundled up, believe me. My mother’s oldest brother was with the Alberta Provincial Police in Rocky. He met us in Sylvan Lake to lead us to Rocky. Most of the road was what we call corduroy road.
Time at the Lake
During the summer months, mother would take us to Pigeon Lake. Our cottage was on the first row of the lake, on the beachfront, near the center of town. Our neighbours were the McMurdos. My mother and Mrs. Grace McMurdo would dream up different ways to entertain all of us kids. My mother was full of the dickens. She was a lot of fun. She was like one of the kids.
She and Mrs. McMurdo used to play rummy with Charlie Woods for chocolate bars. Charlie Woods, son of a retired North West Mounted Police officer, who had the only store at the lake. They would cheat in order to win. We all knew that they cheated old Charlie but then they would hide the bars for us to find when they made up treasure hunts. Nobody had any money back then so everything you did was for fun.
Charlie had this little concertino that he played. My mother used to play chords on the piano in the old Log Hall with Charlie and that’s what we would dance to.
I remember how, for breakfast, we used to go pick strawberries that were growing right behind the cottage. There were also blueberries galore! Mrs. George Grabham and Mrs. Gibson (Mr. Gibson owned the meat market) used to walk up to our cottage with their tea cup upside down on their saucer for my mother to read their tea leaves. My mother didn’t know a thing about reading tea leaves. She just made it up. In the evenings we used to sit around the bonfire and sing. My mother loved to sing. She used to sing in the choir all the time.
Mother’s Last Days
It’s been 72 years since my mother died – August 1st, 1933. We were at the lake. There used to be a big old boat on the lake (a fellow named Nelson owned the boat, Boathouse Nelson) and the orchestra fellows and their girlfriends and us used to get on this old boat once a week and go across the lake. We’d go over to Muhurst and play ball. We would take a lunch and then come back. On this particular day it was our day to go across the lake. My mother called me in the morning and said, Orilly, if you are going on the boat today, you’d better get up and make sandwiches for you and the boys”. The kids were coming with me too because she wasn’t feeling well. So I did get up and make sandwiches but before it was time for me to go, I realized that she was sick. She wasn’t throwing up or anything but there was something seriously wrong. I sent the two boys but I didn’t go.
She was in a small bedroom and I moved her out and put her on the hide-a-bed in the living room. It was a hot day but there was a breeze blowing in from the lake and it was cooler there. I could actually see her losing weight. There was only one phone that was at the store so I phoned my dad at suppertime because he had no phone in the office. I told my father that my mom was really sick and that he should come. He brought out the doctor and they took her back to town. That was a Thursday, or maybe Friday. Dad came out and got us kids on Saturday. We didn’t know she had cancer until she was operated on. She died the next morning at 6:00 am. We were all with her when she died. I saw her take her last breath.
I remember my mother as a good homemaker and a fun-loving mother who took part in all our activities. She was active in her church and lodge and many community functions. I’m sure had she lived beyond her 39 years, she would have left a real legacy.
Compiled by: Sylvia Larson and Lucie Heins
Sources: Oriole Wilson, "A Backward Glance"