Hardships of a pioneer winter in Red Deer

Despite what we may say, the onset of winter is something we know is coming every year. Sometimes, it comes early. Sometimes it comes late. Some people welcome the start of the winter sports season with such activities as skiing and outdoor skating. Others dread the snow and cold.

Regardless of what we think of winter and all the challenges that traditional winter weather brings, modern conveniences mean that we are able to cope with snow and cold much more easily than the first people to settle in this area. For them, winter often meant life and death situations.

A very good illustration of the harsh conditions faced by the pioneers comes from the autobiography of Madeleine Brunner Bureau.

She had enjoyed a wonderful early life in Lille, France and had been married to Count Brunner. Tragically, her husband died when she was only 27 years old. She was left as a single mother with a little girl, Isabelle.

Fortunately, she met a dashing, well-educated engineer by the name of Edmond Bureau. He had worked in the United States and China, as well as France and Belgium. The two were soon married and had a little girl, Odette, in 1902.

Edmond was full of energy and ambition. He decided that a wonderful new life for his young family could be secured if they moved to Central Alberta.

There, they could secure a homestead for a $10 filing fee, and then gradually make a good living raising wheat and horses.

The family arrived in Red Deer during the summer of 1904. Edmond headed west to find suitable land. Madeleine stayed behind with the two little girls. They first stayed in the Alexandra Hotel on Ross St.

Madeleine found her lack of English to be an enormous challenge. She also hated the food at the hotel.

With her husband still somewhere out west, Madeleine decided to move to a small, three-roomed house, near the Campbell’s family home and the school.

Eventually, Edmond returned to Red Deer, having finally found a piece of land he liked near the current site of Leslieville. The homestead was remote and the district was sparsely settled. Nevertheless, Edmond was sure he had made a great choice.

He soon left the family again to start building a house on the homestead. Madeleine was left alone again with the little girls. She had no idea of what to expect with the rapidly approaching winter and was ill-prepared for what was to come.

Once the cold and snowy weather set in, Madeleine waited for the return of warmer weather, as was her experience back in Lille. However, the temperatures continued to drop. Soon, her small supply of food and firewood ran out.

She bundled the children into bed with her, hoping to maintain enough warmth until the temperatures rose again.

Fortunately, Edith Campbell noticed that there was no smoke coming from the chimney and rushed over to see what had gone wrong. She found Madeleine and the two little girls nearly frozen to death.

Dr. Denovan was quickly summoned and the family was rushed to hospital. Madeleine was in particularly bad shape. It took 26 hours of continual massage and a steady supply of hot water bottles to revive her.

Another three weeks would pass before she recovered.

Edmond eventually returned and took the family out to the homestead. After a year and a half, Madeleine returned to Red Deer to give birth to a son. Again, near tragedy struck. The man responsible for maintaining the heater in the little house forgot to check the stove. Once again, Madeleine and the newborn nearly froze to death. The little boy suffered from poor health for a very long time afterwards.

Eventually, the Bureaus lost everything when the store and post office they had established at Leslieville burned down. Hence, in 1907, they returned to France, thereby ending their pioneer odyssey.

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