Around 1910, my great grandfather, Thomas Leake decided he was done with life in Massachusetts. He had worked as a master carpenter and tried his hand at operating a dairy. But what he really wanted to do was farm. His brother and other family members were living in the new Canadian province of Alberta, so he headed west to join them. For $10, he laid claim to a piece of land in Spirit River in the northwest part of the province. He built an east-coast style home and settled there with his wife, Louise, and the youngest of his eleven children. He was 56 years old and starting from scratch.
Cousin Donna and I drove north from Hazel Bluff Cemetery to the little town of Spirit River. The skies were hazy because of wildfires, and the smell of smoke hung heavy in the air. We settled in to our motel and were glad to rest after a long day’s drive
The next morning we visited the Spirit River Municipal Cemetery to find the grave of Thomas Leake who is Donna’s grandfather and my great-grandfather. The mosquitos were vicious, so we didn’t stay very long.
Next, we stopped at the Spirit River Museum.
A docent greeted us warmly. We asked questions about the Leake family homestead and showed her a hand-drawn map. A gentleman had made it for Donna in 2001 showing roads that lead to the property. Turns out the docent’s father was the one who drew it! As a child, he had been a neighbor of the Leakes and remembered running across the yard to go to school.
The museum was filled with many historical artifacts of the area. There was even a display of curling stones. It was a nice surprise to see a photograph and artist’s rendition of the Leake homestead.
In the renovated school house, we found the name of Donna’s uncle (my great uncle) Albert Leake, in an old school ledger from 1918 when he was a school boy.
We met our docent friend’s mom and learned more about Spirit River and the Leakes from her. Finally we drove out to the homestead, built around 1910. Thomas Leake built it in the style of homes he was familiar with in Wollaston, Massachusetts. The house was considered stylish and well built in its day. Now, of course, it is in poor condition. (Donna and I felt like we were in an Alfred Hitchcock movie when birds flew out of the rafters, startling us!) I loved seeing the house where my great grandparents forged a life in the Canadian west.
Leaving Spirit River, Donna and I felt completely satisfied with how the day had unfolded before us: seeing the cemetery, museum and homestead and meeting people with some knowledge of our kin. We considered going west to Jasper but decided against it with the fires and hazy skies.
The following day, we drove through the beautiful city of Edmonton on the way back to Donna’s house. She pointed out significant buildings and structures and also the places she and her husband had lived as newlyweds. That evening we had dinner in Sylvan Lake at Pete’s on the Beach, an eclectic restaurant serving great fish and chips.
After electronically swapping family pictures and information with Donna the next morning, I left my cousin’s house filled to the brim with wonderful experiences and deep connections to my heritage