My Yuill Relatives

Clarence Alexander Yuill

   Thomas Sissons Yuill

Thomas Yuill

In 1875, Thomas Sissons Yuill was born second son to pioneers, and some of Manitoba’s first Homesteaders, Alexander David Yuill (A.D.) and Willena (Sissons) Yuill.

In 1911, Thomas was a single popular young man and was farming 34-12-7, just north of Portage la Prairie. Along with brother David, the “Yuill Brothers” also owned and worked farmland at Lakeland, owned and worked a wood lot at Riding Mountain, as well as having built themselves a cabin on Lake Manitoba.

Yuill farm composite

The wood lot kept the “hired hands” busy during the winter months.  Ducks, geese and elk were hunted from the cabin. They could also harvest fish and the ice for the “ice house” from the lake. They did mixed farming – they raised animals as well as doing grain farming. Horses, a small herd of cattle, pigs, and chickens filled the barn. The milk was sold to the creamery, and for a short time, Thomas continued using mules to haul freight between Winnipeg and Portage, as his father had done before him.

In fall these busy farmers would move the thrashing machine to Lakeland by way of the railroad.… which was a daunting, yet necessary, feat!

On December 2, 1911, Thomas and David had completed the day’s work when there was a terrible accident.  An account of the incident is noted in the newspaper clipping which follows.

Thomas Yuill death clippings

Thomas is buried in the cemetery on the corner of A.D. Yuill’s land (34-12-7), which his grandfather passed on to the Trustees of the Congregation of the Presbyterian Church in Prospect of Manitoba November 5, 1897.

Pioneer farmers faced many challenges. It was a great feat for a child to reach adulthood. It was a terrible loss when they died in early adulthood.

Clarence Alexander (C.A.) Yuill

Clarence Alexander Yuill

Clarence Alexander Yuill was born in 1905 to David Williamson Yuill and Annie (Grobb) Yuill, on his grandfather’s homestead north of Portage la Prairie.

Married in 1928 to Verna Mae Gallaway, in the early days they practised mixed farming while they raised their young family. The grain paid the bills, while the animals and garden produce fed the family. You did not eat what you did not grow!

In later years rapeseed, flax, malt barley and sugar beets were added to the traditional grains.

C.A. was a sociable person and kept a busy schedule. He played saxophone and piano. He enjoyed tinkering with radios and machinery, which resulted in the establishment of electricity (his own version of the “Delco-Light”) and running water on the farmstead, far ahead of his peers.

Clarence’s many interests included being a member of the Portage District Plowing Association, member of the Portage Flying Club, trustee of West Prospect School from 1942-1954, then President of (new) Rural School Trustee Association. He worked for four years with the Manitoba Deputy for the Department of Education and the Manitoba Minister of Education to establish a High School for Rural Manitoba students, who until then, could only take High School by correspondence. He was therefore one of the founding members of the Rural Secondary School Board, and was instrumental in obtaining Portage la Prairie St. Mary Parish Hall as the first rural High School room in Manitoba.

Clarence was Councillor (Ward Three) for the RM of Portage la Prairie from 1964-1977, in total spending thirty-five years as a School Trustee and Rural Councillor.

In 1979, C.A. was presented with an engraved Centennial Commemorative Medal by the Manitoba Historical Society.  Recipients were selected for “recognition of personal contribution to the way of life in Manitoba”.

C.A. was a bit of a joker, so Verna had to be on guard… one New Year’s Eve they were returning from a neighbour’s party when Clarence drove past the end of the farm lane. He was driving a new car purchased that afternoon.

“You’ve missed our turn!” stated Verna.

“Here, you drive!” Clarence exclaimed, as he pulled off the steering wheel and handed it to her. It had disengaged from the steering column!!


Please Send with the Other Foot…

My dad passed away a couple of years ago, in February 2017.  We were estranged.  It’s a sad tale, I suspect too often repeated in many families.  Fights, misunderstandings, dumb egos, idiotic attitudes towards children and parents, and other assorted foolishness.

Dad had moved to the Philippines around 2013, but I didn’t know that until some time later when a woman tried to contact me, claiming to be his new (but already estranged) wife there.  I declined to get involved in their child custody fight – I know nothing of the situation, knew nothing of his whereabouts or his activities, and only had her word on it all.

I am kind of sorry that I didn’t at least try to track him down, not to assist her, but to at least make contact, while he was still alive.  Sigh.

Apparently, a heart attack felled him, at the age of 77.  That’s not all that surprising, as he smoked on and off throughout his life – most of the time I knew him, he was puffing away.  One of the reasons why I can say that I will never smoke.  Haven’t had a single one yet, and don’t intend to start – and I hate the smell.  Well, enough about that 🙂

Running off to join… the Railroad?

But, 60-some-odd years prior, he was a strapping young lad of, oh, probably 17 years of age (1957?), when he quit school and went to work for the CNR station in his hometown of Makinak, Manitoba.  He signed on as a telegrapher, then moving all around Manitoba and Northwest Ontario, working out of one horse towns, sidings, and places-in-the-middle-of-nowhere.  I know that he worked a time in Churchill, around the time I was born – because my mom says that they would do “check-in” calls once a week – he would make a person-to-person call asking for himself – which my mom would of course decline, saving the toll charges, but knowing that he was still alive.  Long distance charges were pretty steep in those days, and money was tight for my parents.

My dad left the railroad sometime in 1963 or 1964, apparently when the switch from telegraphy to teletype was on.  The railroad left a lasting impression on him, though – he had a lifelong love of trains, talked fondly of his time with the railroad, and cherished his telegraphic memories, so to speak. He also used to say that he worked there long enough to get coal cinders in his hair.

Ernie Letain, friend from Laurier, the next stop southeast on the CNR line from Makinak, started with the CNR as a telegrapher at about the same time, but stayed on and became a rail traffic controller, retiring from the CNR many years later after a long career.

When my dad first started, he was shunted around at the whim of the company, working many small places, as mentioned.  As he got more seniority, he could stay closer to home.  He never did build up much seniority, but he did manage to get work from time to time in “WI Office“, which was the CNR telegraphy office in Union Station on Main Street in downtown Winnipeg.

Experienced Professionals vs the Unskilled

My dad told me that often young men from remote places would learn to use the telegraph, and get work with one of the railways, as a ticket out of the sticks, as they would call such way-off places.  Their telegraphy skills would be poor (perhaps like his when he first started out?  Hmmm), so sometimes an urban operator in WI office would ask the remote unskilled operator to please send with the other foot, obviously an insult, since operators always sent with their working hand.

The Vibroplex “Bug” as Telegraph Key of Choice

The Vibroplex “bug” was the high-speed telegraph key that most professional telegraphers used to send code.   When you pressed the paddle one way, it closed a solid contact to send “dashes”, but when you pushed the paddle the other way, a weight and a spring caused a second, smaller contact to bounce rhythmically to send “dots”.  The weight and spring can be adjusted to change the speed of the “dots”.

Dad was a southpaw, a left-hander, so he a rather special version of the Vibroplex “bug”, the relatively rare left-handed bug.  I still have that key, somewhere, in its original box.  It’s dusty, but it still works well.

A Vibroplex left handed Bug
A Vibroplex left handed Bug

WI Office Telegraph Traffic

My dad told stories a row of operators working in WI Office, with the telegraph sounder on a swing arm moved up close to your ear, so you could hear your own signal over the din of the all the others.  You would listen to the Morse code and type on an old manual Underwood wide carriage typewriter.  I had one of those typewriters for many years.  Oh, but the code used was American / Railroad Morse, not International Morse.

Often the traffic received was mundane in nature – freight car contents and their movements, inventories, and manifests.  Sometimes commercial traffic was exchanged – so called “sending a telegram”, but mostly it consisted of information of interest to the railroad.

When doing manifests and forms, the old Underwood would be set up with “hard” tab stops set for the locations of the form fields.  I’m sure the old typewriter would be very noisy too, with a “clack-clack-bang, clack-clack-bang, ding-return!”

When shorter forms or messages were completed, they were clipped into a rail above the operator’s station, and whipped down the line to where someone else picked them up and distributed them where they needed to go.  Meanwhile, the operator would have already loaded up a new page into their typewriter, probably already partway into copying the rest of the message.

In fact, often operators would not even be thinking as they typed.  It became automatic.  They typed what they heard.

A Lion Runs Away to Join the Railroad Too?

Now, I don’t know if it was my dad or someone else who had this happen to them, but my dad often told the story of an operator, late at night, who was taking a mundane message.  He typed it up, pulled it out of the typewriter, clipped it into the rail, but just as he was about to sling it down the line, he saw the message he had just typed.  It said:


Wow, that was interesting!  Where the Hell did the lion come from?

Dad said that it happened due to an anomaly in Railroad Morse code.  Railroad Morse had dots, normal dashes, long dashes, inter-dot/dash spaces, inter-character spaces and inter-word spaces, with supposedly fixed ratios between the lengths of each.  A poor operator could change a “T” to a “-L”.

So what happened is someone was sending with the wrong foot, and was trying to say:


A simple status report, when messed up, caused some mirth in WI Office!

Of Scoop Shovels and Men

My grandfather was born before the turn of the 20th century, supposedly in Luxembourg (although that is not really important), and, by his own telling, was a child labourer in the mines somewhere in Europe during the Great War.

I seem to recall my grandfather saying, “that’s better than a shot in the ass with a scoop shovel“, or something to that effect – I don’t recall if he really did say it that way, or even if he really did say it – but I’ve taken that saying to heart, you may hear me say it often, heh heh.

I’m pretty sure that my grandfather knew what a shot in the ass with a scoop shovel felt like.  I had no desire to feel it myself, and that’s one of the primary things that drove me to get an education and work in the tech sector.

I am too puny, too weak, too whimpy to man up and be a miner!

How Could They Possibly Improve on That?

My father told me a story about my grandfather, Michael Weiten.  The story goes like this: my grandfather lived on a hard scrabble farm just south of Makinak, Manitoba, which just east of the boundary for Riding Mountain National Park.  Now, during the 30s and 40s, apparently there were plenty of wildlife in the area, especially up near the park.  Don’t tell anyone, but my grandfather and the other hard-scrabble settlers in the area, would hunt near, and sometimes in, the park (shhhhh!).

My grandfather and his buddy, whom I think was Archie, used to hunt together.  Archie had an old wobbly Ford, probably a Model “A”, but quite possibly a Model “T” – life was pretty hard in the area.  My grandfather quite likely, had no vehicle.

Did I mention it was hard scrabble?  He used his back to clear land, build railroad, and build road.  Ugh, I am tired, just thinking of it!

Anyway, Archie and my grandfather had been out hunting (probably poaching) one day, and they were grinding their way back in the old Ford, bouncing down the rutted, muddy rural road.  They are talking about cars, the amazing technology they contained, and how it made life so much better than walking, quicker and more convenient even than horseback.

Archie pats his trusty Ford, leans over to my grandfather and says:

Yeah, Mike, they can’t improve on this much, can they?


For Those of You Who Need The Humour Explained…

Yes, that was probably 1935 or so.  The car was possibly a model “T”.  The roads in rural Manitoba up near Skane’s Crossing were probably mostly mud.   Maybe, just maybe, things have improved somewhat in the 80-plus years since then.

Waxing Philosophically for a Moment

I sometimes think of this story when I’m cruising in my DTS at 80 MPH down the Interstate, sipping my Diet Pepsi(tm) and listening to old Robert Johnson delta blues music.  Damn, grandfather would have appreciated the good life!  Because of his effort, I am able to live it.

Here’s to those who’ve gone before us.