It was a parent’s worst nightmare.
After supper on April 24, 1906, 11-year-old Ruth Hoffman and her nine-year-old sister Nellie had been sent to retrieve a team of work horses. They never returned home.
It had started to rain after the girls had set off, and turned to driving sleet with darkness.
That was nothing unusual for the Wood Mountain uplands in the early spring. Unpredictable weather was the one constant of the ranching frontier in southwestern Saskatchewan, and it made life more difficult for those who chose to settle there.
Nor was it unusual for the two girls to be given the job of getting the horses. Children who grew up on homesteads were expected from an early age to perform any number of chores under all kinds of conditions. In fact, the entire Hoffman family had worked incredibly hard ever since they headed north from Poplar, Montana, in May 1903 to start a new life in Canada.
The German-speaking Edward and Bertha Hoffman and their six children (five girls and one boy) originally planned to head to Alberta.
But when they reached the North-West Mounted Police post at Wood Mountain, with the prairie wildflowers in full bloom, they decided to homestead about two miles away (SW, section 16, township 4, range 3, west of the 3rd meridian).
They built a one-room home and a barn with poplar poles, mud, and hay. They also planted potatoes and some seeds in a garden dug by hand.
Then, they went to work for the local mounted police detachment. They put up hay, cut wood, and dug coal. It was the only way the family could make a living during their first few years. Only two acres of land were broken during their first three years on the homestead.
When the father Edward and only son Walter went to work for other settlers in the area, the daughters picked up the slack. That included doing laundry and making butter for the Mounties.
Because of the isolation of the region, it took a week’s travel to secure supplies. The Hoffmans made the trip usually twice a year. One fall, they forgot the coal oil and had to get through the dark winter months with the few candles they had.
In mid-April 1906, Edward set off for supplies with his two eldest daughters. The rest of the family remained behind with the mother Bertha, who had given birth to another girl in January.
As the land began to green up that spring, the horses were put out to pasture during the day. They were never left out because they were too important to the family’s survival on the land and meeting their homestead requirements.
That is why Ruth and Nellie were sent to bring them home that evening.
When they failed to return, Walter spent an anxious night on horseback trying to locate them in the numbing sleet.
It was not the first time that a member of the Hoffman family had gone missing. Bertha had been lost twice, once during a heavy fog, but managed to find her way back home.
Edward and his daughters returned with the supplies early the next day and immediately reported the missing girls to the mounted police. The police visited local ranches and checked the nearby coulees and benches, but found only the horses about four miles south of the homestead on the Poplar trail.
The search continued for the next week. The girls’ footprints were found in several places, but nothing else to indicate where they might be.
Edward and Walter made one last exhaustive search of every coulee in the area. Nothing.
By the time the census was taken that June, the two girls had ceased to exist in the official record.
Nine years passed before a child’s shoe led to the discovery of the remains of Ruth and Nellie.
Bertha, according to her daughter Augusta, was greatly relieved that they had been found at last. She solemnly picked up every little bone she could find and buried them at one end of the homestead garden.
The place where Ruth and Nellie had sought refuge from the storm is known today as Lost Child Creek.
As the father and grandfather of two girls, I like to believe that Ruth and Nellie, cold and frightened, found some comfort wrapped in each other’s arms.
Photo: The Hoffman Daughters with their mother: Nellie, left front; Ruth, right front.
Photo Credit: Wood Mountain Historical Society.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
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