Discovering Manitoba

The Criddles of Aweme

Photo courtesy of The Manitoba Museum

Arrogant is how Percy Criddle would probably have been described today. He was an egotist, even a hedonist; sure of his world and his place in it and confident that everyone around was put there to serve his needs. Nonetheless, he had a certain stubborn courage, an indomitable spirit that kept him going when many other pioneers turned back from the hardships of 19th century Manitoba. He was also good at making talented children who no doubt owed much of their coming success to Percy’s hardness and his ability to put them and the women to work while he pursued, one imagines, more “manly” activities.

There is a mystery surrounding Percy: Why, at age 38, did he leave the life of a gentleman who owned and lived in beautiful houses in England, to come to Manitoba, the ruggedness of which was not disguised by recruitment posters? Did it have something to do with the fact that he had a family of five by Elise (Harrer) Vane and another four children by his legal wife, Alice (Nicol) Criddle? The two women and their children crossed the ocean with Percy, Elise and her five in steerage and Alice and her four in mid-class. After that it appears the two women shared everything equally – they even had the same birthday: Nov. 24, although Alice, born in 1849, was nine years younger than Elise. After their arrival in Manitoba, (at what became known as Aweme) in 1882, Alice produced another four children to bring Percy’s total progeny up to 14 (Elise’s first died at birth). It was a harsh life.

The first year, they barely made it out of their makeshift tent-covered dugout into a log house that was to serve the family for many years even though it was un-insulated at first, and the wind howled through, driving the inside winter temperatures to an overnight chill of minus 20 at times. They often didn’t have enough to eat. Cash was scarce to non-existent. Percy was no farmer (his trade was listed variably as gentleman, owner of homes, and lastly as wine merchant) and it took time to learn. Still, with the help of the children – the two oldest Vane girls, in their teens, were sent out to work as domestics, the boys were set to work on the farm – and the neighbours, the family survived, and enjoyed life to its full capacity. The children were schooled by Alice, who had a degree from Cambridge (highly unusual for the times). Determination and natural intelligence took them the rest of the way.

The most famous of the sons was Norman, the oldest Criddle boy. He became a renowned artist and an entomologist and operated the first entomology lab in Manitoba. He began drawing insects and flowers in 1893. In 1904, he published a book on bluebirds. His collection of paintings of weeds and weed seeds, done for the Dominion Department of Agriculture in 1905, was recently re-published as a book by Lee Valley Tools. But his real fame was as an entomologist.

During the grasshopper scourge of the early 1900s, Norman and his half-brother, Harry Vane, created a grasshopper control called the Criddle Mix, which was in use until modern times. Sister Maida was honoured by the Canadian Meteorologist Service for her meticulous recording of the weather for over 42 years. Younger brother Stuart shared Norman’s interest in nature and became a breeder of lilies. In 1968 at 91, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science by Brandon University for his lifelong work in the study of mammals. Tolly (Talbot) Criddle was famous as a golfer and tennis player.Harry Vane bred roses and developed methods for over wintering tender hybrid roses in Manitoba.

But all this was much later. During those early years, when Percy and Elise and Alice were still alive, the family took time out for sports, arts and games and music. (Percy even did a little composing.)

Their very first summer, the family created a tennis court, with the children cutting the grass by hand with knives. They built a golf course and, in winter, a skating rink – it took 1,750 buckets of water, figured one of the boys, to flood the rink by the well. With no money, the family made their rackets, golf clubs, golf balls and other equipment entirely by hand. They were works of art. During long winter nights, the family crafted lovely inlaid items such as cribbage boards, chests and picture frames. Percy had been a tenor at Royal Albert Hall in England and the family’s musical evenings and concerts became famous in the area, as were their sporting events.

The homestead (called St. Albins of Aweme in Percy’s lifetime) of this fascinating family was preserved as the Criddle-Vane Homestead Provincial Park in 1974. Many of the family artifacts are to be found at the Sipiweske Museum in Wawanesa. An active organization, the Criddle-Vane Homestead Heritage Committee from Glenboro is working hard to restore the buildings, including the historic entomology lab built in 1912.

- By Dorothy Dobbie | Photo courtesy of The Manitoba Museum

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