Canadians in the 1930s were, in general, much less mobile than they are today. Traveling was a luxury. Many people did not expect to leave their province, never mind the country, during their lifetimes. Mennonites had even less experience with traveling for work or pleasure. They were usually content to stay in their own communities.
For many young Mennonite men, living in alternative service work camps was the first time they have been away from home. Telephone service was often unavailable. If it was, it could be unreliable. Writing letters was the main means of communication for COs and their friends and family.
Mail call was the highlight of the day for many. A camp official or CO would collect all the mail and the men would gather around while he read out the names and handed out the mail. “What a joy for those who had a letter,” Henry Sawatzky remembers. He, himself, was an avid writer. During his four-month term at Clear Lake, Manitoba, he wrote 69 letters. This, he says, was “a good indication that we were not used to being away from home. Postage on a letter was $.03 at that time, and our pay was $.50 a day.” [ ASM , 7-11]
Clear Lake, in Riding Mountain National Park, was relatively accessible. Mail arrived daily. In Montreal River, it was a different story. “During the winter,” Noah Bearinger says, “we only received mail once a week or rarely twice, but when the roads dried up in spring, we had better service.”
Mail call at Montreal River.
A CO writing a letter home to his girlfriend.
The camp at Montreal River was one of the first to host COs. In the six months after it opened in June 1941, COs there received 2,604 letters and 349 parcels. The Northern Beacon, a newspaper for COs, reported the total of 2,955 with amazement. They also noted that the number would have been much higher if they had included the Christmas season.
Bearinger had a girlfriend back home in southern Ontario. When letters came, he would eagerly look through his letters to see if she had written. “Other letters that we had received were less important,” he says. If she had sent him a letter, he sat on his bunk “reading the letters real slow to let the meaning of each word soak in like the warm rays of an April sun.” Only after reading this letter would he read letters from his friends and family. At times these letters were a bit disappointing, especially considering the high expectations the COs had. The letters all seemed to say the same things: “Hope you are all healthy and hope you can all be home for seeding time,” or “The ministers remembered the boys in camp in their prayers Sunday,” or “I hope one and all can stay steadfast in their faith, whatever your lot.” [ASM, 105] These fine thoughts were small consolation to COs who were dreadfully homesick.
At other times, the mail was much more interesting. The care packages sent from home could be especially exciting. The COs never knew what to expect. Sometimes they got knitted socks, sometimes some baked goods. One CO even received a fully cooked pork roast!
Just as Canadian families missed their sons and daughters who were serving in the military, so the families of COs missed their sons and daughters. It was hard for parents when their children left home, especially under such dreadful circumstances as war.
Some examples of CO mail:
Letter to Mr. John P. Dyck from John E. Giesbrecht, a CO.
March 24, 1943.
Letter to Mr. John P. Dyck from Nettie, a former pupil.
Dec 30, 1942.