Kotkas Family Stories

Rudy and Jean Kotkas with their two children, Ken and Loreen in 1936. Born in February 21, 1908 in Barons, Rudy was the son of Helena (Erdman, Watman,) Kotkas and Jaan Kotkas, both Estonians who emigrated from Crimea. Jaan had arrived in Barons in 1905 from Crimea with his wife Emilia (Shelbaugh) and two children: Marie and John. (Marie later married John Sepp and moved to USA. John Kotkas married Margaret Kurtz and remained in Alberta.)

Rudy's cousin Gus Erdman (Jacob's son) brought the Kotkas family to their farm from Lethbridge by horse and buggy, but encountered a prairie fire on the way. There was some speculation that the fire had been set by ranchers who resented the homesteaders fencing off the land. The Kotkases moved to their own land and lived in tents until the sod house was built.

Emilia Kotkas died shortly after they settled on the homestead, leaving Jaan with two young children. In 1907, Jaan married Helena Erdman Watman, whose husband had died of pneumonia while in the army in Crimea. Helena's family, (the Jacob and Mari Erdmans) had settled in Barons in 1904. She had homesteaded with her family. To make a homestead claim, she "borrowed" a Krikental girl to act as her daughter so that she could be classed as "family".

Estonian Lutheran minister, the Reverend Sillak of Medicine Hat refused to officiate at the Kotkas wedding because Jaan always argued with him, so the Kotkases were married in Lethbridge in 1907. In 1908, Rudy and in 1911, daughter Louise (Mrs. Eric Row) were born in the sod house, with Helena's sister, Lisa (Erdman) Silberman as midwife. Theresa (1913 was born in the clapboard house which was added to their farm which was located north west of the irrigation lake, Keho Lake.

The sod house was plastered with clay, manure and quick lime, which made a good stucco. The house was 24' x 40'. It had a kitchen, a hall, two bedrooms and a living room. Inside the house was lined with v-joint planks. Helena and Jaan lived on that farm all of their lives and took part in community activities especially among the Estonians. At the time of their marriage, there were 77 people (26 families) in the village who were Estonian, either from Crimea or directly from Estonia. Helena was a midwife to a number of births including Ellen Erdman Johnson's.

Rudy and his sisters went first to Wheatland Centre School, about three miles west of the farm. (SE quarter 5-12-23) They spoke only Estonian at that time so the Kotkases had to learn English at school. The community was home to immigrants from Finland, Estonia, Germany and other European countries, so English was a "second language" to many students. Soon the big consolidated school was built in Barons and the Kotkases travelled to school in horse drawn school buses. Baseball and basketball were popular and the school had very strong teams. The Kotkases are in most of the team photos.

Their hired man, Mike Palkman (1872-1955), was also an Estonian. He was the son of Juri Palkman, Jaan's uncle, in Crimea. Mike did not stay in the Barons area. He went to work in the coal mine in Lethbridge about 30 miles away to the south and eventually to the USA. He married an Estonian, Lena Musten, and had 7 children. The Mustens were listed in the early group of Estonians in Barons.

The homestead act required that farmers had to break (cultivate) ten acres each year for the first three years. With walking plows and horse-drawn plows and about five horses, Rudy's father cultivated a number of acres. He bought adjoining land from Bert Leeper. In 1912 the crops were very good but snow came early so the men shook the snow off the bundles and continued threshing in the steam driven threshing machine.

From 1903 to 1907 prairie fires were common. Dried buffalo chips often caught fire and rolled along the prairie grass. The passing coal-burning trains dropped cinders along the tracks and this often started the fires. Farmers had to plow several furrows around each house and burn the patches between the furrows. The fire, hopefully, would be stopped by this action. Luckily no one was seriously injured by these fires.

Wild range cattle were a hazard in those days. Jaan had one close call. He had stopped to shoot a coyote with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. His horse bolted, leaving him on foot. The wild cattle rushed up to him and started crowding him. Just then, his cousin, Robert Erdman, returning from Lethbridge by wagon, saw the situation and raced up at full speed to rescue him.

By 1915, during WWI, Jaan had accumulated two sections (two square miles) of farmland. Wheat was yielding 50 bushels per acre, and oats 130. Jaan bought his own threshing machine, cook car, bunk car, water tanks, and wagons. Threshing time was wonderful with about 20 men gladly working on the threshing outfits. A cook was hired to feed the men. Prices were good, so Jaan bought a Model T Ford car at that time.

In the 1929, Rudy married Jean Cross, from Calgary, who was of English heritage. They raised three children on the farm and in the village of Barons. Loreen, Ken and Perry Kotkas attended school in Barons.

In 1930, Rudy bought a tractor, so he didn't have to harness 16 horses each day when he went out to work. Farming was becoming mechanized and the need for hired help was greatly reduced. Many farmers borrowed money to buy machinery in those days.

The Barbwire Telephone was a novel way of talking to neighbouring farms. By connecting ear phones to the wire fences, sound could travel up to 3 miles.

Then the 'Dirty Thirties' hit; grain prices went down and droughts occurred. Dust storms and droughts discouraged many farmers who then moved away from the Barons area. By then Rudy had about 150 head of cattle. One winter he had to buy hay two times a week, just to keep the cattle fed. It was a difficult time for all; Jaan and Rudy had to sell their new farm near Legend and focussed on farming at Barons.

By the time WWII came around, farmers were considered "essential" to the war effort because they provided food to be sent overseas. Rudy bought a self-propelled combine in 1940 and rejoiced at its speed and efficiency. Jean and Rudy could do all of the harvesting that required 24 men in previous years.

Jaan Kotkas died in 1941 in Barons at the age of 70. His wife, Helena, was nursed by her niece, Helmy Munz, for a year at home in Barons when she became bedridden, after a bad fall. She died in 1942 in Barons at the age of 65.

Carrying on the Estonian tradition, Rudy (well, and Jean too actually) loved to sing; that ability and love for singing has been passed on to their descendants.

Rudy's family was always sports minded and participated fully in a wide variety of local teams wherever they lived. They also have a great love and respect for the outdoors including hunting and fishing, likely passed on from Jaan.

To summarize the lives of the five children of Jaan Kotkas:
Children of his first marriage to Emilia Shelbaugh who died in 1905:

  • John (Jack) Kotkas (1902 -? ) left the farm near Barons and went to work in the sugar factory in Raymond, Alberta. He married Margaret Kurtz in 1927 and raised three children: Frances, Peggy and Lawrence, a retired doctor, who lives in Lethbridge.
  • Mary (Maria) Kotkas married John Sepp, and moved to Washington. They had one daughter Edna (1919-?) (m. Lewis Harres) The Harres family has eleven children.

Children of his second marriage to Helena Erdman:

  • Louise Kotkas (1911-1998) married Eric Row in 1936 and had three children: Norma Kay (1942-2006) (Married Howard Myson. They had four children). Norma died of a stroke in 2006; Della, (1946-) (Married Glen Larson and has four children ) and Wayne (1949). Wayne lives in Barons. Louise lived most of her life in Barons.
  • Theresa Kotkas (1913-1984) married Mason Steel (1940) divorced and married Pete Lewellen (1946). She had one child, George (1941), who lives in California with his wife Wendy. They have a daughter, Kimberly (1973)
  • Rudy Kotkas married Jean Cross in 1929. They had three children. Always very active in the Barons community, Rudy and Jean later moved to Vulcan where Rudy was an assessor for the County of Vulcan. Upon his retirement he became mayor of Vulcan. Later they moved to Lethbridge to be near their son Ken's family and their cottage in Waterton Lakes.
    • Their daughter Loreen (born 1931) became dean of women at the University of Nevada - Las Vegas. She and Arlen Harris (from Barons) had three children: Warren, Reta and Susan. In 1981 she married Donald McCulloch, a supervisor for Fisheries and Oceans, in Port Alberni, B.C. where she was a career counsellor. Warren lives in California, Reta is a doctor in Reno, Nevada and Susan a homecare nurse in Vernon. British Columbia.
    • Ken Kotkas (born 1934) married Joyce Larson of Kimberly, British Columbia. They lived in Lethbridge and now live in Waterton Lakes National Park. They have four sons: Kerwin, Christopher, Ken, and Jim. Kerwin lives in Utah and is very ill with M.S. Chris is a gunsmith, currently working as an armourer for the R.C.M.P in Regina, and Ken Jr. is a petroleum geologist in Calgary. Jim is a teacher and baseball coach at a new 'baseball academy' in Vauxhall, Alberta, after a very successful amateur career as a baseball player for Team Canada.
    • Perry Kotkas from Calgary, Alberta was the managing director of the committee for the Barons Homesteading and Heritage Centennial in the summer of 2004. The Kotkas family was one of the early Estonian settlers in Barons, Alberta. Perry Kotkas, a late arrival of Jean and Rudy, was born in 1950, married Karen Soderberg whom he met at university. A geophysicist by profession, Perry eventually was president of his own company. They have two children: Steven (1980), now a Phys. Ed. Teacher in Calgary, and Jillian (1982), studying to be a nurse. Jillian was married to Andy Mark, a C.A. in 2006, at Waterton Lakes; they live in Calgary.

Perry was the managing director of the Barons Area Homesteading and Heritage Centennial held in Barons, Alberta in 2004, which celebrated many Estonian cultural events. Over 500 people attended the variety of events during the weekend. Several other Estonian descendants very successfully participated on that organizing committee, including Martha Munz-Gue (co-chair), a descendent of the Erdman family.

Rudy Kotkas' varied and active community life is typical of the lives of his many relatives in the Barons area. His family, all born Canadians, are also proud of their Estonian heritage.

General notes about Estonians in the Barons area.

An aerial view of the village of Barons in southern Alberta looking west. Numerous Estonian families settled in the Barons area as early as 1904. In the first decade of the 20th century, about thirty Estonian families (77 people) settled in the Barons area. One list of people (dated 1906) who contributed to the Christmas Tree for the Estonian families in Barons were J. Reinstein, P. Lentsman, J. Kulpas, G. Krikental, Jacob and his son Gus Erdman, H. Minnek, A. and J. Kewe, Peter and J. Musten, Jaan Kotkas, Helena Watman, P. Meer, J. Malberg who were of the Crimean-Estonians. Some others such as Linda Jurima, who married G.J. Erdman, and Sally and George Andrekson (1924) came directly from Estonia. The Krasmans, Saffels, Hans Pertels were also Crimean-Estonian pioneers.

Even up to the 1940's, it seems that those of Estonian heritage would often get together at one of the farms for an afternoon party. The "new" houses were built with large living rooms where many people could gather. Visiting was the prime entertainment before radio, TV, and car travel became available. The adults would visit amongst themselves, and the children, especially later in the 1940's would speak English only, and would amuse themselves elsewhere on the farm.

We have found little reference to heritage celebrations in Barons in the very early days. Later the next generation had more of the feeling of "let's try to blend into the community". The younger generations after 1930 rarely learned the Estonian language from their parents or grandparents. A few recipes of our grandmothers for perigees (pirukad) and cabbage rolls are remembered. It is only in recent years that some of the relatives have been digging into the diaries and documents that reveal the stories of the past.

One reference for the Erdman Family, titled "Juri's Children", compiled and edited by Barbara Gullickson of Barons in 1989 has been a wonderful source of information about the 140 or so descendants of the Jacob and Mari Erdman family who came from Crimea via South Dakota in 1904 as pioneers to southern Alberta. Rudy and his family are among those descendants. Much of the information in this account of Rudy was borrowed from "Juri's Children" and from the Barons history book "Wheatheart of the West".

Alberta's Estonian Heritage