Sedalia well tragedy hero receives posthumous award

John Durksen

Canadian Bread Basket settlers endure hardship, recognized 84 years later.

The country’s first settlers came to a land with the promise of better lives at the expense of intensive work which has since paid off by how society today has been founded and continues to operate.

In times of tragedy, citizens were able to come together to aid others.

The summer of 1935 was a particularly hard year for the community of Sedalia, Ab., a community nestled in the prairies between Consort and Oyen.

On Fri. June 28, John Peter Durksen, a Mennonite immigrant who settled in Sedalia with his family, attempted to rescue a father and son who were located at the bottom of a septic well.

John Dahl, 66, first entered the well to repair its frost plug line when he became distressed by carbon monoxide that lingered inside.

Then his son, Norris Dahl, 22, went in to help him where he too succumbed to the noxious gas shortly afterward.

That was when Durksen heard cries for help, risking his own life to save the father and son but, in the end, he perished along with them.

He had just turned 30 earlier that month.

A doctor summoned from New Brigden, a community located 15 kilometres away, attempted to resuscitate the three men but to no avail.

Death certificates and other documents obtained by family members has indicated and confirmed the cause of death to be Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning.

As documented by the Consort Enterprise, over 1,500 people attended the funeral on July 1, 1935 at the Sedalia Hall for all three men.

The funeral site of the funeral for John Dahl, Norris Dahl and John Durksen in Sedalia, Ab., July 1, 1935. Approximately 1,500 people attended to pay their respects. Photo courtesy of Anne Thulien

Reverend Saunder of Naco officiated at the funeral where his text centred on one bible verse; John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Durksen’s second oldest child, Anne Thulien, was only eight at the time of the incident but remembers her father for his gentle, helping nature and passion for music as he would interpret books to sing to his children often.

“He would just help his neighbour with anything he could you know? He was a very gentle person.

I can’t recall too much about him because he was gone all day long but he used to sit and sing a lot,” said Thulien.

Thulien, now 91, also remembers the day she lost her father.

“My mom – she baked some buns and walked to town and she told us ‘Kids, go into the house,’” Thulien began. “She was going to be right back. She was taking some fresh buns to Dad for dinner and she walked back home. My sister was only nine and I was eight. She walked about half a mile and left home and back and by that time my grandfather had heard [about my father]. They had called him to come in and get my Dad’s body.”

Wife Helen heard about the shocking news on the shared phone line as the grandfather received the information.

The body was prepared right there on the farm; something vastly different to life in today’s world.

“I can still remember the back seat of the car where they brought him home. They did things differently then. They never had undertakers like they do now,” said Thulien.

 

Pete Durksen, a younger brother to John Durksen, stands at the well site where carbon monoxide poisoning took his brother’s life white he attempted to save two other men from the septic well. Photo courtesy Anne Thulien

 

Immigrated from Marienthal, Ukraine

John Durksen was born in Marienthal, Molotschna Colony, Ukraine under Imperial Russian occupation.

He was the second child of seven children born to Peter John and Annie Durksen on June 3, 1906.

He immigrated to Canada by boat with his wife, Helen, parents and five other family members in 1925, arriving in the port of Quebec City.

As required by Russian law, an older brother remained in the newly established country of Ukraine as he was not permitted to immigrate to Canada with his family.

Farming was good in the Marienthal region so the Durksen family paid for the trip by working for local farmers in the area.

He settled in the Hamlet of Sedalia where he and his wife Helen had four children; Helen, Anne, Walter, and Vernon.

The family farm was located a half mile north of Sedalia.

From the time of arriving in Canada to his death 10 years later, Durksen became the successful proprietor of the local garage and was a well-respected member of the community.

Life after Durksen’s death was hard for Helen as she now had to tend to four children without a husband.

Both Anne and Walter explained that she would take on extra laundry, canning and cleaning jobs to make ends meet.

Anne began working as a school janitor at the age of 12 to support their family along with her older sister Helen. Walter, now 88, soon joined them to help.
They would stock fires, sweep floors, carry water and do anything else that needed to be done for a new day of school in the prairie settlement.

“I think it hit Mom the hardest because she had all these little kids to feed and it was in the first part of the 30s where there wasn’t anything and you couldn’t sell nothing,” explained Walter. “They had a cow or two and got $10 for it but she took in laundry to make extra money and did extra house cleaning. She was a real good cook so that’s how we survived.”

Grandparents Peter John and Anna were supportive and watched over the children as much as possible too. Helen remarried approximately seven years after the incident.

“My grandpa and grandma were really good to us. They took us boys in like we were their own sons and they taught me a lot of things. My grandpa – If it had a motor and a steering wheel he taught me how to run it,” Walter said.

John Dahl was said to be a pioneer of his time within the district.

The Dahl’s had electric lights from a generator as well as running water and indoor plumbing – necessities that were quite scarce.

“Mr. Dahl – he was a carpenter. He’d build some of the best buildings. They are still as strong as the day they were built,” said Walter.

The 66-year-old immigrated to the United States first from Jamtland, Sweden 45 years prior to settling in Sedalia.

He and his family lived west of Sedalia with only a road allowance to separate the town from the farm.

This tragic story and strong act of bravery proved Mr. Durksen was eligible for the Canada Bravery Award, an award that recognizes deserving Canadians for their acts of bravery.

Posthumous Canada Bravery Award medal

The Royal Canadian Humane Association (RCHA) has presented John’s family with a posthumous medal for his selfless efforts that day in 1935.
The medal was received a few days before Christmas this past year.

Son Walter felt the recognition was well overdue.

Son, Walter Durksen looks at the medal given posthumously to his father, John Durksen. Photo courtesy of John’s granddaughter, Tracy Annable

“It’s been 84 years. Well once it was done it was never done up again. It was just left at that and life went on,” said Walter.

Durksen’s selfless act of bravery continues to inspire his family many years later as an example of humanity and the call for acts of kindness towards others each day.

His surviving children and his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren mourn the passing of John Durksen to this day.

“I never knew him. It was a different time and I wonder what life would have been like if he had been in our life,” Walter said.

The family has since expanded all over Alberta but they plan to meet to reminisce together soon and peek at the significant medal of honour.

The farm in which Durksen died at is now run by Durksen’s sister, Leisa Kroker’s grandson, Sheldon Kroker.

The three men can be found laid to rest in the Cop Hill Cemetery near Sedalia.

Terri Huxley
ECA Review

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