Thursday, 3 May 2018

The Doodlebugs

By: Sharon Stevens
Published: Recorder
Written: 1995

A doodlebugger? What is a doodlebug and where did that name come from? A definitive answer was what I was searching for. But a variety of responses is what I found...

A doodlebug is a southern bug that digs a hole in the ground and stacks the dirt – that's what a doodlebug does is drill a hole and put charges in it and geologists always figured we were never scientific we were just doodlers.
Cecil and Mary Watson

As far as I can recall there used to be a bug that digs a hole in the ground – it would make these little holes and it goes down and kicks up the dirt, and it was called a doodlebug – don't know where or when it started. But when we were here and this idea came up, somebody said, well geophysical people are always digging holes in the ground – Percy Smith ran a seismic service company – he's the one who patented the name Doodlebug with the caricature of a bug.
Ted and Lola Rosza

The word doodlebug came from west Texas in the early teens and twenties from water well witchers who would go out with a willow stick and claimed that they could find the spot to drill for underground water wells – because their technology was you might say unscientific, the word Doodlebug was coined... which referred to the witchery they were conducting. When seismic work started in 1932 and gradually refined into the science of geophysics, others in the industry thought this was a mysterious science, so seismic people or geophysicists were labelled Doodlebugs or Doodlebuggers.
Hal Godwin

Doodlebug is a little insect that never settles in anyone place, he just picks up his home and moves off and lives elsewhere for a little while, and when he's tired of that he picks up and moves on again.
Gordie and Evelyn Cairns

And the research indicated...

Doodlebug is a U.S. tiger-beetle, or the larvae of this or various other insects.
Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition Vol. IV

Doodlebug is a divining rod.
American Heritage
Dictionary End edition

A doodlebug is anyone of various unscientific devices with which it is claimed minerals and oil deposits can be located (1924). A doodlebug is a new device in prospecting which seemed to employ radar in locating likely ground (1948).
Dictionary of Changes in Meaning

Rudimentary geology was often combined with bits of folklore and luck to lead the doodlebugger to oil deposits. Using a simple divining rod, a crotched stick like that used in "witching" for water, he walked along dry creeks, across bald prairie and to the tops of hills and wherever else his nose and instinct led him. The more sophisticated doodlebugger fastened a rubber sack full of fresh crude oil to his hazel stick, which he had cut under a full moon, and awaited the telltale moment when the tip would suddenly dip in the direction of oil.
History of Canada's Oil and Gas Industry - Ed Gould

and then...

If you know what doodlebugging is, it doesn't need explaining; and, if you don't know what it is, it can't be explained. I'm glad I know what it is.
Jane Richardson

The story of the Doodlebugs can be focused on family life; the men, their wives and children who travelled from town to town following the crew. It is a story of the contrast and similarities of men's work and women's work as their roles blended into a family unit. The story is laced with the humor and strength of lifelong friendships that developed during the nomadic beginnings of doodlebuggers. Celebrations of the season, birthday parties, and party games helped the community flourish amid the struggles of isolation and loneliness. The story is full of contrasts...constant travel yet with predictable monotony; cramped trailer living inside while the prairie stretched endlessly outside; intense friendships that grew quickly; and making due with what you had. In the end the story is about memories, flipping through photo albums and watching home movies. It is about nostalgia and reminiscing, the good times and the hard times. It is about hearing the melting snow on the road and feeling like its time to move again – even thirty years later.

Every year at Christmas I would hear the stories. The stories of living in a trailer- a little trailer 8' x 24' with no bathroom. There were only two of us kids then. The stories of moving and packing up and moving again, as often as seven times in one year. The stories of friendship and fun and frugality. "You did what you had to do". This was the life of a doodlebugger.

My parents met in Gravelbourg, Sask. in 1954. My father was working with a seismic crew and as usual, fellas from the crew often met up with the gals from the nearby town. And so would begin the romance. And shortly after, the marriage, the traveling and the babies. This was seismic work. This was the life of a doodlebugger.

Some couples would try to find accommodations in each town. Anything from sleeping in a cold front porch to an unused theatre. But most couples opted for trailers. "Right from the beginning, when we got married we knew we would live in a trailer, that way the children would have the same bed every night".

In Alberta during the 1950's and into the early 60's, seismic crews crisscrossed the province from job site to job site in exploration of oil. This type of work still goes on today but not in the unusual lifestyle that became known as doodlebugging. During these two decades men met and married women from these small towns launching their lives together in a tiny trailer – travelling and moving as many as 70 times in 12 years – experiencing the life of a Doodlebug... .

An aspect of doodlebug life not often told is that of the women and their role and contribution to the industry not to mention to their families. Young women were romanced and then settled into a commitment of adventure and a life of constant movement. These women were outstandingly independent in an era before feminism was considered an ideological tool to identify and further women's rights. For the men there was definitely more to the doodlebug lifestyle than just the technical work they were involved in. Another untold side of the doodlebug life shows the feminine side of the men and how much their families meant to them. They were very involved in the early upbringing of their children while they were on-the-road together. The men were contributors to the family's wellbeing on an emotional as well as physical level acting as breadwinners and disciplinarians. In the end the true story of doodlebugging is best told as seen through the eyes of the families. The following are a number of stories told by members of doodlebug families and reflections by individuals who experienced the doodlebug life:

Stories


Interview with Warner and Joy Loven, May 1, 1994 – 40 moves in nine years with three children. Joy tells the story of Maureen's birth:

I was very pregnant when we were in Daysland, Ab., in fact I was due to have the baby any minute. But the crew was scheduled to leave so the town Doctor tried to induce labour so I could give birth before the crew left. The induction didn't work. I had to make a decision ... stay in Daysland by myself and wait to have the baby and join up with the crew later. Or leave with the crew and risk having the baby on the road. I decided to leave with the crew. The Mayor gave me a list of all the doctors and hospitals and we set off. Well we made it. We reached Rock Glen in one piece, Maureen was born shortly after.

Big decisions like that had to be made real quick. The women supported each other and most times the townspeople were helpful and receptive. The wives had to look after a lot, especially when the men went up north in the winter. We used to keep our curtains open so we could see into each other's trailer to make sure everything was okay. Sometimes the oil line would freeze up and we would have to go outside in a blizzard and try to thaw it out. That often meant crawling under the trailer, pregnant or not.

Washing clothes was always a big chore. Just finding water was sometimes tough. We would have to haul water in buckets if there was no water hookup for the trailer. And with so many kids and in such tiny trailers in such dusty, muddy trailer courts it seemed we were always washing something ... floors or faces. I was the first to get a wringer washer. it was always in the way, no room to put it, just stuck in the middle of a tiny kitchen. The trailer was 24' long and 8' wide. But having that washer was great, better than washing diapers by hand or using the wash houses in the trailer courts.

Interview with Stan and Susanne Stevens May 5, 1994 – 70 moves in 12 years with four children. Susanne tells the story of moving day:

Sometimes we would get a whole weeks notice that the crew was heading out to a new town, you got to finish your laundry, say goodbye to the people you got to know. But most times it would be a day or sometimes they would come home early and we would leave that afternoon.

Moving day was hectic. Kids would have to stay out of the way while the water tank and the oil tank were unhooked and loaded into the company truck. Everything inside the trailer had to be secured, tied down, pillows stuffed into cupboards to stop dishes from falling out, you piled things up as you backed out the door, I know one woman whose washing machine flew through the side of the trailer when the truck went off the road. There was lots of unnecessary junk, or so my husband used to think. I had a step made out of an old barn door, I needed that step to get into the trailer, but it was big and cumbersome and always hard to load.

Then we would set out. Dad pulling the trailer in a company truck and I would drive behind with the kids. We didn't dare stop. I had to just follow along because often times I didn't know where we were going. I might know the town we were going to but not the route. So I would have to be alert and keep an eye on that vehicle ahead, while I breast fed, changed diapers, poured koolaid, and sang songs to amuse the kids. You sure couldn't drive like that today.

We seemed to always move right at Christmas, either Christmas Eve or Christmas afternoon, plus it was a sad time of year because the fellows would be leaving to go up north on New Year's Day.

But I miss it, you know even 30 years later. Every spring I get to feeling like we should pack up and move. I feel nostalgic at the sound car tires make on the road when the snow starts to melt and turn to slush.

Reflections of Doodlebug Life
Excerpted from "Reflections" 50th Anniversary of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists

In our travels and moves of 47 times in 39 years, we made many wonderful friends and experienced some different ways of life. Thinking back and comparing the way of life for drifters back then and now, there is a feeling that life was pretty rough at times. Fortunately, we didn't know any better then, and thought at the time that we were the privileged. To this day we still hear from so any friends from all our journeys. Wouldn't have missed it for anything.
Zola Bartel

I had learned what doodlebugging was. We had enough dime store pottery to serve 4 people, 3 pots, 2 frying pans and some dynamite boxes for extra seats. Most of the towns we moved to didn't have a trailer park, so we parked any place we could hook up to electricity and water. That is the life we lived. If you know what doodlebugging is, it doesn't need explaining; and, if you don't know what it is, it can't be explained. I'm glad I know what it is.
Jane Richardson

First thing the wives do after getting located is to rush around to see what the grocery store had to offer. Life settles down, or so it seems. Suddenly, it is whispered around – it's rumored – that we are going to move. The women begin to lament – they have just stocked up on groceries, or someone has been silly enough to have done some extensive housecleaning. Life isn't too monotonous and even has an element of adventure in it. The crew is like a family - our joys and sorrows are shared, and we make an effort to get along together.
Jean Heinrichs

After acquiring a few things, our car began to look like the Joads. The one thing we always had words about was the ironing board. We could have been driving an 18 wheeler and that thing wouldn't have fit. I have driven many miles with my neck wedged between the legs of an ironing board.
Evelm F. Reeves

The next move was to Sylvan Lake not far from where my life as a wife of a doodlebugger started. Here we stayed for one and a half years, we were there so long that we almost sprouted roots. By this time we were beginning to give some thoughts to setting up permanent home somewhere. After years of doodlebugging our first dream house was purchased in Calgary. It had 900 sq. ft., interest rate 4%, monthly payment of $40., total price $6,000.
Venna Frasher

Each of us who spent those years as doodlebuggers has his own memories. Mine are unique to me and every time I've told a tale, somebody topped me. I wouldn't take a million dollars for those years, but it would take more than that to get me to do it again.
Anne Frank

I was struck over and over by the sense of community that exist between doodlebug families – even decades after their way of life has ended. Their camaraderie and dependence on each other serves as an ideal model of human beings living and working together. I was amazed at the resourcefulness and commitment it took to live this life – not just by the men who were employed, but the entire family who supported them day in day out, hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from friends and relatives. I found myself caught up in the romance of constant travelling – even with its trauma, loneliness and hardship because these people came out with adventure under their belts and stories of the places they've seen and the people they've met.

Their passion for a way of life was inspiring – and as a native Calgarian, I had no idea of these humble and proud pioneers who, with their families in tow, helped to establish an industry and a quality of life we take for granted. I was honoured to witness their memories.
Fran Humphreys, Script research & development for Doodlebugs: The Video

As a tribute to those individuals and families who experienced the doodlebug life Sharon Stevens has produced DOODLEBUGS: THE VIDEO, a 30 minute experimental documentary. The video is a collection of private photographs and film footage, together with photographs from the Provincial Archives and Glenbow Museum that have been textured into a moving canvas. For more information about the video or to obtain a copy contact Essence Productions, 1701 Broadview Rd. NW, Calgary, AB, T2N 3H4 or phone 283-2536.

End

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