Anna and Frieda Reddekopp.
I entered my fourth school in March of 1951, just before my 8th birthday. Our family had moved to my grandmother’s house in Morden, Manitoba from the Niagara region of Ontario. I don’t remember too much of the short time I spent in Miss Reimer’s Grade 3 class. The days went by in a blur of Math and Social Studies and Science that I could not comprehend. I had been subjected to too many changes during the last 7 months.
My memories of my classmates were good, though. I was quick to learn their names and to discover a little about their personalities. One quiet, soft-spoken little girl who didn’t get noticed much was Anna Reddekopp. She lived across the tracks on the other side of town. My cousin Margaret lived in the same area, and they often walked back and forth to school together.
Every year on July 1st, Morden held a large fair called the Kin Sports Jamboree. The major attractions for children were the concession booths and the carnival. For adults, the ball games throughout the day and the horse races in the evening were popular. Children of all ages were encouraged to take part in running races. We were happy with the prize money we received for first and second place and the oranges we received for third place. Although my parents really could not afford it, they gave my two siblings and I each a dollar for passing. Admission was free for children ages 12 and under. So, along with the money we won from winning races and the bottles we collected and returned, we felt rich as we bought treats and tickets for favourite rides. In those years, it was not unusual for parents to allow their young children to attend fairs by themselves.
My grandmother’s house was fairly close to the fairgrounds. We had to walk one long block north down 4th Street and then two shorter blocks east along Wardrop Street before we turned into the entrance. Anna, and her one year younger sister, Frieda, lived much farther away. They, too, had been allowed to attend the fair on their own. Anna was the oldest of four children. We heard the sad news the next day!
On their way to the fair, Anna and Frieda took a shortcut by walking on the train tracks. They had not done this often so they carefully looked both ways. There was no sign of an approaching train. But when they were in the middle of the trestle over a steep gully, they heard the whistle. Anna ran! She had almost outrun the desperately braking train when she tripped and fell. She was struck and killed. I thought I remembered being told that Frieda had managed to slip between the wooden slabs and that she hung on tightly with her tiny fingers until the train passed.
How we heard this news and the call that came later, I have no idea. We did not have a phone and Morden did not have a daily paper. Somehow, my parents and all the other parents of that Grade 3 class, were notified that Anna’s classmates were to sing at her funeral in the Mennonite Brethren Church. The girls were asked to wear their dark tunics with white blouses while the boys wore dark pants and white shirts with ties. These were the uniforms we all owned and wore for festival performances and other special occasions. I held my grandmother’s hand as we walked the 11 blocks to the church. I don’t remember anything else about the funeral or even why my grandmother took me instead of my mother. I cried when my grandmother cried. Death did not yet feel real and final to me.
When we returned to school in September, nothing was said about Anna’s accident and death. I’m not sure what the school could have done, but a small commemorative plaque hanging in the hallway and a special time set aside to celebrate her brief life would have been appropriate. Some years later, a younger two year old sibling died accidently at their home. The Reddekopp family moved to Ontario shortly after this second tragedy and our family heard no more about them in Morden.
Footnote: I thought of Anna’s terrible death many times over the years. I especially thought of it when our school-aged children had to cross railway tracks to get to school and when we lived near train tracks. They found my constant reminders to be cautious annoying! “We know! We know! Listen for the whistle. Jump off the tracks immediately.” Fortunately, we never lived near a trestle over a deep ravine!
Now some years later, my husband and I are living in Penticton, BC. I was scheduled to have minor day surgery at the local hospital. I had already been given a needle to sedate me slightly before I was wheeled to the entrance of the operating room. As I was lying outside the room in a somewhat foggy stupor, I was approached by a figure in surgical garb. “Hello, Mrs. Dyck,” the figure said, “My name is Frieda Reddekopp. I will be your anesthetist today.”
My heart gave a lurch and my mind was alert enough to go back in time. I knew I had to talk quickly! “Frieda Reddekopp,” I repeated. “Did you ever live in Morden?”
“Yes, I did,” she answered. “Many years ago.”
“Did you have an older sister, Anna, who was killed by a train there?” I continued.
“Yes,” she answered, “I did.”
“How did you save yourself?” was my next question.
“I crouched down on the wooden slats that extend from the rails and I was small enough for the train to pass by me without harming me,” was her answer. This was not the information I had heard at the time but it did make more sense.
“I was in Grade 3 with Anna for three months and our class sang at her funeral,” I told Frieda. Of course, she would not have remembered this or even known who I was as she was only 6 years old and had just finished Grade 1 and I was new in school. I continued, “Your family moved to Ontario later.”
Frieda responded that her father had left for Ontario to find better work opportunities. While there, a younger two year old daughter died accidently at their home in Morden. After the funeral, they packed up and all moved to Hamilton where their father had found a good job. Frieda was now 12 years old.
Because of my earlier meeting with Frieda, I knew she lived in Penticton. I contacted her for permission to have this story printed. We met and she shared more details with me. She told me that as a 6 year old, she received a summons and was required to testify about the accident at the local courthouse. She was frightened and does not remember much of this inquest, but she does remember a lawyer asking her if her parents had told her what to say. Adamantly, she replied, “My father told me to tell the truth!”
She also remembers hearing that the engineer did everything in his power to stop the train as soon as he saw the two tiny figures on the tracks. She doesn’t think her parents talked to the engineer or even knew his name.
When the girls heard the train whistle, they turned around and saw this gigantic beast hurtling toward them.
They knew that jumping off the track into the deep gully below was not an option. They both began to run. As she heard the roar of the engine closer and closer behind her, Frieda stepped over the rail and crouched down on the extending wooden slabs making herself as small as possible. Anna continued to run. Meanwhile the engineer was braking as hard as he could. Witnesses reported seeing bits of metal flying from the rails. If Anna had not tripped and fallen where she did, she would not have been struck.
The frightening noise of the screeching brakes and the heat generated by the overheated train as it finally came to a stop beside Frieda will forever be etched in her memory. Trembling, she remained perfectly still in her crouching position. Before she had a chance to react, she was grabbed and rushed through the nearest door of the train, along a few corridors and out the opposite side into the arms of a stranger. He carried her to his home. By this quick-thinking act on the part of an employee or a bystander, Frieda was spared seeing the body of her sister on the track. How her parents were notified or when she was rescued by her family, she does not remember. At that time, she did not even know her sister had died. When the reality of Anna’s death sank in, she remembers sobbing in her mother’s arms, “I wasn’t meant to be the oldest. I don’t want to be the oldest.”
Frieda was concerned about returning to school in the fall. She was shy and worried that someone might want to ask her about her sister’s death and her narrow escape. She did not like talking about the accident. No one asked her!
Throughout the next few years, Frieda often questioned the fact that she had survived and Anna had not. When she heard her mother tell someone what a beautiful, clever child Anna had been, her thoughts were, “maybe it should have been me who died.”
Frieda’s parents had struggled to provide for their four children in Morden and the three more born in Hamilton. They were both hard-working but uneducated. As the children grew older, their dad encouraged them to take advantage of the opportunities they had to get an education and a training of some kind. The children all worked at various summer jobs and went on to post-secondary colleges and universities. Frieda says that she never needed encouraging as she loved school and learning. She has had a long successful career as a highly qualified anesthetist, first in Ontario and then in British Columbia. She continues to work as a surgeon’s assistant in the Penticton General Hospital. Frieda is married and lives in Penticton, BC.
If you visit the Hillside Cemetery on Mountain Ave., you will the see the graves of these two young sisters, along with a brother who died many years later. The marker on Anna’s grave says that she died on July 2, 1951. Frieda and I think that in those years fairs would not have been held on Sunday. When I Googled the date, I learned that, indeed, July 1 that year was on Sunday.
Frieda says I am the first person from Morden she has encountered who remembers the train accident that took her sister’s life. If there is anyone living in Morden who remembers the Reddekkopp family and the tragedy, she would like to hear from you. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will forward your letters to her.