The Economy: Taking Care of Business

The Economy: Taking Care of Business

Diversity sustains us

Things you might not know about our economy

Vancouver’s Fraser Institute, a thinktank appealing to investors, thinks we’re hot – at least in mining potential. In 2018 their mining study ranked Saskatchewan numero uno in “investment attractiveness” in Canada, and third in the world.

Saskatchewan has become the Number Two oil-producing province in the country, producing 15 percent of Canada’s crude. Mining and energy production make up about 21 percent of Saskatchewan’s GDP.

Our province produces about 33 percent of the world’s potash and about 22 percent of its high-grade uranium.

Saskatchewan produces more than a third of Canada’s energy.

We have 11.7 million hectares in our “commercial forest zone,” of which 5.3 million hectares can be commercially harvested for timber.

Agriculture and forestry make up about 7 percent of Saskatchewan’s GDP.

Manufacturing accounts for about 7 percent of our GDP.

Some of our most surprising products are used in the aerospace and defence sectors, including satellite communications technology.

The service sector yields most of our province’s GDP and jobs: retail sales, health care, transport, communications, education and research.

About one third of Saskatchewan’s export income comes from food products.

Saskatchewan sends 55 percent of its products to the U.S.A., and 85 percent of our imports originate there.

Saskatchewan is the country’s biggest producer of oats, which is not only used to make porridge, but also cookies, apple crisp and a trendy new milk-like product.

[; StarPhoenix 3 October 2018. Oats: CBC Radio, 7 November 2019]

Where have all the farmers gone?

a prairie scene
Graphic from

(How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?) Many did leave, others migrated to towns and cities, but many stayed. The farms are still there, fewer in number, but vast in size.

Early on, homesteaders were grabbing up “free” land offered by the government, but they usually started with only 160 acres, a quarter section. Over time, up-and-coming farmers took out pre-emptions and bought more land. Gradually farms expanded in size but shrank in number: In 1901 there were only 13,711 farms (or perhaps fewer) averaging 291 acres each. The number of farms peaked in 1941 at 138,173 with an average 550 acres each.

With slick new seeding and harvesting equipment, powerful fertilizers and insecticides, and improved farm practices, farmers could harvest way bigger crops. Successful ones began to expand their holdings and built super-farms, and set up family corporations to run them. By 2001, there were 50,598 at an average acreage of 1283. Now farmhouses have the same conveniences as city houses.

But often farm kids, when they grew up, answered the siren call of cities and left the farms; many went to college and became professionals. Many left the province too. A few intrepid would-be farmers took up small landholdings and began to grow market gardens or odd animals like yaks.  

Hamlets that used to dot the countryside had grown up around the ubiquitous grain elevators. When country elevators fizzled (for reasons to do with grain marketing) hamlet-ites deserted and moved to large towns and cities. Ghost hamlets are depressing, but in other cases farmers bought the land, knocked down decrepit buildings, and farmed the land underneath them.

In 1901, only 16 percent of our people were city folk, and 84 percent rural dwellers. By 1951, 30 percent were city slickers, and by 2001, 64 percent.

Sometimes clusters of people who loved the land but didn’t really want to farm, bought vacant buildings and set up their own little colonies of like-minded people. You can meet fascinating people in these places, especially artists and writers.  

On farms and in towns, shopping habits were reshaped. As smoother roads replaced gumbo, and trusty new cars replaced balky old Tin Lizzies, people drove to the cities to buy what they needed, or they ordered it from the internet. Try to buy a book other than a tourist guide in a small town, and you’re out of luck.

Yellow field, abandoned buildings on horizon.
An apparently-abandoned farmstead
in southwest Saskatchewan.
Photo by Alastair Mirrlees.

This metamorphosis had the unfortunate effect of making the countryside look abandoned and forlorn. But there’s life in them thar hills and plains. Many “snowbirds” fly to warmer climes in winter, but those that remain behind live dynamic lives. A former member of the Biggar community, for example, says our towns have active arts and education communities. “There was dance, theatre, crafts, music, a community college, art gallery, museum, library, community service clubs and a hockey rink and a curling rink.”

[Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan: Agriculture article by Prof. Gary Storey; Statistics Canada and Saskatchewan government stats; personal recollections]

Big fish in the pond

Some large Saskatchewan-based companies

Nutrien (head office Saskatoon) is by far the largest multinational company in the province.  It was formed in 2017 with the merger of PotashCorp, the world’s largest potash producer, and Agrium, a major supplier of farm products.

Canpotex Ltd. (head office Saskatoon) co-ordinates the sales of potash produced by the Nutrien and Mosaic companies to dozens of offshore markets.

Federated Co-operatives (head office Saskatoon) purchases and distributes goods and services for over 300 member co-ops across western Canada.

Brandt Group of Companies (head office Regina) began when Peter Brandt, electrician, began manufacturing in the 1930s. Since expanded by the Semple family, it is now an international farm, construction and forestry equipment dealer, with outlets across North America and export sales to Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Hill Group of Companies (head office Regina): In 1903, W.A. Hill and E.A. McCallum formed McCallum Hill, a Regina insurance and real estate firm. It now entails resource manufacturing, broadcasting and management, as well as real estate, throughout western Canada and the U.S.

Concorde Group of Companies (head office Saskatoon) was founded in 1972 by Les Dube, a Saskatoon grocer, and his wife Irene. The Dube family now oversees development, real estate and management companies across Canada.

Morris Industries Ltd. (head office Saskatoon) began with the rod weeders George Morris, a mechanic in Bangor, began manufacturing in 1932.  From its first plant in Yorkton, the company expanded the range of innovative farm implements made in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and North Dakota.

AGT Food and Ingredients (head office Regina): is a lentil-processing firm founded in 2002 by Davidson-born Murad AlKatib. It now employs over 2,000 workers and has forty plants in five countries, and markets its products to 120 countries.

Corporate impresarios

Some Saskie founders of corporations based elsewhere

Calvin Ayre, a Lloydminster-born entrepreneur, struck it rich in 2000 with Bodog, an online sports gambling company based in Costa Rica. Enforcement of American Unlawful Internet Gambling legislation caused him to shut down Bodog in 2011 and he has since focused on other Ayre Group entertainment enterprises.

Samuel Bronfman, a former Wapella area homesteader, set up a booming liquor-export firm in Yorkton at the end of the Great War. In 1924 he merged it with Seagram’s Distilleries in Montreal. Under his successors, the company became one of the largest liquor companies in the world, with major interests in the American film and television industry.

Murray Edwards, born in Regina and a graduate of the U of S, launched Calgary-based  Canadian Natural Resources , which has financed oil production in Africa and the North Sea, plus the oil sands in northern Alberta.He is also co-owner of the Calgary Flames. The Murray Edwards School of Business was named for him, in recognition of a hefty donation to the U of S.

Ernie Poole, a carpenter who began contracting in Stoughton in 1913, restructured his growing company as Poole Construction when he moved it to Edmonton in the 1930s. Sold to former employees in 1978, PCL Construction now has 4,000 workers, and now has offices in Australia and throughout North America.

Jimmy Pattison, born in Saskatoon, has gone from selling cars to running the Vancouver-based Jim Pattison Group which includes auto dealerships, TV and radio, real estate and chain stores in North America, Europe, Australia and Asia.  Saskatoon’s new children’s hospital was named for him, after he donated $500 million toward its construction.

Rahul Sharma, a U of S grad, cofounded Micromax, the second-largest smartphone maker in India.

Brett Wilson, born in North Battleford and a U of S graduate, was a co-founder in 1993 of the Calgary-based First Energy Corporation, an investment banking firm that financed energy companies around the world. He made a million-dollar donation to the U of S to establish the Brett Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence.


Saskatchewan labour leaders

Honorέ Jaxon (William Jackson) was the former secretary of Louis Riel’s council in 1888. In 1909 he acted as spokesman for striking sewer diggers in Saskatoon. A city rep called him “obnoxious” for being an effective negotiator in conciliation talks.

Tom McEwen - illustration by Ruth Millar
Tom McEwen – illustration by Ruth Millar

Tom McEwen (or Ewen) worked as a blacksmith in Swift Current, then as a “smithy” for Richardson Road Machinery in Saskatoon in the 1920s.  After being embroiled in a strike at RRM in 1927, he helped form the Workers’ Unity League (the trade union arm of the Communist Party of Canada. As an organizer of the On-to-Ottawa trek in 1935, he was imprisoned following the Regina riot that July 1st.

Sam Scarlett came as a harvester to Saskatoon in the 1920s, where later he was an organizer for the International Workers of the World (IWW), then the Workers’ Unity League. In 1931 he helped Bienfait coal miners form a local of the Mine Workers of Canada. He got a year in the clinker for his part in a miners’ protest in Estevan that September, that led to a violent clash with police.

Anne Buller, a fiery speaker and Workers’ Unity League organizer of the needle trades in western Canada, harangued the Bienfait area miners about their poor wages and housing. She was found guilty of inciting a riot that followedin Estevan, and was sentenced to a year at hard labour in the Battleford jail.

Hub Elkin was swept up in the labour movement in the 1930s while working for eighteen cents an hour for Swift’s Meat Packers in Moose Jaw. He was founder and first president (1944-49) of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL). Later he served as CUPE rep in negotiating contracts between workers and employers.

Barb Byers, a former social worker, waded into labour issues during a strike by government workers in 1979. Women’s rights, poverty and youth unemployment remained her priorities as president of SGEU, and then the SFL.

Labour activist, academic and writer Glen Makahonuk. Photo from University of Saskatchewan Archives
& Special Collections.

Glen Makahonuk, a historian and U of S librarian, served as president of CUPE Local 175 for eleven years, then as president of CUPE Saskatchewan from 1993 until his death in 1997. As a union executive he worked to improve the lives of its members. As an academic he grabbed every chance to educate others about labour issues.

Larry Hubnick was a principal in the Grain Services Union (GSU) from 1973 to 1982 while working at the Wheat Pool’s IT division and serving as a GSU staff rep for twenty years. He battled the provincial government over workers’ right to strike, a position upheld by the Supreme Court in 2015, which struck down the Essential Services Act.

Sizzling strikes  

Labour unrest in Saskatchewan

A few walkouts that made history

In 1884 railway workers went on strike at Broadview and Regina to protest living conditions while building the CPR main line. The NWMP kept the peace until agreements were reached between the men and railway officials on these sites.

In 1906 sewer diggers in Saskatoon struck, demanding a wage increase from $2 to $2.50 a day. City officials provided better shovels and safety measures, but not a wage hike.

In May and June 1919 during the Winnipeg General Strike, over a thousand Saskatoon workers including postmen, machinists, plumbers, teamsters and other workers went on strike in sympathy with the Winnipeg workers. The Saskatoon strikers remained out for about a month until the Winnipeg conflict was resolved.

A famous strike in 1927 involved thirty-seven “smithy workers” at Richardson Road Machinery demanding union recognition, a wage hike and better working conditions.  Lasting eleven months, it was the longest strike in the 1920s.

Estevan coal miners’ strike: In 1931, Bienfait miners joined the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada, part of the militant Workers’ Unity League. First they struck for union recognition, so they could push to have their wages, cut by the bosses, restored. The mine bosses refused, so the men protested, to enlist public support. The mayor ordered the Mounties and local gendarmes to halt the demonstration, but three miners died and many were injured in the September 29 ruckus.

Saskatoon’s first sit-down “strike” shocked Depression-ridden Saskatoon in November 1932, when fifty families refused to sign a draconian agreement for relief, and were cut off. The women staged a two-day sit-in at City Hall with their children. Finally the relief agreement was softened, and then ignored.  The press considered it almost blackmail.

For forty-one days in 1974, 1733 employees of the universities at Saskatoon and Regina went on strike, their first, to demand better wages and benefits. That year it was the biggest walkout in the Canadian education sector. It was settled by conciliation in the end.

In the fall of 1994 Saskatoon municipal workers across the board (except for essential services such as firefighters) staged a city-wide, knock-down, drag-out work stoppage that started in mid August and lasted for ten weeks. It was the first time Saskatoon Public Library workers had ever walked out, having only formed a union in 1982.           .

Our economic engines

The times they’ve been a-changing

Before homesteaders started arriving, our economy was all about fur-bearing animals, buffalo meat and hides, and perhaps fishing. Horses steamboats and oxcarts ruled the plains as transport.

Then agriculture became our economic mainstay – as farmers grew grain mainly on the plains, and ranchers raised livestock on the curly grass of the rolling southern hills. Wheat was king, but other crops were grown too, particularly where dry soil thwarted farmers’ efforts.

By the 1920s, commercial fishing brought in about half a million dollars a year. Nowadays, sport fishing and commercial fishing compete with avid tourists for the tasty silvery creatures.

One of the plaques at the Gardiner Dam site.
Photo by Alastair Mirrlees.

After titanic hydro-electric projects watered dry areas near the South Saskatchewan River, vast irrigation equipment now advances across fields like a triumphant army, spraying life-giving water for irrigation.

The development of edible oil from canola (which formerly bore the unfortunate name of rape), heralded a new era in farming, around 1951. Now brilliant yellow fields colour the prairie patchwork in spring. By 1971 farmers diversified into pulse crops (lentils, dry peas and chickpeas), and specialty crops (triticale, mustard, canary seed, sunflowers).

Holy El Dorado!

Minerals and other subterranean moneybuckets

With serious probing by geologists, miners and prospectors, the earth between the surface has disgorged riches. For starters, we have become an energy powerhouse. with the most diverse primary energy resource base in Canada, says a government website,

Black gold – petroleum — is a “honey streak” we’ve long sought.  As early as 1874, oil drilling took place at Fort Pelly, and in 1944 crude oil was found in the Lloydminster area. But the most exciting find, after a stunning discovery in Alberta in 1957, was at the Bakkan oilfield in southeastern Saskatchewan, said to hold three billion barrels. Other primary oil-rich areas are Kindersley-Kerrobert, and Weyburn-Estevan. The first large oil refinery established in Saskatchewan was Imperial Oil in Regina. as of 2005 we have had the refinery in Regina (Federated Co-operatives), an asphalt refinery at Moose Jaw and a Husky Energy upgrading facility at Lloydminster. Since then Saskatchewan has become the Number Two oil-producing province, producing 15 percent of Canada’s crude. [See SCIENCE and TECHNOLOGY section.]

Tommy Douglas opening Sask Power gas service
Tommy Douglas officially opening the Saskatchewan Power Corporation natural gas system, October 1, 1953. Photo B-14767 by Leonard Hillyard, from Local History Room,
Saskatoon Public Library.

Saskatchewan is Canada’s third biggest natural gas producer. It revolutionized the heating of buildings, and to a large extent weaned us off coal and wood in 1953. We produced 184 billion cubic feet in 2018, and almost two trillion cubic feet are thought to lurk below.

We supply about one third of the world’s uranium, exporting about 90 percent of what we unearth. It was first found in 1945 in the Beaverlodge area, and high-grade uranium in the Athabasca Basin in 1968. Uses of certain isotopes of uranium include energy production, radiotherapy and other medical applications, in smoke detectors, and as ballast in planes and boats. Our uranium is said to power about one in twenty homes in the U.S. Unfortunately, many of us are freaked out by its potential for blowing up the world.

Potash mine
Potash mine not far from Saskatoon in November 2019. Photo by Gerry Ackerman.

The discovery of potash came like a thunderclap. It was first found near Radville in 1943. The first underground mine was at Patience Lake east of Saskatoon in 1958, but Esterhazy has eclipsed it as our potash hotspot. It is used for fertilizer production, and we’ve become Canada’s biggest exporter of it, supplying about one-third of the world’s potash needs.

Salt flats
A salt mining area near Alsask.
Photo by Gerry Ackerman.

Salt is a by-product of potash mining, and can often be seen heaped in mounds beside potash mines. There is at least one company that produces salt commercially. Salt was first produced in 1920, at Senlac.   

Rare earth elements or REES are sometimes found near uranium deposits.  REES contain minerals used to make magnets for motors of electric and hybrid cars, in rechargeable batteries, fluorescent lights, plasma screens, space satellites – the list goes on. Unfortunately, REES are expensive to extract because of their rarity, and often get dumped in tailings ponds. Too bad.

The search for the golden money-pot is one of mankind’s most lasting quests. Retreating glaciers left deposits of gold, and between 1859 and 1918 the yellow stuff was extracted from the North Saskatchewan River using dredgers and sluice boxes. After prospectors again hit paydirt on the north shore of Lake Athabasca, the Goldfields mines were established in 1934. Star Lake near La Ronge has hosted a new gold mine since 1987. The Seabee Gold Operation, opened in 1991, is about 125 kms. northeast of La Ronge and in 2018 disgorged about 1.5 million ounces of gold. There’s also an eager search for gold at the so-called Glennie “greenstone belt.”  

We’ve got diamonds too. The first documented discovery of kimberlite, the magic rock that contains the dazzling crystals, happened at Sturgeon Lake in 1958. Bigger deposits of kimberlite have since been found at places like the one near Fort a la Corne, east of Prince Albert. And the search goes on.

Coal is becoming a dirty word, and — like smoking — we’re trying to quit, says the government. But our coal is the “clean” kind, if that’s any comfort. It was first unearthed in the Estevan area in 1857. SaskPower advises us that “coal is Saskatchewan’s largest supplier of power. We have three power plant facilities in Saskatchewan: Boundary Dam and Shand Power Stations … near Estevan, and Poplar River Power Station … near Coronach.”

Clay was being produced by 1886, not surprising since so much of Saskatchewan land is clay. The Claybank Brick Plant was famous, and fortunes were made in brickmaking.

Sodium sulphate is found in alkaline lakes. First mined at Muskiki Lake in 1918, it is used to make powdered laundry detergent, carpet deodorizers, starch and textiles, and in livestock feed, and pulp and paper. The five plants in our province make us the world’s fifth biggest producer of this useful product.

There’s more: North of Amisk (Beaver) Lake, copper, gold, silver and gold were mined in the 1920s by Hudson Bay Mining & Smelting. Copper and zinc were discovered in 1915 near the Manitoba border, and nickel, platinum and palladium, first found at Rottenstone Lake in 1928.

[Agriculture: Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan; Statistics Canada and Government of Saskatchewan Agricultural Statistics. Coal: SaskPower. Mining and fishing: Archer, Saskatchewan: The Story of a province, 201. Mineral sectors, “Philip Reeves, Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, 618-19; Saskatchewan Mining Facts, 19 February 2013; multiple internet sources. Rare earth: earth-elements. Gold at Seabee:]

Harvesting trees and wild creatures

Maps showing blocks of forested areas suggest that forests make up more than half the province. (Commercially viable, not quite so much.) Those woods are a bonanza in terms of lumber products, making forestry northern Saskatchewan’s second biggest industry, which yields more than a billion dollars a year! Small wonder given the demands for materials from the construction industry. We have eight large companies and more than 210 small ones that churn out lumber and paper products.

Yes, Virginia, there is still a fur trade in Saskatchewan, though it’s highly regulated and you need licences for just about everything. The annual value for all pelts marketed, all species, was $5,517,133 in 2017-18. Oddly enough, coyote pelts brought in the biggest flood of dollars, $4,605,365, but those creatures coyotes were probably the most likely to be captured – 39,416 of ‘em at an average pelt price of $116. Bobcat pelts seem to be most coveted, at $232 each (but it seems they don’t live here very much anymore.) A skunk pelt only fetches $8.31, but a bear pelt might net you about $195. Just who buys these furs any more is a bit of a mystery.

Fur-coated animals in this province include badgers, black bears, beaver, cougar, arctic/red/silver/or cross foxes, lynx, marten, mink, otter and short-tailed weasels (more elegantly known as ermine.) There are all kinds of rules, although skunks, raccoons, coyotes and beaver can be hunted year-round if you have a license. But leave the swift foxes alone – they are a protected species.  

Trappers must be licenced and follow international rules for humane trapping, and  seasons for hunting and trapping are set by the government. You need a license to export pelts too. Just google it.

[Forestry: Wild fur products: Saskatchewan wild fur harvest and cash values]

Something fishy goin’ on (in a good way)

Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime, so the saying goes.

Gerry Ackerman with big fish
Gerry Ackerman of Saskatoon with a prize catch,

About one quarter of Saskatchewan people engage in fishing, and the recreational fishing industry spawns more than $350 million a year for the province.

Like trappers, fishermen need a licence. The government has a Fish Facts publication online, detailing species, size and population status, lake by lake – its even tells how to get to those sweet spots.

You need a permit to fish, and there are lots of rules. First Nations people may fish without a licence using a spear, bow and arrow, or by angling, if the fish are intended for their families’ food. But even with a licence, you’re not supposed to buy, sell or barter the fish you catch without permission.

The government keeps track of fish populations to assess changes from fishing practices, environmental conditions and “stocking.” From these data, they determine useful things about ages of fish caught, minimum sizes you may catch, and whether they are spawning, growing and surviving in a sustainable way.

The Fort Qu’Appelle Fish Culture station is a hundred-year-old fish hatchery that gives recreational fishing a boost by spawning millions of fish, native species and trout. After heavy fishing and winter’s hardships have taken their toll, this hatchery restocks Saskatchewan lakes, (We don’t want another vanishing cod situation.) The Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation took over this fish farming operation from government oversight in 2015.

There are special regs for commercial fisheries too. Just google fisheries.

[….; Fort Qu’Appelle station: Regina Leader-Post 15 June 2015]

The manufacturing industry

High-tech tools for mining, farming and aerospace  

Too many products to mention, but some of the things we do include meat processing, oil refining, pulp and paper, steel production, flour milling, cement making, food and beverages, oilseed processing, brickmaking, lumber products and many others.

Bio-tech research at Innovation Place, and research at the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan will probably yield incalculable economic dividends, not to mention health benefits.

We manufacture agricultural machinery such as improved seeding equipment, plus transportation and industrial equipment, wood, steel, chemicals, and plastic products.

We do robotic equipment too, producing components for some amazingly high-tech equipment and instruments used in agriculture, mining and remote-controlled aerial vehicles.

Saskatchewan industry has made aerospace components for the Canadian Space Agency’s space shuttle, the “Canadarm.” We produce components for circuit boards, wireless telecom systems, toxic gas monitoring systems, and instruments for Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and balloon flight.  

The government says Saskatchewan is a “world leader in biotechnology and life sciences.” Research in agriculture, food science, pharmacy, medicine, botany and animal science at such scientific cauldrons as Innovation Place, USask’s Canadian Light Source synchrotron, and countless other labs at our universities will yield incalculable economic dividends, not to mention health benefits.

There was even a car manufacturing company in Regina before World War II, a General Motors plant. During the war it was repurposed as a munitions plant called Regina Industries Ltd., and did not revive as an auto plant in peacetime.

Manufactured products, along with the usual other economic sectors such as services, wholesale and retail sales, finance and so on, all contribute to our economy, which like everywhere else, fluctuates wildly.

In short, over time Saskatchewan’s resource and service-based industries have eclipsed agriculture as our economic drivers.

[; Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, 618-19; other internet sources]
[Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan: Agriculture article by Prof. Gary Storey; Statistics Canada and Saskatchewan government stats; personal recollections]

“It was so bad during the Dust Bowl that …”:

Tales of the thirties

After the 1929 stock market crash, the world plunged into economic depression. Saskatchewan was hit especially hard, as crops failed and jobs evaporated.

One family’s story became etched in history when photographed in Edmonton. Abram and Elizabeth Fehr and their barefoot children had fled to the Peace River district to escape the destitution in Saskatchewan, but frost and flooding forced their return.

Ken and Rose Bates of Glidden had only one child, whom they adored. In vain they tried get relief in Saskatoon and then Vancouver. In desperation, they tried to poison themselves in their car with CO2. Ironically the parents survived but the child did not. Sympathetic Glidden townsfolk hired a crack lawyer in Saskatoon who won them a not-guilty verdict. But their lives were ruined.

Moose Jaw mayor James Pascoe died of a heart attack in 1931, while trying to shovel his car out of a wind-blown dustbank on an outlying part of the city.  He had gone there to check on houses reported to be without water.  [Broadfoot, 97]

The drought was so bad in the Regina area by 1933 that relief officials had bales of straw sent for farmers to feed cattle. Farmers who couldn’t sell their herds watched them slowly die anyway due to the poor feed quality.

It was claimed the grasshoppers were so bad if that you laid a leather coat on the ground when you starteda task like stooking, nothing remained when you went to retrieve it except the buttons.

Oldtimers remember that a load of codfish was sent from the east coast by concerned fishermen. It was supposed to be boiled and eaten as finnan haddie, but often after days of soaking even the pigs wouldn’t eat it, a farmer claimed.

John Diefenbaker once quipped: “It was so dry in Saskatchewan during the Depression that the trees were chasing dogs.” [Colombo]

A Leipzig area farmer told of shipping a pig to market in Saskatoon, but when shipping costs were subtracted, due to depressed prices he found he ended up with only eight cents.

[Waiser and Diderick, Looking Back?; Broadfoot, Ten Lost Years p. 97; collective memory]


What Saskies did to survive

Women cut worn-out trousers into squares and sewed them into patchwork blankets, ugly but warm.

People stuffed newspapers into cracks around windows and doors to stop dust seeping in.

Farmers loaned horses to each other to get the crops in.

They grew as much of their own food as possible, raising vegetable gardens, chickens and a cow.

Water used for hand-washing was dumped in a barrel where dirt sunk to the bottom. They then used it to wash clothes, then threw it on their gardens.

They kept water barrels to collect rain – a good conservation practice still being done.

Farmers used buffalo chips or cow patties as fuel.

Householders made soup out of cooking water (some of us still do), or fed it to the hogs.

Sometimes generations all lived in one household to cut fuel costs. In cities, an entire families sometimes lived crammed into one rented room.

[Gray, The Winter Years; parental recollections & other sources]

Help for the destitute

Make-work projects in the thirties

Regina: Winnipeg subway underpass, Albert Street Bridge and reservoir, dredging Wascana Lake

Saskatoon: Broadway Bridge, weir on the river (PFRA), the 19th Street subway

Prince Albert: rock dam near the airport, retaining wall for the CNR Bridge, landscaping the Sanitorium site, waterworks improvements

Prince Albert National Park: Waskesiu campsite and roads, Lobstick golf course

Borden area: cement bridge

Hafford area: CNR project

[Eric Strikwerda, cited in Marchildon (ed), Drought and Depression, 237]


What governments did

Many government programs to deal with the emergency were carried out under the umbrella of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act of 1935.

A program of relief payments was implemented to keep families alive during the emergency.

The Saskatchewan Relief Commission sent food to stricken citizens, and food for their animals.

Experimental farms conducted ongoing research into dryland farming.

Some 50,000 dugouts were dug on farms to catch and store water.

Reforestation was undertaken; shelter belts were planted to prevent soil drifting in future.

Spreading organic materials on land helped reclaim farmland lost to agriculture from erosion.

Irrigation projects were undertaken.

Community pastures were set up to share available pastureland.

Farmers on relief were allowed to keep three large animals; the rest were sent north where more pasture land was available.

Not coping

Tax rant

From irate citizen to a mayor during the depression

In reply to your recent and more frequent requests to send you a cheque, I wish to inform you that the present shattered conditions of my bank account make it impossible for me to take your requests seriously.

My present financial condition is due to the effect of Dominion Laws, Provincial Laws, Municipal Laws, County Laws, Corporation Laws, Traffic Laws, Liquor Laws, Brother-in laws, By-laws, Sisters-in-law, Mother-in-law, and Outlaws, all which have been foisted upon an unsuspecting public.

Through these laws I am compelled to pay a Business Tax, Sales Tax, Amusement Tax, Gasoline Tax, School Tax, Water Tax, Excess Tax, Auto Tax, Hydro Tax and Syntax. ….

For my own safety I am required to carry Life Insurance, Liability Insurance, Burglary Insurance, Property Damage Insurance, Rent Insurance, Compensation Insurance, Accident Insurance, Collision Insurance, Rain Insurance, Hail Insurance, and Business Insurance.

The Government has now so governed my business that it is no easy matter for me to find out who owns it.  I am inspected, expected, introspected, suspected, disrespected, examined, re-examined, informed, required, summoned, fined, commanded and compelled, until all I know is that I am supposed to provide an inexhaustible supply of money for every known need, desire or hope of the human race, and simply because I refuse to donate to each and all and to beg, borrow or steal money to give away.  I’ve been discussed, boycotted, talked to, talked about, lied to, lied about, held up, held down, and robbed until I am nearly ruined.

I can tell you honestly, that failing a miracle, you will not be paid just now and the only reason I am holding on to life is simply to see just what is coming next.


[City of Saskatoon Archives]

The iceman cometh

Obsolete jobs and businesses you don’t see much any more

Buffalo bone collectors who gathered enormous piles of bones to ship to factories in the east to make into fertilizer. That’s how Regina got its original name, Wascana.

Stooking and threshing crews that came west with the harvest excursions every fall.

Daguerrotypists and linotype operators in newspaper composing rooms.

The Arctic Ice Company in Saskatoon harvesting blocks of ice from the river for home ice boxes and refrigeration businesses. Photo from Local History Room, Saskatoon Public Library.

Before electric refrigerators, we had ice-boxes. Ice-cutting companies like Arctic Ice Company in Saskatoon cut ice blocks out of the river for freezer lockers. And icemen brought ice to your door, for use in iceboxes.

Milkmen with horses and vans, who delivered milk door-to-door, even on the coldest days. Houses had two-way cupboards for milk bottles at the back door.

Even bread was delivered to households, in horse-drawn vans.

Blacksmiths were indispensable in every community, and some large farms, in the horse-and-buggy days.

Liverymen who tended horses in livery stables.

Travelling door-to-door salesmen like the Fuller Brush man or the Watkin’s man. In the 1920s they roamed around in buggies. Later they used small trucks loaded with products.

Telephone operators at switchboard
Telephone operators at switchboard, September 1959, including Myrna Moen and Marjorie Falk. Photo B 6597 by Leonard Hillyard. Local History Room, Saskatoon Public Library

Switchboard operators on community telephone lines, who got to eavesdrop on the latest scuttlebutt. It was called “rubbernecking.”

Pin-setters in bowling alleys.

[From community histories, and]

Farmers and Ranchers Outstanding in Their Fields

Farmers and Ranchers Outstanding in Their Fields

The unstoppabie character of our homesteaders, farmers and ranchers helped them survive adversity and adapt to their new surroundings.

Take up the plow, young man!

After the buffalo were mostly gone, the feds urged First Nations to take up farming. (Unfortunately the tools were often primitive and inadequate.) These government incentives were designed to enable and motivate First Nations included in Treaty Six (1876) to take up farming:

To each Indian family starting to farm:

Four hoes and two spades; one scythe and one whetstone; two hay forks and two reaping hooks (whatever they were)

To every three Indian families starting to farm:

One plough and one harrow;

To each Indian band starting to farm:

Two axes, one cross saw, one handsaw, one pitsaw and the files needed to sharpen them.

One grindstone, one auger and one chest of ordinary carpenter tools.

Four oxen, one bull and six cows; one boar and two sows.

Two carts with iron bushings and tires. 

Enough wheat, barley, potatoes and oats to plant land already broken.

One hand mill — when sufficient grain had been raised.

To all Indian bands included in Treaty Six beginning to cultivate: a sum not exceeding one thousand dollars distributed annually — at the discretion of the chief Indian agent— among bands actually cultivating, to assist and encourage them to farm.

[Rollings-Magnusson, The Homesteaders, Ch. 3; other sources]


How many settlers obtained “free” land

The Dominion Lands Act — amended several times between 1872 and 1918 — generally required that those taking up a homestead:

A replica of the Diefembaker family homestead buildings ner Borden. They are now located at the
Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village south of Moose Jaw.
Photo by Patricia Pavey

Be male and at least eighteen years old (except widows with dependent children).

Make official entry on a 160-acre “quarter” section designated for homesteads.

Pay the ten-dollar registration fee.

Build a permanent dwelling on the selected “homestead” quarter.

Occupy that homestead quarter for at least six months in each of three successive years.

Break and crop a set portion (usually thirty to forty acres) of the homestead quarter during that interval.

Apply for patent (title) to the homestead quarter upon fulfilling the above requirements.

They could also buy an adjoining “pre-empted” quarter section for a set price.


A place of their own

Single women farmers battling the elements  

In homesteading days single women (except heads of households with children) couldn’t get free homesteads as men did, so they often bought ready-made farms. Their worst enemies were mortgages – unless they were wealthy. Many did backbreaking work themselves: felling trees, stooking, and digging up stones, plus the usual milking of cows, harnessing horses, gardening, preserving and other endless tasks.

Some, like remittance men, had wealthy parents back in Britain. If they had the money, women could buy ready-made farms from the CPR. For example, Maggie Dunn bought CPR land in the Ellisboro area of Assiniboia in 1908.

They could buy “scrip” allotted to veterans of the South African (Boer) war, although they still had to meet homestead regulations. Sixty-year-old Sarah Birtle bought South African scrip (SAS) and acquired title to a homestead near Colonsay, and one in Alberta.

Metis women could get either 240 acres of land or paper scrip to compensate for confiscated land, and issues leading to the 1885 conflict. Often scammers convinced them paper scrip was worthless, and the Metis sold it to land speculators “for a song.”

Some women financed farms with personal income earned as businesswomen or professionals. They could buy farms from male homesteaders who had thrown in the towel, as journalist Georgina Binnie-Clark did. A proponent of the Homesteads for Women Movement, she was keen to prove single women could farm ably and profitably.

Many bartered cooking or laundering services for help from neighbours in clearing land, seeding and harvesting. Widow Theresia Lutz came from Minnesota to Muenster in 1902 with two teen daughters, an eleven-year-old son, and a married daughter and family. The latter soon left, but Theresia stayed and toughed it out. She left in 1910 when her eyesight failed.

Some had male neighbours nearby who lent a hand. In 1903, Isabella Wilson immigrated to Sonningdale with two brothers who acquired their own homesteads. Being single, she had to buy her land, and neighbours built her little home.

Others were well-heeled entrepreneurs who hired all the necessary labour.  Ruth Hillman of Keeler ran her farm like any other business, with six workmen. Within five years she had a two thousand–acre farm. In the first world war her land was producing forty thousand bushels per year.

[Saskatchewan Archives Board homestead records: Binnie-Clark: Carter, Imperial Plots. Lutz: Lutz, A Mother Braving the Wilderness. Wilson: Sonningdale Memories, 406-8. Hillman: Carter, 221-2, 343]

Coping with nature

How early settlers overcame natural scourges and some pretty lame tools

Sowing seeds by hand.

Farmer illustration
Illustration by Ruth Millar

Planting crops really early. Before the advent of Marquis wheat with its shorter growing season, many crops were zapped by August frosts. One farmer tried it in February, but did not record how he sowed the crop in the snow.

Improvising implements such as a wooden harrow made with planks and railway spikes.

Harvesting with sickles and scythes, then collecting the sheaves and propping them up in stooks to keep the grain dry.

Ploughing fireguards made of earth to stop raging prairie fires.

Killing grasshoppers with poisoned bait.

Spraying coal oil mixed with soapy water around the edges of gardens and crops, to squelch cutworms.

Building smudges with green branches to protect livestock from mosquitoes.

Shooting hawks that swooped down and carried off chickens.

Waging war on gophers by poisoning, trapping, shooting and drowning.

Planting scarecrows in fields to terrorize marauding coyotes, and switching to energetic poultry that could fly to escape predators.

Cajoling or convincing or forcing women and children to do their bit helping out in the fields.

Co-operating with neighbours in “bees” on heavy jobs.

[Rollings-Magnusson, Ch. 3; other sources; collective memory]


Salt of the earth

A few of the notable Saskie farms and farmers, past and present, who influenced prairie farming

The Bell Farm, managed by Major R.W. Bell, was founded near Indian Head by the Qu’Appelle Valley Farming Co. in 1882. It failed to make a profit despite large expenditures on buildings, machinery and livestock on the fifty-thousand-plus acre holding. After a series of poor harvests and marketing difficulties, the farm was dissolved in 1889. The round stone barn on the main farmstead is now a protected heritage building

Lanark Place, near Abernethy, was the homestead of William R. Motherwell, am outspoken advocate of better methods of dryland-farming in the early 1900s. He became provincial minister of agriculture, then federal. His original farmstead, with its two-storey stone house is now a heritage site

Seager Wheeler house.
Seager Wheeler farm, a national heritage site near Rosthern. Photo by Judy Buckle, August 2019.

Seager Wheeler was a science-minded homesteader who began selecting and breeding strains fruits and strains of wheat suited to the prairies in 1904. He was proclaimed World Wheat Champion at a New York exhibition in 1911 and several years thereafter for the grain he had grown at Maple Grove Farm, Rosthern. Wheeler also pioneered dryland techniques such as summer fallowing and planting shelter belts. His farm, restored to the way it was when he retired in 1919, is a designated national heritage site.

Robert Caswell’s Royal Stock Farm at Saskatoon, with its championship Clydesdale horses, Shorthorn cattle and cereal grains was acclaimed as one of the largest and most advanced mixed farming enterprises when he retired in 1923. Most of its land and farmstead are now part of the city.

The Matador Farming Pool near Kyle was the last of the co-op farms established by the Tommy Douglas CCF government after World War II. It was founded in 1946 by seventeen veterans who collectively worked on ten thousand acres, shared land and machinery, and lived communally. Despite restructuring in succeeding decades, it declined from a high point in the 1950s and was dissolved in 2011.

Copeland Seeds Ltd. at Elrose is owned and operated by William J. (Bill) Copeland and his son Bob. Bill was one of the first farmers to practice minimal cultivation and grow pulse crops in the Rosetown-Elrose district. The annual Copeland Prize in crop science at the U of S is named for him, as is CDC Copeland malting barley. 

Quark Farms near Mossbank is owned and operated by Dan Quark, a fourth-generation dryland farmer. He and his family grow a variety of grains, pulses and oilseeds using continuous cropping and minimal cultivation techniques on their sixteen-thousand–acre holding.

Aberhardt Farms near Langenburg is owned and operated by Terry Aberhardt– a third-generation dryland farmer — and his father Harvey. They practice crop rotation, continuous cropping and minimal cultivation, producing cereal grains, pulses and oilseeds on their fifteen thousand acres.

Prince Valley Farms is a midsized dryland farm in the North Battleford district. Experienced owner/operator Martin Prince successfully competes with larger farms using automation, data sensors and other high-tech means to produce and market a variety of grains efficiently. 

The Double Bar D farm at Grenfell is a mixed farm owned and operated by Richard Dimler and family. Starting in 1968 with 640 acres and seven heifers, the Dimlers expanded their farm to thirty thousand acres and one thousand purebred cattle.

[Bell Farm. Archer, Saskatchewan: A History, 72-3,; Lanark Place: .; Maple Grove: Wikipedia; Royal Stock Farm: R.W. Caswell Papers;; Copeland Seeds:;; aberhardtfarms, com; Prince Valley:;]

The dust bowl

Taming blowing soil

Farms in the arid Palliser Triangle of the south were most afflicted by blowing dust in the dirty thirties. Under the guidance of PFRA and their agricultural experts, farmers battled the dust and drought in these ways:

Crews were sent to farms to help dig deep, long dugouts to capture and hold spring runoff water for irrigation, domestic use, and watering livestock.

Communities banded together for “listing bees”, helping farmers dig deep furrows perpendicular to the wind. It helped prevent soil from drifting.

Farm horses were often weak and half-starved, and farm equipment was dilapidated and outdated, so equipment sometimes was supplied by the government.

Dams were built in creeks and streams to retain water for thirsty stock.

Farmers were encouraged to try strip farming, which the Metis had already done in the Batoche area, sort of. It was a system that gave more settlers access to waterways.

“Agricultural improvement stations” were established near experimental farm substations around the province. Led by successful farmers, they battled to prevent further desertification in the Palliser Triangle. 

Farmers used “trash-cover cultivation” (spreading layers of plant material on the dry soil).

They planted “cover crops” when they could. One variety of grass, crested wheatgrass, seemed to take root in the arid conditions. This grass was planted as a soil stabilizer, and on community pastures as livestock forage.

Tree-planting associations were formed to plant shelter-belts to prevent the soil from blowing away.

[Gray, Men Against the Desert, chapter 6, and other sources]

New cultivation techniques and crop varieties

The short growing season here made necessary innovations in techniques and equipment that better suited the prairie climate, boosted yields and reduced catastrophes caused by drought and early frosts.

Angus Mackay, first director of the Dominion Experimental Farm at Indian Head, promoted the practice of summer-fallowing after the Metis resistance in !885. He had observed that cultivated land that settlers, working as freighters for government troops, left unplanted that year produced above average crops in 1886. 

Dr. Charles E. Saunders, cereals scientist with the Experimental Farm Service in Ottawa in 1907, had Marquis wheat—an early maturing variety he had developed—grown for seed at the Indian Head Experimental Farm. By 1920, Marquis accounted for more than 90 percent of wheat grown on the prairies. The son of Dr. William Saunders, director of Experimental Farms, Charles won a prize of $1,000 in gold from the CPR for the “best wheat variety in Canada.”

Belgian immigrants Gaston and Georges Pootmans set up a model farm north of Regina. He experimented with wheat seeds, taught farmers how to use trees effectively, and raised Belgian horses. Gaston became acting Belgian Vice-Consul in 1918.

Dr. W. P. Thompson, a geneticist in the biology department at the U of S in the 1920s, developed some of the first strains of rust resistant wheat. He later served (1946 to 1959) as president of the university.

Dr. Don Rennie, a U of S soil scientist from 1965 to the 1980s, showed that reduced tillage, new seeding techniques, the use of fertilizers, and herbal weed control were better for prairie soils than summer-fallowing.

Dr. Keith Downey, a U of S plant breeder known as the “father of canola”, produced an edible canola in the 1960s — a valuable crop that now gilds prairie fields and hillsides with almost iridescent yellows.

Dr. Al Slinkard, the “lentils prophet”, with the U of S Crop Development Centre (CDC) developed varieties of lentils and other high protein pulse crops in the 1980s as suitable alternatives to cereal grains on the prairies.

Dr. Bryan Harvey and a team of crop scientists at the U of S developed Harrington malting barley in the 1980s, comprising over half of the malting barley grown in western Canada until 2002.

[Harvey: barley varieties. Pootmans: Drake, Regina: The Queen City, 178. Rennie: Saunders, Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. McKay: Thompson, Canadian Encyclopedia. Other sources: Green & White spring 2015; spring 2014; Arts & Science Magazine; Century of Innovations website, U of S]

Holy cow!

New technological wizardry – even drones and robots

Steam-powered tractor at Western Development Museum
Steam-powered tractor at Western Development Museum in Saskatoon

We’ve come a long way since sickles and scythes were used in homesteading days. Titanic steam-driven tractors made their appearance in 1917, followed by gas-guzzling ones, and finally cheaper diesel-powered combines in 1931. Now they are computerized and air-conditioned.

In 1926 there were only only 148 combines in Saskatchewan. These mighty crop-gobbling machines were first introduced to Canadian farming by the Massey-Harris Company. Ever since, they have crawled across prairie fields like fearsome dragons, except now they are computerized too.

Where once human labour produced stooks of hay and straw, now modern balers roll it all up neatly in large cylindrical bales, often left to dry in the autumn sun before they are scooped up for use on the farm.

Nowadays, drones fly over crops and identify stricken areas in fields that need more water or pesticides.

In the dairy industry, automated milking machines lessen the daily toil of dairy workers astronomically. Cows can activate them themselves, we’re told.

“Animal activity trackers” notify farmers when a cow is feeling frisky, so to speak, so they know when is the best time for breeding.

A smart device called the Moocall, from its vantage point attached to a pregnant cow’s tail – when her time comes – measures contractions of her womb and texts a message to the farmer informing him of the imminent blessed event.

Robotic manure scrapers keep the aisles clean behind animal stalls.

There are even artificial teats so calves can nurse from a faux mommy in the fields. Whether they are used in Saskatchewan is another question.

[Combines: Archer, 103; internet sources. Robots and drones: Emma van Steekelenburg, ” “From Drones to Robots …”, The Sheaf, 21 March 2019. Udders:]


Small-scale agriculture

While most agro operations here are vast grain farms and ranches directed at national and international markets, a potpourri of small-scale farms in the province sells directly to local markets:

Worm farms, such as those in Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw that grow “Red Wigglers” for vermi-composting bins.

Mushroom farms, especially the one near Regina that sells oyster mushrooms grown in beds of wheat and barley straw directly to local restaurants and at farmers’ markets.

Urban beekeeping, including hives atop buildings on Broadway Avenue and on the university campus in Saskatoon, supplying honey to local eateries.

Backyard chicken farms, such as those of Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Wishart residents who kept three or four chickens in their yards as pets – until forced to stop by local councils.

Community gardens on vacant lots and public property in the cities, where residents (usually apartment and condo dwellers) grow vegetables for their own use or food banks.

Commercial orchards where mostly apples and several berries grow in more than a dozen orchards throughout the province, and are sold on a U-pick basis, and in bulk on site or at farmers’ markets.

Fish farms, like those at Big River and Lake Diefenbaker that raise trout, steelheads and other fish to sell as hatchlings for “seedling” ponds, dugouts and lakes, as well as fresh adult fish to restaurants and individual consumers.

Rooftop vegetable gardens, which in Saskatoon include one in a private garage and two buildings on campus, are grown for ecological benefits in an urban setting, in addition to the food they produce. They prove that unusual spaces can be used by apartment and condo dwellers.

Hydroponic farms, including those at Regina and Saskatoon (university campus) that grow herbs and vegetables by hanging seedlings in tanks containing whirlpools of nutrient soups.

Commercial greenhouses, mostly near cities where vegetables, fruit and flowers are nurtured in climate-controlled enclosures and sold as fresh produce on site or in stores or nurseries.

Vacation farms such as some as some twenty rural B&Bs and farm animal petting zoos, where city folk wishing to sample farm life boost the economy with their cash.

Marijuana grow-ops, now legal.

Home on the Range

Some fabled early ranches

Many early ranchers based in the U.S. drove cattle across the border to feast on our virgin grasslands. But the killer winter of 1906-7 wiped out vast herds, forcing many American cattlemen to vamoose. Weather didn’t stop our hardy Canadian ranchers though — hundreds of ranches still thrive here.

Exotic-looking Michel Oxarart, “the Basque,” who had worked at the Kohr ranch  in Montana, was said to be the first to homestead in the Maple Creek area in 1883. His ten thousand-acre ranch, “The Pyrenees,” became an epicentre for horse-breeding in the province. A connoisseur of thoroughbred horses, he was also an habituέ of the racing circuit.

After the NWMP post at Fort Walsh was closed in 1883, the force set up its Remount Ranch there, to raise their famous strutting black horses – like those later used in the Musical Ride. It is now a national historic site.

Rancher Jim Smart was one of the first ranchers to set up at Saskatchewan Landing north of the fledgling town of Swift Current; he was renowned for his struggles against invading farmers and their fences. He spotted an ad placed by Sir John Lister-Kaye in a British newspaper in 1885, calling for someone to bring men to Canada. He got the job and helped start the famous 76 ranch.  After that, he got his own ranch near Saskatchewan Landing, married, and their home ranch became an oasis, both socially and geographically, as it was close to the South Saskatchewan River’s fast-flowing water.

The first “76” ranch empire in Canada was founded by wealthy Englishman Sir John Lister Kaye, who organized the Canadian Agricultural, Coal and Colonization Company. In 1888 the company bought ten ten-thousand-acre spreads along the CPR line from the feds, and the Canadian property of the Powder River Cattle Company of Wyoming, which owned the 76 brand. Later D.H. Andrew took over, retaining only the Swift Current, Gull Lake, Crane Lake, and Stair ranches.

In 1910 Gordon, Ironside and Fares assembled parts of three large ranches along the Frenchman / Whitemud River, and called the new operation the 50 Mile Ranch.

A leggy giant at six foot six, John Roscoe (“Legs”) Lair was a Scot hailing from Texas, who stayed on site managing the renowned Matador Ranch, owned by Texans. When they left in 1922, he bought his own ranch. He inspired a folklore of vivid tales about his American version of “riding to hounds”, chasing coyotes on horseback with his pack of dogs and like-minded friends who revelled in the chase.

Another rancher who relied on his clever dogs, W.H. (Bill) Martin, had a fifty-five-section sheep ranch near Maple Creek where his whistle-trained collies herded his sheep. The dogs displayed their skills at agricultural exhibitions in Madison Square Gardens in New York and the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, where they wowed appreciative crowds.  

The famous Matador Ranch started in Texas but, like many other ranching operations, moved north looking for fresh grass for their cattle to munch on and bought a hundred thousand acres north of Swift Current in 1903.

In 1904 Conrad Price of Fort Benton, Montana, set up the Conrad Price Cattle Company ranch on former “76” land near Maple Creek. They imported about two thousand Mexican heifers, and ten thousand longhorn steers from Nevada – but most perished in the winter of 1906-07. The ranch was shut down in 1909.

The Alexander Small family arrived in ranch country by railway in 1882, and first lived in a box car. Later their sons Billy and Johnny stayed in a tent inside an unfinished log cabin. The Small family ranch was later run by Reginald Small, a grandson who raised sheep in the 1930s but reverted to cattle later. 

Early rancher W.T. “Horseshoe” Smith set up his enormous ranch near Leader to escape horse rustlers who had plagued his Montana ranch. At one time he had twenty-two thousand head of cattle, and ten thousand sheep. His well-known Smith Barn, built in 1914 and demolished in 1921, was one of the biggest barns in North America.

The Turkey Track Ranch at Wood Mountain once ran twenty-five thousand cattle, but half perished in the winter of 1906-7. Owner Tony Day, despairing over the losses and the influx of farmers, sold it in 1909 to Gordon, Ironside and Fares, a huge company with vast tentacles across the prairies.

The WP Ranch was launched by the Pollock brothers – William, George, Sol, and Robert – who arrived at Maple Creek from Nevada in 1883 with a herd of horses. One of their ranch hands, William Small, took over the WP around 1900, expanded it and focused on breeding horses.

[Oxarart: Our Pioneers; Maple Creek Museum panel, Donny White, The Advance 30 Aug 2015. The 76: Donny White, email December 2018;, Spencer, Lands, Brands & Hands of the 76 Ranch. Gordon, Ironside & Fares: Spencer, 19. Lair: M.W. Campbell, The Saskatchewan, 267-8. Martin: Campbell, 268-9. Price: Our Pioneers (the Maple Creek community history) viii. Small family: White, “Our People….”, Gull Lake Advance 3 September 2014; Smart: M.W. Campbell, 266. Matador: Graber, The Last Roundup; Turkey Track: Poitier: Wood Mountain Uplands, 98; WP Ranch: White, “Our People….”, Gull Lake Advance 3 September 2014 and other articles ]


Celebrated old-time cowboys and ranchers chronicled in cowboy lore

Trefflέ Bonneau of Willow Bunch canned buffalo meat, ranched near Vancouver, worked in lumber camps, and lost an arm. He returned to Bonneauville, ran a store, wed a mail-order bride and had ten children. They moved to Willow Bunch and built up a vast estate, but in the 1930s his renters couldn’t pay, and his empire crumbled. 

Author Wallace Stegner made the name “Slippers” famous in his book Wolf Willow, although he didn’t reveal the man’s real name. Slippers was a Texas cowhand who settled at Eastend, range riding for the Circle Diamond, T-Down and Turkey-Track Ranches. As the story goes, he earned his nickname because he lost all his money gambling at a brothel, and the madam let him stay the night if he forfeited his boots and hat. He returned home wearing slippers, and the name stuck.

A zany but disgruntled rancher at the Matador ranch, James Barnet Henson, left a will in 1919 demanding that proceeds from the sale of his land be used to exterminate “that class of vermin commonly known as farmers.” He also directed that his goods and chattels be sold to buy insect powder and soap, for another cowboy whose standards of personal hygiene he deplored.  

cowboy author Will James
Cowboy, author and illustrator Will James, who came to Saskatchewan from Montreal early in the 20th century, and learned to be a cowboy. – Photo NA-862 from Glenbow Archives, Calgary.

Cowboy Will James of Montreal, alias Ernest Dufault, came west from Montreal as a teenager and learned cowboying in Saskatchewan, working on one of the famous “76” ranches. When he ran afoul of the law, he fled across the border to the U.S. where he achieved fame as an author of such books as Smoky the Cowhorse.

“Scots Metis” Harry Hourie, younger brother of Big Tom Hourie to whom Louis Riel turned himself in, was a renowned bronco-buster who often won at rodeos. Some seven hundred horses and three hundred cattle roamed his own ranch near Wood Mountain. It is said he once rode his horse into a bar, predating the Calgary Stampeders’ custom of riding horses through bars during Grey Cup.

Another famous cowpoke was Harold (Corky) Jones, who came to the Maple Creek area in 1898. He rambled around the ranges at Eastend, worked at the WP ranch, took part in vast roundups of the 76, and battled prairie fires. In 1902 he and Harry A. Crawford ran a ranch at Chimney Coulee where the first Mountie police post had been.  But Corky Jones was better known as a fossil collector.

There was ranching in the north too. The Cyprian Morin family ranched in the Meadow Lake area in 1873, and more cattlemen arrived from 1909 to 1925. (That family sent twenty-four sons off to fight in World War I!) There was enough of a cowboy presence for a stampede there as early as 1920.

William Hall Ogle was an affluent British gent who came to Cannington Manor seeking adventure, but moved on to Wood Mountain. As a greenhorn, he reportedly astonished onlookers by riding a killer bronco on a wild one-hour gallop, until the horse got tuckered out. Ogle married a Sioux, and by 1889 owned a ranch near the Frenchman River. Once he tracked down stolen horses in the U.S. and unmasked a rustling ring. Ogle sired a dynasty of cowboys at Wood Mountain.

In November 1906 American Harry Otterson rode with his shivering wife by buggy in brutal cold from the Bloom Cattle Company ranch in Montana to work at its T-Down Bar Ranch near Eastend. “You picked a fine time to immigrate, Harry” might have been his wife’s refrain that terrible year. His account of their frigid trek across blizzard-blown southwestern Saskatchewan must have impressed Wallace Stegner, who wrote about that winter in Wolf Willow. Later Otterson managed the 50 Mile Ranch, and some say he later had his own.

D.J. Wylie of Maple Creek was a “charming Englishman” who returned to England with Sir John Lister-Kaye to convince investors to pony up for a huge ranching company, and they succeeded. Wylie himself purchased the ranch formerly owned by Michel Oxarart, and became MLA for Maple Creek in 1905.

Bonneau: Poplar Poles and Wagon Trails, 328-30. Slippers: The Best of Billy Bock, Stegner: Wolf Willow. Henson: University of Saskatchewan Archives & Special Collections; On Campus News 19 Feb 1999. James: Millar, Saskatchewan Heroes & Rogues. Jones: Range Riders and Sod Busters, McCourt, Saskatchewan, 63. Morin: Meadow Lake community history. Ogle: Otterson: Otterson manuscript, Sask. Archives. Wylie: McGowan, Grassland Settlers, 60, 135]

Raising critters

Unusual livestock raised in Saskatchewan

Animals other than cattle and hogs are still raised here for meat, dairy, wool or fur. For many, breeding associations exist in the province to promote raising high-quality purebred stock. Others might just be for their novelty. 

At hunting farms, game animals are kept as sport for hunters. There are some half-dozen high-fenced game enclosures in the south, and some in the north. In 2018 there were 175 game farms with animals such as elk, whitetail deer, reindeer, fallow deer, and mule deer.

Buffalo being raised in southern Saskatchewan. Photo by Alistair Mirrlees.

Buffalo once filled the landscape, but now they are carefully husbanded. The Saskatchewan Bison Association (SBA) formed in 1991, keeps track of their numbers, health, safety of their meat, research on them, and commercial aspects. In 2016 there were 303 producers in Saskatchewan raising bison. Hundreds of others roam free in the protected reserve at Grasslands National Park.

Tame rabbits are raised in “rabbitries”, some for their fur, some for their meat and hides, and some as pets. They tend to be located in or near cities. (Wild ones seen hopping around city lawns and gardens annoy groundskeepers and gardeners no end, but children and animal lovers think they are cute.)

When fur coats were status symbols, mink used to be lucrative. But by 2012 there were zero mink farms in Saskatchewan. Who knew then that fur would become politically incorrect, with help from animal activists like Brigitte Bardot? 

Fox ranches used to flourish here, such as the silver fox ranch run by S. Parrot near Saskatoon. It shipped 600 fox pelts every season, plus some mink skins. The Saskatchewan Trappers Association reported only two fox farms in operation here in 2012.

Alpaca wool makes lovely soft sweaters, and alpacas are cute. To keep the species pure, the Saskatchewan Alpaca Breeders Network boasts thirty-six breeders, and there’s an alpaca wool association. In 2016 there were 2,766 llamas and alpacas on 450 Saskatchewan farms.

Llamas are also raised here, although they aren’t as cute, and they spit. Still, one sold at auction for $40,000 in 2002! There are claims they can even herd sheep. There is a Canadian association for them.

When you think about goats, you think of Switzerland or Greece. But we raise ‘em here too, although some say ornery goats with attitude can be a trial. Here, apparently, it’s mainly about the meat. In 2011, 460 farms in Saskatchewan were raising 10,480 goats.

Saskatchewan ranks fourth in Canada as a sheep-producing province. Sheep ranchers, despised by cattlemen, proliferated in the Maple Creek area around 1900. By 1901 the ratio of sheep to cattle in Assiniboia West was bigger than anywhere else in the then Territories. In 1934 their numbers peaked at 381,000, but by 2016 there were still 110,000 sheep here, grown on 871 farms.

In 2018 at least one enterprise, Lazy Plum Farm of Shell Lake in the boreal forest, was raising Tibetan yaks, along with other winter-hardy stock such as exotic breeds of sheep, horses and pigs.

[Buffalo: Goats: Natascia Lypny, Regina Leader-Post, 25 July 2016. Foxes:, StarPhoenix 27 December 1941. Alpacas:; www.statcan. Llamas; Sheep: Statistics Canada Census of Agriculture; breeders’ association websites; LaDow, The Medicine Line, 117; Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. Yaks: StarPhoenix 13 December 2108;]