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:
Indian family starting to
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.
grindstone, one auger and one chest of ordinary carpenter tools.
Four oxen, one bull and six cows; one boar and two sows.
carts with iron bushings and tires.
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:
Be male and at least eighteen years old (except widows with dependent children).
Make official entry on a 160-acre “quarter” section designated
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.
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.
How early settlers overcame natural scourges and some pretty lame tools
Sowing seeds by hand.
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.
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.
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 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 Farmsis 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, bellfarm.ca; Lanark
Place: . www.historicplaces.ca; Maple Grove: Wikipedia; Royal Stock Farm: R.W. Caswell Papers; www.matadorco-opfarm.ca; Copeland Seeds: www.sahf.ca; quarkfarms.net;
aberhardtfarms, com; Prince Valley: farmlead.ca; doublebarfarms.com]
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
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:www.probreeder.com/malting 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]
New technological wizardry – even drones and robots
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.
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:
farms, such as those in Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw that grow “Red
Wigglers” for vermi-composting bins.
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’
beekeeping, including hives atop buildings on Broadway Avenue and on the
university campus in Saskatoon, supplying honey to local eateries.
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.
gardens on vacant lots and public property in the cities, where residents
(usually apartment and condo dwellers) grow vegetables for their own use or
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.
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
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; albertarecord.ca, 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 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: www.cowboycountrymagazine.com. Otterson: Otterson manuscript, Sask. Archives. Wylie: McGowan, Grassland Settlers, 60, 135]
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 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: www.canadianbison.ca. Goats: Natascia Lypny, Regina Leader-Post, 25 July 2016. Foxes: finalnail.com, StarPhoenix 27 December 1941. Alpacas: www.sabn.net; www.statcan. Llamas; www.llamacanada.com. Sheep: Statistics Canada Census of Agriculture; breeders’ association websites; LaDow, The Medicine Line, 117; Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. Yaks: StarPhoenix 13 December 2108; www.lazyplum.org]
Present-day Saskatchewan might have been part of a larger province called Buffalo, if the Laurier Liberal government in Ottawa had heeded Frederick Haultain (premier of the former North-West Territories 1897 to 1905).
Norman Falkner experimented with skating on one leg as a boy in Saskatoon. After losing a leg in France during World War I, he was sent to England to recover, where he perfected this skill on a nearby pond, this time for real – although he had to be shoved onto the ice for momentum. Back in Canada, he made headlines skating between periods at hockey games across the continent. Two newspaper photos and a film clip attest to his remarkable skill.
Saskatchewan’s only naval battle occurred when the Northcote, converted into a battleship and fortified with mattresses and planks, fired on the Metis at Batoche during the 1885 Resistance. The Metis disabled it by lowering the ferry cable in its path, slicing off the boat’s smokestacks, and setting fire to the deck.
A lighthouse in the middle of the prairie? Yes! It sits at Cochin atop Pirot Hill on the east shore of Jackfish Lake; it is 38 ft. high and 1,867 ft. above sea level. The light still works. Be prepared to climb 153 steps for the view.
A tumour in his pituitary gland caused Edouard Beauprέ, the “Willow Bunch Giant” to grow taller than eight feet (2.43 m.) The Barnum & Bailey circus engaged him as a freak. After four years he quit, but toured again at twenty-two to support his nineteen siblings. He died soon afterwards. His mummified body, long on display in Montreal, is now in Willow Bunch, and his statue stands in front of the local museum.
A homesick Finn who had lost his family, Tom Sukanen poured out his grief building an ocean-going ship at his farm near Macrorie. He intended to sail it down the Saskatchewan River to Hudson Bay and across the sea to Finland. How it would have fared with its soaring keel over the shifting sandbars of the river system is easy to guess. He couldn’t even get it to the river.
Angus Mowat, father of author Farley Mowat, in the 1930s used to row his canoe from the family’s summer campground upriver, to a spot on the riverbank in downtown Saskatoon. Locals gaped as he dramatically hefted the boat over his shoulders, marched up the embankment and carried it to the library a few blocks away, where he was head honcho.
Saskatchewan does not have Daylight Savings Time, as do other Canadian provinces, but remains all the year on Central Savings Time – almost as strange as Newfoundland.
Dick Assman, who had been working in several Petro-Canada stations in 1995, got his fifteen minutes of fame that July on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” where he good-naturedly put up with mockery about his odd surname. He was a nightly feature for about a month, and earned the nickname Assman the Gasman.
Goofs and gaffes that made history
Reports of their deaths were greatly exaggerated. When Theresa Gowanlock and Theresa Delaney were captured after the Frog Lake Massacre in 1885, telegraph messages flew to eastern newspapers, which blared the fake news that they had been violated and murdered. Actually, they were sheltered in the camp of Big Bear, and returned to the east unharmed.
The myth that the North West Resistance was a widespread Indian rebellion is largely untrue. A few militant warriors in the camp of Big Bear joined Riel’s Metis uprising, along with some others, but most of the First Nations remained loyal to their treaty promises.
Billy Silverwood set up a plant to bottle water from a natural stream on his farm north of Saskatoon. Unfortunately, it was on the slope below his horse barn.
After World War I, the federal government enacted the Soldier Settlement Plan to reward veterans with land. This myopic generosity did not include Indigenous veterans. To make it worse, much of the land was confiscated from reserves – 72,620 acres in fact.
Saskatoon’s Robert Murray, internationally renowned sculptor, was considered a giant in his field. But not in Saskatoon, where his metal “fountain” sculpture caused an uproar, and in Ottawa a furor erupted in Parliament over another sculpture, so he fled to New York and his career took off. By 1975 he had exhibited in New York, Montreal, and Paris. Take that, ye Philistines!
The planned demise of the Capitol Theatre in Saskatoon sparked overt protests from heritage enthusiasts, and the wrecking ball’s early morning destruction of it infuriated many more citizens. The exotic theatre had been one of the magnificent atmospheric movie palaces of the twenties. The Roxy Theatre, the “poor man’s Capitol Theatre” on 20th Street West, still hosts excellent film fare.
Among other changes to the social safety net, sweeping provincial budgetary cuts announced in spring 2017 threatened to deprive Saskatchewan’s book-starved small towns of their prized intra-library loan system, featuring an innovative, blended, province-wide catalogue. But librarians and other book-lovers staged a colossal silent “read-in” at government offices around the province, and the silent clamour prompted the Tories to withdrew the measure.
Saskatoon gave the concept of “scramble corners” at intersections for pedestrians a noble try, starting in the 1950s. Reportedly it was being tested in November of 1954. Then special enabling traffic lights at certain intersections were installed along 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue, 3rd Avenue, and College Drive so pedestrians could cross the intersection diagonally, and every other which way. But there were snags. For one thing, some said elderly people couldn’t make it across in time. (Outspoken citizen Harry Landa challenged a city councilor’s claim that it could be done on hands and knees, by attempting to crawl across. He didn’t make it, but Liberty Magazine made hay with the story.) The lights were hard to synchronize with lights at other intersections, and they slowed traffic. By 1983 there were only five such intersections left, and in the spring of 1986 the scramble corner concept was dumped for good.
Parties on board the steamboat Qu’Appelle were once a popular diversion on Last Mountain lake. Port Hyman, at the southern tip, was its main port of call.
[Northwest Resistance: Stonechild & Waiser, Loyal Till Death. Indigenous vets overlooked: Waiser, A New History, 258-9. Controversial sculpture Weekend Magazine 15 March 1975. Scramble corners: City of Saskatoon Archives, StarPhoenix November 1954]
Oft-laid plans and unintended consequences
We didn’t see THAT coming!
Although well-intentioned, Rev. Isaac Barr’s plan to bring almost two thousand settlers from England in 1903 was a fiasco. The ship was cramped, the train trip was a drag, and the wagons bogged down travelling to the colony. The Barr Colonists replaced Barr with Rev. George Exton Lloyd as leader, and called their city Lloydminster, not Barrminster.
In Regina, the Grand Trunk Railway (later absorbed by the CNR) in 1912 began building what was meant to be a towering hotel, the Chateau Qu’Appelle, but after the GTR went bankrupt in 1919 the project was dumped and the embarrassing structure dismantled.
A Chicago investor bought land from Billy Silverwood and sold plots for a huge industrial development to be called Factoria. Factories and a hotel went up there but the economy tanked in 1913 and the investors lost their shirts!
Prince Albert started building a hydro-electric dam downriver in 1909. The proposed La Colle Falls dam was meant to power the city, but all it lit up was financial alarm bells. The engineer who sold the plan to P.A. left the job to locals. Costs soared. Then the 1913 recession hit, the city almost went bankrupt, and the dam idea was tossed like a hot potato in 1913.
One reason for building the Saskatoon weir in 1935 where they did was to provide a long, deep water strip for float planes serving the northern lake country to land and take off. Because more powerful aircraft capable of using much shorter runways were built in World War II, the Saskatoon water strip was never used for this purpose.
The Louis Riel Coffee House, according to local legend, refused Joni Mitchell when she was a young neophyte folksinger. Later on, they realized their mistake, and brought her back.
Building a ski “mountain” beside Blackstrap Lake south of Saskatoon seemed like a good idea at the time. Many prairie people learned to ski there, but the windswept mound was so icy it was downright lethal and the chairlift machinery gradually broke down. Today the “Prairie Pimple” still pierces the horizon, but downhill skiing there is only a memory.
The City of Saskatoon leased an off-street parking lot at 22nd Street and 4th Avenue to a developer in 1965, who began building what was hyped as Canada’s first multi-story parking tree on it. Though construction ceased the following year, legal battles prevented the city from clearing unsightly remnants of the structure for another five years.
In the 1990s wild boars or feral pigs, which once roamed the American south and Hawaii mostly, were imported to Saskatchewan to try to diversify agriculture. Wouldn’t you know it, they escaped from their pens and now wreak havoc gobbling our vegetation, terrorizing livestock and spreading foul diseases like E-coli, foot-and-mouth disease and bovine TB. Even worse, these scourges can afflict humans too. These boars show up mostly in the eastern part of the province.
A $2.5 million mansion, built between Weldon and Kinistino — far from any cities — attracted worldwide attention in October 2018. The twelve-thousand-square foot house with seven bedrooms, a music room, fitness room, home theatre, infra-red sauna, swimming pool and multiple-car garage space was sold by auction for about a fifth of its assessed value.
[Wild boars: Canadian Geography, 15 November 2017; cbc.ca/news-canada/saskatoon/wildboar-sightings-map….. GTP bridge: Brennan, Regina: An Illustrated History, 110. Riddell, Regina from Pile o’ Bones to Queen City of the Plains, 87. $2.5 million dollar mansion, StarPhoenix 9 and 12 October 2018. Weir: Saskatoon History Review #25, 2012: 7-23]
Tough cookies overcoming adversity
Adversity could take the form of murderous enemies, intemperate weather or seemingly impossible feats:
Big Bear, chief of a large band of Crees, was born ugly, and when he was twelve he contracted smallpox, which left his face pockmarked. None of this stopped him. His warrior exploits were legendary. Once, he and two Cree companions were surrounded by multitudes of hostile Blackfoot, and battled for two days. The three were reported to have killed nineteen chiefs, before the Blackfoot beat a retreat.
Sir William F. Butler, author of The Great Lone Land, was an army officer sent on an official mission to observe conditions in the northwest. On his return trip from Edmonton in the dead of winter he mushed his way by dogsled all the way to Red River in 1871. His report called for a special police force for the West, and it came to be – the NWMP.
“Big Tom” Hourie, Scottish mixed-blood son of Peter Hourie, General Middleton’s interpreter, swam across the South Saskatchewan River in March, among the ice floes, to deliver a message for the general. For the rest of his short life he suffered respiratory problems, and died young. Other Houries lived long and prospered, and spread across the continent.
Early in 1891, Abe Evans and a woman passenger going from Moosomin to Cannington Manor ran into a blizzard. They sheltered under their overturned wagon for two days, then he left to seek help. After he had trudged sixty miles in snow, farmers found him in a haystack and thawed out his feet, which later had to be amputated — but he survived. His passenger didn’t.
American Harry Otterson came to the T-Down Bar ranch near Eastend in November 1906, just as that killer winter began. His account of cowboys surviving days and days of sub-zero blizzards on the range authenticates Wallace Stegner’s harrowing story of cowboys in a similar plight. They made it to safety, but many of their cattle didn’t. Thousands of cattle died that winter.
Marcel Chappuis, then of the Saskatchewan Provincial Police, was ordered to trek 433 kms. by dogsled from Ile a la Crosse to Fond du Lac, almost as far north as Uranium City on the shores of Lake Athabasca. Starting in February 1919, unable to scare up a guide or companion, he did it alone, and wowed his SPP mates.
Glecia Bear told of an incident involving two indigenous children aged eight and eleven who got lost in the forest in autumn’s chill and toughed it out for two and a half days, fearing nothing but cold and hunger, before encountering their rescuers.
Edouard Beauprέ, the Willow Bunch giant, was known to have picked up horses during his circus performances.
A challenging trip in winter on an unmarked northern trail is described in “Bombardier.” When their snow machine broke down in the northern bush in winter, it took sixteen hours and some twenty-five miles of walking through heavy snow for three intrepid Metis to reach safety.
Prospector and trapper Kathleen Rice lived in Saskatchewan for only about ten months, but she achieved the remarkable feat of living alone in the northern Manitoba bush for decades, making some important mineral discoveries. An island in Wekusko Lake bears her name.
Pilot James Price was flying through white-out from Fort McMurray to Uranium City in 1953 when his plane crashed. His three prospector passengers were sozzled, so when no help arrived, he set out alone for a nearby camp but missed it. It was minus thirty-seven degrees F. He fell into frigid water, lit a fire, and his clothes caught fire, but a man in a dogsled saw him and rescued him. Four days after the crash they picked up the three prospectors, who survived.
Dr. J.W.T Spinks, long-time president of the U of S, met Grey Owl and his wife Anahareo. On a camping trip with Dr. Thorvaldson, Dr. Spinks rode in a canoe with Anahareo to pick up a “chesterfield” sent from Waskesiu, for Grey Owl’s cabin. He was astonished when Anahareo singlehandedly picked up the sofa and laid it across the canoe.
Outstanding early farmer Seager Wheeler walked alongside his loaded wagon, all the way from Moose Jaw to the Saskatoon area, and then rode horseback the 120.7 kms (75 miles) to Humboldt in a single day. He hauled his first load of wheat from his then homestead at Clark’s Crossing to Saskatoon in midwinter, with the temperature at about minus 37 degrees C. (35 below zero Fahrenheit) and sold it for twenty-five cents a bushel.
Henry Winston (Harry) Jerome competed at the Olympics as a track and field runner. His grandfather John Howard, a railway porter, was “Canada’s top sprinter in 1910” and competed at the 1912 Summer Olympics. Harry’s sister Valerie competed at the 1960 Olympics. Born in Prince Albert, he moved to Vancouver at twelve. But he never won Olympic gold, thwarted by repeated injuries. In 1960 he tore a hamstring, and in 1962 he suffered a “full quadriceps tear.” Still he kept on running: in 1964 he won bronze at the Tokyo Olympiad, a gold at the 1966 Commonwealth Games, and scored many triumphs elsewhere. His sister said his worse obstacle – at that time – was being African-Canadian. He’s in the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and Canada’s Walk of Fame. Jerome earned a master’s degree in phys ed at the University of Oregon, and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1971.
[Big Bear: Dempsey, Big Bear: The End of Freedom, 37. Blizzard: Beck, Pioneers of Cannington Manor, 41. Two children: Glecia Bear, Two Little Girls Lost in the Bush. Bombardier: Kisiskaciwan, 177-181. Hourie: Millar, Saskatchewan Heroes & Rogues, chapter 3. Jerome: canadaswalkoffame.com, olympic.ca/team-canada. Otterson: Otterson ms. at Sask. Archives; Chappuis: Stewart & Hudson, Mahony’s Minute Men. Price: McIntyre, Uranium City, 42-45; Rice: Millar, Sask. Heroes & Rogues (chapter). Anahareo: Spinks, Two Blades of Grass, 47. Wheeler: Saskatchewan History (fall 1996) 19]
Evading the whisky-sniffers
Rum-runners’ and bootleggers’ favourite hiding spots
After 1910, evading the Saskatchewan Provincial Police in prohibition days called for ingenuity. Distilleries in the province could legally ship liquor out of the province, and before prohibition in the U.S. “rum-runners” could illegally import it. But even before 1910, there were bootleggers.
Mary (Molly) Smith, believed to be an ex-slave, lived in ranching country around 1880 and boosted her income by bootlegging. She fabricated an ingenious bustle and bra out of leather, with pockets roomy enough to hide bottles of firewater undetected, to sell to First Nations people. She was plump enough to carry it off, at least for a while, but she must have clinked and clanked a little when she moved..
The Saskatchewn Provincial Police sniffed out illegal stills in root cellars, wells, barns, cafes and billiard halls, and even in a church. Some rum-runners hid booze under loads of grain.
Doctors before 1919 could prescribe liquor for “medicinal purposes.” In January 1917 pharmacists prescribed 29,640 bottles of twelve and twenty-six ounces of liquor. After tighter laws in 1919 restricting amounts they could prescribe, it dropped to 7,126 eight-ounce bottles. Quite a drop!
When it was realized that vanilla contained more alcohol than in available beer, vanilla became unusually popular until it was outlawed except by prescription.
Others hid theirs in train wheels, which overheated and had to be abandoned by railway sidings whereupon illegal traffickers following the trains would grab the firewater and abscond with it.
Ingenious bootleggers are reported to have slit the bellies of butchered hogs being sent to market. and hidden bottles in them. At Cannington Manor imbibers stored their bottles of booze in a haystack outside the Mitre Hotel.
[Molly Smith: Donny White, The Advance 3 March 2015]. Haystack: Beck, Pioneers of Cannington Manor, 36]
Supposedly haunted places
An internet search and a book or two provide scads of reports of strange ghostly sights, especially in old buildings. These stories are about as easy to prove as UFOs but provoke much merriment and perhaps fright value at Hallowe’en. Tour guides love ‘em.
There are claims that Cannington Manor Historic Park is haunted by a woman dressed in 1880s fashion, who some say they’ve seen lurking in the doorway of one of the rebuilt structures.
In Prince Albert, a black shadow was reported to be wafting around a house and slipping through a wall like Casper the Friendly Ghost. The sound of boots clumping up the stairway spooked people too.
The ghost train of St. Louis is an ongoing mystery: a white light that suggested an onrushing train, plus a smaller crimson light, were reported. According to legend, a conductor had been decapitated while inspecting railway tracks. The white light was perceived as the locomotive’s headlight, and the red light as the conductor’s lantern.
A spectral woman in red was reportedly seen peering through café windows in Boomtown at the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, just as staff were closing up.
The now-demolished Hangar Building, the former vintage home of the Greystone Theatre on the U of S campus, supposedly housed a phantom, students claimed.
At Miskowewkwan First Nations Reserve, there reportedly have been sightings of a wraith-like child with long black hair, believed to be there to protect the residents.
At Cumberland House, a witness reported answering the door to find an old man asking where the respondent’s grandparents were; they had died twenty years earlier. The witness later discovered a photo of his grandfather with his cousin, who looked just like the old man at the door.
Government House in Regina is said to be haunted too, as unnerving footsteps can be heard and music boxes spontaneously starting up, uncranked.
In North Battleford, someone reported that their cat refused to go downstairs, after spooky “monkey-like hands” were seen scrabbling under a door leading to the basement.
In Moose Jaw someone out for a walk claimed to have seen an apparition of a child mumbling and sobbing, blood running down her neck, before she vanished.
Writers who attended certain workshops in the former sanitarium near Fort Qu’Appelle to this day still say there was a spirit that haunted the place. One group consulted a Ouija board and determined that an unhappy soul named Tom was angry that his wife, or someone else named Gertrude, had died from experiments there, and couldn’t rest. On of the poets placated the spirit, and it seemed to settle down.
In the Marr Residence, the former Teachers’ College and the Avenue Building in Saskatoon, strange apparitions and sounds have been reported.
[Writers: Lois Simmie, Finding My Way, 293-300. General: local hearsay, internet sources]
Baring it all
Even in strait-laced Saskatchewan, nudity has long been practiced for its shock value
In 1899 the Sons of Freedom sect of the Doukhobors paraded in the nude into Yorkton, to protest a government rule that they must register for homesteads and swear allegiance to the Queen – they associated such rules with conscription. They eventually left for the Kootenays in B.C.
Two Adamite gurus (originally pickpockets from Missouri), believing themselves to be Adam and Eve reincarnated, led cult followers in a nude parade in 1908 in Saskatchewan to show they were “without sin.”
Mooning was another form of partial nudity practiced in fun (usually out the windows of speeding cars, by sozzled male youths). It happened here too.
From the 1950s to the 1980s nude “Lady Godivas” provoked snickers on the U of S campus during Frosh Week. In 1960 “she” was a bewigged student on a hobby horse. The original was a pig on a frantic scramble through the Bowl.
A revered Saskatchewan poet led budding writers on skinny-dipping outings at Fort San, back in the 70s, or so the story goes. It is unlikely this high-spirited activity has died out, in general.
In the 1970s full-frontal nudity first appeared on the stage. A Saskatoon actor bravely bared his all at a performance of Equus at the Greystone Theatre. At The Credit Union Place (TCUP), then called the Centennial Auditorium, performers in Hair and O Calcutta! did the same.
In the 1970s, streaking was a fad throughout North America. It involved disrobing, followed by a mad dash in front of spectators. It happened at the U of S and other places.
Strait-laced people may frown on nudity in public places, but it seems they overlook skinny-dipping at a secluded beach. “Bare-ass Beach” was actually Paradise Beach just south of Saskatoon, where mostly younger people stripped down for a swim.
An obscure strip club opened its doors in the Codette Hotel bar near Nipawin in recent years, but only lasted briefly, as strait-laced, small-town Saskatchewan frowned on it. Now the club is just a museum. Strip clubs are nowadays limited to non-licensed watering holes.
“The Full Monty” was witnessed in a stage production at Persephone Theatre in May, 2010.
[Adamites: Saskatchewan History 23: 2 (spring 1970): 70-4. Szumigalski: local recollections. Lady Godiva: Green & White fall 2016: Nipawin strippers: Maclean’s Magazine 21 May 2015]
Customs and traditions
Many customs were imported from countries from which immigrants came; many were practised in other provinces as well. Some still survive.
In fur trading days, dueling was temprarily revived when Irishman Hector McNeil, a Nor’Wester, taunted JamesMcVicar, an HBC man, to engage him in a duel with swords at Ile a la Crosse. McVicar received “only a flesh wound.” Presumably, McNeil got off scot free.
Cree bands had a system like martial law that prevailed in times of war. In peacetime the chief held sway as the political leader. Chiefs were usually older men, more likely to be pacifist. In wartime, aggression was prized, so hot-headed youths took command as warriors or “soldiers.” They had their own lodge, like a barracks.
In homesteading days and beyond, neighbours often gathered for jobs one couldn’t do alone, or to speed things up — like quilting, seeding, soap-making bees, house or barn raising. Not to be invited was a slight.
Dances took place in the tiniest of homes, or in railway stations or schools. Surprise parties were planned to take place in other people’s homes.
Before telephones, farm families would drop in at neighbours’ homes unannounced for a visit. If they lingered until meal-time they would be invited to dine with the host family.
Christmas celebrations were short on expensive presents but long on community spirit.
Early in the 20th century, taffy pulls, sleigh rides, hay rides, swimming in dugouts and creeks were popular diversions. Children’s games included skipping, marbles, jacks, prisoner’s base, hopscotch, hide-and-seek and softball.
Before indoor plumbing, rural people collected rainwater from their roofs in galvanized tubs and heated it on the stove. Starting with the littlest, the family took turns having Saturday baths. Often a curtain was rigged up for privacy.
Farm families suspended butter, milk and other perishable items in a pail down the well to keep them cool.
Collecting gopher tails for a ransom was a spring ritual for boys.
“Rubbering” (listening in) on other people’s conversations on rural party lines was an unofficial form of communication (and gossip).
From the 1920s on, for rural people an excursion into town on Saturday nights was a highly-anticipated treat. They shopped, gossiped, debated, shared yarns, politicked, courted. Others lounged in cars or strolled along the main street people-watching, then swarmed into the local cinema.
In pre-TV, pre-cinema, pre-digital-photo days, people gathered for the showing of lantern slides, often travelogues akin to “trip to Europe” presentations today. Sometimes they were information-rich, like a modern documentary.
Before we had fridges and freezers, householders bought sides of meat and stored them in rented lockers at a freezer storage facility. To keep smaller items cold at home, they had iceboxes with tiny freezer compartments, in which ice blocks bought from the iceman were stored to chill the unit.
In the days before plastic, produce was displayed in bins in the store, and shoppers put their purchases in boxes or paper bags. In a reversion to old ways, some modern householders, shunning plastic, store perishables in squares of beeswax-soaked cloth that sticks to itself and doesn’t leak.
In the 1940s and 1950s, university (and some high school) students used to join hands and “snake” their way around the downtown area, in and out of the bars that were forbidden to those under twenty-one. This snake dance was outlawed in 1962. Too bad.
Jellied salads were a staple of fall (or fowl) suppers, which still survive — sans the jelly — as fund-raisers presented by church groups. The suppers were perhaps the ancestors of the popular pot-luck dinners that still prevail.
In the 1950s, teenagers cruised up and down the main streets eyeing each others’ cars and occupants, stopping occasionally for root beer at a local car-hop.
Annual Louis Riel Day races in Saskatoon involved relays in boats across the river, a frantic` horseback dash, and jubilant joggers carrying torches to the finish line in a riverside park.
Currently, theatre-goers usually rise in unison to give every stage production a standing ovation, merited or not. But it boosts the egos of out-of-town performers not aware of this custom.
[Duel: Arthur, Saskatchewan History 1974 (vol. 27): 2: 4. Unexpected visits: Rollings-Magnusson, The Homesteaders, 138, 142. Hot-headed youths: Dempsey. Others: authors’ experiences. See Facebook page “You know you’re from Saskatoon SK if you remember ….”]
Bigamists, sanctioned and unsanctioned
In fur trade days, Hudson Bay Company traders sometimes took First Nations wives, who bore them children. This posed a problem when they brought English wives from the Old Country, and often the Indigenous family was cast aside – a Canadian version of the tragic Madame Butterfly story, except that the First Nations wives carried on regardless. A case in point was Sir George Simpson, who had at least eleven children by eight women, only one of whom was his legal wife.
In pre-contact days, Indigenous men – especially the chiefs – were permitted to have more than one wife. One man in the Cannington Manor area had four wives who did not get along well, and one is said to have bitten the nose off one of her rivals.
Renowned author, conservationists and imposter Archie Belaney (Grey Owl) was a bigamist and got away with it. He neglected to divorce his first wife before marrying three more. His first wife was Angele Egwuna (Anishinaabe), whom he married in 1910, and that marriage spawned a daughter, Agnes Belaney. His best-known partner was Anahareo, shown here.
The Mormon belief system permits men to have more than wife, which shocked Saskatchewan homesteaders.
And the one who ought to have committed bigamy rather than murdering his wife, disgraced Mountie John Wilson is one of Saskatchewan’s most famous murderers, thanks to Lois Simmie’s bestseller about him.
Legal sources list many cases of Saskies charged with bigamy. Sometimes they remarried in the mistaken belief that their spouse was dead. Others, not so much.
[First Nations chiefs: Beck, Pioneers of Cannington Manor, 58. Simmie, The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson]
To the manor born
Saskatchewan has been home to a surprising number of immigrants with claims to nobility. Many such tales are told in community histories. Akin to oral histories, they give voice to collective memory. But memory is capricious, as half-forgotten tales of lofty lineage percolate through generations. Scholarly accounts are more credible. Many chroniclers wrote that aristocrats thought life on the Canadian prairies would be a lark, but French nobility may have been fleeing political chaos at home. The self-indulgent lifestyles of aristocrats led to business fiascos, or so it is said. Most of them left.
Canon Adelbert J.L. Anson, second son of the Earl of Lichfield and an Oxford graduate, left England to become a roving missionary in Canada’s northwest. He ended up in Regina, where he became the first bishop of the Diocese of Assiniboia (later Qu’Appelle).
Anna Borkowski and her husband, former Russian conductor Jan Borkoswky, were living in Assiniboia and operating a tea-house in 1930 when teen-ager M.D. Roang worked for them. An astounding story emerged from their friendship. Anna claimed to be a second cousin to the tsar who was murdered in the Bolshevik revolution. When she was young, she said, Jan had rescued her when members of the royal family were being assassinated in a theatre. He hid her under the stage, and then took her home where he sheltered her in a locked room in his basement. Later he married her, smuggled her out of Russia, and brought her to Canada. True or not, it’s a story that could morph into a romantic movie.
Guy Armand Thomas de Cargouet, who claimed to be a French viscount, lived briefly by the Frenchman River west of Eastend in 1908. He was noted chiefly for the horses he raised, and his fondness for whiskey.
The renowned Sir John Pepys Lister-Kaye was the third Baronet of Oulds, Yorkshire. He arrived in Canada in 1884, having been a successful realtor in California. He launched the 76, a sprawling cattle company dotted along the CPR.
Lord Milton, William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam — son of the Earl of Fitzwilliam — spent at least a winter near Fort Carlton, hunting and trapping on an extended journey west from Red River in 1862 to the west coast. He is mentioned because he wrote a book that may have helped bring the west into Confederation.
The French counts ofSt. Hubert near Whitewood, led by Rudolph Meyer, immigrated in the 1880s to escape political turmoil in France. Some settled at “La Rolanderie” at St. Hubert. They included Count Yves de Roffignac, Count Jukes de Beaulaincourt, Count Joseph Pradel de Farquette, Count Paul de Beaudrap, Viscount Joseph de Lengle, Count Jean de Jumilhac (later Marquis of Richelieu), Count Henri de Soras, Viscount Alphonse de Seyssel, and others. De Beaudrap was probably the only one to remain on the prairies, although he returned to France for a while, and then came back to Canada and operated a ranch near Trochu, Alberta.
Also living in the Whitewood area was a man locally known as Baron de Brabant and his brother from Belgium. Arriving in May 1887, they fraternized with their co-linguists from France. They set up Bellevue Coffee Company, and dabbled in coffee production there. After their barn burned down they moved to Richelieu in 1888, but that barn burned down too. One source says he replaced the Count de Soras as his farm manager.
Another man, known as Le Baron de Salvaing de Boissieu, was not officially one of the French counts of St. Hubert, but his daughter Germaine de Boissieu was said to be the wife of the Count de Roffignac, a well-known member of the St. Hubert community.
Gerald, Bernard and Cecil Rice, grandsons of a Lord Monteagle, came to Canada and settled on Cottonwood Creek south of Pense near Regina around 1885. (One later became a British ambassador to the U.S.). They built a mansion, stables and blacksmith shop on their land. Only Gerald and his wife tarried for long – in their case, only a single generation.
Michael Sherbinin was said to be a Russian count who, like Tolstoy, admired the simple “peasant” life. As a member of the Protestant Religious Tract Society, he feared reprisals from Russian bigwigs. The Quakers brought him to Saskatchewan where he became a missionary and teacher, until Doukhbor leader Peter Verigin outlawed the school where the count was teaching, so Sherbinin left for Winnipeg.
A French immigrant named Phillippe Ferdinand was farming in the Saskatoon area when, some time after 1903, lawyers arrived in Saskatoon from France, searched out his house near Caswell Hill, and asked him to sign a form that would relinquish his claim to the French throne! Philippe’s father Henry was a “member of the Orleans branch of the House of Bourbon, but born, as they say, ‘on the wrong side of the blanket,’” wrote City of Saskatoon archivist Jeff O’Brien. Phillippe “would thus have been related to Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) who overthrew Charles X in 1830 and reigned until … 1848.” Henry was born in 1827 in Alsace-Lorraine, had fallen in love with a weaver’s daughter, and was promptly disinherited. The young lovers immigrated to Quebec, but ended up in Saskatoon. No record remains of this lofty lineage, but the story still survives as oral history.
The wealthy and noble Esterhazy family in Hungary did not recognize “Count Esterhazy” who claimed to be a member of their family. His real name was Johannes Packh. Still, he helped settle some thirty-five Hungarian families, and the community bears the name he coveted. Maybe that’s better than a coat of arms anyway.
Equally well known is Count Berthold von Imhoff of St. Walburg, said to be the son of Count Leopold and Rosana von Imhoff of Germany. He was famed for his paintings and murals depicting Christian scenes that grace churches throughout Saskatchewan and far beyond. Pope Pius XI awarded him a knighthood, the Order of St. Gregory.
Christian Uytendale, known locally as Baron de Bretton, homesteaded south of Percival near the Pipestone Valley (St. Hubert). A remarkable story appears in a document prepared for the National Historic Register in the U.S. Uytendale had sold his historic farm in Swift County, Minnesota and came to Canada with a niece and nephew. Though he didn’t appear in official records as a baron, someone at the Danish archives opined he might have been related to Lucas Uytendale, Baron de Bretton. Also known as Captain Kristian Uytendale (sometimes spelled Uyttendale), he died in 1912. He and his family are buried at Whitewood, except a supposed baroness who moved to B.C., but some sources say he never married. A mystery.
[Anson: Drake, Regina: The Queen City, 26. Borkowsky: M.D. Roang, ” Russian Royalty Settled in Small Prairie Town,” Western People 6 August 1967, 10. De Brabant: Kristian I.W. Sullivan thesis, The French Counts of St. Hubert: An Archaeological Exploration of Social Identity, U of S, 2009. De Cargouet: Ft. 15, chapter 5, Guy Armand Thomas de Cargouet, Tenaille collection, Sask. Archives Board. De Salvaing: Revue Historique vol. 10 no. 2 December 1999. Ferdinand: Jeff O’Brien, “The Man Who Could be King,” Sunday Sun, 2 February 2010. Lister-Kaye: McGowan, Grassland Settlers; Spencer, Lands, Brands and Hands of the 76 Ranch. Lord Milton: Dictionary of Canadian Biography online; Rice: Drake: Regina, the Queen City, 44; Sherbinin: A Thousand Miles of Prairie, 177. French counts: Sullivan thesis; photo from “Gallery of Portraits”, Revue Historique v. 10 no. 2 December 1999; Memories of St. Hubert, 1980. Uytendale: National Register of Historic Sites, U.S. Dept. of the Interior; display panel at Whitewood Museum]
Second sons and remittance men
Though not necessarily titled, some men benefitted from their parents’ wealth. Some had been banished, or left because as “second sons” they were denied large inheritances. Those supported by wealthy parents were called remittance men. Unused to physical labour, most of them were notoriously inept homesteaders.
Ernest, Billy and Bertie Beckton were banished to Canada where they settled at Cannington Manor. When they came into a fortune from mining shares in Spain, they bought a horse-breeding farm, built a twenty-six-room stone mansion with a bachelor’s wing and called it “Didsbury.” There was also a foreman’s house and stables for their race horses.
A towering twenty-room house (a mansion but for its plainness), near Cannington Manor, still stands on its sturdy stone foundation. The wealthy and cultured James Humphrys built the house in 1888 and his family lived in it until his death fifteen years later.
In 1904 Arthur Hewlett bought the Humphrys house; it is quite likely he was a remittance man. A bachelor not concerned about appearances, he stored grain and machinery in some of its rooms, until his English bride “Maisie” arrived and tidied it up. She wrote a spirited book about their life there.
One affluent Frenchman, Benjamin Limoges, built his nine thousand-square-foot mansion just outside Whitewood in 1885. It had seven staircases, forty-five windows and fifty doors, and still survives as an antiques shop.
Maple Creek attracted French plutocrats Jean and Dan Tenaille. Jean’s grand residence was near Maple Creek, while Dan’s was near Eastend. By 1903, at twenty-three, Dan had spent $60,000 on a lavish house with two storeys, a two-level veranda, French wallpaper and indoor plumbing. In 2018 Dan’s residence was being moved into Eastend to preserve it.
Another wealthy Frenchman, Guy Armand Thomas De Cargouet, arrived in 1902, and built a stone mansion west of Eastend, where he raised fine horses and lived the good life. He disappeared from the scene around 1908, possibly having lost his shirt in 1906, the disastrous winter when thousands of cattle perished on the ranges.
A group of English bachelors, possibly remittance men, immigrated to Wolseley in the early 20th century. One, Frank Vincent, became a local legend. He was a noted for his horsemanship and riding to hounds. He was postmaster from 1918 to around 1950.
Robert de Wolfe came from the wealthy French piano manufacturing company, Pleyel-Wolfe. He settled briefly at Whitewood, then moved to the Qu’Appelle Valley where he invested in a ranch.
[Beckton brothers: Zuehlke, Scoundrels, Dreamers and Second Sons 108, and Maisie Hewlett, A Too Short Yesterday, 64. Hewlett/ Humphrys house: panel at site. Tenaille brothers: Ladow, The Medicine Line; archivist Donny Cook. De Cargouet: Ladow; Wolseley: Bridging the Past, 487. De Wolfe: Whitewood Museum]
Fluffy and Mutt
Famous pets and other animals
Grey Owl/Archie Belaney’s fascination with beavers led him to cultivate a colony of them. Two of them, Jelly Roll and Rawhide, spawned a brood named Wakanee, Wakanoo, Silverbells and Buckshot. Some people claimed there was a beaver lodge in Belaney’s cabin.
Amos Kinsey tamed two bush elk in northern Ontario, and trained them to accept a harness and bridle, and pull a buggy — it was said. The fleet-footed creatures were a boon at Cannington Manor, from whence they conveyed ailing patients to Moosomin doctors in just an hour, while horses took a day, and oxen two or more.
Author Wallace Stegner adopted a crippled colt on the family farm. He nursed it lovingly, even convincing his father to have braces made for it. Mournfully he entrusted it to a local rancher for better care, not knowing it would be euthanized. He was devastated when he found its skinned body in the local dump.
A talking pet parrot named Victoria, owned by the family of Moose Jaw tycoon Wellington White, was renowned for squawking “rule Britannia.”
Farley Mowat’s dog Mutt was the subject of his book The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, with Mutt.
“Lady Victorine”, a purebred Barred Plymouth Rock hen, if not egg-zactly a pet, was widely acclaimed for her exuberant output in 1928 — 358 eggs in 365 days. Either the victim of avian flu, or students who roasted her for the annual engineers’ banquet, she disappeared the next year before fulfilling her genetic promise.
“Sergeant Bill”, a goat, was adopted as a mascot by the 5th Canadian Battalion, Saskatchewan Regiment in World War I. The soldiers smuggled him to France where they claimed he saved lives by butting them into a trench, for which they awarded him medals and a promotion. After he died he was stuffed and for years adorned the halls of the Saskatchewan legislative building.
Ed Price of Nipawin co-owned a pool hall on 1st Avenue, where his two tame bears roamed freely and around town as well. It is not known how local storekeepers felt about their furry guests.
A NWMP Constable named Hardy had a pet Canada goose that used to march on parade with the Mounties and at night acted as if he had been appointed a sentry.
“Scotty” was a border collie imported from Scotland in 1929 by sheep rancher Bill Martin. The award-winning dog – known for his surly, irascible character – efficiently rounded up the sheep. But he adored his human, the only person allowed to pet him.
[Beavers: Spasoff, Back to the Past. Tame elk: Beck, Pioneers of Cannington Manor, 24. Crippled colt: Stegner: Wolf Willow; 35. Talking parrot: Siggins, Revenge of the Land, 186. Lady Victorine: MacEwan, Coyote and Other Humorous Tales, 68. Sgt. Bill: Dederick & Waiser, Looking Back, 142-143. Tame bears: Bridging the Years, 63. Canada goose: McCourt, Saskatchewan, 79. Collie: MacEwan, Coyote and Other Humorous tales…,, p. 205-6]