The Trek to Meadow Lake
Driven from the drought-Stricken area of the prairies, thousands of Saskatchewan farmers are seeding new homes in the bush country of the North
W. J. MATHER
DAY after day in the spring of 1931 the wind blew hard across the prairies. It was the windiest spring that any farmer remembered. Over a great part of the prairie area of Saskatchewan crops blown out had to be re-seeded.
Hardest hit of all were districts in the southwest of Saskatchewan. There had been a dry year in 1929. In 1930 a large area had again been missed by the rains. In the spring of 1931 week followed week without a shower. Wheat was seeded and blown out, re-seeded and blown out. Debts for seed and feed mounted, hopes of a harvest disappeared, and the wind still blew. With no prospects ahead except that of asking the Government to again supply them with feed for the winter, many farmers in the dried-out districts felt they could wait no longer, that they must seek another home.
In 1931 the Province of Saskatchewan took over from the Federal authorities the administration of the natural resources, including millions of acres of land in the North still in possession of the Crown. Under the new regulations, land thought fit for agriculture was thrown open for settlement with no bar against those who had used their home-
stead privilege under Dominion regulations long before. The farmer who about 1910 had pioneered in the southwest could again become a pioneer. Thousands took advantage of the opportunity.
Starting gradually in spring, the Northward flow increased as the failure of the 1931 crop became certain until the movement became the greatest internal migration Canada has seen. Each north and south highway became the scene of a one-way procession. Before winter set in some 10.000 persons had moved from the prairies to find new homes in the Northern bush. Compared to such a migration, the movement of the historic Barr colony of 1,200 persons to the country around Lloydminster was small. It meant the opening up of 2,000 square miles of country in the northwest of the province and a large area in the northeast. But it would be untrue to the facts to represent it as in the main an adventure in pioneering of spirited youth. It was to a greater extent a pilgrimage of the middle-aged, beaten once but trying again.
Number Four Highway of the Province of Saskatchewan was the main channel of the northward stream. Each family group made up a caravan. First came the hayrack, roofed in with canvas, the moving home of the family. Fastened with wire or rope to the sides and ends of the rack were chairs, tables, bedsprings and ends, stable lantern, hay forks and other impedimenta of the farm. The man of the family was driving, and children often peered out from under the canvas hood. Tied behind came the family cow trudging along unprotestingly.
Next came the farm wagon with the high grain box, driven by the wife or a boy or girl, the visible contents a dismantled mower, boxes and bundles of household goods,
and, if the owner was lucky, a bag or two of oats. Trailing behind the wagon rattled the buggy in which the children used to drive to school, now surmounted by a crate of hens.
Sometimes the spirit of the homestead rush appeared. The best homesteads were for the first comers. A rack and wagon met south of Biggar were piloted by a woman and children only. The girl who drove one of the teams explained that her father had gone ahead in a car to file on a homestead at Meadow Lake. They had no oats and the horses had to pick up feed from the roadside. “We have been on the road three weeks and are making about ten miles a day,” she said.
Number Four Highway, along which the main stream of migration flowed, runs from the United States boundary nearly 400 miles to Meadow Lake, where in 1931 it was the most northerly highway in Saskatchewan.
Barren Fields to Lush Meadows
FROM the southern border to beyond Cadillac, in the country where the streams, if there were any, would flow south into the Missouri River, the landscape in the summer of 1931 was unspeakably depressing.
The land, of which every acre had in the past grown fine crops of wheat, lay bare without a green thing except an occasional Russian thistle. Road ditches were filled with drifted soil and the few fences were buried. In many places the plowed soil had drifted away and the hardpan was exposed. *
The crop-raising capacity of this soil in the past may be judged from the fact that $50 an acre had often been paid for it. Last year it was a desert. Will it come back to fertility?
J. G. Taggart, superintendent of the Swift Current Experimental Farm, says it will. They had soil drifting in 1915 and again in 1920 and 1921, but for years after that the land did not drift no matter how poorly it was farmed, and good crops were secured. The trekkers, however, did not agree with the optimists. “They are just fooling
themselves when they talk of it coming back,” a migrant from this district, met at Meadow Lake, assured the writer.
As the wayfarers travelled north along the highway the scene became more cheerful. Across the South Saskatchewan River and through the Rosetown plains the crop was short but fair, and when the North Saskatchewan was reached at the Battle fords the travellers were gladdened by crops taller than the three-wire fences. Sloughs and lakes, a forgotten sight in the south of the province, were full of water. The gardens had never made a better showing, and the resident farmers had nothing to grumble about but the price of wheat.
'Hiere was still more than 100 miles to Meadow Lake,
' and at Glaslyn the stream of settlers received fresh accessions from those who had shipped their goods by rail to what was until the fall of 1931 the railway point nearest to the homestead area. The road was rising, and as for twenty miles it crossed the broad sandy ridge of spruce and jackpine separating the Saskatchewan valley from the streams flowing north into the Churchill River, no farms were seen on either side. Then evergreens gave place to a thick growth of poplar on the heavy soil as the road dropped 800 feet to the village of Meadow Lake.
The trekker might still have thirty or forty miles of travel in order to reach his destination. No longer on a highway, he followed a trail, clinging as far as possible to the jackpine ridges intersecting the area of black loam and grey forest soil. At first the muskegs to be crossed were corduroyed with logs, but the trail became fainter and the country more wild as he searched for the iron corner stake of a certain section of a certain township west of the third meridian of Saskatchewan. A quarter of that section is his present home.
No Loa ns Wanted
'T'HERE are practically no squat* ters in this newly-settled area, as each newcomer exercised his right to take a homestead. The homestead is one-quarter of a square mile or 160 acres in extent, and was bought from the Provincial Government at a price of $1 per acre, with a cash payment of $16.
Since the natural resources of Saskatchewan passed from the control of the Dominion to the province a year ago. the right of homesteading has been given only to British subjects resident at least four years in the province. This has caused some changes in the character of the settlement. Two English lads, three years out from the Old Country, who came in with a party from Strasbourg in central Saskatchewan, expressed great disappointment at being unable to file on homesteads. A former Ontario school teacher, now a farmer and storekeeper near the Waterhen River, explained that he came in under the Dominion regulations two years ago. as did some European settlers from farther west.
An effect of this regulation is that more of the recent homesteaders have had previous farming experience than in previous settlements in Saskatchewan and the racial origin is predominantly British. Forty to fifty miles west of Meadow Lake are groups from the cities of Saskatoon and Moose Jaw who. unemployed in the cities, were encouraged to homestead. For the most part, however, the settlement consists of individual families from farming districts. Not all are from the dried-out areas. As one candid citizen of Meadow Lake put it: “Some were dried out, some blown out, some hailed out. and some just got out.”
Although there are no organized community settlements, many of the homesteaders tried to locate near old neighbors. A single scout from a district came in and was followed by a whole group from the same locality. A township thirty miles southeast of Meadow Lake is populated almost entirely by people from Shaunavon, Dollard and Instow, adjoining sections in the southwest of the province that suffered severely from the drought. The land these families have taken up is heavily covered with burned-over
poplar, but has one great advantage. The new line of the Canadian Pacific Railway passes through their township, and when the steel was laid last October they were able to get their effects brought almost to their doors.
Log buildings and a well are the first cares of a homesteader, and when a visit was paid to some of the locations early last October late comers were working at top speed on these. The buildings on the farm of T. Styan, near where the new railroad has since crossed the Pelican River, may be taken as an example.
Here a party of six relatives and neighbors from Strasbourg, where they had experienced three successive crop failures, located in September. Five of them took homesteads. Some of the party, when visited six weeks later, were still living in a tent, but on the Styan homestead a log house and a log stable more than twenty feet each way were in use. In neither of these buildings was there anything that had cost money except the windows and lumber for doors.
The walls of the house were of straight logs, closely laid and mud plastered. The roof was of poles, covered with slough grass and in%rerted sods. After it had settled it turned the rain. There was no lumber floor, only the earth covered with sand from a near-by ridge. The sod roof of the stable was also completed, though the walls were still to be plastered.
Asked if they needed loans to get established. T. Bowlkes, another member of the party, said none of them were taking loans. They “had enough of them.” What they did want was a chance to do some road work. The only road they had was the railway grade, which could not be used when the steel arrived. Four members of the party were working across the Pelican River, which they had to cross on a raft.
Some of the homesteaders had even managed a floor without buying lumber. The log, sod-roofed shack of Chris Lien, near Jackpine Creek, had a floor of flattened poles and built-in bunks for himself and partners.
Paul Jeannette and Paul Bernard, two jolly French settlers, from Mayberry, when seen last fall, were just putting the final touches of mud plaster to their neat home of logs and sods, which had taken them only two weeks to build. A shortage of stovepipes had caused them to top off the chimney with six jam tins. During the same time they had located a good spot and dug a well, the water from which came within three feet of the surface.
The log building work seen in the settlement was good, but the new settlers from the South did not seem to have mastered the art of mud plastering as practised by the Ukrainians. They were daubing the cracks between the logs with mud, which always cracks and falls out. The Ukrainians tramp together mud and slough grass, the mud being just sufficient to hold the fibres together. A double handful of this thrown with force into the crack between two logs will key and stay there uncracked for from ten to twenty years if the roof hak sufficient overhang to keep most of the rain off.
Living On Rabbits
OHELTER and fuel plainly offered ^ no problem to the homesteader in this Northern bush country, but how has he been faring for something to eat this winter? The bush rabbit occupies the centre of the picture in this regard.
Rabbits have never been more plentiful than they are this winter, and fortunately they are free of disease. The normal cycle is for the rabbits to multiply to a point where the country is overcrowded with them, then a disease breaks out and they almost disappear, and the cycle is then repeated. Trapping and snaring the rabbits is not difficult, and it is safe to say that many thousands of them were eaten last winter in the Meadow Lake country.
Settlers who have been in the district for the last two or three winters are abundantly familiar with rabbit. One such settler is Baron Gephard von Schelling, whose homestead at Loon River is about forty miles west of Meadow Lake.
Until the Russian revolution the baron’s family owned 10,000 acres in the Baltic Provinces. The nucleus of a new family estate is a homestead of 160 acres in Saskatchewan. A little more than two years ago he and his wife filed on a homestead under the Dominion regulations. It will take, in all, five years before he gets naturalization papers and title to his land.
“During the first winter,” the baroness cheerfully told the writer, “we ate nearly 200 rabbits. They are quite good eating. English people would get tired of them sooner than we did because they do not know seven different ways of cooking rabbits. We had to learn how to vary one kind of food during the war.” The baroness did not think that any of her neighbors had made their farms completely self-supporting in two years. A neighbor’s daughter had worked out as a housekeeper for twenty-five a month and sent most of her wages home. That kept a farm going. The baroness herself, with a degree in chemistry from the University of Marburg in Germany, had been able to get some analytical work at the University of Saskatchewan which had helped them out. But they started without cows or hens. With two cows and fifty
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hens, she thought they could make ends meet. They have now cleared fifteen acres on the farm, and last year the new Alpha fine-stemmed sweet clover produced by Professor Kirk at the University of Saskatchewan showed that it would produce a splendid yield in this Northern country. Fruit bushes from the Rosthern Experimental Farm also did well.
TTEADY money seemed the difficulty for ^ most of the homesteaders, but a little of it could be made to go a long way. W. C. Hildred, a homesteader and storekeeper near the Northern limit of the settled area, estimated that the average family in his district was spending about ten dollars per month. A soldier who lost an eye in the war and had a pension of thirty-three dollars was the plutocrat of the district, he said.
In earning money, the Sonntag family, formerly of Kindersley but now located on the bank of the Waterhen River, was quoted as among the most successful of those who took in cattle. They settled on the homestead in 1930, and last summer were milking twelve cows and making cheese. They produced 1,200 pounds of cheese up to the beginningof September, for which they found a market among the settlers and at the stores.
Those who had been in the district long enough to have a garden last summer went into the winter well supplied with vegetables. The newcomers, of course, had to buy, and there have been reports this winter of skin disease, possibly due to insufficient vegetable diet. The price of potatoes in Meadow Lake last fall was only twenty-five cents per bushel, and it was estimated then that there were enough to feed the population.
There have been farmers in the Meadow Lake district for twenty years, and the local crop of 1931 was 300,000 bushels of early Garnet wheat. The oat crop was heavy, and enough sheaves were produced to feed the livestock taken in. These sheaves are needed now, as the year that brought a drought to Southern Saskatchewan brought a double portion of rain to the Meadow Lake country. The margins of the sloughs that must supply the hay in a heavy bush country were completely flooded. In October the writer watched a farmer splashing round a slough with a mower, and every forkful of the hay had to be thrown out on to the bushes to dry. Even the old-timers had no hay. The only homesteader seen with any was one who had married an Indian girl and had obtained permission to cut on the Reserve.
The difficulties of wintering in this Northern country are being felt most severely by those who have come in with
many horses and cattle rather than by those who came in with few effects. The typical farmer from the South came in with eight or more horses. In the South the farmer i usually let his horses rustle during the Í winter, only stabling them when the weather looked stormy. Prairie “wool,” the common prairie grass, when dried on the stalk is quite fair feed.
The slough grasses of the North are not of equal value as feed, and after frost are worthless. Provision has been made by the Provincial Government to buy up the local oat crop and sell the sheaves on credit to I the homesteaders.
It seems a pity that so many horses have ! been taken into this country, as they are not all needed for the work that the homesteaders have to do. Clearing, building and fencing take up much of a settler’s time, and he cannot keep a number of horses busy. Neither is the country suited for large numbers of beef cattle, at least on the wild grasses obtainable.
What, then, is the future of the country?
To succeed as a farmer in the Meadow Lake country it appears that the homesteader must first become self-supporting. Many farmers lived there comfortably when the railway was sixty miles away, and they do not see why the newcomers should not do so now. It is a good country in which to make a home, as most of them already appreciate. If any want to go back to the prairie the writer has not met them.
And the country they have left—is it down and out? Not if history repeats itself. This is not the first Northward trek in times of drought. In the early eighties of the last century the country around Estevan was deserted by farmers who went north to the Swan River bush country over the Manitoba border. The dry years of 1888 and 1889 drove hundreds of farmers north into the bush country west of Yorkton. The prairie comes back.
But there may be no backward trek. When the prairie farmer bought a tractor or changed from four to six horses or from six to eight horses on a working outfit, the ! old half-section or three-quarter section farm was no longer the economic unit. A family could handle more land than that. Cost studies made by the University of Saskatchewan show that farms considerably larger than the present average have the lowest cost of production per bushel.
Most farmers heartily dislike the idea of a larger farm unit. The population is thinner, neighbors are farther away, the school problem becomes more difficult. But j it seems probable that in the districts unsuited to mixed farming, the lower cost of production on the larger farm will be the deciding factor in the struggle for existence.