Editor’s Note: On the basis of population statistics Briercrest is far from eligible for inclusion in Maclean’s City Series but Mrs. Jaques's picture of Briercrest is added to the series because it typifies hundreds of similar communities in the West.
AND YOU forgot Briercrest. NO, you didn’t forget it, because unless you lived within fifty miles of it, it isn’t likely you ever heard of the place.
Briercrest—whose skyline is three narrow high elevators, the square tower of the church and a few houses huddled close to the warm soil.
Briercrest—whose only claim to greatness is love in the staunch hearts of her settlers, clinging doggedly through wind and drought and grasshoppers to the level fields they homesteaded and hold against all comers.
Briercrest—which passed in ten short years from a wide grassy plain, where a few stray cattle rustled, into a busy rich settlement with straight, graded roads instead of crooked trails, of schools and churches and happy, prosperous homes.
No soil on earth could match its brown richness. In all my father’s 480 acres we never found a stone as large as a marble, and in all its level fertility not even a willow gad.
—just a little lonely village on the prairie, in the middle of wind-whipped Saskatchewan, of perhaps 200 souls (counting some of them twice). Nothing unusual about it, nothing new. Only, somehow, it typifies for us—the prairie.
Once a Fertile Plain
BUT IT wasn’t always a village. Once, not so long ago, it was only a beautiful fertile plain, level as a plate—the soil so rich that my mother was fond of saying that if you planted a broom handle you would get a very good crop of brooms.
They came west in 1902, and coming west in those days was high adventure. The house in Collingwood was sold and everything wdth it, except two huge, bright-green verandah chairs. Just why they should wrant to take verandah rocking-chairs to the Northwest was more than I have ever been able to think out in my mind; for even now-, thirty-two years after, they have no verandah, but they brought the chairs.
We homesteaded about ten miles south of the Soo line, the first settlers in the settlement that is now called Briercrest.
That was the name we called our farm. As we drove across the prairie one day just before we came to our “shack,” there was a little rise in the ground, hardly high enough to be even called a hill. But it was crested wdth wild roses, a deep lovely pink and fragrant as only wild roses can be, and mother said: “That’s what we’ll call the farm, dad—Briercrest, for the briers growing on the warm crest of this hill.” And so it w'as named and is to this day, for when the railroad came they used the farm’s lovely name for their nearest town.
The “lands” were struck out—long, even, brown furrows like slashes across the green face of the plain, three small girls of us following barefooted behind the plow, treading with a sort of unuttered happiness the moist good earth, this virgin land that had never been touched since God finished His work and set His seal upon the land.
And the next year the “land seekers” came — democrat loads, buggy loads and wagon loads of them, bouncing down across the prairie,
headed straight for our place. Being the only house within sight, it was a sort of lodestar to anyone passing within ten miles of it. All the trails led to our small door like the spokes of a wheel.
Every man w'as armed with a little white paper from the land office, with the quarter-sections open for homesteads numbered and marked off with little crosses.
Even my old grandfather in the east caught the fever and came west. At seventy-four years of age he filed on his quarter, striking out his little lands with a walking plow, where his great-grandson now summer-fallows and seeds with a tractor.
My grandmother, who was very short and fat, used to beg them to go to church—it was really the school—in the stone-boat, because she found it so hard to get into the wagon.
We always had broncos, and one of their pet aversions was standing still, after they were hitched up. A chair would have to be brought out of the house, and set beside the wheel of the wagon for her to mount. She would climb on the chair and with much puffing and clutching of skirts, proceed to get on the hub of the wheel, and from that to the rim, and by real heroism, pulled from in front and pushed at the back, she would be landed finally in the wagon box—that is, if everything went right.
But usually by the time the chair was brought out and set close enough to the wheel for her to step across, and all the other preliminaries were over with, the horses and wagon and driver would be making a wide circle somewhere across the prairie and grandma would be left high and dry on her chair in the yard, fanning herself with a little round black fan, and pulling at the neck of her Sunday dress to give herself more room to breathe.
And so the settlers came in, hungry for land. They came from Ontario, tired of mortgaged farms and rented places, middleaged jieople with sons who needed farms. People from across the "Line” bringing in their sturdy good sense, rich settlers who bought up the beautiful cheap land and were paid back the price of it the first year, growing flax.
I can remember these hordes of men who came in and homesteaded. Some of them are there today, old and retired, their sons working the places now. What toil went into the making of the homes! We started in a box stall in the bam. I can remember waking at night, in the warm dark, hearing the quiet breathing of the horses, all that was under us a couple of horse blankets, but maw was there safe and near we could reach out and touch her—and wherever she was, was "home” to us, be it box stall or palace.
Some of our neighbors started in sheds and stables and little shacks. Anything, just to get started. Two bachelors built a small long shack, one end on the one quarter and one end on the other quarter and there they fulfilled their time and got their patents on the land. They used to laugh and say that when they quarrelled each one retired to his end of the shack and the table in the middle was neutral ground.
Some of our neighbors came in without coats, just bed quilts wrapped around the children and the mother.
One of our neighbors from th~~ Unitt~d
States gathered all his small belongings together, an old grey team of horses, a cow with three teats, a few mongrel hens and a mangy dog, and at this stage of the game, his money ran out. Some of his friends joined together and paid for a box car for him, but how to get his little family up was more than he could figure out.
Suddenly a bright idea came to him. He made a crude shelter in one comer of the box car and covered it with hay, loosely piled. Into this haven he brought his small family, and put a forkful of hay over the little door; and when the train moved out that night it carried three extra passengers, a bright-faced mother and two sturdy children, safely hidden under what looked like an innocent pile of hay. And so they came to Canada, to a new land of promise, a land that was to be for them richer than their wildest dreams.
And so they came and settled, broke up the land ten, twenty and forty acres. I can remember how proud we were the second summer because we had forty acres plowed, some of it mighty crooked— the broncos had seen to that—but there it lay, rich and good, the stored vital energy of a million years of sun and rain, and brooding, hovering dark.
An Abundance of Wheat
AND TI IE good years came. I have seen so much wheat A that the farmer would scratch his head in bewilderment at his sudden riches, wondering where he could put the golden fruit of his fields; and when every granary and shud was filled to overflowing; every hole and corner that a bushel of wrheat could be stored, was stored, and still it poured out of the separator, a golden, living flood; and huge piles of it were made on the warm stubble—piles of a thousand bushel, here and there on every farm you passed, were these gleaming bushels of w-heat.
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! AND NOW IT is over, and the drought I has come, and grasshoppers and Russian thistle. The brave shining countryI side is a barren place; no piles of threshed ; wheat now, only bare wind-scoured fields and buried fence posts.
But the people are holding on. Steadfast and unwhipped. Once, during a terrific sandstorm, my brother said: “Blow, dam you, blow ! But you won’t blow me off this farm—it's mine! And you can blow everything off but the mortgage, but I’ll still be here.”
And they will, most of them. They’ll stick until the tide turns. It cost them too much for them to leave it easily. Too many hundred hours of backbreaking toil went into its making, for them to quit now. Too many
years of life, the strong working years, when it was good just to be alive, and good to feel the sun against your face and the warm pulsing soil beneath your feet, when the children were little and golden years ahead.
And so they won’t quit. A hundred years from now their children’s children’s children will still be striking out new lands and harvesting wheat. And Briercrest will be there, with its ragged skyline of elevators and huddled houses and the grey spire of the church will point heavenward and nothing will be forgotten.
Because, somehow, it is the soul of the prairie, vast and comfortless, holding in its lonely graveyard the bones of her pioneers, and in her warm soil the blood and sinew of new wheat.
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