Trials and Triumphs of the land-hungry who man the Dominion’s last great frontier
FRANK H. ELLIS
PEACE RIVER is a familiar name to many of us—in years past it has had frequent mention in the daily press—yet few give it more than a passing thought. It remains simply a name. The majority of us are quite unaware of what is going on behind the scenes in that huge Inland Empire, where there is being enacted an epic of pluck and determination that will go down in Canadian history.
The Peace River Country is often termed Canada’s last great frontier. Be that as it may, one thing is certain: it is a land of pioneers. The story of pioneering is always more or less glamorous when told years after the events have taken place; but today, with these pioneers of the Peace, the glamor is lacking. The men and women who are homesteading there are forcing a livelihood from the wilderness; they are pioneering under conditions much the same as existed among Canada’s earliest settlers. Their daily life is one of long hours of work merely to gaina bare subsistence; this, for the first few' years of homesteading, being all they ask or receive, for the wilderness gives slowly and grudgingly and then only to the toiler.
Semi-isolation may sound a little harsh, but that is really the only word suitable to describe the Peace River Country. To the north it is hemmed in by the wilderness that stretches to the Arctic Ocean; eastward, forest and countless miles of muskeg bar the way; while to the south and west spread thousands of square miles of virgin forest and the Rocky Mountains. The Peace River Country has an area of hundreds of thousands of acres of the finest farming country in the world, with a population of around 60,000, yet the only feasible means of entry or exit is over the single highway which goes in from Edmonton via Athabasca and Slave Lake, or by passenger train which runs once a week, also from Edmonton. Only when one is in the Peace River Country does one realize just how isolated it really is. The people who live up there, when speaking of anyone going to Edmonton or points beyond, say that so and so is “going out.” And when one enters the Peace area from the “out-
side,” it is always spoken of by those concerned as “going in.”
There is no connection from the Peace River Country to points outside by telephone, although there is a fairly good telephone sendee within the area. All communication to the outside is done either by mail or telegram, the mail going in and out via Edmonton but once a week. Telegrams go over the railway and Government telegraph wires; and, strange as it may seem, a telegram sent from the outside usually is mailed from the Peace River receiving office if its final destination is ten miles or more from the railway.
* I 'HE MOTOR highway is an excellent road when the weather is fine and dry, but, being of graded dirt construction, it becomes a quagmire when wet. Even in a dry summer, twenty-four hours of rain are apt to make many miles of the road impassable, as the mud formed is of the gumbo type, which is a twin brother to clay, only much more tenacious. There is quite a lot of auto traffic to and fro over this one connecting highway, the larger proportion of which, during the past few' years, consists of commercial travellers, local tradesmen and tourist visitors. The majority of farmers cannot afford to run autos under present conditions, with gas selling for forty-five cents per gallon and higher and other running costs in proportion.
When a wet spell bréales, all the auto drivers travelling over the highway do their best to reach their various destinations before the road becomes unfit for further travel; consequently the highway soon becomes a churned-up mass of mud. When it reaches this state, woe betide the motorist who attempts to “go it” alone. The only feasible way to get through when conditions are bad is to do without tire chains, and form parties of five or six cars, and just drive slowly along, plowing through the gumbo, the cars strung out in line not too far apart. When a particularly bad spot is reached and a car mires down, the occupants of all the other cars get out and practically lift the stuck car ahead -until it can navigate again; then, after all the cars in the party have been pushed, heaved, and perhaps profanely grunted through the bad spot, off the cavalcade crawls once again, until another car sinks down and manpower must again be used. When, after tw'o or three days of steady rain, the road becomes absolutely impassable, there is only one thing to do—have patience, and stop right where you are until the weather clears, be it in a town or auto camp, or even by the roadside.
During the summer months, it is amazing how quickly an impassable highway becomes fit for travel. Twenty-four hours after the worst of conditions have existed, a hét spell will dry the road right put. The Government maintains a
number of road crews beyond Athabasca along the southern shore of Lesser Slave Lake to High Prairie, and also along the Sturgeon Lake cut-off road, the men of which operate huge caterpillar tractors and graders and keep the highway open when humanly possible. Each crew has its own cook car, and after every wet spell they are right on the job. scraping back into the semblance of a highway the sections that have taken on the appearance of plowed fields. They also rescue mired cars and send the drivers on their way rejoicing. These huge grading outfits cover approximately forty miles of highway per day.
* I 'HE TWO major centres of the Peace River Country are the towns of Peace River and Grande Prairie. From Edmonton to the former the distance is 364 road miles; to the latter, 382 miles if the Sturgeon Lake cut-off is used. From Edmonton to Pouce Coupe via the cut-off, it is 468 miles. The cut-off runs from High Prairie to Grande Prairie via Sturgeon Lake, and it is necessary to cross the Smokey River by free car ferry at Moody’s Crossing. If the cut-off road is impassable, and quite often it is—being a comparatively new highway only in operation since the fall of 1931— it is necessary to travel around by Peace River, which malees the road distance from Edmonton to Grande Prairie some 471 miles. It is nothing unusual for cars to be driven from Grande Prairie or Peace River to Edmonton in twenty-four hours when conditions are good, as the road surface is then almost like a cement highway; but during a wet spell it may take two weeks or even longer to make the same journey.
The majority of homesteaders trade among themselves, product for product and work for work, and so no money is involved. Practically all farmers do a share of Government road work in their own locality, thus working off their land taxes instead of paying cash. All school taxes, however, must be paid in cash.
During the first year the homesteader usually erects a small log cabin, although the most important thing is to get a little land cleared and cultivated in order to enable a crop of necessary vegetables to be grown. Perhaps, with luck, a small patch of oats will also be raised, to help tide the animals through the first winter. Besides the horses, there is usually a cow, chickens and perhaps a few pigs. Also, some sort of a log barn must be put up to shelter the stock during the winter. Often, when homesteaders have no ready cash, they have to work out to earn cash or food in trade to carry them through the winter. It takes a long time to get going that way; but time is of minor importance to those hardy souls, so long as they are able to stand the work and can
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hope eventually to prove up and own their own quarter-section of land.
Preparing the Ground
ALMOST ALL the good remaining farm land up there is covered with brush of varying density, from small bushes and willows to aspen poplar trees of several inches in diameter. In some cases there are stands of pine and spruce of heavy growth. Only the lighter sections of brush are cleared at first, more acreage being cleared as the years pass.
It is real he-man work to get such land cleared and in shape to grow a crop. First the brush must be slashed down; then all that cannot be used as fuel is piled and burned. The next tough part of this clearing is then tackled, for the ground is still a mass of roots. The ground is plowed, roots and all, and that is a job and a half. A singlefurrow breaking plow is used, usually drawn by a six-horse team. It is hard going all the time for both man and horses, taxing their endurance to the limit. Many times the plow will strike a root too tough for the combined strength of the horses to pull the plow through, and an axe must be used to cut it.
After the plow comes the process known as grub-harrowing. A harrow with extra long spikes is drawn by the horses back and forth innumerable times to bring all the roots to the surface, after which the roots have to be gathered by hand and stacked into huge piles and burned. The crop has still to be seeded, grown and harvested. The working season on the land is short, being five months
at best except in rare instances; consequently during the first few years on a new homestead the crop acreage grows very slowly, and is there any wonder?
To the average outsider, the various ways and means these homesteaders have of accomplishing things with practically no cash, are little short of marvellous. They manage to do without things which apparently cannot be done without. Many homesteader is forced to practise self-denial to such a degree that it becomes a fine art.
Farmers in those semi-arid regions of Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan who have had to give up, are privileged by the Government to take up a second homestead wherever they desire, their first homestead automatically reverting to the Government. The eyes of most drought-stricken farmers look toward the Peace River Country.
This was the case with a middleaged farmer and his wife, some of whose actual experiences may be quoted here, as their trials and troubles are typical of those of thousands of others who have “gone in” during the past ten lean years and who are still trekking in. This farmer took train “up there” in the fall of 1926, and filed on a quarter-section some thirty miles east of Sexsmith, the nearest railway station. After ten years of farming in the dry belt he was still broke. He sold at auction what few stock, implements, and household goods he did not absolutely require to take with him, (hen shipped the remains by freight, and eventually arrived at Sexsmith in March, 1927, just after a snowstorm.
The roads were vile, but, after three days of strenuous efforts, the farmer and his wife managed to get to their new location, having spent three nights by the wayside. A tent was their home during their first summer and winter, the sides of the tent being boarded up for winter use. They chose a spot for their first garden where a minimum of clearing was required to get it into shape, and had a vegetable garden ready and seeded in no time; and in the fall they had a sufficiency of vegetables to take them through their first winter. During the hot, dry spells of that summer, they were menaced by bush fires on several occasions. Other homesteaders were clearing and burning and, the surrounding bush being tinder dry, got out of control on a number of occasions and caused them many anxious hours.
The First Crop
TN ORDER to safeguard their animals and
chickens through the first winter, a small temporary barn and chicken house were erected, the walls and roofs being of smalldiameter poles thickly woven with brush, more brush being piled outside and on the roofs for added protection. August is the month when the wild berries are ripe and ready to gather. Throughout the whole country, Saskatoon berry bushes grow in great profusion, and in some localities there are great quantities of wild raspberry and cranberry bushes. This farmer’s wife was able to gather many quarts of Saskatoon berries and put them down in sealers for winter use. Wild berries are the main winter fruit supply of all Peace River homesteaders, and annually thousands upon thousands of quarts are gathered and “put down” in sealers, to last until the next berry crop.
Possession of a little cash enabled this farmer to go right ahead and work on his own land; and, being hard workers, he and his wife had things quite snug by the time freeze-up came. The farmer cut wild hay for the animals, and they came through their first winter fairly well. A plentiful supply of wood enabled them to keep warm and comfortable in their board-and-canvas bedkitchen-living room. The usual Peace River temperatures were reached that winter, twenty and thirty below zero being of common occurrence. During their first winter logs were cut several miles away and hauled in over the snow, to be in readiness for building their log home during 1928. The Government grants settlers permission to cut down sufficient trees on Government-
owned land for homes, bams, etc., if no large trees are available on the homesteader’s own land.
In the spring of 1928 the farmer set to in earnest to clear and cultivate acreage in order to have as much as possible in readiness for seeding the first wheat crop, which 4 would not be until the spring of 1929. A larger vegetable plot was cleared, and more oats seeded for green feed. Also, during 1928 their log home gradually took shape, neighbor helping neighbor to erect their respective log buildings, and by the fall of that year they had moved in to their oneroom home. More berries had of course been gathered and “put down” for winter use, and by the fall of 1928 things were beginning ot look quite ship-shape. One night that winter, something, in all probability a wolf as one was seen in their vicinity, broke into their pig house and consumed a twenty pound porker, bones and all, leaving nothing but the skin; and it was done so stealthily, that neither the farmer nor his wife knew a thing about it until next morning, when the skin was discovered.
In May, 1929, their first wheat crop was seeded, and it was harvested in August. As the acreage was small and the yield only about fifteen bushels to tire acre, very little money was realized from the crop, but it was the first cash they had received since they “went in.” That same year a small smoke house was built, and the farmer and his wife cured and smoked their own pork, also curing and smoking pork for neighbors, who gave work in trade. A roomier root pit was also dug that year, to store their larger supply of vegetables during the winters to come. As the next two years passed, more acreage was gradually cleared for a crop, a better log barn was erected for the animals and an additional room added to their home.
By the end of 1930, a buggy which was in good condition when they brought it in, had slowly disintegrated until it was a mere heap of wheels and larger parts, all the nuts and bolts having been used one by one to replace others needed on more important farm implements. Several years later, when cash was available, the buggy was reassembled with new bolts, etc., given a new coat of paint, and is now going strong.
A number of sheep were acquired during 1932, and in the spring of 1933 they were sheared. The price of wool was too low to warrant selling, so they used much of it for their own comfort, making a mattress, quilts, stuffing pillows and cushions, etc., and some they were able to trade. It was during the summer of 1933 that the farmer and his wife saw their first movie since 1926. On this occasion they were invited by friends. Their home is forty miles away from the nearest “show,” and that alone is sufficient to prevent them going. They do not own a car, and an eighty-mile round trip by horse and buggy to see a show is, of course, out of the question.
During 1934, over seven years since they went in, their crop yield was 560 bushels of wheat and 100 bushels of oats, and they were lucky to get it harvested and threshed, as a large proportion of the 1934 Peace River crop was snowed under in the fields. They had hoped to get a good grade and price for their wheat, but it only graded No. 4 tough, at a price of forty cents per bushel. Oats went at twenty cents to thirty cents per bushel. After the crop was threshed, this farmer had to haul it thirty miles to the nearest elevator, making a sixty-mile round trip. The wagon box was fitted to sleighs, for hauling is done over the winter snow. These journeys are usually made when there is a moon, as the farmer starts out about one a.m. After reaching the elevator and disposing of his load, the horses are watered and fed. The man also satisfies the inner self, and after a short rest the return journey is made, the complete trip taking about twenty-four hours. This farmer cannot afford to stay overnight in town, as sixty bushels of wheat, which is a load, pays only $24 and there are many back bills to be met. Often the farmer walks a good part of the distance when hauling grain to the elevator,
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as it is frequently sub-zero weather and he must keep warm.
rT"'HE WIFE of this farmer, speaking last fall about the sickness of one of their horses the day before the farmer had planned to haul in his first load of wheat, said :
“This farm life surely does get to be an uncertain thing. I am beginning to think it is mostly trouble and worry, although of course I am very fond of the country.”
Just beginning to think it was trouble, alter more than seven years of pioneering in the Peace and ten years farming in the Southern dry belt! What unbounded faith!
Among the things which this farm wife makes, are: Bread, butter, cheese, all her own soap, and a kind of coffee which is made from roasted and ground wheat. All surplus eggs are stored in containers filled with dry oats. Each year, after threshing, the farmer hauls to the nearest grist mill sufficient wheat and oats to be converted into flour, bran, shorts and porridge oats, huts assuring themselves of a sufficient supply of these necessities for the next twelve months. During the winter dozens of chickens and many pounds of meat are “put down” in sealers for future use. Sugar, tea, salt and matches are some of the things they have to obtain from a store, but if there were any method of making or growing these needed requirements, they would most certainly do so.
Game is plentiful throughout the whole of the Peace River country. Moose is to be found in all outlying districts, deer and caribou in some, and many homesteaders depend almost entirely upon this source for their meat supply. Many homesteaders do not possess guns of sufficient calibre to bring down large game, but they receive quarters or halves of moose or venison from those who do the shooting, trading work, vegetables, etc., for the meat. Bears are very numerous in some areas and are a cause of much worry to the women, especially during the berry-picking season. No one, not even the men, cares to pick berries when there is every likelihood of coming face to face with a mother bear and cubs who may very much resent human interference in the same berry patch. Bears are not looked upon with favor, and in most areas are being killed off at every opportunity.
Water is quite a problem to the homesteader. Rarely can a new settler stand the cost of a drilled well, and if water cannot be
reached by a hand-dug well it is necessary to haul it from the nearest available supply, which may be several miles away. During the winter months, if the farmer has no well and there is sufficient snow, enough is melted every day to fill the requirements of man and beast. A natural spring which has a good flow the year round, enhances the value of any Peace River farm to the extent of $1,000.
If the Peace River farmers were not so isolated, and were able to sell their products at even a moderate price, their troubles would be over at once and that whole area would boom. Until their isolation is remedied by additional railroad facilities, they are doomed to progress no farther. The prices they received for some of their products last fall (1934) are ridiculous when compared with the prices which the average housewife pays for the same thing. There was practically no sale for potatoes, but the few lucky ones who were able to make sales received the sum of fifty cents per bushel. Butter was fifteen cents per pound. Prime steer sold for 3c. and 4c. per pound. The finest turkeys went for $1 each and geese sold at 75c. a bird, these prices being for killed and dressed birds. Eggs sold for 25c. per dozen, but during the fall months few fresh eggs were available. During the summer, when eggs were plentiful, eggs only brought the farmer from 3c. to 5c. a dozen. Imagine, for one pound of tea or coffee, the farmer had to trade in at least eleven dozen eggs. Barley and hogs were the farmer’s best sellers last year, and probably will be this year. Barley sold for 34c. per bushel, and hogs went for the magnificent sum of $5 per 100 pounds.
If you are contemplating a trip to the Peace River country, either as a tourist or to visit folks there, by all means go. The people are the most hospitable on earth, and you will find a welcome wherever you go. The country itself is marvellous. As the altitude of the country averages between 1,000 to 2,000 feet above sea level, the air is tremendously invigorating, and the long daylight hours during the summer are especially welcome. September is perhaps the ideal month for auto travel and camping, as the weather is fairly dependable and the cool nights eliminate mosquitoes and other insect pests which visitors find rather trying at times during the summer months. Some marvellous Northern Lights displays are to be witnessed, especially during the fall and winter nights; and to the stranger in that land they are indeed most awe-inspiring and unforgettable.