Remember those Harvest Excursions?

Each fall for forty years a light-hearted army of farm recruits shuttled to the prairies. FRANK CROFT was one of them. Here’s his story of those boisterous — often riotous — days

September 1 1954

Remember those Harvest Excursions?

Each fall for forty years a light-hearted army of farm recruits shuttled to the prairies. FRANK CROFT was one of them. Here’s his story of those boisterous — often riotous — days

September 1 1954


FROM 1891 to 1929 the rail-borne harvest excursions were a noisy, colorful and important part of the Canadian scene. They were a reminder that in Canada wheat was king. They were something between a crusade and a binge, drudgery and adventure mixed together. Men packed a three-days’ grub supply and went to the railway station because the harvest promised gain. But they were also moved by a sense of duty, a quasi-patriotic feeling that they were needed in a national cause. They were. The western wheat grower could seed half a section or more singlehanded. It took eight or ten men to harvest the results of his spring labors. The prairies didn’t have enough people to supply the demand, so they came from the east, and later from British Columbia, in a migration unique in this world.

They recall the wonder of men from the hills and forests of the east at the limitless stoneless prairie soil and the immensity of the burning sky, the feel of damp clothes pulled on before dawn, the welcome taste of the hated alkali water gulped from an earthen jug before the sun was up an hour, the magic of the brief western twilight when the horizon becomes a deep purple which gathers quickly then races across land and sky, hauling after it a swarm of stars glittering like a kids’ Christmas pageant.

Even while the excursions were at their robust height, in the Twenties, their doom was foretold by the chattering of the early combines; those, and the increasing population of the prairie provinces, made the harvest excursions, like the fur-laden York boats and the Red River oxcarts, something for history.

And history hasn’t taken too much notice of them. No records have been kept by either of the big railways and newspaper files yield a prosaic and fragmentary story. When the excursions were running they were too commonplace to be news.

But tens of thousands of men who went on them still have nostalgic memories—jampacked colonist cars filled with farmers, schoolboys, lumberjacks, factory hands, roustabouts, adventurers; the smell of “Catholic hay,” as French-Canadian home-cured tobacco was called and the smell of sweat and socks; the subdued strains of Seeing Nellie Home on a mouth organ from the other end of the car at night; the talk—cheerful, mendacious, foul, enlightening, but seldom boring; the friendships quickly formed and later bonded with the common experience of aching muscles, alkali sickness, violent bunkhouse East vs. West debates, hard work, sound sleep and (generally) good plentiful food.

I stood on the threshold of the harvest adventure one August evening in 1924 with a mob of about 1,200 others in the old Toronto Union station. I had reached Toronto that afternoon by boat from Hamilton, and had killed a couple of hours by seeing Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush. It was a time when the world was beginning to acknowledge Chaplin as a genius, not just a baggy-pants buffoon. The Dumbells were cocks of the Canadian stage, and their posters for the 1924 production were appearing everywhere; women were wearing hats like inverted coal scuttles, and the Arctic was still a place for intrepid explorers. Canada’s population was being pushed past the ninemillion mark only by a wave of postwar immigration.

Every train entering Toronto that day from southern Ontario had added its quota to the throng milling slowly around the octagonal concourse or lounging on kit bags and blanket rolls. A similar assembly from eastern Ontario and southern Quebec had been gathering in Montreal’s Windsor and Bonaventure stations, and in the Maritimes additional hundreds had mustered from Halifax and Saint John. When the gates opened for us in Toronto we surged toward 32 colonist cars waiting on the track.

A colonist car should be on the Canadian coat of arms for the part it played in the western harvest as well as for hauling immigrants to settle the remote parts of Canada. It held 56 men seated in groups of four, paired vis-à-vis. The seats and backs were upholstered and were one unit, hinged where seat and back right-angled. These hinged units pulled out flat, so that from every twoseat section a bed could be made for two passengers. The other two slept in a large wooden tray that pulled down directly overhead. This tray, or upper berth, curved upward to afford head room by day; the two who had to sleep in it constantly rolled together, for the man on the outside was stretched on the side of a hill. It was said that the CPR built steel colonist cars because on the hairpin curves north of Lake Superior the outside man in an upper was thrown so violently he often cleared his companion by several inches and, in a wooden coach, crashed through to the right of way.

There was a stove at one end of the car on which immigrants, it was supposed, did their cooking. Harvesters didn’t bother with that sort of thing. . Each had a suitcase full of sandwiches.

On every harvesters’ train there were veteran excursionists who answered questions, told lies, looked worldly and appeared amused by the tenderfeet. Of those making their first trip, more than half would be trying to look like their idea of how a westerner would look. Ten-gallon hats were just as numerous on a westbound harvest train then as on an eastbound Grey Cup train today. Narrow black neckties, white shirts and pant legs tucked into high-heeled boots could be seen everywhere. I never saw these dudes on a farm so I don’t know what happened to their regalia when they had to get down to work.

There was a drifting labor force in those days which has gone. This was before organized labor had really organized, before unemployment insurance, before government employment bureaus and all the other measures which channel the flow of labor today. Thousands of men roamed the country in a feckless but happy existence, passing through the fo’c’sles of inland freighters, lumber camps and, of course, the western harvest. Music was as important a part of their lives as liquor, women or fighting. Every harvest train had its fiddlers, pipers, banjo and mouth-organ players.

We had a piper on our train who walked up and down the aisles playing Yes, We Have No Bananas. He could do even better. He could pipe Barney Google and make it sound like a fivepiece band. This performance was enjoyed by all except a group of Scots who looked at the piper darkly and finally gave him the alternative of piping decent Scottish music or being thrown off the train. The piper smiled and said that he would pipe anything he pleased, but if they would be patient he would give them a Scottish air at Kenora.

We reached Kenora early the next morning. It’s a divisional point and everyone got out for some exercise. As soon as the train was unloaded a voice bellowed, “All right, you Scotch--s! Listen!” Our piper swung the bag under his arm and strode up and down the platform piping The Road To The Isles and no MacCrimmon ever piped as well.

There were plenty of incidents like this in 1924 but very little of the rough stuff of earlier days; from 1921 on, four ROMP constables were detailed to each harvest train.

A Fiddler and His Soapbox

The Mounties had been needed. Until they came, the destruction of railway property and private property near the right of way was often on a scale reminiscent of a riot. It included every act of violence the hooligan element could devise, from tying a live cow to the rear of the train at one whistle stop and heaving what remained of the carcass into the telegrapher’s office at the next stop, to raiding shops and restaurants, removing everything eatable and breaking everything breakable.

At one store in northeastern Ontario run by two blind brothers the harvesters one year during the First World War not only cleaned off the shelves like a plague of locusts and smashed the place, but manhandled the blind men. One year when the ravagers were nettled by a shopkeeper who tried to protect his goods, they carried him back to the train and shoved him off at (he next stop, more than 100 miles up (he line. In 1919 one of the Maritime (rains arrived in Quebec with every window in 16 coaches smashed. There had been no reason except pure hellishness. The harvesters happily dubbed their train the Fresh Air Special and were taken on to Winnipeg that way.

The only rambunctiousness I recall in 1924 was at Fort William. A man carne on the station platform and mounted a soapbox. He tucked a violin under his chin and began to play. When an audience had gathered he produced a box of safety razors and went into his sales pitch. He was nicely into it when a harvester grabbed the violin and brought it crashing down on the hawker’s shoulder. In a flash he was baring it through the station with about 300 men after him. There was a wide paved street leading to the station, and the hawker raced up the middle with the pack close behind him. It looked like a mob scene from a Cecil B. de Mille movie. Afraid to be led too far from the train the pursuers gave it up after a block or two.

In the Twenties a harvest-excursion ticket from any point in eastern Canada to Winnipeg cost $15. At Winnipeg the harvester bought another ticket to his prairie destination for a half-centa mile. Returning, it was the same rate from the farm to Winnipeg and $20 from there home. A coupon was attached to the original $15 ticket. This was presented when the prairie ticket was bought in Winnipeg, and presented again at the end of the harvest (signed by the wheat grower the man had worked for) when the ticket for home was bought. A return ticket could be bought only if at least 30 days, and not more than 90 days, had elapsed. The excursion rates varied little from 1891 to the end and were usually about one third the first-class rate.

As many as 40,000 harvesters would pass through Winnipeg in two to three weeks. It was something like an invasion by Cox’s army with a boilermakers’ picnic thrown in, so it was necessary to keep things moving.

To sell the half-cent-a-mile tickets both the CPR and CNR called in all Manitoba and western Ontario agents they could spare and put them in temporary wooden ticket sheds near the main stations. The sheds looked like a long row of pari-mutuel windows. It was common for an agent to sell tickets for 24 hours straight, with meals brought to him. There are still half a dozen men with the CPR who claim to have sold excursion tickets for 36 hours without relief.

There were similar though modified scenes at Calgary and Edmonton where harvesters from B. C. were buying their half-centers. Often when men from B. C. and the east met on the same threshing gang the more footloo«» would exchange return coupons, so that, the easterner could go on to the Pacific when the harvest was over and the man from Vancouver would go east. After the 1925 harvest, the second and last year I made the trip, a Vancouver man got on our train at Govan, Sask. He was to meet a Montrealer in Regina. They had swapped coupons the year before and arranged to return for the 1925 harvest and swap again so that each could get back home.

But such private tours involved work. Stooking was regarded by the westerners as a mere limbering-up operation for the threshing days which followed. Stooking seldom went beyond a ten-hour day or lasted more than three weeks. It was just a matter of following the binder and setting the bundles (which to an easterner were sheaves) in rows, stacked eight or ten together. A good man was supposed to be able to do it with a pitchfork, so he wouldn’t even have to bend over to pick them up. Threshing, either by the neighbor co-operative method, where farmers owning a threshing outfit between them pooled equipment and manpower to thresh their own wheat, or by the custom threshers, soon showed a man where his muscles were.

Custom threshing was done by the owner of a large outfit—usually a steam tractor and a 36-inch cylinder separator (which to an easterner was a threshing machine). His mill included the water tank, grain wagons and often the stook wagons. With his gang of 15 or 20 men he would do a farmer’s threshing for $200 to $300 a day—labor and equipment supplied. Such an outfit could paw through a 15,000-bushel crop in less than a week. A custom thresher might be a farmer or an enterprising townsman with no wheat land of his own.

The big steam outfits were disappearing by 1924. The general arrangement by then was for one farmer who owned a 22-inch cylinder separator to form a mill with a neighbor who had a gasoline tractor of the 10-20 or 15-30 type (15 HP on the haul and 30 on the power take-off) and with four or five stook wagons between them and six or seven hired hands do each other’s threshing and perhaps that of a neighbor or two.

It was with such a mill that I first worked in Saskatchewan. Threshing on the prairie was much the same as threshing anywhere else, with the big difference that on the prairie the mill was set up in the fields, often half a mile from the farm buildings. The grain spout emptied into field granaries or directly into a wagon which would be hauled away to the elevators in town as soon as it was filled.

Food Was Always Plentiful

When threshing started you were given a team to look after. The day started at five o’clock when you currycombed, brushed, harnessed and fed your team. Then you had breakfast. Then the horses were watered and you were ready for the day’s work. The job was to lead your stook wagon along the rows of stooks, pitchforking them onto the wagon until you had built a respectable load, then drive it to the mill and pitch it off again into the separator.

At ten o’clock the boss came driving across the stubble in his McLaughlin touring car, a clothes basket full of sandwiches on the back seat with a big kettle full of hot tea. After this you went back to work until noon. The midday meal was eaten back at the house and at one you were at the mill again. Another snack, this time with cake or pie, was brought out at four, and sometime between six and seven you headed for the barn. The horses’ cribs were filled and after jper you lit a lantern and returned the barn to clean their stalls and bed * ;m down. You then climbed into the loft and slept, or plodded to the bunkhouse, depending on the accommodation available.

Threshing was hard work and the day was long. Rut the food (bed and board were provided free by the farmer) was usually good and always plentiful, the company was interesting, and you knew that you were tucking away five dollars a day, which for a youth in 1924 looked like real money.

When threshing was finished in our part of Saskatchewan I started for home, but in Winnipeg I saw an item in the Tribune that harvesting was still in full swing in southern Manitoba. At Cypress River I was taken on by one of the big steam outfits. This was threshing in the western tradition, and the pay was seven dollars a day.

I was talking recently with a man from Areola, Sask., who said there were less than a dozen steam outfits left on the prairies. There used to be hundreds. There were pictures of them in the school geographies and on the walls of railway stations in the east. A steam outfit, with its Sawyer-Massey tractor resembling an early-type locomotive with its tall stack and its separator, wagons and tanks, looked something like an open-air factory going full blast.

This was threshing on a grand scale. I wonder how many people—including westerners—know what a spike-pitcher is? He was the man who stayed at the mill all day, climbing on one wagon after another as they drew up, helping the driver pitch off his load. The stookwagon men had a rest when going to and from the mill, and often when waiting for the load ahead to be pitched off. But the spike pitcher threw bundles from sunrise to sunset. He was paid a dollar a day more than the going rate, and he didn’t have to bother about a team. Field pitchers were in the same class, staying out in the stook rows, helping the drivers load up.

The lord of the mill was the tractor man. He had engineer’s papers and his pay was sometimes double what the rest of us got. He twisted valves and peered at gauges and kept things humming with constant blasts of the whistle by which he called for more water, more fuel, more bundles. He paid for his dominance on Sundays, though, when he had to make repairs, clean the flues, patch the fire clay and pamper his black monster in a dozen ways.

The homeward journey began for some as soon as the 30-day minimum time limit was up. Perhaps they found the going too tough, or the alkali water too unpalatable, or they may have struck a place where the food was bad. There were such places. Two men who joined the Cypress River outfit the day before I arrived had come over from Landseer where they were fed on bread, plum preserves and tea—for breakfast, dinner and supper. The field snacks were bread soaked in the syrup of the preserves. They had been sleeping in a loft. Such places become chilly in October. One man slept between his horses on his last two nights.

The railways inaugurated the harvest excursions in 1891 with advertisements in eastern papers: “to enable laborers to reach the bountiful harvest of Manitoba and the Northwest.” The fare, from any station in the east to Deloraine, Methven, Hartney, Binscarth or Moosomin was $13 with an attached coupon good for a return fare of $15 after one month. CPR and Grand Trunk Railway ads appeared side by side.

The Canadian Pacific didn’t have the eastern network to pick up harvesters and the Grand Trunk had nothing in the west. So it had to be a co-operative affair, a fact both lines found highly annoying at times. One year, when the Ontario harvesters were started on the GTR’s Toronto-North Bay line, before the CPR had built its Toronto-Parry Sound-Sudbury track, a trainload of harvesters which pulled out of Toronto at night was at Smiths Falls, near Ottawa, in the morning. There had been a squabble at the last minute between the two lines as to how the fares should be divided and the CPR had taken its train more than 200 miles east before going west, in order to keep on its own track.

Five thousand men responded to the call in 1891. Thirteen hundred were on the first train, which was as large as any that ever ran and was hauled by two locomotives and pushed by a third.

The pay was a dollar and a half a j day. From 1891 on, the pay for the I western harvest was always the highest J for casual labor in Canada. By the j turn of the century it was two dollars, i in 191 I it, was three and a half. After I that it began to vary in different localities as the wheat yield varied, and bei tween stocking and threshing (thresh*ers were paid more). In the great bumper-crop year of 1915 (they were j still talking about it in 1924) when 12 ! million acres yielded 376 million bushels j of wheat, pay shot as high as six and j eight dollars a day south of the main line of the CPR.

In 1917 lunch-counter cars were added on excursion trains, as well as I special cars for women. Many women j with an honest desire to help fill the j war-caused labor shortage joined the I trek, but so did others of the camoj follower tradition, so the idea was ! quietly dropped after that year.

Often the trains were so crowded there was literally only standing room.

One year a train leaving Montreal’s Windsor station had two open-plat5 form day coaches strung to a line of colonist cars. Men were standing in the aisles and on the platforms and sitting on the steps. They were to get empty colonist cars returning from the west at Ottawa but didn’t meet the empties until North Bay, many miles beyond Ottawa.

In the days of the harvest excursions however nobody expected the going to be soft and in fact many youths looked ; on the excursions as the gateway to i manhood. There are scores of profes; sional men today whose college courses I were made possible by the harvest. All j universities allowed students to make I their September registration by mail j and absence from the campus until early November was common. Most j faculty members held seminars to help students catch up. There are thousands of wheat farmers and sons ! of wheat farmers in the west whose ¡ lands have grown from quarter-section I homesteads taken up at the end of a j harvest season because the country and j the life worked a spell. At one place where we threshed in 1925 the owner I showed me a framed picture of his first homestead shack; also in the frame was the return coupon of his 1910 excursion ticket —unused. It happened to hundreds every year. For the back-concession Ontario farmer it was a chance to get some folding money. Southern Ontario harvesting was usually over when the trains for the west were ready, so a man who seldom saw a tendollar bill had a chance to earn a stake at work he understood.

The harvest excursions filled many needs besides the vital one for which they were organized. That their passing was caused by more efficient methods of reaping the prairie wheat should make no one mourn. But that’s no reason they should be forgotten. ★