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Clearing the Land in Canada
Our thanks to Lois Sparling for this article


I hear you are looking for stories about Scots settling in Canada.  My husband's grandfather and his brother came to Canada from Ayrshire in 1905.  At this time, it was the prairies that was being settled.  The railroad had been built across the country, through the mountains and into Vancouver on the Pacific coast in the 1880s but settlement of  most of the prairies did not really get going until the period between 1900 to 1914.

Their father had a dairy farm in Ayrshire so they had agricultural experience.  At the time of the 1906 census of the new provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the two brothers were working as farm hands in southern Manitoba near Pilot Mound.  Shortly thereafter they homesteaded in southern Saskatchewan, not far from the South Saskatchewan River.  They did not have to clear trees for their farm because there were no trees.  Wood for shacks had to be purchased.  The American homesteaders taught many of their new neighbours how to built sod houses from bricks cut out of the dense natural prairie grass land.  Sod houses had the advantage of being warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  Since the temperatures in the area fell as low as minus 40 degrees and climbed as high as 35 degrees, this was an important feature.

Sod houses did leak when it rained but there was not a lot of rain.  Southern Manitoba, where the brothers first lived, was long grass prairie which meant that there was more rain and the natural grassland grew to a height of as much as 2 meters (well, 6 feet which is a little less than 2 meters).  Southern Saskatchewan was an area of short grass prairie which meant less rain and, therefore, the natural grassland was shorter.  Grass fires were a problem.  Tilling the virgin soil, with its dense matt of grass roots and other plants, was a problem.  Isolation was a problem.  The extreme cold in winter was a problem.  However, those first crops were incredible.  The soil was so rich.

A new type of wheat called Red Fife, had just been developed which was suited to the shorter Canadian prairie summers.  It was very hard, high protein wheat and therefore quite valuable.  Branch lines of the railroad followed the first settlers as the three "Prairie Provinces" were turned into farmland.  Villages sprang up at even intervals along the rail lines.  This is where the grain elevators were built.  Some years during the first two decades of the twentieth century, there harvest were so abundant that the farmers' wagon loads of grain where lined up for days trying to deliver their loads to market.  The grain elevators and train cars were overwhelmed.

Supplies came in by train and then to the general stores located by the train stations and at crossroads beyond the train lines. The booming mail order business of Toronto based Eaton's served the settlers and their descendants into the 1960s.

The roads were generally mere wagon trails. There were few landmarks and no sign posts. Pioneers hired guides to show them to their homesteads.  My husband's American grandfather was one such guide. He worked at a ferry crossing on the South Saskatchewan River in the same general area as the homestead of my husband's Scottish grandfather.

A homestead consisted of a quarter mile by quarter mile square of land.  The homesteader was required to break a certain amount of the land, grow crops and live on the land for a prescribed time to earn ownership of the homestead.  This was hard work.  Not all would be homesteaders had the required strength, skills and inclination to meet these requirements.

The brothers were followed to Saskatchewan by their parents and siblings in 1910.  Their father had the proceeds of sale from his dairy operation in Ayrshire to invest in a large barn, more land and the latest and best farm machinery available.  Their neighbours gave up or worked hard to "made a go of it".  My husband's family had to work hard, too. However, the added advantage of having money to put into the farm made this family wealthy by the 1920s.

One of the reasons the parents moved to Canada with their children was the belief that the dry climate would be good for their sickly mother's health.  Her descendants say she was bedridden for 20 years.  However, she lived to the age of 61, dying in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1922 following an operation.  The father lived to 92.

The Great Depression of the 1930s coincided with a decade of natural disasters on the prairies of Canada and the United States, including drought, infestations of insects and crop diseases, extra hot summers and extra cold winters.  My husband's Scottish grandfather and great grandfather lost their wealth but stayed on their farm.

Lois Sparling
Calgary, Alberta


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