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The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life
Chapter V - Horse-Raising and Hay-Making


WESTERN politicians are proverbially fruitful of phrases, but one of them outdid all the rest when he introduced in the Speech from the Throne here a year ago the phrase "diversified agriculture." In the language of the common people, the phrase was intended to mean "mixed farming" and was used to describe farming in which not only the tilling of the soil but the raising of stock finds a place. Viewed in that light, the farming of the old settlers was "diversified agriculture," and in that, as in many other respects, the principle on which they worked is a valuable one to people who desire to make a good living on western prairies. In the days before the incoming of machinery the colonists raised horses principally to supply the

buffalo hunters, and also to serve their own amusement and love of simple sport. Splendid horses they were, as I remember them, imported from England and acclimatized in process of further breeding, swift of foot, strong of muscle, deep-chested and mettlesome. The prices realized for buffalo runners in the early days were not so large as might be expected, and I often heard that, when my father sold a famous running horse for the sum of £14, it was said of him by some that "he sold his conscience" when he asked such an extravagant amount. It was customary when the plain hunters came in and encamped, on the prairies around Fort .Garry, for the settlers to take up such horses as they had to sell. These were tested with the racers of the . camp, and if the results were satisfactory a sale readily followed. A brother of mine once took up a horse of a strain noted for fleetness to the camp of an old hunter named Acapot, and though horse and rider were without special training he easily outran the horse put up by the hunters. A sale for £30 immediately followed, my brother scarce realizing how good a horse he had. After the sale, however, the old hunter told my brother that his horse had outrun the most famous runner in the camp, and though shortly afterwards Acapot retired to live near Prince Albert, no amount of money ever tempted him to part with the horse he had purchased on such easy (though to us extravagant) terms.

The "Queen’s Birthday" was the great holiday of the year (no people were more loyal), and as soon as we could ride each of us had a horse (often without a saddle) to go up to the fort and witness the contests of speed between the best horses of the settlers and the plain hunters. The present day gambling of the racecourse was practically unknown, and for the most part the races were honestly run with utilitarian ends in view for the speediest animal. Besides horses the settlers had cattle and sheep on the farm. Oxen were largely used in the operations of the farm down to a recent date, and for purposes of hay and wood hauling were "hitched "single in the Red River cart or sled, both of which in their primitive state were made entirely of wood. Sheep were useful in the extreme as affording clothing in "hodden grey." The processes from sheep-shearing to the home-made suit were slow and primitive in the light of modern machinery, but the article was good, as we know from personal experience.

The other day the writer got word of what remained of his grandfather’s sword in the old house of one of the, settlers who died some years ago. This settler (Angus Polson by name) was a famous worker in wood, and amongst other things was the chief maker of spinning wheels in the colony. The broken fragment of the sword-hilt that remains tells an eloquent and pathetic story. Doubtless the old soldier (who was one of the survivors of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and who died at Kildonan, aged 107) prized greatly the sword he had carried on the hot plains of India, but to help his fellow-colonists he gave it to the maker of spinning wheels that the brass basket-hilt might be broken and used in their construction. The old weaver’s loom, too, was a familiar figure, and the sight of the weaver throwing the flying shuttle with its crossing threads has always enlarged before me, as the years have grown, into the vision of Him who sits at the "roaring loom of time" and weaves with warp and woof the web of human life. Since then I have always understood more clearly and entered more fully into the words of the great hymn:

"With mercy and with judgment
My web of time He wove,
And aye the dews of sorrow
Were lustred with his love,
I’ll bless the hand that guided,
I’ll bless the heart that planned,
When throned where glory dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land."

After the weaving of the cloth came the "fulling," done in primitive but vigorous style by the kicking of it by barefooted boys, who found it one of the amusements of the winter evenings; though it is a tribute to the hardiness of Highland blood to say that after this heated exercise the moccasin was put on and the way home in the snow and bitter night was taken scathless. Speaking of winter-night occupation for the boys, I may say that another one was "knocking barley," as we called it, preparatory to its use in soup-making. A large block hewn from the tree was hollowed out in a somewhat circular form. This was partly filled with barley, which we took turns in pounding with a longheaded wooden mallet, while some one more daring than the rest kept turning the grain with a stick or long-handled spoon, to the imminent and constant risk of his fingers. When the grain was thus well hulled, it was winnowed and ready for soup, compared with which some of the spiced transparencies which now pass by the name would be tame and insipid.

In the summer time the farm stock of which we have spoken ran wild on the prairies, horses especially being out of sight for months at a time; and we recall as a great constitutionbuilder days spent in the saddle in search of the wandering bands. In the long winter, of course, they must be housed and fed, hence "making hay while the sun shone" in summer was a great reality to us all. Hay-cutting began on the 20th (afterwards 25th) July, and the scene of operations was the wild prairie. The outer two miles of each river frontage belonged, for hay purposes, to the frontage owner up to a certain date, but for the most part cutting was done on prairie that was free as air to everybody. The best hay meadows were located in good time before the above date, and on the night before people were camped all around them. Each one knew pretty well just the spot he was going to strike next morning, and if more than one had their eyes on the same spot, it became the property of the one who reached there first and made a "circle" by cutting around the field he wished to claim. There was sometimes (in dry years when hay was scarce) great rivalry, and we have seen camps all ready to start on the stroke of midnight, and actually starting to mark out circles in a thunderstorm. We have seen a circle entered by another than the one who made it, but it was in the case of someone who had tried to circle the whole prairie for himself, and in such case the unwritten law of the camp said that it served him right. There was rarely any trouble to speak of, and we look back to the camp on the prairie with its many tents like a white village as a most delightful and health-giving experience. Practical jokes were common enough, it is true. We have known some of the boys to stampede a band of horses through the camp, to the alarm and even the possible danger of peaceful sleepers in the tents. In the matter of selecting a piece of hay-ground we have known a man who located a choice spot the night before, come into camp and turn his cart with the shafts pointing in the direction to which he was to go next morning, but some wag, suspecting the reason, got up under cover of the darkness and turned the cart so as to point exactly in the opposite way. In that case, though the joke was enjoyed by the camp, the, party on whom it was ‘played was not allowed to suffer. Mutual helpfulness was constant, and when prairie fires swept the plain and consumed the stacks of a settler, all the rest helped him out. I remember well when this happened once in the case of an uncle of mine, how the neighbors all joined together and put a hundred cart-loads into his farmyard next day. The rides home on Saturday evening after the week’s absence were amongst the most exciting and pleasing expei riences of hay-making time. Sometimes twenty or thirty horsemen were together, mostly on young horses, and races here and there were much in fashion. As we have observed, saddles were not plentiful, but they were improvised for the occasion. Flat bundles of hay, with cord-line stirrups, were considered good, though we have known a case in which a feint to apply a match necessitated the speedy removal of such a saddle—a task, however, not difficult, as no girth was used.

In the winter the stock, well housed, were fed from the hay-stacks, out of which the hay was pulled with a wooden hook. When the hand "hay-knife" was introduced from the States, it was an exceedingly popular instrument, and, the few that could be had made the round of the neighborhood, till it could not well be known to whom they belonged. It was alluding to this perhaps that my uncle (from whom we had borrowed his) one day coming over the snow-drifts into our hay-yard, said facetiously to my brother, "Boy Sandy, would you mind letting me have the loan of my hay-knife?" But Sandy was not to be outdone, and completely floored my uncle by coolly replying, "All right, uncle, but be sure to bring it back as soon as you are done with it."


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