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The Life of James Robertson

FULLY occupied though he is with his congregation, he never loses his touch with the mission work in the new country. On his return from Palestine he makes his report to Presbytery in regard to his experience while West. He carries with him a petition from the Palestine congregation signed by over eighty people, asking for organization, and promising three hundred dollars for the first year, should they get a minister. The fathers and brethren listen amazed to his story. The extraordinary vigour of the man, his resourcefulness, his promptitude in seizing the favourable opportunity and in getting things done, impresses them much. He has been in the country less than three months and yet during that short period he has firmly gripped the mission situation and has gathered such a store of facts about the country and the people as to astonish those who have been there years before him. And no wonder, for they have each been so heavily burdened with their own immediate labours that they have allowed a new world to grow up about them of which they have only the vaguest knowledge.

The Presbytery granted the petition from Palestine, erecting it into a supplemented congregation and by a formal vote, recorded its appreciation of the efficient service rendered.

"And to reward me," he writes, "sent me back to Portage la Prairie, High Bluff and Burnside, to try and organize there. Ministers here apparently are afraid of speaking of money to the people, and I am supposed to have cheek for any business of that kind. Mr. Matheson, their own minister, and Mr. Fraser are to be there, but it appears that I am to have charge of the money. I go away to-morrow morning and am to be back for next Sabbath."

The story of that trip he shares, as he shares all his experiences, with his wife. The letter is dated from Winnipeg, March 16th, 1874:

"MY DEAR MARY ANNE : —"When I wrote last week I told you I was going away to the West as far as Burnside, by appointment of presbytery, to hold meetings in reference to their petition for ordained supply. We left here Tuesday morning, Mr. Fraser and myself, with a snail-paced horse. Got as far as White Horse Plains, twenty-six miles from Winnipeg. The day was clear but frosty and we got on well. Next day we stopped at a tavern to water Mr. Fraser’s horse. I went into the supposed barroom to warm. Found at the door quite a strong smell—saw a stove and a couple of calves warming themselves at it—milk pails and a general litter on the table. Faced left about and saw another calf at the foot of a flight of stairs with a litter of straw, and thought I was there long enough and had seen enough. Mr. Fraser comes in after me, takes in the whole situation at once. A door opens at the rear of calf-parlour and the kitchen stove is seen in full blast. The host informs us that he entertains bovine and not human guests for the present, and we leave, ruminating over the beauties of prairie scenery. Got dinner in good style at Poplar Point, about seventeen miles from any houses. Charley was fed some barley but did not eat it. Felt afraid he was going to give out, but he did very well. Rather an amusing incident occurred. We both got out

of the cariole and let the horse go on. He walked slowly, and when we came up to him we gave him two or three cuts and sent him on his way rejoicing. This was done several times, the horse trotting away for some distance and then slackening till we overtook him. At last when he would see us coming near he would run off before we got up to him. Finally, we got tired and wanted to ride, but Charley felt shy, and when we called Whoa, he would dart off and leave us behind. This was very amusing for a time, but when we began to contemplate walking all the way it was serious. We stole up quietly behind Charley, and before he saw, Mr. Fraser got so near that although Charley started off, Mr. Fraser got a hold of the cariole behind. After some running, he managed to leap on board and stopped him.

"We got to Poplar Point in good time, got tea at Mr. F—’s brother’s and went away to the meeting. They had got it announced that I was going to preach, and we found a good congregation gathered. Told Mr. Fraser that Presbytery had sent us on a purely business errand, but that I would preach if so announced. Did so and held a meeting after to see what they would give if they got service every Sabbath instead of every alternate Sabbath." He is instinctively finding his way. This method of mingling business and preaching he will prove during many years of experiment, to be sound and profitable. First he will hold up to men’s wonder and gratitude the marvellous benefits of the Gospel, then call upon their loyalty in its support. And wherever the Gospel has found a home in the heart, there the call will never fail of response. "We got one hundred and fifty dollars subscribed, and some three heads of families yet to see. This is about double of what we got last year. Had meeting at Portage la Prairie Thursday forenoon and had elders to ordain. Preached and addressed elders, and Mr. Fraser the people. Held other meeting after and explained the whole case to people. Got one hundred and fifty dollars subscribed, and this will be made up to two hundred dollars at least. Went back to Mr. Matheson’s (Mr. M— is missionary here) for dinner and went to Burnside for the evening. Had a good meeting. Got Mr. F— coaxed to preach as I did not wish to do all the work. He consented on the understanding that I would do all the money talk. We got one hundred and twenty-one dollars, with the prospect of one hundred dollars more. Think we will get about five hundred and sixty dollars. This where only two hundred and eighty dollars at most, was promised (promised but not yet paid) last year. This year only some five hundred dollars all told given to missions. That Western field will itself with Palestine give nine hundred dollars, not to speak of Springfield and Sunnyside, Rockwood, Little Britain, Headingly, etc." To persuade people in their circumstances to increase their givings from $280 to $560 is a good bit of work well done, for money is scarce as yet in the country and with many the church is the last thing paid for. The fire, however, is burning in his own heart. He does not blame the people so much. They are not ungenerous. They are poor enough, and they have not yet caught the glow of missionary enterprise. The great need as he sees it is that of leadership. "The great difficulty is the sort of men they have here. There is no push, no system. Men are men of small ideas and little zeal. I do hope they may get some vigorous man to take hold in Winnipeg and work up the whole province. . . . I sometimes get out of patience with some of the men here. The Church has lost a great deal by not having the right material in the field. I have written privately to Mr. Cochrane about the whole matter." We should much like to have a reading of that letter, for he has a fine gift of descriptive phrases in such cases. More and more he is beginning to feel the pull of this magnificent work. "People wish me to take some Western field. What would you say to High Bluff or Portage la Prairie or Palestine ? Should I come, one man says he will give fifty dollars. He now gives twenty-five dollars. Another will give twenty-five dollars who gives five dollars now. How would you like to be out on the prairie or on the lee side of a poplar bluff ? I told every. body that I had a congregation at home and could think of nothing but them now." This last we venture to doubt. He is loyal to his congregation, but mighty thoughts are moving beneath that bit of pleasant suggestion to his wife whose heart will beat the quicker with premonitory fears as she reads.

Finishing his work, he goes back to Winnipeg, but not without incident through which his sense of humour sustains him.

"Got a man to take me down to Poplar Point Friday, so that I might come with the mail Saturday. Got down in good time. Very stormy through night. Up at 3 :15 A. M., stopped at mail driver’s house. Had a shake-down on floor—he on spree night before. Got up at 3: 15—thought he was to get ready, and I got up and dressed. He went to bed again and there I was. Got a fire on and after some time wife, etc., got up and got breakfast. At daylight we got off. Wind blew furiously and snow drifted badly. Crossed over large prairies but did not find it difficult to go. Changed horses twice and got to Winnipeg at 2 P. M., forty-two miles, tired out." And small wonder, poor soul, and with the duties of the morrow waiting him which he discharges as follows: "Preached yesterday—twice here and in the afternoon at Kildonan for Mr. Black. Congregations very good."

Now he must buckle down to his congregational work which sadly wants doing, so he congratulates himself:

"I have no more work to do outside now than what I may do of my own accord— at least I think so." Let us hope so indeed. But from the little we have seen we may not be blamed if we ask leave to doubt.

With all energy he throws himself into his congregational work, but through it all he is conscious that this wretched bickering of the two parties, stand aloof as he will, chills his spirit and hampers him in his ministerial labours. He has never yet preached with his accustomed freedom, but he will continue to do his best.

"I am going to undertake visitation as soon as possible. I think we will take two or three families every evening as we can. Hope to get Mr. McV— or some other of the elders with me. We have a prayer-meeting on Wednesday and I take charge. Young men’s class in the Sabbath-school I conduct too. Plenty of work for me to do all the time I am here, but must do the best I can with it. I felt very much the difficulty here of which I heard nothing till I came. Hope for the best, but do not expect that the Old Kirk party and our people will ever get on well here." And so through the spring months he toils away at his preaching and his visitations, his classes and his meetings. But deep as he gets into his congregational work, he has ever an eye for the larger movements in the Church and the country about him.

On the 30th of April he writes to his wife, with whom he shares his every experience:

"Bryce and myself got up a Home Mission scheme and presented it to Presbytery. Till that time Fraser goes west to Portage la Prairie, Mr. MeKellar goes to Palestine, Currie to Rockwood, Vincent to Pembina and Emerson settlements. Mr. Fraser is to moderate in a call to Palestine in June and Donaldson in Portage la Prairie. I got my plan carried out in dividing this field, and I hope that Matheson will be called and settled here at once when he comes back. Palestine people think of calling Mr. Ferguson of Glenmorris. Things are moving on energetically and if some push was manifested, we would soon take a leading part." Energetically enough if only one could be found to pour the hot fire of this man’s enthusiasm into scheme, system or plan. One wonders how the fathers and brethren of the Presbytery regard this arranging and rearranging of fields, this calling and settling of men. Do they realize what is happening Doubtless some do and the nobler souls are rejoicing. But have a care, young man, you are very considerable of a tenderfoot as yet!

The country, with its present needs and its prospects, ever stirs his eager interest.

"I am afraid," he writes about the middle of April, "that the river will not break up for some time yet, although should such weather as we have continue, I would not wonder to see it open by the first of May. Am afraid a change will set in in a day or two again, and then we would get another siege of slush. I am informed that the Missouri River is open right up to the boundary line; if so, the Red will soon be open too. I am afraid that if not, it will be difficult to get mails out or in for about a month. Frost is not out of the ground at all yet. I am not sure it ever gets out. They have moved a building away from a lot on the front street, and they commenced digging a cellar. Frost was down under the building six feet! They are boring the ground and blasting with gunpowder as if it were rock! It certainly beats all I have ever seen in the shape of frost. The roads here, however, never wait for the frost to get out before drying up. A good part of the road is dry now, although only thawed to . the depth of a few inches. Should rain come, however, I am afraid things will be in an awful mess. It is heavy to-day and such may be the issue. The city is not drained or sidewalked yet, and it is difficult to get away from the main street. The Council are going to do something this summer, I understand. All people provide themselves with boots for the mud. Dr. Clark bought a pair and paid fourteen dollars for them! They are like my high boots with this difference, that there was a lining of leather opposite the seams. They are supposed to be water-tight, but I do not know. I am not to invest in that line."

Canny Scot! Let Dr. Clark experiment if he likes. He will tie on his rubbers and wade through the Winnipeg mud, tenacious, greasy and black though it be. "Rubbers are good, but no person can keep them on unless tied to the boot or foot. Mud is very tenacious, greasy and black. I think the whole is the deposit at the bottom of a lake. There is no making of a road from such stuff. It is all good, dry and hard in a short time, but when wet, I am told, you go down—down—down till you can’t get downer. The great wonder to me is, how coolly the people take the whole matter. I begin to think now that Manitobans can put up with any sort of thing—cold, mud, peace or rebellion." But philosophic as Manitobans may be, there are certain things even they cannot endure. "There has been a good deal of discontent in the city because of the delay in commencing public works. The greater part of the country has had no crop for two years and grain of all kinds having to be imported, money has gone out rapidly. Hence, there is little or none here just now, nor is there anything to bring it in but public works till people can export provisions. Having to import food, clothes, etc., and having only the little money from the fur trade and that brought in by immigrants, the amount is small. Hence the desire that the Government should spend as much money as possible till the Province should grow a little. We think things are more favourable now. There has been a great scarcity of employment so far. The most of the men here are now engaged, but yet many are seen lounging about the city. Of course, if a person has enough to keep him he can go out and work on a farm and do well, but if not, there has not been a great deal to do here this spring, aud board is very high. The weather has been favourable for spring work, and every person is putting in all he has. Government has been furnishing seed wheat at two dollars per bushel to all who wished to buy. The spring was not so late as we would think. Wheat was sown here on the 29th of April, and farther west I suppose earlier."

With the Red River farmers, too, this spring is one full of trial.

"Things are very slack here just now," he observes. "There is little or no money in the country. All along the Red River there was no crop last year. Grain and provisions were brought in from Minnesota, and money went out in exchange for it. This has left the country bare of all money. The old settlers here are not rich. In the early days they had no market, properly speaking, for their grain, and often they put in none at all because they had enough. They lived on from year to year and sowed and reaped much as you get your wood. If you have a good pile there is no need of getting the sawing-machine this year. Many, in fact most of them, cultivated but little strips of land, enough to keep them well. Now there is a good market, but grasshoppers have troubled them for two years, so that no crop has been raised." But already the optimism of the West has possessed his soul. Not even the devastating grasshoppers can damp his spirit, so he continues, "They think that there will be none this year, and if so quite a change will take place. Of course, they did not trouble the whole province. At the Portage and west of that there was a good crop. Heard a few days ago the lowest estimate of Mr. McK—’s crop. He is a farmer west of Portage. This is from himself.

Wheat at least 3,000 bushels at $1.50 = $4,500.00

Barley " " 1,000 " " 1.25 = 1,250.00
Onions" " 300 " " 2.50 = 750.00
Potatoes " 1,000 " " 1.00 = 1,000.00
Peas and Oats 150 " " 1.00 = 150.00
Carrots and Turnips 500 " " .50 = 250.00

Total $7,900.00

This is the crop, exclusive of all he made from stock, and this is the lowest estimate. What he made was nearer $10,000. He made a great deal from stock, selling cows at from fifty to seventy dollars, and oxen at two hundred dollars and upwards per yoke. He is, however, the largest farmer in the country. Such prices cannot be realized for another year, I think, but yet for a good time to come there must be a good market."

His optimism is of the kind that demands exact knowledge. His insatiable greed for statistics is beginning to assert itself. Occasionally he allows himself to take the wings of hearsay and soar into the regions of prophecy.

"A good many people are expected in here this year; they think about five thousand will come. There is plenty of land for them, and I trust it may be taken up. Government is going to build a railroad from Pembina to Winnipeg next summer. It is also going to put a bridge across Red River, and put up several public buildings. This will cost a good deal, and hence a good deal of money must be spent in the next summer in employment of men. Wages have been very high all along, but I think that they must be lower. A larger number of people will be employed on land this year that were about the city last summer because no land was cultivated." But his mind soon swings back to his own special business. "Quite a stir was made here by a sale of lots in the town of Totogan at the foot of Lake Manitoba. A large number bought lots at one hundred dollars, fifty feet by one hundred and twenty. Did not care to invest in that town site, but got a lot for our Church there by getting Bryce to buy one. We have numbers thirty-seven and thirty-eight on the map—a corner, as you see. We have a fund here for such purposes. I am going to recommend the Presbytery to give services there next summer and connect it with the First Crossing of the White Mud. We must live in the future here, and if I can give any life to things here I must do Where Totogan is in this day of grace, none but the old timers know. But wherever it is, let us hope that corner lot is registered in the name of the Presbyterian Church.

He has now been away from his wife and family for three months and a half and occupied as he is with congregational, Church and State affairs, in the pauses of his work he feels keenly this his first separation from those he loves, and his letter closes as ever with a word of tender longing and of loneliness.

"Kiss our children for me. Hope you are all well and that you enjoy yourselves. Would wish much to have you even for an hour, but must say nothing. Time will soon pass. Have only eleven more Sabbaths. That won’t be long passing if all spared and well."

And once more the mother kisses the children, tucking them safely in bed and sets herself to wait for the passing of eleven more Sabbaths, with never a thought of the long vista of lonely Sabbaths the years will bring her.

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