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With excerpts from Timber Trails.

When the mill was closed in 1922, after the devastation of the 1919 fire, many people turned to other sources of livelihood. Among these people who persisted were those who thought that a living could be made by farming in the surrounding area.

Filing for homestead rights meant paying ten dollars for a quarter section of land. Ten acres of this land had to be broken and residence had to be maintained on the land six months out of each year for three consecutive years. When these requirements were fulfilled the title could then be claimed for the land.

With the onset of the Depression and the extensive drought conditions in southern Saskatchewan, an increased flow of homesteaders infiltrated the area around Big River. Many of these pioneers were sent by the government to establish a homestead in the uninhabited bushland. Still, more homesteaders came from other countries, and they too, thought that a new life could be built upon the foundations of a homestead.

Some of the new settlers were well-educated remittance men, while others were disillusioned homesteaders placed on the land after the war, by the Soldier Settlement Board. The hard times of the depression drastically struck these people. Often they were unemployed skilled workers, city residents, or educated people looking for work. They had no conception about farming, and they often lacked the general knowledge of bush survival. In some sad and unfortunate incidents, the machinery that the government supplied would be left untouched in the crates, because these people did not understand how to operate this farm equipment. Occasionally, families had no insight into how firewood was acquired and stocked for the winter months.

Those families that were able to cope with the workload, the instability of farm conditions and the isolation, were those that remained and took the initial steps towards making this area a farming community. These people gained their knowledge through practical experience, and when unknown situations arose, common sense prevailed. These were the people who survived.

The journey to the homestead was the initial barrier that faced the family. Following old Indian trails usually took them within proximity of their land, but there were the final few miles that wore out both man and his team. Once they managed to reach their destination, they were faced with a quarter section of land, often completely covered by one hundred and sixty acres of bush.

The priority of the homesteader was to build a home. A site was cleared and logs were cut and peeled. Construction of the house was difficult to work; especially lifting the heavy logs into place. Many times neighbours would help out, and in turn, would be repaid in the same fashion. During the time that the log cabin was being built, family members would be staying in temporary quarters, such as a tent or a quickly constructed lean-to. Barn Raising. When the house was built, and the season permitting, the homesteader would begin clearing land for a garden, grain, and hay crops. This task was perhaps the most laborious, especially if one did not or could not afford the machinery. Many homesteaders cleared their land with only a grub hoe and axe. Where seed was available, small grain crops were grown and harvested by hand. Putting up hay for the livestock for the winter months also meant many hours of backbreaking labour. A freshwater supply was also of utmost importance. Small creeks provided for this need, but if one was not fortunate enough to be able to rely on this source, a well had to be dug. This was usually a difficult process since most homesteads were without the appropriate equipment. Before a well could be dug, the family was resigned to hauling water, time-consuming menial task.

During this time, the homesteader not only had to cope with getting all the work done but was constantly fighting the heat, the cold, the rain and snow and the insects. Mosquitoes and horse flies used to plague both man and beast. During the hours spent out in the field, the team of horses would be covered in a grey blanket of mosquitoes. To relieve their misery, small smudges would be lit and hung between the horses. Also, smudges set near the barn would keep flies and mosquitoes from bothering the livestock. In the summertime, before going to bed at night, a small smudge would be carried through the house and by leaving the doors open; it would chase the majority of the insects outside. It was a temporary relief but it allowed for a peaceful night's sleep. Some women would buy netting material and make a frame over each bed and fasten the netting to the frame. This construction was called a 'mosquito bar'. Also, strips of newspapers would be fastened to the doorway, and when the wind blew it would rustle the papers and in turn, this would frighten the flies and keep them from coming in the open door. Those who were fortunate enough to have a screen door could keep cool without having to worry about hanging newspapers.

Window glass was also another household article that was difficult to obtain. Some homesteaders would wax flour bags and use them for windows. Although not transparent, it did offer a measured amount of light. Also, if a windowpane happened to get broken, a flour bag would be dipped in a flour and water batter, and when allowed to dry served as window glass. It was durable and also windproof.

Managing a household was also difficult work. The crude facilities constituted hard work for almost all household duties. Clothing was washed by hand using a scrub board and tub, and homemade lye soap. Patching and darning clothes had to be done in the daylight hours because a coal oil lamp did not give sufficient light for close work.
Viola, Mrs Huxted and Violet on the farm . Baking bread was a long, drawn-out process, as the yeast was slow rising. The dough was prepared in the evening and left to rise throughout the night. The next morning it was made into loaves and left to rise once more for a couple of hours before baking. Cooking on a wood stove sufficed in the winter months but during the summer the heat in the house would be unbearable. If an old stove could be found, cooking was done outside on hot days, even though mosquitoes and flies had to be contended with. This was more preferable than enduring the heat indoors. If you were lucky enough to have a wooden floor, they usually were bare. Wooden floors were cleaned by getting down on your hands and knees and using a scrub brush. Yard goods were beyond the means of most settlers, therefore curtains; sheets, pillowcases, and some clothing were made from flour sacks. These sacks were a plain off-white or were different coloured prints. If the settlers had sheep, the wool would be carded and knit into socks and mitts. Outer mitts would be made from a pattern and these would be worn over the woollen mitts, thus offering increased warmth against the severity of the winter months. Cupboards, bedside tables and stands, were often made from wooden orange or apple boxes. Many times the husband would have to leave the homestead during the winter months to secure a job. This money was needed to supplement the family income. During the summer the husband and wife would work on the homestead. Money could be obtained from selling butter, eggs, cream or milk, and at times, wild berries.

The trips to Big River to sell the farm produce, would offer the opportunity for both man and wife to visit friends and pick up the necessary food and farm supplies. This was also a good time to tend to medical needs, as the doctor was a long way from home.

Communication with the outside world was limited to listening to the radio, if the family was fortunate enough to own one, and by newspapers. However, the material contained within the newspaper was usually weeks old before the paper was received.

Each family, in its way, provided its entertainment, sometimes they would sing songs before retiring for the night, or listen to records on the old Thomas Edison gramophone. Perhaps they would just sit by the table and look through Eaton's Catalogue by the light of the coal oil lamp and dream of things they would like to buy when conditions improved. Social gatherings, card parties, dances, picnics and ball games were other means of entertainment.

Homesteading was a difficult, despairing way of life, yet not without its compensations for the people emerged from those Depression years with a profound respect for many things. As we look back on these pioneers and their way of life, we realize that they are truly admirable people.

Farm Life
Farm Life in the Early Times

Big River started and is still today a mill town, but with the coming of the rail line, settlers and their animals came with them. It seems that the first homesteads in the area were filed at Bodmin and just north of Town.

Cattle being used as draft animals.
Cattle being used as draft animals.

More often than not when homesteaders first filed on their quarter section, it was completely covered with bush. The first item on the agenda was to get shelter for the coming winter. Logs cut for the house and buildings were often the start of the clearing process.

The first land clearing was done by hand, the trees were cut, and the wood would be used for the ever-hungry stove, or be hauled to the settlement to be sold as cordwood. The stumps would be pulled out by horses or oxen after the roots had been cut off, an extremely hard backbreaking job. It needed four horses to pull the breaking plough. Later years brush cutting was done by a cat with a V blade, and a tractor was used to pull the breaking plough. This speeded up the process but was still very labour intensive. The clearing was sometimes done by fire, this also speeded the process up, but more often than not, the topsoil and peat moss was burnt off, leaving the land bare of nutrients and fibre. A detriment to the fertility of the land for years to follow.

Tony Leukin breaking land on a 1530 tractor, 1955.
Tony Leukin breaking land on a 1530 tractor, 1955.

The settlers brought with them their animals, cows to supply milk and meat and sometimes to be used as draft animals, chickens for eggs, pigs for meat, the odd time sheep for wool and meat, and horses. The days' work would begin with Chores, that is feeding the animals, milking the cows and cleaning the barn.

Livestock feed was sometimes in short supply, chickens could be left to fend for themselves, this was rather hard on the egg production but could be done, pigs could eat anything from grain to fish or deer if needed. The cows and horses were another matter. They had to be fed hay and the horses if working, grain, which was sometimes hard to come by. Many settlers came from the south with 4 or 6 horses to find in a year or so, that they were down to one that wasn't very healthy. The old-timers still argue whether this problem was caused by manger fever (starvation) or Swamp fever. Keeping the animals alive was hard work, whether it was the change in feed or the climate and all the mosquitoes and horseflies in the summer. Often the natural animals helped out in thinning the out the herd. Coyotes, bears, and weasels, mink all extracted their toll.

The woman's work on the Farm was usually being that of her husband. She was normally out there doing the chores and working on the land. Since there was no such thing as a daycare, the children were incorporated into the daily work schedule looking after the chickens cleaning the barn, the ever-present wood box to be filled and water for the house to be hauled. Usually, an older child would be left to look after the younger ones as well as preparing meals and doing the housework.

Women on the farm, 1945.
Women on the farm, 1945.

In addition to the farm labour, the time had to be taken out to do the normal "woman's work" such as washing clothes, scrub boards were commonplace. Large gardens had to be tended, and berries had to be picked. Preserving and canning of not only the fruit and vegetables but also the meats and fish. Electricity and the freezer were still a long ways away.

Often when money was in short supply and an opportunity for a job came up, the wife was left to keep the place operational while the man went out to earn some much-needed cash. Winters usually saw the men heading to the bush, fishing or on the freight swings.

For many financing was done, not with an operating loan at the bank, but at the local store. Items and supplies were bought on the account until the harvest was in. The local store owners not only sold goods and supplies but traded in things like furs and cordwood and railroad ties, because this was sometimes the only thing that the farmers had to offer to pay off on their accounts.

Food inspections weren't heard of in those days, and eggs, milk and butter, garden truck and butchered poultry made their way directly to the store. Pigs, Sheep and Cows were sometimes purchased on the farm, the store owner would come out to the farm and butcher on-site, with the meat going to feed the people of Big River.

At times animals would be hauled by wagon, sometimes by truck, to the stockyards, one located just south of town by the C.N. water tower and one at Bodmin, to be loaded on the train so they could be sold at Auction or shipped directly to the Burns slaughter plant in Prince Albert. Sometimes if enough neighbours had animals to go they would be driven into the corrals "Wild West " style with everybody helping out. Albert Fortine with a load of hay.

Hay and grain was another commodity that was needed for the freight swings, livery stable and the bush camps. Hay would have to be baled, to be hauled north. Baling in those days was done by a large box with a screw. The box would be forked full of hay, the lid placed on, then a horse would walk in circles around the baler tightening the screw, which compacted the hay. One hundred and twenty pounds was the normal weight of these bales. Oats were also needed to feed working horses. Oats would have to be bagged, on the farm or in town. In the early days of the elevator, more grain was imported into Big River than what was shipped out.

Albert Fortin with a load of hay.
Albert Fortin with a load of hay.

The early times of the Big River farming were hard. Determination and effort, along with some luck was needed to succeed. Some made it, others didn't, and each has their own stories of good and bad memories. To those that had the determination to stay with the land, that helped to build Big River into the community that we have today, may your work be done. Thank You for your efforts were not in vain.

Thrashing - Fred Baskott on the wagon, 1920.
Thrashing - Fred Baskott on the wagon, 1920.

Harvest in the early days.
Harvest in the early days. Diedrich Bergan and his horses.

Alphonse Laurin.
Alphonse Laurin and his grandchild on haysling lifting a load of hay into the barn, 1948.

Farming in the 60s and 70s
Clearing the land.

During this time frame, the development of the land happened at a pace never seen before in the Big River area. There was quite a number of brush cutting outfits that had full workloads. Some of the locals that plied this trade were Beebe, Meyers, Pederson, Siminot and Horner.

Clarence Pederson and his Cat.
Clarence Pederson and his Cat.

Clearing the land mostly happened in the wintertime, work would start after the ground froze. The brush was tramped, that is using a caterpillar to push over the trees going around the area in a race track pattern, it was very dangerous when doing the last sweep of an area because you would be working with some trees leaning the wrong way, care had to be taken not to have these trees coming up into the cab of the cat. After the area was tramped, piling then took place. Working across the grain of the tramping, the trees were then pushed into long piles or windrows, which after a couple of years of drying, would be burnt, re-piled and burnt again, then finally spread out and the leftover wood would be piled by hand and burnt again.

The mark of a good "cat operator" was how well the brush was cleaned off the field, was the pile tight, did he leave the dirt on the field and not in the pile. These were all things that were taken into consideration when contracting a brush cutter because the job not done right would mean a lot of work cleaning up the brush piles. Usually the following Summer, the cat would return with a breaking plough, either a mouldboard plough or a very heavy disk, The area between the brush piles would be "broke", then the serious work for the farmer would start. The new field would have to be worked down; countless hours of picking rocks and roots then followed. The new land would be put into production the following season, with "oats " usually being the first crop to be seeded between the brush piles.

Farming in the 60's and 70's
Grain Farming.

With the advance of time, the modern era hit the farming community. The machinery that was used prior with horses was being modified to be pulled behind tractors. The labour-intensive horse that needed to be fed and looked after year-round was being put out to pasture.

Seeding in the early days.
Seeding in the early days.

The improvements to the farming machinery slowly made there way up here from the prairies. The horse that could only be worked for a few hours a day, made way to the small tractor pulling six-foot one-ways and ten-foot cultivators, which then made way for eighty horse tractors pulling sixteen-foot machinery, then four-wheel drives utilizing forty-foot machinery and the modern zero till technology. As with the history of farming across North America, the farms were getting larger and the number of farmers diminishing.

The Homeniuk Farm.
The Homeniuk Farm, the coming of the small tractor.

In the '60s the threshing crews were prevalent. These crews were usually made up of neighbours, with one farmer owning the machine with everyone else pitching in with racks and labour. As with the prairies, this made way to the combines, which gradually grew in size to where they are now.

Grain farming was a risky business, late springs, and mid-August frosts were the rule rather than the exception. Short growing season crops, like barley, then later canola was grown because of this. To get a good crop of oats, you had to be lucky and get it seeded early. If you were lucky enough to get a crop of wheat, it would never be graded #1, because the elevator companies maintained that you could never grow wheat up here. Yet, Mr Gilbert was named Wheat King.

Neighorhood Combining Bee at Jack and Susan Reimers farm, mid 1980s.
Neighbourhood Combining Bee at Jack and Susan Reimers farm, mid 1980s.

With the loss of the elevator and the demise of the Crow Rate, (federal grain freight assistance) and falling grain prices, grain farming has reduced in stature from the heydays of the '70s and '80s. The Rail line was pulled out of Big River in the late '90s. This made getting the crop to the market more difficult for the smaller operators. The grain had to be hauled to Debden, and then farther away because the grain handling companies were closing all the smaller elevators. The closest elevator that a farmer can now haul grain is to Shellbrook. A large amount of the fields have been turned over to produce forage and pasture for the beef industry.

Cattle Industry

In the early times, most everyone had a small number of cows, mostly of mixed breeding, with shorthorn being predominate. This breed was a dual-purpose animal producing a decent amount of milk, yet had carcass size and the ability to withstand the extremes of our weather and the insects of summer.

In the early times putting up the winter's supply of feed was an onerous task. The hay was put up loose, with horses being the main power supply. The rest of the work was done by hand. Summer was a time of camping out at the meadows for weeks at a time, only coming home to replenish the feed supply for horses and men.

Winter meant heading out to the meadows to haul feed in for the hungry animals, early in the morning with two hayracks and teams. This took a couple of hours to get to the meadows, load the feed, and then the return trip home was a full days work. Many times the horses would be sent on the trail home by themselves, with the man walking behind to stay warm.

The horses, knowing that they were heading home to a warm barn would quicken the pace, arriving well before their owner. The wife would have to go out and get them unhitched before the horses tried to pull the rack into the barn. There were many a worried thoughts about the safety of her man until he came in cold and tired from a long day's work.

The tractor improved things, not only did the use of things like hydraulics reduce some of the manual work, tractors only required fuel, not feed, to keep them operating. With the reduced need for horses, more hay was available to feed to cattle. Clearing the land and mechanization, like the small square baler, again reduced the amount of labour required to feed livestock and the numbers of animals increased again.

With the advent of mechanization, with the modern tools of the haybine and large round baler a single man can produce feed enough for a hundred or more cows. With the demise of the crow rate and with modern machinery, most of Big River's farmland is now being utilized as a base for a major cow/calf industry.

In May of 2003, the Canadian cattle industry had a major set back. Mad Cow disease was found in a herd in Alberta. This closed the Canadian border to exports of meat and live animals for the summer, in the fall processed meat started to move across the line again. Feeder animals regained close to their previous value until another animal was found in the states. The consequences of this disease have yet to be completely established but we know that the cattle industry will never be the same.

Calving Time.
Calving Time.

The Dairy Industry


There seem to have been several small milk delivery routes in the early days of Big River and many of the local residents kept their own cow in the backyard.

Swea and Gus Swanson delivered cans of milk to the hotel and restaurants, from the farm. They pulled the full milk cans into town on a hand sleigh on their way to school. Often they had one of the younger children sit on the can to give it balance and keep it from tipping. During the summer a small wagon was used.

Around 1913, Albert Fortin ran a large herd of milk cows and had a milk route in town. His farm was west of the Forestry. A little later, Thomas Tremblay established a milk route and delivery in town from his farm just south on Ladder Lake. The Tremblay sons Gaudoise and Gus helped with this. Some of the round tokens used as milk tickets are still around today as souvenirs.

Charlie Michel and family operated a milk service from their home property, which was just east of the present-day Max Wilson home. Mr Tallman had a milk business too. It was operated from his farm home about two miles down the railway tracks along the river.

The largest milk supply and delivery was that of Joseph Otte, who supplied a daily delivery to residents for many years. His dairy farm was just north of where George Otte's home is now. He had a barn there and ran a fairly large herd on the quarter section. Mr Otte was also a market gardener, so he supplied fresh garden produce to residents as well. George Otte took over the dairy after his father retired and continued in this business for many years. In the late 1940s, he sold out to Armand Chenard and a year later it was sold to Hubert Michel. Many can recall the large white wagon and faithful horse, Bob, used to make deliveries each day. It proved to be a favourite place "to catch a ride" and many young boys and girls made the rounds with the milk wagon. Milk was selling for seventeen cents a quart at that time.

Pasteurization became the law in the early 1950s so the small dairies were forced out of business, as the expensive equipment necessary for pasteurization was not practical in such a small area. Milk has since been brought in from Prince Albert on transport trucks.


During the early 1920s, a group of local farmers went into the cheese-making business. Bruno Lemiere was the man who looked after the processing of the cheese while the farmers supplied the milk. The location of the first cheese factory was where the Bergen home is today. The business flourished for several years before it was dissolved.

A few years later, O.P. Godin backed Fred Croteau and cheese production began again in the same location. However, to produce cheese, milk had to be received early in the morning, road conditions were so poor that the farmers had difficulty in delivering the milk. This caused the factory to close down again after two summers operation.

In 1940, another cheese factory was established after an application had been approved by the Dairy License Board of the province. The factory was managed by George Croteau of Debden. Part of the financial backing was provided by O.P. Godin, a local merchant. This was during the war years and the need for the production of local cheese was necessary because the supply from overseas was nonexistent. Milking cows was a part of farm life for many in the earlier years. The milk was separated, the skim milk was fed back to the calves, or pigs if there was no other use or sale. The cream was sold or butter was made to be sold in town.

After the laws were changed regarding pasteurization, the cream was shipped in five or eight gallon "cream cans" first by train then later by truck to provincial dairy in Prince Albert. The last depot for the cream cans in Big River was behind Godin's store. With the changing farming practices, increased food safety rules and the introduction of quotas and supply management, small milking herds disappeared in the late '70s and early '80s. The weekly cream check that was used to purchase the necessities of life was no more.

A couple of modern dairies under the quota system were established in the Big River area. The Fred Billinger family operated one north of Big River for many years, Fred and Leona retired from the Dairy industry in the mid-'90s. Norbert Pilon operated in the West Cowan area for a short time in the 70's.

Those wanting "real Milk" do the only milking that is done in the Big River area today for family use.

Milk Truck.
Milk truck picking up the last shipment of milk at Fred and Leona Billingers. August, 1995.

Hog Industry

Hogs were a part of almost every farm in the early settlement times. A few pigs were kept for sustenance. The fat would be rendered down to supply lard. The hams and bacon were salted or smoked. This allowed for safe storage for the summertime before the arrival of electricity and freezers. If there was extra it could be sold to provide some much-needed cash flow, or to lower the account at the local store.

Big River area was not host to any large hog operations, with some of the largest herds having maybe ten sows, with most having one or two. That is except for Garth Hannigan's operation just north of Town. He ran a one hundred sow, farrow to finish hog barn. At times he had close to a thousand animals, quiet a large operation for the times. After Garth's retirement, there has not been much in the way of a hog industry around Big River. The odd farmer has a few hogs for personnel use.

Wild boar was thought of as diversification measures in the '90s. Several people established small herds but the demand for the product has not been great, so no major commercial attempts have been made.

Sheep and Wool

Some of the early settlers, being of European ancestry, brought with them the farming practices from the home country. Wool production and slaughter lambs being one of these. With Sheep being small, and able to thrive on poorer feed and well insulated against the cold, should have been an easy thing to raise in the Big River area. The abundance of predators, namely Coyotes, made things difficult to prosper with sheep. The wool was welcome for knitting socks when used with moccasin rubbers, was the mainstay in footwear for the fishermen, freighters and other outdoor men.

The wool was sheared, and what wasn't kept for home use was shipped out to the mills. With the increased use of synthetics, wool has lost its viability as a farming venture. There were a few small flocks in the Big River area but raising sheep seem to be a thing of the past.

Specialty Farming

Bison Production

With the coming of the 1990s diversification in farming was the main factor. Bison was one of these concerns. While Bison or buffalo are somewhat native to the area, little thought was given to raising them in an agricultural setting. This changed in the 90's. The Watiers from Clear Water, Crashleys from Ladder Valley and Ritchies from Black Duck areas soon did the fencing and had herds established. Arnold Lueken established a herd about five years later.

George and Arlene Ritchie built their herd around some strong genetics. This made their reputation in the industry. They also boarded animals for several other people in the Big River area. They were able to put Big River on the map when they had a bull sale at Agribition. A lot of the industry was soon checking the Double R herd before making their bull buying decisions.

The Bison industry lost its bloom at the turn of the century. The herds had been established, but a slaughtering facility and market for the meat had not made the gains required to keep the industry growing. The industry is in a holding pattern until producers can market their slaughter animals at a profitable level.

Elk Production

The diversification efforts of the '90s have seen a couple of Elk ranches introduced to the area. Breeding Stock and Antler Velvet were the main sources of income from these efforts. The Buckingham herd was just nicely established when Canadian Food Inspections started testing the Canadian Herds Chronic Wasting Disease. Animals purchased to establish the herd came from one of the infected herds, and therefore the Buckingham herd was slaughtered and tested by CFIA as a precaution against the spread of the disease.

The Hodgsons also established a herd, which have survived the CWD slaughter. They have incorporated a hunting farm into the operation as a way of increasing the profitability of the herd.

Trophy Elk.
Trophy ranch bull Elk, co-owned by Ken and Sharon Hodgson.

Mink Ranching

Mink ranching started in North America in the 1920s. With the abundance of water, hence the availability of fish for feed, several ranches developed in the Big River area. Mink were fed a mixture of groundfish, commercial mink meal and rolled oats, which was usually cooked. In a year when rabbits were plentiful, locals often went out shooting rabbits, which were then sold to the mink ranches for ten cents apiece, this made an enjoyable afternoon profitable if you were a good shot.

Mink were raised in cages, they had to be fed and watered once or twice a day and the cages had to be kept clean and dry. The young or Kits were usually born in May with litter sizes averaging four. The harvesting of pelts would happen in late November after some of the cooler weather would thicken the fur.

Several factors lead to the demise of the Mink ranching industry, the most noticeable was overproduction, which flooded the markets and caused the fur prices to drop. Animal rights groups that were determined to destroy the fur industry also caused a major swing in the fashion trends that made owning a fur coat not so desirable, all things combined made the fur industry a money-losing venture. Most of the local Mink ranchers pelted out their stock in the 1970's bring to an end another story of Big River History.

Some of the people involved with Mink ranching were Edwin Olson. John Thompson, John Klassen, Melvin Martin, Chris Christiansen.

Honey Production

Honey production in the Big River area has been around since before the Second World War. It fit in nicely with the homesteader attitude of if you didn't grow it or pick it, you didn't have it. Many farmers had a few hives to help supplement the farm income or assist in putting a different type of food on the table.

During the Second World War, when rationing was in effect, you would be able to get a larger sugar allotment to assist in feeding the bees, the honey produced was a bonus.

The first commercial honey producer was Ed Mumm. The Hannigan family purchased this operation when they moved to Big River. In the '60s the fields were small, with early and late frosts good honey crops were a hit and miss thing. With the advances in farming in the '70s and the introduction of rapeseed canola into the cropping rotation, honey production began to pick up. The '70s brought Earl and Josephine Emde (the American Emde) to Big River. This was the second commercial operation in Big River.

The late seventies and early eighties saw an increase in the number of hives being operated out of the Big River area. Dick Shea moved in from Saskatoon and was soon operating north of town. Christopher Warriner to the West of town and Roy Gear was based in the Ladder Valley area. Also during this time, Hannigans moved to Shellbrook, and Fred and Noreen Emde purchased the Earl Emde operation. For a few years, Ron Miksa ran the Gear operation, this was then later sold to Bill Zacharias.

Big River is presently a base for Emde Apiaries, Bill Zacharias and West Cowan Apiaries. These operations control approximately two thousand hives, producing close to half a million pounds of premium water white honey annually, providing summer work for young people during the summer holidays.

Four beehives wrapped for winter.
Four beehives wrapped for winter.

Forage Seed Production

In the early days, alfalfa was grown for livestock feed and if lucky a seed crop could be harvested. The nature of the fields at the time, being small usually with brush piles, lead to an abundance of natural pollinators. This worked well for producing alfalfa seed. Bumblebees and such worked the flowers at a lower temperature, and in most of the early years, a substantial crop of seed could be harvested which amounted into the hundreds of dollars. A sizable amount of cash for the times. Alfalfa seed production was such an industry that a seed producer's co-op was formed for marketing. They had a warehouse someplace in the vicinity of the present-day Health Centre.

With increasing the size of fields, thus reducing nesting habitat and the use of pesticides, the population of natural pollinators have reduced. Present-day alfalfa seed production requires the use of leafcutter bees for pollination. This bee requires a temperature of better than twenty degrees before they will forage. Alfalfa seed production has become sporadic, relying heavily on the weather. A very hot summer is required to produce yields that were commonplace in the earlier times. Some of the people that are presently leaf cutter beekeepers and Alfalfa seed producers are Grant Woods and Walter Wiebe.

In earlier times Mr Alex Pukanski had grown timothy for seed in the South Stoney area. The seed was harvested and the straw was used to feed horses on the freight swings.

Wild Rice

Wild rice is somewhat native to northern Saskatchewan, although it did not grow in great volume without the assistance of man. It grows in the shallower waters of the lakes and rivers of northern Saskatchewan. A viable business opportunity was realized in the late '80s and early '90s, The market price of wild rice was profitable enough to do some scarifying of the seedbeds and more acres was sown to wild rice than ever before. Modern methods for harvesting are to use an airboat, with a bar across the front and a catcher basket. The rice is then taken to La Ronge or shipped to Ontario for processing and packaging.

Rice farming like any other agricultural product has its cycles and hazards from nature, early frosts, high or low water levels and overproduction all have taken effect in the recent years. But rice harvested from the pristine beauty of the Big River area has graced the tables of North America and Europe.

Some of the producers involved in the Wild Rice industry are Ron Hodgson, Halvor Ausland, McCutcheon brothers, Henry Meyers, Lawrence Lacendre and John Fonos.

The Big River Community Pasture
Excerpts from Timber Trails with additions

The Big River Community Pasture in the Rapid Bend district came about in 1961 with a land clearing crew of Marsh and Jones starting to clear the land. In 1962, the pasture was fenced and cross-fenced on about one half of its expected eight thousand one hundred and forty-five acres. In 1963, the first cattle were entered into the pasture. It was mainly a relief pasture to start with because of the severe drought in the south. Cattle came from as far away as Saskatoon, Viscount and even Regina. Some of these patrons still attend the pasture. The first manager was Art Kennedy, who looked after the pasture for about two years. Then Sherman Harty took over for a couple of years before going to Jackson Lake pasture when Art Kennedy took over again in 1965. In 1966, Jim Panter commenced duties as pasture manager. Upon his retirement in 1985, Sherman Harty returned to operate both Jackson Lake and Big River Pastures. This practice of one manager for both pastures continues to the present day Kelly Price took over as Manager for a couple of years until he was badly injured in a car accident. The present Manager is Lee Holbrook. Lee and his family reside on the west side of the pasture.

The pasture covers about fifty-two quarters of land consisting mostly of sloughs, muskegs or land too rocky to farm. A major clearing project in 1976, when one thousand three hundred acres were cleared and broke, brought up the cleared land in the pasture to over 3800 acres, improvements since has brought the total of cleared land to just over 5000 acres.

The capacity of the pasture in its early days was approximately six hundred to seven hundred head of adult cattle with the present capacity of nearly two thousand adult cattle. Over the last number of years, the capacity of the pasture has declined because of drought conditions, for the summer of 2003, there were approximately 1100 cow/calf pairs.

Cutting Firewood at Sam Reed's.
Sawing firewood at Sam Reed's, Sam Reed, Mike Skopyk, George Cook, Elwood Watson, Oscar Reed.

Ernest Doucette and Alphonse Laurin taking Bunkhouses up to logging camp on the north end of Cowan Lake, 1940.

Walter Hegland's Coffee Shop.
At Walter Hegland's Coffee Shop at the Dore Lake Forks, 1948.

Neufeld Children.
Gary, Richard and Bruce Neufeld, 1962.

Burt Children.
Murray, Donna, Lawrence and Neil Burt, 1936.

Aileen Herdman.
Aileen Herdman (Daley) with Grandpa Herdman.


Author: Webmaster -
"Date Modified - March 17, 2024"

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