WEST OF THE SASKATCHEWAN RIVER -- A NIGHT ON THE PLAINS -- A LODGE IN THE WILDERNESS -- PRAIRIE FIRE -- FIRST DAYS OF SASKATOON -- MAROONED IN MIDSTREAM.
Towards the end of October 1905, my husband made an arduous journey while inspecting and selecting some ten thousand acres in the wild unsettled country west of the South Saskatchewan. There was no railway in that region, and he hired a tough little team and buggy at Saskatoon. A teamster was taken along as it was a remote country to explore alone with winter close at hand. The ponies were good travellers, and the first day's drive carried them about sixty miles to the homestead of a family named Manson, on the western frontier of a sparsely settled district. They passed the night there, and early the following morning started in the direction of the land to be examined.
Before leaving Manson's, they were informed that a settler named Bigelow was established about thirty miles to the west. The section, township and range were carefully noted. Other habitation there was none, and Zack decided to make for that place to spend the night.
It was a clear fall day; the sun was bright overhead, but a sharp whip to the air boded the coming of winter. It was a noble country into which they had come. To the north and west as far as vision extended the land lay almost dead level. The soil was rich and heavy, similar to that of the Regina Plains, and ideal for cereal production. Neither stone nor tree could be seen. A ten-mile furrow could have been driven without encountering any impediment. Far to the south, the country rose in gradual acclivity to a range of low hills that, blue and misty, appeared on the horizon.
Occasionally a coyote trotted off before the advancing team, prairie chicken was flushed from the thick grass, and once they came upon a herd of pronghorn antelope. They stood as motionless as stone effigies until, startled by the rattle of the wheels, they darted away, skimming the prairie at incredible speed. Here and there the ground was strewn with buffalo bones. The locality must have been one of the last refuges of the animals, for in some places the, skeletons still held together.
In all his experience of the prairies my husband said he had never seen so large a tract of uniformly good land. And well has it been vindicated. Since then it has become a country of prosperous and well-cultivated farms and has produced millions, yes, hundreds of millions of bushels of grain. Such towns as Rosetown, Dinsmore, Elrose, Zealandia and many others are today situated within its boundaries, and its fame as a wheat region has spread far beyond the confines of Canada. In a word, it is the famous "Goose Lake" country.
The district had recently been surveyed and each section was easy to locate owing to the freshly erected corner mounds with iron stakes bearing metal plates, upon which the legal description of each six hundred and forty acres was inscribed. These mounds stood up so clearly on the level prairie that, although they were a mile apart, it was often possible to drive directly from one to the other without having to resort to a compass.
By sundown, Zack and his driver found themselves some fifteen miles from the place where Bigelow's homestead was supposed to be located, and they started to drive in that direction, trusting to the survey mounds to keep them right.
The night had come down frosty and a bright moon rode a hard metallic sky. Driving was a cold business despite heavy coats. About ten o'clock they took their bearings and found they were on the corner of the section that was their objective. But the level plain lay before them, and although it was visible for a considerable distance in the sharp moonlight there was not a sign of human presence. Zack fired his gun and the report was almost deafening in the frosty stillness. They listened, but there was no answering sound. They quartered the whole section but found no trace of man or beast.
It was apparent that they had been misdirected. To return to Manson's that night was out of the question: the horses were much too weary. There was neither fuel nor shelter in that wide expanse. In their rather aimless driving, they came upon a wheel track. It was faint and disused, but it had once been a prairie trail of sorts. The driver, who was getting panicky, turned his team on it and, heading directly south, urged the ponies into a sharp trot.
"Where are you going?" asked my husband.
"This trail will take us somewhere," he rejoined.
"I am not so sure of that," answered Zack. "We are pretty far to the westward. It may be the old mail trail between Swift Current and Battleford, and if so and we keep our present direction, the first place we can reach will be Saskatchewan Landing, a good fifty miles away. Bigelow lives somewhere around here; pull up your horses and we will stay right on this spot of ground until morning when we will surely be able to find his place."
The driver required some persuading before he eventually agreed to this course, but finally, the horses were unhitched and, after being hobbled, turned out to forage for themselves.
The hard and frosty prairie was by no means an inviting couch, but there was nothing else for it. My husband took off his jacket and removing his boots wrapped it about his feet. Rolling himself in his fur coat he lay down upon an old horse blanket, advising the driver to follow his example and share his couch. That individual, however, had other ideas. He kept his boots and coat on and sought slumber as he was, suffering dreadfully from cold during the night. My husband managed to get some sleep but declared he dreamed of Arctic surroundings.
Looking through some old memorandum books the other day, we found the exact legal description of the place where they spent that cold and uncomfortable night. It was the southeast quarter of section 36, township 27, range 15, west of the third Meridian.
At the first glimmer of daylight they were up and scouting around. They came upon a shallow ravine and
followed its course in the hope of finding enough bush to make a fire. Suddenly they heard a dog bark, and at the same moment winded the pungent odour of wood smoke. Turning a bend in the "draw", they came upon one of the rude shelters occasionally fashioned by prairie pioneers on the outskirts of civilization. The side of a knoll had been ploughed and scraped away and in the excavation thus formed a skeleton of lumber and logs had been erected. Poplar poles placed together formed a roof. The whole structure was covered with wild hay cut from a nearby slough. A portion was fitted up for human occupancy, and a passage led to a larger space where sundry horses and cattle were housed.
This abode was by no means uncomfortable. The warmth was assured by the depth of the excavation and the great quantity of hay spread over it. Indeed, it was warmer than Many a more pretentious building of that period.
When Zack and his charioteer drove up, the place erupted a miscellaneous population of men, women and children who, summoned by the barking of the dogs, sallied forth to greet the unexpected visitors. They were welcomed with unaffected hospitality. They were stiff with cold and weary after their night on the unfriendly prairie. Willing hands took charge of their horses and they were ushered into a large semi-subterranean kitchen, where they were served a good breakfast.
The inhabitants of this refuge consisted of a middle-aged man named Bigelow and his son, a lad of about sixteen; two youngish men respectively named Reid and Hicks, their wives and a considerable assortment of sturdy fair-haired children. I think there were six grown-ups and about seven youngsters; and they were a fine, happy, free-hearted tribe.
After a tremendous breakfast, and finding himself in friendly company, Zack was considerably revived and felt no ill effects from his cold and uncomfortable night. But his driver was by no means in a similar case. He had suffered greatly from the cold, was tired and a little feverish. Accordingly, after breakfast a bed was made for him and rolling himself in the blankets, he was soon asleep.
The day was fine for that time of year. My husband engaged the services of "Joe" Hicks and, with one of his teams hitched to the buggy, they went out to continue the work of selecting the land.
Hicks told my husband they had all come together from the lumber region of Minnesota, attracted to this far frontier by the excellent quality of the land. A railway had been surveyed and construction was expected the following spring. Accordingly, they had put up a great deal of wild hay and hoped to make a good profit selling it to the railway contractors. Hicks pointed out some of their stacks, and their number and size certainly bore evidence to the energy and industry of these hardy folk.
It was dusk when they returned to the house, or habitation, or dugout, or whatever it might be called. After supper, Zack being pretty well "played out", retired to his bed, which was a "tick" stuffed with hay set on the floor of the kitchen. It was invariably a case of early to bed for those out-of-doors healthy folk, and it was not long until they had subsided in sleep.
But weary as he was, Zack could not find slumber. His body was still sore where the knobs of frozen earth had pressed against him the previous night, and his present couch was not exactly one of comfort. All about were the somnolent sounds of tired sleepers. A child would stir and mutter and then be quiet again. The distant stamp of a stalled horse sounded like a gunshot, and the inevitable coyote outside gave ghastly tongue.
It was close in the dugout and Zack's throat was parched. He thought a drink of water might improve matters. He remembered there was a water barrel on a stoneboat outside the door. Rising quietly he went out for his drink.
It was a cloudy, cold night with a strong wind blowing and, as he came into the open air, his nostrils contracted to the acrid smell of burning grass and wild weeds; from far away came the dreaded crackling of the prairie fire.
He hurried to the summit of the knoll and, a mile or more to the eastward, he saw the long line of flame, feeding on the thick old bottom of the buffalo grass, rushing onward on the wings of the gale.
He returned quickly to the dugout and shook the shoulder of Hicks, who was sleeping beside his wife, surrounded by a miscellany of children.
With the alertness of the frontiersman nurtured amid alarms, Hicks came from the depths of sleep to instant and complete consciousness.
"What is it ?" he whispered.
"Get up Joe," said Zack.
He was out in a moment, and my husband told of the peril rushing down upon them. There were thirty tons of dry hay on the roof of the shelter that would go like tinder at the first spark. Hicks was cool and collected and at once went inside.
Zack heard his wife say drowsily: "What is it Joe?" and his response: "Get the babies up Luella; put some clothes on them and have everybody outside. Don't be frightened; do what I tell you, and it will be all right."
The men were forest bred and knew little of the fire scourge of the dry prairie. My husband told them to throw the harness on two teams, and in no time a couple of ploughs were in action. Furrows were turned on the hillside where the grass was short, and backfires were set out from them against the wind so that when the main conflagration arrived it would have nothing upon which to feed.
The flames were very close and the spectacle a fearsome one. The main fire was burning the grass down to the roots. The wind gusts were throwing the tongues of flame far ahead, and as they caught in the grasstops, they made a deep line of fire, shooting high in the air.
One of the women had gathered the children about her and was herding them in the "Draw" where the seepage from a spring and the sparse herbage made it a comparatively safe refuge. The other was dragging furniture and clothes from the building, and young Bigelow had already got the livestock out. The men were ploughing furrows and beating out backfires. The wind was blowing half a gale and, fanned by it, the fire swept down upon the place with a dreadful, roaring sound.
About a quarter of a mile away there was a shallow depression where some late hay was still in "cocks". The fire seemed to pause for a moment on the brink, and then swept over the little meadow, reducing everything in its path to ashes. The cocks were very dry, and as they were reached by the licking red tongues, they went up in a burst of flames, and there was a series of muffled explosions in the heart of the conflagration.
The crackling was tremendous, the heat overpowering and the clouds of smoke made respiration difficult. The lurid light threw everything into clear relief; the frightened horses plunged; the children screamed, and everyone stood by with wet grain sacks ready to beat out any fire in dangerous proximity to the building. Then almost in a moment, it was past. It split at the ploughed guards and rushed off on each side, roaring down the wind.
The fire had left some smouldering places behind thick grass, roots, chips of manure and the like which were fanned into a glow in the wind gusts. Zack, Hicks and Reid laboured all night to extinguish them and when daylight came creeping in, they were tired and "played out". The others had gone inside, the children were back in bed and the sparks from the chimney indicated preparations for breakfast.
Daylight came upon a scene of desolation. As far as the eye could reach, the plain was a blackened waste, while miles away to the west rolling clouds of smoke showed that the fire was continuing its work of destruction.
"Well," said Hicks, drawing a grimy hand across a blackened brow, "we have a lot to be thankful for. Nobody hurt and we have saved the livestock and gear."
"Yes," said Reid, and the poor man's voice rose almost to a wail, "we have lost all our summer's work; the haystacks will be gone and our stock starve to death before the winter is half over."
"Maybe the hay is not all destroyed," hazarded Zack. "The fire would not run well where the grass has been closely mown."
"I'll just take a look," said Hicks. "If there is anything left, I can see the tops of the stacks from the hay pile on the roof," and in a moment he was clambering to that point of vantage.
He stood cupping his hands before his eyes to focus his vision. Then he shouted. "The stacks are still there," he cried, and sliding down began to shake hands frantically with the other two men.
Reid was reputed rather pious, and there were tears of real emotion making tracks on his smoke-blackened cheeks when he said: "God has been good to us once more."
"Aye!" said Hicks. "He has that. I guess He knew how damned little we had."
By the time my husband had completed his land selection, the weather had become very cold and there was hardship in every day spent in the open. He was loath to leave the hospitable abode of Hicks, Reid, Bigelow and company, and when at last he departed, he felt he was leaving real friends.
Although the weather was cold, there was still no snow when Zack started on his return drive to Saskatoon, more than eighty miles away. He was not anxious to camp along the trail and made up his mind to make the journey in one day.
The broncos had been rested and were in prime fettle. Zack pulled out about four in the morning, and the ponies were dancing in the harness, eager to be on the way. They were carefully driven and fed during the day, and they trotted briskly up to the livery barn in Saskatoon just as the lights were going on. When my husband settled with the liveryman, the latter said:
"You've sure taken good care of the horses, not overdriven them or anything; they were ready to shy at their shadows when you came down the street."
Zack winked at the driver and said nothing. Perhaps the liveryman would not have been so pleased had he known that at least eighty miles had passed under their nimble little heels that day.
When the Federal Acts creating the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan came into force in September 1905, the matter of a provincial capital for Saskatchewan suddenly became a burning question.
Regina folk had become so accustomed to their home town is the seat of the Territorial Government that it had never occurred to them that with Provincial Establishment the choice of a permanent capital came under the jurisdiction of the local Legislature, and when Saskatoon and Moose Jaw began to advance claims for capital honours Regina treated them with lofty disdain. However, Regina was soon to discover its mistake. Moose Jaw was never seriously in the running, but Saskatoon was something quite different.
Saskatoon had made remarkable progress since the break of the century. It had been established in 1883 by a colonization company composed chiefly of clergyman and others interested in Prohibition and Temperance. It was to be a settlement in which spirituous liquors were to have no place. The promoters of the scheme secured a large acreage of Government land upon which they agreed to place a certain number of settlers within a specified period.
The location was an excellent one for a future city. It was situated in a picturesque and convenient position on the banks of a noble river near the point where the Prairies ended and the Park country, so favoured by early explorers, commenced; and it was thought that when the expected immigration materialized, it would become the metropolis of a wide and productive region.
At first it was more than two hundred miles from the main lines of the C.P.R., then the only rail communication in the North West Territories. The first settlers came to the place by wagon and buckboard, and several of those who followed them from the East took passage to Medicine Hat by train, and there built rafts upon which they floated themselves, their livestock and settlers' effects down the river to Saskatoon, a distance of at least three hundred miles.
This waterborne journey was full of hardship. The time spent in following the sinuosities of the river must have seemed interminable; the voyageurs were scorched by the suns of midsummer, rained upon by showers which, that season, were of almost tropical intensity, and assailed by myriads of mosquitoes that arose in vast swarms from their breeding places by the river banks.
The colonization scheme was not a success. Its promoters expected to obtain revenue by the sale of land, but conditions were against them. Practically every even-numbered section in the country was then opened to homesteaders, who had only to pay a ten-dollar entry fee, establish residence and do some sketchy improvements to obtain a deed for one hundred and sixty acres. The Government was also offering to all and sundry any unalienated land at about the same price as the promoters of the "Temperance Colony" had paid for their reservation and the Company found it could not dispose of its holdings against such competition. Then too, the prohibition feature was not at all popular with the pioneers, who as a general rule were not distinguished by abstemiousness. The scheme languished and ultimately faded away. However, certain of the settlers who had come in under its auspices remained and some of them were of a quality that would have developed a city in the shelter of an iceberg.
During the first years all supplies that reached Saskatoon had to be freighted in from Moose Jaw or Regina by trail, a distance of over two hundred miles. The trail passed through a region as bare of human tenancy as the Sahara Desert and, being annually swept by prairie fires, was nearly as forbidding.
In 1890, a branch line was constructed from Regina to Prince Albert which placed Saskatoon in rail communication with the outside world, and a hamlet came into being. But it was not until 1900 that development commenced. In the first years of the century, there was an invasion of the grim region that lay south and east of the settlement by a land-hungry multitude from the American Middle West who, familiar with similar conditions in their own country, settled in the district and made it produce amazingly. This land movement eventually spread far to the westward where millions of acres of fine, arable land were developed and placed under cultivation.
In 1900, authentic records indicated a population of one hundred and thirteen on the Saskatoon townsite. The chief claim of the place to fame was the excellent meals served to passengers on the occasional train which ran (or rather strolled) along the rails from Regina to Prince Albert and made a stop for dinner there. In 1905, the year of Provincial Establishment, the population had increased to more than three thousand and the place was going ahead at a great rate. According to census records in 1911, there were twelve thousand and four people on the townsite and in 1921, twenty-five thousand seven hundred and thirty-nine. In succeeding years it was the wonder city of the West. It became the market place and supply centre for a tremendous extent of producing country; its citizens were farsighted and enterprising; wide and spacious streets and thoroughfares were laid out, and in this respect Saskatoon was in marked contrast to Regina where the original town planners, with all the wide prairie spaces to draw from, made provision for streets that were shabby and restricted. Modern and convenient public utilities were installed and fine and handsome buildings erected.
Quick fortunes were made in real estate and the citizens of Saskatoon were in a class all their own as "Boosters". But the story of its eventual development belongs to another epoch. When the question of the Prairie capital was projected into local politics, Saskatoon was just commencing to get into its stride and was taking tremendous steps towards what its optimistic citizens ardently believed was its manifest destiny.
The astonished folk of Regina were soon to find that if they did not look to their defences, Saskatoon would give them a good run for the Capital. A discreet canvass of the members of the Legislature indicated that if they depended upon a vote in the House, Saskatoon would have the best of it. However, Hon. Walter Scott, the first Provincial Premier, was understood to have made commitments in favour of Regina. His authority was sufficient to carry the day and, by a vote of the Legislature, Regina has been declared the seat of the Provincial Government.
When the matter was eventually settled, the Regina citizens, in relief and gratitude, gave a banquet to the members of the Legislature that was long remembered by oldtimers. It took place in the old Town Hall, a large and drafty lumber structure on the corner of Scarth Street and 11th Avenue and, for pure exuberance, far exceeded any celebration that had ever taken place in that somewhat staid and thrifty city. Champagne flowed like water; the best of eatables and drinkables were purveyed and toasts were drunk and honoured by people who never before had been accused of imbibing anything stronger than tea or coffee. To give dignity to the occasion almost everyone present from the Mayor down had dug up from somewhere a dress suit.
A clergyman newly arrived in Regina from the East was present. When he took his place at one of the head tables and observed the imposing array of bottles garnishing the festive board, he remarked to a Regina citizen: "You know, men of my cloth in the East do not usually attend functions at which spirituous liquors are served, but I realize that in this wide and spacious land we must display a little more tolerance."
That night he saw plenty to be tolerant about.
Real estate was then Regina's chief activity and nearly everyone who could raise the price was in possession of lots or acreage. Some of the investors thought they were being taxed too highly on their property, and a group of young men got together and planned to drink enough of the City's champagne to even the score, and set out to do just that. Some of them fell by the wayside and others kept on until they felt the score was even.
Next morning women could be seen all about the place rounding up errant husbands and other male relatives who had been unable to find their way home during the hours of darkness. It was late March, the streets were churned up seas of mud, and all-day stragglers in dress suits of almost every known vintage, muddy and bedraggled, could be observed stealing out from refuges where sleep and champagne had overtaken them, and pursuing their homeward way full of contrition and humiliation. Regina folk were not then used to champagne and their chief complaint was that when they felt they were about sobered up and attempted to slake the not unnatural thirst of the "morning-after" with a drink of pure water, the champagne in their interiors started its mean behaviour all over again.
It was a notable celebration.
However, Saskatoon got the University and that did something to soften the blow of the loss of the Capital.
About 1905, the movement to the land in the prairie region was assuming astonishing proportions and my husband's firm was engaging in quite extensive operations. They were in what might be called the wholesale end of the land business. When a new branch line of railway was projected into a hitherto unsettled region they would look up a tract of land, examine it carefully and, if found of good quality, purchase it. When the railway opened up the district there was usually a ready sale for it.
Most of these tracts were in units of from five to ten thousand acres and they could usually be handled without the employment of large sums of money. At that time excellent land could be acquired at from five to eight dollars per acre. The down payment was often not more than one dollar per acre with the balance spread over several years. So keen was the demand for land that in all the firm's transactions the only money used was the first payment, as the tracts were always sold before any further payments came due.
There was, of course, a lot of work involved and most of the fieldwork was done by Zack, who made many a long journey and slept many a night on the hard and unfriendly prairie. He had several adventures on these expeditions and I think enjoyed every one of them.
On one occasion he took a party of bankers from Fargo, North Dakota, into the unsettled country west of the South Branch of the Saskatchewan River to examine a tract of ten thousand acres just before freeze-up. The only way of crossing the River was using a cable ferry. When the outward crossing was made there was ice along the shores and the Ferryman told them they had better hurry back before the ferry closed for the winter or they would have to go about a hundred miles out of their way to reach the railway bridge at Saskatoon.
Automobiles were not yet in general use on the prairies and the party was conveyed in a couple of democrats, each drawn by a good team of horses. It took the best part of a week to examine the land, and each day was progressively colder than the other. They did not sleep out but were able to find shelter in the shacks of the few homesteaders who had already adventured into the region.
It was in the dark of a cold and wintry morning when they reached the river bank on their return journey to find a thin skin of ice on the main channel and much heavier covering on the water nearer the shore. When they had crossed in the first place, Zack had asked the ferryman to be on the outlook for them on their return and had told him that if he were not in sight he would fire his gun to summon him.
There was a nasty cold wind blowing and men and horses were quite uncomfortable as they huddled by the river bank waiting for the ferry. Several shots were fired without eliciting any response. Then, as grey daylight came in, they saw the ferry commence its slow passage of the river which, encumbered by ice, seemed to be difficult to navigate. However, a landing was made, and the travellers had quite a job to get their horses aboard. They were cold and uneasy and seemed to regard the queer-looking ferry with considerable aversion. Probably they had more sense than the voyageurs.
The ferryman informed the travellers that they were all taking a chance with the river if it were not for the high opinion he had of my husband and the other wayfarers he would not have risked his own life and ferry in making the crossing. Everyone, including the reluctant horses, was eventually loaded on the craft and the return voyage commenced. It was slow work. It had frozen hard during the night and cakes of ice were floating in the current and, whenever they were out of the wind, congealing in a solid mass.
When the ferry was about in the middle of the stream something broke; the cable started to run out from the drum, and it was evident that if it became completely unwound the ferry would lie out in the middle of the river, and if the passengers were not drowned in the ensuing wreck they would be frozen in.
The bankers were alarmed and their fear seemed to spread to the horses. They snorted and stamped and appeared to be making preparations to plunge into the river with the vehicles to which they were attached. At the moment when the cable was near its end, a man named Otis pulled off a pair of buckskin gauntlets and thrust them into the gearing that controlled the cable and thus stopped the run. The ferry hung uncertainly in the River current in what, Zack said was one of the most uncomfortable situations of his life. Some slack of the arresting cable was gathered up and fastened to a post on the ferry and thus they remained for most of that miserable day, blown upon by a bitter north wind; battered by cakes of ice and expecting every moment to be cast into grey and menacing water. In the meantime, quite a crowd had gathered on the far bank. They tried shouting directions, but they were too far away to be heard. Zack said that the leading banker of the party cursed Canada, its people, its land and its climate with a ferocious fluency that he had never heard equalled.
It was almost night when cakes of ice formed a dam that left some open water, enabling a boat to reach the castaways. A cable was brought off and firmly fastened to the ferry; the end was taken ashore and two teams of horses attached to it. After some strenuous attempts, they succeeded in pulling the craft to the shore.
The ferryman kept a store of sorts in his house. Among other things, as was usual at the time, there was a shelf devoted to patent medicines, and the bankers ransacked it to find if there was anything among the drugs that would restore warmth to their shivering bodies. They made a concoction of several bottles of Perry Davis Pain Killer, then a hot and popular remedy for almost every human ailment, some Collis Browne's Chlorodyne and a few shots of an extract of lemon. Mixing these ingredients with hot water and sugar they took copious draughts of it. It seemed to warm them up if it did nothing else.
In spite of their somewhat harrowing experience the bankers bought the land and made a good deal of money out of its resale.