Friday, December 17, 2010




By George Siamandas

The first delivery of agricultural implements came from the John Deere Co April 26, 1878. It was the beginning of the transformation of Winnipeg from a fur trade centre to an agricultural centre. Two years earlier the first shipment of 857 bushels of "Manitoba hard" wheat had been exported by Steele And Briggs.

A Company called Westbrook and Fairchild had imported Manitoba's first agricultural equipment. John Deere's equipment had been selected because his new steel ploughs were thought capable of dealing with the sticky clay like, soils of Manitoba. Originating in Moline, Illinois, the equipment came by rail to St Paul and then up by steamboat to Winnipeg. After 3 years in the retail business, they became wholesalers, and in December 1881, they received a 115 rail car shipment of agricultural equipment.

Frank Fairchild had been born in Brent County Ontario Dec 7, 1849. At age 19 he moved to Illinois. He came to Winnipeg in March 1878 and went into business with his brother in law HS Westbrook selling farm machinery. They stayed together for a decade and subsequently Fairchild went on with his brother Isaac to form the Fairchild Co in 1888. Partner Westbrook became mayor of Winnipeg in 1886.

The Fairchilds went on to become prosperous merchants, but Frank Fairchild died at age 48 in 1898 and never saw how large the Fairchild Co would became. In 1904 it planned a massive new building on Princess St. By the time it was completed in 1907, the Fairchild Co had been bought out by John Deere. Deere would remain in the building till 1953.

But the Fairchilds were not alone in this business. Main competitors of the day included A Harris Co from Brantford and the Massey Co from Toronto. A Harris and Son had come to Winnipeg in 1872. In 1882 they built an ornate Victorian building still standing at 154 Princess St. Their neighbours next door at 160 Princess were the Fairchilds. It was Winnipeg's agricultural district.

After the depression years of the mid 1880s, in 1891, Massey and Harris merged to create Massey Harris and moved to a new location at 296 William Ave. This limestone and brick warehouse is still standing at the southeast corner of William Ave and Princess St. Originally built in 1885, Massey Harris would operate from this building till 1944.

The grain boom is credited to a productive agricultural land base, an immigration policy that encouraged a strong farming stock, breakthroughs in wheat milling technology, and the construction of the railway. The grain industry grew with the Grain Exchange and over the years has expanded to include many governmental organisations like the Canadian Wheat Board, Canadian Grains Council etc.

The first grain dealer is thought to have been WJS Traill in 1879. By 1880 the Henderson Directory listed 6-grain dealers. The Winnipeg firm of Higgins and Young, sent Red River's first surplus wheat, 857 bushels of Red Fife, to Minnesota by boat in 1876. In 1877 20,000 bushels were sent to Britain. In 1883 the first Richardson Grain shipment was sent to the Great Lakes.

The Canadian Wheat Board

The Canadian Wheat Board

A Distinctly Canadian Institution

By George Siamandas

The Canadian Wheat Board is Canada's Wheat marketing organization to the world. It is a centralized marketing organization and the only one that can sell Canadian wheat.

Canadian farmers had begun to join into co-operatives at the turn of the century. When they ran into economic difficulties, they asked for assistance from the Canadian govt. A Wheat Board had been established temporarily in 1919 to help deal with problems after WW1 and it was disbanded. During the depression of the 1930s farmers called on the federal govt to help them out of the environmental and economic disaster of the times. The need was acute and widespread with 300,000 farms in Canada at the time.

Farm income had dropped from about $1B in 1927 to 19% of the same amount in the early 1930s. The price of wheat fell to 37 cents, the lowest it had been in 400 years. Newly elected Prime Minister RB Bennett was not initially sympathetic. But in 1931 he relented and appointed John McFarland to head a temporary commission. Once again it was to be an emergency expedient; an unwanted child of its political father. The agency would buy and hold all Canadian wheat for two years.

McFarland, born in Winnipeg, was a successful millionaire grain trader who had made a fortune with the Alberta Pacific Grain Co., and a good friend of Bennett. While a successful grain man, McFarland was also known for having the interest of the farmer at heart. He would do the job of selling surplus wheat without pay. And Bennett expected that his job would be to help preside over the demise of central marketing. However once into the job, McFarland began to change his views. He could now see the value of the Wheat Board.

On July 5, 1935 the Canadian Wheat Board came into being with McFarland as Chair. In the fall 1935 election Bennett's govt was defeated and with him McFarland as the first Wheat Board Chairman. McFarland who had suffered two heart attacks and who was pilloried by his old colleagues at the Winnipeg grain Exchange, would never receive the credit he deserved.

As the thirties came to end and war became apparent, it was clear that the CWB was too helpful to eliminate. And it would grow from a pre WW2 staff of 35 to over 500 people. Over time it became a monopoly. Canadian farmers have to sell their wheat to the CWB.

The Caandian Wheat Board seems to be the Canadian way. Working together. Sharing risk and profit. There is a kind of unspoken social contract between farmers and the Canadian govt. It was farmers after all staking their families' futures in the west that made western Canada not only part of Canadian soil at a time it could have become part of the US. But it also provided an economic pillar of the western economy. Yet one that occasionally needs the deep pockets of all of Canada with subsidies and relief.

A formidable competitor in marketing wheat, in 1984 as the CWB planned its 50th anniversary the Kansas Wheat Commission hoped that it would just take the year off. Australia has a similar marketing organization but it is becoming a private corporation.

McLane's Flour Mill

McLane's Flour Mill

"Flour Milling Makes Winnipeg"

by George Siamandas

The first mills used water power and were like Grant's Mill at Sturgeon Creek in St. James. Grants Mill was built in 1829 and operated with a 240 foot dam. It operated for only three years as Grant had trouble with the engineering of the dam. Another early mill was built by Louis Riel senior on the Seine River. Riel had increased the flow into the Seine by dredging. The mill stones are displayed at the St Boniface Museum. By 1856 nine water mills operated in Winnipeg.

The other source of power was the windmill popularized by the one illustrated in Steinbach Mennonite Village. The first windmill in Manitoba was built in 1825 and its parts were sent out by Lord Selkirk. A man named Mitchell was dispatched from Scotland to assemble it after it sat in limbo for ten years. It was located at Point Douglas. Windmills were prominent in Manitoba till about 1870. It was the steam powered mill that moved things forward.

McLane's Flour Mill was actually built by the Hudson Bay Co. at the Forks in October 1876. It was built here because the HBC as a large land owner was trying to attract business closer to its holdings and away from city hall and the Point Douglas area. But shortly after completion, it was leased by JN McLane and it became known as McLane's Mill. The equipment came from Buffalo New York and the engine supplied 250 horsepower. it could grind 1350 bushels in 24 hours.

But the following year the HBC cancelled the lease and took back the mill. They put a Wrigley in charge and heavily invested in improvements. But the venture did not go well. Because of its location at teh Forks before the CN, the HBC Mill had no access to the railway as did the Ogilvie Mill. Even worse the HBC MIll was which was built in 1881 and it was not exempt from taxes. Ogilvie was saving 140,000 while McMillan saved 40,000 annually in the 1880s.

Ogilvie's did for Winnipeg what the railway and Eatons had done. When built in 1881 it was the state of the art. Ogilvie had been in business since 1801 in Montreal with their first mill on the La Chine rapids. They started to buy wheat directly in Manitoba in 1877 for their eastern mills. Ogilvie was eventually persuaded by Winnipeg City Council's offer of a 20 year tax holiday. But Winnipeg was also well located in relation to the US markets and the growing western markets. By June 1882 a six storey structure and smokestack with a base of 18 feet and a 101 foot high smokestack. Three boilers provided stream power for a 400 hp engine. coal became the fuel of choice. It went electric in 1906. The flour it produced was of the highest standard and it was very consistent.

Flour mills proliferated in many small communitites. At one time 98 communities in Manitoba had a flour mill. Only one real heritage value flour mill remains in Manitoba and it is at Holmfield south western Manitoba and it's operated by the Harrison brothers who were granted $2,000 by the local council in 1897. While electrical power replaced the original stream units in 1947, the mill's original processing and operating equipment remains intact. It served local needs and continues to be sustained by the local community and by the patience of its current generation of Harrisons. Its produce is labelled "Turtle Mountain Maid."

Harrison's Mill remains the oldest operating flour mill in western Canada. And considering its vintage of 1897, it is head and shoulders over everything else. The equipment is actually from 1881. A third generation of farmer and lawyer Bill Harrison brothers and brother Errick serve a small clientele during the summer months. Canada which once had 1,000 mills, had fewer than 33 (in 1994).



By George Siamandas

The first grain elevator was built in Buffalo in 1841. Over time grain elevators have become the architectural icon of the prairies. The first were known as flat warehouses. Looking like normal buildings with gable roofs they soon gave way to the tall wooden sentinels that dot the Canadian prairie.

They were typically 20x40x8 feet. Only one such elevator remains in Brookdale Manitoba. The classic grain elevators began to be built in the 1880s. They were built to the CPR's standard plan. 50 or 60 feet high and powered by a steam or diesel engine.

Western Canada's first and Manitoba's first grain elevator was built by a railway siding near Niverville Manitoba in 1878. What was unusual was that it was round and it would be the only one of its kind. It had been built by Mennonites settlers that had come four years earlier. It operated until 1904 with horse power and could hold 25,000 bushels.

Grain Farmers convinced the Manitoba government of Premier Roblin to build a series of government owned elevators

Responding to farmer's concerns that they were not being treated fairly by the grain companies and their elevator, the grain Act sought to establish rules and regulations on how farmer's and their grain were marketed. Grain Exchange was called the House of Closed Shutters.




by George Siamandas

The first schools were run by the churches. The first series of one room schools were established in the 1820s along the Assiniboine River as far west as Portage La Prairie by Bishop Cochran of the Church Missionary Society. There were almost 2,000 at one point in Manitoba. Just about every small community had one. Many were on farmer's land, and served as multi use building for weddings and community gatherings, voting polls, and that special Christmas concert and even church services. Many were about wooden buildings 20x40 oriented east west with the windows on the south. Large windows were essential to good lighting. On one end was the cloak room, and then a porch for wood, brooms and pails for the ashes. Often there would be a barn for horses. Some kids in northern Ontario went to schoolhouses built of converted railway cars.

Located 4 km south of St Agathe along Highway 75 where a little white church now stands by the side of the highway was the community of Union Point. It used to be a hub of activity where the steamboats and new settlers stopped. From here the mail moved in all directions. Union Point School #53 was established in 1883 and was one of the earliest schools. The building had once been a church and while its bell had been removed still had its bell tower. It closed in 1960.

Children would leave home between 7:30 and 8:00 each morning and would not return till 5 or 5:30 in the evening. Many children arrived by horse. The horse needed feeding. Sometimes the horse would not go. Sometimes wolves followed along. Heat was provided by a big wood stove and parents would have a bee to supply all the season's needed wood. An older boy arrived early to get the fire going. Famous was the Waterman Waterbury stove. The bathrooms were outside each complete with its own Eaton's catalogue. The first subject on cold winter mornings was PT (physical training). At times there were freebies like the free maps of the world paid for by Nielsen Jersey Milk or the free Coke rulers.

Many teachers were permit teachers with only grade 11. They could only teach one year and then had to go to Normal school to learn the art of teaching. Average salary for a permit teacher was $838 in 1926. Principals earned $1,200 to $1,400. Many lived with families while others in tiny cottage like or tar paper shack like teacherages. Each year brought a new teacher to most one room schools, a high percentage of which were young women. There were several normal schools throughout Manitoba after the turn of the century. One was in Gretna for Mennonites taught in German. Others were located in Brandon, Dauphin and Manitou. For the ambitious teacher there was a second round of Normal school in Winnipeg. The original Normal School building still stands at William. It has been rehabilitated as a Filipino Community Housing Project called Phil Casa.

Stewart Mulvey one of Winnipeg's earliest school inspectors. Both Mulvey School and Mulvey Ave were named in his honour. Mulvey was born in Ireland in 1834 and was invited to come to Canada in 1855 where he taught school in Ontario. Mulvey came west to Manitoba with the Wolsely Expedition in 1870 and in 1871 was elected to Manitoba 's first protestant School Board. He became a school inspector the following year. As an inspector his job was to test the abilities of potential teachers. But Mulvey had a second job working for the Inland Revenue dept. On one occasion while on school business in Portage La Prairie he also closed down a major moonshine operation.

People that attended these tiny schools write that "the one room schoolhouse provided a sense of community that is hard to find in the city despite its flush toilets and TV".

Prairie Farmers and the Great Depression

Prairie Farmers and the Great Depression

Farmers Feel the Triple Whammy

By George Siamandas
© George Siamandas

The record harvest of 1928 disguised long-standing problems in the wheat economy. Wheat was 60% of the prairie crop. And of that, 70% was exported. Suddenly, in the early 1930s, France, Germany and Italy put in quotas or embargoes. Prices fell and Canada held back its supplies of wheat waiting for prices to improve. They did not. Even the unified power of the pools did not help. They went bankrupt in 1930.

In 1932 commodity prices plummeted. Due not only to drought but ironically to oversupply with huge surpluses being created by Argentina and Australia glutting world markets. A bushel of No 1 Northern went from $1.03 in 1928, to 47 cents in 1930, and 29 cents in 1932. Lower than any time in the preceding 400 years.
Farm income was cut to half in Sask. and Alberta and by 80% in Manitoba. Meanwhile farmers were caught in debts incurred in a more optimistic era. Farmers had been over producing and investing in still more land, mechanization, and better homes. Then the day of reckoning appeared at the worst possible time.

Dust storms began in 1931. There was no rain through the June germination period. No rain by July 1, only blasting winds. Then a couple of years of respite but suddenly, 1936 was a scorcher with temperatures often warmer than 100 in the longest, hottest summer ever. The topsoil blew away after years of too much tillage. Millions of acres just blew away. In the years to come new ploughing techniques would be encouraged by Ag scientists.

Then 1937 saw even hotter drier winds. Lakes went dry and farmers cut Canada thistle for their starving animals. Swarms of locusts ate shrubs, the handles off a rake and the clothing on the line, even the shirt off your back. Gophers proliferated and some families survived by eating them. A penny was paid for each gopher tail amounting to over $1M paid out in Alberta and Sask. Prime Minister Bennett's promise to "blast into the markets of the world" proved false.

The bad times had taken their toll and 250,000 people left the prairies between 1931 and 1941. In 1936 alone, 14,000 farms were abandoned. The 1937-year was the worst ever in the prairie economy. Many ended up on relief and to farmers raised on the virtues of hard work and independence, relief was a humiliation. Finally in the fall of 1938 the rains came. And finally so did federal help.

The federal govt established the PFRA to distribute money. Its main target was teaching farmers soil conservation techniques and establishing water conservation and management. It also provided an insurance plan for crop failures.

The federal govt had tried to get out of the business of selling wheat and had failed. It re-established the Wheat Board.

No sector of the economy suffered as much or recovered as slowly. In western Canada this gave rise to new political movements and parties like the CCF in Sask. and Social Credit in Alberta. And to a permanent Wheat Board. But the risks of weather, international trade, and national politics remain as uncertain today as in the Dirty 30s.



By George Siamandas

The idea had come from a woman named Adelaide Hunter Hoodless who had lost a child to the "summer complaint" or unsanitary milk. She helped form the first Women's Institute in 1897 at Stoney Creek Ontario.

In Manitoba, they were founded in 1910 at Morris and these groups became a way women in rural areas could come together to meet and discuss common problems. A Mrs Finlay Mackenzie who had picked up the idea while visiting Ontario in 1909 started the Manitoba group. A request to premier Roblin resulted in provincial help. Supported by the provincial dept of Agriculture, they provided instruction on homemaking, motherhood and health concerns; things isolated and uneducated farm women did not know enough about.

Everyone has an aunt that needs to use the washroom every hour. In the early part of the century, travel for farm women was difficult because of the absence of toilets. Accordingly one of the first steps of the WI was to build toilets including the first at Delorraine in a private home and others within municipal buildings like at Birtle.

In 1913 the federal govt passed the Agricultural Instruction Act which greatly supported the ability of lecturers to go out to teach dressmaking, millinery and canning skills. Canning proved to be a very successful practise that had a push during the war years when supplies of wheat were short.

They became known as Home Economics Societies and helped with war relief making and sending off socks, pyjamas, sweaters and magazines and cigarettes. The Societies also became active in women's rights and the suffragette movement and were a major force in 1916 pushing the govt to amend the Manitoba Dower Act.

Over time these groups spread to Britain and by 1933 were a worldwide organisation called the Associated Country Women of the World. In the mid twenties this activity saw rise to a University Extension service complete with newsletter offering courses in personal hygiene, home nursing, theory of foods, principles of cooking, laundry and sewing. But during the depression, the Women's Institutes lost govt support and had to survive on their own. New classes were developed on thrift and mental health, and they promoted the idea of rural dental clinics.

During WW2 the women's Institutes helped find homes for refuges and became advocates of rural electrification.

The WI became active in recording local histories and in starting drama festivals. As early as 1949 they advocated the use of Lower Fort Garry as a museum.

They funded a study on the health needs of rural seniors and in 1958 renovated the old Memorial Hospital in Deloraine for a seniors residence. They also pushed for free glasses, wheel chairs and hearing aids. In 1960 they petitioned the provincial govt to build a home for retarded children.

They have been active in hot lunches in the schools, providing playground equipment, and maintaining child welfare centres. They have helped build community halls, established libraries and beautified towns and arranged relief work when disasters have struck. A plaque dedicated to the efforts of the WI hangs inside the legislative building commemorating the creative energy of rural Manitoba women who have enriched the lives of other Manitobans.

Agatha Wiebe

Agatha Wiebe

The First Mennonite Registered Nurse

By George Siamandas

Two Mennonite women pioneered health care: Agatha Wiebe is thought to be the first Mennonite registered Nurse in Manitoba, and Maria Dueck Ginter, Chiropractor. Agatha's grandparents were amongst the early Mennonite immigrants to Manitoba. They arrived in 1875. Her brother Dr. Cornelius Wiebe from Winkler who died recently was one of the oldest Manitobans alive. He was also the first Mennonite MLA in Manitoba.

Agatha was born in 1887 one of 5 daughters and four boys to Peter P and Anne Wiebe at Weidensfeld near Rosenfeld. Agatha lost two of her young sisters to diphtheria. She left school at age 11 to help at the farm and by age 17 had become quite ill. Her doctor advised her to stop the strenuous farm work and to return to school, which she gladly did finishing grade 11.

At age 24 she decided to study nursing at St Louis Missouri Evangelical Deaconess Hospital. Her father who took her to St Louis and warned her that it would be the last time they could afford to see her till she graduated. In 1914 she completed her RN and returned to Winnipeg where she had to substantially re-qualify by meeting Canadian requirements at Winnipeg's King George Hospital. After completing this period she began work at the Ninnete Sanatorium caring for TB patients where she rose to head nurse.

At age 40 she married Frank Thiessen a widower who had lost his first two wives and who already had 11 children. Nearing her mid forties Agatha proceeded to have two of her own children. Her nursing career was now over. They lived at Lowe Farm for the next 23 years. Agatha retired to Steinbach and later to Winkler were she lived to age 92. But where Agatha left health care in middle age another woman was just beginning.

Another Mennonite woman Maria Dueck Ginter pioneered as a female chiropractor. And she did so later in life starting in her fifties. She was the daughter of Deitrick and Agatha Dueck and the second of seven children. She was widowed at age 29 and left with three children. With the help of the community and a $45 per month social assistance allowance Maria kept her family going till she remarried four years later.

She learned the chiropractic art from her father who was a chiropractor, auctioneer, dentist and trapper. She was known as "the special woman with a special gift." Her living room would be full of people awaiting her talents every evening. One of her popular treatments was a bear fat massage. She would relax her patients before working on them by using hand held vibrators and a vibrating chair.

Being unlicensed, Maria could not ask for a fee but many people would leave some meat, vegetables, or clothing and some nothing at all. It is said she helped a 12-year-old boy, who had not walked in 2 years, walk again after one of her treatments. Maria spent her entire life in Rosengart living to age 81. She died in 1990.

Cora Hind


Manitoba's Distinguished Agricultural Journalist

by George Siamandas

Cora Hind came to Winnipeg in 1882 while it was still a small frontier town. She was an orphan who was brought up in by her grandmother on a farm in Artimesia Ontario. She arrived full of dreams of a bright future for her aspirations to become a newspaper woman. This was time when there were none and when most women chose the path of teaching. William F Luxton editor of the Free Press at the time told her that the newspaper business was not made for women especially with the late hours and the not so nice people.

A lawyer advised her to become a typist and she rented a typewriter and taught herself how to use it. For more than a decade she worked as a typist, but she did not give up on journalism. She decided that on her own she would become knowledgeable in agriculture. By 1893 she had her first piece published: an article on dairy production. Twenty years after she had first applied to the paper, she was finally hired by the Free Press to do the job she had always wanted to do: report on agriculture.

Agriculture is such an uncertain business as far as how good the crops will be at harvest time. Having data from which to make educated guesses is what distinguished Cora Hind from everyone else. She was willing to go out in many parts of the province and check crops for herself conducting her own agricultural surveys. She dressed in her military style clothing with britches high boots. She drove herself all over the province where literally no man had gone before. The result was there was a level of confidence in her predictions.

In 1898 for example there were predictions of a crop failure Cora was able to predict an average harvest. She went right into the fields, rubbed and felt the wheat kernels in her hand and counted the kernels. In 1901 Cora was appointed agricultural and commercial editor for the Free Press. Her crop estimates became the standard by which this kind of work was done. She showed her abilities again in 1904 a year in which they Chicago experts predicted a crop of only 35 million bushels due to fear of black rust. Cora went out and checked things for herself and predicted a crop of 55 million bushels. The Chicago experts thought she was nuts till the crop actually came in at 54 million bushels. Her status as an expert was forged that season. In 1924 she travelled 10,240 km over 37 consecutive days making 30-50 stops a day to check crops.

Cora was front and centre in the women's movement and worked on poverty issues with Amelia Yeomans and voting issues with Nellie McLung.

Her colleagues are said to have paid her the ultimate compliment. "The best newspaper man in Winnipeg is a woman: Miss E Cora Hind." In 1935 she received an honourary degree from the University of Manitoba and the Free Press awarded her a round the world trip. In her 70s she took the trip and made a busman's holiday by reporting on agriculture around the world. Cora Hind died of a stroke at age 82.

Ernest Thompson Seton

Ernest Thompson Seton

Manitoba's World Renowned Naturalist

By George Siamandas

Seton was born August 14, 1860 in South Shields, Durham, England, the 12th of 14 children. His family moved to Canada in 1865 settling on a farm near Lindsay Ontario. Here Ernest developed his interest in nature. In 1871 the family moved to Toronto where Ernest spent all his leisure time exploring nature at a birder's paradise known as the Don Valley.

Earnest's father encouraged him to study art, an activity that came in very useful, as Ernest later was able to accurately depict the details in nature. He won a gold medal in the Toronto's Art Society's 1879 art contest. He received a scholarship and went to London to study art at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Seton returned to Toronto, but because of strained relations with his father, Seton decided to head west like all young men before him.

In 1882 Seton came west to Manitoba on a colonist's train of settlers and went to live on a farm just west of Carberry with his brother Arthur. Here he found a paradise.

Seton would have stood out in Carberry. Wandering around in long hair and old shabby clothing. With notebook and sketchbook under his arm this tall man was an enigma. Why would he spend so much time out in the wild? He would later describe his time in the Carberry Sandhills as his "golden days." The area is now known as Spruce Woods Provincial Park.

While Seton spent only five years in Manitoba, much of his later life work was based on his observations in Manitoba. Seton became famous for detail and accuracy. On Oct 30 1882, Seton recorded his count of the number feathers on a bird and noted that there were exactly 4,915. Boggy Creek became a Mecca for Seton's bird watching. In 1892 he was appointed provincial naturalist. But Seton was soon in his way to wider pastures New York, Paris, where he married Miss Grace Gallatin in 1896. By this time Seton was a respected lecturer and author who toured the US in 1898.

Seton became involved with an organization called the Woodcraft Indians later known as the Woodcraft League, which became Boy Scouts. Seton became the first Boy Scout of the Boy Scouts of America and led the organization between 1910 and 1915.

Seton had an impact on people in all walks of life, apparently inspiring Jack London to write "Jungle Tales" and initiating a lifelong friendship with Pres. Theodore Roosevelt.

Seton was fascinated with wolves and they appeared in many of his stories. He signed some of his books with a drawing of a wolf's paw. These books became collectors' items. A copy of one of these "The Trail of the Sandhill Stag" was so inscribed when presented to Premier Hugh Macdonald in 1900.

In 1930 he settled in New Mexico where he died on Oct 23 1946. He left a library of 13,000 specialized books, 8,000 paintings and drawings, and 3,000 mounted birds and mammal skins.



After the Deluge Some Settlers Left While Others Stayed

By George Siamandas

It had been a very good year at Red River. The community was growing and upgrading itself. Forty-two new homes were built in six months. The severe mouse infestation had been the only discouraging event.

The problems had begun during the winter. There had been a giant snow during December 1825. The Metis and Indians wintering in Pembina were near starvation. Ross visited Pembina in February and saw it first hand. A relief effort by individuals and the HBC sent many dog teams south with food and supplies. But many perished, especially in the harsh winter that year. Those that were found alive had devoured their horses, dogs, raw hides, leather and their shoes. The winter continued to bring much snow and temperatures reaching -45. The ice was five feet seven inches thick.

On May 2 the water rose 9 feet in 24 hours. On May 4 the river overflowed its banks. On the 5th all the settlers abandoned the colony seeking higher ground. The river would rise for 20 days and in places the settlement had a depth of water estimated at 16 feet. What did they save? First came the cattle then the grain, furniture and utensils. The water reached so high people had to break through the roofs of their houses to salvage what they could. Meanwhile ice flows cut everything in their path.

Ross had a boat ready behind his house on he Red River at Point Douglas. As they got into the ark their belongings were flushed out of the house, as he was unable to close the door. They made way to a barn that was above water and joined a group of 50 people trying to escape the sudden waters. They fled west along the Assiniboine to Sturgeon Creek. The water continued to rise till the 21st. It was not until June 15th that they could return. Only one life was lost. But the mosquitoes after were unbearable.

On May 22 the men called a council to consider whether they should move. Opinion at Red River was divided. The differences between the De Meurons and Scottish settlers became quite marked. The De Meurons were mercenaries who had fought in the war of 1812 had been brought to Red River by Selkirk in 1816 to help keep the peace. Ross talks critically of the De Meurons who stole their cattle and gathered their floating possessions selling them back to the settlers at high prices. On June 24, 1826, 243 Swiss De Meurons, or half the colony, left for the United States. The Swiss were encouraged on their way with free food. They would eventually settle on the Mississippi. The Scots however vowed to stay. Not so easily chilled by disappointments, they would start again on bare ground. Having survived fire, famine, warfare, grasshoppers and now a devastating flood, they still saw their future here. And here they would build their futures, in defiance of all obstacles. By 1830 the community had been completely re-established with 204 new houses being built.

The previous fall had been wet; the winter saw lots of snow. There was a sudden melt, and fanned by strong south winds, the ice flow blocked the path to Lake Winnipeg. When the ice broke up at Lake Winnipeg, the flood eased at Red River. Ross closes by saying what has happened once may happen again. Mr. Nolin who had come to the are in the 1770s says that in 1776 the flood was even higher. Other bad flood years according to the Indians included 1790, and 1809. Ross would also live through the almost as bad 1852 flood.



The Canadian West's Most Famous Historic Trail

by George Siamandas

TheYellowhead trail is a route of provincial roads that follows some of the original trails that were employed first in the fur trade and later as the buffalo hunt extended west as far as Edmonton. The forerunner to the Yellowhead was the old Northwest trail. It once stretched from Winnipeg to Edmonton a distance of 3,000 km. Today it is an alternative route west to No 1 Highway west for those that want to take a little more time and go through more scenic areas.

The Yellowhead branches off No 1 just west of Portage La prairie even though the government is promoting Winnipeg and the Forks as its start. From there you take highway No 16 to Neepawa and then west through rolling plains and the woodlands south of Riding Mountain provincial Park. From there it continues through Minnedosa, and Russell and then into Saskatchewan through the Yorkton and Saskatoon. It goes through Edmonton and then through the Rockies to Price Rupert BC.

The route had many names depending on where you were headed to. It was the Portage trail if you were headed towards Portage, the Carlton trail if you were near Riding Mountain, the Old Saskatchewan trail in what became Saskatchewan, the Edmonton trail and the Hudson Bay Trail.

The name Yellowhead came from an Iroquois Metis guide named Pierre Bostonais who worked for the Hudson Bay Company. The French voyageurs called him tete jeune which translated into yellow head because of his blonde streaked hair. Bostonais came west from Quebec to work for one of the fur trade companies at about 1800. He is first mentioned as "yellow head" in the Hudson Bay Company's 1819 records as working in the area of the Rocky Mountains. In 1827 Tete Jaune, his brother and their children and their wives were killed by the Beaver Indians on the BC side of the Rockies.

The first major recorded use of the trail was about 1840 with that year's great buffalo hunt when more than 1,200 Red River Carts took the trail west. Later the trail became a highway for settlers moving to the south-west plains. And for more than 50 years, before No 1 it was the road west.

The Yellowhead Highway Association is billing it as one of the world's great drives. In Manitoba it skirts just south of Riding Mountain Park providing scenery much more interesting than No 1. They say that because it is at lower altitudes that there is less snow on it, and it is less prone to weather closures.

At Portage La Prairie you can visit Fort La Reine Museum, one of La Verendrye's forts. Next stop is Neepawa and the Beautiful Plains Museum. Neepawa was named Manitoba's most beautiful town in 1995. Then there is Minnedosa, a great spot for waterfowl. Finally before leaving Manitoba you can visit Russel once a hub of the railways and home of Asessipi Park.


"The Man the Indians Called the Great Spirit"
by George Siamandas

April 4, 1803 marked the birth of Father Belcourt, one of the most popular Roman Catholic missionaries who pioneered work amongst the native people. This outstanding man was called the Great Spirit by the native people of the west. Belcourt was the eldest of eleven children born to Antoine Belecour and Josephte Lemire who were farmers in Yamaska County Lower Canada. He was ordained by Bishop Panet in 1827. Belcourt took the trouble to learn English. Learning he would be coming to the west he spent two months at Oka to learn Algonquin, a language similar to the Cree and Saulteaux languages of western tribes. Together with Bishop Provencher, Belcourt came out to Red River in the spring of 1831. A fastidious writer, Belcourt kept graphic descriptions of his travels from day one in his daily journal.

Father Belcourt was an able carpenter that assisted in the building of Provencher's new St Boniface Cathedral. He also built furnishings for Provencher's home and helped establish a workshop that produced prefabricated door frames at St Francis Xavier. Belcourt did this in part because he needed extra money and worked as a tradesman making door frames and cart wheels.

Near what is now St. Eustache, Belcourt established a mission and worked to turn the Indians into Christians. But Provencher was always disappointed with Belcourt's productivity at attracting converts. Belcourt retained the respect of the Indians like no other white man. His facility and interest in learning Indian languages was a big help. He also helped develop native language that helped express Christian concepts and ideas. Indians travelled from as far as the west coast to meet the man they called the "Great Spirit." Belcourt wrote textbooks and worked to develop a Saulteaux English dictionary.

Belcourt made extensive visits to the interlake trying to establish literally a dozen new missions. He was not always welcome by the Indian bands. He also went to Rainy Lake, White Dog, Duck Bay, Swan River, Fort Francis, He travelled by water using a birch bark canoe he built himself.

Belcourt had a variety of garden seeds sent out and he tried to establish farms. Belcourt had frequent disagreements with Provencher. It is thought he tried to do too much, too soon, and Provencher felt his work was too costly. His mission was not considered productive enough. Belcourt was considered a wishful thinker. But he was a great persuader. And he received separate funding from Quebec for his missions over Provencher's disapprovals. Amongst other things Belcourt wanted to start an industrial school.

Belcourt became independent and disagreed with Provencher and his HBC sympathies. Provencher feared Belcourt had gone native. Belcourt started "going to the prairies" or out on the buffalo hunts. He documented the hunt in great detail: how it was organized, their route, and the hunting methods.

He fought to maintain access for the buffalo hunters into the northern US after 1845 when the US became concerned with border crossers. Belcourt also helped the Metis in their trading grievances with the HBC at a time when the HBC was suppressing free trading. Neither the HBC or Bishop Provencher agreed with this action and they had Belcourt recalled to Quebec.
Annoyed by this interference, Belcourt went south of the border and spent 11 years near Pembina North Dakota at St Josephe. In 1859 he left the west and relocated to Rustico, Prince Edward Island where he helped establish the Farmer's Bank of Rustico forerunner to a Credit Union. He died peacefully on May 31, 1874.

His missions did not survive. It is said that several hundred natives left Manitoba to follow him to Pembina. His works suggest that he may have been an early pioneer of the social gospel. Today Belcourt, North Dakota, just south of the International Peace Gardens, stands as the only reminder of this distinguished man who got along better with his parishioners than he did with the church and political hierarchy.


"The Automobile City"
by George Siamandas
The village of Steibach was founded in 1874 by 18 Mennonites families that set up a traditional Mennonite village along a creek. The founders' names included Wiebe, Penner, Reimer, Towes, Friesen, Plett and they are the stock of many Mennonites in Manitoba today. It is an unlikely location as it was away from Winnipeg and on the south eastern edge of the old Mennonites villages. But its success was due to ambitious hard working people. But initially, business was frowned on as an activity.

JR Friesen brought a 1911 Model N the forerunner of the Model T to Steinbach. He was promptly excommunicated by the church but Friesen was so excited about the possibilities of the car that he did not take the excommunication too seriously. In fact he had the last laugh when several years later the same ministers that had thrown him out came to buy cars themselves. On June 6 1914 he became the first Ford car dealer in western Canada. The cars were brought by rail knocked down in boxes, assembled and delivered on sleighs to their owners. In 1928 and 1929 they were selling 70 cars per year at about $650 each.

To sell cars in the 1930s they offered your money back in three days if not satisfied. They also held Canada's earliest car auction selling 48 at the Penner dealership which was western Canada's most modern in the early 1950s. John D Penner in 1950 was the first to take out full page ads in the Winnipeg papers to promote cars.

They tried every inducement including inviting customers and their families over for dinner. One time Mr Penner visited a family on their farm, and while he showed the husband and wife the car, Mrs Penner milked all the cows. The wife was so moved she agreed to the sale on the spot. Mr Penner said he had not yet milked a cow himself but he had done just about everything else in order to sell a car.

Steinbach's car salesmen were the top of the country in the 1950s selling more than 250 cars annually. In 1960 they held a special promotion where anyone who came to Steinbach to buy a car had his hotel restaurant or other transportation paid for him. People came not only from Manitoba but also from Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Many businesses depended on a local invention. Inventors helped make their work easier, whether grain feeders for threshing machines, bee keepers equipment, bakery ovens and dough making machines, or mechanized dredges used to build drainage ditches.
Abraham S Friesen who was the first village mayor, first postmaster and a mechanical pioneer introduced mechanization to agriculture. He built the first windmill in 1877 and the first sawmill in 1876. It was his sons that later started the first Ford dealership in western Canada. Others like Peter K Barkman set up the first steam powered mill flour mill in 1880.

To encourage industry they introduced a ten year tax holiday and so Barkman's Flour Mill was constructed in 1922. Through the 1950s and 1960s Steinbach had the highest growth rate of all Manitoba communities.


Not happy with the condition of roads in the 1930s, the local transportation committee took matters into their own hands developing and upgrading first the road to Giroux where the nearest railway was located and then east to the Morden Sprague highway. They filled in swamps with corduroy getting help from adjoining farmers. Soon the predecessor to No 12 was formed. They also formed pure bred swine and poultry clubs a legacy for egg and pork production that is making this rural area the fastest growing producer in Manitoba. All the work was don in the depths of the depression with barely any governmental money. They held courses on everything under the sun: bee keeping, hog raising etc.

According to Statistics Canada, Steinbach and the area around it is known to be the most giving census tract in all of Canada for charitable donations.


The Man Who Didn't Want to Be Premier
By George Siamandas

Honest John Bracken, the man who did not want to be Premier, ran the province for 22 difficult years between 1922 and 1944. Bracken was born the son of a dairy farmer June 22, 1883 in Leeds Ont. He loved sports especially football and hockey. He was one who kept his feelings to himself. He went away to high school but failed his final exams returning home defeated. He took on the management of his father's dairy farm and made into a success. Up at 4:30 in the morning and in bed by 9, Bracken tended the farm 7 days a week. Like farmers everywhere, Bracken had been raised on values of hard work, and self-reliance.

Later he applied to the Ontario Agricultural College where he became one of 300 students. There he applied himself and did well. He would later find a clerical error had occurred. He had in fact passed. He graduated with top marks and took on his first job. He went west in 1905 to head up the Manitoba a section of the Federal Seed Bureau providing better seeds to western farmers. He was then wooed further west to work in Saskatoon by WR Motherwell. He became a specialist in dryland farming writing several seminal texts. In 1920 he returned to head up Manitoba's Agricultural College. He loved farmers and talking about farming. And he loved to work, taking time out only for his beloved curling.

After winning the 1922 election the United Farmers of Manitoba found themselves without a platform and without a leader. After approaching several agricultural leaders they decided on Bracken. Bracken who had no interest in politics and who felt as head of the Ag College he already had the best job in Manitoba, turned them down flat. He gave such a stirring speech why he wasn't the man that the United Farmers of Manitoba realized they wanted this co-operative non-partisan even more.

The next day they presented him a petition asking him once again to become leader. And once again he refused. On the third try they made sure that they saw him at home with his wife present. Once again he said no. But then Mrs Bracken said: "John you should help these men out." He agreed.
But first, Bracken who had never voted in his life before had to win a seat. He decided to run in The Pas. Bracken won his seat and won elections for 22 years including some with acclamation. Forty years later, Bracken would tell a reporter a familiar story. After the election, the part aboriginal mayor of The Pas had told Bracken that he had been offered $10,000 by the Conservatives to run against Bracken but the mayor decided not to run.

Bracken was at the helm for the most difficult times Manitoba faced. He introduced income tax and raised the gas tax. He reduced govt spending, fired civil servants, and cut back mother's allowances. Within three years he was running a surplus. He was seen as arrogant, unable to forget his schoolmaster background and treated MLA's as schoolboys.

After his long service in provincial politics, in 1942 Bracken was once again persuaded to serve another group's needs, this time as the leader of the federal Conservative Party. He convinced them to add the name progressive, but he was disappointed in the partisan bickering and his performance was judged lacklustre. He lasted two years. Some saw him once again, as the wrong man in the wrong party.

Bracken gave Manitoba 22 years of unselfish govt. His influence lasted as Brackenism would become the philosophy of the Garson and Campbell govt that would follow for another 15 years. In 1954, Bracken the teetotaller headed a Royal Commission on Liquor. His report recommended the liberalisation of drinking laws. Years later he regretted the increasing rates of alcoholism. He retired to Manotick Ontario to breed horses and died Mar 16, 1969.


By George Siamandas
© George Siamandas
Baldur Stefansson is one of Manitoba's most distinguished plant scientists and the father of the new breed of canola which he derived from selections of rapeseed. Stefansson's father had come from Iceland in 1910 and settled in Vestfold in the Interlake between Lundar and Inwood. He was a cattle farmer. Baldur was born in April 26, 1917. The area was not very prosperous. The area's soil lacks phosphates, as he would later discover. It was so bad the cows would chew the 2x4 lumber.
Baldur went to WW2 and when he returned decided against becoming a farmer. Why? Because he saw it as being too competitive. Every one of your neighbours is a competitor he maintains. And to get into farming takes a large investment. In the final analysis, the profit margin is very low. Instead, like many returning soldiers, he went to university, studied agriculture and settled on plant science. He earned an MA and a PhD.

He became interested in finding new sources of edible oil. While hemp was an attractive possibility, Stefansson and his colleagues knew that the govt would not permit research with this plant. Instead they concentrated on rapeseed. He wanted to develop an edible oilseed for large-scale production on the Canadian prairie.

Canola is the bright yellow crop, growing across the prairies. It is an oil seed. It came from selection of rapeseed, which is part of the mustard family. Rapeseed originated 2,000 years ago in India and was introduced to Asia during the time of Christ. It arrived in Europe in the 13th century. It became popular on the prairie because of its ability to grow in cooler climates. Grown for the oil contained in the seed, it was a particularly favoured lubricant because it could stick to metals in the presence of water. In 1936, a Saskatchewan farmer imported some rapeseed from Poland and began to grow it in Canada. It seemed to do well.

Rapeseed had two difficulties in being utilised as edible oil. If it was to be for human consumption the amount of erucic acid had to be substantially reduced. And the by product of crushing which is used for livestock feed, had to be made more palatable by reducing anti-nutritive glucosinolates. Stefansson was able to do both. In 1974 he succeeded with the double low "Tower" variety of canola. And to differentiate it from rapeseed the new name canola was coined from "Canadian Oil." The other choice was CanAbra, but the name was appropriated by a member of the committee who started an Alberta company with it.

After developing the in the double low "Tower" variety, Stefansson then began work for Calgene a corporate plant breeder that developed the round-up resistant variety of canola. Calgene was later bought out by the giant in plant varieties: Monsanto. Stefansson has no regrets about the work and how its value had remained with the companies. He was well paid as were literally hundreds of scientists and support staff for years while the company took the risk. He is happy his canola has allowed some farmers to be a little more productive and to be able to make a slightly better living.

He has won many awards over the years and a room in his modest house in Fort Garry now houses the collection. The Wolf prize from Israel, Order of the Buffalo Hunt, the Royal Bank etc. About two dozen in all. He is glad not to doing his plant breeding work in the corporate "dog eat farmer" environment of today.