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A New Home; New Life 1927-1938

A very rough passage, waves sixty to eighty feet high with the bow plunging into the troughs, and engines cut to lessen the revolutions of the propeller which would thunder when the ship ploughed nose down into troughs of the waves; no one was allowed on the foredecks at any time. Nearly all the passengers were seasick, some violently so, and the dining rooms were almost deserted. For three days I was the only person at our table for eight: I was one of the fortunate and never got seasick.

At last we sighted our new home on 3rd of April 1927. It was white with snow right down to the water's edge as we edged into the dock in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was like the start of a great adventure: different climate, different scenery, different customs, different country full of promise.

We eventually got through the customs house. The ship's passengers were loaded onto two long trains of colonists' coaches, headed for different parts of Canada. My family had elected to go to Alberta. The coaches could be made down into beds each night, the bedding for which we had brought with us. At one end of each coach was a cookstove where we could do limited cooking. We managed fairly well although somewhat crowded as far as Winnipeg. At Winnipeg we were forced to lay over for two days as my father, who had been quite seasick, became trainsick and had to have a rest.

The worst part of the journey was the long tedious train ride, day after day and always snow. We were not used to so much snow. One day early in the morning we entered Alberta, and lo and behold there were only patches of snow here and there. The patches of bare ground were a welcome sight, indeed!

We knew Canadian winters would be more harsh than Scotland's. We pored over brochures from every province and read in the brochure from Alberta about the chinook winds, warm dry winds from the Pacific Ocean which can raise the winter temperatures dramatically. We elected for Alberta and after sixty years, have no regrets.

An amusing incident. In Saskatchewan a passenger got on the train, a homesteader and bachelor too. He saw my fifteen-year-old sister and promptly approached my parents with a proposal to marry her, there and now. Mother was horrified of course. We have a chuckle when we remember.

We arrived in Calgary on 11th April 1927 very early in the morning, and ladies from the Red Cross whisked Mother and my sisters to some place to rest. I had to start exploring and wandered out of the C.P.R. Station on Center Street to Eighth Avenue. Riley and McCormicks Western Shop was right there in those days, and as I feasted my eyes on western saddles and other tack, I happened to look down and there was a twenty-five cent piece lying on the sidewalk. I thought this is the country! I've come to the right place. I haven't found too much lying around since!!

Later that day we went to Olds, sixty miles north, by train, and thence nine miles northwest to the farm that was to be the family home. En route to the farm we passed a road grader pulled by twelve horses, the largest hitch I had ever seen. In Scotland three horses working together was the largest hitch used.

The week after arriving in Olds district I found work on a farm for spring work and was soon driving four horses and graduating to six when ploughing. During the summer I helped clear raw land by clearing brush and breaking or picking roots and preparing it for cropping the next year. All this was new to me and vastly different to farming methods in Scotland. I was finding many other things different, too. I was known as Scotty in those days. I was working with my employer's son once, picking roots, and we were not making enough headway. The boss went to town and brought out another man, an Indian. One day he volunteered, "Me Scottish too, my name MacKintosh." What a country! My further education was starting.

Fall came with harvest, cutting the grain with binders which tied the cut grain into sheaves, stooking the sheaves to dry; then threshing time with eight teams bringing the sheaves to a portable machine set up in the fields which threshed the grain and blew the straw into a huge pile. All this was vastly different to what I had known in Scotland where the grain was all stacked to cure then threshed in various ways—from using flails, which were simply two sticks hinged together and used to beat the grain loose which in turn was tossed into the air, to winnowing the chaff out of it. The more advanced farms had threshing machines built-in which were powered by a sweep outside in the yard, pulled by two to four horses who travelled continuously round. The grain was cut in many ways. By scythe, or by reaper, with two men riding behind the horses. One of the men would carry a rake with an offset handle with which he would push the grain off the table when there was enough for a sheaf. Another type of reaper used had four sails, one of which had rake teeth to push off the accumulated grain each time it made a circuit. All the sheaves were bound by hand using some of the straw for a tie. Never having seen a binder my first harvest in Canada was a revelation. Naturally, harvest required lots of help and in those days extra help was brought in from eastern Canada. The C.P.R. used to run harvest excursions whereby men from Ontario could travel to Alberta return for ten dollars each. Many of them stayed or returned later to become Albertans.

Wintertime was a slack time on the farms, jobs being hard to get even at ten dollars a month, and during the early years of the depression I worked all winter for board and tobacco only. The winter of 1927-28 I worked west of Wetaskewin for ten dollars a month hauling logs on sleighs and remember three weeks when the temperature stayed between forty and fifty degrees below zero. I would walk beside the horses with the sleighs screeching in the dry snow.

I soon found out I could make more money working on the large grain farms in southern Alberta, where I got as much as one hundred and five dollars a month for spring work, but we had to handle large hitches of horses, up to twenty horses in one hitch. This meant very long and hard work caring for, harnessing and grooming such large outfits and generally entailed from four a.m. to ten p.m. But I was young then like most other men in the business.

Threshing in the south country in those days was done on a large scale; generally twelve teams haulings and extra men for field pitching helping to load, and spike pitching as four men would be throwing in sheaves at the same time. Each crew was about twenty men, and the big machines were powered by steam engines. In the fall of 1929 I worked the first combine I had ever seen. Twenty horses and mules provided the motive power for a twenty-foot Holt combine, brought in for seasonal work from Montana.

The market crash of 1929 brought hard times; jobs just disappeared and men drifted by thousands across the country looking for work. Relief camps were set up for single men but many of us just drifted, hoping to find work.

I rode the freight trains as far east as Manitoba and west to Vancouver in all kinds of weather, seeking out an existence the best I could. Often with a few scrounged vegetables and some meat or bone we would create a mulligan in the jungles, as we referred to the edge of a town, generally in or close to the railway yards. In Calgary it was possible to get a three course meal for fifteen cents, or failing that a bowl of soup and all the crackers you could eat for five cents, if you had the money.

I found work for the spring seeding at Milden, Saskatchewan, just south of Rosetown, on the farm of Billy Weir. I had drifted down to Milden where I saw two men loading hay onto a railroad car. I offered to help, and was offered work through seeding and told to meet the men at the livery barn later in the afternoon. When I met them as pre-arranged my new boss had passed out, having visited the bootleggers. Driving his horses I followed the other farmer for some distance when he stopped and pointed out farm buildings away in the distance. I just had to head straight there as there were no fences in that country, except for an area at each farm for the horses.

I drove into the yard where I met Mrs. Weir and her family of three school-age children, a lovely family, and I kept in touch with them for many years after.

Spring work started and I learned more about my new country. I was seeding wheat, driving six horses on a mile stretch, and I noticed a grassy mound in the middle with the cultivated land running round it. When I got close to the grassy mound I decided to drive my horses straight over. It was an old sod house. The middle four horses fell in and the two outside horses were up on the end wall; quite a scramble to get out!

This was how the early settlers in the prairies managed: they were miles and miles from any trees, so they used their ingenuity and built houses using the native sod, until such time as they developed their land and were able to buy lumber for homes and other buildings. Hardy resourceful people!

[1] This quarter-section, NW-5-38-6-W5, is traversed by Township Road 380A, about 2km east of Alberta Highway 22.

[2] In a letter to a friend in 1985, John provides some interesting details about his new homestead.

February 1930. I journeyed to Rocky Mountain House and located some raw land, 160 acres, which I bought from the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, for eleven dollars per acre.
1931. After spring seeding I travelled to Rocky Mountain House with four horses and a wagon load of possessions. First night slept under the wagon with horses tied to trees. I then started to clear the land of trees and prepare it for cultivation at the same time getting out logs to build a house. Got married and the next few years were very busy— dug a well, built a house and outbuildings, all of logs, accumulated cattle etc.

[3] John's marriage to Mary Emma Berkley (1911-1977) actually took place in March, 1933, according to their marriage registration. I have two sources from John's papers where he states the marriage took place in 1931, and here he says 1932; his confusion over the date of his own marriage is puzzling, although this blog post attempts to unravel the mystery. John and Mary got divorced in 1945, a fact that is not mentioned or alluded to in this memoir.

While I was working I began to accumulate some farm necessities—a team of horses, disc, and plough—and decided to try homesteading. I journeyed to Rocky Mountain House where I heard there was land available, and in 1930 I located a quarter section of raw C.P.R. land, the NW ¼ Sec. 5 Tp. 38 Rg. 6 W 5th.[1]  I signed a contract to purchase at eleven dollars per acre, $1,760.00.

In the summer of 1931 I moved onto the land, fenced a portion, cleared and broke five acres, and cut out a set of logs to build a log cabin that was to be my home for a number of years.[2]  I got married in 1932.[3]  There was lots of hard work and very little money; mostly we bartered for commodities required. In the following years I built a barn for the stock I was acquiring, a chicken pen, an ice house, and I dug a well. To get by I cut mine props sold six foot long, one cent per inch diameter, or mine ties four and four and a half foot long at one cent per foot. I did better with the ties as I could hew one hundred and twenty-five each day, four days a week, making two trips to Rocky per week to sell them. I received some cash and some trade in buckskin goods, coats, gloves and moccasins, which I could trade later for commodities I wanted. While engaged in my bush work I would cut out sawlogs (larger trees), get them sawed at a custom mill, and in wintertime haul the lumber out around Olds and Didsbury where I got ten dollars per thousand board feet. Not always cash; I recall trailing a heifer all the way from Olds sixty miles to my place at Rocky Mountain House.

During the depression, known as the Dirty Thirties, everyone did their best to survive, cutting timber on government land, poaching when opportunity offered. Everyone was the same, cooperation was the norm, and everyone shared good fortune with neighbours. When moose and deer wandered out into the settlement they were shot and divided up among all the neighbours. There was very little cash about, but considerable barter for goods and services. One winter I cut the trees off five acres of someone's land, leaving the stumps to be pulled the next summer, and for the work done I received a horse which was of great use to me.

Even at Christmas time, everyone pitched in and we would have good concerts. The country schools were not far apart and staggered their concerts so that for about a week before Christmas there would be a concert every night. Santa visited each school to hand out presents, which were mostly home-made toys or hand-made socks, mittens, scarves, even home-made candies, but everyone enjoyed themselves.

Those were also the Hungry Thirties, when everyone would do anything merely to exist. One winter around Rocky Mountain House there was a peak in rabbit population, and everyone was shooting rabbits. They were worth three cents each frozen and with the feet cut off. During that winter they shipped eight carloads each week, destined for the mink farms in the maritime provinces.

Another winter it was squirrel pelts worth ten to twelve cents when stretched. Sixty thousand were shipped from Rocky that year. The summers were busy with clearing and breaking more land, which was cleared by hand-cutting the tree roots, piling and burning, then ploughing with an eighteen-inch brush breaker plough pulled by seven horses.

[4] In a letter in 1985, John states that this hailstorm took place in August 1935. But John only had 2 children at that point, his third child being born in January 1937. So possibly this actually happened in 1937 or 1938. Archie, his fourth and youngest child, was born in May 1939.

Oftentimes we got frost, which meant poor grain. Occasionally hailstorms would take their toll too. One year I got hailed out completely in early August just before harvest. With three young children and only sixty-five cents to my name, not a thing could be salvaged. I left immediately riding the freight trains for Granum where I had worked in better times but which country had suffered severely from the dust storms and was just starting to recover with the advent of strip farming. There working through harvest I managed to make a grubstake for winter.[4]