A HOMESTEADER'S EXPERIENCES
Twenty three years ago last November, my father and I started loading a box car with household goods, farm implements, farm horses and six cows, twelve hens, a rooster, a collie dog and the tom cat. Pulling out of a small station in the central part of South Dakota amid waving handkerchiefs and shouting words of good will from our friends, we started on our way to Edmonton and what?
I can vividly recall the first night on the train, the rumble of the wheels, the stops and jerks, the shrill whistle of the engine, and the whines of the old collie as she roamed about the household part of the car, failing entirely to understand how old Tom could sleep so peacefully curled up against my back! With the morning came our first experience of feeding the stock and eating our breakfast under the same roof, and that a moving one! Most of the feed for our stock was carried in the car, and occasional bales of hay were picked up while we stopped to fill our water barrels at various stations.
So, after fifteen days on the train we arrived at Edmonton, weary of the trip and anxious to see what lay before us. We arrived at Strathcona at night and as morning broke we looked out and saw a small station with lines of box cars on both tracks, a wooly head and bearded face sticking out of every car door, each wondering what this place held for him. No breakfast was eaten in the car that morning, for we hustled out, found a certain Mr. Macleod who by means of a horse pulled a rickety miniature unloading platform from car to car, and thus our stock was unloaded, turned into a rail enclosure where they again attempted to walk.
The morning was not far advanced when we saw our Mother, who had preceded us on a passenger train, hurrying down the track, eager to greet us with news we were anxious to hear. The day was taken up with the unloading of the car, piling things up in heaps by the tracks where they remained until the following day. That night we ate at a real table, went to bed in a real bed, and forgot all the whistles, rumbles, jerks and chills which had been our lot for the past two weeks.
Next morning we looked about the town, saw a few stores, one hotel, a blacksmith shop, and
many shacks that had sprung up like a mushroom in the night. Looking across the river we saw a
few building, and were told that was Edmonton. Down by the river a saw mill was humming and
going out in every direction over mere trails, were settlers of all descriptions, The Russians in
sheepskin coat and high boots trying to drive a team of horses for the first time in their life. The
Frenchman in corduroy breeches, lumberman socks and sweater. The Englishman in riding
breeches and jacket sitting upright and wondering why in hell the oxen didn't start when he said
"Proceed". Standing by or trying to keep out of the way were Eastern Canadians or Americans,
cool-eyed, silent, and just wondering.
In the afternoon two of my Mother's brothers arrived by team from a hundred miles east of Edmonton, and under their guidance we proceeded to load our implements and household goods on the wagons, so as to be ready to start for Vegreville in the morning. By seven o'clock the next morning our teams were hitched up, the cows tied behind the wagons, and mother was packed between two feather beds. We bid farewells to our new friends and were away to our homesteads. As the ground was frozen we were able to make around fifteen miles a day over very rough roads. Stopping houses along the way afforded shelter for the nights but our noon day meals were usually eaten by the road side and warmed over a camp fire. On the second day out a fierce snow storm overtook us and we were held up for a day at one of the stopping places. As it happened to be Thanksgiving day we plucked a couple of hens, the lady of the house provided some vegetables and much cherished wild raspberry preserves, and at dinner we all gathered around the one table, ate, talked and sang, and were thankful we were in this place of warmth, while outside the wind blew and the snow cut one's face to the quick. From there on we had to travel through a foot of snow and the weather turned bitterly cold. The cows became foot sore, the horses lagged, but on the sixth day we arrived at Vegreville - homes and relatives. I can still see my Aunt rushing down the road to embrace my mother who had jumped from the moving wagon in her eagerness to greet her sister. The first questions were not answered before others had trampled on their heels, and how we enjoyed our supper that night! After three weeks of travel we were again among relatives and near our new home in this new land.
As it was too late to build, we decided to spend the winter with my Aunt and Uncle. Our horses were stabled in the low log barns with theirs, the hens fought for a place on the roosts of the hen house, and the old tom cat was chased up the trees by my Uncle's dog, while our old collie stood by and wondered why a dog would waste his time in such folly, while there were thousands of rabbits in all the bushes. More snow came and packed around the doors of the barns so that often we had to shovel it away so we could open them. Time was spent in feeding the stock, cutting the firewood, and catching prairie chickens in boxes with slides. During the long evenings we sat around the wood fire and read, dozed, talked at intervals and then to bed.
About once a month a dance was held in some store or large home. The fiddler sat in one corner
on a box keeping time with his foot to the old tunes of long ago. On Christmas Eve a big dance
was held in the one store at Vegreville. Families came in sleigh loads from miles around. The
children were put to bed anywhere and they went on with the dance. On one occasion one young
man who had taken on more booze than he could handle, attempted to take another fellow's
partner during a two- step. Blows ensued, the women rushed into another room, men attempted
to stop them and in so doing other fights started. The trouble was finally stopped by the wives of
the men in the scraps, taking their unruly husbands to hand and telling the two young bucks to go
outside and settle it between themselves. Owing to some wise head, no more was seen of them
With the longer March days and melting snow came the desire to get at our new home. In a few days we had enough logs to build a small log barn. Then we hauled over some lumber from my Uncle's place, which he had got out of the saw mills in the Beaver hills two winters before the house was built . A person who has never built their own home in a new land will not be able to understand the great satisfaction that we felt as we sat down to our first meal in our homestead home.
That spring and summer we broke fifteen acres, built a small pasture of poles and enclosed the breaking with two wires. Occasionally my Dad and I stole a half day off and went duck hunting. One day we shot three fine ones in the middle of a pond and Collie refused to go in for them. Dad then jumped on our old grey horse and rode in. He was turning about to come out after getting the ducks when old Frank suddenly sat down in the slough and off Dad slid, ducks and all.
Late in the summer my Uncles and Dad took two teams each and went to Edmonton for freight for the store in Vegreville. Of these trips, volumes could be written.
A few incidents and we pass on. Arriving in Edmonton, they loaded up at some wholesale house. Often they were stuck going down Jasper Avenue, and would have to double up and be pulled out. They tell of going to a farmer just out of the present City of Edmonton and asking to buy some sheaves for the horses. although the farmer had plenty, he refused. They had no feed, the horses were tired, they had offered to buy and were refused, so there was only one alternative. They drove by a little way, stopped, circled the field and near a bluff they came upon two like freighters stealing sheaves from this man. They had around fifty sheaves piled up by the road, My uncle and Dad surprised them by shouting, and the fellows thinking the owner had arrived, rushed away, thus, our men were saved the trouble of carrying the sheaves from the field to the road. It was by this means (freighting I mean) that our store bills were paid for the first three years. Once in a while we got some breaking to do for some homesteader who had no horses and a little money.
The following spring we put in the fifteen acres to oats and a heavy crop was the result, so heavy in fact that it stood as high as the horses backs, and only half a swath could be taken. In many places it was lodged. We also broke twenty acres that summer regardless of the mass of mosquitoes that flocked around. Our cows stood by the smoking smudge most of the day, and got their living during the cool evenings. Often we drove to town with a smudge in some old pail placed at our feet in the wagon box. The story is told of Pat and Mike's first visit to the West and their trouble with mosquitoes. The pests had followed and pecked at them all day, so at night they decided to crawl under their bed in order to be free from them. After some minutes in this position, Pat looked out and saw some lightening bugs darting about, and in a breathless whisper said to Mike "an begorra Mike, they are out with lanterns looking for us!" In the following spring we put in some wheat, and lost a lovely crop by the frost. By this time other people had come in, the town had a few log stores, a hotel, a blacksmith shop and a school.
Also about this time a Missionary arrived and held forth in different homes and in the school. His
salary being too small to live on, he was given.
periodical lodgings and board in the different homes about. His words of cheer and willing nature to help at any odd job, helped many a weary homesteader over rough and dangerous places.
In my reminiscences, I recall our first picnic held on the first of July, the second year we were here. A grove with tall trees and shady, near an open piece of prairie, was the chosen place. The day before a few of us near fixed up some crude tables, swings for the children, leveled a piece of land for a ball diamond and built a small booth where ice cream and lemonade were sold.. The morning was bright and warm, and all were there for the mid day lunch. A big boiler of coffee supplied all with hot drinks and the various lunch baskets did the rest. Soon after this the children ran their races for a dish of ice cream or a long stick of candy. Some fell, others cried because they were behind, and others wanted to try again. Then there was the ladies race. After much persuading, pleading and pushing, a few consented, ran a yard or so and then said "Gosh I'm too fat" and quit.
A ball game between the fats and leans was the big event. No casualties occurred until the fifth inning when the catcher for the fats missed the ball with his glove, but not his stomach. He then refused to continue as catcher, but finally consented to return to the game when a pillow out of a nearby wagon was tied on him with some ropes. The game was a victory for the leans, they being more able to miss the holes in the field and to run faster from base to base. As we were getting ready for the tug of war between the confident married men and the ever confident single lads, a shower of rain arrived and dampened us all.. In the evening we drove to a newly built barn and there wiled away the small hours to the tunes of a squeaky fiddle played by the fat catcher sitting on a water barrel.
Years went by, more settlers came, the land was brushed and broken up, and then came news of the railroad. In another year surveyors came with their chains, and our dreams became a reality. Now, the old timers ride home from the city in their cars which are kept in heated garages, and after a good supper as they sit by the fireside and listen to the wonderful music coming over the radio, they often think of the homestead days which they would not have missed, and which they would not want to repeat again.
Added notes by Terry Cole: The above article was written seventy years ago (1925) by John Forrest Leach, who came to Canada in 1902. 1 expect that this article once appeared in the Vegreville Observer.