Is it land hunger, that hereditary weakness of our race that has been handed down to us from a far-distant ancestry? Or is it a desire for independence that gives man the incentive to brave all dangers and privations in order to “possess the land”? You will find the hardy Scandinavian ready to lay aside his fishing nets, the dour Scot forsaking his beloved Highlands, the debonair Englishman willing to exchange the fogs of London for the clearer air of the distant prairies, and again the hot-headed Irishman, who is ever the easy prey of any enterprising government who can paint a glowing advertisement of 160 acres of “Virgin Prairie,” ready for the plough, all for the paltry sum of ten dollars.
It was just such men as these, with a sprinkling of Americans, and some Eastern Canadians, who invaded the steps of the land office at Calgary a little over a quarter of a century ago, in their eagerness to file on a parcel of land thrown open to homesteading on the east side of the Red Deer river.
Some of us can remember reading of the long weary waiting in line to get the particular quarter section that they had set their heart on. Often hunger overcame them and they would drop their place in the line, only to find when they returned that someone else had filed on the coveted piece in their absence.
Meet a couple of these tenderfoots, who had just stepped off a northbound train at the little town of Airdrie, armed with a ten-dollar certificate to show they had the right to homestead a quarter section somewhere on this vast prairie, and with a wealth of inexperience that it would be hard to equal. A howling chinook welcomed them and while holding on to their hats with one hand and their suit-cases with the other, they found it hard to ascend the hill, for the dust was blinding. They had intended to rest for a few days before starting for the land of promise. The lady whose house they were to stop at was none too cordial, as her patience had been sorely tried; her house was in the wake of a 50-acre patch of summer-fallow, which had taken the liberty of transferring itself into her parlor; also she had discovered we were from Chicago and might be worth watching, for she was a staunch Methodist. However, after looking us over, she decided we were harmless and bade us welcome after apologizing for the summer fallow.
Came Here in 1908
The following week, my husband and his brother, who had preceded us to Canada, decided to make a quick trip with horses and buggy and locate their land. After two days they came to the old Greentree crossing, which, by the way, is the present site of the City of Drumheller. All it boasted of then was the old ranch house and a few cattle corrals. The river was very high, as it was the spring break-up of April, 1908, and could not be forded, so the men crossed in a boat and walked the rest of the way.
They found it a weary journey, not a human inhabitation being in sight as far as the eye could see. Around the noon hour they could discern something in the distance, which they hoped was a house, and finally turned out to be the home of Mr. Alex Charters and sons, who had come out in the fall of 1907 and built their shack. Mr. Allen Charters, who had some experience in surveying, very kindly offered to help them to locate their land. On their return, the men reminded me of the spies of Biblical history – both agreed that the land was good, but one saw insurmountable difficulties ahead, while the other saw only smooth sailing. Several trips were made by the men during the summer of 1908 with lumber, and some farm implements, but the Red Deer hills were so discouraging that it took stout hearts and strong backs to hold out to the tasks set them.
Caught in Three-Day Blizzard
Settlers were not coming in as fast as expected, so it was decided not to bring the women folks for that winter. In March, 1909, another trip was made by the men – they were caught in a three-day blizzard and spent the time at the Douglas ranch-house. This time they were surprised by the many shacks that had been built and the people who had come in to stay in the fall of eight. Frank Hardy and Thomas McKee had built shacks quite close to ours, and the district which is now known as Livingstone (named after a lawyer who had settled there) was fairly well settled. Bob McKee, the larger, and Bob, the lesser, as we shall term them to distinguish them, had both come in that year, and Tom McKee, who was known as “Jeweller Tom,” and his wife had lived over the winter of “eight”: also the Murray family and the Herb Morrows. Further east, Mr. Sylvester, Mr. Steward and the Ewings had located, and Mr. Robert Morley, but the women folks of these families had not yet come in. Hearing of all the new settlers, we were anxious to make the trip, so on Tuesday, August 31, we left Airdrie bag and baggage. Mrs. J. Brown and I drove in a buggy with our two babies, Aileen, aged nine weeks, and Hugh, six weeks. Each man drove a wagon loaded with household effects and some lumber. Margaret, aged two, drove with her father, and Anna, five years old, drove with her father. We had a cow tied to one of the wagons which delayed us for hours; after walking half a mile she sat down and could not be persuaded to go another step. We left her at Airdrie for a future trip. We only made nine miles from Airdrie that day and camped at a prosperous place called Yankee Valley. We pitched our tent close to a farmhouse, ate our supper and slept like logs until we were awakened at daylight by a shrill whistle. Mr. Woods, the farmer, was calling his horses. He very kindly invited us for breakfast too, and after partaking of a substantial one with lots of good coffee, we were ready for an early start and made splendid progress that day.
Travellers Refused Water
The weather was beautiful and I shall always think of those two days as a glorious picnic. There was a purple haze on the prairie that is indescribable. The sunsets were grand, and each night we were lulled to sleep by the weird strains of the coyotes, and at sunrise in the morning, we were awakened by the same wild music. The children wanted to know if the coyotes were saying their prayers. Our worst drawback was water, for it was one of those years that had turned very dry towards fall. We had to carry a supply with us when we could get it, for we were refused water several times on our way.
If our three first days were fun, the two last ones were grief and vexation. We spent the third night at the lovely little village of Carbon. After the prairie it was restful to come on a spot nestling among the everlasting hills, just as if it had been there always. After breakfast, we again started on our way, and here began our difficulties; we had to cross the Knee Hill Creek five times, the first crossing was awful, as our unbroken bronks insisted on galloping downhill into it. I held the two babies and I don’t know how I kept them from catapulting into the water. I was so much frightened that I decided not to ride through any more of these crossings in that rig, so the next four times we crossed, I removed my shoes and stockings and waded through with a baby under each arm. Next we came to the hill leading down to the river; only those who experienced those hills before they were graded can appreciate the difficulties we encountered. We crossed the river at the Wigmore Ferry and stopped to eat and rest on the banks of the Red Deer, boiled water and bathed the babies – the first baths they had had since we left Airdrie.
Time Effaces Unpleasant Memories
Then we proceeded to load up for our trip up the opposite hill. It is well that time effaces to some extent unpleasant memories for this is one of the worst of my life. Our horses were not heavy enough for the task before them and our day was spent loading and unloading our household goods, making a few rods at a time, under a broiling sun. We reached the top towards evening, too tired to proceed further. In the morning we started again, feeling certain our troubles were over, “but the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft aglee” – we had only gone a short distance when we came to a hill known as Fox Coulee, and near to the site of Munson. My husband took Anna off his wagon just before starting up the hill, when half way up the wagon capsized and all our belongings rolled down to the bottom of the coulee. Fortunately, Tom was able to jump clear just as the horses fell. It took all the forenoon to get our stuff gathered together and dragged from the bottom of the coulee. My dishes, which I had packed carefully, had not a cracked plate, and only our table and the violin were broken. We started again after dinner on the last lap of our journey. We had about six miles of turtle backs and could only go at a snail’s pace, about seventeen miles in all, for that afternoon our trail vehicle gave out on the last mile of road, and we finished our journey on foot.
We were tired, but determined to reach our new home that night if possible. We stopped at Mr. Hardy’s shack. He kindly invited us to stay, but we just borrowed some water and went on, arriving at J. Brown’s at 10:00 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 4, 1909.
Water Problem Harassing
Sunday morning the men got up early and went to a small well they had dug on a previous visit to get water for breakfast. Horrors, the well was dry. They walked for miles around the coulee, but not a drop of water to be found. Again we had to call on Mr. Hardy to lend us enough water to do us until Monday. Early Monday, we packed our stuff and started for our own shack half a mile distant. Then we unloaded our stuff and Tom started for the Red Deer for water, a distance of six miles. We did not have a drop of water to drink. I had some lemons which quenched our thirst a little. I thought I would start out to look around and see if I could not find some water, making sure I did not lose sight of home. I saw a tent in the coulee but was afraid to go near, but a woman came out and I ventured to go up to her: I told her my plight and she very kindly lent me half a pail of water. The woman was Mrs. Willard Bixby, who made a good neighbor indeed for many years after. Our home had only half the roof on, but we did not mind that as the weather was beautiful and the fresh air made us sleep and eat as we never did before. We found, however, that our home was occupied by scores of field mice who were altogether too friendly to suit me, owing to the fact that they had never seen a human being, nor remotely heard of a cat. They became the easy prey of our borrowed kitten, which we returned after two nights with a record that might have turned the “Pied Piper” green with envy “not a mouse left to tell the tale!”
Prairie Fire Recalled
We were all too busy that fall to be lonely, and only for the shortage of water we would have been very happy. All the water had to be hauled from the river, six miles distant. The men made a trip to Calgary early in October for supplies and stuff we left behind. We had no fire guard, so I took the children to Mrs. J. Brown’s to await the men’s return. The second night, the eastern sky was ablaze with light, a prairie fire in full swing. Perhaps some of you remember the Berry Creek fire when a woman and children lost their lives – that fire kept up for two nights and we could not go to sleep, as we did not know how far away it was and were ready to run all the time, but on the third night we could not see it anymore. The settlers were very busy that fall preparing for winter. The coal had to be dug at the old Walton mines, but we were very glad to get it for the digging.
Rough Ride for Bride
Our first Christmas was a memorable one for our first wedding was solemnized that day. The bride, a young lady from London, was met at the river by Mr. Herb Morrow with a stone boat. Mr. Morrow sat on the front seat, and the bride-to-be on a box at the back. In pointing out the beauties of the landscape, Mr. Morrow suddenly noticed there was no response from the back seat. On looking around, he saw the lady sitting on the prairie some distance in the rear. The wedding was held at the Morrow home, and most of the settlers were invited. Somehow we were not among the guests. John Brown was the officiating clergyman, and Mr. And Mrs. Morley the happy couple. We watched all that day to see the minister start for the wedding. We had a rooster that we had bought from Mr. Hardy for our Christmas dinner (chickens were scarce then). We cooked and ate him on what we thought was Christmas Day, Anna had a birthday on the 26th, and one of the Bixby boys came with a pair of new mitts for her. I thanked him and said: “How did you know her birthday?” and he said it was for a Christmas present. It was then we discovered we had cooked and eaten our rooster the day before Christmas.
Supplies Hauled From Calgary
We had beautiful weather all fall, and had our first blizzard on New Year’s Eve. The snow was very deep in January, but in February it was all cleared away. January found most of the neighbors low on supplies, and so the Simpsons, Bixbys and Browns joined forces and ploughed through the snow to Mrs. Marsden’s, who kept some supplies which her sons hauled from Calgary. None of the settlers owned bob-sleighs, so they had to take four horses to pull the wagon through the snow-drifts. It was a journey of ten miles but took all day.
Our first community gathering was given at the Bixby home. We had a very enjoyable time as it was good to see each other. The Marsden brothers were there and entertained us with songs and Miss Marsden was the pianist. Mr. Watson was the fiddler and we had some dancing. I remember hearing “Red Wing” for the first time – that was the latest hit of the season.
My knowledge of Western life was very limited and was not prepared to meet our first visitor, a gentleman of middle-age with the manners and bearing that might have graced a palace, splendidly groomed: in true Western style he introduced himself as J. Caldwell. I had met for the first time a western rancher. Glad to say in the years which followed, we had never reason to alter our first opinion of the man and regret to hear of his passing.
Broke Sod in 1910
Lady visitors were scarce and except for our closest neighbor, I had not seen a woman from August until February, when Mrs. Herb Morrow and the bride, Mrs. Morley, called on us. By this time Mrs. Morley had learned from earlier experiences to ride on a stone-boat quite gracefully. March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, found us breaking our first five acres of land, full of hope for the future. Some of you will remember 1910 was the driest year we ever had. Our oats never came through the soil until September. On the first day of June we had a terrible blizzard which killed most of the young chickens we had cherished with care that was the first and last moisture of the summer. Of course, the spring brought many more settlers. Mr. and Mrs. Rodseth and family, Mr. and Mrs. Erant and Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and their mother. Mrs. Lowes (at an advanced age) also came, and after homesteading in Manitoba, (I am glad to say she is still with us, she is now in her ninety-third year), the Herman Morrows and Mr. Stephenson, then a bachelor, were also among the first of our settlers.
It was decided we should have a picnic at the old Millar Ranch, so on July 1st we assembled to meet each other in most cases, for the first time. I shall always remember that wagon ride: the prairie was a riot of color that only nature could blends so harmoniously: never have I seen so many wild flowers, and regret to say that the coming of civilization and the plough have completely destroyed them. We had a jolly time at the picnic, where we met Mr. And Mrs. Milligan and all the McKee families for the first time, also Mr. And Mrs. Rodseth, as she emerged from the coulee with a bunch of wood anemones in her hand – she is still known as a flower lover. The day was spent in sports for the youngsters, and Mr. Sylvester’s ice-cream stall was well patronized. The older people entertained each other with their experiences in farming and their difficulties in getting here. This annual picnic was held for many years after, and it was the one ovation that the children looked forward to with pleasure.
Post-Office in 1910
On April 1, 1910, our post-office was first opened. Mr. Wallace Simpson was postmaster. Before this, our mail was sent to Hand Hills and often we had no communications with the outside world for six weeks at a time. The office was transferred to T. Brown’s on April 1, 1911, where it still remains. The naming of our office was between W. Simpson and Andrew Clarke.
Bounteous Crop Hailed Out
Our seed grain for 1911 had to be hauled from Airdrie or Crossfield by wagon, and took about five days to complete the trip. We again planted a crop and never did a more beautiful crop grow under the sun. We were all so glad we had found such a rich and fertile land. On Sunday, August 13, we had just walked around to admire the crop when we noticed a cloud coming up in the North-West, and in less than an hour, our beautiful crop was no more. The hail was awful and left not a standing straw another year to face without seed or feed. The same procedure as the year before, seed grain to haul for a hundred miles. I was inconsolable as our windows were broken, my turkeys and chickens killed, and so one day a bachelor came along and expressed his sorrow at seeing our crop destroyed. I asked him if he had lost any and he said, “yes, five acres.” I replied, “that was not much of a loss”: he said, “No, but it was all I had.” I felt rebuked, as I had been thinking too much about my own loss.
Mr. Sylvester and his sons had relieved the situation a lot for the settlers by starting a store; they hauled supplies from Crossfield, also they were the first people in our community to strike water on their own land. I would like to state here that Mr. Sylvester was very generous in sharing his good fortune with all of us and was never known to refuse water to anyone. Shortly after this the village of Munson loomed on the horizon, and when the train came that far there was great rejoicing among us, for we felt that we were no longer isolated.
School Built in 1911
Our attention was drawn to our need of schools for the children. Livingstone district built the first school, it was opened in 1911, and Verdant Valley built in 1912. Mr. A. F. Stephenson was our first teacher. In the same year our institute met for the first time in the month of May at the home of Mr. Stephenson. Mrs. C. O. Dayton was made president and Mrs. J. Brown, vice-president. To this organization we owe a debt of gratitude. The monthly meetings at the homes of members were always something to look forward to, social evenings in which everyone could take part were planned regularly, and but for these gatherings, life would have become very monotonous.
Vernon James Bixby, born June 10, 1910, was our first baby. Dr. Lawson was the only physician we knew of within forty miles square; he homesteaded near the Hand Hills.
Solon Alfe Sylvester, a young man about 21 years, died June 11, 1910. This was the first break in our numbers. He was interred on his own homestead as there was no cemetery. His body was later removed to the Drumheller cemetery.
Prairie Fire Menace
In those days we were constantly menaced by prairie fires. In 1910, I saw the Caldwell lease struck by lightning five times during one electric storm. The fires lasted until midnight and destroyed nearly all the grass in the lease.
The women in those days generally had to help put out the fires. I put one out with the help of two small boys who started the blaze, after it had burned about five acres. Once we were surrounded on three sides by fire and had to take what we could gather up in a hurry on to a five acre patch of summerfallow. The fire burned right to our yard gate, then a change in the wind drove it in the opposite direction.
I hope that it will not be considered boasting if I say that our settlers were above the average, for a new country. They were drawn from almost every walk in life; and that many of them were not farmers was well demonstrated by the many amusing things that happened although none were so green as to plant rolled oats or to attempt setting the cow on the milking stool, yet it was not unusual to find some of our barns with the wrong end of the shingles to the weather, or to meet a couple of young Toronto business men in Derby hats and kid gloves gently persuading a couple of stubborn oxen to move a little faster. To the credit of these young fellows “who spoke a language the oxen did not understand,” be it said they became very successful farmers.
1912 Ended Pioneering
The year 1912 might be considered the end of the pioneering days, as it brought us railroad facilities, and the towns of Munson and Drumheller were building up very rapidly. The medical profession was represented in both these places: Dr. G. M. Gibson in Munson and Dr. D. Graham in Drumheller. The young people might wonder why we did not use trucks and cars in the absence of railroads for more rapid transit – well, my dears, we did not have these luxuries in those days; stone boats and wagons were our means of travel. We only saw one motor car on our 100-mile trip from Airdrie, and it was reposing peacefully in a ditch. But best of all our blessings in 1912 was that we found a splendid supply of water, thanks to Mr. Roy Benson and his well-drilling machine. He passed through our neighborhood and found water every place he drilled. We were particularly fortunate – the men started to drill at 8:00 in the morning and at 6:00 when I called them for supper, I thought they had all gone crazy. They had struck water and it had gone to their heads. We could not be blamed for being somewhat jubilant, after three years straining out pollywogs and sterilizing drinking water when we found ourselves with a plentiful supply of cool spring water.
Elbert Hubbard is quoted as the author of this statement, that “one great unselfish soul in every community would save the world,” and so I thank a kindly Providence that always places the few genial souls at the Outposts of Civilization, who by their courage and helpfulness, make it possible for the homesick and weary ones to pull through the homesteading days. It would not be right to let this opportunity pass without mentioning one or two of the outstanding ones. The first, I think, should be Mr. And Mrs. John Murray – their home in those days was always open to anyone who needed a night’s shelter, a meal, or a few words of encouragement to help them on their way. It was at their house that John Brown, our first Presbyterian Missionary, held Divine Services.
Mrs. Murray was a willing worker among the sick and helped bring some of the young folk into the world when medical aid was not available. She is still hale and hearty at an advanced age.
Mr. Herb Morrow, whose wit and dry humour made him a welcome visitor among us: he too was always ready to help, and rode for miles to help the settlers to build their first homes. It might be said of him that he could “rejoice with those that weep,” for he was called in sickness or death as a first aid. He has passed on to his reward.
A Contented Soul
And last though not least, Mr. Andrew Clark. An ex-member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, Mr. Clark came amongst us at an advanced age – but let me introduce him in his own vernacular: “I’m a man of few words, I call a spade a spade, and I would bid good-morrow to the devil if I met him.” The courage and cheerfulness of the man was an example to us all. Of hardships he had plenty, and when asked how he could go through so much at his age he replied: “I have long since learned St. Paul’s philosophy of life that “in whatsoever circumstances I am placed therewith to be content.” A visit from Mr. Clark was like a tonic, and when he left you felt better friends with yourself and all the world. He has passed on many years ago, but is not forgotten.
Others of our original settlers have gone: the Grim Reaper has taken his toll, but more have gone from their own choice into different fields of endeavor. We are always sorry when any of them are removed from amongst us, for it seems like breaking up a family circle.
And now after all these years, in which I can’t see that we are materially richer, I have to confess that I have moments, “yea days” when I don’t see a bright spot on the horizon. Under such a spell I find it hard to write a happy conclusion, and have often wished that I had the poetical ability to write the “finis” in a dirge. But sometimes the light breaks through and I ask myself the question, for what purpose did we leave home, friends and kindred to spend the best part of our lives in a strange country, among strange people? – and then my thoughts turn to Europe, torn by hatreds and jealousy, the nations vieing with one another in perfecting instruments of destruction and death, and again I look at our own little community, where practically all these nations are represented, and where we can live almost like one big family – no, not always in perfect harmony, for what big family ever does live in harmony? But as the Institute creed so beautifully expresses the thought, “The little things create differences, but in the big things of life we are one,” and so I believe we have not been exiled in vain, for we have in a measure learned like St. Paul, “insofar as in us lies to live peaceably with all men.” We have conquered the prejudices of nationality, class, creed and color, and in a small way shown the world that “the Colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin.”
Little communities such as ours,
All over the land,
May yet be the means of teaching peace
To war-minded man.
*As published in the Drumheller Mail, June 25th, 1936.
Side view of homestead of Tom and Mary Brown, Verdant Valley. Circa 1990. Photo by Brian M. Brown.
Front view of homestead of Tom and Mary Brown, Verdant Valley. Circa 1990. Photo by Brian M. Brown.
Interior of homestead of Tom and Mary Brown, Verdant Valley. Circa 1990. Photo by Brian M. Brown.
Aerial photograph of John and Violet Brown’s farm. Circa 1950s. Photographer unknown.