Manitoba History: Reminiscences of a “Soldier of the Soil”
by Gerry Andrews
On Remembrance Day each year we pause to honor those who, at sea, on land and in the air, gave their lives for the cause of Freedom. We also remember the survivors who served this noble cause in various roles.
I now live in Greater Victoria, a district which is rich in military tradition, featuring the historic Esquimalt Naval Base, Work Point, the Bay Street Armories, the Commonwealth Air Training program at Pat Bay, the COTC in Gordon Head and others. With this background, the ceremonies at Victoria’s Cenotaph are noteworthy for colorful pageantry in a superb setting. They attract a large and reverent congregation in which veterans proudly display their war medals. Among them, grey hair now predominates, and some use canes and wheelchairs. Younger folk are respectfully curious. After the “The Last Post,” the Moment of Silence and “The Reveille,” handkerchiefs may be seen to dry tears. Was it Victor Hugo who said “When the eye is dry the heart is dry?”
A list of ships, bases, corps, squadrons, regiments, and veterans’ organizations, represented at the ceremony, would be long. One certain omission would be “Soldiers of the Soil!” Why? They are forgotten. Who were they? I am one and I know of only two others alive, Norman King of Golden, B.C., and Harry Borden of Saanich. Let me explain.
By 1917 in World War I, the shortage of farm labor had become acute due to the Army’s priority for manpower overseas. It has been truly said “An army moves on its stomach,” as does a nation at war. Food rationing in Canada was a partial remedy. Another was to recruit urban high school students as “Soldiers of the Soil” (SOS) for farm work. This program, sponsored by the Canada Food Board, was nation wide. Thousands enlisted throughout Canada.
An incentive endorsed by school authorities was that if these teenagers fulfilled their contracts and served a minimum of three months, they were excused from classes and final exams for the year. It was an opportunity to help win the war in support of older relatives and friends serving over-seas. It was also a physical challengehard outdoor work, long hours and a chance to learn about farming. In addition to pay, $20 to $30 per month with keep, on fulfillment of their contract they were given an attractive bronze lapel badge with SOS insignia, often at a formal community ceremony.
My experiences as a Soldier of the Soil may be of interest as typical, so I relate themat least as well as memory through nearly seventy years may serve.
Born in Winnipeg, December 1903, fourth of a large family, I entered Grade IX at Kelvin Technical High School in September 1917. My father had been a successful pharmacist with his own business but because he refused to handle liquor under wartime prohibition, early in 1917 he went bankrupt. Some of his competitors became millionaires. I got part time jobs as a messenger boy and an office boy and I had a morning paper route. After war began in 1914 troops were much in evidence on Winnipeg streets before going overseas. Uncles and older cousins in khaki frequented our home which was near the (old) Fort Osborne Barracks.
By early 1918 the war situation was extremely grave. Officials came to our school to recruit Soldiers of the Soil. Early April, with approval of my parents and the school, I was sent to a wheat farmer at Purves, southwest of Winnipeg, near Pilot Mound. His name was, appropriately, Frank Grain. How could I ever forget that? It was my first experience away from home among strangers. I was advised about work clothes, dress for travel and Sundays, and schedules on a CPR branch line. Near La Riviere I changed to a tiny mixed train (freight and passengers) to be met at Purves by Mr. Grain with a wagon and team. Motor cars were rare in those days.
I now know that the farm was the NE quarter of Section 27, Tp 2, Range 10, West of the 1st Meridian. This locates it exactly 10½ miles north of the Dakota border, 68 miles west of Winnipeg and a bit over a mile north of Purves (now only a railway siding).
Frank and his wife, Elizabeth, were in their early 30s, with children Roy, Laura and Billie, age about 8, 6 and 4. From Ontario, they had bought their farm from an old-timer, Mr. Dixon, who had retired in Winnipeg. The substantial brick farm house had four rooms downstairs, four up and an attic. A commodious frame barn was about 100 feet from the house, with a well, hand-pump, and water troughs between. Some hardy trees and shrubs had been planted for windbreak and shade, but the setting was still a typical, bald, windswept prairie. Horses were the only motive power. Other stock included a few cows, pigs and poultry. There was a one-lunger gas engine, to power a circular saw and a small cleaning mill for seed grain.
I was given a room upstairs and ate with the family in the big farm kitchen. My introduction to work began at 6 a.m. the day after arrival. Briefly the routine was: out to the barn sharp at 6; feed and water the animals; clean out the stalls, moving the manure to a pile outside the far end of the barn; harness the work horses; milk one or two cows; then go back to the house for breakfast at 7. Before 8 the work horses were led out and hitched up for the day’s work.
At noon it was lunch for man and beast. Horses were allowed only a small drink when they came in hot, but could fill up before going out again for the afternoon. At 5 p.m. we headed for the barn and again the horses were given only a small thirst quencher hence they were led into the barn to be unharnessed and fed. Cows were milked. Family supper was at 6. Evening chores included watering the stock, currying the work horses, bedding them down with clean straw, and filling up their mangers with hay plus a ration of oats. By 9 we went back to the house, to clean up, have a biscuit with tea or milk and off to bed. On Saturday afternoons and Sundays only chores were done. Insomnia was never a problem.
Lighter jobs, like gathering eggs, feeding calves and chickens were done by the children. The mother worked hardest of all. Domestic water came from the well in buckets. Morning and evening she had to separate the raw milk with an old-fashioned machine powered by a hand crank. The cream came out one spout and skimmed milk from another. I was glad to help her when nearby. Surplus butter and eggs were taken to the store for credit. The first day or two I was nauseated by the odor of manure tracked into the house, but like the family soon got used to it. I doubt that the Grains had previous experience with a teenage boy in the family. The novelty and fatigue were such that I did not even think of a bath for myself and must have begun to smell too! So on a Saturday, after supper, I was given the kitchen alone with a tub near the stove for a quick bath. This became routine.
In April work on the land was delayed by frozen ground and remnants of snow-drifts, so an early job was hauling lignite coal from an open pit to the farm with a team and wagon. It was filthy, dusty and had a repulsive stench like uric acid. The lignite was used to fuel a huge steam tractor at harvest time. Frank taught me how to harness, hitch up and drive the team. He was patient and understanding. Previous jobs had taught me to pay attention, to remember, and to sort out problems.
A lifetime benefit of my SOS experience has been an understanding and love of horses. As a child, horses were more prominent than motor vehicles in Winnipeg. My father owned a 1913 Model T Ford which I could drive but I had never had close proximity to horses. The huge draft animals at Purves scared me at first but I soon learned that familiarity with them bred, not contempt, but respect and, indeed, affection.
When the land thawed out I was introduced to the gang plow which turned two furrows. The plowshares were suspended from a wheeled frame with a metal seat for the driver. It had levers and foot pedals to control the depth of furrow and sharp rotating discs to incise the sod. It required a heavy 4-horse team. The aim was to plow a straight furrow of even depth. The wisest horse walked on the right in the open furrow ahead with the others on the stubble to the left. It was necessary to rest the team briefly about every half hour. When all went well it was relaxed solitary work, with only the horses for company. There was time to scan a broad horizon and to think. Usually a flock of gulls followed to glean in the freshly turned sod. I share the belief that the aura from freshly turned earth is balm for body and soul.
When the risk of hard frosts was past, seeding the new crop took priority. The seed drill was an ingenious machine which had evolved slowly from ancient times when seed was scattered by hand from a pouch. It consisted of a narrow box hopper for the grain, long enough to span a swath of 16½ feet, and supported at each end by wheels. From the hopper at intervals of about 3 inches, long flexible tubes guided the seed down to a shallow groove in the ground made by a prong or disk, and dragging behind was a short chain of metal rings to cover the seed with loose earth. The operator drove a 4-horse team either walking or standing on a small step behind. He had to monitor the supply of seed in the hopper and guide the team to avoid gaps or overlaps with the previous swath. The day’s supply of seed was placed in sacks at each end of the field. Various herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers could be mixed with the seed in the hopper. Seeding usually continued into June.
Summer programs varied according to weather and priorities. Unfinished plowing might be resumed. By mid-June weeds on summer fallow and early plowing had to be uprooted before they went to seed. This was done with harrows or disks. Harrows are a network of vertical steel spikes set in a heavy frame and spaced so that when drawn over the ground, weeds are turned up and clods of earth are broken. An alternative is a similar array of disks like those on a seeder. They covered the standard swath of 16½ feet. The driver of the 4-horse team walked behind. The soft ground was tiring at first and dirt getting into your boots became insufferable. A remedy was to go barefoot for intervals which lengthened as feet became toughened and calloused. A job for rainy days was spreading manure on the land, hauled from the big pile at the barn.
In these days of metric confusion, the significance of the 16½ foot swath on land needs explanation. It is the length of a rod. Four rods = 1 chain = 66 ft. A mile is 80 chains. In the Dominion Land Survey System, ubiquitous over the prairies, a Section is a square mile, 640 acres. The standard homestead or pre-emption is ¼ section, 160 acres, ½ mile square. That is to say 40 chains x 40 chains = 1600 sq. chains. So 10 sq. chains = 1 acre. Now back to the rod, ¼ chain. A swath 1 rod wide, 1½ mile long is ONE acre. QED. If you do not believe me, check in the Bible or the Koran.
I repeat: The standard 16½ foot swath, ½ mile long is one acre. If work horses can average 2 miles an hour with rests and interruptions, in an 8-hour work day they pull the implement 16 miles = 32 half miles = 32 acres covered by the standard swath. This is a maximum. In practice it would be less.
One lovely July afternoon I was plowing far out on the bald prairie. It was this work at its best, horses pulling well and just enough breeze for comfort. Going up wind the rich smell of horse sweat prevailed. Down wind brought the aroma of freshly turned sod and perfume of distant hay meadows and wild flowers. Suddenly it became mysteriously calm, the horses began to fidget and I noticed on the horizon a strange dark cloud with serrated fangs piercing the blue sky above. It then circled all around, but mostly in the direction first seen. The horses showed symptoms of panic, so I unhitched and swung them around to face what I thought would be downwind. The dead clam continued but we could hear a crescendo of roaring wind.
Then the hurricane struck. Day turned to night. Horses, with their rumps windward, braced themselves with heads down. I crouched down in the same attitude, head between knees and hands overhead. Breathing was labored and flying gravel stung like buckshot. In moments which seemed Eternity my thoughts sped back to pastoral ancestors, caught in prehistoric Siroccos.
As suddenly as it started, the wind abated, the dust settled, daylight returned and we could breath again. Like a bad dream the storm receded in the distance. The horses relaxed and plowing resumed as if nothing had happened. For those pre-historic victims of the Sirocco, the blackout could have been eternal.
In farm communities such as this, it was customary for itinerant stallions to visit farms to serve mares as required. They were attended by a groom, travelling with a sulky drawn by “his nibs.” Heavy draft strains such as Clydesdales, Belgians and Percherons were preferred. They were magnificent creatures. Of course I was witness to the proceedings at Frank Grain’s farm. The sex education of a 14-year-old city boy took on new dimensions!
About midsummer Mr. Dixon, the original owner of the Grain farm, came for a three-day visit. He was a fine old chap and knew my lawyer uncles in Winnipeg. He may have still held a mortgage on the farm. He shared my bedroom, so we had a good opportunity to chat.
I remember only one lapse from perfect health at Purves. During a hot spell I had to poison gophers for a couple of days. I walked up and down the field with a bucket of wheat saturated with a solution of arsenic or strychnine. A teaspoon of the stuff was placed at each gopher hole. I was warned not to contaminate myself and to wash thoroughly before eating. The second day out in the field I became quite faint and had to lie down for half an hour. I then carried on till suppertime making no mention of it. I think it was really a mild case of sunstroke.
Most Saturday afternoons Frank drove to the store for supplies and mail. He often took me along. The nearest village was Snowflake so perhaps that is where he went. The general store in such places was the social centre where neighbors lingered to gossip. I do not remember any local fairs or sports days, probably due to the War, with most young men away. These trips were my only break from the confined sociability of the farm but I played it low-key.
Near Frank’s location was a well-established farm owned by a McDonald family. At the store on a midsummer Saturday, Mr. McDonald approached me quietly to offer a job with him at slightly higher pay. It was a compliment and tempting but I declined. Frank had treated me well and had taught me so much.
Harvest began after mid-August. Horse-drawn binders cut and bound the grain into bundles or sheaves. The machine was quite complicated. It even tied knots in the twine around the bundles. All this required a lot of power from the large wheels so four horses were necessary in spite of the swath being just half that for harrows. The bundles fell onto a carrier which dumped them at intervals in the previous swath. A gang of harvesters followed to gather and pile them in stooks. Bundles were placed upright, straw ends on the ground, into a conical stook of eight or more with two or three laid flat on top to shed rain. They would have to withstand moisture for up to three weeks till threshing time.
The mechanics of the binder could give minor troubles which were usually repaired in the field with simple tools and bits of haywire. Weeds like Russian Thistle (Salsola pestifer) choking up the intake had to be cleared out by hand. In spite of this the binder was easier than stooking, so Frank assigned me to it. I like to think that it required brains more than brawn.
Threshing outfits owned by individuals or syndicates moved from farm to farm by contract. The big threshing machine often called a separator is now obsolete. It accepted the sheaves in a chute on top whence they move under rotating knives to cut the twine. Then the loose stalks encountered a large fast spinning drum armed with steel teeth to beat out the grain, which being heavier dropped down into a conduit. The lighter chaff and straw were blown up a large spout and out to the straw pile along side. The grain was led up a smaller spout over a waiting wagon, called a grain tank. When full it was hauled off to a granary or to the railway. An empty tank was always ready to replace the one just filled.
Plenty of power was required, which was obtained from a huge old steam tractor with its lovely noises and clouds of steam. It also moved the outfit to new positions or farms. Power was transferred to the separator by a long belt on pulleys. The engineer in charge was highest paid of all and treated with due respect. Soft water from ponds or sloughs was preferred for the boiler. Hard well water could clog up the tubes with lime. A good supply of water nearby was also a safeguard against fire from sparks.
Capacious horse-drawn hayracks went up and down the fields between the stooks with a gang of spike pitchers tossing the bundles into the racks. The full load proceeded to the separator. Here the most expert and toughest men pitched the bundles into the machine. The boss had organized the whole operation for a continuous flow. Perhaps good threshing bosses made good generals in war.
In dry weather threshing filled all the daylight hours. The fireman had to get steam up before daylight. Rain or a heavy dew caused delays. When dry, work could start before breakfast and it usually continued after supper till dark. Many of the crew slept in a mobile bunkhouse. The women worked perhaps harder than the men, providing meals and snacks and cleaning up. Easier jobs were hauling grain and hauling water for the steam engine. Frank put me on the latter. I think I used two water wagons. A full wagon was always at the steam engine while the empty one went to a nearby slough for reloading with an old wig-wag pump.
In mid-September, while threshing was still in progress, I had to get back to high school, especially as I had missed the last three months of Grade IX. I had served as a Soldier of the Soil 5½ months, nearly double what my contract required. Frank gave me honorable discharge, which validated my entry to Grade X at Calgary. The authorities gave me the bronze Soldier of the Soil badge which sadly is long since lost. If I had it now, it would be without price as would be the piece of paper certifying my service and good behaviour. Thanks to my hobby of photography since age thirteen, inspired by my father and an older chum, I have four good vintage photos of that summer at Purves. I was probably too tired and busy to take more.
My experiences at Purves as outlined surely contributed to any success in later life and to my enjoyment of it. Although conscious of this always, and memories remained vivid, preoccupations through long years did not allow a return to the scene till recently. My only clues to find it were the locations of Purves, La Riviere and Pilot Mound in southern Manitoba and the name, Frank Grain.
On the 2nd of June 1987, about 4 p.m., George Newell and I arrived by car in Pilot Mound. We had already learned on this trip that for information, go to the local museum, the Senior Citizens' centre, the undertaker or the town office. We had also learned that prairie people are friendly and helpful. The town office in Pilot Mound was easily found and was still open. When I explained my purpose to the bright young lady behind the counter, she at once found two Grain listings in the local phone book. They had to be relatives of Frank. One was a widow in town, Frank’s daughter-in-law. The other was Wm. F., Frank’s son, located on “NE27-2-10,” about 8 miles east. We soon found the widow, who, after being satisfied that we were genuine and harm less, phoned her brother-in-law on the farm and cheerfully showed us which road to follow.
We could not help arriving at 5 p.m., an awkward time for unexpected visitors. recognized the substantial old farm house at once, and the old barn which had been face-lifted with a new roof and coat of paint but the surroundings had changed. Lovely shade trees had matured and neat hedges bordered green lawns and flowers. Bill, the little 4-year-old of 1918, now retired in his 70s, welcomed us and introduced his sweet wife, Margaret, Luckily I had with me the four photos taken in 1918, which were of great interest. Bill identified each of the family group, whose names I had forgotten, except Frank’s.
While Bill took George and me for a tour of the complex, Margaret prepared a pot-luck supper as if by magic. The old house had been modernized, tastefully decorated and furnished. When I went upstairs to freshen up in the bathroom, I noticed along the corridor the very room in which I had slept so long ago. I refrained from peeking. One of Bill’s hobbies is collecting old one-cylinder gas engines. After supper we had a tour to inspect these in various sheds. They require more room than stamp collecting! The one-lunger powering the buzz saw in my 1918 photo had been donated for scrap during the war. It would have been a prize item.
Of course, in 1918 Bill was too young to remember me, but he enjoyed what I could tell him of those days. He said that the old McDonald farm, which I have mentioned, is still occupied by a son, Jim. It would have been fun to visit him too. Our hosts urged us to stay the night but as we wanted to be on our way at first light next morning, we had to decline.
Beside family roots in Winnipeg, I have them in Elgin, Stockton, Gladstone and Minnedosa, all not far from Purves and which I wanted to include on our trip. Two friends in later life had connections with Pilot Mound. Mrs. Isabel Perry (nee McNaught) now of Beaverlodge, Alberta, attended high school there circa 1910. The late Archdeacon Ray B. Horsefield, the celebrated Cree linguist, was assigned to the Pilot Mount Parish, 1957-60. It is a small world. Since returning home, I sent prints of my 1918 Purves photos to Bill and Margaret which they appreciated.
If I am spared to attend the devotions at Victoria’s Cenotaph with my fellow Legionnaires on Remembrance Day, I shall wish I could add to my modest array of World War II medals the little insignia of my service in World War I, as a Soldier of the Soil. Thanks to Norman King and Harry Borden, I now have a picture of the coveted badge.
Page revised: 20 May 2011Back to top of page