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Manitoba History: Through a Rose Coloured Lens: The Agricultural Photographs of Cyril Jessop

by Elizabeth Blight
Archives of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 18, Autumn 1989

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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In 1916 the Department of Agriculture commissioned Cyril Jessop, a 35 year old Gladstone, Manitoba photographer, to take a series of photographs depicting rural life in Manitoba. Two hundred and twenty four of these photographs and eighty-one original glass negatives are today in the collection of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. Of exceptional quality, these photographs have been extensively used by researchers since 1960 when they were transferred to the Archives by the Department of Agriculture. Little attention, however, has been paid to the context in which these photographs were created. Little thought has been given to why the photographs were created or to how accurately they depicted the realities of life experienced by the majority of residents of rural Manitoba?

“On the farm of Mr. N. Fehr, Gladstone District. Mr. Fehr is an American settler who has been 13 years in Manitoba. His first home was a small log house, now he has this fine up to date building, good stables and numerous horses and cattle. He is a good farmer but perhaps his specialty is raising hogs.” 1916.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Jessop Collection 130, N3171

At a time when the Department of Agriculture was paying Winnipeg photographers well under $100.00 a year to undertake work for them, the Department paid Jessop, a rural photographer, the extraordinary amount of $1,000.00 for this particular project. [1] Unfortunately, few of the Department’s records from this period have survived. There is, therefore, no record of the background to this project, no discussion of its intended purpose, no rationalization for the choice of Jessop, and no knowledge of the actual use of the photographs. Yet considerable effort was taken over this project as the series of photographs cover a full year, from ice cutting in the winter to harvesting in the autumn. A great deal, however, can be pieced together from the Annual Report of the Department for 1916.

“On the farm of Mr. Geo. McCorriston, (Gladstone) photo taken March 7th, 1917, even the little lamb is quite content although the snow is all about.”
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Jessop Collection 76, N3125

By 1916 Europe had been suffering the devastating effects of war for over a year. The Manitoba Government found that it had lost its traditional recruiting ground for new immigrants. Louis Kon, Superintendent for the Immigration and Colonization Branch in The Department of Agriculture wrote in his section of the Annual Report “... [that] the United States [is] practically the only field from which immigration can be actively solicited and expected at the present time.” [2] Kon, however, warned that Manitoba was almost unknown in the American market. “The idea prevails popularly that the ‘Canadian West’, or the so called ‘Last Best West’ begins at the western boundary of our Province.” [3] Kon reported that the Branch had worked very hard during the reporting period to raise the profile of Manitoba to meet that of the other Prairie Provinces and had sought “to bring to the attention of American and Eastern Canadian soil tillers the opportunity and advantages Manitoba has to offer to an experienced, industrious farmer possessing some capital.” [4] It is evident from Kon’s report that substantial attempts were made to attract the “ambitious husbandman looking for a place where lands are cheap and productive, transportation facilities plentiful, markets good and near, social conditions established and congenial, education modern, and government progressive.” [5] Exhibits were held at several county fairs in the United States and an advertising campaign was undertaken in agricultural and county newspapers. [6] It would seem logical that the one strong attraction which might be used to tempt this already experienced and settled farmer to Manitoba was the possibility of a better life for his family. How better to illustrate the potential for improvement in lifestyle to prospective immigrants than by having photographs taken of actual farming conditions in the Province. We can assume, therefore, that it is likely that Jessop was hired by the Department to take a series of photographs suitable for use in this American market.

Beautiful farm home and barns owned by Mr. Shaver—Killarney. The automobile is now one of the farm comforts, like the rural telephone; between the two the farmer is almost part of the town.” 1916
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Jessop Collection 148, N3187

Along with the photographs when they were transferred to the Archives was a scribbler in which someone (it is not clear whether it was Jessop himself, or a Departmental employee) had written captions to accompany the photographs. The two together provide a clear indication of the lifestyle which the Department wished to promote south of the border.

“This road looks inviting to travel upon, one of the good roads in Manitoba. This you will find all the way between Portage la Prairie and Curtis.” 1916
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Jessop Collection 171, N206

The photographs cover a broad expanse of the Province, from the established farms from south of Morden to north of Minnedosa and to the more recent establishments in the highly promoted Swan Valley area. The greatest percentage, understandably, come from the region which Jessop probably knew the best—the area surrounding his home at Gladstone.

“Country life is both pleasant and attractive where places of sport and amusement are provided. Here is a bathing spot with spring boards from which to dive and steps down into the water.” Carman, 1916.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Jessop Collection 124, N3165

As one might expect from a project promoting agriculture, there are numerous shots of fertile fields and verdant crops, healthy cattle and easy routes to market. It is Jessop’s depiction of lifestyle, however, which sets his collection apart. Home and family are of the utmost importance. The house is of equal status as the stable. Jessop photographed not only the small but comfortable houses of new settlers which are always credited as being easily attainable, but also the more substantial residences of long time residents. Vegetables and fruit are shown to grow in great abundance. (On Mr. Blackmore’s farm at Golden Stream one pea vine alone produced 17½ pounds of peas.) [7]

“The farm of Mr. F. W. Crossley, Grandview, a good crop of wheat first product of brush cleared land, it is a new farm and the daughters of the home are willing to help.” 1916
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Jessop Collection 23, N4018

The isolation of farm life was said to be lessened by the advent of the telephone and the automobile. Dry easily travelled roads are, therefore, shown. Many farms have an automobile parked in the yard. Closer examination, however, shows that in many of the images it is the same vehicle. The severity of the prairie winters is glossed over by including only three extremely attractive views of hoar frost covered trees. Early spring shots emphasize how well the livestock manage to thrive out in the open.

“Geese on the farm of Whaley Bros. Golden Stream. Both nourishing and beautiful are this drove of white geese belonging to Mr. Blackmore.” 1916. In photograph 96 which is a view of the children hugging the geese the caption says “Valuable to the children are the farm pets, this one reason why they develop mentally in advance to city children.”
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Jessop Collection 95, N3142

The advantages of farm life on the family appear again and again in the photographs and the captions. While the presence of modern health and education facilities are noted, it is the life in the rural areas itself which is to produce the healthy and happy children who learn responsibility by under-taking farm chores. Children appear over and over again in the Collection, playing with the animals, helping to herd the cattle, growing their own gardens and learning agricultural skills through the Government sponsored Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs. These photographs give the Collection its particular charm and are the ones most often used. While enjoying their charm we should never lose sight of the fact that these photographs were created essentially as Government propaganda. Unfortunately we are never likely to know how many American settlers ended up in Manitoba at least in part because of them.

Notes

1. Public Accounts for Year Ending 30 November 1915 and 1916 indicate that in 1915 Bryant’s Studio received $75.00 and in 1916 Duffin and Company was paid $29.70 and Foote and James $26.25.

2. Annual Report Department of Agriculture and Immigration, Year ending 30 November 1916, p. 91.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 93.

6. Ibid., p. 93.

7. Archives of Manitoba. C33 box 1; Jessop scribbler entry 87, photograph 104.

Page revised: 15 July 2012

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