Personal Memoirs: Reminiscences of an Old Timer

by James Mathewson Ewens

This original memoir, written sometime before 1947, was obtained from Elizabeth “Betty” M. Ewens in the 1970s by her sister, Phyllis M. V. (nee Ewens) Sturk, mother to C. Terry Sturk who, as of 2000, has the original typescript. A 21-page microfilm copy held by the Archives of Manitoba (MG8 B21 M192 / P588/12) is incorrectly attributed to James Allan Ewens.

“Mr. L. ----” is identified as Edward M. Loggin, “Marshall” as Hugh Marshall Dyer, and “F” as Frank Pearson, all of whom accompanied Ewens when he emigrated from England to Canada in May 1881.

In the spring of 1881 being unable to settle down to a business office life in London, England, I suddenly made up my mind to join the Cape Mounted Police. Having a cousin who had served several years in that service, I wrote and asked his advice, but in the meantime I went up to London and passed the medical examination and got all the information from the authorities that I thought would be useful. Great was my disappointment when my cousin’s letter arrived, strongly advising me not to come out to South Africa, as the pay was poor, and the chance of advancement very small.

As fate would have it, a few days after, I received a letter from an old friend in Manitoba, who had emigrated two years before, advising me, if I intended going to the Colonies to come out to him, as there seemed to be a good opening for strong, active and willing young men in this new country. I immediately decided to go to Canada as soon as I could get my outfit together.

My friend in Manitoba, Mr. L----, asked me, in case I decided to come, to bring out one of his boys, whom he had left behind, with me. I wrote to his relations telling them the date I was sailing and saying I should be pleased to chaperone the youngster. An old school friend named Marshall, on hearing of my decision, announced his intention of accompanying me, and a prospective brother-in-law of his also decided to come with us. Thus a little party of four in a few days booked passage on the Moravian and on the 20th of May we sailed out of Liverpool full of hope and courage to try our luck raising wheat on the prairies of Manitoba.

Conditions on board ship in ‘81 were not the same as today, and as we felt a little above steerage class, we had taken intermediate tickets. We were somewhat surprised on going down to our berths, to find that they surrounded the dining table in the dining room and we could not use them during the day however unwell we might feel. Fortunately Marshall and I were good sailors, but the two younger lads were very much the reverse, and had to be accommodated with a cabin. In vain during the voyage we tried to get them on deck to get some fresh air, and at last had to use force and carry them up, but as soon as our backs were turned they crawled back and begged to be allowed to die in peace.

The door of our dining room opened over the hatchway down to the steerage quarters. As there were thirteen hundred Scandinavians crowded down there, numbers of whom were very ill, and most of whom had not come in contact with soap and water for some time, we found it necessary on going to meals, to hold our noses and make a dash for it, and some of our fellow passengers who had not quite found their sea legs preferred to stay on deck and go hungry.

In order to break the monotony of the voyage, Marshall offered to teach me some card games, and to make it more interesting proposed halfpenny Nap. As I had never played a game of cards in my life, I agreed, expecting to have to pay my footing at the initiation. At the end of the first day’s play I was agreeably surprised to find myself the winner of five shillings. I have never been able to make Marshall believe that I was the tyro he had imagined.

After a monotonous voyage of ten days, we sighted Quebec and glad indeed were we to get on to terra firma again and stretch our legs climbing the steep streets of the quaint old city and surveying the Citadel that had helped to make Canadian history in the past. After a long weary train journey round by Chicago, St. Paul and Minneapolis, we arrived in due time at Winnipeg, the capital of our adopted country (Province). June and raining hard, a sea of mud such as we had never before experienced even in England.

The only way to get to and from the station was on loose planks, and woe to the unwary one who overbalanced or was foolish enough to trust the deceitful quagmire. The streets were one vast mud hole. Teams stuck on Main Street were the only excitement, so as we only had one night to stop there we went in search of a Hotel. We found a stopping house, the proprietor of which generously offered to allow us to sleep on the bar floor for seventy-five cents, but as the said bar was doing a booming business, we had to wait till eleven o’clock before we could spread our blankets on the moist mixture of sawdust and tobacco juice.

In a few minutes our troubles were forgotten and the night seemed short enough when we were roused for breakfast and after a hearty meal of bacon, bread and butter, and coffee, we made our way back to the station to catch the train for Portage la Prairie, the end of the track.

We think the roadbed of the C.N.R. now-a-days pretty rough, but the roughest day on the Atlantic was a lullaby beside the ride we got to Portage. However, we survived it and at last found ourselves and trunks dumped on the prairie, with a journey of seventy-five miles ahead of us, without the slightest idea of what point of the compass to steer to and without any means of locomotion except shanks’ pony.

However, we knew that Stony Creek was the nearest post office to our destination, but on making enquiries no one seemed to have ever heard of such a place. We were at our wit’s end and were contemplating buying an ox and cart and starting out on our own hook to stake homesteads, when the hotel man came with the welcome news that there was a man in town who knew the place and was willing to take us and our luggage there. We soon located him and found a small-wizened Irishman, with small bright shifty eyes, but with an unusual amount of blarney. After some bargaining he agreed to take our belongings and us to Stoney Creek for fourteen dollars.

As he was starting in the morning, we passed the rest of the day strolling about the streets and buying provisions for the trip, which we were informed, would take us the best part of a week. We visited the city barber who had just stuck out his pole in a little shack and were greatly amused when after cutting F’s hair, he produced a razor with the intention of shaving his neck, but F, imagining that he was going to have his head shaved, sprang from the chair, making his way toward the door and nothing would induce him to return and have the finishing touches. We thought seventy-five cents rather steep for the job, but did not like to show our ignorance, so paid up and looked pleasant.

The morning broke fine, and with light hearts, we loaded up our boxes on some split rails laid lengthwise on the wagon bunks. A team of very ancient looking oxen was hitched to the wagon by a yoke, which caused us some surprise, as we had never seen anything in this style of harness before. Climbing on to our boxes and with a cheery “So-long” to the amused spectators, our tester cracked his whip and shouting “Geed up, Buck”, we rolled down the street in style, out on to the Great North Trail, fairly launched on the Great Adventure.

Our bright skies and brilliant sunshine did not last long, as a fierce thunderstorm broke on us and wetted us to the skin, but our Charioteer, by the name of Bear, told us that June was the rainy month and that we must expect a shower most days. If that was a shower, then heaven help us when it rained, and to our sorrow we experienced plenty of both of them before we reached our destination.

The shower settled down into a steady downpour through which we trudged doggedly till evening, when we camped for supper, pitched our six foot tent, turned the oxen loose to feed, and as everything in the way of firewood was drenched, ate our grub without the comfort of something warm to drink, and prepared to pass our first night on the prairie.

Just as we were turning in, another team drove up, and the owner having nothing to shelter him from the downpour, asked for a corner of our tent. As he was half sea’s over and rather a hard looking citizen, we were not very enthusiastic, but under such weather conditions one could hardly refuse shelter to a dog, so we let him in.

Six in a six-foot tent is on a par with sardines in a tin. We piled in edgewise, and if the ones on the outside touched the tent they were swamped. We had taken the precaution, of laying our raincoats on the ground under our blankets, but by morning, as we had not dug a trench we were almost swimming. Several times during the night Bear had lit a smudge of wet grass as the mosquitoes were terrible, the roof of the tent being black with them, but even the choking smoke was preferable to the tormenting little demons.

In the morning our faces were a sight and our own mother would have hardly recognised us. These infernal pests seemed to revel in our rich English blood and we envied Bear’s immunity from the torment. He tried to cheer us by saying that next year they would not bother us, but that was a long way ahead to look forward to.

Our acquaintance of the night before left us and struck for his homestead on another trail to the northwest. We were not sorry to lose his company as our grub was barely enough to carry us to the next stopping house and our appetites were unappeasable.

The country we were passing through was flat and uninteresting, soaked with water. The only break to the monotony of the journey was unloading our wagon when we stuck in a mud hole and carrying our boxes to solid land. The oxen seemed to know when a mud hole was bad and invariably broke into a melancholy low as they began wading into the mud. It nearly always meant that we had to unload, although they were very good to pull and never gave in until it was hopeless. It would have been interesting if we had kept count of the number of times we unloaded and loaded up before we reached our destination.

The second day we struck a sheet of water. As far as the eye could reach there was no sign of dry land. The Bear informed us that Lake Manitoba had overflowed its banks and inundated the low country to the south of it. The water was from two to three feet deep and after toiling for eight miles we decided to stop and have supper, which we ate, sitting on our boxes on the wagon.

The poor oxen were nearly played out, but they had to satisfy their hunger by chewing the cud, up to their middles in water. After giving them time to rest, we started off again to try to find a dry place to camp and grass for the poor beasts. About ten o’clock when it was almost dark we came to some rising ground and glad indeed were we and our team to get to comparatively dry land.

In the morning a fine, bright sun put renewed hope in our hearts and as grub was about done Marshall and I took our guns and struck away from the trail to try to bag a duck or two for our dinner. We found nothing larger than a plover and it created much amusement by evading the shots that Marshall aimed at it, flying a few yards then pitching and uttering its ironical call of pee-whit pee-whit. It tempted fate too long however, and we returned to the outfit rather crest fallen to find dinner over and all the grub eaten.

That afternoon we came upon the White Mud River, and it did not belie its name. It was running bank high with a liquid resembling good thick pea soup. We were seized with consternation to find that the bridge was gone, and only a few of the timbers left clinging to the bank. Fortunately we espied a punt tied to a post on the opposite bank. How to get it across was the puzzle. As Marshall and I were good swimmers we tossed up to decide who should swim over and bring it across. Marshall lost; so stripping he plunged into and soon sculled the clumsy tub up to the stringers of the old bridge, which were floating, one end in the water and the other spiked to posts in the bank.

J. M. Ewens’ residence, 1880s.

J. M. Ewens’ residence, 1880s.
Source: C. Terry Sturk

Our great concern was to keep our guns and ammunition dry. So, holding our two guns one in each hand, I started to “walk the plank” or rather square timber about 8 x 8 in. All went well until I passed the centre of gravity, when as I neared the waters edge, and was congratulating myself on my feat, the timber began to sink and as the inclined plane became more acute, my pace, much against my will was accelerated and to save myself from a ducking I made a wild leap for the punt.

Unfortunately, the old scow had not been built with the idea of upholding athletic stunts and promptly turned turtle. I vainly tried to hold our magazine above water, but the river was deep and I disappeared beneath the viscous flood. I had not time to see or think of what happened to my companion, but the first thing I heard on coming to the surface was “You bally fool” and found Marshall very much peeved, trying to hold on to the punt and prevent her going down stream. We finally got her right side up and after some manoeuvring ferried the other two lads across.

Bear would not attempt the crossing there, but went about a mile upstream where he said there was a ford with good bottom and he could swim the oxen over. Our boxes were roped on so we were not afraid of losing them, but when Bear rejoined us, we found on opening them, that all our things were soaked and a great many spoiled.

That night we camped wet and hungry, but all our supplies consisted of a hunk of bread and one plover. Setting our billy on the fire we sat and watched the poor little bird stew and after what seemed ages, we doled it out; a cup full of soup, a little, very little bird and a small crust of bread each. I think that was the best soup I ever tasted. Muddy, smoky water, flavoured with plover, was food for the Gods. “Hunger is the best Sauce”.

Sunday and no breakfast. Bear told us there was a small settlement near, so we took our guns and ranged away from the trail and fortunately as we were getting into more bluffy and pondy country we succeeded in bagging a brace of fine ducks.

On striking back to the trail to catch the outfit, we met a man riding a small Indian pony. He stopped us and began reading us a lecture on Sabbath breaking. We found he was a Methodist preacher who was on his way to hold service at some nearby farmhouse. I am afraid our replies were not in keeping with the Sabbath, or the respect due to the cloth, but an empty stomach does not improve the temper, so we left him to continue his exhortations to the deserted air.

Seeing a house in the distance we made for it hoping to be able to buy some bread and with the mallards make up for the loss of breakfast with a good dinner. The family when we arrived were dressed in their Sunday best and evidently bound for church. On asking if we could buy some bread as were nearly starving, we were answered “We don’t sell anything on Sunday”. Nothing daunted, we asked if they would give us same, but in this case their religious scruples were more pronounced than ever. We left them with our opinion of their straight-laced religion.

Seeing the roof of another house in the distance, we thought we would try our luck again, as there is nothing like hunger to cure one of undue modesty. On entering the yard, we found an old lady carrying a brimming pail of milk and in answer to our inquiry if we could buy some bread, we received an emphatic “No. But come along into the house boys and get a good drink of milk.” Scarcely believing our ears, we followed the old lady into the log house.

Taking a cup from the cupboard she told us to help ourselves. We had thought the soup good, but that drink of warm, new milk was the Elixir of life. She produced two large home baked loaves, and on our offering to pay for our refreshment was highly offended. Did we think she would take pay for a wee bite like that, and from two poor, green lads from the old sod, withal?

With blessings on her head, we departed gaily in search of the team and hungry teamsters, contrasting in strong terms the difference in the religion of the two neighbours. What a Sunday dinner we had, and strengthened in body and mind we continued our journey.

That afternoon we came to the village of Gladstone, and there we were met with a surprise. Bear, after much snivelling told us he could take us no further as he thought Stoney Creek was near Gladstone and his road lay to the northwest. Enquiries established the fact that Stoney Creek was about forty miles west. Bear, after a lot of wiggling, offered to take us there for an additional fourteen dollars and to that we had to consent.

We thought in the future we had better get a written contract and on presenting it to our charioteer for signature, were informed that he could not write, but was willing to put his cross if we would sign for him. He added that he did not spell his name the same as the animal but that was all the information he could give. As he wanted the cash down before he started I put my hand into an inside pocket to get my purse, but to my consternation found it was gone. I was not only penniless, but had lost all the youngest boy’s funds that had been entrusted to my care.

Luckily the others were able to make up our share and we started out again with a replenished larder. We were informed afterwards by Bear that our friend who had stayed with us the first night had been seen with my knife and probably he had the money too. But I often wondered if the Bear, with his cunning pig eyes did not know something about it.

That night we camped in a bluff near a settler’s house and as the mosquitoes were fierce, after supper we walked across to have a chat, and found a brawny Scotch Canadian who welcomed us cordially and invited us in and introduced us to his mother, a very old lady, who sat beside the stove smoking a cuddy. They were so pressing that we stayed the night and slept on the floor, glad to get away from the diabolical skeeters. As we had very little tobacco we presented the old lady with some broken cigars we had in our pockets, and before we left after a good breakfast, she had broken them up fine and was enjoying a real good smoke, as she had been reduced to chewing tobacco when we arrived.

That day we struck a gravel ridge on which the Mounted Police Barracks was stationed and where Arden now stands, and glad we were to get on to sound dry footing after those weary days toiling through the mud.

That afternoon as we were, a little east of the present site of Neepawa, a terrific thunderstorm broke over us. Unhitching the oxen we flew to get the tent pitched in the shelter of a bank covered with young poplar, but were wet to the skin before we got taut and ship-shape. A little gully with a small stream was just ahead of us. We had had a pretty good sample of what Manitoba could do as far as rain was concerned, as everyday since we had left Portage there had been a good solid downpour. But they were dew as compared with that torrent. We were forced to sit and watch the dazzling lightning, and listen to the almost continuous roll of thunder.

Having nothing dry to light a fire with, we chewed a rasher of raw salt rattlesnake, glad to have something to allay the pangs that die not or ever seem quenched in the new Canadian the first year out.

When the storm ended as suddenly as it had begun the little trickling stream was a rushing torrent and we had to swim our team through to get to a house on the other bank. We never seemed to be able to gauge our appetites as we mere nearly always on short Commons. That night we bought enough provisions to take us to the end of our journey.

We spent the evening listening to our host playing the violin and I was induced to help out with a song or two, thereby letting myself in far endless evenings of singsong during our bachelor days. The next afternoon brought us to our Journey’s end.

The post-master and his wife were a superior couple and their log house was roomy and clean. Our friend L--- had been there and informed them that we might turn up at anytime, so we were accommodate with comfortable beds and what a luxury to undress and rest, warm and dry, after that week of rain and mosquitoes and misery!

The house was on the banks of Stoney Creek, where them was usually a good bridge, but again the bridge was gone and a furious current swept between high banks. Fortunately one large stringer remained under about three feet of surging mater and as Mr. L--- lived about five miles south, in the morning Marshall and I decided to try crossing and make our way to our future home, leaving the two youngsters till we could come back with wagon and team for them and our trunks.

We found the stream much stronger than we had imagined and it was with the greatest difficulty that we could cling to the stringer with our bare feet, balancing ourselves by holding on to the willows that overhung the water.

We got about half-way across without mishap, but then Marshall’s feet were swept away from under him, luckily I was able to grab him with one hand and after a fierce struggle he got back to safety. It is doubtful if Marshall would have been able to regain the bank if he had gone down stream, as the furious rush of water through the willows and snags and rocks would have made rescue difficult.

We had not got a mile on our road before we struck another creek, which we had to swim, and about every mile what in dry seasons were only ravines were now too deep to bottom.

At last we came in sight of Mr. L----’s house, but to our disgust another creek that had overflowed its banks for about one hundred yards, flowed between us and rest. We had managed to keep our shirts fairly dry by carrying them in one hand while swimming. We waded into this last creek and found it was shallow and had almost got to the other bank, when Marshall who was a step in front of me disappeared with a choking gurgle. I found myself going but was too far, to save myself, so flung my clothes over safely and followed Marshall. He came up using rather strong language, as he had nothing dry to present himself in to our host.

He and his son had seen us coming and came out and gave us a hearty welcome, although we must have presented a sorry spectacle, almost naked and covered from head to foot with one mass of angry looking mosquito bites.

The next day we took the team and went back for the two boys and our trunks. We carried them all across and as the water had gone down considerably, accomplished the return journey without any mishap, except a wetting, to which by this time we were pretty well inured.

We found L---- and his eldest boy, who had come out from England with him, had put in their small bit of crop and were ready to start breaking. We were anxious to learn to plough, so the next morning L---- hitched the team, a small horse and a skew ball pony, to the breaker plough and gave us our first lesson in ploughing.

The team were much too light for the job, and had to rush at it to get there at all, which made the handling of a plough to a greenhorn no sinecure [sec]. Marshall and I each took turns at holding and trying to guide the plough, but despite all our efforts, and the application of an immense amount of muscle, it seemed to have an aggravating way of shooting out to one side or the other. When we struck a stone, which we not infrequently did, the handles would either fly up over our heads or strike us such a thump in the ribs, that it is a ‘mercy we are alive to tell the tale’. L---- would keep saying, “Hold her as you would a lady, gently but firmly”. We certainly were trying the firmly part, but for the life of us could not see where the gently came in. However, patience and perseverance will do wonders, and in a few days we were able to plough alone. I am afraid, however, the furrow was more like a corkscrew than a straight line.

As Marshall fancied himself as a bit of a carpenter, I was left to do most of the ploughing, and he helped L---- in the building of a new and more pretentious house. I am proud to look back and think that I broke nearly twenty acres with that team of screws, and they never had a feed of oats, but were turned loose on the prairie at noon and night to pick their living. The horse’s name was Jim and the pony’s Prince. There was nothing princely about him. He must have had a rough time with his former owner, a ships stoker, as he was as poor as Job’s turkey and mange all over.

L---- had a recipe for curing this unpleasant disease, but had forgotten the quantities of the ingredients. I believe it was sulphur, coal oil and carbolic acid in certain proportions.

Unfortunately, he put a double dose of the latter into this concoction, and I, as teamster, was instructed to rub it well in. He soon began to show signs of objecting to this disfiguring application, but I had a will of my own too, and in the end he had a pretty thorough dressing. As it was getting dark when I had finished, I left him for the night, evidently by his actions preferring the disease to the cure. The next morning, on visiting the stable to see how my charges fared, I was thunder struck to find my skew ball pony as bare of hair as a baby, and resenting any approaches from myself. In a few days all his skin peeled off and left him a beautiful pink and needless to say it had affected a perfect cure. I now began to fancy myself as a bit of a vet and had serious thoughts of putting my mange cure on the market. Alas what I have missed by not doing so, I see now ladies are rubbing it in to their heads to make hair grow, or at least stop it falling out, perhaps it has a different effect on humans.

Our nearest town was sixteen miles away, through the brush and mud holes, one of the vilest roads? That it was possible to imagine, so when groceries were needed we found it easier to walk, than take a team and timber carriage through the mud. Many a trip Marshall and I took and brought a bag of groceries on our backs through mud and mosquitoes. We were now in fine fit and thought little of those thirty-two miles and in the evening on our return would put on the gloves, which luckily we had brought with us. They wiled away many an evening after our work was over and as we had no books or papers, were glad of any excitement to break the monotony.

We generally had to take our turn at a week’s cooking, and as the cook was supposed to first get the dinner before cooking it, I preferred the work on the farm, however hard. A duck apiece was the rule and the poor cook who failed to shoot the required number, was met with abuse in no measured terms when five hungry men answered the dinner gong. Our bread was made with soda and tartaric acid and as the acid was twice the price of the soda, we generally put a double dose of the former, which made the bread decidedly indigestible, but although we have probably suffered since from the effects, we did not grumble then, but were only anxious to get enough of anything to fill that empty void that seemed ever with us. Tiring of the monotony of dough god and hearing that an Irish lady nearby was baking yeast bread Marshall volunteered to go and get same yeast, and instructions for baking. He returned proudly bearing a crock of yeast, and in a high and mighty manner informed us he knew all there was to know about baking, and was going to give us a real treat with a batch of yeast bread. He retired to the lean-to kitchen and performed certain rites that he only understood. Next day, the ceremony of baking was performed, but after two hours in the oven and a great expenditure of firewood, the loaves remained solid as soap. A few more hours of heat failed to rouse them to life, but as dinner was ready and we were ravenous with anticipation we decided to tackle it as it was. But the first mouthfuls caused such roars of disgust and resentment that the cook discreetly retired to the kitchen followed by chunks of a solid and soap-like substance. On making enquiries we found that he had mixed up his instructions as well as the ingredients, and had put in all the jar of yeast, which was meant for several bakings, consequently the bread tasted like condensed yeast cakes. “Never no more” did we risk our lives at the hands of this master baker, we simply refused to allow him to interfere with the culinary arrangements. We had numerous surprises at meals, however; notably when one of the younger boys took a week as cook and we found to our disgust that he had omitted to clean the ducks. Needless to say, his services were also dispensed with.

L---- was a most interesting companion when in the humour. He had spent thirteen years in the Argentine, as a sheep and horse rancher. Starting with a good capital, all went well till Civil War broke out, and then disaster overtook him. His life there would make a book of interesting reading. The rebel army camped on his ranch, took his horses for the cavalry, and slaughtered his sheep to feed the hungry mob. He told the tale of hiding his favourite driving mare in the drawing room, having padded her feet, and hung a bran mash on her head in a nose bag, while the officers were eating and drinking in the next room. Having plied them plentifully with wine, he managed to escape when they were all asleep, taking his wife and young daughter in the dogcart three hundred miles to Buenos Aires. Camping in a small tent on the road their second daughter was born. They arrived at the seaboard penniless and had to wait there till their passage money was forwarded from England. L---- was a well-educated and very well read man, and having an excellent memory, he beguiled many an evening with story and apt quotation from authors and poets.

A break from the farm work was made by a visit to Portage la Prairie for supplies. Marshall had bought a span of ponies and decided to take them instead of the farm team. Unfortunately, he had not found out that one of them named “Buggins” was balky until he was loaded up and ready to start home. Then the fun began, Buggins refusing to shake the dust of the town off his feet. He remained an immovable statue despite all the ingenious devices and sure cures administered by various horsy individuals amongst an interested crowd on Main Street. Finally, a fire was lit under him as a last resort, but Buggins decided to die the death of a martyr and promptly lay down in it, and to save his life we had to extinguish it. We just had to wait till he was ‘good and ready’; as there was nothing to eat within range, he at last consented to start, and once going he proved strong and untireable. About half way home on being turned loose to feed, he struck off and joined a band of Indians and their ponies on their way back to Portage. Marshall had a thirty-mile trudge and a heated argument with the Indians before he recovered him. Marshall had a mind of his own and dearly loved a scrap, so it would have taken more than a band of Niches [sic] to stop him, as the Germans found out to their cost later in life.

Haying in those days was a different proposition to what it is now. All the hay was cut with a scythe. L---- was a splendid mower, having learnt the art in the old country. His strong back and long reach made it an easy job for him to run away from us tyros. Marshall was game, however, and stuck to it like a leach and would never admit that his back and arms ached. I concluded that my anatomy was not properly constructed for this kind of work, so I followed with a home-made wooden, rake and fork, and raked and coiled what they cut with the occasional, help of the younger boys. Our hayrack was a weird contraption, built on the wagon box, which rocked and swayed in an alarming manner in crossing the rough prairie! We did all the load and stack building in the old fashioned awkward way, with our hands, and as the pitching with the wooden forks was very slow, it took some time to get all our hay up, but eventually we had a very respectable stack of well cured hay to show for our work, enough to keep all the animals till the next summer.

Harvest was almost a repetition of haying, as L---- and Marshall cradled the entire crop, and the rest bound and stooked it. As I had shown some skill in building hay, I was chosen to build the grain stacks. Having often watched the proceedings in England, I bound my knees in old bags, and went at it on my hands and knees, getting down between every load to pat the butts level with a board, and when they were all completed there was a fairly respectable “rick yard”. Finding that my stacks were good to turn the rain, was in great request for some years till stook threshing came in, and I got so much of it that at night I often wished I had never seen a stack, much less built one.

During the summer we tramped the country to locate homesteads. L---- was a walking encyclopaedia and knew every corner stake for miles around. I finally decided to take up a quarter near at hand and one day having rustled the necessary ten dollars, I made my way on foot to the land office at Odanah and came home that night the proud possessor of one hundred and sixty acres of the best land in the world. Marshall and our younger friend decided to jump two half sections that had been homesteaded but never lived on, so we began quite a little settlement of our own.

I borrowed L----’s team for a day and broke an acre as a start, which I back set later and the next year planted to potatoes, which I was never destined to harvest as a breachy herd of cattle belonging to a neighbour did all the harvesting for me while I was hired out and not able to look after it.

But, I am going ahead rather too fast. Threshing in those days was not begun till after freeze up, so after fall ploughing and back setting were done and winter had set in, one day a horse power outfit pulled into the yard and all the neighbours coming to help, it was not long before all the little crop was safely in the granary.

After supper, songs as usual enlivened the evening, when someone suggested the gloves. Most of the Canadians had never seen such things, but were anxious to try conclusions with the green Englishmen. These strong, active, hardy lads were no mean antagonists and gave Marshall and me some pretty rough handling, as their idea was to hit, and hit as hard as they knew how. At last one of the owners of the machine put them on with me. He was as active as a cat and with muscles of steel and the fun waxed fast and furious. His old grandfather, an old Cumberland man, sat in the corner and cheered him on, shouting, “Hat im on the nase, Garge”, which he tried his best to do and sometimes succeeded, making me see stars. I kept dogging him and edging away as I saw by his looks that he was taking things in earnest. At last he landed me one, and stepping back to save myself, the old man’s legs caught me behind the knees and I landed on my back in the corner, amidst the cheers and shouts of his adherents.

I am afraid my temper was a little ruffled after this, as I had been playing pretty lightly and had taken some pretty rough stuff without retaliating. Jumping to my feet, I began to let myself go and soon had him on the retreat. He made a wild dash at me just as I was leading for his face and the result was somewhat startling. His head struck the log walls with a thud that would have put most men out of business, but he was up and, at me like a wild cat, trying to tear off the mitts. Things had gone far enough, so with some difficulty we adjourned till some future meeting. Many a night during threshing, for several years, those old mitts created fun of the liveliest description. Laughing till our sides ached, we watched these young amateurs knocking the stuffing out of one another.

Winter brought heavy snow and we found plenty to do, getting firewood and logs out of the bluffs. The snow was drifted so deep in the woods that we could not get a team in some places, so had to carry all the wood out over the snowdrifts. Occasionally they would not carry the added load and we would disappear with the wood on top, which was quite past a joke.

Marshall had got engaged before he left home and now decided to go home, get married, and bring his bride out in the spring. In order to get the necessary funds for the journey home, L---- had to sell some of his wheat and advance him the money, which meant drawing the grain to Carberry, a trip of thirty miles across the plains. As we had no sleigh, L---- got some oak out of the bluffs, and soon had quite a respectable looking running gear manufactured. It was built on the same principal as the Red River cart, all wood; no iron entered into its composition. As we had only a few gunny sacks and the box was hardly grain tight, one of our best sheets was requisitioned, the box was filled loose and the bags were placed on top.

We were up early and a good way on our journey, when the sun rose on a snappy 25°F below morning. Things went fairly well for a bit, although the wooden runners ran heavily and made the ponies sweat. There was too much play in the pole and soon the sleigh started running off the trail, which was about four feet high, and bringing the team up short. Not being very good to draw, we had to unload the gunnysacks and after much persuasion, we got the sleigh on the trail again about 100 yards away. Did you ever carry gunnysacks full of wheat one hundred yards? If you have, you will sympathise with us. But it had to be done and after a series of what seemed endless trips; we were loaded up and made a fresh start. But drive as carefully as we could, the same thing happened so often that we lost count and ten o’clock found us only six miles from home, but luckily near a neighbour’s house. We gave up all hope of arriving at our journey’s end with this outfit, so we left the sleigh and load and walked home.

The next two days were spent in building another sleigh, but that one seemed to suffer from the same complaint and the neighbour taking compassion offered us the loan of his iron shod sleigh which we gladly accepted and we made the trip to within a few miles of Carberry that night, sleeping at a small stopping house, and getting to the station in good time the next morning. We then had to bag up the loose wheat, carry it into the car, weigh and dump it, getting the necessary money just in time for Marshall to catch the express, leaving me a homesick, dejected looking specimen of humanity to wend my weary grey back over those thirty miles of bleak, bitterly cold country.

As it got near spring, L---- got word that the bride and bridegroom were on their way out, accompanied by the bride’s sister, L----’s wife, and a small son and daughter. The day before they were due to arrive, L--- started with the sleigh to Carberry, leaving instructions for us to have the house clean and ship-shape. There then ensued a riot of house cleaning. I rashly volunteered to scrub the floor, which had not seen soap and water since it was laid. Not having anything larger than a nailbrush, it was a long and wearisome job, but I surveyed my handiwork with some pride when it was done.

Unfortunately the travellers had stayed over a few days at New York, throwing us out of our calculations. After keeping everything in apple pie order for two or three days, we got rather careless, as some bachelors have a way of doing, and the party turned up unexpectedly ………

Evelyn Bessie Pearson, wife of J. M. Ewens.

Evelyn Bessie Pearson, wife of J. M. Ewens.
Source: C. Terry Sturk

Page revised: 20 March 2023