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On Snowshoes for Wheat

by Edgar S. Russenholt

Manitoba Pageant, April 1957

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

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

As the first mild days of late winter give promise of spring, the Canadians who operate Manitobas farms get ready to produce another crop. They test grain for seed - to see how many kernels out of every one hundred will sprout and grow. Choosing the best seed, they clean and re-clean it - ready for the day when they can drill it into the warm, fertile soil. This is the first step in growing good crops. Next fall's harvest depends on this spring's seed.

In April, 1820, the farm families along the Red River were worried. They were short of seed grain. Many farmers had none.

The summer before - and the summer before that clouds of grasshoppers had swarmed from the south. The black masses landed on the little fields of grain which the settlers cultivated with axe and hoe - and sweat. The hoppers ate the ripening grain and stripped the Settlement of every blade and leaf of green.

Hard winters followed those summers of ruined crops. The settlers and their families lived through - on buffalo meat harvested by Metis hunters.

The settlers knew they must get seed wheat to sow in the spring of 1820. So, when Christmas and New Year were over, a line of Manitoba farmers on snowshoes headed along the river -southward. Dog teams and toboggans carried meat and blankets and camping gear. They were on a long trip.

Day after day these farmers pushed southward through winter sunshine that was brittle with frost through blizzards that hammered cold through their buckskin parkas into their very bones. Spring break-up brought slush and floods and made snowshoes and toboggan useless. Still those pioneers drove ahead. In three months they trekked 750 miles to reach Prairie du Chien, on the Mississippi River.

There was little time to rest. At Prairie de Chien the men from Red River bought seven and one half tons of seed wheat. They bought lumber too, and built flat boats. As the streams cleared of ice, they loaded their wheat into the boats and fought their way against the swollen current of the Mississippi to the site of present day St. Paul. Up the Minnesota River they rowed and poled and pulled their boats and precious cargo. Across Big Stone Lake, portage brought them to the Red River. Down its brimming current they rode home.

They drove themselves over that round trip of 1500 miles to bring back wheat in time to seed. It was early June when they got home. The wheat was sown. It grew. It ripened! Well it might. Each and every bushel of that seed cost $9.00 in money; and courage and sweat beyond our ken, today.

Since that day, wheat has poured from the farms of our Canadian West to the corners of the earth - in billions of bushels. It is interesting to note that the first known record of grain exported from Manitoba is of four sacks of seed wheat shipped, in 1860, to Prairie du Chien - for a farmer near Monticello, Iowa. A river steamboat carried this first export grain up the Red River. The importer paid freight charges of $20.00.

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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