Russell’s Pioneer Days
by Harold Coulter
Manitoba Pageant, September 1961, Volume 7, Number 1
By 1900, Russell—the new name for the old “Shell River Post”—was a village of about two hundred, in the centre of a large farming district, and fairly well settled all around. The settlers were mostly from Huron and Bruce Counties, Ontario, although there was a good percentage of English families as well.
In the village there were two general stores, a blacksmith shop, wheelwright shop, hotel, two churches, a school, an implement ware-house, and all the other facilities that constituted the making of a village in the early days. The place had not yet acquired that urban amenity—sidewalks, and it was rather difficult to get about in after a snow storm. The soil was a deep loam on a clay subsoil and churned up most beautifully in wet weather because the streets were plowed up and partly graded in preparation for topping-off with gravel in the summer.
The stores had platforms in front of each entrance which linked up with boards, bridged intervening spaces. This was the beginning of the sidewalks in Russell; the labour was all gratis.
The village had a weekly train service; a branch line twelve- miles long from the main line of the Manitoba and North Western Railway, starting from Binscarth, due south of us. The original townsite belonged to Major Charles Boulton of the famous Boulton Scouts of the North West Rebellion of 1885. The Major had disposed of parts of it to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
There had been hard years all over this settlement, as well as other parts of the country, occasioned by drought and summer frosts. The only money in circulation was obtained by the sale of old steers every fall, the price being about forty dollars each. The necessities for the homes were procured by bartering butter and eggs in the village. The women folk were the great immediate support of the family in those days, although the men worked hard on their homesteads, trying to raise crops, but to little purpose. The summer frosts beat them out, and in many cases they were not able to raise enough good wheat to keep the chickens laying.
There were a number of Englishmen in the settlement who regularly received remittances from the old country, and spent freely which helped to circulate considerable wealth. By one means and another the people had lived and come through the past unprofitable and very unproductive years. They had almost given up trying to raise grain and were turning their attention more to stock raising and cream and butter production, thus bringing prosperity to the settlement and the village. As the years passed summer frosts became uncommon, and wheat growing was again in full swing. For a long period following, farmers raised the best No. 1 Hard Wheat, and most of them became prosperous and wealthy. The village likewise became an active trading and marketing place with a very much increased urban and rural population of contented well-to-do people.
The nearest Indian Reserve was about thirty miles distant at Lizard Point. Another reserve was on the Valley River and the Gamblers Reserve lay near Fort Ellice. There were only a few families on each. Actually there were really no Indians at all attached to the Russell Post. It was almost exclusively white trade, for the most part old retired Hudson’s Bay men, among whom were Allan Mclvor and his family, Edward Field and his family, and others who had taken up homesteads later.
Dr. Barnardo’s Home for Boys was within three miles of the village, under the very able management of E. A. Struthers. He utilized a large tract of land for mixed farming, and the training of these boys who were sent out from England by the Doctor in annual groups to receive their training and to be made into good citizens.
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