Manitoba Historical Society
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Biography of Christian Fahrni, Part 2

by Dr. Gordon S. Fahrni

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1975, Volume 20, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The author graduated in medicine at the University of Manitoba in 1911. He taught at the university and practised surgery in Winnipeg until he moved from Manitoba in 1951. Dr. Fahrni now resides in Vancouver.

Part 1 here

Back from B.C. to the Manitoba farm about 1896 he took up the challenge of establishing a herd of shorthorn beef cattle, acquiring more farm land and broadening his interest in horses—a real mixed farming project.

It was not long until he owned another 640 acres immediately west of the homestead and 200 acres just south across the road allowance which was on the correction line. The south east corner of this 200 acres was at the third crossing of the White Mud River—the old camping site. Here, in 1900, he built a large brick house, a large barn, a two-storey granary, and other smaller buildings needed for a stock farm and implements on the shore of the White Mud River which permanently absorbed the old camping ground of the early freighting days.

In addition to the agricultural land mentioned above he acquired pasture land three miles north and a hay farm on the west shore of the Big Grass Marsh seven miles north.

Through the cold winters of Manitoba it was obligatory to have a good supply of hay on hand for the cattle and horses. This was obtained by cutting and stacking the hay in July, and during the winter it was hauled the seven miles through snowdrifts and biting winds by horse teams and hay racks on tandem bob-sleighs.

An early start before sunrise usually had us home with our hay loads by 2 p.m. provided of course that the snowdrifts had not filled in the trail ruts and that the top-heavy hay loads had not upset on rough and treacherous roads through the snowbanks. In retrospect one thinks of the rising sun and the foglike biting atmosphere in 40° below zero weather on the outward journey and plodding behind the team and sleigh rather than riding to keep from freezing. On arrival at the chosen haystack, the snow must be shovelled to permit the sleigh to sit level on the ground. Loading the hayrack by pitchfork was an antidote to the below-zero weather. Finally the hayrack was filled and it was a pleasant sensation to dig into the dry-sweet-smelling hay, well protected from the chilling elements. The horses needed little prodding or guiding as they struck out for home, anticipating the comfort of their warm barn and a plentiful supply of oats.

In the year 1896, the Lake Manitoba and Canal Company railroad was built. The first sod was turned on the southwest corner of my father’s farm. This railroad ran in a northwesterly direction some one hundred and five miles to Dauphin, Manitoba, and was later extended northwesterly to Sifton and Swan River. When completed the railroad connected with Manitoba and Northwestern Railroad on which it had running rights eastward.

My father supplied the horses and drivers to build the first six miles of grade. The old hand dump scraper each drawn by two horses was the most advanced grading equipment in those early days. In 1887-90 a railroad was constructed connecting Regina and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and in 1889, the Red River Valley Railroad was built from Winnipeg to Emerson; this was later the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway Company. These three early small railroads were eventually absorbed into what is now the Canadian National Railway. It would appear that the Gladstone–Dauphin railway beginning on my father’s farm was the third railroad to be built west of Ontario, of what is now the Canadian National Railway.

It was Donald Mann and Wm. MacKenzie, both old railroad builders in the earlier days when the C.P.R. was pushed across the prairies and through the mountains, who got together and bought the charter of the Lake Manitoba and Canal Co. Railroad and this was then absorbed into the Canadian Northern Railway, which kept building in a westerly direction as well as extending the original small line eastward to Winnipeg as a start. The final story of the amalgamation of the Canadian Northern, the Grand Trunk Pacific and the older Grand Trunk of the east, into the Canadian National Railway of to-day, is well documented elsewhere.

In developing his Manitoba farm my father had under cultivation some 900 acres. In the mechanized era of to-day this would not require much in the way of manpower, but in those early days there was no motor power. The work was all done by human hands and horses. In preparing the ground for cultivation the land was first cleared, much of it covered by poplar and willows and various shrubs.

The larger trees were secured by a chain at a level to give the most leverage when the team of horses began to pull and yet not high enough to cause the trunk of the tree to break above the roots. Axemen with shovel and axe exposed the roots and cut them on one side of the tree and the team of horses pulling on the chain in the opposite direction brought the tree down and as the other roots were exposed a sharp axe cut them deep enough below ground level to permit the breaking plough to follow unopposed. The smaller trees and shrubs were cut down by axe and/or grubaxe. When the trees and brush were cleared what was not suitable for firewood or fence posts was gathered in piles and a little later when dried a bit burned readily, making beautiful bonfires that extended into the night.

When the ground was cleared the breaking plow with horses was the next procedure. Later the turned sods were cut up by disc harrow and later the diamond harrows put the final touch on the ground in preparation for the seeder, later called drills, all of which were horse drawn.

The wheat sown in those days was the Red Fife variety and although it produced a fine hard grained wheat, it was slow in maturing, which meant that it was vulnerable to early frost before being ripe enough to cut.

Frostbitten grain suffered a heavy down grading and to avoid this when the wheat was ready to harvest and there was even a threat of frost, we would run the binders continually from early morning (rain and dew permitting) to well after dark. We changed our four-horse teams every four hours so that counting a twelve-hour day the teams would alternate on each binder one shift one day and two the next. We boys at an early age were too small to do the heavy work, so we drove the binders. We were not as lucky as the horses as we continued the full day of twelve or more hours. A lantern hanging on the hames of the harness of the horse on the right gave enough light to direct the team along the edge of the uncut crop. A few years later new strains of wheat having a shorter maturity time were developed. Marquis wheat was one of the earliest of these.

Our crop was threshed by custom threshing outfits and when they arrived there was a great deal of hustling and bustling which continued from daybreak to darkness. In my young days the threshing crew consisted of many men in contrast to the mechanized picture of to-day.

To enumerate them in the early nineties there were—the tank man who had to draw the water for the engine; the fireman and engineer of the old stationary steam engine. The fireman had to be out an hour or two before the crew in the morning to get a head of steam built up. The fuel was straw which generated heat rather slowly. Then there was the separator and its men—the separator expert, the feeder and two band cutters, who fed the sheaves of grain to the yawning, hungry cylinder when they were pitched by fork onto the feeding platform. Then there was the strawbucker, who, with two horses or oxen, one hitched to each end of a pole, moved the pile of straw as it was carried by conveyor off the straw carrier.

In the early days a lot of the grain was stacked before threshing but this extra chore was soon abandoned and the shocks of sheaves, some-times called stooks, were pitched by fork into racks on wagons and the teamsters—as many as five or six were needed—drove them to the side of the separator and pitched them onto the feeding platform where the bandcutters severed the string by knife and the feeder, with both arms gathering them in, shoved them into the hungry revolving cylinder. What did not go up the strawcarrier, poured down the grain chute and this paying load was fed into two-bushel factory cotton bags and hoisted into a waiting wagonbox, and carted by team to the granary or the grain elevator.

In order to supply all the manpower needed for this laborious procedure neighbours would help out with their teams at threshing time and the recipient of this co-operation would reciprocate at the needed time. When the pitchers in the field were added in, the threshing crew would number something like twenty men. When the additional hired hands on the farm were added, the complement could go as high as twenty-five, without the immediate non-laborers in the family.

I can still see the rough improvised tables in our large kitchen where the whole hungry gang of some twenty-five men would sit down to eat three times a day. In retrospect I marvel how my mother was able to cope with this sudden increase of hungry mouths over a period of perhaps five to seven days. I can still see the large pots on the big open cook stove filled with boiling vegetables or meat, and the oven turning out freshly baked food to meet this challenge.

When I think of balanced diets to-day being the product of advanced research and teaching, I find it hard to believe that the dietary needs of hardworking men were taken care of by a housewife who had never heard of dietary science.

The large helping of meat and vegetables took care of the protein and most of the mineral and vitamin requirements, while the liberal servings of bread and butter with the heavy course, supplemented by huge helpings of Johnnie Cake and molasses provided the carbohydrates necessary to meet the caloric requirements of a hardworking man.

The description I have given above represents the conditions in the early and mid-nineties. The oxen referred to were once driven by my mother’s father who, with my maternal grandmother, moved to the Gladstone district soon after my parents’ marriage. He had two big oxen, brindle color with irregular white markings. Their names were Buck and Bright and with a primitive plow my grandfather broke some of the prairie on his quarter-section and used the oxen for the necessary power to operate his small farm.

Gradually the primitive manual labor was cut down by mechanization which was speeded up with the introduction of gasoline-powered implements and machines. Even before this, the old strawcarrier on the separator was replaced by the fan and blower type of straw ejection. The band-cutters and feeder were replaced by an automatic feeding system. The old stationary steam engine was soon replaced by the traction engine and new types of power so the fireman and tankman were eliminated from the crew.

Gradually the gas-powered combines cutting the grain and threshing it, were perfected, the whole process operated by sometimes only one man. Such is the contrast between the early and modern days of farming in Western Canada.

The visit of the threshing gang was always an exciting annual event. To the family it meant the culmination of the year’s efforts in planning and labor in bringing to fruition the unpredictable growth, maturity and harvest of the crop with its economic reward. The coarse grains, oats and barley were used chiefly for horse, cattle and hog feed; the golden wheat provided the financial means to pay off the year’s clothing and grocery bills in the town stores and the bank loan that had helped to finance the year’s operation.

Money left over after the debts were paid usually went into the purchase of more land. The present practice of estate planning by investing in Bonds, Equities and Life Insurance was then in its infancy in our rural community.

To the young family there was another side of interest to the threshing gang invasion; it was the excitement of the hustle and bustle which permeated the whole picture of this harvest finale. Too young to take on a heavy job, we were at an early age indoctrinated into the handling of horses and farm vehicles. We drove the grain wagons and it was such fun to back our grain wagon with its high sided box structure to the grain chute by the side of the separator.

I can recollect so well, a wraith-like figure appearing from under or around the separator, through the dust and chaff-laden, noisy, atmosphere of the rattling machine. This man was “Buckskin Jim” wearing his old fawn-colored hat with wilting and drooping brim, his face begrimed by dust and sweat, down which from one corner of his mouth dribbled over his chin a streak of tobacco juice.

He was a character, the separator expert, whose job it was to keep the big machine operating, any break-down of which, even for a short time meant immobilizing the whole operation.

He was a tough old maritimer who did itinerant jobs over the year, one of which was travelling a stud horse across the country in the Spring of the year. The equine period of gestation being close to twelve months, the colts were foaled usually in the spring. The bovine period of gestation being much shorter, the cows were usually bred in the mid-summer, so that the calves would arrive in the Spring, which was considered the best season for a beef herd.

One spring Buckskin Jim travelled our dapple gray stallion, Monarch, my father also providing the gig and the horse between the shafts. My memory brings back the vivid picture of Buckskin Jim sitting on the gig, leading the big gray horse as the three of them started down the road on their mission of assuring the horse-owners of the country an improved brand of colts. Five weeks or so later they returned dusty and tired. I helped to stable Pete, the gig horse, while the big gray eagerly sought the comfort of his box stall having done his bit to raise the standard of the horse-population of the community.

While drawing grain to the elevator in town we acted as agents for some of the workers on a Saturday afternoon. By request a stop at the hotel to procure a bottle of whiskey for Buckskin Jim, or some other “Bon Vivant” was one of our missions. This was for merry-making on Saturday night. Sunday being a day of rest, they could sleep it off in the caboose, and Monday morning when the old steam engine whistle blew at daybreak, they would be fit and raring to go. The label on the bottle was Gooderham and Worts and to me, a young farm boy brought up in a Methodist house-hold it had rather a satanic aura. My first purchase of a 26-ounce bottle cost seventy-five cents. The next year the price was up to ninety cents and this caused a pall of gloom and resentment, and a cry of “Robbers” from the hired hands. This bit of service to the gang was confidential, lest it might come to my mother’s ears.

Referring back to the early days when different neighbors came to help during the threshing period, my father noticed that of the many dozen two-bushel factory cotton bags he had available for handling the grain from separator to granary or elevator, there was afterwards a great shrinkage in the count. He devised and made a stamp from tin, which when covered with red paint and imprinted on the sack read “STOLEN FROM C. FAHRNI.” Following this, the mysterious disappearance of the grain sacks ended.

My father was always interested in cattle and steadily kept up a reason-ably large herd of beef cattle which he perpetuated by the frequent changing of his shorthorn bulls. Each fall, he marketed the three-year olds, keeping the best heifers for breeding.

Each spring the annual round-up of young stock was held when all the one-year-old calves were branded with my father’s brand “C.F.”—high on the right hip. This was necessary to identify his stock in the fall when, after grazing over the summer months, they often mingled with other cattle some distance from home. While they were thrown off their feet and shackled by ropes for this procedure, the bull calves were castrated. Also during the spring, the young one-year old stallions were gelded.

His real love, however, was for horses and he developed an active business in selling horses to the many farmers who came to him from sometimes a long distance to meet their needs in what was at that time, the universal power source in farm operations.

To meet the grazing requirements of this programme he acquired ample grazing land and in those days the herd of cattle grazed during the summer on the open range along the west side of the Big Grass Marsh. In the late fall it was a real riding job for us boys to round up the herd as far as thirty miles north and bring them down for winter care. We might be away on horseback for several days but those were such that at noon-time we put up at the nearest settler’s farmstead, fed our horse a gallon of oats, and went into the house for dinner (the mid-day meal); in the late afternoon or evening we did the same thing, but putting our horse in the barn for the night and going to the house for supper, a bed not always in the house, and breakfast in the morning. There never was such a thing as even thinking of paying money for these services. Such a contrast to the present!

My father was an expert horseman—“a good judge of horse flesh” in the vernacular of the day. He quickly sized up an animal; first its general appearance, eyes and ears having special significance. A horse with a Roman nose was considered favorably as was the buckskin color, so far as stamina went. Also the short-backed horse he preferred to the longer-backed more cumbersome horse.

He quickly ran his hand and fingers over the knees and hocks and fetlocks to rule out any early ringbone or spavin that might not be advanced enough to be recognized by the eye. These blemishes were growths about the fetlock or hocks and caused the horse to go lame. Bog spavins were collections of lymph-like fluid about the joint while bone spavin was a hard bony growth usually on the hind leg, just below the knee on the medial surface of what corresponds to the human tibia. Ringbone began as a firm growth of bone which gradually encircled the fetlock, and the limp was so severe as to disable the horse. Many so-called blisters were applied but none were satisfactory. A foundered horse was quickly recognized by the concavity over shoulder and finally, by exercise and excitement the horse with the “heaves” was recognized. This was a disability that caused the horse to heave as do human asthmatics. A quick examination of his teeth to ascertain the age of the animal as well as for nutritional purposes ended the examination. Horses with the above disabilities to my father were valueless, although some people kept them about for light work only.

Of all of the hundreds of horses he imported, only once can I recall we had a laugh on him—to his chagrin. One of the bronco mares which we had broken to harness developed a ringbone on one fetlock. He explained his error in that when inspecting these wild horses in a corral in Montana he was unable to use his hand, which would have recognized the blemish before it became visible. This particular bronco mare we kept about for a number of years as each year she was bred to our black Percheron Stallion “Pilot’ and produced a number of smart colts, all black, and later we drove them together both on the road and on farm work.

To get his supply of horses, my father had three sources:

1) He carried on a breeding programme, starting with an imported Clydesdale Stallion “Camsie Lad” from Scotland. He then changed to Percheron Stallions, both the Gray and the Black.

2) He imported carloads of well-broken young horses from his earlier home in Iowa, U.S.A. He found that these corn-fed horses took a little while to learn to eat oats and in order to prevent them from deteriorating nutritionally, he would bring along a carload of corn to feed them until gradually they acquired the taste for oats which was the staple, horse grain-food in Canada.

3) He imported carloads of broncos from Montana and this proved to be the most thrilling experience for us youngsters whose responsibility it was to harness and break for farm work and driving, these untamed horses, none of which had ever even worn a halter.

Our system was to get the bronco in a chute which consisted of an outlet from the corral or barn three feet wide and ten feet long built sturdily by sunken posts and poplar poles nailed to the posts horizontally four inches apart making the sides of the chute. As the bronco entered the chute a gate of poles was closed in front of him and the same behind him. In this enclosed position we harnessed him and with a harnessed well-broken horse led up on either side of the chute, his halter or better bridle line was tied to the hames of the horse on either side. The front gate was opened and the bronco sprang forward only to be set back on his haunches by the line tied to the two horses on either side. On the plows, harrows, seeders and binders we used four-horse teams. It was a simple matter with the bronco secured, to hitch the team to the plow or binder and after a great deal of plunging and rearing with the accompanying sweat, and lather from his hide, he soon settled down and before long father would be able to sell him as a horse broken for work. If at any time the purchaser found the horse unmanageable, father replaced him willingly and it was our job to recondition him.

All broncos were not the same, Most of them with a little patience and firmness, but never brutality, conformed to the pattern of useful animals in harness. There was the mean high-spirited, sometimes vicious, type but with perseverance and hard work in the four-horse team, the outlaw as we called him, gradually lost his primitive tendency to kick, strike or bite and when once his co-operation was gained, we had a work horse usually with more stamina and durability than the others. Perhaps the most difficult fault to correct was in the sulky, balky horse. This animal would stand immobile and with his ears pointing backwards just refuse to move. The cure again was to put him between two of the horses in the four-horse team, secure the rings of his severe bit to the hames on the collar of either horse and as the team moved forward, punitive prodding with not a blunt weapon on his rump as he hung backwards usually persuaded him to push his shoulders into his collar. Once again we had reclaimed a member for the equine working force.

The four-abreast horse team provided the power to operate almost all our farm machinery; the two-furrow gang plow, the cultivator, the disc harrow, the diamond harrow, the seed drill and the binder which cut a swath of grain ten feet wide.

We always had a good supply of horses and these were not the rather slow-moving heavy Clydesdale draft horses, but smarter-acting percherons often bred from a percheron stallion and a bronco mare. Their quicker gait was an asset in that the machinery, particularly the binder, moved along faster and accordingly more work was accomplished in a given period of time. Also in cutting grain which was a little green or moist from dew or fallen over from wind and top-heavy heads of wheat or barley, the drive wheel moved faster causing a speeding-up of the sickle back and forth through the guards so that the knife or sickle was less likely to clog up and stall the reaper as the drive wheel became stationary.

I recall vividly a ghastly event, as it seemed to me at the time, while riding the binder with the horses walking along smartly, I saw in the distance a tall figure dressed in his “Sunday-go-to-meeting” clothes striding toward me. I recognized him in the distance, stopped the horses for a half-minute to rub off the sweat and foam from the chestnut mare which was one of my four-horse team. Before he got much closer, I proceeded as nonchalantly as I could with the business of cutting the wheat stalks. I stopped the horses when he came up and for a Methodist minister, I thought he did pretty well in dressing me down perhaps with some justification, but I never felt too guilty of a serious offence.

The story background is that my mother was a keen Methodist, and the Methodist minister of our town, Gladstone, made our home almost a part-time boarding house. My father had instructed us and over all the years at home we Fahrni boys kept the minister’s barn well supplied with hay and oats for his horses, that he needed to drive to the country churches which he supplied with a weekly service.

In this case the minister had as usual without consulting us, tied his very nice chestnut mare in a stall in our horse stable while he was away for two weeks. After watching this nice beast guzzling hay and oats and standing there with no exercise I decided one day to include her in my four-horse team and give one of the horses a rest.

This was the day the minister returned and when he came up for his horse she was missing. He enquired from my mother who knew nothing of the circumstances which were explained when he found his mare sweating and lathered in the binder team. After disengaging his mare and turning her over to her owner, I had the unpleasant task of walking home and riding out a replacement.

My mother tried to appear very cross when I returned home; my father thought it was a great joke and as he said, my mother in her heart, thought so too. Personally I felt happy about the whole thing as did my brothers as this particular minister never seemed to appreciate our extra effort in keeping his barn well supplied with bedding and fodder.

Part 3 here

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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