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A Winter Journey, 1879 from the Birtle Eye-Witness

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1975, Volume 20, Number 3

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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From The Birtle Eye-Witness, Sept. 5th, 1939 (Selected by Marion Abra) — E. J. Wilson was one of the young men involved in the story.

Following is an experience of five Birtle youths in the last weeks of the year 1879. This year broke a series of dry seasons in which Grand Valley was the western limit for flatboat steamers on the Assiniboine. In ‘79 they made four trips as far as Fort Ellice.

Large numbers of families arriving late in 1879 made famine conditions likely for many of them before spring unless supplies could be brought from older settlements at Palestine and Portage, where the nearest flour mills were located. Five youths—Len Howson, John Patterson, J. C. Anderson, Jim Wilson and Dan Howson were commissioned to haul flour and supplies from Gladstone.

The round trip was about 240 miles, and power used was home-made sleighs and oxen—Long-handled fry pans, blackened camp pails, a supply of hard-tack, pemmican, ground wheat, black tea and fat bacon were the bill of fare. The boys were green as grass as to prairie winters, and not clothed to stand the weather that ranged from zero to fifty below ... The ox-sleigh-cade left Birdtail Crossing (not yet named Birtle) on Nov. 14th in high spirits—bright sunny weather, good sleighing, made the five-day trip to Gladstone pleasant.

Reaching Gladstone, the boys found shelter in various homes, and got the wheat they wanted. Price was forty-five cents. The boys expected to get a half ton of flour, 200 pounds of crushed wheat, plus a few sacks of bran and seed grain each, and be back home by the end of the month.

However, the mild weather suddenly dropped to thirty below and stayed there for two weeks. Malcolm Bros. steam flour mill refused to grind. The young men passed the time improvising songs for a concert-social held in the parsonage, accompanied on the organ by Mrs. Lawson, the parson’s wife.

Weather moderated to around zero Dec. 12th, grinding was resumed, and the trip home prepared ... This took seven days, and after the first day the temperature dropped to 20 below, and colder at night. Places to stop were few. Cooking was done in the shelter of bluffs. Flour made a bitter cold mattress. Ice eighteen inches thick had to be cut on the sloughs to water the oxen.

The fourth night was thirty below, and found the group played out, both boys and oxen. At “Mosquito Hill” an elderly couple named Crerar took the five in, using their blankets on the small house floor. All next day a fierce west wind was faced, and only twelve miles travelled. Camp was made on a tiny slough surrounded by a dense willow bluff at the south end of Salt Lake. Here Len Howson’s feet were frozen so badly the toes had to be amputated, and he was held at Shoal Lake mounted police barracks until fit to go home.

The last night was spent at Brandon House, a large building near the Warleigh gravel pit (in the Birdtail area) put up for a mountie named Brandon, who had located his warrant there. It was occupied by the William Gourley family as a hostel during the winter between Shoal Lake Narrows and Fort Ellice. The boys had good shelter there. The weather moderated, and on Dec. 20th they were back at the Birdtail, where their load of pro-visions assured several homes of enough food to tide over the winter ...

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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