Manitoba Historical Society
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Breaking Sod at Turtle Mountain

by A. S. Hurt

Manitoba Pageant, Summer 1978, Volume 23, Number 4

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In 1880 two young brothers, Robert and Charles Hurt, left their home in Whatstandwell, Derbyshire, England, on an adventure that would take them across the Atlantic to New York, and eventually to the Turtle Mountain area in Southern Manitoba. From New York they took the train to St. Paul, Minnesota, and again by train to Neche, North Dakota. Here they purchased a yoke of oxen, equipment and supplies to take them a hundred miles or more across the prairies to they really “knew not” what.

They drove the oxen from Neche to Emerson, Manitoba, across the United States boundary. This was quite an operation. They had had contact with horses, but oxen were unknown beasts. Robert used to laugh years later about his efforts at oxen driving. He said he would crack the great long leashed whip and roar “Glang” at the top of his voice. Then light his pipe and puff awhile. Finally the oxen would begin to move.

Arriving at Emerson they found the Red River in flood. The ferry had broken away from the cable and lay stranded on the mud on the far side of the river and down stream some distance.

In 1877-1878 quite a number of people, mostly men, came to Manitoba from Ontario looking for land to settle on and develop. Some returned to their Ontario homes with glowing accounts of the vast prairies and abundant timber on the Turtle Mountain. Land was free for the taking in some areas, and for homesteading in others. Many men had cleared forests to get land where they could grow wheat, and a garden in Ontario. Here they saw acres open ready to be ploughed in this new Manitoba.

So they returned home, disposed of their farms in Ontario, loaded stocks and equipment on trains or covered wagons and struck out with their families (and sometimes friends), for a new life on the Western Plains, using their past experience to develop the fertile prairies for agriculture.

Many had arrived at Emerson before Robert and Charlie Hurt got there, only to find their way barred by the rampaging Red River. The situation at Emerson had become serious, because it was only a tiny settlement and the food supplies for man and beast were running out. The train from St. Paul ran only once a week and everything had to be hauled from Neche to Emerson. Some men had to kill pigs and poultry to feed their families.

Things were looking pretty grim when Robert and Charlie Hurt arrived at Emerson, adding to the crowd. Robert looked over the ferry situation, located cable, hawser, pulleys, also a flat bottomed boat, and several heavy teams of horses with capable drivers. Having done this he called for volunteers to go over to the ferry and see damage if any had been done, and what the possibilities of salvage there were.

Four men volunteered. So they started off, Robert sculling at the stern, a method he was very skilled at, and taking a light line attached to a hawser with them.

The current was running strong with a lot of debris floating on it. However they made the trip safely, boarded the ferry and hauled over the hawser which they made secure to a stanchion and gave the signal for the men on shore to begin driving the teams.

It was a big question! Could the horses break the ferry free of the mud. After several teams got the rhythm of pulling together, it swung free and out into the current and there was a great rejoicing. Gradually the ferry was hauled back to her slip and made secure there. The broken end of the cable had to be picked up on the far side of the river, spliced to run smoothly through the pulleys and attached to the ferry. All this being accomplished a trial run was made and proved successful.

Everyone was overjoyed and turned to with a will, packing up their belongings and getting them loaded on the ferry. As it was a “walking” ferry everyone had to help pull it across the river against the current.

Robert and Charlie supervised several families crossing with their stock, gear and equipment. Seeing all was going well and smoothly they loaded their own oxen, wagon and supplies and began the long tedious journey along the Old Commission Trail, headed for Turtle Mountain area where they had planned to settle.

They had many adventures and mishaps on the way such as when they were stuck in Dead Horse Creek, and when the oxen lay down in the water and refused to get up at Tobacco Creek ford. Robert, a resourceful lad, found some solutions to the various problems that arose. They had one clear direction pointer to travel by as long as they kept the Pilot Mound in view.

The Old Commission Trail ran directly East and West. With the Pilot Mound to the North they were able to keep a fairly straight course though awfully slow. Oxen are good at pulling but take their own sweet time about it. The Trail ran as far as Old Deloraine, where there was a Government Land Office. This was where all those wanting land for settlement had to apply.

Robert and Charlie Hurt did not take up land themselves at once. There was a lot to learn about keeping alive on the Prairies if you had no experience. Clearing where there was a growth of wolf willow for instance was a tremendous job. Also knowing what land would grow grain crops, what would make stock range, and where water was available.

Wolf Willow is a pretty, wild shrub, having thick leathery silver coloured leaves, and a sweet smelling tiny yellow flower that produces delicious honey. The bushes grew from three to five feet high in the early days and were a very thick heavy growth, often so dense a man had difficulty breaking through. Cattle and horses could get lost in the tangle of full grown scrub. It covered acres and acres for miles. To clear for ploughing this scrub had to be cut off at ground level or a plough could not cut through it.

All this had to be learned by newcomers to the prairies. Such knowledge could mean the difference between life and death.

Because in early days lumber was scarce, huts were built of sod cut from the open grass land by plough. Properly built these huts, or noddies as they were called, were substantial and fairly comfortable. Building one required “know how” and hard work. The base of the outside walls had to be four feet thick at the base and tapering off slightly as it was raised, but never less than three feet. Dividing walls inside would be less. When the desired height was reached poplar poles were laid across from wall to wall, close together. This formed a base for the sod roof. On this foundation sod was carefully laid, each layer arranged so there were no cracks for water to run through. It required at least three feet of sod. The floor was just earth, or sometimes poles laid close, and flattened on top with an adz for easier walking, and the space between filled with soil.

There was a constant filter of dust falling from ceiling and walls. Those who could afford it stretched factory cotton over all walls and ceiling. This held the dust back but if rain came through of course there was an ugly mess.

Robert and Charlie lived in a “soddie” for some time. They included a side shelter for their oxen as part of their establishment, thus saving labour on at least one wall of the shelter construction.

It was necessary at this time for settlers of Turtle Mountain area to go to Brandon for all supplies. A trip of sixty miles or more. Those who had a wagon and oxen or horses took a load of wheat over and brought back flour, oatmeal, bran, etc. Even sometimes they took a sack of grain over on their back, bringing back flour, walking both ways. It was a pretty grim trip at the best of times, but to walk it must have been dreadful, sleeping in the open, devoured by mosquitoes and black flies in summer. In winter when they would need to camp near bush to get wood for a fire, it was an endurance test.

Robert got the bright idea of building a grist mill on a creek near Waubeesh. He procured mill stones and machinery and built the mill. It was to be driven by a water wheel. When the building was completed he gave a big party and a dance to celebrate his 21st birthday, 21 January 1882. Everyone for miles around was invited, special drinks and eats were brought from Brandon. It was to be a real spree. As the weather had been fine and mild for some time everyone and the cat came to take advantage of the chance to meet with friends, dance, talk and have fun. The music most likely was produced by a fiddle, comb and perhaps a Jew’s harp.

After supper someone noticed the wind had risen and the temperature was falling. On investigation it was discovered a blizzard had blown up. From a balmy 50° it was heading fast for zero. Everyone hurried off home as fast as they could before the storm got too bad. Next morning it was 30° below zero. All the eats left were frozen solid in the unheated building.

A man named Morton had a saw mill and planer at Lake Max, one of a chain of lakes along the top of Turtle Mountain. There was Lake Max, Lake Lulu, Lake Oscar and Lake William, all connected at that time by creeks. As the mountain was heavily timbered with oak, elm, ash, Manitoba Maple and birch as well as scrub growth consisting of choke cherries, pin cherries, high bush cranberries, Saskatoons, alder and poplar, these lovely lakes made the mountain a very lovely spot. The forest was made up of huge trees that provided many hundreds of board feet of lumber.

Robert worked for Morton for some time. He seemed drawn to the water and boats after the long trip across the prairies. Charlie was there with him some of the time. On one occasion they had a great fright. They were sleeping in a partly constructed building. The doors and windows had not been installed. During the night a terrific storm came up. They got up to look out and saw two eyes moving about at the back of the building quite close by. Thinking it was a bear they huddled close together in a corner and watched the door. Cold shivers running down their spine. Holding their breath they waited for the bear to come in through the door. As nothing happened they fell asleep. Eventually the storm passed and dawn came. Looking out again they saw the two eyes were two oxeye daisies flowers swaying in the breeze.

The mill stood on the bank at the north end of the lake. A stream ran into the lake on the east side of the mill, from a large slough back a hundred yards or so. As logs were cut they were hauled and dumped into this slough. Later they were sent down a flume to the lake where a boom was chained at the entrance to the lake from the stream. Here they were held until taken out to the mill for cutting.

There was a large oak tree on top of the bank to which the mill boiler smoke stack was guyed with a long bolt through the tree. Two huge slab piles were there too, one near the planing shed.

Mr. Morton had an arrangement whereby any man needing lumber could work at the mill and be paid in lumber. As there was very little cash in the district this was a great help to many people. Robert may have taken advantage of this plan when Charlie and he were needing the lumber for their buildings.


In 1885 a railway was built following somewhat the route of the Old Commission Trail as far as Deloraine. At this time the name of “Cherry Creek” was changed to “Boissevain” in honour of a New York financier who loaned money for the railway project, and came out on the first passenger train, “just for the ride.”

E. B. Tatchell and Robert Hurt went into partnership and built a grain elevator on the railway. It was the first elevator in the village. Nine other elevators were built later. Established as grain buyers they had a good start in business.

Page revised: 23 October 2013

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