Manitoba Historical Society
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The Story of Beautiful Plains

by Irene Lawrence Richards

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1951-52 Season

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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My story, only a small part of a complete study, concerns a pioneer settlement of Western Manitoba, a fertile, park-like district, drained principally by the White Mud River and its tributaries. It was first part of the North West Territories. Then in 1881 when Manitoba's boundary was extended, it was designated as the County of Beautiful Plains. This name was locally retained until the early years of the twentieth century, despite the fact that in 1883 the county was divided into municipalities.

Several changes followed and today the area includes within its boundaries the Rural Municipalities of Langford, Lansdowne, and Rosedale. The village of Keyes marks its eastern boundary, Franklin the western, and Kelwood the northern. Its southern boundary is approximately a mile north of the villages of Brookdale and Oberon. The picturesque town of Neepawa forms the heart of the populous, thriving community.

When the province of Manitoba was created in 1870 its western boundary was fixed at 990 west longitude about where Keyes is situated. Beyond that lay the North-West Territories.

According to a special census in October of 1870, the total population of the province was 11,963. Of this number only 1,565 were white; the remainder were half-breeds and Indians. [1]

Manitoba's entrance into Confederation brought renewed interest in the western country and preparations were made for increased settlement. The North-West Mounted Police force was organized and law and order established in the Territories. Arrangements were completed to place the Indians on reservations. Land titles were issued to the English, French, and half-breed settlers and other claims were met. Settlement surveys into townships and sections were commenced on the remaining land. [2]

Free land grants or homesteads were made available to settlers. Provision was also made for the purchase of additional land or pre-emption, at one dollar per acre. [3]

The result of these well-advertised attractions was a rapid influx of settlers for several years.

"The favorite locations during the five years, 1871-1875, were along the north side of the International Boundary around Morden and on by Pilot Mound to Deloraine. The Tiger Hills and Boyne River attracted many and the Portage Plains, Gladstone (then called Palestine), and the Little Saskatchewan lands were rapidly settled." [4]

Until the first train reached St. Boniface on December 9, 1878, [5] most settlers entered Manitoba by way of St. Paul and Fisher's Landing, on the Red River. From the latter place they continued to Winnipeg either by means of Red River boats or by trail through Grand Forks and Pembina. From Winnipeg the main route to the west was the old trail used by the Indians and fur-traders. It was variously called The Saskatchewan Trail, The Hudson Bay Trail, The Edmonton Trail, or The Great Highway. From Upper Fort Garry this road ran west along the north bank of the Assiniboine River to Portage La Prairie. Here it branched into three trails.

The most southerly of these continued a western course almost parallel to that of the present Canadian Pacific Railway. At Grand Valley (Brandon) it crossed the Assiniboine and passed along the west bank of the river to Fort Ellice, a central point from which trails led further west and north to Fort Edmonton.

The second road, referred to as South or Centre Trail, branched from the first just west of the upper waters of Pine Creek and angled in a north-westerly direction across the plains to a point west of the present site of Newdale.

The third branch, the North or Ellice Trail, ran north-west, crossed Rat Creek and then made three crossings on the White Mud, at Westbourne (First Crossing), at Woodside (Second Crossing), and at Palestine, or Gladstone (Third Crossing). From here it continued past Keyes (Midway) and for a short distance along the Arden Ridge. Turning westward it crossed Snake Creek, Stony Creek, and finally the Little Saskatchewan at Tanner's Crossing (Minnedosa). It then cut through Odanah Pass and joining the South trail beyond Newdale passed through The Narrows at the south end of Shoal Lake, continued to Birtle, and on to Fort Ellice or Beaver Creek House, a Hudson's Bay Company post at the junction of Beaver Creek and the Assiniboine River. [6]

During the year 1874 several venturesome settlers followed the North Trail beyond Manitoba's western boundary into that part of the North-West Territories that was later to be organized as the County of Beautiful Plains.

Adam McKenzie, of Guelph, Ontario, was the first settler. Having spent some time with his father, Kenneth McKenzie, in the pioneer settlement of Burnside, on Rat Creek, he decided to trek further west. In 1872, accompanied by his bride, Catherine McEachran, this tall, doughty, twenty-four year old Scot, followed the North Trail to the Arden Ridge. Here, like Squire Boone, he "picked out an ample slice of this earthly paradise and called it home." [7]

During their first winter, the young couple lived in the government depot, a log building which served first as a supply base for surveyors and later as a barracks for Mounted Police. The present Arden Post Office stands on the same lot.

For his home farm Mr. McKenzie purchased a quarter section close to the present village of Arden. In a short time he had a considerable acreage under cultivation, several hundred acres of hay land, and a profitable source of revenue from the sale of supplies to incoming settlers.

By 1876 he had grown a large quantity of grain. This he had ground at Palestine (Gladstone), and in March, 1877, he freighted it by ox cart to Fort Edmonton where he sold it to the Roman Catholic Mission, at $20 a sack. He was a man of robust health, and during the trip he slept out of doors, wrapped in buffalo robes. For the return journey he purchased a span of young mules and a buckboard. [8]

As Mr. McKenzie's holdings increased, stories of his extensive activities became topics of conversation throughout the entire county.

Early in 1874 another young settler, Stephen Orton, secured land in the fertile valley formed by the White Mud River and its tributary, Snake Creek. He spent only the required time on his homestead. The remainder of each year he worked for Kenneth or Adam McKenzie. A few years later he married Mrs. Adam McKenzie's cousin, Betsy McIntyre, and lived permanently on his land. This was the beginning of the settlement of Snake Creek, later called Salisbury. [9]

Other settlers of 1874 were the McGregors, from Edinburgh. This group consisted of a widowed mother, Mrs. Anne McGregor, four sons, Archibald, John, Gregor, Peter St. Clair, and Mrs. McGregor's sister, Miss Christina St. Clair. A fifth son, Donald, followed some years later. Three daughters remained in Scotland, and the eldest son, Duncan, hereditary chief of Clan McGregor, emigrated to New Zealand.

After living for a short time in London, Ontario, the McGregors came to Manitoba and located in the valley of the White Mud River, in what was later to be south-east Lansdowne. Mrs. McGregor's homestead was approximately four and one half miles south and one mile east of Keyes. Her three elder sons acquired land near at hand. Peter St. Clair, who was only nineteen, homesteaded later and married Eleanor Grose, daughter of a neighbour. The older brothers didn't marry. [10]

From these clustered farmsteads grew the McGregor settlement, later renamed Mekiwin, a Cree word meaning gift. [11]

The McGregors were educated, capable, public-spirited, and hospitable. No person, red or white, was ever turned away from their door. A post office was established in Mrs. McGregor's home. She and Mrs. Grose were the midwives of the district. The men also served the growing community. John McGregor was the first Reeve of Lansdowne; Archibald was senior auditor; Peter St. Clair acted as assessor; Gregor served several terms as Reeve of Lansdowne and for almost twenty years was President of Beautiful Plains Agricultural Society.

Further westward, in what was to become Rosedale Municipality, Albert Caldwell Sewell, from Ontario, homesteaded about two miles east of the present village of Franklin in 1874. He lived at the bank of Stony Creek in a dugout roofed with poles and hay. His first stove was made of clay and had a top of tin. Until quite recently the marks of the dugout were to be seen in the creek bank.

The North Trail to Fort Ellis ran a short distance north of his farm. For three years young Sewell existed by cooking meals of rabbit and prairie chicken for those who passed along the trail. The price of a meal was twenty-five cents. [12]

Mr. William Connell, a pioneer of Stony Creek district, near Neepawa, writing in an anniversary edition of the Neepawa Press says, "When going to Minnedosa (Tanner's Crossing) to enter for our homesteads we had a breakfast of flap-jacks, fried prairie chicken, and tea, in a tent which Mr. A. Sewell had set up beside the trail." [13]

In 1875, George Kerr, a young Irish-Canadian from Ontario settled on the quarter-section which is the present site of Franklin. Due to some misunderstanding he was unable to file papers for this land and instead homesteaded and pre-empted one-half section three miles north. He was joined by his cousin, John Begley, and later by his brothers, James, Robert, and John Kerr. Thus another prosperous settlement, Franklin, had its beginning. The Kerr brothers were progressive settlers. In addition to their very successful farming ventures, they operated a lumber and planing-mill at Kerr's Lake, in northwest Rosedale. [14]

Westward immigration was halted to some extent by several grasshopper plagues and the commercial depression of 1876, but a new movement began in 1877. "With that year too a succession of exceedingly wet springs began, and greatly affected the distribution of the settlers." [15]

The comparatively dry country drained by the upper White Mud River and its tributaries now proved most attractive. Surveys of this region had begun as early as 1872 and had been carried on extensively during 1873, in preparation for settlement.

Several factors contributed to the great flow of settlers that now began from Ontario. Land there was expensive. A hundred acre farm cost approximately $5,000. Families were large, and parents couldn't afford to give much help to sons who wished to farm. Nor were the sons anxious to face the task of clearing the heavily wooded land when prairie farms were being offered and praised in glowing terms. The common topic of conversation was "The Red River Country." "Hadn't the wheat from that land been awarded the prize at the 1876 Centennial celebration in Philadelphia?"

Mr. William Pockett, of Springhill district, near Neepawa, tells of a doggerel quoted in his Ontario neighbourhood. In part it said:

There's a land that's famed in story,
Away out in the west,
So far out in the west,
Where the turkeys run, all roasted,
With the fork stuck in their breast. [16]

In 1876 Walter Brydon and Robert Riddle homesteaded two miles east of the present town of Neepawa. The following year brought several more settlers and Union district had begun.

The first settlement in the immediate vicinity of Neepawa was begun in 1877. Thirty colonists left Listowel, Ontario, in May of that year. In the party were fourteen members of the Graham clan. There were three brothers, Peter, Thomas, and John, their families, and two grandparents, James Graham, aged ninety-nine, and his wife, aged a hundred and one.

The party followed the North Trail, and when they reached the Snake Creek (Salisbury) settlement several men chose homesteads. The Grahams, however, decided to continue west and in July located on sections where Neepawa town now stands.

Alexander, son of John Graham, tells this incident of their early days in the new district:

"We took a covered wagon box and laid it down on blocks of timber and my grandparents slept in it until the 15th of November, when we had the house ready to move into. But my dear old grandfather did not live long. He died on December 18th, 1877, and is buried in Riverside Cemetery (Neepawa), which was then his homestead." [17]

In the same year several other settlements were begun in the Neepawa vicinity. Southeast of the present town of Neepawa, a district known as Stony Creek was begun. The names of Connell, Cameron, Stewart, and Scott testify as to the origin of these splendid settlers from Ontario.

South of Stony Creek settlement Glendale was begun. A considerable number of these settlers were English-Pattison, Laidlers, Loggans, Chisolms, and Dyers.

Directly south of Neepawa several homesteads were obtained in 1877 in what was to be known as Osprey. The earliest settlers here were an Irish Canadian family from Ontario, Robinson Hamilton, his five sons, and five daughters. Before many years had passed other relatives of the family joined them and played an active part in the community and later in the town.

Directly north of Neepawa the Eden district had its beginning in 1877. The first settlers were Jim and Tom Honeyman. Their farms were just where Eden village now stands. Three other brothers, Robert, Harry, and John, soon joined them.

A few months later Robert McCracken set up a tent on his land, three miles southwest of Honeyman's. Mrs. McCracken was the first white woman in the district, although John Stephenson and his wife settled three miles north of Eden very shortly afterward. Soon after their arrival Mr. McCracken had to return to Portage La Prairie for supplies, leaving his wife and two babies. He was delayed and Mrs. McCracken's food supply gave out. She knew there were white men to the northwest, so as soon as her babes had begun their afternoon sleep she fastened the tent flap securely and started out for help. Mr. Honeyman spied her while she was some distance away and jumping on a horse he went to meet her. Returning to his homestead, he gathered supplies and then took her back to her tent. The babies were still sleeping peacefully. [18]

North of the Eden district, in the heavier wooded country, bordering the foothills of Riding Mountain, settlement was slower. In 1877, however, several families started homes in the vicinity of the present village of Birnie. John Armstrong, a surveyor, was the first man to claim a homestead there. He was a bachelor, but an Englishman, John Grover, was the first to bring his wife to the township. They located about a mile south of the present village of Birnie. An old Indian trail from Sandy Bay on Lake Manitoba crossed the north end of the trail along Arden Ridge and then meandered across the bush-covered farm and crossed the Riding Mountain to the west. This trail proved to be a great convenience when going for supplies. For several years the Grovers had twenty-five Crees as neighbours. When bad weather made hunting difficult the Indians would call at the Grover farm for a bit of food and a drink of tea; when hunting was good they brought a share of the kill. [19] Mr. Grover lived on his farm for fifty-five years, and Mrs. Grover until July 1951, when she died at the age of ninety-eight years, eight months.

For several years a steady flow of settlers added to the population of the existing districts. Government statistics for the year 1883 lists the population of the County of Beautiful Plains as 1306: 777 males and 529 females. [20] By the end of 1885 additional settlements had reached a sufficient stag -- of growth to organize school districts. South of Eden were Acton and Mountain View; west of these, on the southern slope of Riding Mountain, were Springhill, Iroquois, and Cold Stream. Eastward, to the north of Salisbury, the districts of Glenholm and Florence received a large share of settlers. In the country south of Neepawa, settlement had spread west of Osprey to form Dumfries and south of Osprey to form Aberdour, later called Hallhoro. Settlements in Glendale extended to the south and a district known as Gordon was formed.

Most of the settlers of the county came originally from Ontario and were of British ancestry, but in 1885 a group of settlers from southeastern Europe started a colony in Rosedale Municipality.

Count Paul O. d'Esterhazy, a Hungarian nobleman living in New York, was distressed by the misery of a large number of peasants from Austria-Hungary who had been induced to emigrate to the United States to work in various industries, especially coal-mining in Pennsylvania. His plans to settle these compatriots on American farms having failed, he visited Canada and conferred with officials of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Dominion Department of Agriculture. A plan was formulated to bring parties of these farm-trained workers to Manitoba. [21]

The first group of settlers under the leadership of Geza St. de Dory, an experienced Hungarian agriculturist, arrived in August 1885 and aided by the Dominion Government and the Manitoba and Northwestern Railway Company [22] settled in Rosedale Municipality north of Franklin. This was a rolling area covered mainly by poplar, hazel, and brush. Throughout the length of the township ran a deep valley, cut by Stony Creek. Since, in many ways, the district resembled their homeland in Europe, it was named "Hungarian Valley." Locally it was referred to as "Hun's Valley."

Mr. de Dory secured a homestead and in October 1886 he married Miss Frances Still, the daughter of a Springhill settler. He proved to be an ideal leader. Since he understood the colonists he was able to give them sound advice.

The settlers had plenty of water, hay, and grazing land, but a great deal of work was needed to clear the land. They found a ready sale for the poplar cordwood in Neepawa, sixteen miles distant. Since most of them had only oxen, it was a tedious trip. The sale price of the wood ranged from $1.75 to $2.50 per cord. As soon as the land was cleared, they planted vegetables and coarse grains and raised cattle, hogs, and poultry. Many of the younger members of the colony found employment with settlers in adjacent districts.

Although they had many hardships during their earlier years, they appeared to be contented. They were a thrifty, industrious people. [23]

There was a very large influx of settlers to Manitoba in 1879. An Ontario paper makes the following comment:

"The rush to Manitoba from Ontario has commenced in a measure that leaves great doubt as to what will be the showing of the next Ontario census. ... Both town and country appear to be alike affected; and within the next two months Manitoba and adjacent territories will receive an influx of sturdy settlers that must have a marked effect upon its future prosperity." [24]

The writer's father, George Lawrence Kellington, and her maternal grandfather, William Stevens, in company with several other settlers from Ontario, arrived by rail in St. Boniface on April 22, 1879. Their destination was the Neepawa district where their former neighbours, the Grahams, had settled in 1877.

Spring arrived early in Manitoba in 1879. By April 14 the Red River was clear of ice. [25] The settlers crossed from St. Boniface to Winnipeg by ferry, for a five cent fare, and, registering at an hotel, spent several days in the busy city.

They bought a camp stove, long handled frying pan, and nails, from Ashdown's, and a John Deere Prairie Queen breaking-plow from Wesbrook and Fairchild's. Supplies for their horses and some food for themselves completed their shopping. When all was ready, the party of eight men with four horse-drawn wagons set off along the Great Highway to the west.

An item in the Winnipeg paper of April 17 reads: "Fifteen teams stuck in the mud between this city and Sturgeon Creek." [26] Wet weather and constant travel since that date had resulted in deplorable roads. Ponds and sloughs were numerous along the trail and the alkaline mud road was veined with deep ruts. The horses found the first twenty miles very strenuous pulling.

At noon of the second day, after a particularly wet and boggy stretch, they met an east-bound cart and George Kellington asked the driver, "Is the road ahead all as wet as this?"

"Young man," replied the stranger, "water on the trail ahead will average anywhere from your ankles to your navel."

The water, wild hay, and lack of shelter at night, soon began to affect the eastern-bred horses. When they reached Poplar Point the travellers camped for two days and Wm. Stevens traded his team with a half-breed settler for three oxen, two carts, and a note for the balance. This was later redeemed by the payment of an Indian pony.

There was a lusty stir of life in the land and they met many travellers along the muddy trail. Most of these were young men with carts. Many were pushing westward; some, already discouraged, were returning east and were eager to sell their outfits. Those with a definite goal in view pushed eagerly forward, while others jogged along more leisurely, interested in anything they saw or heard that might help them to select land. The special trains of Red River carts were a great interest. Mr. John Grover of Birnie described a train of these he saw being loaded for a western trip in 1878:

"This train of carts was in charge of Ambrose Lepine, a big, burly, French Metis, who had been one of Louis Riel's chief lieutenants in the fracas of 1870. There were about fifteen carts, 800 lbs. being a load, and were hauled by an ox or Indian pony, and as many more loose animals were taken along to replace the ones hitched up, when tired, all in charge of three or four men on horse-back.... These carts were built entirely of wood ... and as they were never greased you could hear them long before you could see them.... The freight rate for these trains was one cent per mile per hundred pounds so that a sack of flour selling in Winnipeg then at $2.00 would cost $3.00 at Gladstone." [27]

Mr. Joseph H. Hamilton, of Neepawa, tells of seeing a train of carts from Edmonton unloading in Winnipeg in 1877, about three hundred yards west of the present city hall. "They unloaded their carts right there on the prairie and piled the buffalo hides one on top of the other until they looked like small hay stacks." [28]

On leaving Portage La Prairie, the Stevens party took the North Trail. They reached Westbourne (First Crossing) and crossed in safety, even though the White Mud River was practically in flood.

At Woodside (Second Crossing) they camped for two days and here they met fellow-travellers named Rutledge. Crossing the river here appeared to be a hazardous undertaking, for water covered much of the approach to the crude bridge. George and Bob Little, settlers of the district, offered to take Mrs. Rutledge and her child across. Their oxen were used to the trail and this was soon accomplished, but when Mr. Rutledge and his brother-in-law started across with a load of supplies, the oxen got off the trail and all were swept away by the strong current of the rain-swollen river. It seemed as if all would be lost. Mr. Rutledge, however, managed to reach the opposite shore and his brother-in-law was miraculously caught in a clump of willows and rescued. In the meantime the oxen, swimming strongly, reached the river bank with only the front wheels of the wagon.

At this season of the year when streams overflowed into ponds and slough there were fish in abundance, sometimes in water so shallow they could be speared with pitchforks.

After the travellers passed Gladstone the level country gave way to rolling land dotted by groves or "bluffs," and soon they reached the Arden Ridge.

"This portion of the trail was a good dry road throughout the year.... Because of this character of the road and the beauty of the smooth beach, which is prairie, without tree or bush, but is bordered on each side by groves, this avenue-like tract received its widely known name, The Beautiful Plains." [29]

This name was later chosen to designate the whole county.

They camped here at the farm of Adam McKenzie. He had several men working for him and they had many tales to tell of the large-scale enterprises of their young "boss" who sowed a hundred acres a day with an ingenious device known as a "Gatling Gun."

A Neepawa newspaper of the late 1800s states that Mr. McKenzie owned approximately 5,000 acres. He rented much of the land but that year had seeded 1,000 acres of wheat, 600 acres of barley and had 1,200 acres of hay to cut.

On one occasion he sent a hired man to bring in two portable granaries. When the mule teams failed to budge the first one the man investigated. He discovered that both were filled with wheat, forgotten in the abundance of harvest.

The next day the Stevens party resumed their journey. The trail soon crossed Snake Creek. South of the trail William Millar of Newborough, Ontario, had settled in 1877 and his home combined stopping place, store and post-office. [30] On a neighbouring farm lived Maurice E. Boughton, a settler from Gloucester, England. Several years later, in 1884, the village of Arden had its beginning when Mr. Boughton opened a general store. For over sixty years he acted as clerk of Lansdowne Municipality and worked tirelessly and unselfishly for the good of the settlement.

Wm. Stevens and George Kellington were now nearing their destination and were delighted with the appearance of the country. To the northwest rose the heavily wooded Riding Mountain. About five miles beyond Millar's they left the North Trail and turning south soon came to the Graham homesteads.

They spent a few days with these old friends and walked about the district looking for land and then chose adjoining farms three miles southeast of Neepawa. Boggy Creek, a tributary of the White Mud River, crossed the northeast quarter and there were excellent hay meadows on the adjacent section to the north.

On May 15 they once more set out along the North Trail and walked to Tanner's Crossing, or North-West Crossing (Minnedosa). About a mile down the stream stood the land office where they made entry for their homesteads.

They put up a tent on the line between their homesteads, began their breaking, and made preparations for building the Stevens house. The logs cost sixty dollars.

During the summer electric storms were frequent. Several pioneers, in their reminiscences, mention this fact. Marcus Chisolm, a Glendale settler of 1879, says, "Nearly every night there was rain and a thunder storm and their intensity is never surpassed nowadays." [31]

In August William Stevens returned to Ontario for his wife and family of five, and in late September George Kellington and several Graham brothers took wagons, carts, and oxen, and travelled to Winnipeg to meet them.

This time there were more food supplies to buy, 10 lbs. of tea at 40 cents per lb., a 5 gal. keg of syrup for $4, flour $2 per cwt., coal oil at 50 cents per gal., granulated sugar 7 lbs. per dollar, and butter at 25 cents per lb.

When these supplies, their settlers' effects, and hay for the oxen were packed, the Stevens party with its train of three wagons and two Red River carts set out for the new home. Several other families joined the group.

It was ideal autumn weather, warm and sunny. The trail was dry, hard packed, and shiny, from the incessantly rolling wheels of hundreds of carts and wagons. Even though the loads were heavy they made fifteen miles the first day.

Since they usually wakened at sunrise they made camp early. Meals consisted mainly of salt pork, fried over the camp-fire in long handled pans, potatoes, bread, and strong black tea brewed in a pail. The oxen were unyoked and fed. They were allowed to pasture as they wished for they were too tired to wander. When the fire died down and stillness settled over the camp, coyotes circled about, howling dismally. One old man in the party was very nervous. He made his bed in a wagon box and laid harrows over the top for protection.

The women in the party rode or walked as they wished. Several wore linen dust coats. Their stout boots soon became scoured by the prairie grasses. The acrid odor of burning grass and the fragrance of ripened hops added a tang to the autumn air. It was the first time they had seen high-bush cranberries, their umbrella-like branches weighted with clusters of glistening fruit. Passing Indian squaws munched handfuls of these berries as they trudged stolidly along the trail.

Before the party reached Poplar Point, the weather changed and a heavy rain during the night flooded their tents. It was showery all the next day and when evening came the women were invited to sleep in a farm house beside the trail. There was only one large room, but no one minded the crowding. The four family dogs crept in also. Beds were made on the floor and as soon as the householders were asleep the two largest dogs jumped on the bed and settled themselves for the night.

The rain continued, and after two days stop in Portage La Prairie the bedraggled travellers made a fresh start. They decided, however, to leave the North Trail and proceed by the Pine Creek Trail. This ran from Burnside to Palestine, crossing the several small creeks emptying into Westbourne Marsh. It proved to be a happy choice. The rain ceased and in warm and sunny weather they arrived at their new home. The journey from Ontario to the homesteads had taken almost three weeks.

When the Stevens family arrived at their homestead they found, to their surprise, that their home was almost completed. During Mr. Stevens' absence George Kellington and neighbouring homesteaders had raised the 16 x 24 foot structure in one day. Such raising bees were common throughout all pioneer settlements. Although it was strenuous work, it was a splendid opportunity for neighbours to become acquainted.

The logs, trimmed with a broad-axe, were hoisted into position and the four corner-men had the important task of dove-tailing the corners. The roof was thatch over poles. Some settlers used sod for roofing but this roof was made of thatch-grass, a hard stemmed grass that grew in abundance on the edge of the ponds. The grass was cut, bound like sheaves, and put on like shingles. It was unrolled as they worked and plastered with mud. The succeeding tier covered the mud. This was a most satisfactory type of roof. Mr. Robert Milne, former M.P. for Neepawa and member of a well-known pioneer family of Lansdowne, tells that a similar thatched roof on their house lasted fourteen years, until finally pounded and broken by an exceptionally severe hail storm in 1893. [32]

The furniture in the Stevens home, as in most pioneer houses, was mainly home-made. Shelves were made by boring holes in the logs and fitting these with wooden pins to hold the shelf-boards. On these shelves they arranged their most cherished possessions, a mahogany-framed easel mirror and several pieces of heirloom china, brought from Cornwall, England, to their first home in Ontario.

Busy days followed, for much had to be done before the arrival of winter. The oxen, cow, calf, and poultry, would soon need shelter, so a stable was cut in the side of a small hill. Upright poles kept the earthen wall from caving and the roof of hay was kept in place by poles. Poultry was greatly prized. A Franklin pioneer tells of her delight on receiving one hen for a wedding present. "She lived for eight years and helped fill the egg crate." [33]

The cattle were allowed to graze as they wished. Since pasture was so plentiful they seldom bothered the crops. Fields were enclosed by split rail fences, three rails in height, until barbed wire was available. By 1885 or 1886 it was in common use and cost 10 cents a pound. If the cattle strayed, however, it was a great hardship to hunt for them. "Mosquitoes rose in clouds from the pea-vines and there was always the dread of meeting an Indian or a bear." [34]

Several things had to be done to finish the Stevens house. Windows had to be fitted, two for each storey. The walls had to be chinked and plastered. As a rule, mud was used for this. William Stevens, however, having had some experience with kilns, decided to make use of the limestones he had seen on the farm. He built a crude kiln in a steep bank and prepared the stone. The first firing yielded 200 bushels, a second one 150 bushels. This lime, mixed with sand, made a serviceable plaster. The surplus lime sold at 50 cents per bushel.

There was enough firewood near at hand for immediate use, but most of the wood was drawn after there was sufficient snow for good sleighing. Settlers in Neepawa town or Rosedale Municipality got their wood supply from the Riding Mountain. Those living south of Neepawa got theirs from "The Big Bush" in the Sand Hills east of Hallboro. Much of this was government land, although some areas were known to be privately owned by Lord Strathcona, Adam McKenzie, and others.

The winter of 1879 proved to be one of the coldest on record. On Christmas Eve the thermometer registered 500 below zero in Winnipeg. [35]

The Stevens family, however, were very comfortable in their log cabin. George Kellington lived with them. Like other pioneer families they had more leisure during winter than in any other season of the year. The Western Advertiser (Toronto), The Family Herald and Weekly Star, The Listowel Banner, and sometimes a copy of the Manitoba Daily Free Press, furnished reading material when chores were done. Novels were passed from neighbour to neighbour, and games of Pedro and Euchre were very popular.

Blizzards were a winter hazard much dreaded by any homesteader who found it necessary to go far from home. Several settlers of Beautiful Plains County had cause to remember the blizzard that struck with fury on the 4th of March, 1882.

In the afternoon of that eventful Saturday, George Kellington, returning from Palestine, had reached Snake Creek Settlement, west of Arden. Snow, falling heavily since early morning, now completely obliterated the trail. The keening, northwest wind, gradually increasing in strength, whirled the snow with such blinding force that the stolid oxen needed to be urged along. He halted the weary animals and turned for a momentary respite from the stinging snow particles. As he turned again to the trail ahead, he saw another traveller approaching. It was Adam McKenzie, on his way to his Arden farm from his new home beyond Oberon. They discussed the storm and decided it would be wise to take shelter at Millar's Stopping Place. Although it was only two miles distant, they were very happy to reach the crossing at Snake Creek and come to the Millar buildings. Here they waited for several days until the storm finally subsided and it was safe to continue the journey.

Just over the southern border of Beautiful Plains County lived Andrew Dodds. His son James had gone south to the "Great Spruce Bush" between Carberry and Douglas to get a load of building logs. He started home but was overtaken by the blizzard. He was soon completely lost. When the oxen kept turning from the fury of the icy gale he left them and struggled on himself. Eventually he came to a train stalled on 'the C.P.R. line by the huge drifts. The crew men saw the exhausted man and he was cared for in the warm caboose.

After the storm was spent and people began to move about once more the oxen were found, frozen to death. [36]

Another picture of pioneer life, in winter, is given in an excerpt from a letter written by a famous correspondent, Henry Norman, to his journal, Pall Mall Gazette, London, England. He says:

"We left the train at Neepawa for hunting in the Sandhills to the southeast. It was sparsely settled.... We took refuge at night in the shanty of a homesteader, James W. Drysdale (near the present Oakdale School). The husband, wife, and baby, made a jolly family. By the side of the stove, on firewood, was a quarter of an ox, frozen, but thawing at the edges. They cut off chunks to fry. This, with tea, bread, and berries, made a capital meal. We slept on the floor in our buffalo robes and were wakened in the morning by the sound of the young homesteader chopping the ice on the water barrel." [37]

During the first winter on the homestead the Stevens family looked eagerly ahead. The short days of winter gradually gave way to the longer days of spring. The sun's rays increased in strength and by the middle of April the level land lay bare. In the shelter of the "bluffs" and in the hollows, the wasting snow resembled banks of coral. Soon the showers of May and June softened the prairie sod and breaking was begun.

The variety and profusion of wild fruits amazed and pleased the settlers since they gave variety to a restricted diet. "Strawberries were so plentiful their juice stained the wheels of the carts and wagons crossing from South to North Trail." [38]

Neither was there any shortage of game. There were ducks on the many ponds in spring, and prairie chickens clustered thickly around grain stacks, even settling on the roofs of farm buildings. Clouds of pigeons drifted down upon the grain fields. In the Riding Mountain and the Sand Hills there was large game in abundance.

A hunting party of four circled the county and in three weeks their bag of large game consisted of an elk and two bears from Riding Mountain, four jumpers from the north meadows of Lansdowne, and two elk and two jumpers from the "Big Bush" in the Sand Hills. [39]

Another newspaper item tells of an Indian selling choice venison in Neepawa town at four cents per pound. [40]

Although the newcomers were very busy they took time to enjoy the loveliness of their surroundings. In later days they frequently spoke of the matchless colours of the prairie flowers, the fragrance of the blossoms and the prairie grasses, and the beauty of the mountain with its varied greens in summer and brilliant hues in autumn.

The impression made on a traveller through the land is shown in a poem pencilled in a camp south of Neepawa, July 5, 1880. It bears only the initials of the writer, C.H.M. [41]

The Big Plains

How grandly beautiful the scene,
Which here delights the gladdened view.
How charming in this garb of green
Thus sparkling in the morning dew.

The rising sun his golden beams
Across the plain obliquely sends,
The little lake like crystal gleams,
The willow with the zephyr bends.

Around my path the blooming rose
With balmy fragrance fills the air;
The lily here in glory grows,
Mid rarer blossoms quite as fair.

High overhead the plover wings,
The wily bittern soars away,
The yellow warbler blithely sings,
While saucy gophers stand at bay.

The mother wild duck feeding near,
Her duckling rears among the sedge,
Nor for our presence has a fear.
Though standing by the water's edge.

The bison here once had a home,
These pastures formed each rich repast.
Though leagues to westward now they roam
Here still are traces of the past.

Grooved in the sward down yonder dale,
Their ancient pathway we can trace,
Where bones bleached white by sun and gale
Like Cenotaphs still mark the place.

How clear, how pure those azure skies,
Yon distant "bluffs" how near they seem.
A thoughtful look the fancy flies,
And lo! these wastes with thousands teem.

How blest must be the peasant's lot
Who far removed from care
In future years shall rear his cot
Mid scenes so wondrous fair.

For him the virgin soil shall glow
With fields of golden grain,
And pastures that no limit know,
His lowing herds maintain. [42]

One of the vital needs of a new community is a railway. The settlers of Beautiful Plains County were, therefore, justifiably excited when, in 1880, a trial survey for the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway, west of Portage, was made through township thirteen across Boggy and Spring Creeks. Near the latter stream, in Glendale, about seven miles southwest of the present town of Neepawa, two new settlers, John A. Davidson and Jonathan J. Hamilton, built a store. These young men had formerly operated a general store in the older settlement of Gladstone. It was evident to them that Beautiful Plains County had a promising future. They hoped that their store would be the nucleus of a town that would serve the growing community. This hope was not realized. In 1881 the line was constructed further south and reached DeWinton (Carberry) late that summer. [43]

During the same year, however, negotiations were begun for the construction of a line from Portage La Prairie to Prince Albert. It was believed, that in general, it would follow the route of the North Trail. John Davidson and Jonathan Hamilton decided to transfer their store to the site of the new line. They purchased the homestead of Andrew Baker, and had it surveyed into town lots.

This was a happy choice. Here, on the western slope of the deep valley in which Boggy and Stony Creek join to form the White Mud River, they erected a log store. In the valley they built a grist mill. Jonathan Hamilton operated the grist mill and John Davidson had charge of the store. The little log building became the chief meeting place for the people of the community and by the end of 1882 a flourishing village had grown up around it. James A. Clare from L'Original, Ontario, with a partner Brownell, and Bethel R. Hamilton, son of an Osprey settler, each established a store. There were two churches, a school, log hotel, blacksmith shop, implement shop, post-office, and a number of homes. Marmaduke Fieldhouse acted as notary. Moses McFadden, D.L.S., built the first frame house in the village and surveyed much of the land in the district. His son John began a medical practice and was thus the pioneer doctor for the county.

The village was given the Indian name Neepawa, meaning plenty or abundance. There are conflicting reports as to who chose the appropriate name, but when in 1883, the Manitoba and North Western Railway became a reality and proved a great boon to the entire County of Beautiful Plains, the promise of that name was abundantly fulfilled.


1 (Public Archives of Manitoba) Special Census Report, 1870.

2 Arthur S. Morton and Chester Martin, History of Prairie Settlement and "Dominion Lands" Policy, Vol. II Canadian Frontiers of Settlement Series, Toronto, 1938, pp. 48-50.

3 Dominion Lands Act, Sec. 33, Homesteads, Statutes of Canada, 35 Vict. Cap. 23.

4 R. W. Murchie and H. C. Grant, Unused Lands of Manitoba, Winnipeg; King's Printer, 1926, p.48.

5 Winnipeg Free Press, Feb. 12, 1938.

6 Report of the Department of Agriculture, and Statistics of the Province of Manitoba for the year 1882 (Winnipeg: Queen’s Printer, 1883) frontispiece map.

7 James Daugherty, Daniel Boone (New York, 1939) pp. 95.

8 Statements by Adam McKenzie, Jr., personal interview.

9 Personal letter from Joseph Orton, eldest son of Stephen Orton, R.R., No. 2, Neepawa, December 12, 1950.

10 Statements by Mrs. J. A. Wakefield, daughter of Peter St. Clair McGregor, Winnipeg, personal interview.

11 Place Names of Manitoba (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1933) p.56.

12 Personal letter from Frank Sewell, Mimico, Ontario, son of Albert C. Sewell, July, 1950.

13 William Connell, "Reminiscences of Old Timers," The Neepawa Press, June 27, 1933.

14 Personal letter from Mrs. Chas. Nicholson (Ella Kerr, daughter of George Kerr), Neepawa, April 20, 1950.

15 Morton and Martin, op.cit., p.58.

16 William Pockett, "Reminiscences of Old Timers," The Neepawa Press, May 21, 1933.

17 Alexander Graham, "Reminiscences of Old Timers," The Neepawa Press, June 27, 1933.

18 Personal letter from Mrs. Robert Scott (Anna May Honeyman, daughter of H. Honeyman), Eden, Feb. 23, 1950.

19 Personal letter from Miss Annie Grover, Birnie, April 11, 1950.

20 Report of the Department of Agriculture, and Statistics of the Province of Manitoba for year ending 1883, (Winnipeg: Queen's Printer, 1884) p.431.

21 Andrew A. Marchbin, "The Origin of Migration From South-Eastern Europe to Canada," Report of the Annual Meeting of The Canadian Historical Association Held at McGill University, Montreal, May 20-22, with Historical Papers (Toronto, 1935) pp.112-114.

22 55 Vict., Dominion Sessional Papers, No. 7, An. 1892, p.201.

23 Personal letter from Mr. Spara Ward, Neepawa, August 6, 1950. Mr. Ward and his father farmed for many years on land adjacent to Hun’s Valley.

24 The Galt Reporter, as quoted by Manitoba Daily Free Press, April 3, 1879.

25 Manitoba Daily Free Press, April 14, 1879.

26 Ibid., April 17, 1879.

27 John Grover, "An Englishman Who Stayed," The Grain Growers' Guide, Aug 1, 1926, p.20.

28 Joseph H. Hamilton, "Reminiscences of Old Timers," The Neepawa Press, June 20, 1933.

29 Warren Upham, "Report of Exploration of The Glacial Lake Aggasiz in Manitoba," Annual Report of the Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada, Vol. IV, 1888-89 (Montreal, 1890) p.70E.

30 Personal letter from Mrs. G. McGorman, granddaughter of Wm. Millar, R.R. No. 2, Neepawa, Dec. 17, 1950.

31 Marcus Chisolm, "Reminiscences of Old Timers," The Neepawa Press, March 14, 1933.

32 Personal letter from Mrs. Robert Milne, B.S.A, Keyes, Dec. 24, 1950.

33 Mrs. Joe Burton, "Reminiscences of Old Timers," The Neepawa Press, July 11, 1933.

34 Ibid.

35 Manitoba Daily Free Press, Dec. 26, 1879.

36 Statements by Mr. T. Robertson, Winnipeg, nephew of James Dodds, personal interview.

37 Henry Norman, The Pall Mall Gazette, London, England, 1887, as quoted by Neepawa Register, March 19, 1888.

38 George Kerr, "Reminiscences of Old Timers," The Neepawa Press, July 7, 1933.

39 Neepawa Register, December 11, 1891.

40 Ibid., Nov. 7, 1886.

41 Ibid., June 29, 1888.

42 Mr. L. J. Johnston, Manitoba Provincial Librarian, believes this may have been Charles Mair.

43 Statement by C.P.R. Public Relations Office, personal interview.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Tanner's Crossing (Minnedosa)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Woodside / Second Crossing Monument (RM of Westbourne)

Page revised: 18 August 2011

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