Charles Wesley Speers: Dynamic Colonizer of Western Canada
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 28, 1971-72 Season
History to most people and especially to children can be a somewhat dry subject. Most tend to think of history as it is written in school books, merely as statistics. But, to me, it is the story of our past made colourful and exciting by the people who lived, loved, fought and died. They made yesterday’s history. We are making what will be tomorrow’s history, and life is never dull to those who dare live it to the full. Tonight I am going to speak about Charles Wesley Speers, the colonization agent for Western Canada, who came from Eastern Canada to settle at Griswold, Manitoba, in 1884. There he purchased land at $3.00 per acre. Although I never met this colourful and most interesting individual myself, I would like to relate to you some of my husband’s recollections of C. W. Speers.
My first and only meeting with any member of the Speers’ family came about in 1931. At that time I was employed on the Speers’ Farm at Speers, Saskatchewan.
I went out in the yard where I noticed two well dressed ladies helping an elderly woman out of a car. I walked up to them and introduced myself; the elderly lady was dressed in black and looked quite tired. She looked at me with very piercing eyes and said, "you are very young to be taking such a job on your shoulders." She then informed me that she was the widow of the late Charles Wesley Speers and said that she wished to see once more the farm and country her husband loved while she was yet able to travel. The ladies with Mrs. Speers introduced themselves as Mrs. Hopkins and Mrs. Vesey.
I later asked my husband, Mr. Henry Heber, about these people and he proceeded to enlarge on the story I am about to relate.
In 1916, Mr. Heber left Winnipeg and headed west. He heard that there were great opportunities in farming there. When he got as far as Brandon someone told him that a Mr. Speers was looking for a man. Henry went to see the gentleman, who asked about his farming experience and told Henry that he had a farm out West in Saskatchewan and needed a manager. This man was Charles Wesley Speers, General Colonization Agent for the Dominion of Canada. Henry told Speers of his family farm background in southern Russia. His grandfather moved there from the German province of Saxony in the early nineteenth century. By Henry’s time they were already well-to-do grain and livestock farmers.
After Henry came to Winnipeg in 1913, he worked as a farmhand for the Gunn sisters in Transcona. Later, he did similar work at Sperling, Manitoba, for a large grain farmer named William Dedemore. He also worked as a manager on the farm of Captain Cairns of Springfield. The farm experience which Henry had was good enough for Mr. Speers. Henry took the job and headed west.
It was the middle of winter. He said he had never been so lonesome and disappointed in his whole life. The temperature went as low as 40 and 50 below zero. He had only horses and cattle for company except for the occasions when he went into town. Even there he knew no one in the beginning. Mr. Speers came out a month later to see how he was doing and Henry told him he was leaving. Mr. Speers then proceeded to turn his charm on and said "Henry, you are the best manager I have ever had and I need you. When spring comes you will feel differently". Mr. Speers took Henry to town, introduced him to the townspeople and on the way home told him how the town got its name.
"At that time", said Mr. Speers, "no one knew where the railway would be coming through, but I had a fair idea, so I staked out the town site. The farmers I knew wined and dined me and towards evening we went to declare the town site open. It was already dark by the time all the farmers had gathered and I was slightly inebriated and lay on some hay in the bottom of the wagon box. Everybody shouted "where is Mr. Speers?" Phillip, the man who was with me and helped stake out the town site said, "Mr. Speers, what will I do, I can’t speak". I said to him, "don’t let them know I’m here, just say what I tell you to say", so a very eloquent speech was given by relay and suddenly Phillip looked down and asked, "Mr. Speers, what will I say now". Unfortunately, by this time, I was fast asleep. Phillip, in desperation, ended his speech by saying, "this town will from this day be known as Speers." All the people clapped, were happy and went home."
Mr. Speers would visit his farm in Saskatchewan about every two or three months and would stay about a week unless he was called away. On these visits he would relate to Henry Heber the incidents and problems he had encountered through the years when he was settling the different groups of immigrants. The Doukhobors were easy to settle as they came from farmlands in Russia and knew farming, were used to hard times and adapted easily.
On one occasion Mr. Speers went to meet a group of Doukhobors at the end of the rail-line in Saskatoon. Everyone stayed in Saskatoon until all supplies and farm implements were loaded. Early the next morning they were going to move to the site of the new colony along the Saskatchewan River, but the man heading the group came to Mr. Speers and told him that one young woman refused to go. He at once went to talk to this woman through his interpreter, Phillip, but all she would say was "Nyet". He then coaxed her into the hotel and told the manager to give her whiskey which he did. Mr. Speers said to her, "dobre", she said "dobre", as she downed one drink after another. When he thought she had enough, he instructed two men to place her on one of the wagons and proceed. This young woman was soon asleep, and next morning when Mr. Speers saw her, she was busy kneading bread dough and singing as she worked.
Before these settlers were brought in there were only a few homesteaders between Saskatoon and Battleford. When Mr. Speers travelled this route in winter by horse and sleigh he used to stop at different farmsteads. The first stop was at the homestead of an old-timer named Coburn, who lived near Borden. Every traveller was welcomed at his home. Another stopping place was at Mr. Richards’ near the present town of Richards, which was named after him. Speers would change horses at each stopping place and on the return trip, bring the horses back to their owners.
One cold winter evening, as he was travelling along in the fresh snow, he hit upon a mound of snow and immediately heard cries of distress. They were human cries. Mr. Speers found that his horses were breaking through the roof of a pioneer’s shack. The snow had covered it and the shack was not visible in the dark. The horses had gotten off the main trail. Consequently, Mr. Speers met another family and had a new stopping place, where he stayed to help repair the damage.
Once, when in Toronto, Mr. Speers was talking to Mr. Timothy Eaton outside his store, when a young girl very prettily but scantily dressed walked by. Mr. Eaton stopped the girl and asked "Who are you working for?" She replied "For Mr. T. Eaton." He said: "Young lady, tomorrow you come to my office and I shall give you a raise so that you can dress warmly enough and won’t go about shivering." Mr. Eaton turned to Mr. Speers and said, "I have many employees now. I don’t like to see any of them going about dressed like that. I don’t know what the world is coming to."
On January 15, 1972, 1 wrote to Mrs. Melinda Harcourt, his eldest daughter, and to Mrs. Parke Veazy, his youngest daughter. I received a reply from Mrs. Harcourt, plus a book called "These are the Prairies", written by friends of Mr. Speers, Zachary Macaulay Hamilton and Marie Albina Hamilton. I shall read some quotes from this book as I go along: "During the first two years of the century, there had been some immigration to what was even then known as the Saskatchewan country-a thin trickle at first, but steadily gathering volume-flowing into the Northwest. It was directed chiefly towards the "park" district of the North where there was wood, water and shelter. Such places as Yorkton, Swan River, Rosthern and Duck Lake were receiving most of the new arrivals, and some colonization was being done by American companies in the fertile southern prairie region served by the "Soo" Line constructed a few years previously, which entered the Northwest Territories at the southeast corner and found its Canadian terminus at Moose Jaw.
"But the great wilderness between the Qu’Appelle and the South Saskatchewan continued to be shunned by "man and beast". Indeed the immigration officials arranged with the Railway Company that settlers going into the northern wooded region should be carried through this ill-omened country during the night, so that they might not be intimidated by its desolate appearance."
At that time the Dominion Colonization Agent was a man of remarkable character named C. W. Speers. He had been engaged in farming and stock raising in the vicinity of Brandon, and had also taken some prominent part in local politics. He was a man of strong personality and a convincing public speaker. He had an abiding faith in the destiny of the West and was able to inject others with his enthusiasm. Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior, always a good judge of men, had selected him to take charge of western colonization work.
"The wilderness that lay untenanted beyond the Qu’Appelle had long been an eyesore to Mr. Speers. In the early summer of 1901 he made a personal inspection of the region, and came to the conclusion that some areas within its boundaries could be colonized successfully. He suggested to the Minister that a sum be provided in the departmental estimates for some agricultural experimental work in the district. But Mr. Sifton turned an exceedingly deaf ear to his recommendations. Speers’ chance came the following year.
"Early in 1902 Mr. Sifton sent for him, and in the familiar colloquialism of the West said: "Look here, Wes! We are in some trouble about the country you have been bothering us about. A goodly portion of it consists of the land grant earned by the Company that built the Railway from Regina to Prince Albert. Their charter calls for good agricultural land, and they claim there is scarcely an acre which answers to that description. They are suing the Dominion Government, and if a great area like this is declared unfit for settlement by a decision of the Courts, it will be a black eye to our immigration campaign. You are the only friend the confounded district has; suppose you go down to the States, where the people are land hungry, and see if you can swing a colonization deal. The Government will stand behind you; but don’t get us into any jackpot."
"Mr. Speers packed his grip and took the train to St. Paul, then the headquarters of the American land movement to the Canadian North West.
"At Minneapolis he made contact with Amos Warner, a wealthy business man who had been engaged in some colonization enterprises in the States. Speers was a persuasive talker, and soon interested him. Warner got together a coterie of Minneapolis capitalists, and arranged a meeting at his house to be addressed by Mr. Speers, who turned up full of enthusiasm.
"But the bad reputation of the ill-starred region had spread even beyond the boundaries of Canada, and the eloquence of Speers was quite wasted. They would have none of it. The land in question, they said, was a desert with which the Sahara might compare favorably, and they even warned Mr. Warner that if he listened long enough to the arguments of the Canadian official, it might have disastrous effects upon his fortunes and well-being. Then taking their hats and overcoats, they departed from the conference, which they implied they had attended only out of courtesy to their host.
"Speers was sadly discouraged. He thanked Mr. Warner for his efforts and departed for St. Paul, intending to take the train to Winnipeg. When he reached the station he discovered he had lost his transportation and, being of a thrifty spirit, had scruples about buying another ticket. He decided to remain over one more day in the hope of finding it. Accordingly, he returned to the hotel and, tired out, sought repose.
"The next day was Sunday. He had a good night’s rest and awoke refreshed and encouraged. He determined to make another attempt, and after breakfast, again sought Mr. Warner at his home. He found him alone, his family having gone to Church. He secured his undivided attention and advanced every argument he could muster in favor of the much-maligned territory.
"At length Mr. Warner said: "Well, Speers, you are persuading me in spite of myself. I could do nothing for you yesterday. Those fellows had made up their minds before they came. You saw how it was, but a man experienced in land matters is coming on Tuesday. If you can convince him, I will go in on a deal and perhaps interest some others.
The man to whom Mr. Warner referred was Colonel Davidson, a native born Canadian, who had spent many years in business in the north western States. He lent an attentive and understanding ear to Mr. Speers, and accompanied him to Regina.
"The two men spent some time travelling through the district, and Colonel Davidson decided that it was suitable for colonization. He returned to the States and succeeded in interesting a number of capitalists in the project. It was thus the Saskatchewan Valley Land Company, one of the most successful colonization enterprises ever undertaken, came into being."
(Mr. Speers had once related to my husband the difficulties he had had in trying to interest Americans to settle in Canada. He said that final success had hinged on his once missing the train in Minneapolis.)
"Colonel Davidson had been in Ottawa to close the transaction. Committing monies to the project, monies which were not in sight, and he realized that this would take a tremendous amount of promotion. On reaching Chicago on his return trip Colonel Davidson went to the Union League Club. The waiter knew him and found him a table near the window."
"He had scarcely commenced his meal when he was joined by an acquaintance, a banker from Iowa. In the course of the conversation the banker said: "you have just come from Canada; do you know of any good land in the Saskatchewan country? Some of the people in my district are pretty keen about Canadian lands and they have plenty of money."
"Colonel Davidson’s interest was at once aroused. "Why! yes," he replied, "I am going up there next week. Will you come along as the guest of the Saskatchewan Valley Land Company?"
"His friend accepted the invitation and at the conclusion of the meal the two men went their separate ways to attend to the business that had brought them to the ’Windy City’.
"At dinner time the same evening the Colonel was approached by his friend, who introduced another banker and asked if he might be included in the Canadian expedition.
"A great light dawned on Colonel Davidson. Here was his advertising scheme ready to his hand. He explained: "Why, certainly; not only must your friend be our guest, but pass the word to all interested people - bankers, farmers with good bank accounts, business men. We will fix up a special train and all go on an excursion to the Saskatchewan Valley."
This special train cost the Saskatchewan Valley Land Company ten thousand dollars, but was well worth it as the company sold and settled an average of one million acres of land annually for the next four years.
"After the consummation of the Saskatchewan Valley Land Company deal, the influx of settlers to the prairie region of western Canada, of which Regina was the recognized metropolis, became one of the most remarkable land movements in the story of Canada. It was as if the flood gates had been suddenly opened, and the great human stream flowed over the face of the country."
"About this time, too, central Europeans began to arrive in great numbers. The railway yards at Regina were the scene of remarkable activity. Special immigration trains were arriving daily. Every siding was full of cars of live stock and settlers’ effects, while passenger trains were crowded to capacity. Galicians in wadded and embroidered sheepskin coats and knee boots, the women with kerchiefed heads, provided a note of strangeness to the scene. (Today the children of these immigrants wear tailored clothes and silk stockings.) Doukhobors, members of the strange sect that, fanatical in passive resistance to authority, had furnished a colourful page in Russian history for nearly a hundred years, were much in evidence, their robust and often comely women presenting in many cases a remarkable contrast to their attenuated and bewhiskered male companions.
"There was a perfect babel of tongues. One could hear the nasal drawl of the American "Down Easter", and the slow intonation of the Middle West mingle with the rough "burr" of the Lowland Scot, or the clearer open-vowelled enunciation of the English rural dweller. German, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Roumanian, Serbian and other European tongues all united in a confusing medley. The North West seemed to have opened its gates to strange and hitherto unfamiliar people.
"All were land hungry. Most of them were experienced tillers of the soil. Rich and arable acres, which only required a season’s cultivation to stir them into production, were theirs for the asking, and they were responding to the call of the land."
Numerous other problems were encountered as some of the settlers coming from the British Isles did not know anything about farming. On one of Speers’ visits to a couple out from England he had to explain to them that a rooster would not make a very good mother, and could not be used as a setting hen. These people had many questions. One woman asked Mr. Speers, if the harness used to pull a wagon could also be used to pull the plow. Before he could answer the husband said, "You silly thing, of course, you cannot use they same harness to pull the plow."
In 1901 the Barr Colonists became bogged down at Saskatoon owing to differences between Mr. Barr and his followers.
Mr. Speers was asked to take a hand in the matter.
"When Mr. Speers arrived on the scene, the "Colonists" had deposed Mr. Barr, and were looking to the Government officials for aid and advice. Speers set up a tent in their vicinity as Government headquarters, and certainly did much to divest the expedition of a good deal of its hardships. Those who had a fair supply of money were advised to purchase teams of horses, but most of them were instructed to acquire oxen which, although slower moving were much more tractable, and could forage most of their sustenance from the prairie grass. Mr. Speers himself supervised many of the necessary purchases and saw to it that the prices paid were fair and reasonable.
"Some of the immigrants had brought their most cherished household goods to the banks of the Saskatchewan. There were pianos - some even of the grand variety; cases of books; heavy articles of furniture such as great four-poster beds of the ugly Victorian period, massive mahogany dining-tables, and family portraits, often enclosed in heavy gilt frames. It was of course absurd to attempt to transport much of this baggage along the wilderness trail, and Mr. Speers had to use his utmost diplomacy to induce the owners to consent even to a temporary separation from their cumbersome possessions.
"At last a start was made and surely never stranger caravan wended its way across the prairie. There were brand new wagons, piled high with a strange miscellany of goods, drawn by horses or oxen, people in buggies and buckboards, on horseback and even on foot. The prairie resounded with the penetrating accents of London, or the broader inflections of Yorkshire, Lancashire or Cumberland. Neither frock coats nor swallow tails were to be seen along the trail, but I think almost every other garb worn in the British Isles was in evidence.
"The route followed the faintest of prairie trails. There were rivers to ford; leagues of interminable plains to be crossed; quaking "muskegs" to be negotiated. The travellers were scorched by the burning suns of summer; rained upon by torrential thunder showers, and assailed by swarms of mosquitoes that seemed to take special delight in fresh British blood.
"That they reached their destination without serious misadventure was almost a miracle. Mr. Speers had provided trail - wise men to assist them along the way. He had selected some experienced freighters and one or two halfbreeds who, to use his own expressive language, "could watch every horse in the outfit for sore shoulders; smell a muskeg a mile away; teach the new comers how to light a fire in a downpour, and make smudges against the assaults of the mosquitoes.
"One lovely summer morning that trail-worn company finally approached the end of the journey. Mr. Speers drove across the front of the procession and halted the foremost ranks. Those in the rear came up until most of them were gathered together. He stood up in his vehicle a tall and commanding figure, and pointing to the beautiful park-like country they were approaching, cried in a great resonant voice: "Behold the land; up and possess it." ...
"Speers had arranged to scatter among the new settlers some Canadians experienced in pioneer conditions who were of great assistance, and certain of the Metis natives of the district rendered invaluable aid. City dwellers from England watched the deft handling of axes by those accustomed to their use, and saw with wonder the perfect accuracy of every stroke that squared and mortised the rough logs as cleanly as if they had been prepared by machinery. Soon they were swinging axes themselves, somewhat awkwardly at first, but gaining proficiency with perseverance and experience." ...
"The success of the Lloydminster settlers has become a proverb in Western Canada. There is no better settlement in all the wide prairie country."
One young Englishman who thought he knew something of farming in England was hired as manager on the Speers’ farm in Saskatchewan. When Mr. Speers paid him a visit to see how he was doing, the young fellow told him that he had just been to town to send a wire to Speers’ son, Jack, as he had run out of wood. Mr. Speers’ comment was: "Yes, that really was a good idea, Jack will come out here, wave his arms over the snow like J. Christ and it will all turn into wood."
Whenever Mr. Speers went to visit the Doukhobors he was treated like a king.
One time as he was driving through the settlement he spotted a young girl about seventeen, dressed in gum boots and a big mackinaw, spreading manure on a field. He went up to her and asked if she would like to come and work for him in the city. Her father and Mr. Speers made a deal to bring the girl back in a year’s time. She went with him. When he arrived at his home in Brandon with the girl, Mrs. Speers cried. She said "Wes, what will I do with her", Mr. Speers said "Dress her in some women’s clothes and put her to work."
Mary was a strong girl, and a loyal worker. When Mr. and Mrs. Speers would go visiting, Mr. Speers, out of devilment, would instruct Mary to be sure and look after his daughters. The girls would have Gentlemen coming to see them; Mary then would put on a clean white apron and sit in the parlour. The girls would say, Mary you are excused, but Mary would just fold her arms and reply "I no excuse, I stay". Needless to say the girls would be furious with their father.
When the year was up, Mr. Speers took Mary home to her people dressed in the latest style, complete with a hat with a large feather. Mary had many proposals of marriage after that, but Mrs. Speers was quite unhappy over the loss of this young girl who had a heart of gold under that once rough exterior.
One day Mr. Speers was in Brandon and he received a phone call from his wife telling him that a young man who had worked for them at Griswold was jailed as a vagrant. Mr. Speers went down to the recruiting office to see the boy who stated that he was just travelling through Brandon on his way home, as his mother was ill and needed him on her farm. While he was waiting for the next train the military police picked him up and tried to make him join the army. When the young man refused to join, telling them he was needed at home, he was jailed.
Mr. Speers became quite angry and demanded the release of this young man, in 15 minutes. He shouted, "If you don’t release him, I’ll have your uniform". The man was released and went home on the next train.
Many a settler was helped out by Mr. Speers. Many times these poor people would run out of money and become stranded. If they got in touch with C. W. he would see to it that they got to their destination and had enough to get by on. Mr. Speers was known in every town that sprang up in the West. He was respected by most and envied by some.
On one of his travels he saw a woman sitting in a railway station with her children. He walked up to her, asked her where she was going. She replied, "I aim to join my husband on the homestead but I can’t go on as I have run out of money and the conductor put me off the train." This angered him. After placing the woman on the train with her children, he himself got on dressed in working clothes. An old cap pulled over his forehead, he sat down and talked quite loud in very broken English. When the conductor asked for his ticket: "I go west to homestead". The conductor became abusive and said, "You’re getting off at the next stop". Speers whipped out his identification and told the conductor, "If I ever hear of you throwing immigrants off the train you will be out of a job." This was talked around and the practice was stopped.
Most of the time when Speers came to his farm he would put on a pair of old overalls and gum boots laced with binder twine and help fix some of the machinery. He told Henry he loved to relax that way. In the afternoons they would hitch up a horse and go into town. If there were newcomers in town, they would ask, "Who is the tramp with Henry". He would be told "You better take a good look-that is Mr. Speers, a government man and a very wealthy one. He is no tramp." Mr. Speers loved to play practical jokes on people whenever the opportunity arose. He would dress the part, act the part and assume an accent, then chuckle if people were fooled.
This man would preach to small town congregations on a Sunday, perform marriage ceremonies and cure the sick. Mr. Speers spoke to Henry of a certain incident which occurred in 1897. A battle was raging between the Law and an Indian Chief by the name of Almighty Voice who had shot three Mounties.
Almighty Voice was hidden in a bluff about a mile in circumference, which was located near Duck Lake in the Minnechines Hills. The Chief, with the help of his two companions, was able to keep the Mounties at Bay with pot shots. In order to expedite matters and save lives, soldiers with cannons were sent out by rail. The cannons were hauled overland the rest of the way to the One Arrow Reserve where the battle was going on.
Almighty Voice refused to parley even though he saw the threat of the cannon.
The soldiers cannonaded the bluff for several days. In the meantime Mr. Speers was sent out from Ottawa to look into the situation. When he arrived there were few limbs left on the trees. He asked why they didn’t go into the bluff as it didn’t look to him as if anyone could still be alive. Finally, a group of soldiers were sent in and found all three men dead. Apparently Almighty Voice had been wounded in one leg at the beginning of the battle and had died from blood poisoning. Mr. Speers said that the man’s leg was badly infected, also that it could be seen where the bark had been chewed to get moisture. Almighty Voice, the son of Chiefs, had suffered terribly but kept on fighting against insurmountable odds. When his bullets were gone he had kept the soldiers at bay by firing pebbles.
The pony owned by this brave Indian Chief, was said to be the fleetest Pinto in the West. After the death of Almighty Voice this pony went to his brother-in-law.
Mr. Speers knew of the pony and being a great horse man tried to purchase it, but the man refused to part with it. However, years later Mr. Speers heard that the brother-in-law of Almighty Voice was ill and needed help. Mr. Speers went to the man, gave him help and got a doctor to him. In return Mr. Speers finally became the owner of this famous Indian pony and took it to his farm at Griswold. By this time the Pinto was getting old and was only used for the children to learn to ride.
In the winter of 1918-1919, Henry went cattle buying with Mr. Speers and when they had a carload Henry took them to Winnipeg. It was arranged that Henry meet Mr. Speers at the McLaren Hotel where he always stayed when in Winnipeg. Mr. Speers took Henry out and introduced him to many of his acquaintances. Speers had a talent for making the person with him feel important.
When I asked my husband to describe C. W. Speers he said that Mr. Speers was always well dressed on his arrival to the farm and liked to wear a thin bow tie which at that time was not available in Canada, but was purchased in the United States. He liked to chew tobacco and smoked a pipe. He was a big man said Henry, good company and very frugal.
"In the fall after threshing we would both sit down and figure out the accounts. He would work on the figures and I would work on my set. Then we would compare figures. If mine were 5 cents different from his we would have to labour over those books until they came out right. The sweat would be running down Mr. Speers’ forehead and his pince nez glasses would keep slipping down, so I offered to give him the nickel, but he said: ’No Henry, it is not the nickel but the principle of the thing, the books must balance.’ "
The last time that Mr. Speers came to the farm he told my husband that his "Ticker" was so bad he may keel over any time. When he left he said: "Well Henry, I’ll bring back one of those bow ties from the United States if I come again, but in case I don’t see you again, God bless you and get in touch with Archie (C. W. Speers’ brother) if something happens to me." About two or three days later Henry received a wire that he had died in his sleep at his daughter’s, Mrs. Hopkins, in Butte, Montana. Henry told me that the news of Charles Wesley Speers’ death was flashed across Canada by wire in minutes.
Bertha Hopkins told Henry that on the evening before his death her father had been busy writing a poem, she bent over him and tweeked his ear saying: "Are you still busy dad?" He finished the poem. It was dedicated to Mrs. H. C. Hopkins’ son, Henry Stuart Hopkins.
Page revised: 23 January 2014