Chapter 3 Homesteading - Gordon Murchison Memoirs



††††††† I outfitted myself with a good pack sack and walking boots along with a supply of dry groceries and a tea can and headed bravely south on the famous "pole trail" toward Wood Mountain. The first day out I fell in with a Texan named Hazelton, who had five green oxen and a wagon load of effects. He was headed for homestead location approximately fifty miles west of a place called LaFleche which at that time was only a post office in a shanty. Hazelton was having quite a time with his oxen and I suppose that on the basis of "mutual need" we decided to travel together. He had a fixed destination - I was just going somewhere in the south west. What a journey that turned out to be!


††††††† The weather was fine and sunny for the first three days and passed without important incident. We slept under the wagon and cooked our simple meals on fires built with "buffalo chips", gathered along the cattle trails. The third night we stopped at Johnson's Lake and slept at a wayside bunkhouse. Weather was turning cold and cloudy. Next morning we were traveling with another homesteader who was driving a string of six oxen. About mid afternoon we reached the big gully as it was known. A deep, wide chasm in the endless mildly rolling prairie. We had no trouble making the descent but the trail on the other side was still blocked with snow drifts and both outfits had to face a stiff scramble up a rocky slope to get out. Hazelton had one young ox that was just downright balky and for two days it had been led behind the wagon by the ring in its nose. In order to get up the steep slope, all the cattle were hitched to one wagon. The first one got up amidst a lot of yelling and whip cracking. The second was more difficult because this balky creature just hung back on his tow-line and made the pull just that much tougher. About half way up this balky steer pulled back so hard he tore the ring out of his nose and half mad with pain or glorying in his freedom, he just took off "a'bellerin'". However we got the wagon to the top and our friend and his six oxen went on his way and left Hazelton and I to round up this run-away steer of his. This we did on foot. Ran him round and round until Hazelton could drop a loop over his head. Then we had to prop him up the hill and get re-organized. Both of us tuckered right out, but we had the ox tethered to the wagon again.


††† About mid afternoon, April 7th, 1909, we were overtaken by about the worst snow blizzard I had ever seen. We were following the famous "pole trail" which was just two deep ruts in the prairie meandering along the single wire telephone line connecting the RCMP station at Wood Mountain with Moose Jaw. These ruts were filled with snow in no time and the traveling became really tough. Couldn't get the wagon out of the ruts and the oxen were playing out. Suddenly a corner of the wagon rack lodged behind a telephone pole and we were really stuck. The storm was howling around us, daylight was fading and we had no fuel for a fire. It was a case of necessity knowing no law, so Hazelton and I chopped down the telephone pole to release the wagon and more importantly to provide us with a fire. We rigged a tarpaulin on the weather side of the wagon and crept under the wagon to sit the gale out.


††††††† The steers were tied to the lee side and all of us spent a poor night. The situation wasn't improved any by the balky ox with his nose torn out and still bleeding. He got his head well under the wagon along with Hazelton and I crouched in our blankets and bled all over our stuff. But morning came at last - the storm abated as quickly as it started, the sun came out warm and after making us some breakfast we again set forth on our journey. I record this weird kind of an experience because I think it is fairly typical of the sort of thing the early homesteaders had to contend with. As for me, I was young, in good health and considered that the covered wagon days of the prairies in the western United States had nothing on us. Hazelton was quite a character, real Texan and had a rollicking good voice for western songs. We sang the Chisholm Trail and many others as we wended our way slowly, ever south, ever west.


††††††† In due course we reached Hazelton's homestead. The previous year he had built a sod shack. There were only holes for windows and space for a door. Here we camped for a couple of days. Hazelton had a new plow and hitching the oxen to it we plowed a fire=guard around his 160 acres. I then set off alone on foot armed only with some Township maps much further west, and a small pack sack of dry groceries, a couple of pairs of socks and 2 blankets. My objective was to locate some vacant land on which I might file a homestead entry. The good Lord knows there was plenty of vacant land - vacant of population or signs of settlement.


††††††† The second day I came upon a scene of black desolation. As far as I could see ahead of me there was nothing but blackened rolling prairie land resulting from a fairly recent prairie fire. The only signs of life were innumerable gophers on the hunt for something to eat. However, I kept going for another three days, sleeping on the bare prairie at night and consuming my meagre supply of food. The quality of the land for farming became less and less alluring to this adventurous young land seeker, and remembering the favorable description of the land against which I had filed a cancellation entry and subsequently filed on in Moose Jaw the previous fall, I decided to turn back and forget about the projects in south western Saskatchewan.


††††††† So, I retraced my steps back to Hazelton's claim. He was in the process of getting ready to return to Moose Jaw for some lumber and to bring his family out to the homestead. We set off the next morning with the oxen hitched to the running gear of the wagon. The oxen were well rested and seemed to relish the idea of getting away from such lonely surroundings. The only event worth recording about that long trek back to Moose Jaw was the fact that Hazelton and I were without grub the last two days.


†††††††† The oxen were in good shape and believe it or not when we rolled into Manitoba Street in Moose Jaw quite late at night one of the oxen leaped high in the air when it saw a shadow cast by the first electric street light. I said goodbye to Hazelton the next morning and started to look for a job of any kind that would mean food and lodging. I couldn't be choosy, but I was determined to keep away from the Canadian Pacific or any other kind of a rail road because by that time I was convinced that my destiny did not lie in the direction of helping to build or operate railroads.


††††††† However, this narrative will record that I had not seen the last of railroading. New experiences awaited me many years later in which railroading played quite a prominent part.


††††††† I spent the summer months of that year mostly as a semi-bum. Picked up brief jobs where I could find them in Regina, Brandon, Portage-la prairie and Saskatoon. I arrived at the latter place in August during the exhibition week and found a miserable job exercising race horses, and here began another chapter which marked a whole series of new adventures and doubtless had a profound influence on the whole course of my life from that time onward.


††††††† In my school days back near Wingham, Ontario, my particular pal was a chap named Bert Elliott. His people operated a big brickyard near Belmore. Bert's father had sold his interest in the business and moved the whole family to Saskatoon. Behold, then a chance meeting with friend Bert in the Saskatoon Exhibition grounds. He was well dressed and I was just a bum, but that didn't stop him from taking me in tow and hunting up his parents who were also on the grounds. I will never forget how his mother took me in her arms and his father's insistence that I come to stay with them. The Elliotts had bought a brickyard on the north side of Saskatoon and there I went to work at the hardest job I had ever had in my life.


††††††† This brick yard turned out about 30 thousand bricks a day and I was one of a 2-man crew that wheeled those bricks from the machine to the drying sheds. I had many a spill before I learned the knack of running one of those long spring-balanced barrows, but I stuck to it because it was a job and I was among friends. I had to accumulate to accumulate money to buy some decent clothes, and I do not conceal the fact that friend Bert and I indulged in considerable hell raising occasionally. These antics did nothing to increase my savings. At the same time I had gone so long living a miserable kind of exist- ence that posterity should not judge me harshly for indulging in some recklessness at that stage. Bert's saintly father who never smoked or took a drink was constantly warning us we would come to no good unless we mended our ways. So one day late in September, I decided to make inquiry about the status of my homestead entry. The land was located about 150 miles west of Saskatoon and a new line of railway was being rapidly pushed into that area.


†††††††† I found upon inquiry that there was a cancellation notice filed against my entry, which had only 2 more weeks to run.Here was a crisis. In order to protect my entry I had to commence residence within a month and here I was with nothing but good intentions. However, I filed my defence against the cancellation notice and undertook to go into occupation of the land. I learned that the first passenger train which would take me to a point within 5 miles of the homestead, would leave Saskatoon on October 3rd. So believe me I didn't waste any of my hard earned wages during the next two weeks and I was one of the passengers on that train. After paying for my ticket I had the large sum of twenty-five dollars with which to build a home on my land and start my homestead duties. Surely the good Lord was on my side in spite of my transgressions and wanderings.


†††††††† The jumping off spot was Kindersley, Sask., which at that time consisted of a box-car converted into a telegraph office and a few large tents in which the nucleus of mercantile business in Kindersley started up. One of them was a hardware store run by Bill Phillips, another was a lumber agency for the Beaver Lumber Company. What good guys they were!


††††††† I tackled Phillips first and bought me a hammer and a saw and twenty pounds of nails. The next stop the lumber yard. There I told my story. I had to have lumber to build a shack and I had to get said lumber to the homestead and I had to eat. Between us we figured on how much ship lap and two-by-fours I would need to put up a shell of shack 10' x 12'. It didn't come to very much and he agreed to let me have the lumber on credit. Thus, I was in business, but I still had to haul that lumber out to the homestead and build me a house that would meet the minimum requirements of the Land Office regulations. I looked around the little townsite and found another homesteader who had a bit of stable to live in and a team of husky looking oxen. He turned out to be a friend in need and rented me his wagon and oxen for a day for a one dollar bill. Loading my jag of lumber didnít take long and I headed north over the almost trackless prairie to find my homestead. I made it in about three hours and after locating the survey stakes which proved my location I just made sure I was on my own land and turned the oxen loose to graze and set to work to build my shack. Needs must when the devil drives. Here I was with a wonderfully good 160 acres of virgin land, some lumber and a lot of enthusiasm. But I didn't have anything in the way of a measure, no square, just a hammer and saw and some nails. I picked out a reasonably straight board which was alleged to be 12' long and 8" wide, and with this as a measure I started in to build. Up to this time I had never built anything but "castles-in-the-air", but when the sun was beginning to sink on the western horizon I had my frame work up and half sided in. I hadn't eaten all day and I had to get the oxen and wagon back to the man in Kindersley so I caught up the oxen and we trundled back over the prairie 5-1/2 miles to Kindersley. I dug up some food and bedded down for the night in a small pile of hay outside my friend's stable.


††††††† Next morning I was astir pretty early.It was October and the season of chilly nights had arrived. I hoofed it out to my claim and before nightfall I had my shack closed in, made a rough door out of ship lap and nailed it in place and using a pencil I posted a notice on the door warning against any trespassing and headed back to Kindersley. My next problem was to accumulate funds for a grub stake that would see me at least part way through the winter, buy a stove and some coal to keep me from freezing up. There was no job in sight around Kindersley that seemed to offer any assurance so I rode a freight train all the way back to Saskatoon -(without paying any fare of course).


††††††† The brick yard was closing down for the season but I got me a job driving a dray team with pay of forty dollars a month and found. I hustled around to the Land Office and filed an affidavit that I had gone into occupation of my land and had built a habitable dwelling and intended living in it during the ensuing winter. This disposed of the cancellation notice and I went to work with a light heart driving my dray team. By this time I had learned some lessons the hard way and I want to record in this narrative that never in my previous or future experience did I work as I did during the ensuing month. I didn't spend a dime of my wages and was ready 30 days thence to face the winter with accumulated savings of forty dollars. In the course of my dray driving in Saskatoon I made the acquaintance of Mitten Bros. who operated a concrete block business on Avenue H in Saskatoon. These three brothers had filed on land about 20 miles north of my location and were preparing to ship two carloads of settlers' effects, including four fine horses, out to Kindersley. I was taken into the venture to look after the car with the horses and thus saved any railway fare. I bought an old cook stove and loaded it along with a fair supply of dry groceries, in with the Mitten Bros. effects. By this time winter had set in in earnest and I worked for quite a while with the Mittens. Drove one of the teams on four or five round trips out to their homestead. In this fashion I was able to get my meagre effects hauled to my own homestead shack along with a small load of coal for fuel.


††††††† As I look back now it is hard to realize the risks I took in moving into an unfinished, single board sided shanty in the midst of winter, but I managed to get a window in place, the crude door made fairly weather tight, a rough bunk built, a wooden box converted into a table and a smaller box was my only chair. But I was supremely confidant that I could survive. I had no neighbor nearer than 1-1/2 miles, my only water supply was by melting snow as required, my supply of fuel was very limited and my basic groceries consisted almost entirely of white beans, flour and oatmeal, no meat, sugar or tea because I simply didn't have money to buy them. That was a grim winter.


††††††††††† My "mattress" consisted of 6 oat sheaves that I laboriously carried several miles from the nearest homesteader who had any. My bedclothes were also limited and night after night I crept into my crude bunk with all my clothes on - otherwise I would have probably frozen once my limited fire burned itself out in the cook stove. The temperature in that shanty would be precisely the same as outdoors and below zero temperatures were the rule rather than the exception night after night. I think the greatest test of my fortitude occurred during a howling blizzard which raged with little let up for a solid seven days and nights. Outside the air was just a howling mass of flying snow, which found quite a few chinks in my flimsily built little house and I can still see the little drifts of snow accumulating in it as I sat with feet in the oven praying that I would be able to stick it out and resolving that henceforth I would never again waste another hard earned dollar in riotous living.


††††††† After that big storm cleared up I was cheered to have a visit by a one-man patrol of the RCMP.What memories that visit awaken now ! Constable Paddy Aitkens making an over-land patrol from Scott to Swift Current to check on homesteaders like me who might be in need of food or medical care. I was glad to tell him that everything was going fine as far as I was concerned. Had plenty to eat such as it was and I never felt better in my life. Little did I imagine at that time that within a matter of five short years I would find myself a comrade-in-arms with the same Paddy Aitken, but that belongs in a different chapter of this narrative.


By mid January of the year 1910 my little supply of coal was about finished. Kindersley was building up into a small village, at the end of the "steel" taken over from the construction company. I had to have fuel in order to survive but I had no money to spare for coal and little for anything else. I had to maintain residence on my land until the following April. How could I do it ?!There is always a way if there is a will and the necessary determination. My native Scotch pride forbade any begging, but I was reduced to rather desperate straits. I still had my stoutly built pack sack of the Moose Jaw trek and this I put into use, Each morning have a cold - mostly frozen breakfast of bannock and beans and walk the 5-1/2 miles to Kindersley, where I could sit in this or that store or pool room or livery barn, where it was warm. When daylight faded I would hie me down to the railway coal yards and there fill my pack sack with such lumps of coal as were handiest and then make the trek out to the homestead in the darkness of night. Put a fire in my stove and make some warm food, mostly oatmeal, and get into my bunk. On stormy days I was forced to stay in the shack, but in the course of about a month I had accumulated enough coal to see me through for a further month or so by conserving fire as much as possible. People who are accustomed to living in wooded areas have no knowledge of the conditions under which I had to live because there was not a tree or shrub the size of a man's finger within forty miles of my homestead. Why did I do it? There is only one answer. I was on my own land, all 160 acres of it and I meant to earn the title to it.


††††††† I had kept up a sporadic correspondence with my old friend Alf. Kenworthy of the days when we worked together on the construction of the C.N.R. north of Kenora, Ontario. About this time I heard from him. He was more or less on the bum and thought it would be a good idea if he could join me on my homestead. Of course, I told him he would be right welcome but I was living on the border-line of destitution. A few weeks before he arrived I decided to start digging a well, because I could see that as soon as the snow disappeared I would be without any water supply. I hiked over to a neighbor a couple of miles away and borrowed his pick and shovel, selected what I thought was a likely spot for a well - about 200 yards from my shack and started digging a hole about five feet in diameter. I figured that I could dig down at least 12 feet and still throw the dirt out and there might be a chance of striking a small flow of water. What a "goof" I was. I had the hole down about 8 feet but the pick glanced off a small pebble in the hard clay and went through my right foot near the base of my toes. It was no mean feat to scramble my way out of that hole and hobble to my shack to look after my hurt foot. My medical supplies were practically nil. All I had was salt but in spite of all I could do it was only a few days before I had a badly infected foot, swollen so badly I couldn't put on a boot. And that was how Alf Kenworthy found me on his arrival. He was broke but otherwise in good health and spirits, and looked after me until April 1st which marked completion of my first term of residence on the homestead. Both of us had to find work in order to live. I'll never forget that five and a half mile hobble into Kindersley. Took me all of a full half day.

††††††† There was no work to be had in Kindersley. I was in no shape to do any manual labor anyway, so we decided to make for Saskatoon, 150 miles away, where Alf could likely find a job and get me under medical care, otherwise I would probably be a cripple. I succeeded in borrowing a dollar from an acquaintance in Kindersley and that was our sole capital to meet the cost of traveling 150 miles by railroad. Alf was no stranger to beating his way and I was no stranger to the ways of railroad men, so we had no trepidation about climbing into an empty box-car on a freight train heading for Saskatoon. What a trip that was !


††††††† We weren't disturbed by a brakeman until we got to the second stop. There, at a place named Netherhill we were both put out on the right-of-way with a warning to stay of that train. But before the train started again we were back on it - in a different box-car. That performance was repeated four times before the train reached Rosetown where it stopped for the night.


††††††† Next morning we were on the hunt for something to eat. We had spent a cold night in a box-car and this was still chilly spring weather and Saskatoon was still ninety miles away. Choosing a Chinese restaurant we both ordered ham and eggs for breakfast. Kenworthy devoured his and strolled out to the street, telling the proprietor that his pal would pay. When I stopped to pay I expressed considerable indignation about paying for grub I didn't eat and told the Chinese to go find the guy who had gyped him out of his twenty-five cents. Kenworthy had vanished and I did likewise. We found each other in our box- car retreat and thus fortified we were ready to resume our journey just as soon as the train was ready to go. This sort of thing may well sound terrible to people who have never known what it is to be broke and hungry. It was out of experiences such as this that I resolved that our civilization is only three meals deep.


††††††† The freight train pulled out for Saskatoon with Alf. and I still aboard our box-car, nothing happened during the first 30 or 40 miles, but shortly after we left a place named Harris, a brakeman climbed into the car through the small end door. After looking us over he exclaimed "Say, you're the two guys I threw off this train half a dozen times yesterday. Now, I'm through fooling, both of you are going out on your ear right now". He pulled the big side door open and things looked pretty rough because the train was running quite fast. At this juncture, friend Alf, who was a big lean fellow, decided he had had enough chin music from this brakeman and ordered him to close the door or he, the brakeman, would go out on his ear. This cooled him off somewhat and after I showed him my swollen crippled foot he decided that we were just two decent guys trying to get along and left us alone. We dropped off the train as it crawled into the Saskatoon yards just about noon.


††††††† We hunted up a doctor and bummed a dressing for my sore foot, promised to pay him when we could. Alf then found a job in a sort of a cement plant and warehouse. The pay wasn't much but it had to do. Both of us slept in the cement shed on empty cement sacks until Alf had earned a week's pay. Thus, in funds again, we found a cheap boarding house. In another week I was able to do some work. As soon as we were fairly presentable I went to my friends, the Elliotts at the brick yard and we were both hired. Alf didn't like the work and the urge to travel took him away from Saskatoon in the early summer. I stayed on - working hard and saving a little money. When the harvest season started I left the brick yard and went to the harvest fields in the hope of making more money. By the end of the harvest season I was no further ahead than if I had stayed at the brick yard. Now it was time to head back to the homestead to begin my second period of homestead duties. I had arranged for the breaking of 15 acres of my land and this had to be paid for out of my small earnings.


††††††† That second winter was not as rough as the first one but it was still no picnic. I made the shack more cold-proof. Got in a load of coal and a stock of food. In the meantime I had written mother about my adventures and like the good mother she was, she had a big barrel packed with clothes, a couple of blankets, quite a variety of food and other comforts. It was a real God-send. Things were not so lonely for me as I had a neighbor on the adjoining quarter section, a university trained Scotsman by the name of Jimmy Whiteford. Marvelous singer he was, but proposed to be a complete atheist. When I visited him the first few times he persisted in trying to convince me the Bible was simply a very badly written, inaccurate history of early times which could never stand the test of scientific examination. He would rave on by the hour on this theme and ask me if I didn't agree with him. I had one stock answer, "No". Why was I so stubborn, he would ask, and my reply was that I was not brought up that way. My religion was my faith in God and there was no purpose in arguing about it. My wanderings had not permitted much contact with the church, but the trials and tests I had undergone simply convinced me that there was something real about the religion I learned from my saintly parents.


††††††† I had another fairly near neighbor to the north of me. Alf Dawson, another Scotsman, but of an entirely different mould than Whiteford. Dawson was a big fellow, farm raised near Elgin in Northern Scotland. He had built himself a sod shack, a dark gloomy place, but much more weather-tight than my little frame shanty. We decided to conserve fuel and help pass the time by both of us living together week about. This was a good arrangement. In the long winter nights we would sit and build castles in the air with dreams of big crops, big money, big everything.


††††††† We agreed that something had to be done to solve the lack of water supply. So we started in on his place to dig a well. Believe it or not we sank that well to a depth of 80 feet and the ground was just as dry in the bottom as on the surface. But the work gave us something to do.


††††††† On a very cold January day in 1911, I was alone in my shack when a team drove up to the door. The driver was a fellow named Tom Pemberthy. He had his wife in the sleigh along with a jag of coal and quite a stock of groceries. He was headed for his homestead which lay some twenty miles to the north - near the spot where the town of Coleville became located later on. Storms had completely obliterated all traces of the dim trails. Pemberthy's wife was crying with the cold and he was afraid of the trip himself, but he had to go on because a crippled brother and his aged mother were on his homestead and needed the fuel and food. He pleaded with me to help him and who was I to refuse. I had some bricks which I used for bed warmers. These we heated up in my stove, and taking all my blankets we rigged up a nest for Mrs. Pemberthy in the sleigh in a fashion which defied the cold. I recall that it was 40 degrees below zero when we started out from my place at about eleven in the forenoon. That was some trip, but we reached his homestead well after dark. The team was tired out and we were all pretty well chilled, but the worst was still to come.


††††††† I have never forgotten the scene that confronted us in Pemberthy's sod shack which was poorly built. There was his poor old mother, over seventy years of age, huddled over a tiny, smoky bit of fire, on the verge of collapse. The brother sat bundled in his coat apparently resigned to whatever was going to happen. After stabling the team in a mean little sod shelter, we got busy. Tom had a new stove on his load, which we promptly put in the house. Putting up the stove pipes is a lousy job at the best of times, but in below zero temperature it beggars description. Just can't be done with a pair of heavy mitts on your hands. My readers should try it sometime. Blustering big Pemberthy didn't help matters any but I finally got a fire started. Again Pemberthy balled things up by poking at the fire and upset the grate and fire into the ash pan. In the meantime the poor old lady was really suffering. But I got a real fire going - melted some snow and got a kettle boiling. In no time at all we had some hot food and steaming tea, and the whole world seemed a lot brighter. We all needed some sleep and the only place for Tom, his brother and I was on the dirt floor. I had to take the blankets off the horses - poor devils - but the three of us were fairly snug. In the morning the top blanket was snow white with frost ! Talk about pioneering.

††††††† This team of horses Tom had was hired from a livery stable in Kindersley and of course Tom had to get them back there. The morning was bitterly cold with a strong southeast wind which we had to face on that terrible twenty-five mile drive. Our trail of the night before was completely obliterated. Even the horses were afraid of that trip. Unless someone drove they would swing around in a circle and lead back to Tom's miserable little stable. After two or three miles of this, old Tom decided he had enough. He jumped out of the sleigh and asked me to go on alone - he just wouldn't face it.


††††††† Well, I had to face it, and drive that dam team of bronchos too. I just flailed hell out of them and kept going. My face was frozen stiff, but I had good felt boots and was able to keep circulation going in my feet. There was nothing but me and the empty sleigh for those nags to haul and in spite of the snow and cold we made good time. When I got to my place I drove in and had a look at my face in the mirror. It was sure frozen, so I kept right on going to Kindersley and turned the team over to the owners and they spent a couple of hours thawing out my frozen face. Made a good job of it too - fortified from time to time with a good slug of whiskey which put me in a prime mood to hike back out to my homestead shack - 5 1/2 miles. I must have been made of iron; for the next couple of weeks my face was just one big scab.


††† About this time neighbor Dawson was given a gift of an 8-months old Russian wolfhound pup. Some pup he was - stood about thirty inches high and strong as a young horse. The general idea was that the dog would run down the odd prairie wolf and we could collect some bounty money plus a few dollars for the pelt. As it was that dog ate so much he would have to catch about one wolf every day to keep him well fed. It was my turn to keep house and space was very limited any time without this big wolfhound. One day we decided to walk into town but not wishing to run the risk of losing the dog, Dawson tied him to the post of the bunk bed. When we closed the door the dog set up a steady mournful howl and we could hear him still at it when we had walked about half a mile. On our return that night we could hear that dam dog long before we could see my shack. On opening the door we were met with a scene of utter confusion and near wreckage. Mr. dog had been able to get fairly close to the stove and had succeeded in upsetting a kettle of boiled beans. He had chewed up the bedding including the straw mattress which he had spread all over the place, upset the table and generally raised merry hell with all my stuff. Dawson untied the chain leash, I held the door open and helped the dog through it with a hard kick in the slats. I don't know where that dog finished up but we never saw him again.


Submitted by
G. W. Murchison

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