Skip to content

Author’s book reveals hard times by grasslands homesteaders from 1914 to 1937

Drought, dust blizzards, grasshoppers and low prices caused thousands to flee and abandon their homesteads.
MJT_RonWalter_TradingThoughts
Trading Thoughts by Ron Walter

Ask most people what the worst period was for rural Saskatchewan and the answer will most likely be the “Dirty Thirties.”

Wrong. The period from 1914 to 1923 was just as bad, if not worse, for homesteaders as the Dirty Thirties.

Author Curtis McManus delves into the two periods in his book Happyland, named after one of the rural municipalities around Leader that faced the devastation wrought by climate.

Drought, dust blizzards, grasshoppers and low prices caused thousands to flee and abandon their homesteads during these periods.

McManus dug into the minutes of rural municipalities (RMs) as well as provincial records for his research.

In some years the numbers of new homesteads was almost eclipsed by the number of homestead cancellations. The Moose Jaw land office registered 4,017 new homesteads in 1944 but cancelled 3,417.

Worst hit was the southwestern part of the province.

The region from west of Moose Jaw through to Swift Current, Maple Creek, Medicine Hat and west had been declared unfit for settlement.

In 1905 Edmonton publisher Frank Oliver became federal minister of the interior. Facing him was an inflow of settlers but a rapidly declining homestead land base.

That gave Oliver, who intensely disliked the big ranchers leasing much of the southern grasslands, an opportunity. He opened the territory for settlement in 1908.

Thousands of homesteaders flooded into the grasslands. Almost from day one devastating drought prevailed.

In Alberta the provincial government soon recognized the problem and started paying people to leave. Not Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan based the province’s future on growing wheat. Paying to relocate people wasn’t in the cards. Not until the 1930s did Saskatchewan start a real program to get people off the land and then it was to relocate elsewhere, often to the northern forest.

A deputy minister by the name of Auld came up with all sorts of excuses for not relocating homesteaders: they didn’t know how to farm; they were incompetent; they ought to grow rye and make more summerfallow.

On farmer fired back that no matter how much summerfallow he made nothing grew without rain.

Farm women used flour sacks to sew clothing. One women failed to bleach her flour sack dress adequately. On her dress’s backside the words “Pride of the West” were clearly visible.

Compounding the devastation was the social welfare system. Rural municipalities were responsible for welfare relief.

Before long the relief bills equalled half or more of some RM budgets in the southwest. For awhile tax arrears sales helped out until they failed to attract decent prices.

Homesteaders on relief were expected to pay back the relief. Few were able.

Banks stopped lending RMs money for relief. The provincial government began lending them money.

Homesteaders getting relief had to appear before council to justify their request.

To justify spending money on relief and to get projects done, RMs put relief recipients on hard labour road building gangs at lower than usual wage rates.

Road gang workers were only allowed to make $100 before ceding the job to the next man in line. Most road gang workers were happy to do the work in return for relief, says McManus.

Strangely those on relief because of drought felt they were failures as did their neighbours who were paying taxes to support them – an attitude still existing 100 years later

In the late 1930s the provincial Land Utilizations Board was set up to determine which areas were totally unfit for farming. Out of that board came the community pasture system.

Another outcome of the era was the PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration) whose programs educated farmers and offered soil and water conservation techniques.

Happyland is a sequel, to Empire of Dust which dealt mainly with the Alberta experience.

Ron Walter can be reached at ronjoy@sasktel.net

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.