|Robert J. C. Stead|
First published in 1916, The Homesteaders captures in print many of the experiences specific to prairie homesteaders coming from Eastern Ontario.
From the little one-room school house where he briefly
taught (The salary won't support two. There's the rub.), John Harris and
his new bride Mary head west to Southern Manitoba to homestead in a country
where "the agricultural possibilities have not [yet] been established."
Arriving by train at Emerson (the gateway of the great invasion!")
after a circuitous and uncomfortable journey on board an immigrant train
routed through the States, John and Mary join others waiting for an opportunity
to strike out across the treeless prairie in a rush to homestead claims
on the western side of the Pembina Valley. On route they discover "the
wonderful e-lasticity of a shanty on the prairie." (P. 26) They soon
become part of "the splendid community of spirit and sacrifice which
particularly distinguishes the pioneers. One finds excellent construction
detail of various settler homes; of particular interest is the sod house
described on pages 61-63, which prompts inclusion of a photograph of Robert
Stead as a youngster outside his Aunt's sod-roofed house near Cartwright.
The Harris' eventually file on a quarter section of land within travel distance of the yet-to-be-established town of Plainville described in The Bail Jumper; there they set down roots and together with a few neighbours made "common cause in their struggle with Nature." It was a life of hard, persistent work, of loneliness, privation and hardship. But it was also a life of courage, of health, of resourcefulness, of a "wild, exhilarating freedom found only in God's open spaces." (P. 63)
During the next 25 years, the Harris' prospered and found themselves living in a new era of western land expansion propelled by the discovery of "two facts almost beyond the grasp of their imagination: that farmers should buy land with money, and the farmers should have money with which to buy land." (P. 95)
What is also beyond the imagination of many was the unscrupulousness of speculators and con artists, and downright villains who flocked west to the foothill areas of the Canadian Rockies to fleece the naive and over trusting.
In its latter half, The Homesteaders offers a good glimpse
of that reality as well as the early role of the mounted policemen in
protecting the public and assisting in the administration of justice.