HOMESTEADING IN THE CANADIAN WEST:
‘Hit or Miss’ Choosing
Like our great-grandpa and grandpa Vance, a number of Easterners came to friends or family out West and from there they looked around and chose the quarter section (160 acres) they wanted to homestead. Some immigrants stepped off the train expecting to find a small town and were surprised to see only half a dozen buildings surrounded by vast prairie. “Now let’s find you a place,” they were told, “then you get back on the train and head for the provincial capital (Winnipeg, Regina or Edmonton) to register your title.”
Many immigrants straight from Europe stopped first at the Immigration Hall in Winnipeg to get their bearings and a few supplies, then went to the Government Land Office. There was a huge map of the West and the hopeful homesteader put his finger on a spot. The agent wrote down the land description by Meridian, Range, Township, Section; the homesteader paid $10 for his quarter. Next he searched other maps to find out how to get there, aiming to head for the town nearest his land.
Before the West was opened for homesteading, surveyors had gone through and pounded iron stakes into the ground indicating the sections and wooden stakes marking off the quarter sections. They marked off all three prairie provinces into a gridwork of sections and townships: each township had 36 sections, each section four quarters. (That’s why all our country roads run true to north & south, east & west–unless they have to go around some natural impediment.)
So the fellow–or family–would get off the train in the general area. Then the fun began. Somewhere out in that ocean of grass–maybe two, maybe twenty, maybe forty miles away–was a stake with his number on it. Without a signpost or trail to guide him, the homesteader had to locate those wooden stakes–or at least the iron one. IF someone hadn’t carried it off to use for some good purpose of his own, or if a prairie fire hadn’t swept through and burned all the wooden ones.
Finally the homesteader located his land and had a look around. Was it good loam or heavy clay (very hard to plough in those days) with a dense mat of grass roots? Was it sandy (gone with the wind), stony (you’d ache all over from picking rocks every spring), mostly mosquito-infested swamp, wall-to-wall poplar trees, scrubby pine, a hill, a valley, an untillable ravine? If he didn’t like what he saw, he had to pick another spot, then go back to the city and file another claim.
Build a House With Logs and Sods
Once the quarter was chosen, the work of breaking it and building a house was started. Our Grandpa and his dad stayed with friends and the area they settled would have had nearby trees. According to the history we have, they erected a log house as soon as they’d chosen their quarters, intending to live in it when they returned in spring with their settlers’ effects.
Many homesteaders arriving in late spring set up a tent to get themselves through the first few weeks or months. For those who got treed land, the axe started swinging immediately. One by one the trees fell and roots were pulled out with a team of oxen. Every acre had to be cleared before a crop could be planted–but then they had the trees to build & heat their log house. Scrub brush had to be cleared but gave only a bit of fuel for fires.
Sometime during the summer a prairie homesteader would choose a site for their first real home, marking off a rectangle about 16′ x 20 or 24′. In Manitoba where the rains were heavy and frequent, homesteaders were advised to build on a little rise because houses needed a dry cellar for winter vegetable storage. In Saskatchewan or Alberta it was wise to build near a slough, a source of hay for livestock and water for both people and animals.
A farmer then hitched his oxen and plowed furrows, setting the sod aside to use in building the house. A generous amount of land was plowed near the site, not only for sods but to act as a fireguard, for prairie fires were a constant menace. The farmer then headed off to the nearest bush and cut enough trees to make a rough framework for his house. He’d stick the poles in the ground and use it as a guide, piling the sods against the poles.
Each sod was cut about a foot wide, two feet long, and 2″ to 4″ thick (depending who’s telling the story.) One old-timer estimated it would take about 4000 sods to build a house 16′ x 24′. He says when he was twelve, he, his mother and sister had built their soddy while his dad was plowing the land and seeding the crops.
Homesteaders who built log houses stripped the bark off the felled trees and stacked them up, using mud for chinking between the logs. In both cases space was left for a door, but sometimes these ended up so low that the man of the house had to stoop to enter. Folks who could afford it bought a pane or two of window glass. One Alberta homesteader told us he’d built his log cabin for $5: he’d bought one pane of glass and some nails; the rest came out of his bush. Those who could afford more bought pine boards and hauled them to the site to build their shacks.
A family from England learned the hard way that a door must be hung so it swings inward. During their first winter in their prairie home a blizzard piled snow against their door until it was almost covered. It opened only a crack; through this they had to scoop snow by handfuls from inside until they finally got the door open enough that their father could get out to feed their livestock.
Usually the inside walls were covered somehow. Log house walls were often smoothed with mud, then whitewashed–whitewash (calcimine) being a cheap paint make of slaked lime and chalk. Some folks hung thick flannel cloths on the inside walls of their soddies; some would have mudded, then tar papered and whitewashed the inside walls to keep the dirt from falling into the house in dry weather.
And to Top It All Off
For both types of house, poles were laid across the top to serve framework for the roofing material, layers of hay, sod, more hay, then dirt and more sod to keep the dirt from blowing away. A small cellar was dug so the family could store root vegetables where they wouldn’t freeze.
They say sod houses were quite comfortable: warm in winter and cool in summer. But when it rained, the comfort level dropped severely. If an area got two or three days of rain, the roofing material absorbed water until the whole works was saturated, then it “rained” in every room of the house. For day or two after a heavy rain the muddy water dripped down on the occupants and furnishings; the only dry place in the house being under the table.
That was the only “running water” in most pioneer homes. Plumbing was outdoors year-round: a bucket down the well and a little wooden biffy out back.