Bill Waiser

Swift Current Peel Postcard

Winter brought early settlers together

With the holiday break over, most people will hunker down for the last few months of winter.

It can be a long wait for the arrival of spring in Saskatchewan.

But at least people today can pass the winter evenings watching television, listening to the radio, or immersing themselves in the new social media.

That was not possible over a century ago, when immigrants faced the twin problems of distance and isolation.

Indeed, the homestead system, which attracted tens of thousands of prospective settlers to the province, made the pioneer struggle loom larger by dispersing families as widely as possible on the land.

Many people effectively found themselves alone, if not lonely, on their individual homesteads.

They could go for months without contact with the outside world.

This sense of isolation bore down on farm families, as if it was an extra burden they carried on their backs.

One child of pioneer homesteaders remembered the feeling when a railway branch line was finally built through their district: “With the coming of the railway, mother said and we all felt it, that the great distance that separated us from our family back home had shrunken considerably and that once more we were in the same world with them.”

Yet even with a rail link, distance and isolation remained very real challenges for Saskatchewan farm families.

As Geoffrey Blainey observed in his history of Australia, The Tyranny of Distance, “Distance [was] tamed more quickly on the map than in the mind.”

Or in the words of one veteran ranch manager, “there was ample room to get lost, freeze or starve.”

People responded by making their own entertainment.

Prince Albert, for example, had a flourishing choral society that performed Gilbert and Sullivan classics, such as “Iolanthe,” in the town’s magnificent opera house.

Not to be outdone, Captain Burton Dean of the NWMP built a stage in the quartermaster’s warehouse at the Regina barracks and cast officers and their wives in public productions. Similar cultural events were held at the Battleford barracks, where the mounties often gathered around an old piano — with the buffers repaired from an old felt hat — for an evening of song.

The North-West Territories council also passed legislation in 1890 to encourage the creation of mechanics’ institutes.

First developed in Scotland and then England, these bodies housed technical libraries and hosted lectures.

One of the first institutes to be established in present-day Saskatchewan was at Grenfell in 1892, where 67 inaugural members paid an annual fee of one dollar.

Homesteaders generally pursued simpler recreational pursuits.

Books and magazines — sometimes, even letters from back east — were shared among neighbours during the winter.

The Aberdeen Association, founded by the wife of Canada’s governor general in the 1890s, also sent monthly parcels of reading material by rail to pioneer areas.

Some districts organized literary societies where participation was more important than talent.

“Everyone had to do something,” reported Tom Perry of Watson, “even if they could only whistle or tell a story — strange to say those were very enjoyable evenings.”

Then, there were the social calls and dances.

To break the monotony of the open range, ranching families in southwestern Saskatchewan would visit one another for several days.

One of the more popular social centres was the Cutting ranch on Swift Current Creek, where several daughters attracted “cowboys for miles around.”

Another favourite home was that of Ben Rose, the postmaster for Eastend, who hosted dances “and the six or eight ladies, mostly all married, received plenty of attention and did not sit out any dances, for there would possibly be forty men present.”

People on the prairies never missed a dance, often staying up most of the night.

James Clinkskill, a Scottish immigrant and Saskatoon merchant, was among them.

He had vivid memories of winter social events, especially his first bachelors’ ball in Battleford in the early 1880s.

The largest storeroom in Battleford was cleared for the fiddler and people would dance reels and jigs until the next morning.

Everyone was welcome, regardless of race, creed, religion, or ability to dance.

That’s the way it should be. And that’s my wish for this new year.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Early Swift Current in winter
Photo credit: University of Alberta Peel Library, postcard 13209
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