Distance and isolation. These were the twin problems of rural Saskatchewan in the early 20th century.
The homestead system may have attracted tens of thousands to the province with the promise of 160 acres of free land, but the emphasis on individual land holdings — the idea that everyone should have their own quarter-section — effectively dispersed settlers over the landscape. Indeed, those in pioneer districts seemed to have stepped backward in time. Basic services, such as a road or a store, were largely non-existent.
Geoffrey Blainey talked about how distance was one of the defining features in Australian history in his book, The Tyranny of Distance (1966). Saskatchewan homesteaders would likely have nodded in agreement with his findings, especially his observation that “distance (was) tamed more quickly on the map than in the mind.”
It was this overwhelming sense of isolation, of being alone, that weighed on homesteaders. It was even worse if they lacked a timepiece or simply lost track of what day it was.
They missed family and friends and craved contact with the outside world. Any news in isolated districts was always old news, but nonetheless welcome. Families re-read letters and newspapers as if they were the last word on a topic.
They also visited distant neighbours, walking for miles if necessary for the companionship. It was always encouraging when somebody new took up land.
Pets helped relieve the loneliness. In fact, most photographs of early homesteads invariably include a dog. Cats might also have been part of the household, but in keeping with their temperament, they probably didn’t care about being in the picture.
Perce and Lillian Turner knew all about the value of dogs and cats on their pioneer farm. In the late spring of 1906, they homesteaded in the Eagle Hills (just north of present-day Herschel) at a place named Glenallen (township 32, range 16, west of the 3rd).
Perce, of Bealton in southwestern Ontario, had headed west first by train, intent on finding a suitable quarter-section before sending for Lillian. His “setter’s effects” included four horses, one cow, one pig, 16 chickens and a dog named “Cabin.”
When Lillian arrived in Saskatoon a month later, Perce had already lost the dog. He had tied Cabin to the wagon as he headed out along the Goose trail, but the dog had whined to be let loose. It was never seen again.
Lillian regretted the dog’s disappearance as soon as she reached the homestead. She had hoped that Cabin would keep predators away from the hens and their eggs.
She also quickly came to appreciate why another homesteader arrived with a box of cats. “One can hardly grow a garden,” she wrote her parents, “without cats to catch the gophers. I don’t know how I will get on, but will make a desperate effort to manage in some way.”
Perce also missed Cabin. In early May, he went hunting in a nearby slough and shot a duck for supper. But the water was too cold and he came back empty-handed and wet above his knees.
The Turners got a new dog — barely more than a pup — from one of their neighbours in June. Lillian immediately thought of her garden. “He does not know much yet,” she reported, “but we hope to learn him to catch gophers.”
Lillian’s other worry was the mice, which invaded their one-room shack “in droves.” She set traps throughout the place and caught “lots of them.” But she got so desperate — especially when she found a family of sleeping mice in her good linen inside a chest — that she told her mother that “I would not begrudge $5.00 for a good cat just now.”
The new dog, in the meantime, was kidnapped. Perce went to town with a neighbour to get some lumber and arranged for the man’s son to stay with Lillian. But the boy got scared as soon as it got dark the first night and fled home with the dog for protection.
Lillian was not upset for long. Perce returned to their homestead with a stray cat he found on the streets in Saskatoon. The mice “disappeared as if by magic.”
As far as Lillian was probably concerned, the dog need never come back.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.