Quest in Roots:
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FARMING IN THE MENTMORE AREA 1900-1950
By the early 90''s every section had at least two families living on it and the pioneers could look backward with real satisfaction. They had come a long way. Farming methods were a farcry from those of the early 80''s. In fact they had lived through a small agricultural revolution. The faithful oxen had been replaced by powerful six and eight horse teams and every year saw new machines to lighten the farmers'' labour and make it more productive.
The first comers had been obliged to broadcast the seed, and when the grain ripened reap it with a scythe or cradle. Every sheaf had to be bound by hand, then stacked and later threshed with a wooden flail. It was back-breaking work, and they welcomed the introduction of the self binding reaper, gang ploughs, seed drill and early blower-equipped threshing machines.
Wheat, especially Red Fife was the most popular grain grown, but when the early Experimental Farms developed new barley varieties around 1900, the district slowly adopted them. It was easy to dispose of surplus grain in the early years as everyone needed feed and seed. However, as the land became settled and production increased, the problem of disposing of it became general. The grain marketing system in those days was very poorly organized. Lacking elevators, the farmers were obliged to sell it in bags at warehouses, located along the railway. Often they drew it long distances, and were obliged to accept whatever grade and price the buyer chose to give them. Depressed prices during the early 1890''s brought a rising dissatisfaction throughout rural Manitoba. Out of this grew the "Patrons of Industries" a fraternal organization somewhat similar to our present coops, which was dedicated to the interests of its farmer members. Our district organized one of the first branches with the school being headquarters.
They had regular meetings characterized by vigorous discussion, and a social hour. On deciding to further their ends by entering politics, the patrons took advantage of a bi-election to send John Forsythe as their representative to the Legislature of 1894.
John Forsythe was one of the most colorful figures in our local histories. In 1889 he purchased a farm now owned by Alex Robertson and moved there with his large family. His massive figure soon became a familiar sight at all community activities.
Always progressive he operated one of the first threshing outfits in the country. Many of the old timers recall the mighty roars he let out when his 18 year old son yielded to temptation and ''goosed'' the steam engine.
In 1890 William F. Sirett was our representative in the Legislature. In recognition of his ability, he was appointed as a member of the first Royal Grain Commission. Out of this came the Manitoba Grain Act the ''Magna Carta'' of the prairie grain grower.
During the 90''s several families enriched the district by moving here. These include the Campbells, Murrays, Walkers, Draysons, Stonehouses and Willoughbys.
Mr. Willoughby was a stout jovial man with a keen business sense. So shrewd a horse-trader was he that his name remains a district legend to this day. On first moving here, he operated on a small scale, travelling a magnificent stallion, and conducting his trading enroute. In a few years he was able to build one of Neepawa''s first livery barns.
The early 1900''s saw a period of comparative prosperity. Indicative of the optimism of the farm outlook, at that time was the price of $8000 per quarter paid by the Stonehouses for the south halt of the section 27-13-16. Although wheat prices ranged between 60 and 70 cents per bushel and a good steer brought less than $20, the price of the few necessities the farmer had to purchase was also low. In those days, a good pair of overalls cost only one dollar, and a hired man could be obtained for $100 for the season. Living was cheap, the diet being simple but wholesome - the greater part coming directly from the farm. Every fall it was the custom to take a wagon load of grain to the flour mill to grind a year''s supply of flour, bran and shorts. Before 1883 this necessitated an ardous trip to the nearest mill at Portage, but during that year the C.P.R.
following the northern trail reached Neepawa and a flour mill was built there. Fresh meat was the order for winter, but lack of refrigeration made it necessary to pickle barrels of pork for the hot weather. With the help of their families the women grew large gardens and when the fresh fruit season came along everyone took a pail and journeyed a few miles north to the bush. There, in season, they searched for rich red raspberries and luscious purple clusters of saskatoons.
We must pay sincere tribute to the courageous pioneer women. Life for them was far from easy. In spite of their large families it was often a lonely life.
Day after day brought an endless round of scrubbing, washing, sewing, and churning. An occasional trip to town in the democrat to trade their huge wooden tubs of golden butter was often their only contact with the outside world.
Occasionally they received a call from a wandering Assyrian peddler; his cart bright with wares, and three or four times a year the Daly tea man came along. The district waited his arrival with eagerness for it gave them not only a chance to replenish their tea supplies but also an opportunity to catch up on the latest gossip between Neepawa and Brandon. One of our old time ladies wistfully recalls the last of the tea men. He was an especially handsome and debonair young fellow with "a real line about him". His dashing pair of black drivers was the envy of young men on the route. All the district ladies just loved him and rare indeed was the place where he was not asked in to enjoy a cup of tea, and exchange a few pleasantries. This proved to be his undoing. Unfortunately one evening he tarried a little too long with the vivacious young wife of an old settler who was noted for his jealousy. The latter, returning unexpectedly from a long day in the bush, was surprised to find his spouse cosily entertaining the salesman. He did not stop to ask the why or wherefores but true to western tradition grabbed his shot gun and let off a blast at the visitor.
Fortunately his aim was poor and the shot merely made a hole through the ceiling. However, the unhappy traveller took no chances. He lit out of the window and across country without even stopping.
The year 1900 saw great progress throughout the whole municipality. Many farmers boasted fine barns and houses; although the roads were still little better than prairie trails the coming of the first cars soon added terrific impetus to their improvement.
1909 saw the railroad built and the local farmers were at last freed from the long grain hauls as they were able to ship by carloads from a siding.
Practically everyone belonged to the newly organized United Grain Growers. Twice monthly they met at the school to take an active participation in all its affairs. Today their sons and grandsons still work just as ardently for our present day farm organizations.
The year 1909 also saw the first telephones installed in the district. This wonderful invention was a real blessing to both the men and women.
The next few years saw rising prices combining with good crops, give an air of general prosperity.
Everyone had an air of well being. It was soon to be shattered by the loss of the school.
1916 saw the first appearance of rust in the district. The crops being so poor it was necessary to postpone future improvements.
That year also saw the worst hailstorm in our history. Hailstones as big as eggs smashed all the windows and stripped bare the sides of the trees.
From 1918-1925 times in the district were not good. During the flush war years many people had recklessly mortgaged their farms. Because of poor crops and declining prices they were unable to meet payments. The result was that by 1924 a large percentage of the land was in the hands of the mortgage companies.
The 20''s started a slow but steady swing to farm mechanization. The ponderous gas tractors which had first appeared about 1916 were greatly improved. Gradually, they replaced the familiar horse outfits. By 1940 that faithful animal was rarely used except in winter time when snow drifts made the roads impassable. In 1926 the first unwieldy combine appeared to herald the dawn of a new era in harvesting.
The U.F.M. was especially active during this period. Most of the social life of the community centered around this organization.
The black year of 1935 brought the one and only complete crop failure in our area. Early August of that summer saw the fields heavy with ripening grain. Prices had improved and everyone joyfully prepared for the harvest. It never came for rust spores blown in by strong south winds attacked the standing grain and completely destroyed it within a few days. All had to be burnt and every night the skies glared with the reflection of the flaming fields - everyone a funeral page to shattered hopes and dreams. Down but not out the community rallied in true western tradition. ''Next year was bound to be better" they told each other as they scraped together seed to sow another crop.
It was an upswing in prices combined with the introduction of the new rust resistant wheat varieties, Thatcher, Regent and Selkirk that helped to place the farm economy back on its feet.
The years immediately following the war the farmers were able to dispose of the high yields at fair prices so could once again put money in the bank.
Many took advantage of their new wealth to buy additional land or the new high powered farm machinery.
The coming of the hydro in 1949 was the signal for a heavy investment in electrically operated equipment and household appliances.
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