Harvest excursions - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
There is an old saying that, in springtime, a young man’s fancy turns to love. In the Huron County of a few generations ago, that saying could have been that a young man’s fancy turns to harvesting, specifically to the harvest excursions to Western Canada to help thresh the millions of acres of wheat grown there. A promise of decent wages, low train fares and a sense of adventure awaited the local lads once Ontario’s crops had been safely taken care of.
When the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) company took on the task of uniting Canada from sea to sea with a ribbon of train tracks, it acquired large land grants in the bargain. To realize a profit on its holdings, CPR instituted the “Homeseeker Excursions” to lure settlers to the Northwest Territories as it was then known.
The population began to grow, but not as quickly as the fields of grain. In that non-mechanized era, much manpower was required to cut the grain, bundle it in sheaves, stack it in stooks of sheaves and then draw it to a steam engine and a threshing machine which separated the wheat from the straw. The straw by-product was used for fuel for the steam engine or for feed or bedding for livestock. Once the grain was separated, it was taken by wagon to the farmyard for storage in bins until the time that it was taken to the rail terminal for shipment to market. Each step in the process required many men to complete the tasks.
In 1890, CPR land commissioner, Lauchlan Hamilton came up with a scheme to benefit both the railway and the struggling farmers. He proposed the “Harvest Excursions” that, for a very attractive rate, would carry men from the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario to the wheat fields of Manitoba and beyond, the first terminus being Winnipeg. This call for migration of manpower westward was met with cries of foul play from the owners of the fisheries, mines and lumbering camps that stood to lose their labourers, some of them permanently. It was Hamilton’s hope that once these men had experienced life in the west, they would want to settle on their own acreages (purchased of course from the CPR). In 1890, 2,175 excursion tickets were sold. By 1912, that number had risen to 26,500.
The Aug. 19, 1898 issue of the Clinton New Era reported that town agent W. Jackson had ticketed through several local people in the CPR Harvesters’ Excursions: J. and Miss McElroy, Blyth; R. McClinchey, Stanley Township; R. Stephenson, R. Robinson, A. R. Foote, Brucefield; A. Thompson, Hugh Gilmour, B. Stiles, Mrs. Stiles, J. Moffatt, Miss Moffatt, W. Johnson, J. Johnson, Miss Parker, Stanley; W. J. Yeo, J. Watson, R. J. Evans, Holmesville; and A. MacRae, Clinton. Some other local harvesters through the years have included James Jackson, John Smith and Robert McBlain from Brussels, Percy Plumsteel from Clinton and Stuart Taylor from Wawanosh. Not only men travelled west to work in the wheat fields, but also some women, who were employed to do the cooking.
For those who went on the harvest excursions, life was not easy. First, the train accommodation included hard, wooden benches. Some lunches were available for sale, but mostly the men carried their own food. The trains were often overcrowded. Because freight trains were given track preference, the passenger cars were often shunted off to the side. When this occurred, some of the passengers would hop off to see the countryside and, in the scramble to board a moving train, some accidents did occur. The tired workers were met at the Winnipeg station by farmers who wished to hire them, but there was an additional fee if the workers wanted to travel further west.
Once hired, the workers usually travelled in gangs of between 10 and 12 people, going from farm to farm, harvesting the wheat as they went. Accommodations could be sparse and sometimes consisted of a blanket in a barn or granary.
Manpower was not the only thing that was headed to the west. Blyth-area horse breeder, Fred Toll Sr. sent 66 carloads of draft horses in railway boxcars to the Canadian frontier to help haul the wagonloads of grain to the threshing machines and also to the railways for export.
By 1948, mechanization was on the rise. The Massey-Harris Company mounted a clever marketing ploy announcing that there was a “modern harvesters’ excursion helping Canadian farmers”. Trainloads of Massey-Harris combines were rolling across the country to the grain harvesting areas replacing the once-familiar annual harvesters’ excursions of men. They touted that one man with a combine could cut and thresh several acres of grain in a day, dispensing with all the extra hired labour.
Land Commissioner Hamilton’s experiment lasted for over 40 years. Were his goals achieved? Certainly thousands upon thousands of men and women made the trip to the fields of Western Canada to reap the harvest. However, it is difficult to know how many of these people did decide to make a new home in the west. Some may have stayed there at the time, while still others may have returned home, only to head west permanently later on.
Probably most of the harvest crews came back to their home base, like Thomas Higgins of the Exeter area. On his return home in 1893, he acknowledged that the harvest had gone faster than in earlier years but that he did not think that the area was “the most desirable country on earth” and that “there was no place like home”.