Farm Life

Jettie Willey Describes Early Farm Life

J.D. Edwards Describes Seeding the First Crop

Raynor Whitley Talks About Billy Smith's Threshing Machine

Jettie "Day" Willey Tells Why U.S. Families Came to Canada


By 1906, there were very few farmers in the Athabasca Landing area, even though land had already been surveyed into quarter sections. For a few years after Athabasca Landing became a village (1905), it was easy to find an empty and potentially farmable quarter section in the surrounding area. By the beginning of World War I, almost all of the good farmland was taken and much of the inferior land within a 15-mile radius of the Landing had been filed upon. The crucial years for the homesteading boom were 1909-14. Between these years, at least 1500 settlers and their families, a population of perhaps 5000, moved into the Athabasca area. Very few settlers proved their land to be cultivated in the required three years. Most took at least four years. Some took up to six years if they had to clear woodland. Approximately 56 per cent of those who filed for a homestead gave up due to the difficulty of clearing the land.

For a while, Athabasca Landing was valued as the grain growing capital of the northwest since the first few years that the homesteaders farmed were hot and fairly dry. Soon, though, the farmers had to cope with late spring and early fall frosts that froze their crops, and with violent summer storms that flattened them. It was also soon discovered that, unless you were a very skilled and fortunate farmer, the Athabasca area could not compete with the southern prairies or the Peace country as a locale for growing spring wheat. The land was not rich enough and the growing season was not long enough. This led to farmers diversifying and "mixed farming" became commonplace.

Harvesting was a time of hard labour. While the homesteaders could cut and bind their cereal crops with their own horse-drawn binder, they needed help for threshing. According to the Athabasca Historical Society, a handful of farmers did thresh by hand initially. It was extremely labour-intensive work, time-consuming and wearisome. The method that all Athabasca area farmers ended up using for threshing was co-operation. One person owned a steam-powered threshing machine and went around from farm to farm. Many pioneers worked on a threshing crew, and in turn hired it to do their own harvest. About a dozen men, who worked from dawn till dusk:

[They] gathered the sheaves tossed out by the binder, stacked them into stooks, carried them to the thresher, and fed the voracious machine. The machine itself was either steam-powered or gasoline-powered, and it was owned by the team leader (Joe Chabot, Billy Smith, Phillip Shank, or Scottie Willey). Belching smoke and emitting a tremendous racket, it separated the kernels from the stalks, producing a steady stream of grain ready for storage in bin and elevator, and simultaneously shooting a cloud of chaff into the air to form a large pile of straw that the farmer would use for fodder and bedding. (Athabasca Historical Society 1986, 100-1)

Starting in 1911, the Landing’s previous Member of the Legislative Assembly, J.R. Boyle, an influential member of the provincial government, worked to persuade his colleagues that Alberta’s seventh and last Demonstration Farm should be located near the Landing. Between 1912 and 1914 the farm was put into operations on the east hill, about one and a half miles outside Athabasca. Experiments with cultivation methods, new varieties of grain and other new crops, and animal breeding were to be done on these government run and owned farms. The Demonstration Farm also provided homesteaders in the region with practical advice on how to cultivate their land more efficiently. The local availability of such useful advice made the area more attractive to homesteaders. It meant better yields, more settlers, and higher land values. (Athabasca Historical Society 1986, 105)

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