Reflections of Ponoka: The rugged, colourful history of the harvest

At the end of the 19th century, a huge influx of settler families from far and wide invaded the central Alberta district

One of the first steam threshing crews in the Asker district in 1905. Wages were 75 cents a day

One of the first steam threshing crews in the Asker district in 1905. Wages were 75 cents a day

At the end of the 19th century, a huge influx of settler families from far and wide invaded the central Alberta district in search of a new beginning in the rugged but richly fertile landscape. They brought with them only their few worldly belongings, hoping to purchase a piece of this rolling virgin land for $3 an acre, establish their homesteads, and then somehow transform their lofty dreams into a lucrative existence and livelihood for their loved ones.

Along the way there would be countless hardships and challenges, joy and sadness, successes and failures but with their sheer tenacity, strong will and relentless work ethics they would eventually achieve the rewards they so richly deserved, and would proudly pass on through many generations. In 1904 an early attempt had to be made by these hardy homesteaders to break the land for grain production as well as to grow and gather the other vital produce that would take them through the gruelling Alberta winters and unpredictable elements. These early ‘sodbusters’ would use a 14-inch breaking plow pulled by three or four horses to clear the land on which they also claimed many good men with an axe had chopped the trees and piled the wood for many acres during the long winters. If a walking plow was used, the settler would tie the lines from the horses behind his back, and then had to walk behind the heavy piece of equipment for hours, guiding it by the wooden handles.

Together, these vibrant pioneer families would anxiously look to the harvest with a great deal of anticipation and excitement. When autumn came the grain was cut by horse drawn binders with workers following behind to gather up the bundles into stooks. The noisy steam engines, which arrived on the scene in 1905, would pull the grain separators into the fields, while two-horse teams pulled the hay racks, from which the men spiked bundles into the separators. It was in these dusty fields over a century ago that the famous and traditional prairie harvest scene was created, and featured the magnificent efforts of crews of sweaty and dusty men and horses, who also had to be watered and fed. The harvest season would always be noted for hard work, high spirits and good food, which would be provided by the busy mothers of the homesteads and nothing was spared to keep stomachs filled in this busiest of seasons.

Improvements came quickly in this annual and rigorous harvesting process and the first labour-saving devices included a brusher pulled by four oxen or eight horses, followed by the sulky plow that had a pole and beam to hold the breaker bottom and even included a seat for the driver. In those tough early days a man’s horses and the family milk cow often spelled the difference between success and disaster. As well as the field work, all members of those constantly growing pioneer families had countless daily chores, including tending to the livestock and huge gardens, picking berries, hunting, getting the children off to school, and occasionally making the long trip into town for supplies or to sell or trade the fruits of their ongoing labours.

The cumbersome but reliable steam engine grew even more powerful, featuring 110 horsepower engines, with Rumley eventually coming out with a unit that featured power steering. Although they could turn over a lot of brush land with their 24-inch breaking plows, they were slow, frequently got stuck and required a man with a tank hauling wood and water following closely behind. The steamers worked well on a threshing machine but great care had to be taken to prevent the smokestack or the fire box from starting a blaze in the stubble.

Early reports from our area history books indicate pioneer farmers and ranchers were usually rewarded for their efforts — that is if the crops survived the floods, the hail, the insects, the fires, the drought and the countless other elements and challenges this often harsh but viable province presented to its newfound inhabitants.

A good 1905 harvest yield usually included: 148 bushels of potatoes from a half acre, 30 tons of hay, wheat at 25 bushels to the acre, barley at 40 bushels to the acre and oats at 60 bushels to the acre. There were also massive forests to provide wood for construction and fuel, as well as thousands of tons of coal close to the surface to keep the home fires burning. On the other side of the ledger, at that time nails were 25 cents for five pounds, tobacco was two bits a pound, overalls were a dollar and a pair of fancy dress pants sold for $2.50.

Here are some of the delightful memoirs of the harvest by long-time Sylvan Heights resident and teacher Bill Doran. Among his fondest memories were assisting the crews out in the fields, as well as the much anticipated arrival of the meals, which were always a ‘hungry man’s delight.” The wives throughout the district would spend days preparing the feast that featured mounds of mashed potatoes, roast beef and gravy, salads, pies, cakes and steaming pots of coffee.

• In 1926, Glen Crandall’s steam engine and crews roared onto the scene and as a youngster Doran vividly recalled the loud blasts on the whistle to signal the busy threshing crew of their tasks. The harvest was a total team effort, with neighbours assisting the crew in picking up the hundreds of stooks, loading them into the wagons, and then delivering them to the threshing machine, where they were methodically tossed onto the feeder.

• The entire operation was powered by long and massive belts strung from the steamer to the threshing machine, which separated the grain into the auger and funnelled it into the awaiting granaries. It was hard work for many days but then the district celebration of the harvest would begin, including picnics, games, dances, and great camaraderie that continued on into the winter and all year round.

Of course the technology of farming and ranching has changed and expanded drastically over the years but the proud tradition of supreme effort and team work has always prevailed. For our farmers, ranchers, and ‘green thumbs’ throughout our rural and urban districts, may your harvests be bountiful — both out in your fields and from your magnificent gardens.