This classic 1907 photo features the first Case steamer and thrashing machine in the Asker district. Shown in the picture from left to right are the crew (left to right) Jimmy Ward

This classic 1907 photo features the first Case steamer and thrashing machine in the Asker district. Shown in the picture from left to right are the crew (left to right) Jimmy Ward

Early harvests went from horsepower to steam engines

This week's Reflections looks at old steam engine farm equipment and how it changed farming.

Our earliest history books claim that the Battle River district was possessed with the most fertile and potential land in the province. As hardy settlers moved into this area from far and wide to seek out this opportunity and establish their new homes and farms, many fabulous stories were told of the gruelling challenges and hardships that they faced to tame this land, but achieved great successes and progress in only a few short years.

In those most humble beginnings, it was the trusty horses and oxen that pulled the breaking plows and other heavy machines, but by 1907 the noisy arrival of the massive steam engines marked the exciting introduction of a new era in farming and the rapid growth and development of all facets of our rural and urban communities.

The first white settler

Ove Christian Ravnsborg, formerly of Asker, Norway, arrived in Wetaskiwin with his parents on April 13, 1896. The family had made the long gruelling trip by train from their homestead in Eureka, North Dakota, and in order to find work, Ove had brought along some horses and farm machinery, which he eventually drove into the Leslieville district and sowed crops of wheat, oats, barley, flax, and millet from April 21 to May 29.

After looking around the area, he crossed the Battle River and homesteaded south of Battle Lake on N.E. 2-43-23-W4th and lived in an abandoned log cabin. This very ambitious gentleman would become the first white man to settle in the district, and was joined in the fall of the same year by his brother Ragnvald, Alex Woyen, and Andrew Vold, who all settled on the same section of land and would form the nucleus around which the Asker district was developed. Ove, who always liked to be footloose and was never married,  had also brought along a grain binder to his Alberta adventure, and spent many busy years doing custom farm work in the area, and then in 1901 would become the co-owner with Alex Woyen and Andrew of the district’s first threshing machine, which came complete with horsepower.

Another milestone for these original ‘Asker founders’ came in 1907 when Ole Oas, Alex Woyen, Henry Krefting, and O. C. Ravnsburg became the proud owners of the first powerful Steam Thrashing outfit, which would rumble across the districts serving homesteaders for many years. Hard work and determination always brings progress, and in 1914 Alex Woyen, Henry Krefting, and Ove purchased a 25 barrel flour mill, and set it up on the corner of N.W. 35-42-23-W4th, and this was a great help to the district farmers, who came from miles around to have cereal and flour (Prairie Rose)  made from their grain. The mill operated until 1919, when it was sold to Harry Ravnsborg and James Vold, who moved it to Ponoka in 1924 and served customers for many years from a spot known as ‘Mill Hill’.

Even into the fourth year of their farming efforts in 1902, the settlers in this area firmly believed that they were indeed living amongst the finest agricultural land in North America, and their proof and bragging rights came in with the harvest. N.A. Wiltse stated that his oats had yielded 100 bushels to the acre and weighed 46 pounds a bushel; his wheat would come in at 40 bushels to the acre, while others were getting up to 30 tons of hay an acre to feed their hungry livestock.  Rye was also growing to 75 inches with full heads, while the Timothy stood 52 inches, brome 69, and a sample of Canada Blue Grass topped at 45 inches.  Not to be outdone, the ‘green thumbs’ in the district reported lettuce heads as large as water pails, 25 pound turnips, 20 to 30 potatoes in a hill yielding up to 150 bushels on a half acre, and berries and wildlife in abundance. Before the dirty 30s, wheat sold for as high as 20 cents a bushel and really good cows fetched $30 a piece, but then again a pound of tobacco back then was 25 cents, a pair of overalls $1, and wages for harvest help was 75 cents for a very hard and long day of work.

The late Bill Doran fondly recalled in his memoirs of growing up in the Chesterwold and Sylvan Heights districts in the 1930s and finally getting a chance as a youngster to help with the harvest.  He was always made aware of the long and massive moving belts that were strung from the steamer to the threshing machine, but the biggest thrill was watching big gobs of straw spitting out of the spout to form a new stack, as well as just hanging around with some great thrashing teams like the Crandalls, Wierzba’s, the Plester boys, Harold Eidt, Mug Tompkins, and many other fine 20-men crews who faithfully completed the annual gruelling and vital fall task with great perfection.

It was a joy to assist the talented drivers with the unloading of the bundles into the hungry feeder, where two ‘spike pitchers’ had the sole and arduous job of climbing onto each load as it came into the threshing machine as well as to help to unload it. As the threshing progressed, the engineer on the streamer had a noisy system of loud whistle signals which kept the operation going full blast, one meaning more bundles, another asking the operator of the water wagon to hurry up with his load from the Battle River or an urgent call to the driver of the four- horse-team wood wagon to return and feed the fire box. The best signal of course was the call to lunch, where the meals prepared and delivered to the sight by the wives and daughters of the district were a hungry man’s delight from start to finish, and disappeared very quickly. Despite all those many hours and weeks of the harvest through rain or shine these boys also had some fun, occasionally playing tricks on each other, such as greasing the fork handles or pulling the pins of the double trees and letting a box of mice loose in the bunkhouse, but through it all they always looked after each other, and enjoyed gathering together for the gala fall celebration when it was all done. Of course, the technology and methods of farming and ranching has changed and expanded drastically over these many decades, but the keen and proud tradition of a supreme effort and team work has and will always prevail from seeding to harvest and way beyond.