Credit for this story belongs to: The Manitoba Historical Society.….……
Souris as a name seems to have been ill-defined and loosely used through the years; even the pronunciation has been indecisive, for though as a French word it should be Source, long usage by the English speaking people of the area have determined that it shall be, Souris. The International River, from which
the name is derived, rises in the Yellow Grass marshes of southern Saskatchewan and flows in a south easterly direction paralleling the Missouri Coteau, and crosses the international
boundary south east of Estevan, Saskatchewan, almost directly south of Oxbow. Its southern loop is completed some forty miles from the Missouri, whose course it parallels for some distance, before doubling back in a huge horseshoe to enter Manitoba south of Melita. From this point it angles north eastward, and the Town of Souris, located at its junction with the Plum Creek, is at the northern tip of its major bend in Manitoba. Continuing east it dips south again, until, deflected by the western end of the Tiger Hills it again flows north, entering the Assiniboine at the N.W. corner of section 15–8‑16 W. lst.
In the Sessional papers for 1880–81 the name was variously applied. Prof. John Macoun refers to the Souris Plain as “This immense treeless expanse, extending from the Souris River on the 101st Meridian near Melita and stretching northwesterly to Moose Jaw Creek, near the 106th Meridian.” Again survey notes by William Pearce speak of the Souris Plain when referring to the area north from Turtle Mountain to the river, which would include an area almost 50 miles east and as far north of Macoun’s boundary at Melita. A map of Manitoba and the North West Territories published in 1884 uses the name “Souris”, applied this time to the land district which included all of townships 6 to 12, and which extended from Treherne near its eastern boundary to Moose Mountain in Saskatchewan. When settlers of the Sowden party were proceeding westward by oxcart they thought of their destination near the present town as “the Souris District”. The town site, or post office, is so designated on the map previously mentioned, and also on an early postal map. This presents a minor mystery, for though the town and Post Office of the 1880s was known to its inhabitants as Plum Creek (even achieving a degree of fame in 1887, when the Plum Creek Lacrosse team defeated the 90th at Winnipeg to become champions of the northwest), I could find no official recognition of the fact that any such post office had ever existed. I consulted Manitoba place names with no result. According to the oldest inhabitants it was not until the coming of the railway that the Town was renamed “Souris”. I have found Plum Creek mentioned in many old newspapers, and mail so addressed was certainly delivered through a span of several years.
To add to this confusion of names, “Souris” has long been associated with Souris coal, of which the report of the Department of the Interior for the year 1880 has this to say:
“In connection with the fuel supply for this part of the country, it may be of interest to mention that several barge loads of lignite from the valuable deposits of that material on the upper waters of the Souris were floated down that stream and the Assiniboine to the market at Winnipeg, by parties who had embarked in the enterprise under permission from the Department.”
These coal fields seem to have multiplied the opportunities for confusion and misuse of the place name. J. B. Brebner in his book North Atlantic Triangle refers to the Souris coal fields in Manitoba; and A. S. Morton, in his most detailed and authoritative work, A History of Prairie Settlement, on page 67, states that the C.P.R. line which branches south from the main track at Kemnay, Manitoba, reached the coal fields at Souris in 1887 and pushed on to Hartney by 1890. Rather a remarkable statement when one considers that these coal fields are clearly marked on the N.W.T. map of 1884, and constitute a sizeable area along the base of the Missouri Coteau in Saskatchewan, between the 102nd and 104th meridian longitude; an error of some 120 miles in space, and of a year or two in time as well, since the railway did not reach Souris until 1889 or 1890. It would appear from all of this that in the early years, Souris Plains, Souris Valley, Souris District, or Souris Basin, were very general geographic terms used to describe almost any part of a wide area in southwestern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan.
By 1882, when the McBain party and others from Millbrook passed through Plum Creek on their way southwest, they thought of their destination near Melita, Pearson, or Lyleton, as the Antler Country. “Glenwood” is the name of the rural municipality which comprised 6 townships centred on the Town. It was named for Squire Sowden’s home in Millbrook.
The earliest records of inhabitants of this district indicate that David Thompson, in the winter of 1798–99, and Alexander Henry the younger, in the summer of 1806, passed through the area; suffering the rigors of a trackless, windswept wilderness of snow, or the miseries of the sodden, mosquito-infested plains in a wet summer, both reported encampment of Assiniboine Indians along the river. The North West Company operated a post known as Ash House on the river south of Hartney for a brief period in the late 18th century. From 1824 through to 1861 several posts were in more or less continuous operation in this neighborhood. William Mackay, Hudson’s Bay Company factor at Fort Ellice, mentions in his journal “parties proceeding south to the Pemmican forts”. In 1858, Professor Hind visited a post in the Souris Sand Hills which he says was maintained only in the winters during the absence of the Sioux, whose war parties seem to have been the scourge of this country south of the Souris. There are fairly frequent accounts in fur trading annals of Indians or traders ambushed by these warlike plainsmen of the south.
It would seem that eighteen somewhat vacant years elapsed between the closing of the last small trading establishment and the year 1879, when the first settlers began to drift into or through the area. James Wiggins built a log shanty and attempted some ploughing near the mouth of Plum Creek in the spring of 1880. In that year the survey was completed and land seekers were becoming aware of its possibilities. In July, 1880, in the Village of Millbrook, Ontario, a group of business men formed a Colonization Syndicate consisting of W. H. Sowden, J. N. Kirchhoffer, and Maj. S. G. Fairclough of Kingston, the firm name of Wood & Kells (Archibald Wood‑T. G. Kells). This group planned to organize a small segment of the land hungry tide which was beginning to surge westward. W. H. Sowden was sent to the West in the fall of that year; and after a scouting expedition with buckboard and pony, which took him as far west as the present site of Gainsboro, Saskatchewan, he selected Township 6, 7 and the south half of 8, in Ranges 20, 21 and 22, for their project. Their proposal was accepted ‘by the authorities at Ottawa and the organizers proceeded to solicit colonists for their venture. Those who signed up in Ontario were to have first choice of homesteads and pre-emptions, and the option of purchasing from the government half of the odd numbered section which was next their homestead. The Syndicate was to have the privilege of purchasing all of the odd sections which remained after the colonists had given their refusal notices for the land on which they held options. (The price at which the Syndicate land was sold to the settlers amounted, in most cases, to $3.00 per acre.) On making their tentative registration in Ontario, each settler paid $25.00 and was to present his receipt to the Land Office at the mouth of the Souris when he completed his registration. As an additional advantage this mass movement which was known as the Sowden-Plum Creek party, was able to obtain lower rates for their railway transportation to St. Boniface.
They left Millbrook on the evening of April 5th, 1881, and truly the launching of a private expeditionary force could hardly have occasioned a greater upheaval in that little community. An hour or so later they changed trains at Port Hope, and the “Times” of that day devoted a large, headlined feature to recounting what was apparently a colourful event. On reaching Toronto they found that no arrangement had been made for William Wenman and his sons, who were to have joined them there; but aside from this oversight they reached Detroit without incident. There they completed the arrangements necessary for travelling in bond through the United States.
Just out of Detroit, the conductor noticed a dog belonging to William Fallis, and demanded that it ride with the livestock. Apparently a dog did not ride too well in a crowded car of oxen, and the uproar which ensued was such that the railroad authorities pulled into a siding at Battle Creek, Michigan, with an ultimatum to do something, and quickly, before their cattle car was completely wrecked. After a hurried consultation, and some peering down into the car to assess the situation, it was evident that someone would have to venture in to retrieve the dog. One of my grandfather’s oxen was down, apparently exhausted and being badly trampled, so he volunteered to make the attempt. He succeeded in threading his way over to the manger where the dog had taken refuge, and almost reached the ladder again before he was assisted on the last lap of his journey by one of the frantic oxen who tossed him out through the roof. He was fortunate throughout this nasty situation; for as the ox’s horns were well blunted, he suffered little damage, and, from the point of view of the railroad and the rest of the party, his success in hanging onto the dog until he was clear of the car, made the episode no vain effort. Their unhappy cargo milled about for a time but gradually settled down so that the journey could be resumed.
They made few stops except when necessary to exercise the stock; but occasionally when there was a brief pause some of the party would get off to stretch their legs and see something of “the States”. At one such stop, a number were left behind, Squire Sowden among them. The train crew created a little sport for themselves by rattling along just out of their frantic grasp for almost a mile while the sight-seers stumbled desperately over the rough ties behind them. The train eventually waited for them and the Squire was dragged aboard, purple with rage and exhausted by his efforts. When he had breath to speak, he forcefully denounced the conductor, who was, however, little impressed by the Canadian’s wrath, or his position as leader of the party.
When they reached Chicago they were shunted far out in the yards, and ordered to get up on top of the cars which contained their goods and effects. There they sat all night while another train was made up. Hardly an exciting way to spend a night in the big town; but to most of them the myriad winking lights, the swinging signal lanterns, and the ceaseless noise and motion of the scene around them, were sufficiently novel and intriguing to keep them awake. Had they fallen asleep, there was a very real danger of rolling off their uncomfortable and precarious perch.
Spring came early in 1881, with less and less snow apparent as they proceeded northward. In many places seeding was well advanced, and the Mississippi was in flood where their line bridged it at La Crosse. As they had three rivers to cross before they would be home in “the Northwest,” there was some concern over the possible state of river ice. But their journey was pleasant enough and optimism and high spirits prevailed throughout the party. My grandfather mentions two of the younger members, Jack Hayden and George Kerr, whom he considered “real wits” of the totally desirable variety. They kept the rest of the group well entertained by their appropriate comments on many little incidents along the way that otherwise would have seemed tiresome trifles.
They arrived in St. Paul, where they were to transfer to the Minnesota-Manitoba Railroad at 7 o’clock in the evening, but it was 2:00 a.m. before they could get their stock out of the cars. After the cattle were attended to, they had to walk three miles back to the coaches where they spent what remained of the night.
From St. Paul onward, the train was in two sections, with most of the party together in the first. A few hours out of St. Paul, when all were settled for the night, George Moffatt wakened, probably missing the jolting sway of the cars, and the clicking beat of the wheels over the rough roadbed. Realizing that they were stopped, but still groggy with sleep, he went to investigate. He found no locomotive, no town, nothing, but the soft darkness of the quiet prairie night! He rushed to the caboose to waken the conductor and trainmen, who were soon scurrying down the track to signal the oncoming train. Moffatt then dashed back to rouse the sleepers in the coaches, who tumbled out in haste and alarm to scramble across the deep water-filled ditch which lined the right-of-way. They all made it safely except poor Mrs. Henderson, the lone woman of the party, who fell short of the mark and landed squarely in three feet of icy water. Women’s clothes in the 1880s were definitely not designed to assist in a running broad jump. When the excitement was over, the second section flagged to a stop, and the runaway engine reversed from the next station to pick up its train, they found that the two youngest members of the group, Arthur Rose and George Lumsden, had slept soundly through the wild confusion which attended their hasty debarkation. Since a disaster had been safely averted, these two were ahead of the rest by a good night’s sleep.
The train arrived in St. Boniface about three o’clock in the afternoon of April 12th. These fortunate settlers who were able to travel by rail, the fastest and most up-to-date mode of travel available, had taken one full week to arrive on the east bank of the Red River. Their frustrations had been many, but they were just beginning. Now, with their cars in St. Boniface, they found that the ice was honeycombed and rotten with a lot of water along the edges, it seemed that an immediate crossing was their most urgent need. This was impossible for their precious freight was still ensnarled in red tape. Since their bonding papers, and $800.00 deposit had not arrived from Detroit, they were unable to unload immediately. Another three days passed before they managed to get safely across to the Winnipeg side.
A. E. Hetherington’s letter home gives a first hand impression of the unfamiliar West.
“Winnipeg is a very nice place, and the liveliest town for business I have ever been in. The streets are perfectly dry now and the whole place in the most thriving order. The snow outside the City has not quite disappeared, and the rivers have not yet broken up as we had feared. I feel quite at home since I arrived here, almost everyone I meet is from some place in Ontario and they all seem so glad to see us. People I have never seen before will say, ‘Well, well, you’re from Ontario, how are all the folks down there?’ I do not feel far from home at all, and everyone seems jolly and happy, and so busy. Mr. Benson, a man from Peterboro, who is now doing business here, says that there is more business done here in one week than there is back home in two weeks …
“This is really the tiniest place it has been my pleasure to be in, of course I haven’t been many places, but this certainly beats them all. There are dozens of “swells” riding the streets on their blooded horses, and the number on foot could hardly be numbered. The ladies are not so numerous, but they are quite as tony.
“Now don’t you fret about the uncertainty of our prospects, I believe there is a good time coming for us all in this same Northwest. Everyone I meet here says that the Souris district is the best up here, and that we will be delighted with it. There are hundreds going west each day, and it is almost impossible to get cars to Portage, there are so many waiting to go.”
It was with a spirit of supreme optimism, tense eagerness and suppressed excitement that they pressed on westward. It took two and one half days to drive to Portage la Prairie. My grandfather comments from there on April 17th:
“This is a thriving town of about two thousand inhabitants and it is just like Winnipeg, only smaller. It is thronged with Englishmen of very good families, who seem very nice fellows only a little too fond of billiards and sporting of one kind or another. We will leave here tomorrow for the Souris and expect to get there by the end of the week if the roads do not break up.”
Unfortunately the roads did break up, and became too soft for their heavy loads, so they had to store their heavier goods at a wharf on the river from whence it would be shipped to the Souris mouth as soon as navigation opened. Before leaving Portage they heard somewhat exaggerated rumors concerning the influx of people which was preceding them into the Souris district, as is evident from the Portage letter:
“People coming from the west here report that miles of the Souris District is dotted with tents of people waiting for us to arrive so that they can take up land in the twelve townships held by Sowden.”
They were three days on the road from Portage to the Land Office. Oxen are never swift, and the going was rugged, over trails worn in the prairie sod by Indians, fur traders and explorers who had travelled light in comparison with these wagons, groaning under the weight of the rudimentary household goods and farm implements necessary for their new start in the west. Much of the terrain which they passed through on this lap of their journey was, and is, very rough country. It is more heavily wooded now than then, but even in those days the original spruce trees used by farmers in the district were transplanted from the Spruce woods. This anxious and impatient party’s appreciation of natural beauty had worn thin by the time they reached the Land Office. The ferry across the river was a rickety, insecure affair; and during the shuttle service which it provided for the crossing one yoke of oxen found that being hauled across the swift stream on a few wobbly planks was more than their wavering bovine morale could endure, so they plunged into the water, almost overturning the ferry. Tom Leith was thrown into the stream but he was able to catch one of the oxen by the horns and throw himself across its back, as the frantic beast struck out for the shore, which they reached safely, cold, wet and thoroughly shaken but otherwise quite unharmed.
At the Land Office some members of the party were ready to incite a riot when they found that the Registrar had received no word from Ottawa, authorizing him to honour their receipts. As a result of being thus upbraided, the Land Agent became quite hostile to the whole expedition, so the last lap of their journey began in a somewhat uncertain state; though their confidence in land agents generally was not so great as to shake their faith seriously in the arrangement under which they had come to the west.
The party split up at this point; all those located on the north side of the river and some from the south, took a well defined trail west out of the valley. Some of those, whose ultimate destination was on the south side of the Souris, crossed that river by ferry at its mouth, and proceeded two and one-half miles south across the flats to Millford.
Millford was at this time the only village south of the Assiniboine in Western Manitoba. It stood in this pleasant valley where Oak Creek enters the Souris river, surrounded by escarpments whose elevation reaches 1200 feet and more. Only its cellars remain, though a cairn erected a few years ago on the eastern rim of the valley beside the trail from Treesbank to Stockton mark its passing, and the cemetery overlooking Oak Creek is still used and kept up by the old families of the district. Most of the land in its immediate neighborhood was settled at this date, and descendants of the pioneers, Mooneys, Dewarts, Naismiths, Turnbulls, and Clarks from Two Rivers at the Souris mouth, still remain in the district. A few miles to the west, the Elliott settlement which had been established :before the land was surveyed formed another oasis of civilization in the plains.
For the south Souris party, getting out of Millford and onto the Turtle Mountain trail presented an obstacle never anticipated in coming to the Prairies; for they had to drive their wagons over the high promontory which overlooks Millford flats from the southwest. The road had been cut into a soft slithery mass of ruts, and it was, moreover, a long way to the top. During this uphill grind one of the wagons overturned, spilling its contents down the side of the hill into the valley of Oak Creek, from whence each item had to be painfully retrieved. All in all, it was a gruelling half day for both men and oxen before the heights were finally scaled and they were on their way again. Incidentally, these same heights sounded the death knell of Millford some years later when the railway refused to consider an establishment in the valley and crossed the river at its narrowest point, a mile or so to the north.
Once on the trail, the settlers must face the question of where to branch off to the west, for they knew that they would have to make their own way from there on. They brought a Government guide with them, but he seemed vague and indecisive. Finally, believing that he had found the proper place, he proceeded to lead those who would follow him, into a swamp where he stuck fast and had to be hauled out by his followers. The guide, who was really a very good sort, belatedly admitted that lie had not previously crossed to the south side of the river, so from thereon they knew where they stood. My grandfather, and perhaps others of the group as well, had learned how to read the surveyors’ stakes, and so they turned off the Turtle Mountain trail about 15 miles southwest of Millford, and not far from Lang’s Valley on the south bend of the Souris, and had no further difficulty. They travelled for two days over country burned black by a fire which had swept through the area the previous autumn, and for much of the distance not a shrub was to be seen anywhere. On the 30th of April they arrived at the southeast corner of Township 7, Range 21, in which their holdings were situated. From there on each man was on his own, as they eagerly dispersed to give close inspection to the half section that was to be his home in the Northwest.
Now to trace something of the experiences of the little group who were waiting at Plum Creek for the party north of the river to arrive. Mr. James Y. Bambridge, whose association with the Souris district predates that of the Sowden party, stated he was there with Captain Gilbert Wood’s family and the Hicks brothers while they were preparing to winter on the banks of Plum Creek in the fall of 1880. He spent almost a month in the district and was present when Squire Sowden passed through from the west and settled on the Souris location, and chose the Plum Creek site for their mill, which was to form an integral part of their colonization development. He made arrangements with Mr. Sowden to take up land somewhere in the Townships to be settled by the Millbrook party and agreed to be on the spot the following spring to await their arrival. Mr. Arthur Rose came with the Sowden party in 1881, and was joined at Winnipeg by his older brother Alexander Rose, who had been in the west since 1879. They both took up homesteads south of the river in what became the Lily School district.
Some illuminating details from Mr. Bambridge’s recollections help to bring into sharper focus our picture of life as it was lived in the Northwest in the very early eighties, and highlight some of the problems confronting an Ontario youth newly arrived from the east. He arrived in St. Boniface by rail on April 5th, 1880, and planned to stay with his father’s friend, Thomas Lawson, at Rapid City while looking around the country for a desirable homestead. Mr. Bambridge possessed no conveyance, but he had a large trunk which he would not willingly abandon, and which made walking or stage-riding out of the question. While putting in time at Westbrook and Fairchild’s implement warehouse the solution to his grave dilemma appeared in the guise of a farmer with a strong team of horses. This Mr. MacKay came to the warehouse to see if the dealers had a wagon which they would like hauled out to their agents at Rapid City. The firm were glad to supply a new wagon but they stipulated that it carry in its box, some smaller implements as well. However, Mr. MacKay made room to squeeze in Mr. Bambridge’s trunk as well as his own things, and so for what seemed to him the most reasonable fare of $7.00, he was launched on the next lap of his journey.
They travelled through water three to six inches deep most of the way to Portage, but the footing underneath was solid so they were able to drive along at a good pace. After leaving Portage, they were caught in a very severe blizzard, and were storm-stayed for three days at what was called the Pine Creek stopping house, where they spent a thoroughly dismal time rolled in buffalo robes on the floor of the tiny shack which sheltered five men, two women, and three children, during the storm. Their journey was thus extended from noon on Monday until late Saturday.
Mr. Bambridge stayed at Rapid City for a short time and then moved east to Tanner’s Crossing (Minnedosa) to look over the land in that neighborhood. While there he found employment in connection with the, saw mill operated by Armitage and McCulloch and managed by William Herriot. He was lucky enough to get work at the mill, for at the time there were many more men looking for work than there were places available. His boarding place at Minnedosa had a strange history. It was a frame structure about 10 feet x 16 feet which had been built in Winnipeg and hauled west on skids. Mr. Bambridge and several other employees at the mill lived in a large square tent which formed an annex beside the back door. While working there, he and another man were sent up to Cameron’s mill at the big bend of the Little Saskatchewan, about 50 miles west to bring down 50,000 feet of lumber and 50,000 shingles to replenish stocks at Minnedosa. They made the lumber into rafts and loaded each with shingles, then added their tents and equipment to the last and largest raft to follow the others downstream. They camped on the river bank each night and completed the whole operation in 8 days.
Before starting work and in what time he could spare afterward, he and two companions tramped over miles of country looking for suitable homesteads. Their outfit for this type of travel consisted of a small tent, a pair of blankets, kettle, frying pan, teapot, tin plates and cups. Their food consisted largely of bread, butter and salt, but they could easily supply themselves with all the eggs they could eat by robbing the wild ducks’ nests which bordered the innumerable sloughs of that area. However, they were not well impressed with the district’s farming possibilities, so in the fall of the year he and his companions set out to see the Souris Country. They crossed the Assiniboine by boat at Grand Valley and continued southwest across the western end of Brandon Hills. One of the group turned back, but Mr. Hopkins continued on with him to the Plum Creek where they found Captain Wood’s family and the Hicks brothers busily preparing for winter. Mr. Bambridge said that he has often been amazed since, when he considers how quickly and well they completed these preparations.
Captain Wood had to provide shelter for his pony and two oxen, as well as build a house large enough, and sufficiently weatherproof to protect his family and the big wagon load of household effects which they had trundled about the prairie all summer long. The fall season was well advanced when they reached Plum Creek with Thomas and Edward Hicks, who had joined them at Lang’s Valley. Wood’s house when completed, was about 12 feet x 16 feet. It was in part, dug into the creek bank, poled up on the inside, and the front and side walls built of small poplar logs plastered with mud. The ceiling was made of poles and covered with a thick thatch of prairie grass. Besides this work of building, they had to harvest enough hay to winter their stock, and even where the grass was waist high and thick as moss, the harvesting process was quite an undertaking with the crude tools available. The whole feat so adequately accomplished was made more remarkable by the fact that Captain Wood was not particularly robust, and had come west from Kingston, Ontario, for the health of his only son who had been a near invalid. Mrs. Wood, from all accounts, must have been a remarkable woman of many accomplishments. Fortunately for herself, and her family, she was a strong and efficient worker, in a land where such endowment could mean the difference between comfort and survival or misery and disaster. Thomas and Edward Hicks were young Englishmen only recently arrived in the country; unaccustomed to pioneering work, and unacquainted with Prairie ways and winters. However, through diligence and common sense, with which they must both have been amply endowed, they came through the winter of 1880 most successfully.
Mr. Bambridge returned to Minnedosa for the winter where he was able to get work at his trade of blacksmith, and arrived back at Captain Wood’s establishment about the middle of April, 1881. He pitched his tent not far from Plum Creek and settled down to await the arrival of the party from Ontario. The Northern group under the leadership of John Deyell had followed the old Yellow Quill trail for a good part of their journey from the Land Office, and they arrived at William Fallis’ homestead three miles east of Plum Creek on the evening of Tuesday, April 27th. The next day some of the party pushed on to Section 32–7‑21 where Wood’s dugout was located. And so finally, though they spent much of Wednesday, April 28th, bogged down in a slough west of Mr. Fallis’ homestead, the outriders of the Sowden-Plum Creek party had officially arrived.
Mr. Bainbridge planned to homestead on the E ½ 10–8‑21 and Mr. Hopkins, who had remained with Wood’s during the winter, hoped to have the W ½ of this Section, but when Squire Sowden arrived, they found that George Foster and Mr. Hunter had this section reserved and Bill Coe and William Fallis had their second choice on Sections 11 and 12, so they moved their claim northeast to Section 14–8‑21.
There was some jockeying for position in the matter of picking homesteads. There were quite a number of men who had drifted in that spring seeking land, who knew nothing of the special arrangements made for these townships. James Wiggins we have mentioned earlier; there were also the Flemings of Carroll, and no doubt a number of others who were squeezed out when there was no land that suited them, left unclaimed. My grandfather mentions that a John Vague had placed a sign at the corner of his homestead, the E ½ 22–7‑21 W. lst, but since the gentleman never appeared in person, he was perhaps trying to reserve land here and there as he passed through, so that he could shop around among his selections before making a final choice. Henry Leathers (father of Dr. Victor H. Leathers of United College), who later settled near Fairfax, was anxious to homestead on 27–7‑21, and as the man who had entered for it did not want it, my grandfather hoped that this would be possible. However, the only way to pick up land on which the original homesteader did not wish to complete his registration, was to go to the Land Office with the rejecting party and snap it up quickly, as soon as they had withdrawn their tentative registration. Naturally these transactions usually took place between friends who prearranged the switch in registration. Theoretically it should have been impossible to lose a piece of land for which a receipt was held, but however this was managed, it apparently did happen at times. In his letter of May 1st, A. E. Hetherington remarks: “We are lucky on the south side of the river, as John Deyell, Robert Steel and some others have lost their lots and are searching the country for more.”
The country abounded with wild birds and animals. The only real complaint was the scarcity of wood, and some cheerful souls like Bob Lang, felt they could get along very well without too much of that. Every little creek was full of beaver, muskrat, and mink, and some of the mink were thought to be much larger than the average Ontario specimen. There were Wavy geese, Canada Geese, ducks of all kinds, quantities of prairie chickens, and what my grandfather believed were larger numbers of vividly coloured song birds than he had noticed in the woods around Millbrook. He mentioned too, one casualty of our civilization, the Sand Hill Crane, which they observed in great numbers all the way west from Portage; these spectacular big birds provided too easy and tempting a target for our pioneers. Moose ranged in the Brandon Hills, and Mr. Arthur Rose reported seeing a large deer run past his door one morning. The old letters also mention the prairie fire problem.
May 1st “It is a grand and awful sight to see the prairie on fire. I have read of prairie fires in books of adventure, now I have seen them in real earnest here, and I never want to be in front of one. It is something dreadful to see the sky lit up from east to west for miles; and it is so light you could almost see to pick up a pin. Although the fire may be so far away that you cannot see flame, the reflection from the sky makes it light. There was a great fire across the river last night, and I think it was the most weird and beautiful sight I ever saw. There was a great strip or prairie between the river and the Brandon Hills that had not been burned last fall. It caught yesterday afternoon, and the way that fire rushed along was something terrific.”
A letter dated May 29th describes the prairie trees:
“There is an abundance of everything except wood, and there is enough of that to burn for a few years when we will have lots of coal for almost nothing. There will be any amount of wood in a few years if it can be preserved from fire. The little trees grow up every year with the grass and reach a height of three feet or so in one summer, then comes a prairie fire and they are killed. Where the fire misses them for a season, they grow to quite a size, but the grass grows so tall and thick that it seems impossible for them to escape for long except at the water’s edge, and even there they are not always safe.”
In this connection the pioneer’s favorite picnic ground “Oak Orchard”, which overlooked the Souris park from the south, presented quite a phenomenon. There, one can perhaps find the largest Oak trees of the prairie region. Right at the top of the hill beside the settlers old road, where the sand swallows used to nest, and where the darkest and biggest of wild roses used to grow in tangled profusion, stands a giant among prairie trees. Its trunk would measure 12 to 15 feet in circumference at the ground, and it is 8 or 9 feet around at about 5 feet up from the base.
To return to 1881; each settler was now deeply involved in the tremendous amount of work which the fulfilment of their settlement duties entailed. A certain number of acres must be plowed and backset each year, and some sort of a start at building must be attempted. Lumber was expensive, rough planking could be obtained at $30.00 per thousand from the Elliott settlement, but their hope was that when they could haul from the railway at Brandon such things would be much cheaper.
Perhaps it was the result of camping out, perhaps imagination, or, perhaps as they believed, it was the invigorating western air; in any case, many of the party felt that their health was much improved in the northwest. Many of the men reported enormously increased appetites, and examples were cited of improved colour and more abundant energy. My grandfather must have had quite a larder aboard his wagon, for he mentions numbers of carefully packed fruitcakes and shortbreads, canned fruits and vegetables, dried beans and peas as well as a supply of potatoes. They would, of course, have other staples such as flour and salt, for the letters mention that one of their first acts on arriving at the south townships was to unpack their sheet iron stove and bake a batch of bannock. Mr. Rose told me that he and his brother made bannock with any sort of fat, flour and a dash of water, then baked it in a frying pan “slanted up along the fire”. It was often scorched or raw but always edible. The Rose brothers built their first house of logs and were quite happily housed until the cold weather came, when they were forced to retreat beneath the sheltering bank of Hayden’s ravine where a dug-out faced with thick prairie sod housed them in comparative comfort.
The first gathering of a religious nature took place in grandfather’s tent on Sunday, May 8th, and was well attended. He had with him his Church of England Prayer Book, Bible, and a collection of sermons by prominent churchmen. These meetings continued each Sunday until early July, with the exception of May 15th, which was spent walking to Millford for mail. Some time during the spring, the Methodist minister from the Souris Mouth, Rev. Thomas Hall, spent the weekend at Captain Wood’s and held a Sunday service there.
They were not without community spirit of a practical nature, for in spite of their exertions on their own farms, two meetings intended to further the general welfare were held. One on May 18th, at the Mill site, formed an Agricultural Society to obtain information as to the best farming practices in the western grasslands. W. H. Sowden was elected president, Richard Staples, vice-president and Arthur Rose and A. E. Hetherington, directors for the south side of the river. On May 24th, another meeting was held, this time to draft a petition for the construction of a bridge across the Souris, and to have a post office established there. Considering that they had been in the district less than a month, they showed commendable zeal in organizing for positive action in the bettering of their community.
Mr. Bambridge did little with his homestead in 1881, but he erected the first building in the town when he built a log blacksmith shop on the bank of Plum Creek, north-west of the present mill. He burned his own charcoal for his forge and was kept fairly busy during the summer. As winter approached he closed his shop and went to Portage where he found work, and returned to his homestead the next spring. Only two other buildings were erected in the town-site that year. Squire Sowden put up a fairly substantial log house just south of the mill bridge on the east side of Plum Creek, where John Dolmage opened a small store late in the summer. Thomas Carveth had a good sized place largely constructed of prairie sod where he kept boarders.
Mr. William Wenman and his sons, who did not arrive until late June, achieved the most elaborate permanent residence constructed in 1881. Before winter they had a large two-storey dwelling built northwest of town. The comfort and solidity of the establishment which they erected in a very short space of time, was thought by Mr. Bainbridge to be one of the outstanding achievements of that first year.
There seems to have been a fairly general ebb tide back to Ontario for the winter; many returned to make preparations for more elaborate establishments, and better farming equipment in the coming year. A large sod stable was built near the present C.P.R. Depot, where many of their oxen were wintered in the care of George Moffatt, Johnston Brandon, and James Wallworth Davies, a retired Anglican minister, who died the following spring. Arthur Rose went to the bush country east of Winnipeg, where he worked at logging and brush cutting but returned to the district at the end of January to prepare for the next season’s operations. Before leaving in the fall of 1881, he had walked to Millford to buy seed grain for himself and Jim Cowan. He had, in fact, been over the trail to Millford a number of times during the summer, so it was with every confidence that he and Mr. Cowan set off by sleigh across the trackless whiteness in the general direction of Millford, to pick up their seed grain. It was a clear beautiful winter day in early February, but by afternoon they were enveloped in a dense white fog which cut visibility to a few feet. They pressed on until nightfall, when, uncertain as to their location but still confident, they pulled up beside a haystack and spent the night huddled in their sleigh. The next morning the fog was as impenetrable as ever but they plodded off with haste and determination. After half a day of hard driving found them back at the same haystack they became alarmed for the first time. Convinced now that it was possible to be thoroughly lost, they retreated along the trail they had broken the day before, which most fortunately was still visible as there had been no wind. So, chastened in spirit and ravenously hungry, they arrived back at the southeastern outpost of the settlement, Paddy Burke’s shanty. They finally collected their seed by following a more travelled trail into Brandon and then out to Millford as the greater traffic on these roads made it unlikely that they could lose their way in any reasonable weather.
For winter work and driving, the usual garb included felt boots or moccasins, heavy underwear, overalls, and a coat of some sort; styles in headgear varied, but some such covering plus a woolen scarf completed their outfit. Buffalo coats were the warmest available but Mr. Rose said they were not too plentiful at $30.00.
There were two special trains from Millbrook to Brandon in the spring of 1882. They arrived in April just at the time of the spring break up and experienced much difficulty and delay through the all but impassable trails, swollen streams, and brimming sloughs which made their passage of some 30 miles to Souris a serious ordeal now that they must transport no inconsiderable amount of household goods and farming equipment. My grandfather’s car contained a team of horses, crates of Spangled Hampburg chickens, quantities of household goods, and equipment, sawn lumber for a house 18 feet x 24 feet and 500 bushels of seed grain. Crossing the little Souris just north of the Brandon Hills, his horses lost their footing on the ice and his wagon overturned in four feet of swift water. He was more upset by the damage to their carefully packed library of books than by any other loss from this adventure; the risks which he took in his frantic efforts to retrieve them from the icy water were rewarded, as, with painstaking care in the drying process, most of them were salvaged and readable. As a result of their struggles, his horses became ill and the rest of the hauling from Brandon was done by oxen, much of it in the pouring rain which continued to aggravate flood conditions that spring.
By 1882, most of the settlers for the southwest corner of the Province (the Antler country) were using the railroad to Brandon instead of the old Boundary Commission trail to the south. Captain Wood built a large scow and employed John Cummings to ferry them across Plum Creek west of his farm. Mr. Bambridge worked as a guide that spring (wages $2.00 a day and board ) and accompanied several parties as far west as Gainsborough, Saskatchewan.
During the spring of this year, some 14 men, including Mr. A. Rose, were employed building a dam at the proposed Mill site on Plum Creek. While the water was too high for much progress at this work, they built another scow on the Souris, large enough to carry a single wagon; this was used by the settlers south of the river, though the crossing was complicated by the fact that all livestock had to be trailed behind them in the river.
In spite of a rather late start, occasioned by these difficulties, grandfather had what Mr. Rose admired as a very respectable, cosy house erected by the end of June. It was set on the east bank of the little stream known locally as “Hull’s Ravine”, and his first kitchen was a sizeable sod dugout right in the bank itself. This was connected to the bedrooms and living room (contained in a frame structure 18 feet x 24 feet on the top of the bank) by a stairway which led to a trap door in the kitchen ceiling. My Aunt Jessie, who was aged four when she arrived with my grandmother early in July, felt that this was quite the most beautiful and fascinating of all possible housing arrangements; in her childish eagerness, she delighted in taking the outside passage, downhill from the “parlor” to the kitchen.
The machinery for the Mill had been ordered from Goldie and McCulloch, of Galt, Ontario. It had been delivered to Brandon in the fall of 1881, about the time of the general exodus back to Ontario and dumped off the train there apparently unclaimed. By the spring of 1882, the Company wearied of fruitless inquiries and sent George McCulloch and William Herriot to determine what had become of their machinery, as well as, when, where and by whom it might eventually be installed. They found it in Brandon and after building a shelter in which to store it, they proceeded to Plum Creek to inspect the Mill site. They found some work was in progress at the dam and a large pile of black poplar logs from the bluffs northwest of town were the proposed building material for the main structure. They were well impressed by possibilities rather than progress, so McCulloch and Herriot went into partnership. They purchased the site from W. H. Sowden, and with some financial assistance from Wood & Kells, proceeded to rebuild the dam and erect a substantial mill. The building was completed by December of 1882, the machinery installed in February of 1883, and their enterprise in operation cleaning seed for the settlers of a wide area by the spring of 1883.
There was a large influx of settlers in 1882. More farmers and their families from Ontario, chiefly from Millbrook and its environs, but their numbers were swelled by others of a more varied background. W. H. Liston a Scottish gentleman (cousin of the Marquis of Lorne) came from Ceylon and bought Tom Carveth’s homestead (E ½ 4–8‑21), when he moved to town to become the first butcher of the locality. Alfred Lowatt and his family, originally from England, came from southeastern Manitoba, where they had farmed since the late 1770s, and settled in the Hebron district not far from the southwest corner of the Brandon Hills. Saundersons settled west of town, and Christopher Brandon came with his family from Millbrook to settle a short distance east of the present townsite. The first Post Office was established in 1882, with John Dolmage as Postmaster.
There was also a fairly large group from the old country, particularly from Ireland, which had arrived more or less under the auspices of R. B. Kirchhoffer, brother of J. N. Kirchhoffer, of the Millbrook syndicate. One of these, A. J. Jameson, a brother of Dr. L. S. Jameson of the famous or infamous South African raid, completed a substantial livery barn by 1883, and imported some fine horses and a competent horseman, John Meyers, to look after them. Others of the Irish party included, Dr. J. C. Stoyte, John Burke, the Starr brothers, and Messrs. Buckley, Cronin, and Creedon. Dr. Stoyte took up land south of town, though he made no attempt to work it himself; by 1883, he had a substantial frame house which is still occupied and well preserved, as well as the town’s first brick structure, his drugstore, now used as the Orange Hall. The Robert Moffat house, a small frame structure on the road to the iron bridge, is the only building erected in 1882, which is still existing, and it has been continuously occupied since that date.
The following year filled the district completely, and the least desirable locations northwest of town were occupied. In a sense, the Syndicate’s townships had become, in 1882 and 1883, an island of reasonably accessible land still available for homesteading; for on March 11th, 1882, the Department of the Interior withdrew from homestead entry “all even-numbered sections next to and along both sides of the C.P.R. railway and its branches” and another directive dated July 5th, stated “that since the lands between the southern limits of the main line belt of the C.P.R. and the international boundary have attained a great value, the Minister therefore recommends that even-numbered sections be withdrawn from homestead and pre-emption entry and offered for sale at public auction at a price not less than $2.00 per acre.”
The Colonization Syndicate system of attracting and establishing settlers worked well in this district. It was filled, and filled rapidly. Most of the original homesteaders remained for many years, and those farms which were abandoned were quickly taken up by more persistent or better qualified farmers. Wood & Kells, because of larger financial resources, were able to buy up more options in odd-numbered sections, than others of the group, and their money was freely invested in farm mortgages, which provided the settlers with improvements, or tided them over the first lean years. For the first years were lean indeed, little grain was produced in 1881, 1882 was difficult because of flooded conditions in the spring, and 1883 was on the whole, a very poor year. In view of all this, the apparently thriving state of the town by the fall of 1884 represents no inconsiderable achievement. By this date, there were fifty buildings in the town-site, Sowden’s, Dr. Stoyte’s, and J. N. and R. B. Kirchhoffer’s homes being the most elaborate. There were three stores, operated by George Crosthwaite, Hall, George and Co., and John Dolmage, and four hotels. The Crescent Hotel, built by Lt. M. S. N. Bryan, a retired Naval Officer, and operated by Brown and McKennett, was reported to be “the best in style and first class in all its equipment.” The Bruce House, owned and operated by James Hopkins, also provided a comfortable stopping place, While Jameson and Kirchhoffer’s livery stable was reported “equal to the best”. The school occupied a house built at a cost of $3,000.00 by William Hull. Mary Ann Hetherington, who later became Mrs. John Dolmage, was the first school mistress. (Mrs. Dolmage was not related to my family). Thomas Carveth was the village butcher; William Hetherington, the shoemaker, (also unrelated); W. MacGregor was the carpenter while James Harriot and R. Moffatt carried on their trade as blacksmiths.
This expansion in commerce and particularly the numerous stopping places, was made necessary by the Mill, which attracted business from a very wide area as far west as the Manitoba boundary. One story tells of an immensely powerful man by the name of Henderson from near Carnduff, Saskatchewan, who carried a sack of wheat over 90 miles on his back to have it gristed at the Mill. He returned laden with flour, bran, a side of bacon, sugar and sundry other supplies. The large storage capacity which their new elevator afforded attracted many more, at times when storage or cars were not available at Brandon. This 90,000 bushel elevator is still in use; it now belongs to McCabe Bros. Grain Co. The Mill also provided an outlet for other farm products. Mr. Bembridge said that William Herriot was a real farmer’s man, and tells of his activities as a cattle buyer and drover. On at least one occasion he drove a large herd of pigs across country to the main line of the C.P.R. at Alexander. He used to buy frozen grain, and there was plenty of frozen grain in those years, and then use this unsaleable grain to feed pigs which they kept on the flat across the creek from the Mill.
Their lives were not easy, and those who dreamed of wealth quickly achieved, were soon disillusioned; but for most of these, disillusionment did not degenerate into despair, and they became well content with their new lives. Though backgrounds were diverse a reasonable amalgam was soon achieved, and a fair spirit of basic community loyalty appeared. They became good neighbors.
The old country men had their cricket and horse racing; Anson P. Cartwright built a good track in the early years and some of the Ontario people too, were interested in harness racing. It is also alleged that, as a group, they were the bars’ most faithful patrons.
The Millbrook boys still played lacrosse, and the team that won in 1887 was in a sense, a transplanted eastern team.
There is an interesting account in the Brandon Sun of the Beaver Swimming Club, whose annual race meets were events of 1883 and 1884, at the Mill pond. The official notice of one meet stipulated that contestants must appear in costume, but costumes varied. One gentleman wore a long flowing nightshirt and another his Sunday trousers.
House parties with dancing were frequent in the Lily district, and concerts or debates in town provided a different type of entertainment. One winter night my grandfather walked to town to recite “The Island of the Scots” at one such affair, and was very nearly lost in a blizzard on his return journey.
It appears that the North West Rebellion of 1885 occasioned very little stir. Mr. Rose could remember no way in which it disturbed their complacency, though my aunt had vivid memories of the Indian runners who passed the farm with news for their brethren farther south. On one occasion three of them led by an imposing chief, complete with headdress stopped to demand a drink of water, but my grandmother, apparently in fear of kidnapping, frustrated curiosity by depositing her most reluctant little daughter in a clothes closet until they were on their way again. When the rebellion ended, the Sioux from Griswold and Pipestone entertained the celebrants at the victory bonfire on the crescent with a magnificent Pow-wow to emphasize the fact that they were, indeed, good Indians — most loyal to the great white Mother.
Souris today, is fortunate in having a number of citizens who are interested in gathering together and preserving the meagre records and recollections of its earliest settlement and development, which remain. Mr. Gordon McMorran, the editor of the Plaindealer has done considerable research in connection with the location of early trading posts. Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Haig, who farm the old Gilbert Wood homestead, have an old scrap book which belonged to the Woods, and have also gathered valuable information from interviews with local residents. Miss Evelyn Brandon, granddaughter of Christopher Brandon who came in 1882, is most interested in the district’s history and has Kell’s scrap book and some very interesting letters from T. G. Kells. In addition to Mr. Rose, there are a number of others whose memory goes back to the very early years. Mrs. Wes Fallis, daughter of W. H. Liston, came as a girl in 1882, and Mr. Charlie Stiles also came as a young boy in that year. Mr. Carter Brindle, whose family homesteaded earlier near Virden, came to the district in the early 1880s and drove the stage from Souris to Brandon in the pre-railway era. All of these can make a valuable contribution to our knowledge of the early days.
Page revised: 9 September 2011