Harvest Excursions — prospect of earning good wages attracted thousands to prairie wheatfields

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

Golden fields of grain swaying majestically in a prairie breeze, ripe for harvest and befitting the commonly-proclaimed rank of “King Wheat” was big news in Winnipeg and Manitoba, as was the thousands of men flowing westward to assist in gathering the sovereign crop of the plains. The first Harvest Excursion trains leaving from Eastern Canada depots were front-page news. A bold-type headline in the August 7, 1901, Morning Telegram, announced, 5,000 Harvest Hands En Route for Manitoba: First Excursion Train with 1,700 People will Reach Winnipeg To-night from Eastern Points.

According to the “special dispatch” received by the Telegram from Toronto, Canadian Pacific Railway officials estimated about 20,000 men would be enlisted from Eastern Canada to help with the 1901 harvest in Manitoba and the Northwest, which was nearly double the total of harvesters who came west a year earlier. Since the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were not created until 1905, the western and northern region outside Manitoba’s boundaries, extending to the Rocky Mountains foothills, was called the Northwest Territories.

“Prospects of good earnings in the harvest fields of the Northwest are attracting large numbers of men of all ages, mostly, however, young, from all parts of Ontario,” reported the Telegram.

While many were from the province immediately east of Manitoba, other harvesters came from Scotland, England, Québec, the Maritimes and British Columbia.

For Maritimers, heading west to help with the harvest was considered a rite of passage for young men. “Hitting the harvest” became part of growing up for many young Maritimers (essay by A.A. MacKenzie, author of The Harvest Train, in the commemorative book Cape Breton at 200). 

Young harvesters from Cape Breton were primarily young unemployed miners, who borrowed money from friends or relatives, peddled fish or pawned a watch to raise the relatively cheap fare to take the five- to seven-day trip out west. By taking part in the harvest, the men could earn enough so that when they returned home, they could be counted among the relatively well off.

At the CPR rail station platform in Winnipeg, the Telegram reported on the presence of: “One man who seemed to be in the prime of life ... leading out a party of eight sons, all of them to make stack or feed a threshing machine.”

Newspapers carried lists of the districts where the harvesters were needed. In 1901, for example, the Manitou area required 160 farm labourers, Rosenfeld 325, Elgin 320, Hartney 300 and Portage la Prairie over 1,500.

An American was quickly employed after stepping off the train. A Souris farmer forced his way through the crowd, approached the American, and “$50 a month (plus board) was offered and accepted and the Winnipegger of a minute had found a job.”

William Van Muster of Holland, Manitoba, arrived at the CPR station in 1902 seeking 75 harvesters, “but if he could get more he will take them, as much assistance is needed in part of the country to save this year’s crop.”

Unfortunately for local farmers, 1902 was a bad year for attracting eastern labourers. Despite numerous promotions out east, rail cars could not be filled, even though up to $45 a month was being offered. The explanation for the lack of farm hands was that the Ontario and Québec crops were late that year.

On August 20, 1901, the Telegram reported two boys,  14 and 16 years old, were offered $20 a month plus board by a Winnipeg businessman Hector Sutherland to work as labourers in the city, and laughed in the face of the man, knowing they could make substantially more working on a farm.

The combination of farmers from areas outside the city and harvest arriving from the east meant that Winnipeg hotels and restaurants did a brisk business. Other farmers waited at depots along the routes of west-bound excursion trains for their opportunity to hire harvesters.

The Manitoba Free Press on August 25, 1906, ran a lengthy article entitled, In the Harvest Fields of Manitoba, relating the bargaining for wages between farmers and labourers at a rural train station.

Dozens of farmers, whose fields in crops ranged from 150 to 700 acres with an average of 300 acres, pulled into the station riding carts, wagons, carriages or on horseback seeking their quota of labourers. They could be heard going through the train asking, “Any of you fellows wanting a job in the fields?”

Anxious farmers — their entire livelihood for the year depended on the harvest — offered from $2.25 to even $3 a day in wages. Those who accepted, “went in twos, threes and half-dozens; swaggering off with a laugh and a look back, shouting, ‘S’long boys, see you when threshin's done!’”

In florid prose, the unnamed newspaper reporter said the men “were young, they were giants of strength, very gods of field and furrow, those ‘Maritime men,’ whose breath was formed of the salt of the sea. Whose bone and sinew came from the rock-bound coasts, and whose cradle song murmured from the exultant ocean, gave them defying hearts, hearts that rose at sight and sound of battle music — and here in the wheat fields of the prairie west they were in the thick of the fighting field — the fight of life for bread!”

Some bickered about the wages offered: “What? $2.50 a day! A man back there at the last station offered us $4 a day, and board — board, sir!”

“You chaps ’ll come back asking work,” replied one farmer, “see if y’ don’t — you’ll be sick enough yet!”

When the farmer’s wife appeared, the conduct of the men changed.

“Boys, there’s a lady — wants two men — stand up you — sons of guns and let the lady have her pick an’ choice. Wages ma’am? We don’t give a d—— what wages you give — we’e here to help out with the harvest — pick out your Johnnies — only two? Say can’t you take the carload? We’ll follow a good lookin’ woman like you clear to ——!”

Yet, others replied that the offer of $2.75 a day was not enough, claiming they were “out to see the country rather than work.”

Board was always offered to the labourers, and without it none of the Easterners would accept a position working a farmer’s field.

When hired, their work day began by feeding and harnessing the horses slated to pull the reapers and binders. After performing this task, the men washing up at the outside water pump, and then entered the kitchen and filled every available chair in anticipation of breakfast. In preparation for their back-breaking toil in the fields, the men partook of a hearty meal of eggs, fried potatoes, hot rolls, home-made bread and butter, apple sauce with cream, apple pie and ginger bread. Such caloric consumption was essential in order for the men to keep up their strength during a working day that invariably lasted from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.

Wages were based on skill, with the man running the binder receiving the highest pay. The men who stooked the wheat were given less.

“All day long the reaper and binder goes ‘clack! clack!’ down the way, narrowing the square until a single row is left when’ hats off, a cheer goes up as the dinner horn sounds, and away they go, sweating men, and sweating horses, to eat, to rest, and to wager the yield of the harvest fields of 1906.”

The mid-day feast was arranged on tables placed outdoors near the wheat field that were covered by white linen. White china was “heaped high with the good things of  the farmwife’s conniving. The soup is steaming hot, the joints done to a turn, both table ends in replica, while down the entire length stands mounds of every vegetable the garden knows.”

Wild fruit was made into pastry, and there were cakes and puddings, washed down by either buttermilk, tea or coffee. After eating and lying in the shade after their meal for about an hour, the time needed to feed the horses and give them a good rest, the men went back to their labours refuelled by the farmwife’s culinary delights.

“So goes the harvest day in the fields of sunny, southern Manitoba,” ended the Free Press writer.

The Free Press writer failed to explain the meals for the entire day, but according to the Home Life of Women in Western Canada, a CPR magazine published in 1907, breakfast for the harvesters began at 6 a.m., lunch in the field at 10 o’clock, dinner at the farmhouse at 12:30 p.m., while a snack in the field at 4 p.m. consisted of buttered bread, cold meat, cheese, pie, cake and hot coffee, and at 6 p.m., the horn for supper sounded.

This bounty of food gives the impression that the men spent more times eating than actually working in the fields. But the CPR was more intent upon attracting excursions to the West than discouraging them, which may account for the glowing description of mealtimes during the harvest.

The unnamed writer of the advice column entitled, Saskatchewan Farm Letter, published in the August 16, 1910, Free Press, said farmers had a great role to play to ensure harvesters were content and continued to return west each year.

“The man who is kindly treated, comfortably housed, well fed, cheerfully and promptly paid, even though hard worked, is more likely to return to the west, and go to the same district than is the man who was treated meanly and made to feel that he was only allowed on the farm because the farmer had no choice in the matter, and the sooner be got rid of the better.”

He related a case two years earlier when “six or eight men” arrived from the east in an unnamed city “only to find the crop not quite ripe.” The men walked to a large town asking for temporary employment until the crop could be harvested, but were refused. They couldn’t even receive a meal. Starving, they returned to the city after walking 50 kilometres between wheatfields, where city officials were compelled to feed them. 

The columnist asked whether it would have been better if the more wealthy farmers of the district had given them employment at half wages until the crop was ripe rather than throw the men onto the charity of the city. He wrote farmers must realize “we need the men more than the men need us, that there will be harvests after this one, and than only the well treated man will want to come back or will induce others to come.”

Hugh McKellar, the Manitoba deputy minister of agriculture at the turn of the 20th century, responded to criticism in Winnipeg newspapers that the distribution of labourers to farms was not being adequately handled. He defended the railways’ (CPR and Canadian Northern) and the government’s policy of not interfering with the passage of men heading to western points beyond Winnipeg. He claimed that many of the excursionists were going to friend’s farms in other parts of the province, so it was unneccesary to have them delayed in Winnipeg by the two groups of agents.

McKellar said it was absurd to stop labourers in Winnipeg who already knew  where they were bound “and distribute them  by rule and figure ... Those who come knowing where they are going must be allowed to go on.”

For those without a known destination, McKellar said the railway and government agents already had plans in place to locate them without causing over-congestion in Winnipeg.

“Telegraphic dispatches are received daily by the CPR and CNR (Canadian Northern Railway) officials, advising how the supply and demand are for that day. This information is promptly acted upon.”

In fact, government and railway officials travelled with the trains from east and others were assigned to look after the labour requirements of specific districts.

“These men will stay with the work until each man is placed,” added McKellar.

In order to keep up with demand for farm workers, the railways and the Manitoba government continually urged farmers to fill in applications well before the harvest stating their needs.

“We wonder whether the man on a half section some eight or ten miles from town who goes to town one day, having decided that it is time he secured some extra help for the harvest,” asked the unnamed writer of the advice column, Saskatchewan Farm Letter, “realizes how many weeks are those charged with the work of trying to bring men to the country had to begin their preparations so that he can make meet his requirements when he comes to town?”

Where the men were placed often came down to the individual wishes of the labourer or the lure of wages being paid.

One young Ontario farmer participated in the Harvest Excursions for years with the expressed purpose of eventually earning enough to purchase his own farm. Each harvest season, he had intentionally taken employment on different farms to see what each location had to offer. When he disembarked from an excursion train in 1901, he said that he finally had enough money saved up and intended to buy a quarter section of land in the Souris district.

In August 1905, Manitoba Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin sent a telegram to the province’s agent in Toronto warning that the harvest was ripening quicker than expected and a new record crop was anticipated, so more excursionists than ever before were needed. It was predicted that for the first time the prairie wheat crop would surpass 100-million bushels, according to Roblin, although it wasn’t until a year later that this mark would be reached.

Roblin admitted that there were not enough labourers to handle the bumper crop, but the CPR was making every effort to “supply the demand, even to the extent of running ‘specials’ from the east over and above the regular excursion trains ...”

The CPR was true to its word and harvesters were arriving in Winnipeg in the thousands, enticed by the prospect of earning $45 a month plus board.

(Next week: part 3)