We Made Hartney

We Made Hartney


Farmer John Messmore Fee



IN JUNE 1881 JOHN M. FEE and Samuel F. Long, two young men from Georgetown, Ontario, arrived in Portage la Prairie over the newly laid Canadian Pacific Railway line in search of land. They traveled by boat up the Assiniboine River from Portage to the mouth of the Souris. There, at Millford, they hired a team and buckboard and set out, following the Souris from its mouth along the Old Turtle Mountain trail of the fur traders, that still has visible across the prairies. Twenty miles above its mouth the course of the Souris turns sharply north-westward, and there the travelers left the trail and drove directly west, following the surveyor’s stakes that marked the lines of the sections.

They passed over gently rolling prairie land dotted with clumps of willow and poplar that indicated the sloughs, no yet dry, from the high water of the springtime, until they came within sight of the line of woods that outlined the course of the Souris, as it ran north-eastward from its entry into Manitoba toward Plum Cree. They found a well-treed ravine that ran through deep sandy loam and drained the surrounding acres toward the river. It was pleasant to the eye and offered what every settler sought, easily accessible wood and water and a deep loam soil not too heavy for easy cultivation. They could visualize building sites on its rolling acres and they decided there to make their home.

Fee and Long each chose the quarter of the section he wished to homestead and the quarter he wished to reserve for a pre-emption. They knew that the township in which their chosen land was situated was not as yet open for homesteads, but they decided to “squat” and await a chance to register their quarter section. The practice of squatting was merely the taking possession of the land and relying on the fact of their residence to keep prospective homesteaders from acquiring it.

Fee and Long returned to Portage la Prairie, purchased a yoke of oxen, a wagon, a plough, a tent and other supplies, and began the slow journey from Portage along the trail the Plum Creek settlers had traveled earlier that spring.

On the first day of their journey they had to unload their wagon twice in order to get out of mud holes and it was after ten o’clock that night before they found a suitable place to camp. After several equally uncomfortable days they reached the mouth of the Souris, where it was necessary to take their wagon apart and row it and their supplies across the river, while the oxen swam behind the boat. Another fifty miles of uneventful travel brought them to their chosen land.

John Fee had learned the miller’s trade, and had, as well, a diploma from a Belleville business college. He was married and had one small son, Fred. His milling business was prospering when he developed asthma and was advised to leave the mill and secure work in the open air. The eastern newspapers had much to say of farming possibilities in

Manitoba and John Fee became interested. He discussed the matter with his wife and with this friend Sam Long, who had just returned to Georgetown from the school he taught at Richmond Hill. Fee and Long decided to come west and the homestead on 32-5-23 was the result of that decision.

They began at once to break the prairie sod in preparation for the next spring’s planting. Their ox-team was not well broken, the mosquitoes were bad and their patience was sadly strained. Their food was monotonous: pancakes, fried or boiled salt pork, rice, dried apples and tea with sugar, day after day. Unfortunately they had not included a gun in their equipment and wer enable to secure fresh game, although it was plentiful.

As they worked their land that summer, they were frequently visited by other land-seekers who had been told at Millford that Fee and Long had taken land in township 5, range 23. The marks left by one buckboard were followed by another, until a trail was worn past the tent at the ravine. The owners of the buckboards discussed the new country with Fee and Long and brought them news of the outside world. The travelers carried letters to and from Millford, the nearest post office, thirty miles distant, but many letters were forgotten or lost.

During the summer and autumn Fee and Long ploughed 15 acres and cut several tons of hay for their oxen. They also did some ploughing and haying for other nearby settlers Higgins. They cut and hauled logs from the woods at the river to build a shanty. It was sixteen feet long and twelve feet wide. They had no nails so they fastened the logs together with wooden pegs, which they whittled to the desired size. They had no trowel but Sam Long used his bare hands to plaster the wet clay to the logs. They thatched the roof with prairie sod. The earthen floor, levelled and beaten hard, was made ready for their stove, a bunk and a box or two that served for storage and for seats. Before the snow began to fall that autumn they moved their goods into the first dwelling in the Hartney district.

They had a home, but they had little cash. To earn money for the purchase of grain and other supplies for the next year they decided to find work elsewhere for the winter. Sam Long spent that winter in Winnipeg freighting goods for the Hudson’s Bay Company. John Fee went to Brandon where W.J. Higgins had already found work. There they did some freighting and carpentry. Mr. Fee’s letters to his wife reported plenty of work to be had in Brandon where boarding houses, stores, residences and a mill were being built. Carpenters were paid 22-17 cents per hour. Board was $5.00 per week.

Every train arriving in Brandon in the late winter and early spring disgorged a crowd of eager settlers who fanned out east, west, north and south in search of new homes. John Fee, watching them, became worried about his unregistered homestead, so he traveled to the Turtle Mountain registry office, south of the present town of Deloraine, registered his quarter section, and returned to Brandon to continue his carpentry until the land was fit for cultivation.

Sam Long too became alarmed lest he lose his homestead and in March returned to the shanty. From there he set out on foot for the Turtle Mountain registry office. Before he had gone many miles he was overtaken by a blizzard so severe that he was forced to retrace his steps. Completely lost in the storm he struggled on in what he hoped was the right direction. He drove himself forward and stumbled into the shanty more dead than alive. The nearby Roper family did all they could to revive him, but his feet were so badly frozen that he was unable to walk for weeks, could do little of the farm work that spring and suffered from the effects of frostbite for the rest of his life.

In Brandon, John Fee heard of his partner’s misfortune and set out for the shanty to learn how bad his condition was. He too was halted by a blizzard but he met up with various other settlers and finally made it to the shanty. With their arrival there were 11 people in the tiny dwelling. They found Sam Long’s feet in very poor condition.

By the middle of April the shanty’s population had increased to 17. Newcomers arrived and could not be turned away because there was no other shelter to which they could go. The shanty came to be called “The Orphan’s Home.” Each newcomer had his own bedding and food, but space to lay the bedding or prepare the food was hard to find.

On the 15 acres he and Long had plowed the year before, John Fee sowed wheat and some oats, a slow business with one team of oxen. In July the partners bought a second team of oxen and hired a neighbour’s boy to drive them because Sam Long was still unable to do more than a few chores about the buildings. Their 15 acre-crop they cut that summer with a cradle, and they were proud of the result, although the operation took two weeks of fine weather.

In 1884 John Fee was finally secure enough to send for this wife and son. A letter written by Mr. Fee gave her instruction for selecting what articles she should bring with her to the west. “Don’t neglect the books,” he advised. “I can make a bookcase, but I can’t write a book.”

When Mrs. Fee finally arrived and they reached the shanty, Mr. Fee took longer than necessary to unhitch the horses in order to give his wife time to shed a few private tears at the sight of the poor place to which he had brought her. But Mrs. Fee had no thought of tears. When her husband started toward the house he saw several articles being tossed out the door, as Mrs. Fee began a general clean-up of the place. She soon had everything in order, even the books that she had not neglected to bring with her. Before the summer was over, Mr. Fee built a comfortable frame house beside the shanty, and the Fee home became a happy place for the five Fee children.

Years later one of the Fee daughters, Mabel, recalled a happy and comfortable home, and in so doing created a memorable contrast with John Fee’s pioneer struggles to secure and build a new home in a new land: “Our main inspiration was given us by Father and Mother. They were anxious that we should be given every educational opportunity and many times denied themselves to make this financially possible. We were all inveterate readers of all reading matter that came to the house.

We always looked forward to the fall and winter months when, after the work and homework were cleared away, Mother or Fred would read aloud to us. Another source of pleasure was the old rosewood melodean that Mother brought out from Ontario. We had many singsongs. We took our music for granted and did not know how fortunate we were until Priscilla Black who lived near us said she had never been in a house where the children sang all the time as we did.”

Adapted from The Mere Living, page 33.

An old photograph suggesting the pioneer farming conditions that someone like John Fee would have endured.


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