We Made Hartney

We Made Hartney


Cobbler Edward Briggs



Most of the work of a cobbler like Mr. Briggs was done by hand. Although there was a machine in the middle of the shop, it was only used to finish repairs off, once the boots or shoes had been soled and heeled.

One of latest settlers to arrive in 1882 was Edward Briggs. He left his home, his wife and baby daughter in Varna, Ontario, in the spring, but stayed in Winnipeg for seven months and there set up a shoe shop in a tent near the CPR station. He sold 52 pairs of ready-made shoes, repaired hundreds more, and made a tidy profit on his transactions. In October, accompanied by his brother George, he reached Brandon, purchased a yoke of oxen, a load of lumber, a tent and provisions and set out for his homestead. They had reached the homestead and just put up their tent when George was taken violently ill. Edward made a bed for George in the wagon and took him to Dr. Stoyt near Plum Creek, but George developed pneumonia and died with a few days. He was buried at Plum Creek.

Ed Briggs, a short, stout, energetic, friendly man was soon on good terms with his neighbours. He kept a diary of those early days and in it recorded his impressions of the friendliness and helpfulness of the settlers: “A settler’s latch string was always out,” he wrote. “If anybody was at home when a visitor came, it was understood that he might put the kettle on the stove and make himself some tea. He might, if he were short of food, look for ‘grub’ in the box which usually had a lid but no lock. It was understood nobody should take more than was absolutely necessary, and this hospitality was seldom abused.

Ed Briggs’ diary also tells of his return to Manitoba with his wife, his little daughter and his brother Dave. When they reached Brandon the water was high in the ravines. They traveled to Plum Creek by a stage which consisted of planks laid upon a wagon frame, drawn by a team of horses. At the time the ferry was not operating at Plum Creek, so the party had to stay there for four days while the water receded.

After planting a garden, sowing his crop and breaking and backsetting a few more acres, Ed set up a tent beside his shanty and opened a shop for repairing harness, boots and shoes. He had a brisk trade, for such service was badly needed.

It took around four years to train to become a shoe cobbler. This training includes learning the use of all of the equipment utilized in the field, and working with a wide variety of shoes to learn about various approaches to shoe repair. Most cobblers trained by apprenticeship, often with a family member. Prices for a shoe cobbler's services tended to be very reasonable, with cobblers focusing on volume to make their income, working on numerous pairs of shoes every week.

Most of the settlers stayed in their homestead through the winter of ‘82-‘83. They busied themselves with trips to the Turtle Mountains or the Souris River for wood; they cared for their stock, fashioned crude furniture for the homes and visited their neighbours. On January 1st 1883 James Duthie and Mr. and Mrs. Smith held a new year’s party at their home. A general invitation was passed from one settler to another for a radius of 20 miles, and the settlers came in sleighs drawn by horses, oxen, or both, to meet their fellow homesteaders, some for the first time.

Most of the men were bachelors, or settlers whose families were still in the east, but there were a few wives and children at the party. They discussed their common problems, spoke about their Ontario homes, wondered when a railway would reach them, and told each other about their shanties and their plans for next year’s crops. But all these subjects were forgotten when J.L. Graham tuned his fiddle and a few mouth-organs were produced from the pockets of musical young men to accompany the singing, in which everyone joined. Then the dancing began, but it was not so generally indulged in, because there were many Methodists and some Baptists in the group who frowned upon such frivolity.

Mr. Briggs also recalled how in 1884 he took the job of timber agent of the Turtle Mountain timberland, for the Canadian government, and how in 1886 he secured an auctioneering licence that brought him into touch with scores of farmers who had goods to sell.

Mr. Briggs served as a Conservative M.L.A. in 1903. After that election (and his defeat) Mr. Briggs was appointed chief sanitary inspector for hotels in Manitoba and for several years travelled about the province in this capacity while his family moved to the town to live.

Of his appointment to the Hartney tribunal for Military Service in 1917, Mr. Briggs said “I did not want to take that job for I hated to send men to the war who were not overly willing to go. The sad part was that many of those young men never retuned and many of those who did were so badly disabled that they were unable to take up their regular work again.”

Adapted from The Mere Living, page 45.

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