Prairie Post

Settling the Prairies: The intrepid few

“Intrepid” describes only a few people—and possibly no one who is alive today. On January 14, 1879 it was – 32C, without wind chill. And on the Prairies in winter, there is always a wind chill. How far below -32 it forced the temperature to plummet that day is unknown. 

Jacob Banman was a real person, sharing in everything such a definition implies. He breathed, got excited about things, enjoyed some flavours over others and, like most, had an idea of the good life, desired it, strived for it, realized it.

Mr. Banman was a stalwart. He was intrepid. They were intrepid. The Banmans braved the harsh, Prairie winters, surviving its severities decades before motors, snowblowers, and HBO. And it’s likely they didn’t have the time or feel entitled enough to complain about the conditions. The promise of a new life, one distant from Russian oppression, only strengthened their resolve.

Let’s not blame ourselves for the battery of far-from-intrepid traits that separate us from Mr. Banman and other Prairie settlers. We did not ask for them, and to say things have changed, that people have changed, since the 1870s is not a rationalization.

The juxtaposition is stark. And it’s a leap to make it, a leap that clears all that has changed between the late 1800s and 2014. To mention sits at odds with the telling of the Prairie settler experience. But doing so also highlights one such specific and somewhat humiliating difference between those who believe they need the luxury of brain training offered through the website and those who are perhaps more like Mr. Banman.

“I work out my body, but it’s harder to work out my brain,” the company’s TV spot informs the viewer. “ is based on neuroscience, and it just feels like games, but it’s serious brain training.”

The company’s existence and presumed success speaks to an embarrassing fragility  — to be dissatisfied with one’s brain. Those who settled the Canadian Prairies did not play brain games.

Imagine the following less a collection of historical facts, and more a series of moves that actually happened. And did so nowhere near an armchair. It’s a history worth preserving in an academic library. But this is a story, to be read by readers and told by storytellers.

Some accounts of this era say the phenomenon of the self-made man had special relevance to the settlers of the Canadian West. This is misleading. It happened over 100 years ago, yes, and it’s charming, yes, but Mr. Banman needs to remain accessible; he needs to keep his humanity. We need to empathize.

You are now with Jacob Banman in Russia. You observe in him the dream, the hope that from nothing, from this fresh start, will come freedom and eventually prosperity.

Mr. Banman arrived in Manitoba with about 7,999 other Mennonites between 1873 and 1884. Moving is difficult. And moving to a new land, full of promise and unknowns, would be even more so. But such a risk must have seemed the best course.

The first group of Mennonite settlers to Manitoba arrive at Upper Ford Garry aboard the steamboat “International.” The steamboat International was built in 1862 by J. C. & H. C. Burbank. Around 1872, its ownership was transferred to the Red River Transportation Company. Photo and caption credit: Archives of Manitoba.

“The first thing you’d do was figure out where you were going to put your sod house.  Then you’d plow out that. Maybe 16 by 24.  That is feet.  You could make it any size.  You see, what you were working with was the native soil and it was tough,” an excerpt from Memories of Settlers Who Opened the West by Barry Broadfoot.

The decision of where to dig must have felt arbitrary at the time. It was 1878, and the 160 acres of Prairie grass will have seemed a formidable start to his new life as a farmer. Mr. Banman chose a spot, an area, dug it out, and stacked the sod needed to build the first house on what is now a Heritage Farm.

An example of a Prairie settler’s sod house.

The Dominion Lands Act was a golden ticket for the settlers who could hack it. Many died trying to farm, and many moved further west or east to Ontario, giving up the acres they purchased for the token fee of $10 per 160 acres.

The Prairies are flat. They were then and they are now. The picture in your mind is likely accurate, but with fewer trees. The surveyed plots closest to towns and railways were chosen first, forcing later settlers further from towns, supplies and closer to scarcity.

Mr. Banman wasn’t the first. His plot was a couple miles from town, a distance that on January 14, 1879 will have seemed a world away.

Most homesteaders lived in tents while they built their sod houses. And it makes sense that the Banmans did the same. It had two bedrooms by the time it was finished. “Sod” conjures misleading images, keep in mind. Many plastered the interior walls of their houses. And many such homes had smart-looking interiors. Style wasn’t completely abandoned to survival.

Adversity was always nearby. It must have been. The bulk of the sustenance needed to live, especially through winter, had to be closer to their plates than the few miles they lived from town, given the large-scale absence of roads and bridges. The Banmans will have needed a garden for vegetables, a cow for milk, wood for heat, and the ability to hunt and process wild game.

This adversity and the shared goal of survival bound most homesteaders to their neighbours. Doors were kept unlocked, and lanterns were kept burning as guides for those traveling at night. These bonds built communities, and the fun that was once confined to a single homestead soon became neighbourhood events. The house the Banmans built will have begun to feel like a home.

Many farms failed within the first few years, according to records of the time. There were “disastrous attempts” at homesteading and high levels of transiency.

For those with an appreciation of the everyday, the simple, the pedestrian, a chuckle shared with loved ones, prosperity probably meant surviving. It’s likely one poor yield, a failed plough or a death in his herd could have ended his career and made his a “disastrous attempt” statistic. Wheat prices were low, and must have forced second thoughts. Margins were tight. But Mr. Banman and his family survived.

Most of southern Manitoba, the Interlake and the Westlake areas were settled by 1910 and the province’s rural population peaked 1941, as larger farms swallowed smaller ones, as people lost too much money farming poor soil, and as many succumbed to the draw of the big city.

In 1870, the year it became a province, Manitoba was negligibly larger than the Red River Valley. The British had just paid Hudson’s Bay Company $1.5 million for control of what was then Rupert’s Land, a move that paved the way for the Dominion of Canada to form the province of Manitoba.

The small province Mr. Banman immigrated to in 1878, the year the first shipment of Manitoba grain arrived in Great Britain, expanded to its current boundaries by 1912. In roughly the same span, the province’s population swelled from about 12,000 in 1870 to 450,000 in 1912.

Commodity prices were low for Mr. Banman at the start. It’s unclear how this affected him, as his beginning years were spent working as a farmhand in exchange for the use of horses to break in his own land. If he farmed his own land before 1890, and it’s likely he did, he would have been forced to deal with the poor wheat prices, a result, in part, of high shipping costs.

An example of the horse and plough operation used to break the land.

In the early 1890s, that changed. Wheat prices began to rise, as transportation costs decreased after a deal was reached between the Canadian government and the Canadian Pacific Railway. The rail company received government funding to allow them to extend their lines into the newly discovered mineral-rich zones of British Columbia via the Crowsnest Pass in exchange for eastbound and westbound rate reductions.

The conditions became ripe for Mr. Banman to start building a successful farm. In the early 1900s, he moved his family out of the sod and into a two-story, wood house. Sheds and barns were built.

Pictured is the wood house the Banmans built around 1900. Family and crews are pictured in this mid-century photo moving the house to make way for a newer one.

Steam, gang plows and threshing machines allowed agriculture production to surge. And when wheat prices skyrocketed during WWI, it’s even more likely Mr. Banman, or his son, Abram, would have purchased more land. Between 1901 and 1931, the amount of worked land in the Prairies leaped from 1.5 to 16.4 million hectares.

The farm Mr. Banman built endured the Depression. His choices amid the advent of new technologies were smart and farsighted enough to see the farm through the droughts and dismal commodity prices of the 1930s.

Mr. Banman had the right stuff, starting a farm that now spans 1,200 acres and is still in the family. It’s only a dimple now, but it’s clear where that first house was. There are apple trees nearby, and the site is only a hundred or so metres from the farm’s current main house.

The farm no longer requires horses. Its machinery would be unrecognizable to Mr. Banman. The mechanized harvester waiting in the machine shed for fall is roughly twice as big as that first sod house. And surviving winter is no longer a goal reserved for the intrepid few. The farm now has motors, snowblowers, and HBO.

The combine currently used on the farm Jacob Banman settled. Photo: Toban Dyck.

The farm’s family name has changed since Mr. Banman broke its ground. Jacob’s son, Abram, married widower Helen Dyck and passed the farm to her son, my grandpa, John Dyck.  The farm survived and grew when my grandpa ran it. And it prospered and grew at my father’s hand, as well. There’s a weight to taking up such a mantle, a weight that demands less fragility, fewer brain games, and more time spent breaking new ground, appreciating the everyday, the simple, a good laugh. It started in 1878, and the 2014 seeding season is a couple months away.

Harvest, 2013. Photo: Toban Dyck.


Toban Dyck is the editor of Spectator Tribune, a freelance writer for Maclean’s and elsewhere, columnist for Grainews, and a farmer.

For more, follow @tobandyck

And, @spectatortrib