- Historic Sites
Quiet Earth, Big Sky
How the Saskatchewan-Montana prairie country looked a generation ago, and what it meant to a youngster who lived there
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
Living out the months of our required residence and waiting for the long growing days to make us a crop, we saw few people. Occasionally a Swede or Norwegian batch stopped by. Once in a while we drove over to see a neighbor. Once or twice a summer we went to town for supplies. A visit or a visitor was excitement, a trip to town delirium, but excitement was rare and delirium rarer. The rest of the time we communed with gophers, weasels, badgers, with sparrows and meadow larks and robins and hawks, and sometimes with the shrikes who practiced their butcher’s trade on our barbed wire.
In 1915, the plowed land was an occasional patch or stripe on the prairie’s face. If our horses broke out they could wander for miles without hitting a fence. By day, Pete and Emil and another empty shack, plus two inhabited farms, rode at anchor within the circle of our vision. At night the darkness came down tight all around, and the two little lights far out on the plain were more lonely even than the wind that mourned and hunted through the grass, or the owls that flew on utterly soundless wings and sent their short, barking cry across the coulee. On clear mornings the tips of Bear Paw Mountain, far down in Montana, were a mirage reflected up from another world.
Practically, there was little distinction between Saskatchewan and Montana. The southern boundary of our homestead was the international line, no more important than other survey lines except that the iron posts stood every mile along it. The nearest customhouse was clear over in Alberta, and all the time we spent on the farm we never saw an officer, American or Canadian. We bought supplies in Harlem or Chinook and got our mail at Hydro, all in Montana. In the fall we hauled our wheat, if we had made any, freely across to the Milk River towns and sold it where the price was higher.
We made a pretense of subsistence, with a cow, chickens, horses, a vegetable garden, but we weren’t really farmers. We were bonanza farmers, mining virgin land. Three hundred acres in Marquis wheat, if you got such a crop as that in 1915 when many fields ran more than fifty bushels to the acre and practically none ran under forty, might give you 15,000 bushels of No. 1 Northern—and during those war years the price of wheat went up and up until by 1918 it was crowding three dollars a bushel.
But 1915 was the last good year for a decade. When we gave up after four successive crop failures, more than the commuters’ shacks stood vacant on the weed-grown, whirlwind-haunted prairie. By the mid-Twenties, when the rains came again, only a few stickers were left to profit from them. The crop of 1927 was the biggest on record. It revived the boom. Then more dry cycle, until by the Thirties the whole southwest part of the province was a dust bowl, all but depopulated.
The judgment of the earliest surveyor seemed justified. It was indeed one of the most desolate and forbidding regions in the world, and infinitely more desolate for man’s passing. The prairie sod was replaced by Russian thistle and other weeds, the summer fallow was blown away, the topsoil was vanishing as dust. Tar paper flapped forlornly on abandoned shacks. Gophers and field mice multiplied by millions, as they always do in drouth years, and took over the burrowed earth. The feudal hawks continued to hold the sky.
But we return at the crest of a wet cycle. These years, when anything over about ten bushels to the acre will show a farmer a profit, most fields have hit twenty-five. The 1951 crop was the largest in history, the 1952 crop topped it. Given rain, Saskatchewan can grow more wheat than a discreet economy will permit it to sell: the elevators and storehouses of the province bulge with the bounty of the fat years.
It is a prosperous country now. Its farms that used to jut bleakly from the plain are bedded in cottonwoods and yellow-flowering caragana. And the ring of horizon is broken by a new verticality more portentous than windmills or fence posts or even elevators —the derricks of oil rigs. Farther north, in the Beaverlodge country, Saskatchewan prosperity rides the uranium boom. Here it rides on wheat and oil. But though the country is no longer wild, it is probably less populous than in our time. Oil crews create no new towns and do not enlarge old ones more than temporarily. Even if they hit oil, they cap the well and go on. As for wheat, fewer and fewer farmers produce more and more of it.
To us, a half section was a farm. With modern machinery, a man by himself can plow, seed, and harvest a thousand or twelve hundred acres. The average farm now is at least a section; two sections or even more are not uncommon. And even such a farm is only a part-time job. A man can seed a hundred acres a day. Once the crop is in there is little to do until harvest. Then a week or two on the combine, a week or two hauling, a week or two working the summer fallow and planting winter wheat, and he is done until spring.
This is a strange sort of farming, with its dangers of soil exhaustion, wind erosion, and drouth, and with its highly special conditions. Only about half of even the pretentious farmhouses on the prairie are lived in, and some of those are lived in only part time, by farmers who spend all but the crop season in town. Sometimes a farmer has no farmhouse at all, but commutes to work in a pickup. There is a growing class of trailer-farmers, migrants, many of them from the United States.