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Harvest Excursions — mechanization brings an end to a colourful era in the history of the prairies
Jul 30, 2010
by Bruce Cherney (part 4)
During the years just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, there was an ever-increasing demand for Harvest Excursionists to help with the grain harvest on the prairies. Farmers were expanding their operations during an economic boom financed by willing lenders from Britain and Central Canada. With the prospect of earning more income, combined with the urging of provincial and federal governments, farmers steadily increased their cultivation of virgin prairies land to expand wheat production. 
In the wake of the booming  economy, farmers became much-sought-after consumers, resulting in implement dealers selling the newest agricultural innovations at very affordable credit terms. As long as the good times kept rolling along, there was little worry that the supply of land and easy money would dry up.
The “wheat boom” began in 1896 and lasted until 1913. During this period, Canada had the world’s fastest growing economy due in large part to the exploitation of prairie land to grow wheat using new practices such as dryland farming, and the development of the good milling grains Red Fife and Marquis. The latter had a short growing season and was developed from Red Fife, originally a variety from Ukraine, and Hard Red Calcutta from India. 
“The high quality and yields of Red Fife and Marquis meant that everyone who sowed them prospered,” according to the article, From a Single Seed: Tracing the Marquis Wheat Success Story in Canada to its Roots in the Ukraine, by Stephan Symko, published by Agricultural and Agri-Foods Canada (1999). 
“Ukrainian wheat was a factor in attracting the increasing numbers of new immigrants from Europe to Canada’s vast territory, mostly to Western Canada and Ontario. Americans moved north too: farmers from Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and the Dakotas with start-up money, energy, and experience could earn up to five times their American incomes in Canada.”
With all the desirable farmland in the United States filled to capacity, the Prairie Provinces became the “Last Best West,” as proclaimed in advertisements sent to the United States and Europe promoting immigration to Western Canada.
But when droughts struck southern Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan in 1913 and 1914. the speculative boom went bust. Only southern Manitoba farms were spared from becoming parched wastelands that were a result of the intense sun mercilessly pummeling land deprived of rain. 
When reporting on the drought in southwestern and south-central Saskatchewan, the December 9, 1914, Grain Growers Guide, said that during the months of the growing season in May, June and July, the precipitation in 1913 was half the provincial average, resulting in a yield of a scant five bushels of wheat per acre, when a normal yield averaged between 30 and 40 bushels, or more.
The drought “reminded lenders that profits on prairie investments depended on good grain-growing weather and good wheat prices” (Manitoba 125: A history: Gateway to the West, Growing Pains, by Terence Moore, Great Plains Publishing, 1994). 
According to an October 29, 1913, editorial in the Portage la Prairie Weekly Review, “The mortgage companies, banks, many machine companies and other creditors are already hounding the farmers for their money, and compelling them to market their crop at any price they can get.” The subsequent glut of wheat on the market only exacerbated the situation, sending prices plunging further downward. By 1913, the price of wheat had fallen to 80-cents a bushel.
When the nation fell into recession, wages for grain harvesters, which averaged $3.13 a day in 1912, dropped to $2.55 a day in 1913, wrote Moore. 
During the war years, between 1914 and 1918, the demand for harvesters remained high, but the available labour pool from outside the prairies was diminishing as increasing numbers of men enlisted to serve overseas. On the other hand, there were men available in Winnipeg, who were among the many unemployed due to the nation being in the midst of a recession.
A letter published in the May 19, 1915, Grain Growers Guide, from R. McKenzie, the secretary of the Manitoba Grain Growers’ Association, told of a free employment bureau provided by the city of Winnipeg and available for use by farmers seeking workers. McKenzie said, “Any farmer that can send me an application for a man, I will endeavor to secure one for him at the wages he would be prepared to pay ...
“There is at present a large number of unemployed in the city of Winnipeg who can get nothing to do and in the natural order of things will have to scatter somewhere in order to get a living ...
“Due to the number of men both from Eastern and Western Canada who enlisted for the war, it is doubtful if the number coming from the Eastern provinces in former years for the harvest will be available this year,” he warned. 
McKenzie said some of the willing harvesters would not be able to come simply because they didn’t have the money for train fare due to the tough economic times, so he suggested farmers indicate in writing their willingness to advance the train fare and later recoup the cost of the ticket from a labourer’s future earnings. 
Moore wrote that nature solved the recession by providing good weather to produce a bumper crop in 1915. After two years of drought, the good weather encouraged farmers to increase the amount of land under cultivation from 10-million acres in 1914 to 14-million acres in 1915. By 1921, the number of acres under cultivation jumped to a peak of 22-million acres (World War I and the Expansion of the Canadian Wheat Supply, paper by Byron Lew, department of economics, Trent University, and Marvin McInnis, department of economics, Queen’s University, 2007).
W.E. Milner, the president of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange, related in the eighth annual report of the exchange in September 1916: “This (1915) has been one of the most phenomenal years in the history of the grain business in the Dominion of Canada. Our farmers, having been blessed by the hand of Providence, produced the largest crop ever grown in this country ... our wheat crop reached (a total of) 376,448,400 bushels.”
After the enormous crop was harvested and shipped across the globe, Canada for the first time became the world’s top exporter of wheat by surpassing the United States.
 Wartime demand finally drove wheat prices upward in 1916 and to a peak of over $3 per bushel in 1917, resulting in the Prairie region becoming “awash in cash ... Daily wages for farm labourers, which had averaged $2.55 in the 1914 recession year, rose steadily to $2.60 a day in 1915 and $2.75 in 1916.”
The new rates initially attracted tens of thousands of harvesters from Ontario, Québec and the Maritimes, but their numbers fell as the war dragged on and enlistment in the armed services increased. Moore wrote that the high demand and fewer labourers resulted in wage increases for farm workers of $4 a day in 1917, $4.55 in 1918 and $4.69 in 1919.
These cash-rich excursionists inevitably became victims of crime. Pickpockets mingled among the men on the railway platforms in Winnipeg, doing a booming business, especially when the men were returning east laden with wages.
“Winnipeg the Wicked,” as the city was called in eastern newspapers, offered many earthly delights to further entice hard-earned wages from excursionists’ wallets.
In his book Booze, author James Gray said “pedestrians were never beyond the aroma of booze that wafted through the windows and doors (along Main Street).” In between the hotels, “wholesale boozeries” and “free-admission parlours” proliferated, offering customers a choice between “flickering card movies, slot machines, target practice and a prostitute in the backroom.”
J.J. Woodsworth, a minister, social reformer and eventually a Labour MP and leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, the forerunner of the New Democratic Party), wrote in 1911 that there were 150 houses of “ill-repute” in Winnipeg. These brothels were a great temptation for young harvesters stopping in the city on their return trip east, who by then had earned plenty of cash to indulge their every whim.
By 1921, the CPR had had enough of the carnage wrought upon its property by the excursionists and asked the RCMP (the only police force with jurisdiction across the nation) to provide an escort on each train. Fortunately for the CPR and the besieged citizens along the route, the RCMP accepted the challenge.
When the RCMP boarded the trains, their first duty was to sweep through each rail car in order to confiscate weapons and alcohol. Once this task was completed, the RCMP patrolled the cars as the trains travelled westward, serving as a visible reminder to the excursionists that the law was keeping a wary eye on them. It proved to be an effective deterrent, although troublesome incidences still periodically arose.
In 1922 at Cochrane, for example, RCMP Corporal F. Bedd reported that excursionists attempted to raise havoc in the town, “but were overruled by us before any damage could be done.”
The era of the harvesters lasted four decades and peaked in 1925 when 54,850 harvesters, 9,471 of whom were from British Columbia, helped with the prairie grain harvest. 
Wheat prices had fallen between 1920 and 1924, but rapidly rose in 1925. “In the following year the Prairies enjoyed a combination of high wheat prices and good harvests, reaching a peak harvest in 1928 which was not repeated until 1952” (The Economic Development of Canada, by Richard Pomfret, 1981).
A lengthy shift in weather patterns revealed that some prairie regions were just too dry for grain cultivation, resulting in many farms in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan being abandoned during the period from 1921 to 1926, with 55 per cent of farms in the driest regions abandoned by 1926. The war years and high prices had prompted an expansion of wheat production into marginal land. But when prices dropped, this low yielding acreage proved to be uneconomical. On good land, yields remained high, allowing a further increase in productivity brought on by an agricultural revolution sweeping the prairies.
The farms were abandoned just as greater mechanization, especially the advent of the combine, was changing how wheat was sown and harvested. It was mechanization that hastened the end of the Harvest Excursions, as tasks previously performed by the many could now be done by the few.  
The motorized tractor was the first modern-era innovation on the farm. Originally, tractors — referred to at first as traction machines — were extremely heavy and steam powered, a disadvantage on prairie gumbo. 
By the 1910s, gasoline-powered tractors were becoming more numerous. 
According to the February 25, 1911, Free Press article, Future of the Gas Tractor in Western Canada, a “great change” was taking place on the prairies, “where at one time countless herds of horses and cattle roamed the vast stretches ... the tractor with its big outfit of engine gang plows is fast turning the virgin prairie into a vast wheat field to help swell the contents of the world’s granaries.”
To meet the demand, the Gas Traction Company of Winnipeg, a branch plant of the Minneapolis--based Gas Traction Company, was created in 1910 with a plant in Elmwood. At the time, the capacity of the factory was 10 tractors a month. The company manufactured a four-cylinder 30-hp tractor dubbed the “Big Four.” It is difficult to determine how long the company lasted in Winnipeg. It was still in operation in 1911, but the parent company in Minneapolis was sold in 1912.
As the technology for gasoline-powered tractors evolved, the machines became lighter and more powerful.
The next step was to marry gasoline-powered tractors with swathers and combines, which at the time were not self-propelled machines. The swather replaced the binders, the old machines which cut and tied grain into sheaves which were then made into stooks. The making and then collecting of the stooks for threshing were very labour-intensive operations. The swather simplified the process by cutting the grain and then laying it into windrows which allowed the grain to dry. 
Following the drying period, the windrows were collected by the combines pulled by tractors. As the combine progressed down the windrows, the wheat was separated and the byproduct straw was blown from the machine. The collected grain was then transferred directly from the combines into a truck travelling alongside, and then either taken to grain silos on the farm or directly to an elevator adjacent to a rail line. 
“One motor truck does the work of several horse drawn wagons; one combine replaces two binders, a threshing outfit and a score or more stookers, teamsters, and other helpers,” according to the April 17, 1930, Chinook Advance, an Alberta-based newspaper.
In 1928, after a tour to inspect prairie wheatfields, Dr. J.H. Grisdale, the federal deputy-minister of agriculture, said the combine was poised to revolutionize harvesting methods (Free Press, September 8). The old method cost about 25-cents per bushel, while using a combine cut the cost of harvesting to less than 10-cents a bushel.
In his article, Fifty Cent Wheat at a Profit (Free Press, June 25, 1930), Michael O’Mayo, quoted W.H. Taylor of Salvador, Saskatchewan, who said: “In the past we considered it impractical to haul grain until freeze-up — and a long, weary cold job it was with horses. Now we haul straight from the combine to the elevator. That not only means a saving of time, but of money, too. Tractor farming, the combine method of harvesting and marketing with a truck have proven satisfactory with me.”
O'Mayo wrote that one combine replaced the labour of eight to a dozen men formerly employed for the harvest, resulting in a “tremendous saving in money costs.”
O’Mayo welcomed the demise of what he referred to as the “hobo harvester” and the “harvester special.”
On July 19, 1930, the Free Press, announced that no harvester trains would be running that year. “The combine is part of the cause of the great change,” explained the newspaper. “Officials of the government say the combine does away with the labor of 12,000 men in Saskatchewan and 8,000 men in Alberta, a difference of 20,000 harvesters. In Manitoba the new machine is up to the present not so large a factor.”
In an editorial entitled Agricultural Revolution (Free Press, October 7, 1930), Senator W.A. Buchanan of Lethbridge, Alberta, related an example of the effect of mechanization on the labour requirements of one farmer. “He has sown the wheat in the spring, has  cultivated his summer fallow for the next year’s crop, has harvested the crop and hauled it to the elevator; and he has performed every operation without an hour’s help.”
The senator said that more than 22,000 tractors had been sold to prairie farmers since 1922, and 30,000 combines were used during the 1930 grain harvest.
(Next week: part 5)