Canada’s wheat king — the life and times of Seager Wheeler

by Jim Shilliday

(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt© from the new biographical book, Canada’s Wheat King: The Life and Times of Seager Wheeler, written by my predecessor at the WREN, Jim Shilliday. As an introduction to the excerpt, Shilliday provided the following: The life of Seager Wheeler is a Canadian success story from a time when innovative wheat farmers were the pop stars of the nation. Wheeler was North America’s most celebrated wheat developer, whose varieties in the 1920s made up 40 per cent of the world’s wheat exports, and contributed to the early “wheat economy” that brought wealth to most players in the Canadian economy. The federal government has proclaimed him an historic person, his farm near Rosthern, Saskatchewan, has been designated a national historic site. His most publicized accomplishment was being crowned World Wheat King an unsurpassed five times, from 1911 to 1918. The interest engendered by his triumphs was an acknowledged factor in Canada’s success in luring immigrant farmers to Canada’s west.)

Throughout the spring of 1885, every trail leading towards the rebelling Metis and Indians in the Saskatchewan Valley had been glutted with swaying military supply wagons, troop transports and plodding, dust-covered men. After Batoche, the military continued to engage Indians, and remained alert in case of further flare-ups. Camps still dotted the region, bored soldiers waited to go home; the break-up and return of so many units had to be staggered so the fledgling transportation network wouldn’t be overtaxed.

All the trains were carrying troops, supplies and equipment, so the weary Wheelers had to stay in Winnipeg until one was available. Gus Lamonde had sent a letter to Mr.Tremblay, the immigration agent, asking him to tell the Wheelers to telegraph on arrival. How relieved they must have been for confirmation that someone in this vast, strange country was expecting them. They had time to learn a little about life in Canada when they looked up several old friends from the Isle of Wight. They lived for a week in the immigration building, which would have offered the same comfort, or lack of it, as all the other immigration buildings.

They had passed through Quebec City and Montreal, but Winnipeg was the best town Seager had seen so far in Canada. Such fine wooden sidewalks; but step off and you sank ankle deep into sticky gumbo. The weather the first day was wild, with severe thunderstorms, and hail that hurt. Maybe it was the flatness, but, “You never saw such storms in the Old Country. The thunder was awful, it did rattle,” the Isle of Wight fisherman’s son wrote in his diary. The day before, a “cyclone” threw a house 40 feet. And there were plenty of mosquitoes. “There are a lot of canaries here, and robins ... a lot of half-breeds.” Then, in an understatement that would prove wildly optimistic: “I don’t think we shall go on to our land before the spring.”

Winnipeggers, mostly real estate agents, land speculators, merchants and a few actual homesteaders, referred to their town as the Chicago of the North. A land-rush frenzy had gripped everyone. The same was true in Brandon and all the small settlements along the new railway line for more than 500 miles, such as “Pile of Bones,” later renamed Regina.

Seventeen-year-old Seager explored. He wandered well beyond the outskirts, observing unfamiliar sights, and probably asking the names of things from people he met along the way. “In the woods two miles out there are a lot of cherries blooming, large trees of it (saskatoons? chokecherries?), and strawberry and raspberry and plums ... beautiful ferns all along Red River. A lot of hedges, nettles high as your head and Houlees (coulees) too. Saw plenty of half-breeds and Indians. There are a lot of canaries, beautiful singing birds and robins as big as black birds.”

Rolling west again, he was stirred by his first sight of treeless prairie a few miles west of Winnipeg. And his eyes were wide again near Brandon when they passed an Indian village, “wigwams like little tents. Chippeways.” When they finally arrived at Moose Jaw on June 5, 1885, after a taxing nine-day trip, the Wheelers carried their belongings up the long flight of outside stairs to the second floor of the immigration hall and into an empty room that reminded them of a barn’s loft. They made their beds on the floor and soon were sound asleep.

The hall was near the camp of a unit of the Halifax battalion. Wounded soldiers from last month’s rebellion-ending showdown at Batoche were in the military hospital, a conglomeration of tents. Meanwhile, militia and regular army units farther north continued for the rest of June to comb the mosquito-infested woods and sloughs for Indians allied with Riel. The last of these surrendered on July 2.

Refreshed by a sound sleep, Seager eagerly explored the prairie, Pincher running and barking at his side. He was elated — free of shipboard confinement, free of the cramped, rocking colonist car, free to roam a spaciousness he had never experienced. The town extended two blocks from the railway station and was about the same width. No trees, but a few willows along Moose Jaw Creek. There was nothing blocking the view to the horizon in any direction.

Moose Jaw was not what he had expected. Where were the trees? Where were the wide grain fields, the settlers’ cabins nestled in woods with smoke curling from little chimneys, the sense of fruitfulness and future well-being? This place was muddy and dusty, a tiny miscellany of mutable buildings and people — some of them dangerously wild — holding onto life by their fingernails. But Seager Wheeler, his eyes wide, probably relished it, intoxicated by its differentness.

The buildings were of slap-dash construction, nothing like those in Ventnor, and that was their attraction — the difference enhanced the aura of adventure.

Here’s how the NWMP constable John Donkin, a jaundiced observer, described the Wheeler’s first winter home in Canada: “The town of Moose Jaw lies in a hollow of the prairie, and is the end of a section of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Here is a round-house for engines. The population is 500, and there is the usual scattering of hotels and stores, standing at intervals upon the unromantic flat. Ugly square objects, all of them, without the slightest pretence to architectural beauty. A prairie town is a more depressing object than a burnt forest.”

Moose Jaw was “wild and wooly.” Almost every night the Wheelers could hear gunshots, and feared for their lives as bullets tore through the wood frame of their building while they lay on the floor trying to sleep. Cowboys from Montana brought up herds of horses and considered Moose Jaw their playground. A Mounted Police detachment guarded against smuggling of whiskey across the border by frontiersmen, and searched the grips and suitcases of suspect passengers arriving by train. Railway work crews got so drunk at times it was difficult for the CPR to meet construction schedules. How shocked Mary Ann Wheeler must have been by this rowdy place. But they would have to make the best of it.

And the books young Seager had read about red Indians came alive. American Sioux refugees who had fled the American army were camped just outside the town by a stream in a shallow ravine. He learned the chief was Black Bull, a relative of Sitting Bull whose warriors had massacred U.S. General Custer and his soldiers. Wearing a frock coat and black top hat, he limped, the result of seven bullet wounds, the story went. 

One morning, Seager related in his memoir, Black Bull’s wife came to the Holmes Block where the Wheelers now rented rooms, sat down and waited silently. His mother was startled. But she soon realized the poor woman was hungry and gave her food. There were more visits and the women became friends.

Black Bull’s wife cried during one visit. She still hadn’t recovered from the death a while earlier of her son. Mrs. Wheeler learned that the boy had died of tuberculosis, a disease that had replaced smallpox as a killer of Indians. “The susceptibility of Indians and Metis,” said John H. Archer in Saskatchewan: A History, “and the lack of treatment centres had led to an epidemic spread of the disease among Indians and in some isolated rural areas by 1905. The reputation of the territories as a health resort for consumptives may also have been a reason for the large number of tuberculosis deaths reported.”

On his way one day to the Indian camp four miles out on the prairie, Seager laughed at Pincher’s efforts to catch gophers. “They are like rats. They live in holes in the ground like rabbits. They sit up like a kangaroo.” He likened some animals to what he knew: a garter snake as long as his arm looked like an eel; crawfish were “fresh water lobsters you couldn’t tell from the sea lobster, but they are not so large.”

Before the Halifax battalion broke camp and returned home, they treated their Indian friends to soup, bully beef and hardtack biscuits. “Then the Indians riding ponies bareback arrived with guns and rifles, riding in and out firing their weapons and yelling and giving excited war whoops,” Seager wrote. “It was rather startling to me and other onlookers.” There were many foot races and then photographs were taken. “After dinner there was a Pow Wow. A Pow Wow is a conference on sports,” he decided.

Seager didn’t realize yet the trials suffered by the Indians who had lost their way of life when the buffalo vanished. His assessment: “They are very ugly. They had a feed and it would make you almost sick to see what they eat. They will eat anything. I should like you to have seen them.”

He was eager to get to Gus Lamonde’s, to learn farming, to own some land. So he was elated when Metis freighters transporting army supplies told him they were going to Saskatoon, and then on to Prince Albert and Battleford. He could join them. He would need food for a week, but the government provided the teamsters with biscuits, tea, tinned meat, and Seager only had to take bread.

They set off on June 9, a warm, sunny morning — “You don’t see such weather in the Old Country.” Everyone walked, whether the wagons were pulled by oxen or horses, because the cargo rate was 14 cents a pound, and every extra pound carried earned that much more money. They walked the treeless expanse of grass, badger holes, scattered buffalo bones and skulls, from just after sunup to nightfall, sometimes 28 miles in a day. “My word, didn’t the mosquitoes torment us!” Sometimes they had hardtack, bread and tea without milk or sugar for breakfast, dinner and supper. Occasionally they soaked hardtack and fried it with pork.

The trail was wide, and not as rutted as expected. The cavalcade of wagons and Red River Carts was arranged so that each pulling animal, ox or horse, was tied to the rear corner of the cart ahead and walked in its wheel rut. In this way, the vehicles did not travel in a single line and avoided making much-deeper ruts. The overall impression for Seager, plodding alongside: noise.

It was uncomfortably hot, and he pushed up the sleeves of his blue guernsey, stuffed his red hat in a pocket, and his face and hands got browner as the miles passed. His thirst raged the first day. Only a small amount of water was carried, and that reserved for tea. At the “16-mile slough” he strained tadpoles from the brackish water by pouring it through his handkerchief.

Half way along the 180-mile trail they met George Horn, on his way from Saskatoon to Moose Jaw in a two-wheeled cart pulled by a pony, a second cart and pony tied behind. It was no use going farther, he told Seager, because Lamonde was on his way to Moose Jaw on another trail. He would hitch up the other pony, and Seager could drive the second cart. That was more like it! Seager leapt onto the cart, caught on quickly, and bounced back to Moose Jaw in style, happy and now “brown as a berry”.

“Alice didn’t know me. She thought I was a half-breed.” He found Gus Lamonde and George Barrett listening as his mother brought them up to date on family news. The adults decided, to Seager’s chagrin, that it would be best for him to wait until the following spring to go up to Lamonde’s homestead.

The town’s rowdies had stepped up their “wild and wooly” antics while he was away. He noted in his diary that two hotels had burned. And Alice had feared Indians were attacking when bullets whizzed by their building one night; soldiers were firing their weapons from the hospital tents. Another night, during heavy drinking by the troops, government hay stores were set ablaze, and two privates and a corporal on sentry duty were arrested.

He was delighted to meet a former school chum who had emigrated earlier, volunteered to serve with the Winnipeg Rifles, and had been in skirmishes with Chief Big Bear and his followers. He gave Seager a makeshift shotgun called a “Zulu,” a single-barrel converted rifle.

Spring came to the great plains, and to Seager, as a revelation. Life’s pulse picked up. The unbelievable cold and tedium of winter had ended, cheering warmth made the dark-water creeks run full and his spirits raced as well. A worker since age 11, he was a practical youth, but not devoid of dreams. His only goal in life was to build a farm with good land and a house, a place he and his mother would own and could truly call home. At last he could resume the great adventure of his life. Saskatoon settlers would be coming south for supplies and he could arrange to go back with one of them to Lamonde’s homestead on the bank of the South Saskatchewan, and learn to be a frontier farmer.

(Published by the University of Regina’s Canadian Plains Research Centre, ISBN 978-0-88977-187-1, and available at McNally Robinson and independent bookstores. Jim Shilliday’s e-mail: