Mrs. James McKinnon — Pioneer
By T.L Shepherd, West Plains, Sask.
The life of Mrs. Jim McKinnon is a page of the fast changing History of Western Canada.
Born Catherine McRae, on a smaller farm four miles from Teeswater, Ontario, she came to Manitoba at the early age of two years. Her parents loaded their team and wagon and some household effects on a fairly large boat and came up Lake Superior to the landing at Glendon, near the Lake-of-the-Woods from whence her father started overland for Portage la Prairie.
Mrs. McRae came by a much smaller boat with Catherine and her younger brother Bill, up the Assiniboine River to Portage la Prairie, where they bought land and farmed successfully for about five years. Later they lived for some time in the Riding Mountain district and then moved to Dauphin, Manitoba.
At the age of 22 she married James McKinnon and little more than a year later their first child, Lena, was born.
Like so many young people of that day and age, they too heeded the “Call of the West” and in the summer of 1900 came to the little cowtown of Maple Creek. Heading southwest up into the Cypress Hills, they settled within two miles of the site of old Fort Walsh. There they started ranching in a small way with some cattle they brought with them from Manitoba. Isaac Stirling, later to become Member of the newly formed Saskatchewan Legislature, was in partnership with them.
That fall the second member of the young family arrived. This was Clifford, their only son.
Although the Cypress Hills was, and still is, a very good ranching area, it was becoming crowded even by this early date. So in the summer of 1905, the McKinnons, now with a third child, Mary, moved down on Battle Creek to a choice location between the present town of Consul and Vidora. Here there was plenty of “free range,” good hay flats and running water. What if it was 55 miles to the nearest town of Maple Creek and 30 miles to the closest timber? You couldn’t expect everything, now could you?
The land settlement had spread down from the Fort Walsh area, with only a few sections each side of the creeks being surveyed at that time. Even this survey stopped two miles north of where the McKinnons wanted to locate. Not wanting to put their buildings on what might later become a road allowance, they decided to measure the two miles from the township line. They hadn’t a surveyor’s chain or steel tape, so they hit on a plan of putting a set of hobbles on a man’s legs, and joining them with a piece of light chain. By adjusting the length they made each step just a yard long.
That gave them the distance, but for direction they had nothing but the North Star to guide them. So they set up stakes one clear night, and the next day ran their survey lines. Several years later they found they had only missed their mark by a matter of a few feet.
No story of the early days of the West would be complete without some mention of the hard winter of 1906 and ’07. With a small herd of cattle, the McKinnons came through with the loss of only one animal. For about Christmas time, their cows with some sixth sense, decided that they would be better off in the shelter of the Forest Reserve than out on the open plains. So in a bunch they moved back to the hills. This proved to be a wise move for the folks had none too much feed for the calves and a few horses that they kept in the barn.
By April the 7th that spring, the McKinnons were running very low on hay for their calves, and food for themselves so they decided to go to Maple Creek. The shorter “White Mud” road, now Highway 21, past the Cypress Hills Park, was still blocked with snow but they had learned that the road was open to Maple Creek via Fort Walsh. So they took a sleigh that far, and borrowed a wagon for the rest of the trip. Even at that late date the snow was still up to the horses’ breeching in places. But they made the trip, returning with supplies for the family and oats for the livestock.
After that winter the McKinnons decided that perhaps they should try to grow a little grain to help out on the feed for their livestock. The year of 1909 was very favourable, and they had a lovely patch of oats growing in a bend of the creek. The Homesteaders were starting to come into the “south country” here and many were misled by this very nice crop of oats. But the summer of 1910 was very different. The oats came up real nice until about eighteen inches high, then the hot Chinook winds struck and they turned white within the space of a few days. That fall, they were short of feed, so sold some cows at $23.30 a head, with the calves thrown into the deal.
Unusually heavy rains in the fall of 1911 brought a flood down Battle Creek. Jim rode across to the milk cows on a little mare with a sore neck. As the water rose higher he lifted his feet out of the stirrups, and leaning forward in the saddle happened to touch her neck. She ducked her head down fast into the deep water. Then she tossed it up again catching Jim off balance, and hitting him hard on the forehead. The big buckle on the top of the riding bridle cut him over one eye, while the force of the blow knocked him out. He promptly fell off the horse into four feet of cold water, which promptly brought him to again.
He waded out of the creek, and still bringing the milk cows home with him, arrived in a dazed and chilled condition. Within a few days they noticed his neck was getting a bad color so they called on another neighbour, Dr. Offerman, a chiropractic doctor who said there was nothing wrong with him except that he had a broken neck. With the aid of a strong young man, they pulled and yanked his head around until they got the bones back in place. All this in a log house 55 miles from town.
Jim died in spring of 1933 and Mrs. McKinnon carried on the place alone for a few years until at 71 she sold most of the irrigable land to the PFRA and retired to a little house in Consul.
Our History is curated by Gren Winslow. For more of the past from the pages of our magazine see the History section.