The Saga of a First Settler…
By C. H. Strout
They’ve struck oil on the Old Homestead. Far below the ruins of the first log cabin, the half-century-old white poplars and the balm of Gilead, the willows, the wild rose bushes and vetch, they’ve tapped another basin of the magic fluid.
It’s the first in a prospective group of four to eight wells in the old homestead, now almost circled by producers, and, like the soil it penetrates, it’s rich. Now our farm has suddenly become a bright spot on the exciting horizon of oil-conscious Canada, but it was a vastly different picture 57 years ago. How different, only the writer, who as a small boy saw its timberland, its sloughs, its beaver dams and The Creek, remains to realize and remember. As the last “first settler” of that pioneer community southwest of old Fort Edmonton still living in Alberta, we are somewhat proud of that modest piece of land and its precious associations, and also the fact that, through sentiment mostly, we held to it through trying times and burdensome taxes to see it finally come to the aid of our whole country, as it did to young Alberta when it became a province in 1905.
Nevertheless the phrase, “They’ve struck oil on the Old Homestead” brings a shadow of sadness and regret. For it was THEY and not US, that brought in a well. What a huge gap can separate those two words!
Recently the Alberta government received well over 231,000 dollars for the oil and gas rights on our farm and will be allotted hereafter 15 per cent of all production. The company, which drilled the nearly 56 hundred feet within 21 days, will divide the remainder and this will amount to perhaps millions of dollars, for the prospect of any dry holes in the drilling program is definitely remote. As for us, responsible for 57 years’ taxes, we happen to be merely a homestead owner and therefore not a qualified person within the meaning of the Act. Fortunately the Indians, on their reserves, fare better and we are happy that they do for we long ago learned to hold the Indians in high esteem.
We do get a few hundred dollars for being required to turn our old farm into an oilfield, and probably shouldn’t squirm when we are told to be happy that we are allowed to pocket some topsoil peanuts while nature’s treasure chest is being depleted.
Well, they may arbitrarily take our land but they cannot take away our memories, the kind of memories on which the west was built. A fatherless boy and a sod house on a wind-swept Kansas plain: of drought and genteel poverty on one frontier, and finally a desperate move to another frontier where it was hoped all would be milk and honey. Of a heart-chilling landing one icy April evening in 1895 on a forlorn railway platform at Leduc, and bumping in a farm wagon through the water, snow and mud to a relative’s crude log cabin for the night. How our stepfather quailed at the loneliness and wildness of it all, but how our courageous mother who previously had fought against such a move, now stepped in and declared that we would stick.
Ten dollars went to the land office in Wetaskiwin for the homestead filing, depleting our cash reserve to two dollars and 25 cents, and a so-called land guide deluded us into settling 18 miles from the railway as the trail then ran. Shall we ever forget how we had to chop our way through the last two miles to where our hastily built log cabin was to stand virtually in a forest; how the bears sniffed round the door and half windows at night; how we went without even a floor until the lumber could be whip-sawed; how we snared rabbits in the summer and pit-trapped them in winter to provide almost our only source of food; how even coyote fat was used to make tallow candles that provided our only light; of barley coffee and carrot pies; of homemade moccasins and mitts; of clearing heavy timber with axe and grub hoe, one tree at a time, for the little fields and garden, and how frost took the potatoes and oats. How the creeks and sloughs were brimming and trails to town literally bottomless, while men waded in water up to their waists ’midst millions of flies and mosquitoes to chop and corduroy the first crude roads along the “survey lines.” Only the intrepid mail carrier, honor to his memory, would undertake the trip to town some weeks, and then only with three and four horses hitched to the front running gears of a lumber wagon.
It causes a pang even yet to think of eggs at 5 cents a dozen, 10-cent butter, 20-cent oats, 40-cent wheat, 2 cents a pound for hogs and 3 cents a pound for prime steers, but worst of all those wonderful potatoes brought only 15 cents a bushel delivered at the railway 15 miles away. When there was work men got 50 cents a day.
Those were indeed hard times and the wonder is that more settlers didn’t give up the struggle and get out. But from these pages of memory come as well many a heart-warming picture with familiar faces rising again from the past. They came from many lands, these pioneers, and the common hardships and the equalizing effect of privations brought a quick brotherhood and understanding no matter what the language and the former stations of life.
What an amazingly different picture it is today! What a change this motor age, operating now on our own oil, has brought about in the span of a normal life. But looking back we bow most reverently to the memory of those “first settlers” who hewed their homes out of the wilderness, never asked nor expected government aid or subsidies, and who never sought “shorter working hours” or “better standards of living” other than those they earned and obtained by their own efforts.
We only wish, in a reverent sort of way, that the pioneers might have known what treasures nature had stored beneath the surface of their farms, and we confess in our weak, perhaps senile moments, we sometimes wish we had just a mite, a very small percentage, of the millions in oil and gas they are going to pipe out of our 160 acres whose family and tax-paying history goes back to the spring of 1895…
For they’ve struck it rich on the Old Homestead, and it was a driller from Kansas that brought in the first well.