by Paul Yanko
courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board
Saskatchewan boasts nearly half of all cultivated land in Canada
and exports fully 10 per cent of the world's wheat.
Near the end of the 19th century, however, three of every four
settlers who tried to farm the virgin soil of the region failed
and were gone within 10 years. Most of them simply didn't know how
to deal with Saskatchewan's particularly dry land and short growing
season. The rules learned back home in Europe, or elsewhere in North
America, simply didn't apply.
The turnaround came through education. And one man, more than most, was responsible for it. His name was William Motherwell.
In the spring of 1882, at the age of 22, Motherwell moved from
his native Ontario and settled near present-day Abernethy.
weren't as plentiful on the prairies as they were in Ontario.
But once Motherwell collected enough of them, he created a beautiful
He called his homestead Lanark Place, after the county in Ontario
where he was born. For the next 14 years, he worked his land with
oxen and horses while he and his family lived in a log cabin. Motherwell
was hard-working, ambitious and open-minded. He embraced new "dry-land
farming" techniques such as summerfallowing, wherein a portion of
farmland each year is taken out of production in order to conserve
soil moisture and nutrients, as well as to control weeds.
By 1897, Motherwell had gathered enough stones from the surrounding
land to build a stately, two-storey home that has since been turned
into a National Historic Site. Ever practical, he divided the land
around the house into quadrants, each with a specific purpose. The
house quadrant includes ornamental trees and a tennis lawn. The
barn and garden quadrants are sheltered on all sides by trees, and
the quadrant containing the dugout was designed to maximize exposure
to the weather in order to collect the winter's snow.
As busy as he was, he always found time for community involvement.
"He was a born leader," recalls 83-year-old Edison Stueck, whose
father travelled west with Motherwell and settled near him. "Anytime
there was any type of community effort, he was right in the middle
Motherwell in 1901 helped found the Territorial Grain Growers'
Association, a group of western farmers protesting, among other
things, government tariffs that forced them to sell their grain
at below-market value. When the province of Saskatchewan was formed
in 1905, he was the natural choice for the first minister of agriculture,
a position he held until 1918.
In politics, Motherwell quickly gained a reputation for being uncompromising
in his views, seldom an asset in the political arena.
courtesy the Motherwell Homestead
house is maintained to give the appearance the Motherwells simply
stepped out for the day.
"You are as (wise) as a mosquito when it comes to politicking,"
Premier Walter Scott once said in a letter to Motherwell.
As provincial minister, Motherwell constantly expounded the benefits
of scientific agriculture. As part of that effort, he created "Better
Farming Trains" that travelled provincial rail lines sharing the
latest in agricultural techniques and advancements with the widely-dispersed
farming communities of Saskatchewan.
"His most important contribution was that he recognized the need
for education in the new settlers who came here," says Tim McCashin,
site coordinator for the Motherwell Homestead. "Farming was a different
ball of wax here on the prairies, and the settlers had to re-learn
many techniques in order to make agriculture viable here."
When the University of Saskatchewan was founded in 1908, Motherwell
successfully lobbied for the inclusion of a college of agriculture.
Saskatchewan Archives Board
Better Farming Train took modern farming techniques right to
the farmer's doorstep.
"I took a vow to myself that if I ever got in a position to do
it, I would try to reverse the idea that farming is a subservient
occupation," he once said.
It was a mandate he continued to pursue as federal minister of
agriculture under Prime Minister Mackenzie King, from 1921 to 1930.
Motherwell also established the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory
in Winnipeg, a facility whose purpose was to develop heartier varieties
of wheat. And he helped eradicate tuberculosis in cattle by establishing
a new policy of quarantine and destruction that compensated owners
for their losses.
"Motherwell had a huge influence on the improvement of farming
practises in Saskatchewan," says 80-year-old retired crop and soil
specialist Earl Johnson. "In many cases, he'd proven things work
Motherwell retired from politics in 1939 and died in 1943. But
his legacy as the "Grand Old Man of Canadian Agriculture" is preserved
at the Motherwell Homestead.
courtesy the Motherwell Homestead
in period costume carry out day-to-day chores just as they were
undertaken in Motherwell's day.
The homestead was acquired by the Canadian Parks Service in 1966
and later restored to the 1910-1914 period. Visitors can explore
the property and tour the home, which is carefully maintained to
appear as though the Motherwells just stepped out for the day.
Authentically-costumed interpreters "run" the farm in-character,
performing chores such as baking bread, caring for the animals and
even acting out vignettes. Between 10,000 and 12,000 people each
year visit the site, which is open from late May to early September.
"We really try to make the place come alive for the people who
visit," says Tara Walker, an eight-season veteran of the site. "It's
fun to do some of the old-fashioned things and let people take part
For more information on Motherwell Homestead National Historic Site, click here.
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