Virtual Saskatchewan Home Navigation Bar

Get Around Virtual Saskatchewan!


  Teach a Man to Farm

by Paul Yanko
- courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board
William Motherwell

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.

Stones weren't as plentiful on the prairies as they were in Ontario. But once Motherwell collected enough of them, he created a beautiful home.

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 of it."

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
The 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.

- courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board
The 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 for himself."

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
Staff 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 in them."

For more information on Motherwell Homestead National Historic Site, click here.

Contact Us | Contents | Advertising | Archives | Maps | Events | Search |
Prints 'n Posters | Lodging Assistance | Golf | Fishing | Parks | Privacy |

© Copyright (1997-2012) Virtual Saskatchewan