Homesteaders, The

7 December 2018

The Homesteaders
by Sandra Rollings-Magnusson
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$49.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-515-2

Have you ever wondered what life was like for the pioneers who settled the Prairies? Sandra Rollings-Magnusson’s The Homesteaders offers a rare glimpse into Saskatchewan’s homesteading history by the very homesteaders who made that history.

Rollings-Magnusson based her coffee-table book primarily on questionnaires the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan devised in the 1950s, asking surviving pioneers for their reminiscences of the 1873-1914 period. The questions were grouped under a number of themes, including the types of food they ate, experiences in one-room schools, injuries and illnesses, and what they did for fun and entertainment.

Incorporating the information she gleaned from these questionnaires and other sources, Rollings-Magnusson fashioned the material into a highly entertaining and readable account of these homesteaders

In their own words, these pioneers comment on topics as diverse as droughts to blizzards. Besides enduring wicked winter weather, homesteaders had to contend with pesky pests galore – gophers, grasshoppers, cutworms, mosquitoes, bedbugs, and even snakes in one’s bed.

Rollings-Magnusson notes that settlers devised ingenious ways of coping, using wooden store boxes and apple barrels for furniture, turning flour sacks into bedsheets and dresses, even making baby cribs out of tree trunks. They learned to make do with what they had. With doctors miles away, the usual remedy for a fever was castor oil.

In the chapter on one-room schoolhouses, one teacher noticed five grey collie dogs following her, only to find out later they were coyotes. In another incident, four children and their teacher set off in a homemade sleigh, which broke down a mile from school, with the temperature at minus 56 degrees.

Punishments for student infractions ranged from standing in a corner, wearing a dunce cap, mean looks from teacher, and being on the receiving end of a willow switch or hickory stick.

Homesteaders found time for fun too. Weddings were followed by the requisite chivaree, and traditional Christmas celebrations continued with concerts, carols, presents, and, of course, food.

The Homesteaders is abundantly illustrated with more than 170 sepia-toned archival photos and illustrations. The photos come from the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, Library and Archives Canada, and Rollings-Magnusson’s own private collection.

These photos tell a story in themselves. When one views the crude shacks that homesteaders lived in, one might wonder how any of them survived. Many didn’t. One of the most poignant features of this book is a dying wife’s goodbye letter to her husband.

The shadow of death was constant. Death could come quickly, unexpectedly, or it could come slowly and painfully. Homesteaders faced catastrophic cyclones and devastating prairie fires. Even if they survived, many had to start all over again, from scratch.

In enduring hardships and surviving numerous hazards, these homesteaders laid a solid foundation for the future growth and development of Saskatchewan towns and cities. Richly illustrated with archival photos complementing first-hand accounts, The Homesteaders is a beautiful tribute to our pioneers, well done in every way.


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