Monday, November 15, 2010

Sweat Rejoicing And Tears

My Wife's father, Gus Westergreen, immigrated to Canada from Sweden in the early 1880's when he secured employment at one dollar a day with William Van Horn's crew, who were in the process of constructing the Canadian Pacific Railway across Western Canada. It was a laborious, man-killing job as they laid the rails across the prairie of the Northwest Territories at a fast pace until they met up with a Chinese crew from the west coast, who had blasted a path for the railway through the Rockies over the Roger's Pass to Craiggallechie, British Columbia.

Gus stuck with the job until the last spike was driven by Donald Smith at Craiggallechie on November 7, 1885 completing the railway that linked the east with the west, and thereby fulfilling Prime Minister John A. MacDonald's national dream; a railway from coast to coast! Donald Smith was better known later as Lord Strathcona, Federal Member of Parliament for Selkirk, Manitoba. Then, Gus Westergreen was appointed section foreman on a branch line at Whitewater, Manitoba where he lived in a converted box car that also served as the first railway station at Whitewater.

When the South Africa Boer War broke out in 1899, Gus enlisted in the army and fought in the British Cavalry along with Winston Churchill, who later became Britain's famous Second World War Prime Minister who wrote the book Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat. After the peace treaty was signed in 1902, Gus received an honourable discharge and returned to Whitewater, where he received a land grant for his war services called a South African Scrip. Gus built a big stone house and large stone barn on his farm where he grew grain and raised some cattle. It was herd law as there were very few fences at that time. Everyone had to herd their own cattle. Tom Stephenson, an enterprising young man, decided he could make good money in the summer as a herdsman for all the settlers in the community at fifty cents a head per month. He gathered together a large herd of the settlers' cows and steers and built a big corral and a shack on the prairie north of Whitewater Lake where he herded them with a pony and two dogs.

September 12, 1903 was a warm summer day. No one suspected that they were about to experience the worst early fall blizzard, and the most disastrous cattle stampede in Manitoba's history. That evening a big dark cloud appeared on the northwest horizon and a cool breeze sprang up. Tom rounded up the cattle and drove them into the big corral for the night just as big snowflakes started to fall. Tom went into his shack for supper.

Later in the evening, Tom looked out and it was still snowing so he went to bed. During the night, the wind increased into a blizzard that raged all night. When Tom looked out in the morning, the prairie was covered with snowdrifts two feet deep. Tom put on heavy clothes and went out to see how the cattle had faired. The corral was broken down and all the cattle were gone. Tom jumped on his pony and headed south as he knew with the wind on their backs they would go south toward the lake.

As Tom approached the lake, his worst fears were confirmed as he heard the roar of bawling cattle. Spooked by the storm, the cattle had stampeded and charged full bore and plowed into the lake for over a hundred yards where they filed up and were stuck in the mud. Tom road for help and the settlers arrived with horses and ropes. They worked all day pulling away as the temperature had dropped to below freezing. Well over one hundred cattle died in the melee. The fact that the farmers grain stooks were buried in snow added to the farmers' predicament. With the concentration of so many cattle in one herd, what appeared to be a good idea had proven to be a big boondoggle.

As bad news travels fast, word of the disaster was soon relayed by moccasin telegraph to the Indians on the nearby reserves. Indians by the hundreds converged at the scene on their shaganappi ponies to share in the spoils. For the Indians who had been half starved since the white man banished the vast herds of buffalo from Canada's great western plains, it was a bonanza. To them, the best thing that happened since Chief Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeated General George Custer's army in the battle at the Little Bighorn.

The Indians set up camp on the lake shore where they collected wood and built bonfires. The men commenced to drag the dead cattle out of the lake with two or three ponies hitched to each head of cattle. The women skinned and cut the beef into long strips one inch think and hung it on racks to dry and cure.

Much of the lake shore was festooned with red ribbons of beef hanging from pole racks.

The weather turned suddenly warm again and the remains of the carcases began to decay. Dr. Schaffner, who was the health officer for the district, ordered barrels of kerosene sent out from Boisevein to burn up the remainder of the carcases.

The aroma, or was it a stench?, from the biggest beef barbecue in Southern Manitoba ever had penetrated the atmosphere for miles around and as far south as the United States border. The weather remained warm for quite a long spell drying out the grain stooks. Gus Westergreen and his neighbours harvested a pretty fair crop which saved the day for them.

Tom Hoy

More Later....

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