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Growth of the Community

Water Works Wonders
A History of the White, Wilson, McMahon,
River Junction School Districts Pages 57 - 58

Part II: Gumboots and Dusty Old Hankies
Agricultural Development in South Alberta
Lethbridge Herald, 1907


Grazing was the leading occupation of southern Alberta for a very long time. Just how long we have no accurate means of ascertaining, since the annals of the Red Man who rode after the vast unbranded herds are not obtainable and unless some musty scholar delving among prehistoric bones shall discover the oldest buffalo, we shall never know. Meanwhile we are perfectly safe in calling it 'some years later' that the White Man discovered that good fodder and chinooks combined to make an ideal grazing ground, winter as well as summer, for cattle as well as buffalo. Then followed the day of the Cattle King, the cowboy and the great round-up. They were good times, spiced with adventure and romance, but their day is over. Everywhere they are met with the menace of the barbed wire fence, and the cattle man of yesterday is becoming the farmer of today.

It was the railway that brought the settler and his barbed wire, and this came first in the form of the narrow gauge from Dunmore to Lethbridge in 1885, followed closely by the line connecting Lethbridge with Great Falls, Montana. Without these lines the settlers could not have come, but something more was needed to turn the tide of immigration in this direction.

The Galt Company

The history of the agricultural development of the country, like that of its commercial development, is closely allied to that of the Galt Company.

Although the railways built for an outlet to their coal mines incidentally opened the country to settlement, the necessity of disposing of their large land holdings suggested another undertaking of even more direct effect upon its history. This was of course, the inauguration of the Galt Canal system. The first water reached Lethbridge through the Galt Canal in September of 1900 and the first farming was done under the ditch the following year, southeast of the town.

The Mormons

Meanwhile another movement was taking place farther south. It was in 1886, the year following the completion of the Dunmore line and the beginning of Lethbridge, that the late President Card of the Mormon Church arrived at what is now Cardston. His coming led to a considerable immigration of Mormons, tempted by the rich lands and the moderate climate. The children of pioneers, they were peculiarly fitted for the opening up of a new country, and to these patient, courageous settlers, Southern Alberta owes much. It was they who introduced the concept of irrigation.

A dozen or so years after the first immigration a second movement was induced by the demand of the Galt Company for help on the canal, for which they paid partly in the form of land script. Successive settlements were made at Magrath and Stirling (1899) and Raymond (1901).

The Community:

Although it was the promise of the irrigation canal that tempted most of these settlers, accustomed as they were to this mode of farming, there was considerable farming done water was available -- the crops for the first two or three seasons after the settlement of Magrath and Stirling being very fine and thus giving the practice of "dry" farming great encouragement. Consequently, while the irrigation system the direct means of drawing people to the country, it was now discovered that two methods of farming were possible.

The results of most of these early experiments in farming were varied and uncertain, due mainly to improper forms of cultivation. There was no doubt about the fertility of the soil, but crops that were grown successfully elsewhere did not always thrive under the same treatment, though really phenomenal yields at times showed the possibilities of the soil under proper conditions. Still, until a really reliable crop could be discovered, farming was too much of a gamble. Fortunately such a discovery was not long delayed.

Winter Wheat

A soft winter wheat called Odessa had been introduced by the Mormons who settled about Cardston, and had been raised with uniform success, but it remained for E.E. Thompson of Spring Coulee to import a variety very much better in quality which has had an immense effect on the country's development. It was from the car load of Turkey Red which Mr. Thompson shipped from Nebraska in 1902 that the now famous Alberta Red originated, and it was really the introduction of this variety that showed the wonderful possibilities of winter wheat in southern Alberta. For, notwithstanding the drying wind and little snow, it has been established that this section is peculiarly adapted to the raising of this grain. There is nothing miraculous about this. There is, on the contrary, a perfectly simple explanation, namely, that winter wheat sown in August actually gets the moisture of two seasons, for the land is summer fallowed the first season. Given this, with the unusual fertility of the soil, the results are no longer surprising. Winter wheat growing has passed beyond the experimental stage, as is shown by the last season's crop returns, where yields of 50 bushels up to 63 bushels per acre were reported by some of the best farmers. The district produced over 2,000,000 bushels last season and with the present acreage, it is reasonable to suppose that the output will be much greater next year.

The fact that the eight elevators that have sprung up on the Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company's lines within the last three or four years are taxed to the utmost to handle the crop, tells the same story; as do the flour mills at Magrath, Raymond and Cardston and the two at Lethbridge.


Winter wheat has developed the country very rapidly, but another phase of agricultural development whose growth, while slower, will be of no less a permanent asset, is alfalfa raising.

Although the Mormons had tried, ever since their first coming, to raise alfalfa (or Lucerne) which had been one of the principal crops in the locality from which they emigrated, they were not successful. It was not till irrigation water was obtainable and it was discovered that inoculation was necessary on the ground on which it was sown that alfalfa growing was made a success. Now, the district boasts come fine fields of alfalfa including, within three miles of Lethbridge, the largest single field of alfalfa in western Canada, this side of the mountains - some 200 acres, on which for several seasons two or three cuttings of hay have been made.

Thus two outstanding crops, illustrating two distinct methods of farming - "dry" and "irrigated" - and both extremely profitable, have been found adapted to the district. Each has its advantages: winter wheat raising on non-irrigated land and alfalfa on irrigated land. Dry land can be bought cheaper and with the use of winter wheat quicker returns can be obtained. On the other hand, while it takes two or three years to get alfalfa started, once established it brings in a constant and large income with comparatively little expenditure of time and labor, since no plowing is necessary.

In the writer's opinion, judging by older districts similarly located, the irrigable land will be seeded down so rapidly that in a few years 65 to 70 percent of such land will be handled, which will make this district one of the largest feeding grounds in western Canada.

Although grown with relatively more profit on irrigated land, alfalfa on non-irrigated land will produce more hay than any other cultivated forage crop yet tried, so it need not be confined to the former no more than winter wheat growing need be confined to the latter.

It must not be supposed that the products of southern Alberta are confined to these two crops. In fact space forbids anything like a detailed description of farming crops. There are a few, however, that even the most cursory glance at the resources of the country must include. Among the first of these comes the raising of sugar beets.

Sugar Beets

As has been mentioned, Raymond was one of the towns that sprung up under the new canal system - about 1901. In 1902 a sugar beet factory was built there by the Knight Sugar Company.

There have been few lines of industry that have interested capital to such an extent in the last ten years or so, as sugar beet raising, and with many successes there have also been numerous failures, owing in the main to unfortunate locations; for in order to make sugar beet raising profitable, both soil and climate must be congenial. We have been fortunate in the combination that exists in this district. The juice of the beet as grown here is very rich in sugar and has a high co-efficient of purity.

The Knight Sugar Factory has been running successfully from the start, using the product of about 8,000 acres last year. This is, however, only a fraction of the maximum capacity of the plant.

Fruit Growing

The possibilities of growing both large and small fruits are probably greater in southern Alberta than in any part of the province. Small fruits, such as strawberries, raspberries, currants and gooseberries are already grown in commercial quantities by a number of farmers in the the vicinity of Lethbridge.

A rather limited amount was put on the market last summer, but this was due to the very small acreage planted with the fiuit and not the lack of yield.

On account of the long days of sunshine, the fruit grown here is very highly colored and luscious, while coolness of the weather contributes to its rich flavor. This is one of the many openings waiting to be taken advantage of by enterprising farmers and gardeners, as prices are high and the quality of imported often dubious.

It is a matter of dispute who raised the first apple in the district, but that they have been raised for a number of years is indisputable, as witness the gardens of Father Van Tighem and Mrs. Duff in Lethbridge and several gardens in Magrath. This season R. E. Sherlock, W. A. Hamilton, W.H. Robson, P. F. Reeve, D.J. Whitney, H. P. Catrall, and others, picked apples from their own trees. Indeed, practically all the trees in the district that were old enough to bear, had fruit.

Cattle Ranching

Southern Alberta was a natural cattle country with lots of land, water and grass. The Chinook winds moderated the climate. Buffalo trails crisscrossing the plains showed how animals thrived on the grass in years past. When the last buffalo herds disappeared, the Indians, starving and disillusioned, settled on their reserves. The issuing of rations to the natives and the purchase of beef by the R.C.M.P. provided an excellent market for large scale cattle ranches. So, almost immediately after the Indian had given up his nomadic life, the rancher entered Southern Alberta. Within a few years large companies were running thousands of head of cattle on the range recently vacated by the buffalo. Some of the herds which began to replace the bison traced their lineage from Mexico, Texas and the Indian Territory of the Indian nations Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. The Mexican and Spanish strains of cattle mingled with the other strains in the United States and soon were supplemented by Herefords, Shorthorns, Aberdeen-Angus and other breeds from eastern Canada and Britain.

In the 1880s great cattle outfits established along the foothills of Southern Alberta, and somewhat later, some farther out on the prairies. There were no large ranches in our district. Ranching on a smaller scale was carried on by early pioneers who ran cattle on land adjacent to the river. A list of early ranchers would include the names of Hasson, Houk, Russell, Whitney, and Gwatkin, among others.

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Copyright 2000
Mary Tollestrup