The Harvesters

March 1, 2001 by Glenn Wright


For almost 40 years, harvest excursions were organized in Eastern Canada to assist prairie farmers with the grain harvest. Thousands of men and women were recruited, no experience necessary, and transported out west to work in the fields, to ensure that Canada maintained its reputation as the breadbasket of the world. The excursions were a huge undertaking and were absolutely critical for a successful harvest.First conceived by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1890, the annual harvest excursion quickly became a popular tradition, a tradition that contributed in no small way to the significance of the wheat economy to the western prairies and to the country at large. Harvest of the wheat crop was essential to Canada’s food supply, to consumers at home and abroad, and especially to individual farmers and their families.

The harvest excursions were immensely popular, and by any measure, the numbers were impressive. During the 1890s, excursionists rarely exceeded more than a few thousand each year, but after 1900 and through the middle years of World War I, harvesters headed west in the thousands, over 30,000 in 1911 alone. In 1917, with most able-bodied men in uniform or in the munitions industry, the CPR doubled its efforts with an urgent appeal to the patriotic spirit and succeeded in attracting more than 40,000 men and women harvesters.

Postwar excursions were no less popular. From 1920 through 1928, it is estimated that the number of harvesters averaged close to 39,000 per year with peak numbers of 50,450 in 1923 and 52,225 in 1928. In 1929, the wheat market collapsed and with the onset of the economic depression, the harvest excursion had reached the end of the line.

The annual harvest excursion was important to the CPR for two major reasons: One, it was critical for the prairies, the country at large and the company that the grain harvest be completed in a timely fashion. Two, the company held vast tracts of land on the Prairies and the excursions were an excellent means to advertise the West since every excursionist was a potential settler. In addition, since the CPR was the only transcontinental railway in the country until after the turn of the century, it was the only means of transportation for people and products to move from west to east to west.

The western wheat economy developed after the completion of the CPR across the Prairies in 1886 effectively opened the West for settlement. But the wheat fields expanded much faster than the population and as early as 1890, there was insufficient labour in Western Canada to bring in the harvest at the end of the season. The CPR resolved this issue by establishing the harvest excursions, an event that would mark the beginning of the western harvest for the next four decades.

Working in unison with local government officials, the CPR issued a call for harvesters in mid-August throughout Eastern Canada, the United States and Britain. It was not an expensive proposition for those seeking work in the wheat fields. From the 1890s through to the end of World War I, the fare from anywhere in North America to Winnipeg was $15 and from there to a farm placement, about one half cent per mile. Harvesters agreed to remain for a minimum period of time, usually one month, and if so, a ticket home would cost $15 to $20. The CPR funnelled recruits to Montreal and Toronto where special trains were organized to carry the harvesters on the long trek to Winnipeg. From there, with the assistance of provincial agricultural officials, harvesters were directed to where they were needed. While many harvesters remained in one location for weeks at a time, others moved about the prairies until the harvest was done, usually in October.

Wages were the primary motivation for most harvesters, even if the work was hard and physical for six days a week. If the popularity of the excursions is any indication, thousands thought that it was worth the effort. Bob Yates, a young American who spent three months in Saskatchewan in 1926, returned home with $300 in his pocket and no regrets. For Yates, the harvest excursion had been a “once-in-a-lifetime” adventure, an opportunity to be on his own, to experience Western Canada first hand, to meet new people and earn a few dollars. Frank Croft, a veteran of several excursions, recalled that the wages were generally good, “always the highest for casual labour in Canada.” What’s more, room and board was included.

Howard Stoner of Cayuga, Ont., worked for about $2.50 per day in Manitoba in 1908; Bob Yates was happy at $4, while others claimed it was possible to earn as much as $6 or $7 for a day’s work in the mid-1920s.

Many excursionists were enticed by the promise of adventure, of new experiences, the camaraderie forged on the trains and in the fields or the romantic lure of the West. Others signed on to spy out the land or to test their mettle as farm workers. Still others took advantage of the low fares to visit (and work for) family or friends. Hugh Boyd of Bobcaygeon, Ont., worked on a farm near Regina in 1906 and was so impressed with the West that when he returned home, he convinced his parents and brother to take up land the following spring.

Boyd was not alone. A countless number of excursionists experienced “the call of the West” and never used the return portion of their fare, including Percy Nicholson, a veteran of the Canadian Expeditionary Force living at Sebright, Ont. He took his first excursion in 1927, met and fell in love with a local girl at Byemoor, Alta., married, bought a farm and settled down.

In the early years of the century, Welsh brothers Edward and John Robert, were both employed in the grocery trade. Unhappy with their lot in life, they signed on as harvesters in August 1906. When they finally reached Calgary some weeks later, the CPR provided employment on a company irrigation project. The following spring, the Robert brothers acquired two adjoining quarter sections and settled down to farm. In July 1923, Charles Baker and four friends in Somerset, England, saw the CPR poster and all agreed that for a return fare of 20 pounds, Canada seemed like a good idea. “We had little to lose and much to gain,” recalled Baker. “If the glowing account of Canada, as pictured in the ad, was correct.”

Correct it was. They were booked through to Hanna, Alta., worked for a kindly farmer and were “treated as part of the family.” Baker returned to England for Christmas, but two years later moved back to Canada to stay.

Harvesters ventured to Toronto and Montreal where “special” trains were assembled for the long and monotonous journey west. The trains were crowded, often consisting of 20 or more cars each and upwards of 1,200 passengers, and they were not particularly comfortable. For many years, the CPR used old colonist cars, each capable of accommodating roughly 60 passengers on wooden benches. The cars also featured a small stove and a single toilet. It was, from the very beginning, a raucous experience. Youthful exuberance, often fuelled by liquor, was a potent mix and incidents of violence, vandalism and petty thievery were not uncommon. CPR police did their best to maintain discipline, but for three or four days, the harvest excursion trains were wild affairs on wheels.

In July 1921, railway officials decided on a different tact to preserve peace on the excursion trains. They made a formal request to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to assist with the harvest excursions by providing escorts on each and every westbound train. It was a novel, if not unique responsibility for the Mounties, one they undertook on an annual basis until the excursions ceased at the end of the decade.

The RCMP in 1921 was a very different police force from what it had been when it first brought law and order to Western Canada in the 1870s. At the end of World War I, the federal government reorganized national policing services. As a consequence, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police amalgamated with the Dominion Police to form the RCMP on Feb. 1, 1920. The jurisdiction of the RNWMP had been limited to the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the northern territories, but the RCMP was a national force, responsible for federal law enforcement throughout Canada.

When CPR officials called on the Mounties in 1921, they did so with good reason. In addition to incidents of violence and vandalism, there were reports of theft and of harassment directed at female harvesters. Railway property was regularly damaged or destroyed wherever the trains stopped.

While publicizing the upcoming excursion schedule in August 1904, a New Glasgow, N.S., newspaper added a cautionary note: “It is also hoped that the weird tales from along the route of fighting, stealing, blood and carnage will be lacking this year.”

According to historian W.J.C. Cherwinski, the 1908 excursion was long remembered as one of the most violent on record, including numerous incidents of property damage, assaults, a near-riot and a murder. The CPR police patrolled the trains before the Mounties arrived, but they were no match for the harvesters, at least a significant portion of them who were intent on violence and unruly behaviour.

The harvesters were a diverse lot. They were students, professionals, experienced farmhands, miners, factory workers and clerks. The numbers included drifters, adventurers and what Frank Croft describes as “roustabouts.”

Bob Yates felt that “harvesters constitute a race of their own…. Every walk of life is represented in heterogeneous melee….” For as long as the journey took from Montreal or Toronto to Winnipeg–and it could take five or six days for those who joined the trek in the Maritimes–there were no distractions, nothing to relieve the monotony of the long trip. Not surprisingly, discipline was a real and serious problem.

Administrative responsibility for the RCMP escorts was assumed by N Division in Ottawa, although non-commissioned officers and men, some 40 to 60 in all, were called in from detachments in Ontario and Manitoba and from Depot Division in Regina. Two uniformed mounted policemen, usually a sergeant or corporal and a young constable, were assigned to each train to ensure peace and order, no small task when some trains consisted of more than 20 cars and as many as 1,400 excursionists. The Mounties wore their red serge and Stetsons, and carried side arms. For many easterners–not to mention Americans and Europeans–the Mounties in uniform were a rare sight, their reputation and mystique undoubtedly had a salutary effect on the wilder elements among the harvesters. They boarded the trains at the main assembly points and the first order of business was a thorough search for weapons and alcohol. Guns were seized now and again, but liquor infractions were far more common. When confiscated, the offending spirits were immediately destroyed.

R.A. Taggart’s first posting upon completion of recruit training at Depot Division was to a harvest excursion train in 1927. He was assigned to a 15-car train at Montreal and later reminisced that either he or his sergeant patrolled the entire length of the train every hour, in his words, “more to show ourselves than anything else. We never had any reason to interfere at any time.”

The major task of the RCMP was to ensure that excursionists could travel to Winnipeg in relative comfort and safety, and that railway property and private property en route was not vandalized or damaged in any way. Breaking windows and tossing objects from moving trains was a common annoyance. An innocent bystander at the station in Sioux Lookout, Ont., was injured in August 1922 when hit by an object thrown from a passing train. Corporal F. Bebb reported in the same month that excursionists on his train “made a big attempt to create damage at Cochrane, Ont., but were overruled by us before any damage was done.”

The trains stopped frequently to give regular trains right-of-way. Three times a day they stopped to allow the excursionists to eat, and during each stop the escorts became extra vigilant. Harvesters, cooped up in the crowded cars for long periods of time, were often inclined to mischievous and petty vandalism at the station. Occasionally they went on to more serious misadventures.

A perennial source of discontent and restlessness for the excursionists from the 1890s through the 1920s was the provision of food. In the early years, food hampers could be purchased at the beginning of the journey, but by the 1920s, harvesters were on their own. While experienced travellers made plans for the four- or five-day trip to Winnipeg, many others did not and relied on local entrepreneurs en route, and this created a problem. Several Mounties reported that the prices charged were exorbitant and the food substandard. Adding hunger to a long and monotonous trip was a dangerous mix.

In August 1922, Corporal E.B. O’Donnell reported that on his train, he could feel the “unrest” because of high food prices charged harvesters en route. Some restaurants, O’Donnell noted, constituted a form of highway robbery. Harvesters, it seems, had no choice at all–pay exorbitant prices or starve. The CPR added lunch counters to some trains as early as 1917, but not all trains were equipped in this way. The meal stops, three times a day, were too brief and station facilities were often inadequate to meet even the basic needs of several hundred hungry harvesters.

Under the circumstances, it was impossible to confine the excursionists to the station, and large groups often headed into town in search of cheaper prices. A Mountie was usually assigned to accompany the harvesters to ensure that they did not become unruly. To complicate matters, townspeople were often not welcoming. At Fauquier, Ont., in 1922, shots were fired from a store when a large group of harvesters approached. The situation was quickly defused, but the Mountie on the scene later reported that residents of the town “seemed terrified.”

Within a few short years, RCMP escort work on the harvest excursions was nothing more than a routine summer assignment. Trouble was rare. In 1928, over 52,000 harvesters journeyed west to bring in the sheaves, but the very next summer, CPR officials informed Commissioner Cortlandt Starnes that the RCMP escorts were no longer required–only a few thousand harvesters were needed and an escort was not necessary.

And so a great Canadian tradition had reached the end of the track. By 1930, the wheat economy was in collapse, depression and dust bowls would soon ravage the West. There was little to harvest and certainly no need for assistance from the East. For almost a decade, the RCMP had done its bit to ensure the harvest was completed on time. More importantly, the police escorts were a guarantee that the thousands who chose to help with the harvest could travel from Eastern Canada to Winnipeg in a safe and secure environment.

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