A look at the last of the homesteads

One of the great sagas of western Canadian history is the homesteading story.

Between the early 1880s and 1914, literally hundreds of thousands of people moved to the great Canadian west, drawn by the prospect of being able to secure 160 acres of land for a $10 filing fee.

The opportunities were exciting, but they came with a large cost.

A homesteader had to put in three to five years of hard work to “prove up” their homestead.

They had to construct a home and other such essential buildings as barns and stables. They had to turn a set number of acres into fields each year, and spend a good portion of their time actually living on the claim.

Then they were finally given title to their new home.

Several found the tasks of completing their homestead and the challenges of western Canadian weather to be too much to manage.

Sometimes, three or four settlers started a homesteading claim before one finally finished all of the requirements and was granted title.

Nevertheless, a great many people managed to successfully start new homesteads and homes. Consequently, one of the world’s great agricultural heartlands was developed.

By the early 1900s, most of the homestead land in Central Alberta was claimed. People had to either push farther eastwards onto the prairies or go westwards towards the forests of the foothills to find available land.

Otherwise, they had to buy land from earlier homesteaders or from such large landholders as the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company which held 180 sections of land in and around Red Deer.

The federal government did hold some land back from the homesteading process. Most of this land was reserved for the support of schools.

The idea was that once a district was filled up with settlers, these school sections could be sold for a good price.

The proceeds would then be used for the expenses of building and operating a local school. Occasionally, other quarter sections were held back for special purposes as timberlands, which could be used as a source of lumber for incoming settlers.

One of these special timber quarters was located some 10 km east of Red Deer, on the border of the Balmoral and Springvale school districts.

While the quarter was heavily treed, it also had very good soil. It was, therefore, a very good future prospect either for a homesteader or for someone who could arrange a purchase from the government.

In the summer of 1913, John Piper learned that the Dominion Lands Office was thinking of finally allowing a homestead claim on this timber quarter.

He knew it was an excellent opportunity. Not willing to let such a great prospect slip by, he began to camp at the door of the Dominion Lands Office on Ross St. in Red Deer on Sept. 7, 1913.

He wanted to make sure that he was the first in line when the land was declared open for a homestead claim.

Unfortunately, sometimes the wheels of government move very slowly.

The land was not officially declared open for a homestead until the latter part of November. Consequently, Piper spent 72 days and nights camped at the Land Office door before he was able to pay his $10 and make his official claim to the land.

The prize was a good one.

Local realtors estimated that the quarter was worth more than $3,500 on the open market. Moreover, the fall of 1913 was generally mild so Piper did not suffer too much from the cold. Nevertheless, when the local press asked if he would be willing to wait such a long time again for a homestead, his reply was an emphatic “No.”

Ironically, not long after Piper got title to his new land, the First World War broke out and he enlisted in the 66th Battalion.

Shortly after he went into the trenches of the Western Front during the Battles of St. Eloi Craters and Mount Sorrel, he was bayoneted and severely gassed.

He spent months in hospital recuperating. Once he was well enough, he was assigned to be an orderly in the hospital. He did not return home to his new farm and family until June 1919.

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