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(Robert Bell, 1888 -1968)

This is a story about a English family that came to Canada in 1907/08 from a well established life in the clock making and repairing business in Leeds England to homestead in the Saskatchewan parkland, in the Spruce Lake and Turtleford area. Robert’s wife, Annie Maude, nee Howard, came from a lace maker family in Nottingham England to exchange teach in North Battleford. They loved this land. Their determination in dealing with tough times was characteristic of the many pioneers who settled here.

Robert Bell, (Sept.4,1888-Aug.10,1968) left England on March 14th ,1907 on the Ionian bound for Montreal, Canada and a new way of life. His journal tells of seeing Newfoundland, entering the St. Lawrence and his first glimpse of Quebec. He travelled by train through Ontario and Manitoba where he stayed to work for a farmer until late February of 1908 .He made his way to Battleford, Saskatchewan and by March 9th, 1908 had made an entry for a homestead; Township 39, Range 23, north east quarter of section 24. On March 19th he bought a team of oxen from Mr. Hepburn at Battleford. He wrote, “They are a splendid team weighing close to four thousand pounds. I am paying $230 for them”. On March 22nd, he began the long trip to his homestead. He writes,”Tomorrow I shall hit the trail with my outfit. I have bought a wagon, sleigh, and a breaker plow, some grub, tools and household tackle”. He detailed the cost as follows:

Cost of oxen          $ 230 cash down   $ 180.00
Cost of wagon       $  90                       $  22.50
Cost of plow          $  24                       $   6.00
Cost of sleighs       $  34                       $   7.00
Total                  $ 378                      $ 215.50
Amount owing $162.50

After he had added the cost of household tackle at $30, grub at $12, harness at $14.50 and three nights in the Battleford hotel at $18, he had paid out $290.

After four days of tough sleighing on difficult terrain and spending nights at several travelling stops he arrived at a farm close to his homestead. He writes, “ Stopped at Favel’s house for the night after having an upset and having to reload the sleigh. The oxen have got their heels skinned with the snow”.

He stayed with the Leesons until April when he could get a good look at his homestead. To his disappointment he found the land low and too damp for good crops and so abandoned it.

On July 7th, 1908, Robert’s parents, Alfred and Annie (nee Loxley) along with his brother Charles and sister Mary arrived in Battleford. Robert had given them glowing reports of his new life in Canada and the beautiful countryside and thus encouraged them to leave Leeds, the watch business and city conveniences for this new uncertain life in Canada.

Anne and Alfred's log house: Part of it had two stories. Anne is seated in the buggy

Anne and Alfred’s log house: Part of it had two stories. Anne is seated in the buggy

Robert, Charles and father Alfred located three homesteads with their Post Office at Mervin some 17 miles away and their school district was Spruce Bluff settled by English and American settlers. The school was yet to be built. Robert’s homestead was on the northeast quarter of 19, Township 52 Range 20. Alfred had the northwest quarter of 20 and Charles the northeast of 20, in township 52 Range 20. Spruce Lake and Turtleford were the closest towns.

On October 1st he writes, “I will start for Paynton this morning with the wagon and oxen for a load of lumber for flooring for the new house”. The first log house was 22` x 16` inside, with an upstairs. He speaks of the crowded house with too many people and too many unpacked boxes. Robert told us that when they built Alfred’s and Anne’s house they lived in a tent and built the log house around it.

Their first stable, also built of spruce logs, was 17’x16’.

Robert’s journal tells of a school meeting at R.P. Ellis’ house where Mr. Ellis was re-elected trustee. “A warm discussion started concerning letting of contracts for materials for the school. The meeting was abruptly adjourned.” Another meeting was held later because of irregularities at the first meeting.

At one point Robert promises to make more regular entries in his journal. He writes, “What with bad writing and long intervals between entries it is hardly up to proper standard”.

Much of their lumber was cut at Foster’s mill at the north end of Brightsand Lake. They hauled their logs there and their lumber back using oxen and sleighs. Every task was labour intensive taking many hours to accomplish.

Eddie and Henry Windsor tell me that they used slabs to fire up the steam engine to cut the logs into lumber. Lou Regnier, Nancy’s husband tells me that Andersons, Gundersons and Petersons were other lumber mill operators in the area during these early years. Robert describes a lovely mirage that he saw while there. “We were at the north end of Brightsand and saw the mirage away over at the south end of the lake. The sun was shining exceptionally bright at the time.”

By April of 1909 the school house was practically finished and situated on the southeast quarter of 31, Township 52, Range 20.

Trips to Battleford with oxen and sleigh must have been arduous indeed. This journey would take several days. When one of the oxen, Jerry, took ill he was dosed with raw linseed oil. Robert writes, ”He appears in rather a bad way, poor chap. We have had several neighbours over to see him but they seem not to agree as to what’s the matter. Jerry the ox died.”

Late spring and early frosts in 1909 resulted in poorer than hoped for yields in both fields and garden. “We put up about 85 tons of hay during the summer of 1909 but some of it was eaten by neighbours’ cattle. Although the stacks were fenced with two poles and two wires, that did not keep them out.”

At haying time the whole family helped including the women in high necked blouses, long skirts and big hats. It may not have been a bad outfit after all. I find it hard to imagine city folks from Leeds England in the role of farmers gathering in the hay.

Robert describes a new stable of spruce logs that measured 26’ x21’ inside. “It has a roof of lumber covered with tar paper and over that a layer of sods, making a fairly good weather tight roof. With each end divided into two double and one single stall there is room for 4 oxen, 2 cows, 2 calves, 2 ponies and the colt.” The stable must have been pretty full.

Robert had excelled in English at the Leeds School for Boys so as well as being a fluent writer he also did a lot of reading. His books on Animal Husbandry, Grain Growing and farm machinery were read on a regular basis so as to be prepared for the vagaries of mixed farming.

Eddie Windsor tells me that Robert took much information from Seager Wheeler’s research findings found in many publications on Progressive farming techniques. Seager’s development of Marquis, a hardy variety of spring wheat, won him 1000 gold coins in a CPR contest in 1911. The Seager Wheeler homestead was near Rosthern and is a historic site today.

On December13th, 1909, Robert attended a “local Improvement” election at Mr. G. Myers’ house where F.Campbell was unanimously elected representative for the district.

The winters must have been pretty difficult and lonely for Anne and Mary. In February 1910 Robert took his mother and sister Mary “down to Paynton in the new jumper sleigh I have lately made. They went down to Battleford by the morning train on Saturday where they will stay two or three weeks with some friends”. That winter there was some very cold weather with temperatures dipping down to the high thirties.

Haying - Alfred, Annie, Robert

Haying – Alfred, Annie, Robert

Robert tells of the smoke house they built to cure the fish. “We have been cleaning and salting the fish today. They are at present hung on nails in the smoke house by bits of string tied around the backbone near the tail. We have a small camp stove in the place and have the fire going at present. Spruce wood gives the best flavour to the fish.”

Robert was very fond of dogs and had a number of them throughout his years on the farm. He writes about Jock, a spaniel that Harry Jordan gave to him. “Jock is now a fine young dog, he is pretty mischievous however and very playful. He makes friends with all the animals who will let him but is a little too trustful of them. Today he narrowly escaped from Thomas the pony who treacherously made for him from behind.” Throughout the years Robert maintained a burial site for his dogs on the top of a hill in the field not far from the house.

His journal tells of hot windy weather in May of 1910 and of the many prairie and bush fires. Lumber mills and much sawn lumber went up in smoke also.

Neighbours helped each other on a regular basis. “Ross Ellis cut the crops on Charles’ place and also the 2 acres on 19. Last Wednesday we started helping Mr.Ellis to thresh.” Threshing was big time on the farm. I found it interesting to hear the Windsors explain that when the threshing machine outfit moved from place to place they used wood to fire the steam engine. While they threshed, they fired the steam engine with straw.

There were fun times as Robert explains: “I went to a dance at G. Meyers and stayed until daybreak”. On December 10, 1910, “We all went to a Christmas Tree at Spruce Bluff School from 8 to 9:30 PM. Quite a nice little gathering. The children recited pieces appropriate to the season, in a very credible manner. There was singing by the choir got up for the occasion and duets by various people.”

He tells of a very cold spell in January 1911 when the temperature dipped to 52` F below zero. It was a good thing they’d buzzed a lot of wood the fall before in order to keep the stoves in both kitchen and front room going full tilt during such weather. I’m sure there were times they all wished themselves back in England working in the watch shop.

The community farmers were interested in improving their lot in regard to grain farming. “Thursday night, March 12th we attended a meeting whose object was to get the Grain Growers Association established in our neighbourhood. The majority favoured the idea. The following Thursday I attended a general meeting of Grain Growers and along with others was enrolled as a member.”

The CNR was continuing to build a rail line to service the area as Robert’s journal entry explains. “On May 12th the CNR got the steel laid on the grade as far as Edam; first train in on the following day.” This surely must have been good news for these settlers who had to travel the long distance to Battleford for supplies.

Throughout Robert’s journal he consistently mentions the weather with its long rainy spells, drought and severe frosts that damaged the crops and produced poorer yields than they had expected. On September 24th, he wrote, “It seemed very out of place to see the standing crop of oats in front of the house with snow on it; especially seeing that it was only September”.

Outdoor wedding This picture captures a scene of an outdoor wedding with friends and relatives in attendence.

Outdoor wedding
This picture captures a scene of an outdoor wedding with friends and relatives in attendence.

Interestingly, he refers to the federal election of September 21st, 1912. “Yesterday was polling day for the Dominion Parliament elections. Voting was six miles away. Charles went but father and I did not go. Personally I’m rather against the reciprocity idea…the farmers will, I think, benefit very little.” The Conservative Party got in with a huge majority. “It now remains for Mr. Borden to live up to his pledges to help farmers and implement the following:

  1. the immediate construction and state ownership of the Hudson Bay Railroad.
  1. the encouragement of the chilled meat industry
  1. the government ownership of elevators, and
  1. the granting to the western provinces of Crown Lands and mineral rights within their borders.”

Robert explains that in July 1913 Edam had a big fire. “…this new and thriving little town was two thirds wiped out by a fire which originated in the pool room by a gasoline stove getting on fire and burned up the hotel, three stores, three livery barns and other buildings. There being a strong south wind and no fire brigade the flames had their own way and made a clean sweep of the block north of the Main Street.”

In 1914 and the beginning of WW1 Robert joined the army and went overseas to fight for the Allies. His letters from the front lines instructed his folks how to run the farm. Here’s one page of a letter from France in 1917.

I still am of the opinion that it would be a good thing to sow that south 8 acres of mine to rye X bromegrass (mixed) but I think it might be done without summerfallowing it. That is, sow it next spring. Re the west field, I think it would be advisable to sow it also, as you suggest, to a mixture of rye X brome, also next spring. But with the difference that the south field be kept entirely for hay while the west field could be used for either hay or pasture as you think best, If you sow it next spring the cattle could have the run of it & the ground around, in what will then be also included in the pasture, during that summer, the whole time in fact. Of course they would not do the young grass any good but it seems a pity to loose all that corner……

It is very easy to see how important the farm, the animals and the availability of enough food for them was a concern Robert had while serving overseas. The letters were a keepsake for his son Thomas who made sure that they were in a safe place and that they would be passed on to family members.

Following the end of the war in 1918, Robert returned to resume his farm duties. As you can be sure he received a warm welcome.

On one of his trips to North Battleford he met Annie Maude Howard, an exchange teacher from Nottingham, England. I believe that Robert’s Uncle, Richard White Loxley, had informed him that Annie Maude Howard was going to be in North Battleford exchange teaching and that he should arrange to meet her. Their friendship grew and Robert and Annie Maude were married in the summer of 1922 in the Spruce Bluff District.

The 20’s were optimistic years during which Robert and Annie Maude began their family. Unfortunately, Joan, the first child died in infancy. Harold arrived in 1924, Nancy in 1928 and their son Thomas Walter was born in 1931. Thus they began the 30’s with a family of three children.

Harold, Annie, Tom & Nancy:Here we see a picture of Annie Maude with Harold, Nancy and Thomas beside their log house. This would have been taken by Robert in the fall of 1939 before Harold joined up. Maude was teaching in the Spruce Bluff School at the time.

Harold, Annie, Tom & Nancy:Here we see a picture of Annie Maude with Harold, Nancy and Thomas beside their log house. This would have been taken by Robert in the fall of 1939 before Harold joined up. Maude was teaching in the Spruce Bluff School at the time.

Desperate droughts and depression of the 30’s were felt throughout the province. Very poor growing conditions together with low grain prices led to many southern Saskatchewan farmers leaving their farms and migrating north to the parklands and larger centres.

Fortunately the Bell farmsteads were close to several lakes, namely Island Lake and Brightsand Lake. Island Lake could be seen from locations on both Alfred’s and Robert’s farm land. It was there they boated, picnicked and swam. Robert and Annie were accomplished swimmers and helped their family learn to swim also. These outings were a diversion from the hard struggle to make a living during the thirties. On these outings they were often joined by other community folk. This was a time when farm folk really shared what they had and a great cooperative spirit developed from their dependence on one another.

Father Alfred and sons Charles and Robert farmed in close proximity. Daughter Mary also had a homestead for a time. She loved riding horses and she loved painting. Tom Windsor’s son Roy has sent copies of five of her paintings via computer. Mary married Frank Windsor and set up farming in the Handsworth District some fifteen miles away from the Bells. The five Windsor children, namely Margaret, Eddie, Henry, John and Tom were Harold’s, Nancy’s and Tom’s only Canadian cousins. These families visited quite regularly and these occasions were memorable for them all.

Though times were tough, they had the ingenuity to survive. Large gardens provided vegetables and wild fruit was eaten fresh and canned for the winter months. Butchered animals provided beef and pork; beef was frozen for winter and canned for summer while ham and bacon were cured. They also caught fish to eat fresh and sometimes smoked.

Tom and Nancy tell how they invented ways to amuse themselves through the long winter evenings. Robert had them do their share of farm chores while Annie Maude taught them to sew, knit and use their small library as a source of information. Tom often talked about the little trunk of library books that was circulated through the district. The Bells were all great readers and Tom recalled how they enjoyed discussing the books they read with each other. I believe this service was called the “Open Shelf Library”.

Each year parcels arrived from England with gifts for the family. Tom often talked about the excitement of receiving books, toys and other items from Bell and Howard relatives.

Annie took a course in Saskatoon to update her teaching qualifications and achieved an excellent standing. Superintendent reports gave Annie Maude great praise for her teaching methods. She began to do substitute teaching and later full time teaching in the Spruce Bluff School. Although the wages were very low, the money helped finance the farm operation.

The Spruce Bluff community decided to build a hall across from the school.

This hall was a community centre and quite unique in design. It had two floors; in the top floor the community held whist drives, dances, Christmas concerts, meetings, plays and films.The bottom level was a barn for the many teams of horses that brought the community folk to the various events. Thomas and Nancy often speak of their classes going across the road to the hall to practice for Christmas concerts. There was a piano there and the teachers appreciated having access to it for the singing. Annie Maude, a fine pianist and singer, was one of those teachers This community hall served to accommodate the needs of the community, be it business or entertainment, and to also shelter the horses from the extremes of weather. Its building was indeed an accomplishment and a fine example of how pioneers worked together to provide for their needs It is still standing today but is in a state of disrepair. Tom, my sons, and I have visited it on numerous occasions. They have climbed up inside and enjoyed Tom’s stories about happenings at the hall when he was a boy. The many events held in the hall supplied a diversion from the long hours of hard and tedious farm work they experienced on a daily basis.

Robert, along with other Spruce Bluff neighbours, hauled logs to build this hall which was truly a gathering place for the community. Nancy tells of having to pay 25 cents to attend a dance with music provided by local musicians. Horse drawn buggies, cutters, sleighs and even the odd automobile brought the people to the hall events.

Through the 30’s and 40’s the Bells, on occasion, owned two cars; one a model T Ford and the other an Overland Whippet. Maude used one to drive to school to teach.

Anne, Robert’s mom, died in 1924 and is buried in the Spruce Bluff graveyard. She did her best to work along side the others and cope with the circumstances faced by pioneers. In her last years she experienced failing health and found it increasingly difficult to keep going. Alfred, Robert’s dad, often referred to as the “Old Gentleman” spent his last years visiting with daughter Mary Windsor and family, his son Charles and Robert’s and Annie Maude’s family. Tom used to speak of him telling them stories and playing his clarinet. Through his adult years, Alfred compiled a history of the Bell family which went back to the 1500’s. This has been a lasting legacy indeed. He passed away in 1936 having made a dedicated contribution to the success of the Bell family farm. He is buried along side his wife Anne in the Spruce Bluff Cemetery.

In the winter of 1939 Annie Maude went to substitute teach in a school near Aberdeen. She took Nancy and Tom with her by train to Warman where they changed trains for the last leg of the trip to Aberdeen. The Chairman of the Board met them there and took them to the River Park School teacherage where they would live until June. With an enrolment of 60 students Annie Maude had her work cut out for her. Tom was in grade one and Nancy in grade five.

The winter there, as it was at Spruce Bluff, was very cold with heavy snow falls. Tom and Nancy tell of having to dig a stairway up the drift that surrounded the teacherage in order to get over to the school.

While Annie Maude and children were away from the farm, Harold continued to attend Spruce Bluff School and to be a great helper for Robert who had cattle and horses to tend to during the cold winter months.

In the spring of 1939 Mrs. Bell took the students into Saskatoon to see Queen Elizabeth and King George.V1.This was a memorable experience for Tom often spoke about it.

At the end of June Annie Maude, Nancy and Tom returned to the farm and resumed their farm life.

WW11 broke out in 1939 and so began the war years. Harold joined the RCAF and in 1941 went overseas. He was a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber that flew many missions over Germany. While he was away, Nancy and Tom helped with the farm work.. There were horses, cattle and chickens to care for as well as helping with harvesting of garden vegetables and taking off the crop. Tom told us that when he was in grade seven and eight he milked 5 or 6 cows before he went to school each day. Cream was taken to Spruce Lake in metal cream cans. Tom got 10% of the cream cheques for his milking the cows.

Nancy tells of Walter Larson coming in the fall to thresh the grain and their part in helping. The threshers were always hungry so big meals had to be prepared as well as lunches which they took out to the field.

During the 30’s Robert was able to have a hired man. The government paid the farmer $5 to $10 dollars a month to employ an unemployed male to work on the farm. Nancy and Tom remember a David Cooper from Ontario who was one such hired man. They remember how he wore arm bands and knit his own socks. They especially remember how those arm bands stretched out of shape so easily and how they got in trouble over doing just that.

They recall a car trip that the family took to North Battleford to attend the exhibition. They stayed overnight in a cottage with a kitchenette. Tom got a colourful glass elephant while there and has always treasured it among his keepsakes.

After the war, Harold came back to the farm with an English war bride, Eileen and a wee son, Leslie. For several years he worked on the farm with Robert and family. When Eileen’s mother became ill with cancer back in England, Harold’s family returned to England to be near her and never returned to Canada. His family of three , Leslie, Ronald and Vivian all live in Nottingham with their families. To know that Harold was not coming back to the farm was a disappointment for Robert. Tom and I and our family visited Harold, Eileen and their family in 1974 and 1976. We were sad to hear that Harold passed away in December, 1976 and to know that he would never visit Canada as he so wished.

Robert's boat & Spruce Bluff community Hall: This is a picture of a boat Robert made. It is ready to take family and friends for a ride. Thomas (Tom) and Nancy often spoke of the picnics held at Island Lake and the fun they had swimming with their parents and boatrides in dad's homemade boat.

Robert’s boat & Spruce Bluff community Hall: This is a picture of a boat Robert made. It is ready to take family and friends for a ride. Thomas (Tom) and Nancy often spoke of the picnics held at Island Lake and the fun they had swimming with their parents and boatrides in dad’s homemade boat.

Nancy attended grade ten in North Battleford and then returned to the farm to help. She married Elmo Showers, a farmer in the Spruce Bluff District and lived on a farm not far from Robert and Maude. They raised four children, Ann, Linda, Marian and Danny. Their oldest daughter Ann spent a lot of time with her grandparents and this they dearly appreciated. All four are married with families and did not decide to take up farming. After Nancy’s husband, Elmo, passed away, Nancy moved to Lloydminster where two of her daughters and grandchildren lived. She then completed her grade eleven and twelve.

When electricity came to the area in the late fifties it did not go by Robert’s farm as there were few people along that road. This was a disappointment for the Bells as they couldn’t afford the cost of bringing it there themselves.

Tom attended school at Spruce Bluff until he completed grade eight. He planned to do his grade nine correspondence and help on the farm. He decided, after doing farm work for a couple of years, to move to Saskatoon and get a job at the Bessborough Hotel and later the Saskatchewan Government Telephones. Through his friendship with Helen and Lloyd Baker, he met Joan Coates, Helen’s sister, and in 1953 they were married.

Tom then returned to school and completed his high school, teacher’s College and a Bachelor of Arts and Education from the University of Saskatchewan. He taught grades seven, eight and nine for thirty years in Prince Albert; a great achievement. Tom and Joan have three sons, Scott, Drew, and Roger and two grandchildren, Roger and Tamara’s children, Jakob and Lauren.

In 1996 Tom and I moved to Saskatoon to be near our sons who all live and work in Saskatoon. Each of the three sons attained their Bachelor of Arts at the U of S. Scott graduated with a law degree while Drew and Roger graduated with computer science degrees.

Tom loved the farm, its trees and the stepping stones. He would often take us for a walk to the stepping stones where a fresh water spring flowed from the hillside and down around the stones. He also liked to walk over to the hill where Robert had placed grave markers for each of his dogs. Although he and I visited the farm often, and he would have liked to return to his dad’s farm, he decided that it would be too difficult for him to manage financially and physically. He chose to pursue his teaching career. Robert would have liked him to take up farming but understood his choice for he knew all to well the struggles the family had faced to maintain the family farm through the dirty thirties, the drought and extreme weather conditions.

Robert passed away in 1968 and is buried in the Spruce Bluff Cemetery next to Annie Maude who passed away in 1972. He left the farm to Nancy and Tom. They didn’t believe they could do all the work necessary to keep it up and decided to sell it.

Robert came to Canada with a dream for a new life in a new land. He and his family put forth a supreme effort to make the venture successful. It is very sad to see that the farm site has been cleared of all the buildings and trees and it is difficult to imagine that this was once a place of hopes and dreams. A stranger passing by on the road would never know that a family from England loved this land and had a farmstead there.

I, Joan Bell, Tom’s wife, have written this story out of respect for this family who came from well established circumstances in England to live on Saskatchewan homesteads where they literally started from scratch to provide shelter, food, clothing and a sense of security for themselves in this new land. I write it in memory of fine pioneers and of my late husband Tom who passed away on January 31, 2003. I am sure that he and the Bell ancestors would appreciate having this story written. Likewise, I believe the Bell descendants will also appreciate it being told.