My brothers and I set up a shingle mill, which could cut about four to five thousand, shingles per day. Through the trial and error method we learned some of the basics of cutting shingles and operating a small mill. In 1963 I picked up one of our shingles which had been on the wall of the barn at the Sunnybrook School since 1938 — 25 years. This was Jackpine and it was still sound. I keep it in my office in Winnipeg to show one of enterprises I have engaged in my days.
Trading work was a common practice in the early days in the Block. We would trade work with our neighbors. Sometime we would do brush work in exchange for carpenter work — one day’s work in the bush for one day’s work by a carpenter. And the going rate for team work was two days for one man in exchange for one day’s work for a man and a team of horses. Sometimes we would exchange work for potatoes, vegetables or feed. I think, for instance, we got two bags of turnips for one day’s work.
The most practical method of clearing land in the tall slim poplar was to slash it in two windrows. These would be about sixteen feet apart. Two men would work on a swath of that approximate width and slash into a windrow in the center. In fairly thick poplar — say up to four or five inches thick — two men could slash an acre in twelve hours. If this land was left for a few years for the roots to rot, the main problem was the new growth. This then would have to be trimmed off, preferably with a brush scythe.
The early attempts at growing a crop on freshly cleared bush land had many problems connected with it. The fresh bush land needed to be exposed to the sun and the air to be ready to grow a crop. Late spring and early fall frosts were a problem. In view of that, it was not easy to ripen grain and thus a green crop was more realistic to attempt.
One of my observations when I look back on the homestead days in the Peace River Block was that people came in with too much livestock. West of the Cutbank there was very little open land for hay. What the settlers should have done was to keep just enough livestock to get by on until land was opened up and it was possible to grow feed. Many of the settlers spent too much time and energy gathering feed and hauling straw, in some cases fifty miles — a chore that borders on the impossible.
I recall the winter of 1932-33. We bought wheat from a farmer whose granary had burned, east of Rolla. I believe we paid 18 or 20 cents per bushel for it. We boiled the wheat before feeding it to the cows, an innovation that drew a compliment from the District Agriculturist. Water was another problem with livestock. Most of the settlers solved this by building a dam in a creek. Creeks are numerous in a rolling country.
Late spring and summer frosts were a problem with gardens. If I had to do it over, again, I would build a tight board or wood fence around the garden and place a smoke pot in the center. Just a small fire with lots of smoke on a cold night would save the garden from freezing.
In those early days people could produce quite a lot towards their needs from two cows, a pig, a few chickens and of course a garden. Those who produced these basic foods on the farm were, incidentally, better nourished than many a city family of today.