EXCERPT: Early Saskatchewan Woodworkers (1870-1930)
The pursuit of dreams and a search for a better life has been a driving force in motivating humankind to relocate over the ages, and the massive waves of settlers who immigrated to the Canadian prairies around the turn of the twentieth century were no exception. Millions came on the quest, bringing with them a diversity of backgrounds and skills, seeking previously unheard of opportunities. None were more welcomed or valued than the carpenters, woodworkers and furniture makers who ventured forth on high expectations.
For the most part these talented craftspeople were not disappointed by the outcome, although uncertainties abounded and their anticipations differed considerably from actual realizations. The change in stature from their homelands, their varied ethnicity and religious backgrounds, the extent of their training, the diversity of the lands where they settled, and the availability of materials and tools, all had a bearing on the method and degree of success in their chosen livelihoods.1
Today the quality of remaining buildings, pieces of furniture, and works of art still located around Saskatchewan give an indication of the large number of skilled carpenters and woodworkers who enriched and formed the basis of the province, the majority of which appeared on the scene between 1870 and 1930. However, a smattering of these resourceful craftspeople arrived a few decades earlier, and settled in places that were actually extensions of previously established outposts and forts such as Fort Carleton and Cumberland House.2
In The Beginning
Although European influence began on the prairies as early as the 1690s with the onset of fur trading ventures and explorations by Henry Kelsey, and later by others such as Sieur de la Vérendrye in 1737,3 Peter Pond in 1778, and Philip Turnor in 1779,4 the initial more permanent settlements in pre-Saskatchewan (with the exception of trading posts and forts) date from the 1860s. The establishment of one of the earliest permanent communities is credited to Reverend James Nisbet5 at Prince Albert, where he founded a Presbyterian Mission along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River in 1866. This later developed into an agricultural district with the aid of Nisbet, the nearby William Miller family of what became known as Miller’s Hill,6 the McDonalds, and other perseverant settlers, several of whom also demonstrated their talents with wood.
Subsequent homesteaders continued to situate themselves in the Prince Albert area, and along the Churchill and Saskatchewan Rivers until the 1870s.7 At this time, due to government influences,8 homesteading began moving south towards Battleford and eastward into the Carrot River valley.9 A short time later colonization followed a general township pattern across the prairie when settlement increased in the 1880s with the introduction of the railway and other improved transportation routes. The most massive influx occurred in a systematic and orderly fashion in the 1890s, and climaxed during the decade starting in 1896.10 By the end of the first decade after the turn of the century the population had increased an overwhelming five times to over 1 million people.11
Political persecution, religious suppression, economic hardships, over-population, rigid class distinctions, and other oppressive conditions forced many people from Eastern Europe to become immigrants. Others came from Western Europe and the United States, but not all of them arrived from countries abroad or south of the border. Some appeared from within Canada, mostly from the more heavily populated eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
At the time the pioneers began venturing in earnest into what was eventually to become Saskatchewan, the land was virtually untouched, offering opportunities often filled with unsuspected hardships. Travel by rail was available only as far as Brandon, Manitoba by 1882, and from there they had to travel across the wind-swept plains by oxen and carts or covered wagons with only a few well-chosen essential belongings.
As the settlers eked out homesteads and cleared land a need quickly developed for carpenters to construct necessary buildings. There seems to have been an abundance of these skilled craftspeople, who either lived in a particular community or were willing to travel fair distances to work. Assembling a rudimentary one-room shack in a single day became only a matter of course,12 and soon homesteaders’ shanties dotted the prairie landscape like tiger lilies in June. Communities developed just as quickly with pockets of immigrants from the same original homelands gathered together, often with family members nearby.
While the immigrants brought what belongings they could, this often meant a small token of what they actually required. Many other articles they needed for furnishing their homes were only available from abroad or from Eastern manufacturers at a high premium and with a major shipping problem and cost attached. The manufacturers were not interested in establishing branch retail businesses or factories in the west. They only wanted to ship the finished product, eventually supplying mail order catalogues, which augmented their philosophies. Local businesses for purchasing household articles were practically non-existent for many of the early years.
This meant most of the settlers resorted to making whatever they needed for themselves, or turned to their talented family members and neighbours for assistance. Generally homesteaders adapted themselves to their needs, fending as best as they could with what they had at hand, producing sometimes crude, but serviceable items. However, there were many woodworkers who’d had previous training of some sort or another, and who excelled in various areas of expertise with wood, creating furnishings and accessories of striking note.
Woodworkers such as these found themselves in constant demand to supply household effects from tables, chairs, beds, cupboards, desks, and wardrobes, to more decorative features such as wall accents and picture frames, as well as the likes of trinket, sewing and handkerchief boxes. Although most items were what one would expect immigrants to need, a wide variety of artifacts were made, including games, musical instruments, picture frames, sewing baskets and other decorative features. Church paraphernalia was also popular, as every district on the prairies claimed several denominations, and one mustn’t forget the ever-important coffins. Caring grandparents, who had more time to pursue this type of craft making, on the other hand, often made toys.13 There was no shortage of work for the adept and determined.
Carpenters And Woodworkers
Although those who were strictly carpenters and builders were vitally important to early settlement and community life, providing houses, barns, businesses, churches, schools and other social gathering places and buildings, actually locating and naming all the carpenters was an undertaking beyond the scope of this project. Instead, the focus of this book is on those people who contributed to the craft of working with wood on a personal or smaller scale than that of larger structures. Yet, many of the woodworkers that have been included in this study were also carpenters of some sort or another, or at times did this type of ‘rough’ work to supplement their incomes.
In fact, many of the woodworkers augmented their earnings at intervals throughout their careers. The majority of them originally applied for homesteads, and the requirements for proving14 these kept the craftspeople occupied much of the time. Whenever the opportunity arose, they worked away from their farms, toiling as hired hands, helping with harvest, and at whatever odd jobs they could find.
If they lived along a rail line as many such as Olaf Pearson of the Percival area did, they kept the miles of track clear of snow in the winter and in good repair year round . There were those nomadic types like William Zaderogzny from the Alvena-Cudworth area and John Kadyba of the Krydor-Blaine Lake district, who travelled about the countryside during the summer months, building churches and working on larger projects. In the winter they made beds and other household furniture in exchange for board and room.
Some enterprising craftspeople, John McGuirl at Moosomin being one, eventually left their farms and established successful businesses within nearby towns. There were others like Joachim Pilon of Melville, who launched extensive commercial ventures in the towns immediately upon their arrival. However, only a handful did their work on a business or factory-type scale. Mostly the woodworkers did small amounts each year for themselves and perhaps for a few local people, and often the work was done during the quieter winter months when other occupations were scarce.15
- Derived from an overview of the research conducted by the author.
- There were also other posts established during this time: La Loche, Ile à la Crosse, Green Lake, La Ronge and Frog Portage. Richards, J.H. and Fung, K.I., Editors, Atlas of Saskatchewan, (Saskatchewan: University of Saskatchewan, 1969). p. 16.
- Ibid. p. 16.
- Ibid. p. 16. “Pond is responsible for the first factually based map on the western interior and the North-West….” (Although inaccurate in detail.) Trained surveyor, Philip Turnor conducted explorations and produced accurate information and preparation of maps. He also trained Peter Fiddler and David Thompson.
- Prince Albert Historical Society, Voice of the People, James Nisbet Letters and Papers, 1984, p. 9. Nisbet, a Presbyterian minister, has been credited as the founder of Prince Albert. According to an article “`The Most Good to the Indians’: The Reverend James Nisbet and the Prince Albert Mission,” in Saskatchewan History, p.34-35 by W. D. (Bill) Smiley, Nisbet used his skills as a carpenter to help build churches and schools in the Red River communities of Manitoba, and he also built many pieces of furniture in Prince Albert.
- Note: Stanley Mission was established in 1854, and is generally considered by experts to be the first permanent community in Saskatchewan.
- Ibid. Mrs. Margaret McKenzie, p. 51. William Miller was “one of the earliest and best known of early settlers.” (Margaret was one of William Miller’s daughters.)
- Notes from Frank Korvemaker interview.
- On July 15, 1870 the province of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories became part of Canada. Throughout the 1870s and onward into the early 1900s negotiations of treaties resulting in the creation of reservations, and the land surveys parceling the region in viable tracts influenced the increase of early settlement. A Historical Atlas of Canada, Kerr, D. G.G. Canada: Toronto, 1960, Thomas Nelson & Sons (Canada) Ltd., p.56-58.
- “The choice of Battleford (1876) as first seat of the territorial government, as well as a police post and point on the Dominion telegraph and proposed Pacific railway, accounted for the immediate growth of that centre.” Atlas of Saskatchewan, p. 17.
- Taken from interview with Frank Korvemaker.
- Atlas of Saskatchewan, p.17 Section on “Settlement after 1901.”
- The Parleys of the Grenfell area were noted for travelling to homestead sites and being able to construct a simple shanty in one day. (Taken from interview notes with George Vipond, a relative of the Parleys.)
- Notes from conversations with Lindsay Anderson.
- There were essential requirements outlined for “proving” a homestead, which often included clearing a certain amount of land within a certain time frame.
- Broadview Pioneer History Society, Story of Broadview and Area: Centennial Tribute, Oakshela, Broadview, Percival, 1882-1982, (Altone, Manitoba: Friesen Printers, 1982), p.11.
- Derived from compilation of the author’s research.