Between 1874 and 1876 the Native American Indians of Saskatchewan, Canada ceded away their rights to the land. However, settlement by former Europeans awaited surveying of the land, a homestead policy, and a ready means of access. After great hardships and Herculean efforts the Canadian Pacific Railroad was finally completed in 1885. Most people thought this would bring a great swarm of homesteaders, but it just didn’t materialize. There was still some amount of Indian uprising instigating fear of settling in this wilderness. As well as the economic and social isolation of this vast area, there were also very harsh climatic conditions to deal with. Added to these drawbacks were great tracts of land in the western United States open to homesteading, with a greater appeal than the Canadian prairies. Nevertheless, by the early 1900s there was a steady stream of rugged individuals slowly settling in. In 1905 Alberta and Saskatchewan were populated strongly enough to be created as provinces.
My grandfather, Will Benjamin and his twin sister Wealthy Betsy Lawton, were born April 25, 1866, children of Joseph Pratt and Jane (Wilson) Lawton, in Jefferson County, in northern New York. While in his thirties, he married Mary Houghton who bore him two children. Clarence was born July 11, 1892, and Clinton November 10, 1893. Mary, who was rather a frail woman, died June 9, 1894, leaving grandfather with two toddlers, under the age of two.
Cora Adele Baker, born January 16, 1868 married George Lester, and they had three children. Ada was born in 1884, when Cora was just 16, Ray in 1886, and Charles in 1888. It is said that George Lester then returned to a former family he had abandoned in Ontario, Canada. Although I cannot state that is true, if it is then of course George and Cora were never legally married. At any rate, when grandfather Will and Cora met he had two youngsters in a County Home, and she was raising three by herself.
During the opening years of the twentieth century Will and Cora married. As Will and Cora began housekeeping on a small farm in Jefferson County, Clarence and Clint were immediately removed from the County Home and joined their father, stepmother, and her three children. In the next few years three more children were born of that union, Lloyd in 1905, Floyd in 1907, and last but not least Clara in 1911, making a total of ten in the happy family.
About this time Will, always a restless man, lured by the promise of prime, free farm land, decided to stake his fortune on moving, not only west, as John B. L. Soule (often accredited to Horace Greeley)suggested in 1851, but also north. In the summer of 1911, when Clara was a mere baby, Will loaded his team of draft horses and a cow aboard the Canadian Pacific and alit at Ernfold, Saskatchewan along with his second eldest son, Clint Lawton who was 18 at the time. Will’s oldest son, Clarence, had bought a farm of his own in northern New York and remained there. The three Lester children were all older than 21, had left the nest, and were on their own. Will and Clint were each given a quarter section, or 160 acres, of land which bordered each other, about 7 miles due north of Ernfold. They were to prepare shelter, and the remainder of the family was to come later in the year. A water well was hand dug on Clint’s land near the border with his father’s. For shelter, Will and Clint dug a shallow cave into the side of a slight rise in the ground.
In November, Cora loaded six-year-old Lloyd, four-year-old Floyd, and eight-month-old Clara, bag and baggage, onto the Canadian Pacific, and followed her husband to Ernfold, 60 miles west of Moose Jaw, about 45 miles east of Swift Current, and some 140 miles north of Glasgow, Montana. To fulfill their homesteader agreement they were required to improve the land and live on it for five years, and then it would be given to them. The rather sickly Cora was rather taken aback when she found no house there, but there was no turning back now. The cave was enlarged enough for the family and the livestock. The horses and cow were stabled closer to the entrance while the family lived deeper within the cave. That first winter of 1911/12 that was the complete living quarters for Will, Cora, Clint, Lloyd, Floyd, Clara, two horses, and the cow.
The next year a modest house was erected on Will’s land near the edge touching Clint’s. This way the well served as an improvement on Clint’s land, while the house was an improvement on Will’s. The house had 3 upstairs bedrooms, with a small living room and kitchen on the ground floor. The bathroom was a ‘two holer’ out back of the house. Coal was burned for heat in winter, but dried cow flops when available, were burned in summer for cooking.
The following summer Will wrote a letter to his stepson Ray, suggesting that he should come to Ernfold also.
Ernfold Sask July 12 – 1913
Dear Son & Family,
How are you all this summer down there in the hayfield? We all right & all well & happy as clams. Uphere your mother got 140 little chickens this summer & 5 hog ____ 4 horses 4 oxen 1 cow 1 calf & its anice heifer too 17 last years hens. Hay and grain look good. How is crops out there? We writing Charlie today as Rochester 104 [cut] Blg Rochester, N Y. Clinton sowed 11 1/2 acres & is finishing breaking 15 acres more. I got sowed 32 1/2 acres of Oats & think I can sow next spring 50 with out doubt I will sow wheat next spring on 30 acres & 2 1/2 of Oats on back sithing & alfalfa grass. I fenced 48 acres this spring. Wire $3.25 for 80 rods spool. Pretty high toned, Ha. I building your mother a sack hen house 16 X 20 inside. trying to get it warm so it won’t freeze & have eggs all winter. 40 cents a dozen. We all went to a church & school picnic wednesday. Had a good time. Ice cream, watermelon, bananas, & all fruits of the season. All enjoyed it. Well Clara had a great time. She never went to one before that she could look & know what she wanted. She came up to me & said PaPa I want 10 to get chocolates withas Loyde & Floyde was helping some staff at one of the stands they have at a picnic. It made a great laugh & then all of them said there isn’t many of her age could call for 10, tell what she was going to get with it. You better come take up a homestead not be moving from Farm to Farm on shares. My taxes $8.60 per year includes school tax but now we going to have a school here district of 3 1/2 X 4 miles of land. So will not have far to go. Come & Farn it this fall. Come make it better than there & have a house of 160 acres of fine land of your own where people can’t say git out.
Dad & Mother
W B & Cora A Lawton
The following note was lovingly placed in the envelope with Will’s letter.
Dear Son and Daughter
I now take pleasure in writing a few lines to let you know that we are all well and hope this finds you the same. Have you had the flue? I hope not. Kiss the children for me and give them a good hug all for me. We have had a beautiful winter all through. Only one week of cold weather. Why don’t you write of times? It seems so long since I heard from you. Write soon as you get this.
From your ever loving mother,
So good by
When berries were in season many families would get together to travel the forty or so miles to the berry fields. Those fortunate enough to own a cow, like Will and Cora, took it along for the ready supply of milk. It took about 4 days both going, and coming home again, to make the berry field journey. Everyone down to the smallest child picked berries. The women built outdoor fires and canned the berries on the spot, for preservation. Each family took along canvas tarps for shelter. This would go on for 2 to 3 weeks, or until everyone had a winter’s supply.
Gophers were considered vermin and pests, and the Government paid a 1/4 cent bounty per gopher killed. A cut off tail was proof of a dead gopher. Lloyd and Floyd spent much of there summer time catching them for the bounty money. They would tie a slip noose into a piece of cord and place it over a gopher hole. When the gopher came up the noose was pulled tight and the other boy hit the gopher with a club. The tail was extracted and the gopher tossed back down his hole. The boys earned much of their clothing money this way.
The one room school, in session in spring and fall, was four miles away. In summer most families were too busy for it, and in winter it was too cold. The teacher, Mrs. Althea Sparling boarded with the Lawton family. She and the three children took a horse and buggy to school each day during sessions. There had to be 10 children in order to keep the school going, so Clara was enrolled at an early age as they needed her one year to fulfill the requirement. No school children wore shoes due to the expense. Shoes were kept for winter use only, and were passed from one child to another as they were outgrown.
During harvest time groups of 30 to 40 men followed the community threshing machine from farm to farm. One year Cora was hired to be the cook for this crew. She cooked three meals a day for the entire harvest season. The men ate out of doors at long tables which were loaded on the wagons and taken from farm to farm. Vegetables were hard to come by so most meals were of meat and potatoes. After the men were done eating, Cora and the three small children would sit and eat their meal, from the leftovers, before starting the clean-up and preparation for the next meal.
Cora wrote a letter to a friend back East stating that she missed the trees as there were absolutely none in that part of Saskatchewan prairies. The friend packaged up a silver maple and sent it to her, half for real, and half as a joke. The tree was planted, well-tended, and obstinately grew. On occasion people came from miles around to see the tree. The family moved on to Montana in 1919, and the tree was still thriving at that time.
The below letter was written and sent by thirteen-year-old Lloyd to his half-brother Ray Lester, nineteen years Lloyd’s elder, yet living in northern New York. The Charles referred to, is Ray’s son, not quite ten years old yet. Charley is Ray’s brother, (Lloyd’s half-brother) who died in the Army leaving his ranch to his mother, Cora.
Ernfold, Sask Jan. 15, 1919
Seen I haven’t wrote you in so long gess I will and let you know that we are well and hope this will find you the same. We are having nice wether now We have only had about a week of cold and stormy wether Pa sold a heafer calf for 37.50 and a cow for $80.00. Frank Matice has gone to British columbia and Aunt Eva has all the chores to do. is the Enfluenza very bad down there It was bad up here I suppose you heard that we had it. how is Charles he must be getting big as a man how old is he. isn’t it to bad that Charley had to die. he was such a good fellow.
p.s. Write soon and tell us all the news.
While they were in Saskatchewan, Cora’s son, Charles Lester, had proved up a claim in Montana. He went off to fight the Big War and died in a hospital, from an infection contracted after breaking a leg. Upon his death, he willed his ranch to his mother. Will and Cora decided to leave Canada and go to Montana. Will turned his claim over to son Clint, and the remainder of the family started the arduous trek to Montana by wagon. They took the team of horses, the same as came West with them from New York, hitched to a wagon with their cow tied to the back. The cow’s milk was a welcome addition to the family’s food supply. Will affixed a tarp up over the wagon for shelter, and they lived in that wagon for approximately a month. In addition Cora drove a light spring wagon with one horse hooked up, which carried the family dog and Clara’s pet duck. Clara always said she ate a duck egg for breakfast every morning.
While traveling they met Indians who paid them little attention. They also passed several large herds of sheep, with horse and mule mounted herders. Coyotes ever skirted the sheep herd’s perimeters, always on the alert for a straggler. During the trip Floyd had an appendicitis attack which delayed the trip about a week while they remained at a ranch. He regained his health, and never did need an operation. The traveling family finally reached Glasgow, Montana where they thought the ranch was, to discover it was still 40 miles away.
The ranch turned out to be a one room log cabin situated in a cottonwood grove. It was located within sight of the confluence of the Milk and the Missouri rivers. The cabin had a loft, with ladder access, where the boys slept. Clara had a bunk in the kitchen area, while Will and Cora hung a blanket across one end of the cabin for their bedroom. There were some 300 to 400 acres of barren land and scrub trees. With no means of support, and winter coming on, Will and Cora thought it best to locate a better situation if possible. By fall Will had already sold the wagons and most of their possessions, other than the New York team of horses, which he absolutely would not part with.
Will and Cora met a couple, who wanted to go to Florida for the winter, that owned a small cattle and horse ranch. Will agreed to take care of the ranch for the winter in exchange for the family staying in the house. The following spring Will sold a few more of their remaining possessions, and bought train tickets for the family back to New York. He sent them on, but stayed behind long enough to earn the price of rail passage for himself and his team of horses. He then abandoned the ranch, loaded his team in a boxcar, and rode the boxcar with them back to New York.
Upon their arrival back in New York, they stayed some three weeks with Cora’s father, and then found a place of their own again.
By 1922 Clint had sold out in Saskatchewan, and also returned to New York.
Leo Lawton, grandfather of 10, is child seven of thirteen of Lloyd Benjamin Lawton and Alice Pearl Halladay