Bert Martin’s Cabin

(Originally published on the Clayton McLain Memorial Museum blog.)

Homesteading in the early 20th century, on the wind-whipped stretches of prairie was no easy task for new immigrants. Often, they knew little about farming and, even if they had experience working the land, surviving a Saskatchewan winter would still be a bitter struggle. Much of their success would depend upon how well they were able to make preparations before the cold weather hit.

Bert Martin's Cabin-front

First shelters were often considered temporary, constructed quickly with whatever materials a settler could afford, or could find on the land. Tents and caves, sod, or tarpaper shacks were common, replaced by log, frame, or stone houses as the homesteader’s fortunes improved. Severe weather events like droughts, floods, and cyclones were widespread as were their consequences – fire, insects, mud, and hailstones.

Bert Martin's Cabin-sideWinter would be the worst. Blizzards with extreme temperatures and wind chills, little visibility, and drifting snow could shut down an entire area. A settler needed a supply of food, and firewood to survive until the roads were passable, again. He would need wool blankets and quilts, lamp fuel, and something to occupy the long days of solitude and isolation.

Bert Martin's Cabin-rearImagine living in a shelter like Bert Martin’s: A log cabin, plastered with mud to keep out the wind, a small wood stove for heat, and a few small windows to let in the weak winter sun. There’s a dirt floor, a single bed, a table and chair, a few pictures to decorate the walls but it’s a simple dwelling. Could you imagine living like that for a year or two? It’s humbling to think about how many homesteaders did.

[For more details and some great pictures, visit the Saskatchewan Settlement Experience at the Saskatchewan Archives Board website.]

Winter Travel Clothing, 1865

Métis in capotes hunting buffalo in the Red River area 1822
by Peter Rindisbacher, (1806-1834)

Perhaps I am the best clad in the party, and my clothes altogether will not weigh much. A flannel shirt, moleskin pants, full length leggings with garters below the knees, duffil socks and neat moccasins, a Hudson’s Bay capote, unlined and unpadded in any part, a light cap, and mittens which are most of the time tied on the load, while I wear a pair of thin unlined buckskin gloves. This is in a sense almost “laying aside every weight,” but the race which was set before the ordinary dog-driver in the days I am writing of was generally sufficient to keep him warm.

In my own case, I did not for several years wear any underclothing, and though in the buffalo country, and a buffalo hunter, I never had room or transport for a buffalo coat until the Canadian Pacific Railroad reached Alberta, and the era of heavy clothing and ponderous boots came in, with ever and anon men frozen to death in them! Not so with us; we run and lift and pull and push, and are warm.

– by John McDougall, describing winter travel by dogsled circa 1865 in Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie: Stirring Scenes of Life in the Canadian North-West, 1898.