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City author with deep love of rural life gives pioneers a voice

Horse thieves, frost bite, weddings and more were part of homesteading experience.
Tales from the Homestead cover
New book captures accounts of homesteaders in western Canada

SASKATCHEWAN — In an academic career that has focused on rural development, political economy and social history, Sandra Rollings-Magnusson has written extensively about the experiences of homesteaders in western Canada. In her latest book, Tales from the Homestead, she has compiled a series of narratives that gives voice to the pioneers to tell their own stories.

"The homesteading era is my area of expertise," she remarked. It was an area of study introduced to her at the University of Regina, but combined nicely with a personal interest she already had. "I had one grandfather who tried homesteading in southern Saskatchewan but he had to give up due to drought. The other side of the family homesteaded in Alberta, so I had the personal background as well. Also, my hobbies are collecting antiques of that era so I basically live and breathe the whole pioneer period!"

Dr. Magnusson, a professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, turned her passion for this aspect of western Canadian history into a number of books. The first, Heavy Burdens on Small Shoulders, documents child labor on homesteads. "Children had to work on the homesteads to help the family survive," she explained. "Children as young as four years old were working really hard, and by the time they were 14 they were doing an adult's labor. It was a hard, strenuous life."

Her next book, The Homesteaders, she describes as a tribute to Saskatchewan prairie people. "It contains hundreds of pictures and lots of stories," she said, "including coming out west, building homes, marriages, deaths, and the role of the community."

Searches through 359,000 homesteading files has given her a unique look at different aspects of the pioneering experience, including one that led to the writing of Women Homesteaders on the Canadian Prairies that recounts a less-talked about feature of that era: female homesteaders. "It was highly unusual," Magnusson said. "Women could only be homesteaders if they were head of the household and had dependents relying on them. It's a book featuring women primarily from Saskatchewan who received the patent to the land in their own name."

Magnusson's significant research over the past 25 years has taken her through the major archives of the three prairie provinces and has resulted in a collection of short stories that she envisioned as a book for the general public. "I kind of have a mini-archive at home and as I was looking through all my material I realized I had a number of these short stories that would make a really compelling and interesting book," she remarked.

Tales from the Homestead is a collection of personal narratives and this was an important feature to Magnusson. "As I read through memoirs I often came across statements like, 'oh, I hope we're never forgotten'. That impacted me over the years."

The book features 36 short stories collected from memoirs and pioneer questionnaires sent out in the 1950's, all archival material. The stories reflect a cross section of pioneers and includes perspectives from Doukhobor, Mennonite, Scottish, English, Welsh, Danish, German and Polish settlers. Stories of frost bite, tornadoes and blizzards frame some of the narratives, along with intriguing tales of horse thieves, school days and grain elevator companies. There are accounts of festive community events, weddings and dances, alongside the tragedies and heartache often experienced.

"I was looking for something unique," she said in choosing the selections for this book. "I wanted to get the perspective of a number of different groups of people and experiences. I saw it as a book where people could sit down with it on a coffee break or read an interesting story or two over a lunch break. It's short stories they wrote themselves. Their personal narratives."

Each account is unique, but there are common threads that emerge, according to Magnusson. "Hardship," she remarked. "The hardship of life is an overwhelming theme of this book. Life was grinding them down but they had such perseverance and they tried to see the best in things."

She admires their courage and optimism. "The excitement of owning their own land is what brought them here. They came to Canada seeking a better future. But it was back breaking labor to eke out a living. Yet they were able to find happiness in the smallest of things. They seemed to take pleasure in small things I think, because life was so hard."

Tales from the Homestead, A History of Prairie Pioneers 1867-1914 is to be released May 3 by Heritage House Publishing and will be available in book stores and online.

"It's an important era," Magnusson said. "One that is unique and one that will never happen again. What's important to me is to give those homesteaders--those pioneers -- a voice, so they're not forgotten."