When the mill was closed in 1922, after the devastation of the 1919 fire, many people turned to other sources of livlihood. Among these people who persisted were those who thought that a living could be made by farming in the surrounding area.
Filing for homestead rights meant paying ten dollars for a quarter section of land. Ten acres of this land had to be broken and residence had to be maintained on the land six months out of each year for three consecutive years. When these requirements were fulfilled the title could then be claimed for the land.
With the onset of the Depression and the extensive drought conditions in southern Saskatchewan, an increase flow of homesteaders infiltrated the area around Big River. Many of these pioneers were sent by government to establish a homestead in the uninhabited bushland. Still, more homesteaders came from other countries, and they too, thought that a new life could be built upon the foundations of a homestead.
Some of the new settlers were well educated remittence men, while others were disillusioned homesteaders placed on the land after the war, by the Soldier Settlemen Board. The hard times of the depression struck these people in a drastic way. Often they were unemployed skilled workers, city residents, or educated people looking for work. They had no conception about farming, and they often lacked the general knowledge bush of survival. In some sad and unfortunate incidents, the machinery that the government supplied would be left untouched in the crates, because these people did not understand how to operate this farm equipment. Occasionally, families had absolutely no insight into how firewood was acquired and stocked for the winter months.
Those families that were able to cope with the workload, the instability of farm conditions and the isolation, were those that remained and took the initial steps towards making this area a farming community. These people gained their knowledge through practical experience, and when unknown situations arose, common sense prevailed. These were the people who survived.
The journey to the homestead was the initial barrier that faced the family. Following old Indian trails usually took them within close proximity of their land, but there were the final few miles that wore out both man and his team. Once they managed to reach their destination, they were faced with a quarter section of land, often completely covered by one hundred and sixty acres of bush.
The first priority of the homesteader was to build a home. A site was cleared and logs were cut and peeled. Construction of the house was difficult work; especially lifting the heavy logs into place. Many times neighbors would help out, and in turn, would be repaid in the same fashion. During the time that the log cabin was being built, family members would be staying in temporary quarters, such as a tent or a quickly constructed lean-to.
When the house was built, and the season permitting, the homesteader would begin clearing land for a garden, grain, and hay crops. This task was perhaps the most laborious, especially if one did not or could not afford the machinery. Many homesteaders cleared their land with only a grub hoe and axe. Where seed was available, small grain crops were grown and harvested by hand. Putting up hay for the livestock during the winter months also meant many hours of back breaking labour.
A fresh water supply was also of utmost importance. Small creeks provided for this need, but if one was not fortunate enough to be able to rely on this source, a well had to be dug. This was usually a difficult process since most homesteads were without the appropriate equipment. Before a well could be dug, the family was resigned to hauling water, a time consuming menial task.
During this time, the homesteader not only had to cope with getting all the work done, but was constantly fighting the heat, the cold, the rain and snow and the insects. Mosquitoes and horse flies used to plague both man and beast. During the hours spent out in the field, the team of horses would be covered in a gray blanket of mosquitoes. In order to relieve their misery, small smudges would be lit and hung between the horses. Also smudges set near the barn would keep flies and mosquitoes from bothering the livestock. In the summer time, before going to bed at night, a small smudge would be carried through the house and by leaving the doors open, it would chase the majority of the insects outside. It was a temporary relief but it allowed for a peaceful night's sleep. Some women would buy netting material and make a frame over each bed and fasten the netting to the frame. This construction was called a 'mosquito bar'. Also strips of newspapers would be fastened to the doorway, and when the wind blew it would rustle the papers and in turn this would frighten the flies and keep them from coming in the open door. Those who were fortunate enough to have a screen door could keep cool without having to worry about hanging newspapers.
Window glass was also another household article that was difficult to obtain. Some homesteaders would wax flour bags and use them for windows. Although not transparent, it did offer a measured amount of light. Also, if a window pane happened to get broken, a flour bag would be dipped in a flour and water batter, and when allowed to dry served as a window glass. It was durable and also windproof.
Managing a household was also difficult work. The crude facilities constituted hard work for almost all household duties. Clothing was washed by hand using a scrub board and tub, and homemade lye soap. Patching and darning clothes had to be done in the daylight hours because a coal oil lamp did not give sufficient light for close work. Baking bread was a long, drawn out process as the yeast was slow rising. The dough was prepared in the evening and left to rise throughout the night. The next morning it was made into loaves and left to rise once more for a couple of hours before baking.
Cooking on a wood stove sufficed in the winter months but during the summer the heat in the house would be unbearable. If an old stove could be found, cooking was done outside on hot days, even though mosquitoes and flies had to be contended with. This was more preferable than enduring the heat indoors.
Bare wooden floors were cleaned by getting down on your hands and knees and using a scrub brush.
Yard goods were beyond the means of most settlers, therefore curtains, sheets, pillow cases, and some clothing were made from flour sacks. These sacks were a plain off-white or were different coloured prints. If the settlers had sheep, the wool would be carded and knit into socks and mitts. Outer mitts would be made from a pattern and these would be worn over the woolen mitts, thus offering increased warmth against the severity of the winter months. Cupboards, bedside tables and stands, were often made from wooden orange or apple boxes.
Many times the husband would have to leave the homestead during the winter months in order to secure a job. This money was needed to supplement the family income. During the summer the husband and wife would work on the homestead. Money could be obtained from selling butter, eggs, cream or milk, and at times, wild berries.
The trips to Big River to sell the farm produce, would offer the opportunity for both man and wife to visit friends and pick up the necessary food and farm supplies. This was also a good time to tend to medical needs as the doctor was a long way from home.
Communication with the outside world was limited to listening to the radio, if the family was fortunate enough to own one, and by newspapers. However,, the material contained within the newspaper was usually weeks old before the paper was received.
Each family, in its own way, provided its own entertainment, sometimes they would sing songs before retiring for the night, or listen to records on the old Thomas Edison gramophone. Perhaps they would just sit by the table and look through Eaton's Catalogue by the light of the coal oil lamp and dream of things they would like to buy when conditions improved. Social gatherings, card parties, dances, picnics and ball games were other means of entertainment.
Homesteading was a difficult, despairing way of life yet, not without its compensations for the people emerged from those Depression years with a profound respect for many things. As we look back on these pioneers and their way of life, we realize that they are truly admirable people.