My mind has recently turned to how work has changed since the 19th century when more people were attached to the land and their own sources of sustenance. And while the work might have been gruelling, it also provided opportunities for social interaction and connection with others that we do not often see in our modern working environments. I have had a few experiences over the years that have given me a sense of connection to homesteaders of the past and how their lives might have been.
Take the process of harvesting and storing fruit. I recently spent an afternoon sitting in a log cabin topping and tailing gooseberries with three other ladies, and while we worked, we talked. We talked about family, and local events, and ordinary things that were happening in our lives. We topped and tailed and talked for hours. When is the last time you sat and had this type of interaction with folks at the office? Regretfully, many of us know very little about the people we work with. Although we are crammed together in cubicle farms, we seldom talk to each other while we work.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to work on a ranch in Alberta, where I had charge of a group of pigs and a small herd of bulls. This ranch was a special place, 10,000 acres of organic prairie land, with an assortment of buildings that the original homesteaders had put up. For a history geek like myself it was like hitting the jackpot. The part of the farm I was living on had three original houses standing on the property, showing how the owners progressed through the years from a tiny starter dwelling, to larger more spacious homes.
The second house built on the property
I lived alone, in a small 1920’s farmhouse that had a furnace that I had to shovel coal into twice a day for heat. There was no running water in the farm yard, or electrical outlets to keep the water troughs thawed during the cold winter months. I had to hand pump water for 150 pigs three times a day, and use an axe to crack the ice off the top of the water troughs several times a day so they could drink. There is nothing like the sleep that comes after a day of that kind of activity in -30 degree weather. During the spring I found an old version of a water trough heater made out of iron. You put hot coals inside of it and attached it to the trough to prevent ice from forming on the animals drinking water. I wish I had of found it during the winter months so I could have given it a try.
One day during the spring months, I had arrived home from doing some shopping to discover that a small group of pigs had escaped their pen and were having a free for all digging holes on the front lawn of the property. A quick phone call to a neighbour, and within a half hour there were eight people there to help patch up the pen, and return the escapees to their home. For anyone who has not worked with pigs, let me tell you they are not amiable to being herded. While the task was not easy, and was certainly comical to anyone watching, we got it done and afterwards sat around for about an hour having a chuckle over it, and recounting the hijinks of other animals we have worked with over the years. Again, I compare this type of experience to what you find in some modern workplaces, where the slightest hint of an emergency situation sends people into hiding, not into helping.
Participating in activities like these allow me a unique understanding of just how important connections with other people were to early homesteaders. Many of the books I have read about 19th century Canadian homesteading emphasized the problems associated with isolation, and the relief experienced at finding out you finally had some neighbours. It seems today many people are in the opposite situation, feeling over crowded in their environments, with no escape from other people. As with all things I suppose it is about balance. I can say that when I work in the nearby Pioneer Village, rarely a shift goes by where one of the guests does not make some type of comment about how peaceful or quiet the village is, and I agree wholeheartedly. I’ll take shoveling manure and pumping water over sitting in a cubicle farm every time, because not all farms are created equal.