“He was a pretty amazing guy.”
– LOUIS BALCAEN
They stand like lonely, abandoned sentinels – two massive concrete silos in an empty field gazing sightlessly at the sky.
They and a few nearby tumbledown buildings are all that’s left of what was once one of the largest dairy farms in North America.
At its peak, the farm included 200,000 acres in southeastern Manitoba, with 1,500 cattle, 6,000 sheep and 300 brood mares plus sires. It was a self-contained community with state-of-the-art dairy barns, storage buildings, offices, a powerhouse, icehouse, bunkhouse and blacksmith shop. The project, costing over $3 million in total, was the hub of an eventual network of 70 farm families settling in the region.
It all started exactly 100 years ago when an American visionary named Watson Pogue Davidson bought 70,000 acres of bush and swampland east of the Red River to create Manitoba Dairy Farms Ltd., the biggest farm of its kind in the province and perhaps even on the continent.
Born in 1871 on a hardscrabble farm near South Point, Ohio, W. P., as he became universally known, took over the family operation when he was only 12 after his father died. He later married into money, becoming a property owner in Minnesota and a large land developer in Oregon. Keeping his eye out for further opportunities, W. P. learned about 70,000 acres of available land in southeastern Manitoba. On March 11, 1909, he traded two hotels in St. Paul, Minnesota for the parcel and launched his dairy venture.
As chronicled in local author Cynthia Faryon’s recent book The Dream: W. P. Davidson and the Davidson Era, W. P.’s goal was to build a model farm with modern technology at the centre of a settlement consisting of other farm families. It was a classic case of if you build it, they will come. Eventually, they did.
But when W. P. arrived, he found the local municipality demanding nearly $3,600 in back taxes before it would release the land for development. W. P. paid up and negotiated a deal to have land taxes frozen at $1 an acre for 20 years. In exchange, he would pay for local improvements, including drainage, roads and infrastructure.
Soon after, W. P. purchased another 30,000 adjacent acres from the federal government, making his land parcel 100,000 acres in all.
The land was poor – marshy, swampy and mosquito infested. But it was cheap and had a nearby railway station on a main line running north to Winnipeg and south to the U. S.
W. P. set to work in 1910, draining the land with two huge “walking” dredges brought up from the U. S. The eventual result would be 195 kilometres of canals, with dirt thrown up and packed down for roadbeds. By 1914, W. P. began cultivating land for farming.
A farm labour shortage during the First World War put an abrupt halt to the work. But by 1919, W. P. was back at it in earnest. That same year, buildings began going up. By 1923, the first dairy barn was near completion and cattle were brought in. Full production commenced in 1924.
The entire operation was decades ahead of its time. The barns were equipped with automatic drinkers, cement mangers, metal stanchions and Surge milking machines believed to be the first in Manitoba. Underground pipes controlled by above-ground valves fed a large cistern. A powerhouse provided the farm with electricity 34 years before Hydro came to the region.
Manitoba Dairy Farms even had its own private telephone system connecting the main headquarters with a ranch house 19 kilometres away and to the railway’s own telephone lines – providing a long-distance connection to Winnipeg.
With the main farm in full swing, W. P. began soliciting settlers for the area. Brochures and newspaper ads throughout North America advertised “The Davidson Plan.” Started in 1929, the plan made fully equipped dairy farms available to farmers willing to come.
The farms weren’t free, of course, but W. P. provided settlers with interest-free mortgages, carrying them for up to 20 years. Producers delivered their milk through Manitoba Dairy Farms, shipping daily by rail to Winnipeg. Half of their milk cheques went toward paying down their loans.
Not content with just dairying, W. P. began diversifying into sheep, horses, beef cattle and even pheasants. In 1931, he leased another 100,000 acres from the federal government, eventually buying the land outright for $1 an acre.
The Depression saw the collapse of many farms throughout Western Canada. Not so Manitoba Dairy Farms. According to Faryon, it did a roaring business throughout the early 1930s, actually turning a profit in 1933. Labour was abundant and a government employment subsidy program gave farmers an incentive to hire workers.
But the Second World War marked the beginning of the end for W. P.’s grand venture. As had happened 25 years before, the war created a severe labour shortage. Workers could get better jobs and wages in cities. Settlers packed up and left their farms. W. P. couldn’t find the 155 workers needed each day to run the main farm.
By now W. P. was in his 70s. His brother, who managed the farm while W. P. was away in the U. S. looking after his other interests, had died in 1935. Land holdings and livestock were gradually sold off.
W. P. Davidson died in 1954 at 83. His three sons lacked their father’s drive and vision.
Manitoba Dairy Farms was liquidated in 1958 and morphed into the Marchand Development Company. The last of the settlers’ farms was sold in 1976. The Marchand Development Company disbanded in 1980. It was over.
“He was a pretty amazing guy,” says retired local dairy farmer Louis Balcaen, who served with Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Canadian Dairy Commission. “But it all went away, unfortunately.”
Not quite, though.
Bordering the highway just 14 km south of Marchand is the 5,854-hectare W. P. Davidson Wildlife Management Area, the first such area established in Manitoba.
And if you spot a wild pheasant in the bush, chances are it’s a descendant of the 300 pheasants W. P. raised and released into the wild for hunting some 80 years ago. [email protected]