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The Ben Dickson threshing gang 1910

This photo reveals a young workforce, some dressed in their Sunday best for the rarity of appearing in a photograph

A group portrait of the Dickson threshing gang taken in 1910. Some of the people in the photo are numbered and on the back of the photo is a key matching the name of the person with their number.  1) W.G. Dickson, 2) Mrs. Ben Dickson, 3) Joyce Dickson (Dring), 4) Claude Dickson, 5) Laura Taylor, 6) Mrs. Cavers, 7) Joe Blacklock, 8) Michael O’Keefe. The back of the photo also identifies the person on the upper left outside as Norman Burke.

The Dickson-Henderson family of Boissevain graciously donated to the Manitoba Agricultural Museum a number of photographs taken on their farms near Boissevain. One photo is a group portrait of the Dickson threshing gang taken in 1910.

The photo was taken by Osborne Photo which appears to have been a professional photographer active in the Boissevain area at the time.

Of note in this photo is the unnamed man standing on the ground at the left of the photograph. He is wearing a campaign hat, sometimes known as a lemon squeezer, and probably better known today as the hat worn as part of the RCMP formal red serge uniform. The hat was also called a lemon squeezer as a result of the four-dent crown which resembles the kitchen device used to squeeze juice from lemons. This shape is one reason that the hat is a somewhat rare piece of apparel outside the RCMP as it does not lend itself to rapidly shedding water with the result that the hat was not all that effective in a rainstorm. This hat was probably also relatively expensive at this time which would have prevented many people from owning such a hat.

While one may think that the wearing of this hat indicates the man was somewhat of a “dude,” examination of his clothing indicates he was well accustomed to hard work as his overalls and gloves are well worn. Photography at this time is fairly rare and it was a real experience to be included in one. So it could very well be that the man wore his “Sunday” hat as he wanted to appear presentable in the photo. All of the subjects would no doubt be very surprised to learn their picture would be printed in a newspaper more than a century later.

While the hat W.G. Dickson is wearing is of a design not currently available, it was probably a more practical work hat than a “lemon squeezer” as it was made of straw which was cooler to wear than a felt hat as the weave of the straw allowed for some air movement through the crown. Also, the straw being a light colour, it did not absorb as much of the sun’s heat as darker colours would have. The tall crown of this hat would also aid in reducing heat buildup. While the brim is not very wide, the hat sits lower on Mr. Dickson’s head and so shades his nose and ears. The narrow, close-fitting brim would hinder wind snatching the hat off.

Several of the other men in the photo are wearing felt hats. It was somewhat common practice to punch holes in the side of the crown of a felt hat to provide airflow for ventilation. Unfortunately the photograph does not show whether this had been done to these hats. When considering the issue of felt hats as work wear, we also have to consider that at the time, people had some different ideas as compared to today. It was common practice for men at the time to wear a light pair of fine wool “long johns” in the summer, even when working, as it was thought this kept them cool. So wearers of felt hats in the summer may have believed the hat kept their heads shielded from the hot sun. Or it simply could have been that they could only afford one hat and so they wore it summer, winter, spring and fall.

When one examines this photo, one is struck with the fact this threshing crew is relatively youthful with only one older man appearing on the right side of the crew. His face is partially obscured but he is noticeably older than the other men in the photo, most of whom appear to be teenagers.

Ben Dickson the owner of the threshing outfit does not appear in the photo, however, there is an entry for Ben in the Morton Municipality history book.

Ben Dickson was an early pioneer in the area, arriving in 1885 from Dundalk, Ontario. He arrived in Brandon on the CPR and travelled south to Deloraine with a Mr. Longman, who was freighting supplies to the Kirkwood settlement at the northwest corner of Whitewater Lake.

Ben then picked out a quarter section to homestead in the Primrose area. In some respects he was better off than some homesteaders as it appears he owned a wagon, team of oxen and plow when he began homesteading. However, he said in later years he plowed barefooted so as to spare his shoes which indicates money was tight. While building a 12×14-foot “soddy” or sod house on his homestead, he slept under the overturned wagon box which then necessitated a morning ritual of shaking out of his clothing garter snakes which had crept in during the night to share his body heat.

Like many settlers, he worked off the farm when possible, to obtain money to continue homesteading. For several years he worked for a Mr. Heaslip of the Heaslip district when he was not working on his homestead.

Mr. Dickson encountered problems such as sandhill cranes and whooping cranes scattering his stooks in the fall while feeding on the grain. A heavy frost in he fall of 1888 destroyed a promising crop. Ben later said that if anyone had proposed to exchange a suit of clothes for his homestead the morning after the frost, he would have taken the offer.

However, he persisted in farming and by 1892 had progressed sufficiently to marry Stella Wright of Brockton, Ontario. Miss Wright had come west in 1891 to visit her sister who was married to a neighbour of Ben Dickson. Ben then made her acquaintance while she was visiting. Mrs. Stella Dickson is labelled as No. 2 in the photo.

By 1897 the Dickson family’s finances had advanced to such a point they could build a frame house, followed by a barn in 1903. He also had erected a Massey Harris power windmill with a 12-foot fan that developed enough power when the wind blew to power a four-inch plate chopper to cut grain into livestock feed. Ben and Stella retired to Boissevain in 1915.

W.G. Dickson, Joyce Dickson and Claude Dickson who appear in the photo were the children of Ben and Stella.

About the author


Alex Campbell is a dedicated volunteer and Member of the Interpretation Committee at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum.



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