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The Peter and Duncan Henderson outfit

These early Boissevain-area settlers were noted threshermen of their day

The Peter and Duncan Henderson threshing outfit in the field, near Boissevain.

While the image you see above is not of the best quality, it is worthy of an article, as it was taken sometime around 1890 and shows a Cornell portable steam engine powering a “Wide Awake” separator. The outfit belonged to Duncan and Peter Henderson who were early settlers in the Boissevain area.

Peter Henderson was born near Carleton Place, Ont. in 1860 into a large family. His brother, Duncan, was born in 1863. Their father died in 1874.

Peter went to work in a woollen mill near the Henderson farm. Duncan also went to work, first on a farm, then road building and then spent seven years in the woollen mill. An older brother also worked in the woollen mill, but died in an industrial accident there.

Peter decided that the woollen mill was not for him and went west in 1881 with two other men, W.H. Latimer and James Rae. From Emerson, they travelled out to the Boissevain area by foot, spending one night at the farm of William Story in the Darlingford area. That night, Mrs. Story gave birth to a baby girl who, 21 years later, would become Peter Henderson’s second wife.

Next morning the three men continued west on foot to the Boissevain area. Peter Henderson homesteaded the E 1/2 of 34-3-20 and James Rae took the W 1/2, registering their claims on October 29, 1881 at Old Deloraine which involved yet another journey by foot. Peter then walked to Brandon and took a job as a carpenter with the CPR for the winter. In March 1882, Duncan Henderson took the train from Ontario to Brandon and joined his brother. Duncan Henderson then walked to Old Deloraine and registered a homestead claim. Peter, Duncan, James Rae and W.H. Latimer then travelled south to the Turtle Mountains where they cut trees and skidded them to Rae’s homestead where they constructed a shanty to live in while they broke their homesteads.

By the spring of 1882 Peter and Duncan were down to a total of $5 between the two of them and they decided they must go back to work. So they walked back to Brandon. At one point, they waded through a large body of water that it would have taken them several days to walk around. Holding their clothes above their heads, the slush and water reached to their necks.

After two days on the trail they reached Brandon in the evening, bought bread and cheese for supper and turned in for the night in an empty CPR boxcar. A CPR conductor found them and, while deliberating whether to eject the two brothers from the car, realized both brothers stood over six feet tall. The conductor then decided he had pressing business elsewhere and forgot to return.

Duncan later said while he started his farming career one jump ahead of the CPR, the CPR had long since caught up to him. They travelled onto Flat Creek, now Oak Lake, which was the end of steel in the spring of 1882 and signed on as labourers. In 1882, the CPR laid 418 miles of steel with the completed track almost reaching Maple Creek. This was a stiff pace and there was only time for work, work and more work.

In the fall of 1882, Peter returned to the homestead to get some work done there and Duncan followed a month later. Duncan recounted later that on the way back to his homestead he got off the train in Brandon and before setting out to walk to his homestead, he purchased a pound of sugar, sat down on the ground and ate the sugar! The CPR labour gangs were not sup- plied with desserts or sweets of any kind and he had developed a powerful craving for sweets over the summer.

After 1882, Peter and Duncan stayed on their homesteads to “prove up” on their homestead claims. However, they worked off their homesteads digging cellars and wells for homesteaders who came into the area with money. After the railway arrived in Boissevain, they also worked loading rail cars out of flat warehouses there.

Flat warehouses were just warehouses in which grain was stored in sacks. Rail cars were dropped off at a loading dock attached to the warehouse and grain dumped into the cars by hand. Peter and Duncan would sometimes work all day on their homesteads, walk to Boissevain and load cars all night at a rate of$3a car or $1.50 for each of the two men.

It appears that in the early days, Duncan, Peter, Wm. Latimer and James Rae may have lived together on one of the homesteads as Duncan said it was a common practice to boil a pot of unpeeled potatoes and, when the potatoes were done, the pot was dumped on the table and the man who peeled the most potatoes, got the most to eat. He said this method produced expert potato peelers in short order! He also said that their chief meat was “rusty” bacon and when the bacon ran short the butt end was nailed to the wall of the shack as a reserve in case visitors appeared.

Peter and Duncan’s first few crops were not large in acres. Their homesteads were broken by yokes of oxen which, while hardy beasts, were rather slow. The seed had to be broadcast by hand out of a container carried by a strap around the neck and shoulders and then harrowed in or plowed in. When this crop was harvested the nearest mar- ket was Brandon and the crop was delivered there by oxen. Travelling to Brandon meant a round trip of from 100 to 140 miles, depending on which trail the Henderson brothers took. And all perhaps for just 20 cents a bushel.

Duncan left a brief record of the crops on his homestead which tells of the struggles the Henderson brothers faced homesteading in the 1880s:

  • 1883 – Nine acres frozen.
  • 1884 – Frozen, drew to Brandon, 20 cents per bushel.
  • 1885 – Frozen, sold entire crop 18 cents per bushel.
  • 1886 – Dried out.
  • 1887 – Very fair, but low in price, around 20 cents.
  • 1888 – Frozen August 8. Never cut a sheaf.
  • 1889 – Dry. Very scant crop.
  • 1890 – Hailed 100 per cent. No insurance.
  • 1891 – Fair to good. Some frosted.
  • 1892 – Fair to good.

Duncan did relate that in those days, one always had the comforting thought that as a last resort one could at least eat the oxen. He also related that his first real crop was in 1895. His wheat averaged 40 bushels per acre and sold for from 35 cents to 40 cents per bushel. This crop finally placed Duncan on a solid basis for the future.

Duncan and Peter owned one of the first stream threshing outfits, a Cornell portable steam engine and a Wide Awake separator, in the Boissevain area. They custom threshed as far as 25 miles away from their home- steads in a threshing run that lasted three months. Apparently the brothers had the reputation of being the fastest “feeders” in the area.

Prof. J.E. Sweet of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. developed the Cornell portable steam engine design. He licensed the manufacture of the design to Haggert Brothers of Brampton, Ontario. Haggert manufactured the design until 1891 when the company ceased operations. The company was then acquired by the Ross family and manufacture resumed.

J.M. Ross and Company manufactured the Cornell in both portable and traction versions and in a variety of sizes: 14, 16, 18, 20 and 22 horsepower. J.M. Ross and Company later moved operations to St. Catharines, Ontario and while there obtained the rights to manufacture a Garr-Scott threshing machine design. However, the company ceased operations at some time after that and disappeared.

There is some suggestion that a Cornell portable steam engine design was licensed to the Brandon Machine Works and manufactured there for some period of time around 1900 to 1910.

Haggert Brothers also manufactured the Wide Awake separator. Little is known of this separator as none have appeared to have survived. Haggert may have licensed the Wide Awake threshing machine design from the Quick and Thomas Company of Auburn, New York.

As can be seen in the photo, the separator did not have a mechanical feeder but instead was fed by hand. Men forked sheaves up onto a table and men standing on a platform over the machine’s tongue cut the band on each sheaf, spread out the sheaf on the table and shoved the stalks of grain into the cylinder far enough so the cylinder would grab and pull the stalks in for threshing.

It may have been that the separator did not have a straw carrier at the rear of the machine to stack straw. In the absence of a straw carrier someone would have been detailed to fork away the straw ejected from the machine. Given the size of acreage that the machine would have been threshing and frontier nature of the area in the 1880s and early 1890s, this small, simple machine would have been well suited to the Henderson brothers’ needs.

About the author


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



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