Barr Colony - A Memoir
Destination: Western Canada

The Barr Colony – A Memoir

In 1903 Henrietta Whistler and her brothers, Jack and Harold, were young children when they arrived in Canada with their parents as members of the Barr Colony.

Henrietta Whistler became a school teacher and taught in several communities in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. She married Edward Butler and her brother Harold married Winifred Judd in a double wedding on 1 July 1923 at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.

Writings by Henrietta from the 1930s to the early 1970s were published in the Surrey Leader, the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers. She wrote under the names Sarah Ilsley, H.K. Butler, Henrietta K. Butler and Henrietta K. Whistler Butler.

A personal experience (The Barr Colony)

The Prairies Their Destination

by Henrietta K. Butler

Beautiful, rolling and fertile prairies, like park-lands, under the clear blue sky – thousands of acres producing abundant game and rivers teaming with fish. These were the pictures placed before many people in England, by a group of men at the turn of the century.

Great opportunities in the Canadian mid-west, and, as a bait to entice settlers – free land – in 160 acre lots! The object seemed to be to make the Canadian West – British. So, Rev. Isaac Barr, the probable originator of the scheme (and his intentions may have been honest, at the time) went up and down England lecturing and showing lantern slides of the attractions of Canada – the snow capped mountains, wide rivers with salmon leaping over the rocks and dense luscious forests. In short, a land of great promise and plenty – and, of course, Canada did hold great promise and possibilities. But what Mr. Barr did not explain nor forsee were the terrific hardships to be encountered by the people ill-suited for such an adventure. It is said that Mr. Barr had not even seen the prairies to which he was enticing these unfortunate folk.

Early in 1903, the results of his lecturing and the project began to unfold. Large numbers of English people signed up for the expedition. Many of them cultured and well-educated – men of the professions with families and wives who had been gently raised - but all ill-prepared for what was ahead. Some of the men had recently returned from South Africa and the Boer War. They threw up good positions and homes to follow Rev. Barr to what must have seemed to them, later, the end of the Earth. The fact that he didn't know what he was taking them to, was no excuse. Some of the papers came out with warnings that April was no time to land hundreds of immigrants in the middle of the prairies; all of whom had absolutely no experience in Canadian farming, and miles away from railroads and towns, too. But the English race is often stubborn, and what it sets out to do, it will do, at all costs.

Embarking at Liverpool – three ships of the Elder Dempster Line carried the soon-to-be settlers across the stormy Atlantic in early April, 1903. It seems unbelievable, but the ships were packed to far beyond their capacity. They were, I believe, the Lake Manitoba, Lake Champlain and the Lake Megantic.

Much discontent and almost riots took place on the long drawn out voyage. The Lake Manitoba with the largest group aboard, probably suffered the most. There, there was really trouble. Food was scarce and almost uneatable; quarters were cramped and all were very unhappy. Rev. Barr had to keep out of sight for fear of his life. The Megantic, on which my family sailed seemed to have better accommodation and more comforts. We, as children, did not suffer as badly. All the same, it was far from being a de luxe voyage as we know sea trips today.

After the rough passage, the ships landed at St. John, New Brunswick about Easter time. One needs little imagination to envisage what the unloading of all these English people meant to the then quiet and small harbor town. The men, women and children, dressed as they were, quite outrageously for pioneering, with their mountains of luggage – did not look fit for such an expedition to the far unknown prairies. But go they must!

Then came the overland trip west by special trains, and once again, of course, the lack of many comforts of present day train travel. The unloading place, Saskatoon – a small struggling town with a wooden sidewalk, one or two little stores, an immigration building and a post office, became almost over night, a sprawling tent town. Here, were these strange people with endless personal effects, far more than they would have brought, had they known of the nature of their destination. Too late – the promised land had been painted too rosy.

All their impedimenta had now to be packed into covered wagons. We had brought a library, musical instruments, fine china, a microscope, a grandfather clock, oil paintings and like others many precious belongings from the old homes in England. It was a pathetic sight. Now, food must be purchased, stoves, tents, bedding, covered wagons and oxen to trek the two hundred miles, still left, over the unbroken prairie to a location, now on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan. What a trip! over muddy trails, with slush up to the axels, and through sloughs, where many a wagon got stuck. When this happened, the men must needs unload a part of the weight, take the wagon across, unload, and then go back for the remainder. Heart rending episodes took place daily, and there was always the added risk of encountering the dreaded prairie fire.

The travellers helped one another as best they could. I remember one incident when we were passing through the Eagle Hills. My father and uncle were assisting another colonist to hold back his wagon and contents on a steep hill – with heavy ropes and chains, to keep the oxen from running too fast. Suddenly from above there was a shouting – our oxen had become impatient and had set off on their own. The result? They came running down hill, the wagon pushing behind. We expected to see them and the loaded wagon land in the river at the bottom. Luckily, the animals, usually such slow creatures, seemed to know enough to turn to one side, and saved the situation. Many a heart skipped a beat that time!

I may say, here, that most of the men had never seen an ox before, and certainly had never harnessed one. Some of them were afraid to take the harness off, for fear they should forget how to put it back on.

Very few miles were covered each day, and we children, for the most part, ran along beside the wagon – it was loaded, anyway. There was still some snow on the ground in places, but in the warm spots, the small prairie crocuses pushed up their pretty heads. We had out first Canadian natural history lessons, now. We became acquainted with the little gopher, watched his antics and explored his tunnels. The badger, too, was sometimes seen, and much wild fowl. Along the trail were a great number of whitened bones of the buffalo. These were most intriguing to collect and to be explained by our father, the parts of the body they had originally belonged to. There were literally piles of such bleached bones in places.

The tents had to be pitched each evening and the meals hastily prepared. Most of the water came from the sloughs, which were teaming with mosquito "wigglers". These had to be strained out and the water boiled. Everyone was too hungry to complain about the food. The women made bannocks and fried bacon or game which had been shot during the day. The bread was a bit difficult to handle. That was accomplished, though, by setting a Royal Yeast cake to soak, first. Mother put hers in a large blue enamel jug which had "McLary's" on the bottom. It was bought in Saskatoon and we had it for many years. She mixed up a sponge or batter, and let it stand all night. Next morning she punched down the bread dough, putting it into a larger pan, which was well covered with blankets. Underneath was placed a warm brick. This was all put into the wagon and went bumpity bumpity bump, over all the rough roads. In the evening the bread was baked.

We had a grandfather clock on our wagon, packed in a long box. It had been presented to father from a school in Wales. It had a cheerful habit of striking, sometimes, from its hideaway. Its melodious tones brought many a smile to weary faces. After all these years that clock still keeps good time.

After about three weeks of travelling by Prairie Schooner, we arrived at our headquarters. All these weeks Mr. Barr was nowhere around. He had literally disappeared and so had much of the settlers' money, which was supposed to be in his safe keeping. (The only way the men could carry money, themselves, was in belts around their waists). Mr. Barr was actually afraid to accompany or meet the colonists. He had not kept his agreements and the whole scheme had been grossly mismanaged.

Fortunately for the colony, a fine spiritual leader in the person of Rev. George Exeter Lloyd, stepped into the breach. Actually, Mr. Lloyd had been interested from the commencement, but had kept in the background. Now he was needed and badly.

Rev. Lloyd was an Englishmen with a warm and pleasing personality. He once more enthused the settlers and gave them courage to carry on. Many of them could not return to England, anyway, for all their savings were gone – spent on the long drawn out journey and on exorbitant prices for goods and chattels.

The trek over, the families set out to their allotted quarter sections, once more in their broad wheeled wagons. They at once became occupied in building a house and barn and in planting a garden to raise potatoes and vegetables. For the most part the houses were of sod to keep out the cold winter ahead. Lumber had to be bought from a trading post a hundred miles away – a journey which took several days behind oxen. A barn or shelter had to be constructed, too, for the cows and oxen, and the winter's wood stacked up. The food supply was purchased from another distant so-called village, more than a week's wagon ride away.

All these preparations by settlers who had never passed a winter more severe than an English winter, and then in comfortable brick houses with cheerful open fireplaces. The majority of the men had been white collared workers. Luckily, wild strawberries and raspberries were abundant on the grass lands, so the women and children had a busy time gathering fruit and making preserves. Large mushrooms, too, were plentiful. These made good ketchup, and there was ample game at all times – prairie chicken, grouse, ducks and rabbits.

In 1903, there were no trains, so there was no way of keeping the correct time. My father, who had been a clever scholar, a graduate of the London University in Arts and Sciences, and a teacher of languages and science, made a large sundial for the south side of the house. Then he got the idea of taking photos of that. Small sundials he sold for 10 cents to all the neighbours who wanted one, that they might have some idea of the passing of time. Later, that winter, he constructed a larger sundial which was placed at the front of the village P.O., taking the place of a clock, for all to see. With the sundials went a chart explaining the different seasons of the year.

The obtaining of good drinking water was a problem, indeed. Wells had to be dug very deep, and sometimes several were dug before suitable water was struck. So much of the water was of alkaline nature.

The first winter was an extremely cold and trying one, particularly for those who were in wooden shanties. The sod houses kept out the low temperatures and the wind much better.

In the spring of 1904 our family, with all our belongings, but with horses this time, set out for Edmonton crossing the Saskatchewan River between Edmonton and Strathcona on a barge. We made our way then by train to, the Fraser Valley [in British Columbia], where we settled on the north side of the Fraser River [in Mission], and my father bought his one hundred and sixty acres at last, on the beautiful southern slopes in sight of snowy Mt. Baker. That part of the Fraser Valley was coming into prominence as a successful fruit growing district. We lived there happily many years.

As to Lloydminster, as the prairie town was called, it is today, a large and busy city, and much money has been made through the discovery of oil. This crude thick oil has probably done more to put Lloydminster on the map than the farming industry.

Rev. G.E. Lloyd was occupied from many years among his flock, (sometimes called the Barr Lambs) in and around Lloydminster. He became very well known for his fine leadership and ministry among the colonists and the town was named after him – honoring a fine Christian gentleman. In later years he became Bishop Lloyd, the 4th Bishop of Saskatchewan. He retired with his family to Victoria, B.C. and died there.

And what of Rev. Isaac Barr? Little is really known of him – except that he left the ministry and lived in retirement in Australia, passing away at the age of 89 years.

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