Heading west for harvest time in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

Hundreds of Islanders used to head to Western Canada every year on "harvest excursion trains" to help bring in the wheat crop.

'They were up all night drinking, fighting, what an outfit!'

The harvest excursion train en route to the West, circa 1912. Several train passengers can be seen leaning out the windows. (PARO)

Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 


Many things have changed about harvest time on Prince Edward Island in the last 100 years — the growth in farm sizes, the advent of the tractor, and changes in transportation — sailing schooners and the railway used to be integral parts of the harvest.

And did you know there were "harvest excursion trains" that would take young men — and a few women — to the Canadian Prairies every year to help harvest the huge wheat crop?

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He's currently working on a book about the bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Making $4.20 a day

Rev. Donald Nicholson, who was born in 1906, went west on the 1922 harvest train. The ticket from Charlottetown to Winnipeg cost $19.

"I left home when I was 16, went out on the harvest excursion — quite an experience. There was quite a wild outfit on, crazy. I think Cape Bretoners were the worst — they used to make an awful racket! Every station we'd come to, if the train stopped they'd run out and if there was stores around, they fairly took over," Nicholson said.

Rev. Donald Nicholson took the harvest excursion train when he was 16. (Dutch Thompson)

After the wheat harvest Nicholson wound up in Sioux Lookout in northeastern Ontario working in a lumber camp cutting railroad ties. He'd saw down the tree, chop it into four-foot lengths, square the tie up with an adze and then haul the ties out of the woods — he got 14-and-a-half-cents for each tie. 

He averaged 30 railroad ties per day, which added up to $4.20 — but he had to pay for room and board and his tools out of that, he told Thompson.

Nicholson later worked in a granite quarry in New Hampshire and as a preacher in New York City, finally coming home to P.E.I. to be a Presbyterian minister in Belfast,  Hartsville and South Granville. He was one of the last people to speak Gaelic on P.E.I.

'She was rough'

Johnny Coombs also rode the rails at a young age. Born in 1910 in Georgetown, P.E.I., Coombs went to work at age 13 as a farm labourer making $9 a month. He hated the long hours and the farmer he was working for, though, so in 1926 he headed west on the harvest excursion train.

'They were all desperate, gangsters, geez they'd stop at nothing!' recalls Johnny Coombs of the harvest excursion train to Western Canada. (Dutch Thompson)

"She was rough, they were up all night drinking, fighting, what an outfit!" Coombs said. "Every seat had two or three in it, and them playing violins and accordions, step-dancing, drinking, smashing windows."

There were up to 3,000 people on the train, but Coombs said police were too afraid to do anything about the rowdy riders. 

"They were all desperate, gangsters, geez they'd stop at nothing!" Coombs said. 

The Canadian National Railway finally put RCMP officers on the trains to keep order, Thompson said. 

'Quarter time' meals

But not all the men who took the harvest train were gangsters — Thompson's own great-grandfather went west in the 1920s. 

Harvesting grain in P.E.I. in the early 1900s, the sheaves were placed on end in stooks. (PARO)

He and his son Jack were both "water witches." They made enough money dowsing for water — they located more than 200 wells — to buy a small farm and settle in the Carrot River Valley in northern Saskatchewan. 

While listening to the men describe their work in the wheat fields, Thompson said he learned some new terms including "bundle wagon," the horse-drawn wagon that hauled the sheaves of wheat, as well as "quarter time" — 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. 

Many Islanders, both men and women, boarded harvest excursion trains each fall to Western Canada. (PARO)

Men began working in the fields by 6 a.m. so by quarter time at 9 a.m. they'd shut down the threshers and have "lunch." Then at noon they'd have "dinnertime," followed by another quarter time meal at 3, then supper at 6 p.m.

The men also mentioned stooking sheaves alongside Englishmen — thousands of English labourers came to Canada to harvest wheat. In fact 12,000 English men came in 1923 alone, many staying in Canada to became successful farmers, helped by a free grant of 160 acres of land from the federal government.

Island women went to teach

Because Western Canada was booming and immigrants were pouring in, the area needed teachers. Many P.E.I. women heeded the call, making $300 to $500 a year back in the 1920s. 

George MacKay and wife Muriel (Boulter) MacKay in 1969 in front of Fanningbank, after George MacKay was sworn in as lieutenant-governor. (Andrew MacKay)

Muriel Boulter MacKay was one of those teachers, born in 1895 in Albany near Borden-Carleton. In 1916 she went west to teach near Swift Current, Sask., where some residents lived in sod huts. 

"Where I went they had a well-equipped school, had a piano in it, had dishes in it," MacKay said. "I used to make soup for the youngsters."

She taught 30 students from all over the world in the one-room schoolhouse. 

"We had a building at the school to put the horses in and tie them up. A lot of them came on horseback, some of them came on stone boats." 

Harvesting using a horse-drawn binder and three horses in the Springfield area in central P.E.I., circa 1920s.

The "stone boats" MacKay talked about were basic wooden drag sleds used for hauling stones from fields, the same as were used on P.E.I. 

The harvest excursion train had separate rail cars for male and female passengers — and for the Cape Bretoners.

One woman who went out to teach around the same time as MacKay didn't know what to expect in the wild west, so she took a huge trunk full of clothes — everything from hats to blankets. She said when the train stopped in one Ontario town they were told not to disembark, since the town had been looted the previous year by riders on the harvest excursion train. 

"Don't get out, they've got guns and are ready to shoot !" she was warned, so she stayed on the train. 

Opened up their world

Indeed, Western Canada opened up a whole new world for Maritimers.

Harvesting potatoes on P.E.I. circa 1915 with a horse-drawn digger. (PARO)

MacKay was 12 years old before she had even made the 15-kilometre trip to Summerside from Albany, and was 15 before she went to Charlottetown where she attended Prince of Wales College to get her teaching certificate.

She told Thompson a story about her next-door neighbour who also went west on the harvest train. 

"He went one year — just stayed two days and turned around and came home. He didn't like to work to start on, and I guess he was homesick to finish on," MacKay said with a chuckle. 

She married George MacKay, who was also from Albany, in 1918 while she was out west. He later became lieutenant-governor of P.E.I.

She made more than 100 quilts in her lifetime and told Thompson she gave them all away to people who needed them. 

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