As the 19th century closes, a stream of pioneer-farmers move west from Ontario, seeking a new life on the prairies. Early Saskatchewan settler, W.R. Motherwell became a community leader whose passion for scientific farming methods took him all the way to parliament as Minister of Agriculture.

The Career of W.R. Motherwell: Biographical Overview
W.R. Motherwell, c. 1922
W.R. Motherwell, c. 1922
© Parks Canada / Motherwell

William Richard Motherwell, born in 1860, was the fourth son of a Lanark County, Ontario farmer. He was raised on his father's farm near Perth, and received his early education at Perth Collegiate. He furthered his education at Guelph, Ontario, where he graduated with honours from the Ontario Agricultural College.

Motherwell then faced a dilemma common to aspiring farmers of his generation. Motherwell's father did not have enough land to divide amongst his five sons, and with the arable land of southern Ontario already taken up by settlement, there was no room for new young farmers who lacked the funds to acquire an existing farm property. Like many others, Motherwell decided to take advantage of the Dominion government's homestead policy which offered free quarter-sections of land on the prairies to men willing to break the land and establish farms.

After graduating from agricultural college, Motherwell and two classmates set out for western Canada in July, 1881. They rode the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was still under construction, as far as the tracks went, and then carried on further by private means. They gained some valuable experience of western conditions working for a farmer west of Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. With the 1881 harvest finished they returned to Ontario with their wages. Motherwell was impressed with the possibilities for western agriculture, and determined to return.

He did return the following spring. Motherwell and his traveling companion left the train at Brandon, Manitoba, and joined a caravan of wagons and Red River carts headed for the North- West Territories. During his stay at Brandon, Motherwell had been advised by the North -West Mounted Police that the Pheasant Hills district north of the Qu'Appelle Valley would be a fine place to homestead since the area had abundant water and good soil. Wood, grazing and hay were to be easily found.

W.R. Motherwell, Adeline, Tal and Alma, 1892
W.R. Motherwell, Adeline,
Tal and Alma, 1892

Upon reaching Fort Qu'Appelle, Motherwell engaged a land surveyor to assist him in locating a homestead. Motherwell was among the first to homestead the area that spring of 1882, but within a week of his arrival much of the Pheasant Plains had been settled. Settlers were moving west in such great numbers that at times there was fierce competition among them to arrive first in each desirable new settlement district opened by the federal government.

Motherwell built a log house and began the work of breaking his land. He attended and participated in agricultural fairs from the beginning. He won a $10.00 prize for best Durham bull at an agricultural fair in Indian Head in October, 1884, and when asked what he did with the money, Motherwell said: "I bought a wedding ring and quit batching". He married Adeline Rogers that same year. Together they raised a son and a daughter. Motherwell moved his new wife into his new log house, and a few years later built the stone house known as Lanark Place which would become an Abernethy area landmark.

WR and Catherine Motherwell wedding photo
W.R. & Catherine Motherwell
wedding photo, 1907

During this period, Motherwell became active in local politics, social and agricultural groups. He sat on the school board, was prominent at church functions, and assisted farmers in their attempts to win respect and concessions from governments and the railway. He was invited to join the first cabinet of the new province of Saskatchewan as Minister of Agriculture in 1905, the same year his wife Adeline died. Three years later he married Catherine Gillespie, and she looked after managing the farm and family matters during Motherwell's frequent absences. The farm grew into a prosperous model homestead in which Motherwell took much pride.

Motherwell won election to the Canadian House of Commons in 1921, and was Federal Minister of Agriculture until 1930. He retired from the House of Commons in 1939.

He returned to his beloved Lanark Place, but the farmstead was not the place it had been, due to the effects of the drought and the depression of the 1930s. This was followed by global depression and two world wars.

An era came to an end as Motherwell retired to his farm. He died in 1943 at the age of 83.

Architectural and Farmstead Design

Quadrant System

Lanark Place, 1912
Lanark Place, 1912
© Parks Canada / Motherwell

After fourteen years, during which he expanded his original homestead into a large and prosperous farm, Motherwell was ready to build his estate and his children's inheritance. Over the years he had collected fieldstone from his fields and the Pheasant Creek coulee. In 1896 local stone mason, Adam Cantelon, built a stone stable. He constructed Motherwell's large Italianate-style house in 1897.

The house was a square two-storey structure with a rectangular one storey rear wing. It was divided into formal, family and service areas, illustrating the social and functional criteria of the late nineteenth century. Motherwell did not strictly observe notions of social standing, or class, and he insisted that the hired help share their meals with the family. One of the rooms in the house was dubbed "the lobby", as it was the room in which Motherwell and his colleagues met to discuss important matters. It was here that the Territorial Grain Growers' Association was signed into being.

The design of the house incorporated Victorian, Italianate and Gothic architectural details, and its location reflected contemporary concepts of farm design and beautification. The fieldstones were carefully selected for size, shape and colour before they were dressed, then organized into a coherent composition. The placement of the stones in the house revealed Motherwell's methodical approach to construction. The house and its design reflected his concept of the model farm. Motherwell's house was not typical of western farmers' houses, most of which were of frame construction. Stone construction was relatively rare on the prairies.

The barn, also not typical of western farmers' barns, was representative of the Central Ontario barns of Motherwell's youth: basement barns characterized by the building of stock housing on the basement level, and a drive floor and hay loft in the two upper storeys. It was built in two phases: the stone basement was built in 1896 and used as a stable for ten years before the wooden super- structure was added in a barn-raising bee in 1907.

Motherwell also designed the layout of the farmstead. Shelter belts of trees were planted for protection from the winds and to trap drifting snow, a dugout was created for water collection from the snow stopped by the trees, and ornamental hedges and flower beds were installed. The overall impression was that of an Eastern Ontario farmstead. Only when his estate was complete did Motherwell name it Lanark Place, after Lanark County Ontario.

Lanark Place was laid out in quadrants. Each had its own purpose and was separated by a tree line, which provided both beauty and shelter. Most of the trees were Manitoba maples, planted at four-foot intervals to break the harsh prairie winds. Around the dugout Motherwell interspersed hardy species such as ash, willow, chokecherry and poplar.

The Quadrant System:
I. The Dugout Quadrant: Until the dugout was excavated water was hauled to the farm by horse-drawn stone boat from Pheasant Creek one half mile south of Motherwell's farm.

I. The Garden Quadrant: The garden was the sunniest and warmest of the quadrants. Protected on four sides by shelter belt plantings, it provided an excellent location for growing most of the family's fruit and vegetables. Each year half of the garden would be left fallow, in keeping with Motherwell's adoption of the new summer-fallowing practices on the rest of his farm.

I. The Barn Quadrant: This section, bordered on all sides by shelter belts of trees, was the center of Motherwell's mixed farming operation. It was dominated by his large L-shaped barn, the largest barn in the district.

I. The House Quadrant: This was the showcase of the farmstead. Containing house, flower beds, ornamental trees and tennis lawn, it reflected Motherwell's social position within the community. Ornamental fencing was utilized in this quadrant, and, in addition to belts of trees, separated the living area from the work areas. The ornamental gardens, laid out in geometric fashion, and the other decorative aspects of this quadrant reflected the formality of Victorian society.

The rest of Motherwell's farm and the fields for the crops he grew surrounded his four-quadrant farmstead. The farm- yard itself , though more elaborate, was the forerunner of farm- yards as farms developed on the prairies.

W.R. Motherwell: Reformer and Activist
Motherwell with an unidentified man, c. 1912

William Richard Motherwell's public career began in 1891 when he organized a meeting to speak against William Sutherland, the Member of the Territorial Legislature for Motherwell's district of North Qu'Appelle. In 1894 Motherwell accepted nomination for his district and ran unsuccessfully for the Territorial Government. The issues he raised during the campaign, however, led to his opponent Sutherland's resignation. Motherwell ran for office again in 1896, but was again defeated. He decided to give up on politics and concentrate solely on farming. In spite of this decision, the circumstances which faced farmers at the turn of the century were such that Motherwell could not remain just an observer.

Some of the grievances which Motherwell and others were trying to address had to do with Prime Minister John A. Macdonald's National Policy. This policy of protective tariffs forced farmers to sell their wheat on the open market at depressed prices while paying inflated prices for goods manufactured in central Canada. Farmers also resented the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) monopoly and its policy of granting exclusive grain loading rights to elevator companies. Farmers suspected the elevator companies were giving them short weight for their grain, and that elevator agents were stealing grain from farmers to sell for their own profit. Farmers were also upset with the elevator companies' apparent manipulation of grading standards.

Grain Growers Guide, collection No. 27, Dec. 1915
Grain Growers Guide, collection No. 27, Dec. 1915
© Grain Growers Guide / 1915

A series of farm protest movements evolved between 1876 and 1925. Some movements, like the Grange, and the Patrons of Industry had grown up in the East and in the United States before spreading to western Canada. Other lobby groups, like the Manitoba and Northwest Farmers' Union and the Farmers' Protective Union, were home- grown. Farmers decided their only hope for change was to run for office themselves. The Patrons of Industry was organized for this purpose, but it suffered defeat in the election of 1896. This defeat suggested to farmers that success might only be had by addressing smaller specific issues rather than the sweeping reforms which had been their platform during the election.

1901 produced a bumper crop of 62 million bushels of wheat. Farmers' expectations of big financial gains were soon dashed, however, when they were told the CPR could not ship the grain because of a shortage of grain cars. Farmers were thus forced to store grain for long periods, and accept a lower price for it to cover the storage costs. Motherwell and his neighbour, Peter Dayman, called a meeting at Indian Head on December 18, 1901. They urged farmers to work together to effect change in the grain handling and transportation system, and changes to government policies affecting farmers. The Territorial Grain Growers' Association was founded at this meeting as a result of the rail car shortage. Motherwell was elected its first president and proposed changes to make it easier and more cost effective for farmers to ship their grain: railways should provide loading platforms within a reasonable time after demand or else farmers should have the right to load rail cars directly from their wagons, if there were a shortage of cars they should be apportioned on a first-come-first-served basis, and each delivery point would be required to maintain a car order book. The resolutions passed at the convention were accepted by Parliament.

When it became clear that the CPR was ignoring the new clauses ,Motherwell and Dayman went to Winnipeg and, on behalf of the Territorial Grain Growers' Association, put authorities on notice that the Association would take legal action against every railway agent in the Territories who did not comply with the legislation. This was followed by a well-publicized trial in which the Association took a station agent to court and won.

During Motherwell's tenure as President of the Territorial Grain Growers Association, permanent co-operative associations were formed in each of the prairie provinces: the Manitoba Grain Growers' Association was formed in 1903 and in 1905 the United Farmers of Alberta. 1906 saw the creation of the first producers' grain marketing company at Sintaluta and later, in the 1920s, provincial wheat pools were organized. Motherwell remained president until 1906, when the Territorial Grain Growers Association became the Saskatchewan Grain Growers' Association.

Motherwell was active during this period in other initiatives as well. In 1903 he served as representative for the farmers of his district when they approached the CPR. to request a branch line be brought north through Abernethy. Farmers in other districts north of the Qu'Appelle River were also lobbying for such a branch line. All were concerned with the difficulty of getting their wheat to market especially through the perilous prairie winters. As a result, a meeting was arranged on board the train carrying the Assistant to the President of the CPR The delegation boarded this train at 9 a.m. as it passed through Indian Head, and rode it for an hour before the assistant, Sir William Whyte, was available. When they were ushered into Whyte's private car, Motherwell stated the farmers' case requesting a branch line to Abernethy. Sir William, impressed with the farmers' determination, asked: "And how far were you planning to travel on this train?" "Just as far as it will take to get the railway", Motherwell replied. The farmers got their rail line.

The Development of Prairie Agriculture
Men working in the field

The history of the development of agriculture has always been one of trial and error. New varieties and breeds of plants and animals have been produced through patient breeding programs conducted by anonymous individuals over thousands of years. This process has led to the development of many different plant varieties and breeds of animals. The methods used to domesticate and enhance these strains for human use have been termed "traditional agriculture", but it was highly scientific in nature. Modern scientific agriculture and its methods arose towards the end of the nineteenth century, changing forever the face of farming.

W.R. Motherwell was one of a number of individuals whose efforts revolutionized the development of agriculture on the prairies. As a farmer he was quick to adopt new farming methods, and as a politician he was a firm supporter of agricultural research, and tireless in his efforts to publicize new findings. Motherwell, among many others, was a great proponent of dryland agriculture. Development of dryland farming techniques was essential if agriculture and settlement were to be a success on the prairies.

The first essential development for prairie field agriculture to succeed was the creation of high quality cereal grains that could mature in the dry climate and short growing season of the prairies. Until the early part of the twentieth century, the dominant wheat variety grown in Canada had been Red Fife. It was a hardy variety, but lacked the ability to ripen early, making it susceptible to frequent early frosts. Working at the Dominion Experimental Farm since 1903, Dominion Cerealist Sir Charles Edward Saunders was, by 1906, able to produce a new high quality, early-maturing hardy variety by crossing Red Fife wheat with Hard Red Calcutta. This new variety, Marquis wheat, also produced between four and eight hundred pounds more grain per acre than did Red Fife.

During this period of scientific inquiry,the federal government established experimental farms in the West. New crop and livestock varieties were developed and experimented with at these farms, and the different climates of the West and how they related to these new varieties were investigated. Private individuals and corporations also experimented, and agricultural societies organized fairs where the products of these new varieties and farming practices could be displayed. Governments, under the leadership of men like Motherwell, issued publications and sponsored public forums to keep the public abreast of these new developments.

One of the private individuals who researched and developed various wheat and barley strains was Seager Wheeler, a Rosthern area farmer and seed grower. Wheeler maintained his own test plots in different areas of Saskatchewan, and developed his own strains from seeds grown at the experimental farms. He ran his own seed order business, and his research and seed varieties earned him the title "World Wheat King". In 1919 Wheeler published his book "Profitable Wheat Growing", featuring research on dryland farming. The Seager Wheeler farm became a National Historic Site of Canada, commemorating the life and work of this pioneer farmer.

Experimental farms were established at places like Brandon, Manitoba, and Lethbridge, Alberta. The Indian Head Experimental Station was established in 1886, just across the Qu'Appelle Valley from Motherwell's homestead. The new University of Saskatchewan developed its own experimental farm a few years later.

New species of shrubs and fruit trees were established at these farms, and farmers were given seeds and cuttings to encourage them to plant them. Varieties of trees suitable for shelter belts were developed, and through the work of the Dominion Tree Nursery at Indian Head, these varieties were distributed free of charge across the prairies. Motherwell made extensive use of shelter belts on his farm to decrease wind erosion and evaporation, and increase moisture levels as the shelter belts captured snow.

The work conducted at the Indian Head Station impressed Motherwell, and he was a great supporter of Angus Mackay's research there. Mackay carried out extensive research into summerfallowing, concluding that fields that were cropped for two years and then left fallow (unplanted) for one year best conserved soil moisture. Summerfallow fields were found to "bank" moisture, and would produce significantly higher yields the following year than continuously cropped fields. Other techniques for soil and water conservation, such as crop rotation were developed later. It was found that by planting legume forage crops such as clover and alfalfa in rotation with cereal grains, the soil would be enriched through the nitrogen fixation performed by the legumes' root systems. The dry years of the 1930s led to other developments like strip farming, where crops were planted in long strips with fallow in between. These strips were planted so that the prevailing winds would blow across the narrow strips of stubble and summerfallow, rather than down the lengths of the strips, thus reducing wind erosion. The practice of summerfallowing gave way to zero tillage methods with seed planted directly into stubble to further reduce wind erosion, although some fields were still left fallow under crop stubble and litter,allowing moisture to bank together with fibrous material, increasing soil quality.

"Grain pickling" was another early innovation, and marked the beginning of the use of chemicals in agriculture. Seed was wetted in a copper sulphate (bluestone) solution and then dried before planting. This made the seed resistant to kernel diseases like smut. By 1900 this solution was replaced by a formaldehyde solution. The use of chemicals in farming continued to increase in order to control weed and insect pests, hasten crop maturity and fertilize fields. However, all along there were organic farmers who didn't use chemicals at all.

W.R. Motherwell: Provincial Politician

Motherwell had taken an interest in politics as early as 1883. So,when Saskatchewan became a province in1905, Premier Walter Scott asked Motherwell to join his cabinet as Minister of Agriculture. Motherwell ran the provincial Department of Agriculture for the next twelve years.

As Minister of Agriculture, Motherwell regularly lectured to agricultural societies about farming on the prairies, and his department published pamphlets on new farming techniques. Farmers would write to him to ask his advice on matters, and to air their concerns regarding farming, economic and government policies. Motherwell always took the time to answer these letters personally.

When the University of Saskatchewan was founded, Motherwell convinced Premier Scott to include a College of Agriculture on the faculty. Motherwell transferred activities performed by his department to the new College of Agriculture, and provided most of the original faculty from his own Department of Agriculture staff. The founding of the College of Agriculture in 1908 was evidence of Motherwell's continuing respect for farming, his support for its scientific practice and development, and his commitment to increasing its profile and appreciation in society.

Motherwell further demonstrated his commitment to providing farmers with better information, and access to the latest scientific knowledge, by establishing the Better Farming Train program in 1914. For the next eight years a train, which included a day care, traveled the province with exhibits, demonstrations and resource information for farm families.

As Minister of Agriculture, Motherwell spent much of his time officially opening and attending agricultural fairs, and encouraging the development of new agricultural endeavors. These were the forerunners of larger events, such as the Canadian Western Agribition.

In 1917 Motherwell resigned his cabinet seat over his displeasure with the provincial government's refusal to speak against the federal Union government's stand on the World War I conscription issue. Motherwell thought young farmers were needed at home on their farms more than on European battlefields.

Motherwell left provincial politics for good in 1918. He resigned his seat because of the Scott government's attempt to curtail French language rights within the province. He wrote in his letter of resignation: "...we are confronted with the strong possibility of a mighty conflict in Canada between the privileged classes and the common people. As my sympathy and my heart are with the latter, I must have perfect freedom to champion their cause at every opportunity, in season and out."

W.R. Motherwell: Federal Politician
W.R. Motherwell in Otawa c. 1922-26
W.R. Motherwell in Ottawa,
c. 1922-26

Motherwell ran for parliament in 1919 but was defeated. Two years later he was elected to the House of Commons. He was soon invited to join Prime Minister Mackenzie King's federal cabinet as Minister of Agriculture. Motherwell served as Canadian Minister of Agriculture from 1922 to1925, and again from 1926 to 1930.

As federal Minister of Agriculture Motherwell standardized the grading systems for all forms of agricultural produce. This put farmers across the nation on an even footing, allowing them access to a standard grading measure regardless of the region in which they farmed. He was also an early supporter of the concept of a Canadian Wheat Board.

Motherwell established the Accredited Herd System which helped to eliminate tuberculosis from Canadian cattle herds. Under this program, restricted T.B. (tuberculosis) areas were established in each province. Cattle that reacted positively to the tuberculin test were destroyed in these areas, and their owners were compensated by the government. Through this program, Canadians were protected from contracting the disease from drinking unpasteurized milk from infected animals. The creation of a national herd free of diseases like T.B. also boosted Canada's exports of beef, and breeding stock.

During his time as Minister of Agriculture, Motherwell succeeded in persuading Prime Minister Mackenzie King to reduce the tariff on imported agricultural implements, a move which provided significant savings for western farmers buying new equipment. Further to his commitment to agricultural progress, he also established the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory in Winnipeg to combat wheat disease.

Motherwell built a close federal-provincial relationship between the Prime Minister and Saskatchewan Premier, James G. Gardiner,who would later also serve as federal Minister of Agriculture . Motherwell retained his seat when the King government was defeated by R. B. Bennet in 1930, and continued to sit in parliament until he resigned his seat in 1939. By the time he retired, Motherwell was a much respected elder statesman known to many as the "Grand Old Man of Canadian Agriculture".

  • Commemorative Integrity Statement
  • Motherwell Homestead pamphlets
  • Lanark Place
  • From Prairie Roots: The Story of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, Garry Lawrence, Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon (SK), 1984