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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Homesteading Part Six:
Breaking the Land

After the long and arduous journey to their homesteads in the West, new settlers still had to break some land before winter came. That way, they’d have something to seed in the spring.

That also meant buying ploughs. Farm implement dealers were often the first to set up stores in the new prairie towns. They offered homesteaders a wide range of products.

And as historian Pat Myers explains, choice of plough depended on local soil and vegetation conditions.

On the open prairie of southern Alberta, "sod breakers" were the preferred plough. They had a sharp pointed share for cutting the soil, and a long, gently sloping mould board that lifted the furrow slice and twisted it slightly so it would fall away from the plough, and not back into the furrow.

Settlers with a walking plough walked behind their plough. It was pulled by either horses or oxen. They held the plough handles, and the reins from the horses or oxen would be over their shoulders.

Breaking with a walking plough was very slow work; it was very hard work. One pioneer estimated they walked about eight miles to break each acre—so it’s no wonder they christened walking ploughs "foot burners".

But homesteaders who took up land around Edmonton and in the Peace River Country had to deal with a whole different set of problems. Before they could break sod in the parkland, they first had to clear the homestead of brush, saplings, and stands of trees.

Now this was excruciatingly hard work done with axes, special hoes called grub hoes, stump pullers, and horses and, again, oxen.

Now parkland-breaking ploughs were much stronger and heavier than the prairie ones, because all the roots from the trees and the brush were still in the ground, and these ploughs had to be able to take the jolts from hitting these tough roots, so they had quite a heavy beam.

This breaking was very slow, very hard, incredibly demanding. Just keeping the plough in the ground was very hard, but when it smacked into a large root, you could be sent flying into the air.

Homesteaders could hire custom operators who would clear and break the land with steam traction engines.

But most couldn’t afford the cost, and they would save their money to pay the custom operator to do other work, like dig wells.

On the Heritage Trail,

I’m Cheryl Croucher.

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