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Breaking Land

Breaking the land to open Canada's "Last Best West" for large-scale agricultural settlement occurred during a relatively brief period. The spectacular rapidity with which this "new breaking" changed the west has invested it with a lingering symbolic legacy. Over the years poets, novelists and composers have paid tribute to the men and machines that broke the plains across the semi-arid North American interior, from the corn belt of the American Midwest to the great "Bonanza" wheat farms of the Dakotas, and finally to the prairie and parkland belts in the Canadian west.

In Canada, it got its beginning with the Homestead Act of 1872 which was designed to encourage agricultural settlement in western Canada. Although it took some time, improved economic conditions that made wheat growing profitable, and the help of a concerted effort on the part of the federal government to attract immigrants to Canada, by the early twentieth century it achieved the desired result. While Alberta's population was 18,075 in 1881, it had grown to 374,663 in 1911 and increased further to 588,450 in 1921. Over 100,000 people had arrived from the United States; others came from Ontario and the Maritimes, the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe. Most were intent upon establishing themselves on farms, and many brought their own farming experience and their own plows and tillage equipment.

These homesteaders, flooding into Alberta along the new railway lines, immediately faced the pressing problem of breaking up the rich, fibrous soil to open the land to agriculture. Most required an immediate return on their time and investment in order to survive, and found their own small plows and horse or oxen power could not do the job fast enough. Many found a solution to this herculean task in the new agricultural technologies being developed in the United States and central Canada - steam traction engines and gang plows.

Steam traction engines could pull the large gang plows needed to turn the sod quickly and efficiently. Where other methods proved inadequate, the big steam engines provided the key that unleashed the frantic agricultural assault on the Canadian interior as the twentieth century dawned. When Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier predicted that the century would belong to Canada, the wheat boom which was just starting to turn the prairies into the bread basket of the world seemed to justify his enthusiastic optimism. The mighty steam traction engines blasting their smoke into the blue western sky rapidly became a symbol of that optimism.

Breaking land with oxen on Canadian prairies

Breaking land with oxen on Canadian prairies