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Feature Article

THE SASKATCHEWAN LAND AND HOMESTEAD COMPANY

Written By: Michael Dawe
Published By: Red Deer Express
Article Used with permission. © Copyright Michael Dawe, 2002
2002-05-01

Most histories of churches in Western Canada deal with such topics as pioneer missionary activity, the establishment and growth of congregations, and charitable initiatives such as the operation of schools and hospitals. What is often overlooked is the churches" involvement in business enterprises.

One such venture, which was connected with the Methodist Church, was the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company. This colonization and land company at one time owned one hundred and eighty square miles of land around what is now the City of Red Deer. It had a profound impact on the development of Central Alberta.

The origins of the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company go back to 1880 when Rev. Alexander Sutherland, secretary of the Methodist Missionary Society, made a trip from Fort Benton, Montana to Edmonton. Rev. Sutherland was greatly impressed by the country he saw. He proposed that the Methodist Church should actively promote the settlement of Ontario and British Methodists in Western Canada.

Reverend Sutherland did not limit his efforts to merely writing a book. He approached several Ontario Methodist businessmen about the possibility of creating a land and colonization company to help settle Methodists in the West. Another goal however was to take advantage of the land investment opportunities created by the construction of the C.P.R.

Early in 1882, application was made to the Dominion Government for incorporation of the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company. On May 11, 1882, letters of patent were granted. The company hired John Thomas Moore, a Toronto chartered accountant to be the managing director.

The newly-formed company applied to the government for more than 200,000 acres of land in three large blocks across the prairies. Two of these blocks were located in Saskatchewan. The third block, consisting of 115,000 acres, was in Central Alberta.

During the summer of 1882, an exploration party, under the leadership of John T. Moore, made a trip to Western Canada to inspect the lands for which application had been made. Towards the end of the summer, the party camped alongside the confluence of Piper and Waskasoo Creeks, in what is now the City of Red Deer. Mr. Moore rode up to the top of Piper’s Mountain, a clay hillock which gave an excellent view of the Red Deer River valley. Moore was greatly impressed by the beauty and fertility of the surrounding area and became convinced that the Company had made the right decision in its choice of lands.

The decision to sell the Company such a huge amount of land, proved to be very unpopular with the settlers in the area. Some people had squatted on land and made improvements, only to discover that they were on Company land. Numerous battles to secure title to their homes followed.

Matters generally proceeded very poorly for the Company. It advertised the region in such publications as The Settlers" Pocket Guide to Homesteads in The Canadian North West. However, the rush of new settlers to Western Canada did not match expectations. With poor land sales, the company soon found itself in financial distress.

One company action did result in a lasting and profound benefit to the Red Deer area. In the fall of 1883, John T. Moore approached one of the company’s directors, Rev. Leonard Gaetz about the possibility of settling in the Red Deer tract. Gaetz who had been suffering from ill health, but still faced the formidable challenge of supporting his wife and ten (soon to be eleven) children jumped at the chance. He chose as his farm the fertile flat in what is now downtown Red Deer.

Gaetz not only proved to be an excellent farmer. He was an outstanding orator and gifted writer. He quickly became an effective promoter of the Red Deer area. Gaetz became the agent for the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company as well as the local Dominion Lands agent.

Despite Gaetz’s efforts, more disasters followed for the company. The Riel Rebellion cause the influx of new settlers to almost completely dry up. New investors became very hard to find. In 1886, the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company was reincorporated as a commercial land company rather than a quasi-religious colonization company.

Nothing about the new arrangements made the company any more popular with the local settlers. In 1887, a petition signed by over two dozen settlers was sent to Ottawa asking that the company’s land rights north of the Red Deer River be cancelled. The government did not reply until 1894 when it claimed that it could no longer do anything.

The company struggled on for the next few years, trying to sell its lands for $5 to $10 per acre. There was a brief boost in 1890-91 when the Calgary-Edmonton Railway Company built a line through Central Alberta and Leonard Gaetz provided half of his farm for a new townsite of Red Deer. However, a nation-wide economic depression soon broke the boomlet. There was a new settlement boom after the turn of the century. Nevertheless, the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company still had problems selling land when there was abundant quality homestead land available elsewhere.

As the Company’s financial troubles continued, Edward Leadley, a Toronto grain merchant and company shareholder, lent it a large sum of money in exchange for a mortgage on the Company’s lands. Unfortunately, Mr. Leadley died in 1903 and the heirs began foreclosure proceedings. The legal battles dragged on for years.

In 1907, J.E. Cunningham of Kingston Ontario bought up the shareholders" interests and after more prolonged legal wrangling, eventually secured title to the Company’s lands. An exceptional land boom, which accompanied the construction of the Alberta Central and Canadian Northern Railways through the area between 1909 and 1912 finally ensured brisk and profitable sales for the Company.

In retrospect, the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company Company did much more harm to the Red Deer area’s development than good. It delayed settlement, caused difficulties for legitimate settlers and caused a great deal of hard feelings in the community. Its ties to the Methodist Church caused some negative publicity for that institution. Overall, the Company’s record is one of the least admirable aspects of the history of Central Alberta.

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