Let’s Go Homesteading at Gilpin, Alberta

Meadowlark, my favorite song bird, singing, “Laziness will kill you, Laziness will kill you!” in watercolor by Wendy Harty July 2021

These are the words my 58 year old great great grandfather Hiram Gibbs said to his 52 year old wife Mary Elizabeth (Smith). The Dominion Lands Act passed government in Canada in 1872. Canada had become a country in 1867 and expanded westward. In 1869 the government purchased Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company. It aimed to encourage the settlement of Canada’s prairie provinces. The Act’s purpose was to encourage settlement by European and American pioneers, as well as settlers from Eastern Canada. The land was surveyed into one-square-mile sections. For $10.00 the Act gave any male farmer who agreed to cultivate at least 40 acres and build a house on it within three years. The $10 was for administrative fees. To “prove” up the land prevented speculators from grabbing the land. The settling was slow at first because at first the land couldn’t be more than 20 miles from a railroad, as it was too expensive by wagon to get the harvest to transport. In total 480,000 square miles were given away by the government under the Canadian Homestead Act and Hiram Gibbs and families came to settle before Alberta was named a province in the year 1903-1904 with an estimated 140,000 other hearty pioneers.

In search of opportunity for their entire family the Gibbs family claimed free homestead land. They found a harsh winter climate, poor crops, meager supplies and disease to endure. They moved out of the Kalispell, Flathead Lake area of Montana to Gilpin, Alberta not even found on a map today. It is near Viking, Alberta which was settled in 1909 by many Scandinavians. Gilpin and Yelger post offices were the earliest villages northwest of Viking, Alberta in 1904. The railroad was being built by 1905 and Yelger would be renamed Ryley.

Charles Hiram Gibbs and newlywed wife Pearl Young were to the first to arrive in 1903, listed as living in section 1. He had 1 horse, 1 milk cow and 1 cow. His sister, Nettie Estella married to the Reverend William Franklin Hughes, Brethren Religion, travelled with them. They settled on the 24-49-12 with 4 horses and 2 milk cows. Charles and Nettie wrote glowing letters home encouraging all the family to immigrate. By the time the rest of the family arrived Charlie and Pearl’s daughter, Freda Merle Gibbs had been born in Edmonton. Hiram Gibbs, at age 62, my second great grandfather, choose in 1904, before Alberta was a province, Section 12, Township 49, Range 12 West of the 4th Meridian. To get there, he and several other new settlers took the 11-day trek from Edmonton. What Hiram was looking for was the township stake left by the surveyors. It was a square stake, that had the quarter and the section stamped on the top. It took some searching to find in the waving grass and brush filled hillsides. Once the township stake was found, each section was marked by a slightly smaller stake and here he found his quarter section. Now back the 85 miles to Edmonton Hiram went and arrived on July 4, 1904 when he applied for the homestead he and Mary Elizabeth his wife, and Rachel, a young girl of 16, their daughter would soon call home.

A google map of the area in 2021, the black round dot is where the homestead of Hiram Gibbs was located with the families on nearby quarters

Mary Elizabeth crawled out of the tent that was their first home in Alberta, that morning of July 9th. She eased the kink from her back, not used to sleeping on the ground. She would sleep in the tent for three months until the home was built. There was the loveliest yellow breasted bird singing his heart out to her. It sounded like, “Laziness will kill you, laziness will kill you!” She would later learn the bird was a meadowlark. Hiram had purchased 7 horses and 1 cow. She surveyed the spot they would build on. They definitely would not be lazy starting from scratch on this prairie land. In September, Mary Elizabeth and daughter Rachel, set up housekeeping in a log home 36 x 34 feet. It was worth $300. Hiram cleared two acres of the fertile land but it was too late to put into crop. In 1905 he cleared another 14 acres but only one was cropped. The cowherd of 2 had a sod barn that was partly dug into the bank of a hill, 36 x 40 feet, costing $200; the seven horses had wintered inside a sod stable 18 x 40. A well for water had been dug and the hens were housed in their own sod hut. Alberta had become a province. The next year of 06 they were prospering. Hiram cleared another 18 acres and cropped 14. The cattle grew to 9 in number, there were 4 hogs fattening in the pen and they had 2 work horses. The summer had been ideal and there were record crops. There was some grumbling that the CPR hadn’t provided enough box cars. Farmers spoke of dark conspiracies to drive down prices and create a glut. There was also a lengthy strike by the United Mine Workers in Lethbridge where coal, the staple in the prairie stove, was mined. Hiram fought his way from the house to the barn. Hiram had lived through the Thumb Fires at Port Hope, Huron, Michigan in 1871 and 1881. He was happy they had chosen this mostly treeless landscape to farm. But at the age of 64 he tired easier. The winds which had been blowing tirelessly since November, had filled up all the nooks and grannies with fine frozen granules. Besides deep it was also now slippery. While the drifts would hold Hiram up, he had to dig out the barn door morning after morning to enter to milk the cows. Once again Hiram was learning that the environment could not be tamed. There were huge amounts of snow, that buried everything and along with it came terrible cold and strong, incessant winds. There was blizzard after blizzard, from the middle of November 1906 to the end of April 1907. Newspapers were writing some horrific stories of a family found frozen in their sod shack and the father with his load of coal, pulled by oxen found in a similar dead condition. Canada did not want it’s image to be known as unsafe for immigrants. The government went into crisis control and stemmed the flow of harmful information. They had the Royal Northwest Mounted Police giving assistance and checking in on all the settlers. Government senior officers and bureaucrats gave a counter narrative of The “truth”. They needed their narrative told so as not scuttle years of work to sell Canada as a safe haven for newcomers. The long cold snowy winters were hard on the families and four of the seven Gibbs children would divorce.

Somehow, Hiram and Mary Elizabeth survived another environmentally cataclysmic event called “Winter of Blue Snow” or “Killing Winter”. There was much rejoicing on July 16, 1907. Hiram had claimed for patent and sworn “that the homestead requirements of the “Dominion Land Act” have been completed. The above buildings and acres prepared and harvested were duly noted on the form. The homestead of 160 acres was theirs!

These next three pictures are from the collection at Glenbow Archives, Calgary, Alberta

By 1906 there was a store in Yelger and as the village grew a post office, feed mill, lumberyard and blacksmith. One of the greatest difficulties was the absence of roads and bridges. By 1907, Yelger had a stable, and hardware store and implement dealer. In 1908 the name of the school was Equity. A Lutheran church was open and the railroad station. By 1909 there was an elevator to deliver grain too, 2 more churches and 30 businesses; the name of Yelger was changed to Ryley. Hiram and Mary Elizabeth’s son Lendley age 24 married a local girl, Jessie Rice and homesteaded 30-49-12. Lendley and Jessie had a horse and milk cow. The oldest son, James Abraham Gibbs age 32 came to the homestead in 1906 with his wife LaNettie Young aged 22, and settled on in the same township NW 30-49-12. Their homestead was approved in 1909, having met the three year requirements. His first wife Cynthia had died and he married Lanette called LaNettie Young a sister to Pearl, his brother Charles wife. A daughter Marion Anna married to David Young died in the nearby village of Innisfee as a young mother of 29, in 1906. Her son, Orlen William McKinley Young was raised by the Young’s and he remained in the area and at age 19 was working on a farm at Strome. Another son, my great grandfather George Arthur Gibbs had married in Kalispell, Montana at age 23 to a very young Lydia May Ruth Wise, aged 16 on May 6, 1898 This couple had my grandmother within the year, Olive Vivian born April 23, 1899, Howard in 1900 and Marie Minerva in 1901. George and Ruth came with the two girls. They didn’t stay long. My grandmother Olive would recall seeing piles of dead cattle along the railroad tracks heading south after the brutal winter of 1906-7.

Nettie and William Hughes convinced Hiram and Mary Elizabeth to attend their church services and in 1906 listed Brethren as their religion on the census. This couple had their third daughter and named her Vivian in 1907. Then they gave up homesteading and went back to the USA; first to Oklahoma, then to Sac City, Iowa where her oldest sister, Nellie Mary Applegate was raising a large family and finally to Lincoln, Nebraska where Nettie ran a girls rooming house while her husband preached. She died in Florida but was buried beside her husband in Nebraska aged 77.

The neighbors living close by in 1911 were: the Reishus came in 1904. They were Norwegian Lutheran farmers, Fargon Martin was a widow of 64 living with her son 30 also Lutheran Norwegians came in 1904. Andersons J W 41 and Laddie 25 born in Ontario was Dutch and Lutheran farming, His brother divorced lived with them Teman Bisstah and wife Mary were from America and Methodists, Robert Massey was Irish, a single farmer Roman Catholic, quite the mixtures of settlers living close by the extended Gibb’s families.

This 1911 census taker wasn’t very accurate! He lists the names misspelled as Heram and Mary Gibbo with their daughter in law Pearl, (no Charles Gibbs) and their daughter, Raddie (should be Freda) aged 7 Hiram and Mary Elizabeth listed as Brethern religion, Freda a Baptist at 7 couldn’t read or write. Charles and brother James went back to the US looking for work.

Lendley Edgar Gibbs the youngest son married Jessie Rice in 1905. They had three children. Mary Luella Irena in 1906, Charles Lendley Arthur died within 2 days in 1907 and Lydia Mary Ruth born in 1910. Lendley left his wife and children and returned to Columbus, Montana near brother James Alexander and Charles Hiram. Lendley’s wife died in 1916 and the girls were raised by the Rice family.

It is interesting how the Gibb’s left Alberta that spring of 1912. In March Mary Elizabeth traveled with Charles wife Pearl and daughter Freda destination Billings, Montana which was near Columbus where the boys would be engaged in mining. Charles escorted his brother’s wife Lanettie on April 24, 1912 and then Hiram crossed the border on April 30, 1912. He stayed in Sweetgrass a week and applied for his American citizenship. Hiram Garner Gibbs died on June 9, 1913 at Columbus, Stillwater, Montana at the age of 67. What a life’s journey this second great grandfather of mine had. From growing up on the seignory farm at Farnham, Quebec, marrying the blacksmith’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth Smith at Port Huron, Michigan, having 7 of 10 children alive, escaping from the Thumb Fires of 1871 and 1881 which burned millions of forested acres and the town of Port Huron, making the trek across the upper US states before the railroad went past South Dakota and not freezing to death on a homestead in Alberta, 1906! 67 years of living. His widow my 2nd great grandmother would out live him another 27 years till she was 90.

The oldest son, James Abraham Gibbs and LaNettie Young left also going to Columbas, Stillwater, Montana where two boys were born: Leroy Jonathan in 1918 and Raymond. They moved to Idaho where James ranched and lived out his life till he died in 1955 aged 83.

Charles Hiram worked as a miner at Columbus, Stillwater, Montana. He and Pearl were divorced. He remarried in 1931 to Ethel Gillander. At age 64 he was working for the State Highway Dept. when a fatal accident took his life instantly; his skull was crushed when he fell off a truck and it ran over his head.

Rachel Gibbs 23 had married Ed Dove 29 on 1906 at Vegreville and their daughter LaDella was born in 1907, listed as being Methodist also living with them a teacher named Mary Robenary his sister. Rachel buried her next two boys, Lendley named after her brother in 1909 and Loren 1910. They moved north to Victoria, Alberta in 1911. By the time the first World War broke out the couple were divorced. Rachel remarried Jan 28, 1914 to Claude Edward Cox, moved to Edmonton and ran a store until 1950 when she died aged 63.

The soil is claimed to be the best and finest in Alberta, at the area of Gilpin. The next village still surviving is Ryley. Just think if Hiram would have stayed we might be living the life of Ryley? Wait! I have purposely left out the story here of my great grandfather, George Arthur Gibbs. His story isn’t one of the life of Ryley but he did go back and live there when the area was called Victoria, Alberta. Stay tuned for a future blog and the remainder of his mother’s life story, Mary Elizabeth Smith Gibbs.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Go Homesteading at Gilpin, Alberta

    1. Thank you, I’m addicted to the research. I hope you will read my ‘diarized’ version of the same story, same title. Adding some fictionalized details but still staying true to the facts.

      Liked by 1 person

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