A blog post about stone barns, men who moved Canadian history, and even a huge yacht. Yes I’m talking about Saskatchewan.
My travels recently took me to southeastern Saskatchewan. A long road trip of over 3,000 km should, and will, provide plenty of photographic material for a number of blogs. On the way to that distant corner of the province I was able to stop and photograph two stone barns in the Indian Head area just east of Regina. I was particularly interested in the huge stone barn called the Sunbeam / Brassey Barn. It wasn’t just another beautiful stone barn but one that has significant provenance. Perhaps too much provenance as I can’t write about the Sunbeam / Brassey Barn without also writing about the Bell Round Barn because their histories are complex and intertwined. To even describe one of these men and their accomplishments would fill any blog. I’m not a historian, I’m a photographer who believes that images should be viewed with some knowledge of their context. So now I’ve got a lot of photographs of two barns (mostly the Sunbeam / Brassey Barn) and that’s just the beginning of the story.
To write this blog I had to read through dozens of newpapers articles, some dating back to at least 20 years before any of my grandparents were born. I found numerous websites of information about all the people and events that played a role in this amazing story. So my challange was to distill the reams of information down to a blog sized bite that I could present to you; always keeping focused on the goal of a coherent story that you would enjoy reading. But how do I tie together so many interesting people, historic and unique barns, a grand yacht, perhaps the largest farm in the world, and the Riel Rebellion of 1885? I wish it was simple enough to just say, “a Canadian farmer, an English seaman and titled aristocrat walked into a Metis bar after sailing in a yacht to Indian Head, Saskatchewan” but that would be much too simple, not to mention impossible. And yet it’s not too far from the truth. The yacht never actually made it to Saskatchewan; it was usually moored at either Halifax or Montreal.
For the rest of this blog I’m going to refer to the Sunbeam / Brassey Barn as the Sunbeam Barn. Some may know it as the Brassey Barn and others may know it as the Sunbeam Barn and both would be correct so I’ve selected “Sunbeam Barn” to refer to it except when quoting another source. So now lets talk barns!
The Tale of The Two Barns
The story begins with the two barns in the area of Indian Head, Saskatchewan, which is just east of Regina. The barns are quite different except that they are both built of stone. One is round and round barns are as rare as yachtsmen on the praires. The other is a rectangular barn with strong ties to the skipper of a yacht.
- The Bell Barn, built in 1882, is of the rare round design and it’s the last remaining structure of the huge Bell Farm. At 50,000 acres, that farm was the largest in Canada, and some articles suggest that it was among the largest farms in the world. For comparison, most homesteaders received 160 acres of land on the praires so 50,000 acres is phenomenally big! The following description is from a website called the Dictionary of Canadian Biograghy, (full citation at end of blog). “Breaking got under way by contract in June 1882 and by the end of the summer over 2,500 acres had been ploughed; the furrows were reputedly so long that the teams turned only once a day, at lunch, to return to their starting-point. The company embarked on an ambitious construction program as well, and by June 1883 some 70 buildings had been erected, including several impressive stone structures; the company also bought the Indian Head town-site to provide support services, in particular a hotel and elevator.” William Robert Bell put the Indian Head area on the map and, figuratively speaking, that map caught the eye of Sir Thomas Brassey shortly thereafter.
- The other barn, built in 1891, is the Sunbeam Barn. It’s a big and beautiful stone barn that Sir Thomas Brassey named after the yacht that he and his wife sailed around the globe. Actually, Lord Thomas Brassey (born 1836, died 1913) and his wife, Lady Anna Brassey (born 1839, died 1887) are better known for their sailing adventures on the Sunbeam yacht than they are for farming. I’ve read nothing to suggest that Lord Brassey ever got his hands dirty from Saskatchewan soil but don’t hold that against him. Brassey saw good land and believed that he could put a capable manager in place to run the farm because Brassey had other matters to attend to. Their 1876-1877 voyage was chronicled in Lady Brassey’s highly popular travel book “A Voyage in the Sunbeam, Our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months.” I think this is a good point in the blog to break off to a newspaper article that describes Brassey’s exploits and adventures much better than I could (despite some archaic writing that the journalists used). If you’re still with me, here’s the article from page 7 of the a 1905 issue of The Windsor Star (Windsor, Ontario, Canada).
The Windsor Star (Windsor, Ontario, Canada) · 19 June 1905
Attempts to read the actual clip of the 1905 newspaper will either be impossible or, at best, cause needless strain to your eyes. I suggest you read the transcribed version to the left. Note that this article says the yacht sailed 300 rather than 400 thousand nautical miles but this is an older article – later the media says 400 thousand nautical miles.
SUNBEAM AND HER OWNER.
Lord Brassey and His Achievements on Land and Sea.
One of the best known of the yachts which sailed from Sandy Hook on May 17 in the international contest for the Kaisers cup was the Sunbeam, owned by the famous British yachtsman, Lord Thomas Brassey. He has been fifty years a yachtsman, has owned the Sunbeam thirty-four years and has sailed 300,000 miles in her, a distance equal to twelve times around the globe. After thirty-four years of continuous service the Sunbeam is today as sound as a nut and is rated high in Lloyds, her iron frames and teak plank are the same that were shaped into her hull thirty-four years ago and there has been little change in her topwork. Lord Brassey, who is the dean of the yachting fraternity, is in his seventieth year and is as well preserved as his yacht. His career has been a very active one on both land and sea. His title is not inherited, but was conferred on him In recognition of his great service in the upbuilding of the British navy and the British maritime industry. He has written several works of importance, including one on the wage question, which was highly commended by Gladstone.
In 1876 Lord Brassey and his family circumnavigated the globe on their yacht, and the late Lady Brassey wrote an account of the voyage, which was highly entertaining and has been translated into seven languages. She could herself navigate the Sunbeam in tempestuous seas and met death on the ocean in 1887 on a voyage from Ceylon to Australia.
Lord Brassey married again in 1890. The present Lady Brassey is talented as a sculptor. Lord Brassey’s father was plain Thomas Brassey, a railroad contractor, who was poor in his youth, but died very rich. There is a story that he was one day almost starving in the streets of Liverpool when a girl who was selling matches, seeing his distress, loaned him a penny to buy a loaf of bread. Her kindness touched the boy’s heart, and he registered an oath to marry her, a vow which be kept in after years.
Although one of the contestants himself he is such an excellent yachtsman that he picked the winner before the start – the Atlantic.
That concludes the introduction of these two men, each of whom led interesting with a nexus at the Indian Head area of Saskatchewan. Now lets get to know these two men a little better before we move on to the photographs.
William Robert Bell, A Man Who Changed Saskatchewan
The Bell name is likely well known in the Indian Head area of southern Saskatchewan. He came from Ontario and bought huge parcels of land all around Indian Head including Indian Head itself. I’ll quote a few lines from a relatively current December 7, 1957, article in the Regina Leader-Post:
Half a mile north of Indian Head stands one of the few round barns ever built in Canada. Built of stone and 64 feet in diameter, it is all that remains of one of the world’s largest farms, the Bell Farm. The farm was founded in 1882 a sprawling 50,000 acres with its centre (near) where the town of Indian Head now stands. The manager, a man who tried to run his farm as a general would command an army, was Maj. W. R. Bell.
By JACK SCHREINER – Leader-Post December 7, 1957
The Major was an easterner who has tried his hand at soldiering, at the lumber business and at farming in Ontario. He conceived the idea of the farm during a visit to the west in 1881. He convinced the owners, the CPR and the government, to sell the land and he formed a stock company, the Qu’Appelle Valley Farming Company, which bought the land at $1.25 an acre. Farms in the same area today sell for as high as $60 an acre.
So Bell came out west to seek his fortune and spent a fortune, of his own funds and the funds of investors, assembling land for a huge farming operation. I am not exaggerating when I say that the growth of settlement of the Indian Head area was due in no small part to Bell and his massive farm. Here’s a quote from a Leader-Post editorial dated September 19,1944.
Many of our young people wonder why Indian Head became the Mecca for immigrants from the Old Country, as well as for harvest excursionists from down East, and thus became the starting point for the various homesteading treks of the late nineties. In the Old Country, Indian Head had a glamor sponsored by Lord Brassey in his book, “Voyage of the Sunbeam.” Even the C.P.R. timetable published in 1890, only gives a few lines description of Regina, while it describes at length Lord Brassey’s venture at Indian Head. “A farm 10 miles square, operated by Major Bell, where land furrows were four miles long, arranged so that one plowing trip made 8 miles and a half days work for a team of horses.” “Also homesteads can be located in the adjoining country, and cheap lands in abundance offered for sale by the C.P.R.”Wm. Sinclair, Leader-Post Editorials, page 9
Bell and Brassey were as different as they were similar. Bell was Canadian, Brassey was British. Bell was – to use a 21st century term – “financially secure” but Brassey was wealthy. Both men however took a special interest in Saskatchewan and had similar visions from the outset to bring immigrants onto their farms and to sell them smaller portions of land in order to recoup their investments. And both succeeded at the outset.
William Robert Bell did not invest in the Bell Farm on his own. In 1882 he had 12 affluent business partners, who collectively formed the Qu’Appelle Valley Farming Company. They spent several hundred thousand 1882 dollars on construction, salaries, etc. during the first year alone.
Many books and a great many newspaper articles extolled the virtues of the Bell Farm all over the world long before Lord Brassy came on the scene, and Major Bell travelled to England / Europe almost every winter to promote the Canadian West, and his farm. The CPR had been promoting the West via the Bell Farm for over half a decade before Brassey’s agents visited the area.
The problem is that huge farms rarely succeed, at least in the 19th century, and this was the among largest in North America, if not the world. Timing was not on Bell’s side either. I’ll quote from the above Leader-Post article again. “The Riel Rebellion, 1885 marked the beginning of the farm’s decline. The rebellion broke out at seeding time and the government took 100 of the major’s teams into the transport service. Although he was paid $10 a day for the use of the horses, very little sowing was done and the cultivation was neglected. Finally in 1889 he gave up 20,000 acres of his command at $9 an acre. The land was purchased by Sir Thomas Brassey, Englishman with a vast bank account and even vaster ideas. By 1886, the Bell farm was split up between the Brassey estate and a number of small farmers.” That was the beginning of the transition whereby Bell basically stepped away from the farm and Brassey stepped into a smaller part of it. This also marks the first time that I’ve photographed anything that was so directly impacted by the Riel Rebellion.
Did Sir Thomas Brassey Succeed Where Bell Failed?
It’s beyond the scope of this blog post to go through the gradual disposal of these farm lands by Bell and the gradual acquitision of some of the Bell farm lands by Brassey. However there is a March 11, 1890, Regina Leader article that mentions the sale of Bell lands to Brassey. Initially initially Brassey bought all of the Bell Farm holdings south of he CPR tracks; later he also bought lands west of Indian Head. I don’t believe that Brassey ever owned the round barn although I haven’t confirmed that. The round barn is north of the tracks.
Money allowed Brassey to do what he liked to do best, sail around the world and periodically check up on his estates and other interests. Bell was a hands-on man and nothing demonstrates that better than the following quote from a 1957 article in the Leader-Post.
“Maj. Bell divided the farm into units of 200 acres each, building a cottage and a stable on each and connecting them all by telephone to the central residence. Every evening at half past eight, the major would telephone the nine foremen under his command and tell them what was to be done next day. If the weather permitted, and often it did not, the foremen carried out the orders to the letter.”JACK SCHREINER, The Leader-Post, December 7, 1957
That article is not completely accurate as Bell had cottages built on 27 parcels of land, and 9 cottages, being those that were occupied by the foremen, were connected by telephone. Bell was a hands-on manager (and maybe by today’s standards he was the boss from hell!) and Brassey was an absentee landlord. Neither approach to farming was a recipe for success and indeed Brassey did not own the farm for many years. Here’s a quote from the end of a Leader-Post article dated June 7, 1965. “The idea was to sell small farms to bona fide settlers, but the time came when the company was happy to sell in either small or large lots.”
“Lord Brassey bought a big block, south of Indian Head, on which he started a creamery, built an Anglican church and bishop’s residence. The Brassey farm, however, did not pay. Eventually all the Bell farm passed into the hands of small holders and occupiers. A section became the present Indian Head Experimental Farm.”
How much of an absentee landlord was Lord Brassey? Well remember the big rectantular barn, The Sunbeam Barn, was built in 1891-1892. Now look at this short article below from the Manitoba Morning Free Press dated March 6, 1894, two years after the construction of the barn. If I’m reading this correctly, this was his first visit to the farm where the construction of the rectangular stone barn, that he presumably commissioned, was already completed. That’s quite different from how Maj. Bell approached farming.
I think that I’ve presented enough information to provide you with the settings of these two barns back in the late 19th century. This was at a time when a good part of Alberta wasn’t even surveyed yet and Saskatchewan settlement had just begun. Below are colour photos that I captured in 2021 and some historic images.
Time For Photographs
Below are three images of the Bell Barn. It was extensively restored although the use of modern materials does give it a different look from the original. This barn is open for tours in the summer months. If you are interested in visiting it the round barn, click the text in red for more details. Home Page Bell Barn Society. Round barns in western Canada are quite rare so every one of them is special. The Bell Barn is unique in that the public can see the inside and learn the answer to the question that you must be asking, “why build a round barn?”
What Happened to W. R. Bell?
Maj. Bell suffered losses from his huge farm but he was an industrious individual so he moved on to other ventures. I’ll quote again from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography because it explains Bell’s life after the Indian Head farm venture very concisely and even ends with Bell’s connection to my city of Edmonton.
In 1896 Bell travelled to England, making what was reportedly his 23rd Atlantic crossing, and married Katharine Ormiston in March. He lived in Dublin for the next four years, during which time he patented a process to make briquettes from pressed peat. He sold this business in 1900 and returned briefly to Brockville before taking up residence in Winnipeg, where he held a seat on the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange and worked on an idea for a galvanized metal granary to be used on farms. At his death in 1913, he was said to have been a major shareholder in the Edmonton Standard Coal Company.Dictionary of Canadian Biography (full citation below)
Major William Robert Bell did not die a rich man and that might explain why he has a very humble grave in Winnipeg where he is buried. He died on February 17, 1913, at just short of 68 years of age. His cemetery information at Find a Grave is incomplete but hopefully that will be rectified.
There is a street named after Bell in Winnipeg. It is Bell Avenue and it was named in 1898. There is also a street named after Bell in Indian Head, but I’ll describe that more below.
What Became of Lord Brassey?
According to a Febrary 11, 1916 article in the Saskatoon Daily Star, Lord Brassey continued to sail the Sunbeam and, at last count, reached 400,000 nautical miles (assuming he could keep an accurate count of the distance covered). Lord Brassey’s first wife died in a most mysterious way which I will explain in her section below. Lord Brassey remarried and continued to sail between Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia or wherever else the empire needed his services. He did build a church – Anglican of course – and rectory on his Indian Head estate. He tried to help less fortunate men by providing some housing for them by way of a hostel but eventually this shut down. You can see from the three short articles below that some of Brassey’s good works were indeed real tangible places that people alive today in Indian Head might remember. He truly was a philanthropist. Like Bell, Brassey cared about Indian Head, the good farm land around it, and the welfare of the men and families who would work its soil.
I find it interesting that a man whose life is so closely tied to the sea would spend so much money and effort on a place in the middle of the Canadian prairie about as far from any ocean as a person can get. Brassey’s attraction to Indian Head speaks volumes about this southern Saskatchewan area, its people, and the land.
I do admire the way that Brassey mastered the art of the eloquent understatment. My research suggests that the Sunbeam was his home on the sea and yet he says below, “I have from time to time undertaken voyages in my yacht the Sunbeam.” When I read quotes of his speech I hear them in my mind spoken with that very British long-o sound like in “snow”. Of course I could be totally wrong as he may have picked up both Australian and Canadian accents to give his British accent a unique sound altogether.
“Yes,” said Lord Brassey, “I have from time to time undertaken voyages in my yacht the Sunbeam and they have taught me a great deal in matters connected with the sea, not only as regards the navy, but also the mercantile marine. I am much interested in the training of officers for the mercantile marine. We get a certain number of these officers from the training ships Worcester and Conway. A number of boys originally intended for the navy fail in their examination, and being keen on leading a sailor’s life, join the merchant service. As an amateur seaman I take the deepest interest in these things.”Lord Brassey as quoted by The Daily Province, Vancouver, July 29, 1910
Sir Thomas Brassey died at age 82. February 23, 1918, and is buried in Westminster, England.
What Happened to Lady Brassey?
Lady Brassey’s fate is something of a mystery. The Find a Grave website gives this account of how she died:
“Anna Brassey was the daughter of John Allnutt and Elizabeth Harriet Burnett. She was the 1st wife of Thomas Brassey, 1st Earl Brassey. Their children were Thomas Allnut Brassey, Mabelle Annie Brassey, Muriel Agnes Brassey and Marie Adelaide Brassey. Lady Brassey was a popular Victorian author. She and her family made several around the world cruises on their yacht the “Sunbeam”. Their 1876-1877 voyage was chronicled in her highly popular travel book “A Voyage in the Sunbeam, Our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months”. One account of her death was that during a trip from Bombay to Australia, in a calm sea with no sail in sight, Lady Brassey disappeared. Lord Brassey was on the bridge and the children were playing on the deck. There were several sailors on duty, but not a person realized she was missing until she failed to come to tea. The sea was calm, but no splash was heard and she was reportedly in good health and in good spirits. Another account does report that she was traveling for health reasons and died from malaria and was buried at sea.”
Disappearing at sea like that seems to be an unlikely ending for such a strong woman who had spent a lifetime at sea. Her not being noticed as missing until she failed to show up for tea sound very upper class British but also unlikely. Perhaps the second explanation is the more likely one and she died from malaria and thus was buried at sea.
What Became of The Sunbeam?
Nothing made by the hands of men lasts forever and that is certainly true of sea going vessels. The Sunbeam was sold for scrap with the intention of making furniture out of some of the wood. The reality of being recycled seems less romantic than if it were scuttled at sea. Below I’ve reproduced an article that explains the demise of the Sunbeam.
FAMOUS YACHT WILL BE SCRAPPED IN ENGLAND
Sunbeam Doomed After 50 – Years; To Make Furniture From Some Fittings
LONDON. – The renowned Sunbeam, the travels of which have been described by Lady Brassey in her book “A Voyage of the Sunbeam,” is now at Morecambe; her sailing days at an end. After 50 years the vessel is to be broken up, and Sir Walter Runciman, Bart., who has owned the yacht of recent years, has ordered some her fittings to be made up into pieces of furniture.
The Sunbeam was built 55 years ago for Earl Brassey. It was in 1876 that she made her now famous voyage round the world with Lord and Lady Brassey, and in her book Lady Brassey vividly described the 12 months’ tour. Fifty years ago such a voyage was looked upon as a remarkable journey for a vessel of just over 500 tons.
The yacht holds the world’s mileage record for privately-owned British yachts, with over 500,000 miles. Twenty-five years ago she took part m the race across the Atlantic for the Kaisers Cup and missed the sixth place by a short mile. She was at Kiel on the eve of the declaration of the Great War. On previous occasions Lord Brassey always received a cordial welcome from the Kaiser, who was the first to call, and usually paid prolonged visits.
In 1875 the provision of men for the navy and proper naval reserve had become matters of urgent public concern, and the matter was vigorously debated in parliament. Lord Brassey realized that the hardy fishermen of our coasts provided a splendid source of supply for men for the fleet, and in 1875 and succeeding years the Sunbeam sailed around the coasts of Scotland and Ireland on a recruiting cruise and enrolled men at the various porta of call.
The Sunbeam was a hospital ship during the war, commencing as Red Cross ship plying between Southampton and Rouen In 1914, and later as a convalescent ship. Gladstone went for a cruise in her in 1885, and Lord Tennyson used her for a cruise in the Channel. When Lord Brassey was appointed governor of Victoria, he sailed to Australia in the yacht to take up his official position.
Below are some old images of the Sunbeam and Lord Brassey himself. The middle small image is of a model of the yacht. These four images are in the public domain and from Wikipeadia.
Some Interesting Facts About Indian Head
- Most of the original streets in Indian Head were named by Major Bell (who’s company also owned the townsite) after the original investors in the Qu’Appelle Valley Farming Companyand.
- Bell Street ran from the railway station in a straight line directly to his house – which is why all the streets in Indian Head are on an angle to the rail line rather than parallel and perpendicular to it like most prairie towns that are located on the CPR main line.
- Lord Brassey started up a new townsite right across the tracks from Indian Head, called “Brassey”. I haven’t seen anything on the map that is identifed as “Brassey”. Perhaps he should have called it “Sunbeam”?
- W. A. Waiser, “BELL, WILLIAM ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 17, 2021, Biography – BELL, WILLIAM ROBERT – Volume XIV (1911-1920) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography (biographi.ca)
- Newspapers.com – Historical Newspapers from 1700s-2000s was extremely usefull for this blog post as you can tell from all the new newspaper citations.
- Find A Grave – Millions of Cemetery Records was helpful in sorting out the various families even though the Bell information was incomplete and inaccurate. I find the site indespensible for establishing relationships between people, especially those who like to name son’s and daughter after fathers and mothers.
- Legacy of Stone: Saskatchewan’s Stone Buildings, by Margaret Hryniuk & Frank Korvemaker, photographs by Larry Easton, 2008, p. 22-25. Although I did not use this excellent book, Legacy of Stone, for this blog post, I have thoroughly studied and enjoyed their subsequent book, “Legacy of Worship: Sacred Places in Rural Saskatchewan” 2014. I’ve also been forturnate to have been able to consult with one of the authors; Frank Korvemaker, M.S.M.; SAA (Hon) Ret’d Archivist / Construction Historian.
If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowers’ rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always excercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.