I was reluctantly preparing to post some images of a huge stone barn and stone house in Saskatchewan without finding any information about the buildings’ history. “How can I post the images with nothing whatsoever about who built it and who lived here”, I thought to myself. So instead of uploading images with no story, I reached out to a contact named Alicia, who in turn reached out to other person who held the key to the story. She knew the name that this place was known as back in the early years when it was built. That was the key that unlocked the story for me. My searches with that name provided a wealth of information. That name, the Big Four Farm, led to the story of a family of aristocrats from the United Kingdom who travelled to Saskatchewan. Today’s blog post is about the Strutt family and what they accomplished in Saskatchewan, including the construction of a massive stone barn and a stone house. This farm was located in the general area of Flaxcombe and Kindersley in Saskatchewan. If you’re not familiar with the Province of Saskatchewan, just have a look at the map above for a rough idea of where this stone house and stone barn still stand. That is where the Big Four Farm could be found back in 1911 to 1928.
During that time a large number of people left everyone and everything familiar to them to travel to the prairies of Canada. Nearly all of those people made the journey here to escape repressive regimes or dismal living conditions in the old country. The promise of free land to hardworking families who need “only” break the land and build a house was enough to start a stampede of tens of thousands of people from all over Europe, and elsewhere, to the Canadian prairies in search of better lives. They mostly arrived by ship, but some came by land via the USA, with high hopes and strong backs, but little else. The prairies also beckoned those with special skills such as stone masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, doctors, priests and pastors because they knew that the farmers in Canada would need their services. Those two groups of people – the farmers and the service providers – are who we naturally think of as the pioneers who came to Canada. However, the list is not complete. There remains at least one other identifiable group of people who travelled to the Canadian west; the aristocracy of Britain. They arrived not to homestead but to buy land and plenty of it.
Life was not necessarily easy for a young man from a noble family if he was not the firstborn of his family. The firstborn male received nearly everything that his parents had to offer; their main title or titles, the castles, servants, and most importantly the land. The rest of the family traditionally received a stipend sufficient to keep them alive and in fine clothes but no land or title. This was a case of exercising tradition for a practical reason. There was only so much land to go around. Imagine if the estate was divided among all of the children of a noble family. In a few generations each child would receive barely enough land for a garden let alone a farm that employed others. So what was a young upper-crust type to do? Some used what money was available to enter the professions thereby ensuring that they remained in positions of influence and respect. Some second-tier nobles joined the military or clergy. Others managed to marry well and thereby benefit from their spouse’s title. But what about those who dreamed of a better life? Land was always an important part of belonging to the upper class. These not-so-well-off aristocrats, who dreamed big, looked to Canada for an opportunity to prove themselves and to make a better living, at lease vis-à-vis their neighbours. That is the kind of family that I researched to write this blog post for your reading pleasure.
So now it’s time to blow the dust off the history books and raise some dust driving down the graveled backroads of Saskatchewan as we seek out the story of the Big Four Farm. But, before we look at the farm, let’s meet the key players in this story.
The Hon. Edward G. Strutt
Born April 10, 1854, died March 8, 1930
Hon. Edward Gerald Strutt was born on April 10th, 1854. He was the son of John James Strutt, 2nd Baron Rayleigh of Terling Place and Clara Elizabeth La Touche Vicars. Edward married Maria Louisa Tufnell on October 29, 1878. He died on March 8, 1930 at age 75.
In order to obtain some details about Edward and Maria’s family including their son, John James Strutt, I referred to the website is called, The Peerage which contains information that was previously only available in a large hardcopy book. That book, also called The Peerage, no doubt was used to check the validity of claims of another’s title to ensure that they were of the right stock. This would be critical for business decisions and matrimonial investigations as parents wanted to ensure that their sons and daughters married their peers or better. It was crucial to do the necessary research rather than risk your son or daughter marrying a mere commoner!
Above you can see that Edward G. Strutt was not the firstborn son of John James Strutt so he did not inherit the title of 3rd Baron Rayleigh of Terling Place. In fact Edward was the fifth son so he wasn’t even close to receiving the benefits of the firstborn. That title went to his eldest brother, John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh of Terling Place. Edward would have to seek another way to find his place in the world. He did receive the title of Honourable as did all siblings after John William Strutt received the family title. What does “Honourable” actually mean in this context? In Canada it is generally used to refer to a member of parliament or a provincial legislative assembly. I asked the publisher of the website, The Peerage, about the use of the prefix Honourable. His response follows:
Yes the non-inserting children of a baron or viscount and the sons of an earl get to use the honorific ‘Honourable’. And yes this applies in New Zealand as well. However it is quite rare here, and most people who are entitled to use it drop it in practice.Darryl Lundy
In case your memory of the ranking of the nobility is a bit rusty, a viscount ranks above a baron but below an earl. You don’t need to know that to enjoy reading this blog post and there will not be a quiz at the end.
Edward G. Strutt made several visits to his Saskatchewan farm in the early days, and on these trips he did not appreciate the swarms of mosquitoes that greeted him, nor was he accustomed to the rustic conditions on the prairies at that time.
A story was told that he arrived at Flaxcombe on the train, and because it was late, took a room at the Silver Hotel. Upon retiring, he placed his shoes outside the door of his room. The next morning, he came downstairs, summoned the manager and demanded to know why the porter hadn’t yet shined his shoes.Little Town in the Valley: History of Flaxcombe and Surrounding School Districts, page 29
It should come as no surprise that Edward G. Strutt did not see it as his role to spend much time in the rough conditions of Saskatchewan in the early century, so his son John was his on-site man. That’s not to say that Edward G. Strutt didn’t have a brain for agriculture. Back home he became recognized as the most knowledgeable agricultural economist in England. During the Great War, when it looked as though Britain would be faced with a severe famine, he accepted the appointment of agricultural advisor to the Minister of Agriculture. His expertise in this appointment proved invaluable to his country.
Edward’s son, John James Strutt, plays a role in this story too so lets take a look at him. To avoid confusion please note that Edward G. Strutt’s father has the same first, middle, and last name as Edward’s son. This pattern continues at least down to the first recorded John Strutt who died in 1694. Do you think there was a shortage of first and middle names in aristocratic circles? If you’re not confused yet you should be. I think a diagram will help here to distinguish the Edwards and the Johns.
The above diagram might help keep these people straight but the story is mostly about Edward Gerald Strutt as the Big Four Farm was his vision and project.
John James Strutt
Born October 26, 1881, died November 12,1968
John James Strutt was born in England on October 26, 1881. He was the son of Hon. Edward Gerald Strutt and Maria Louisa Tufnell. He was educated at Winchester College, Winchester, Hampshire, England. John James Strutt married Hon. Agnes Roger Dewar, daughter of John Alexander Dewar, 1st Baron Forteviot and Johann Todd, on February 24, 1914. He died on November 12, 1968 at age 87.
The two children of John James Strutt and Hon. Agnes Roger Dewar were:
- Edward Alexander Strutt, born November 29, 1914, died October 21, 1991.
- Joan Eleanor Strutt, born October 13,1916, died May 31, 2006.
Big Four – What’s in a Name?
You may be wondering why the farm was called “Big Four”. Actually it wasn’t. The legal name was “Eagle Lake Farm” but the locals called it “Big Four Farm” or “The Big Four Farm” and that is the name that stuck. So why Big Four? There are two possible explanations for the name so I’ll describe them both.
First explanation: The farm was big there’s no question about that. A typical homesteader received a quarter section of land for his efforts and that is only 160 acres. The Big Four Farm was 10,000 acres so it was big by any definition, even by today’s standards it was a big farm although far from the largest anymore. The “four” in Big Four could come from the practice of dividing the farm into four parts called camps 1 though 4. The stone house and barn featured here were built at camp 1. There were three farm camps and one engine camp. When I photographed the barn and house in 2021 I didn’t know anything about The Big Four Farm so I didn’t seek out what, if anything, remains of camps 2, 3 and 4.
Second explanation: Ted Sawchuk provided this information in the comments area below. He is the youngest son of Verna Sawchuk whom I quoted below regarding Henry and Billy Hopper. Ted advised me that the name “Big Four” was, according to his mother Verna Sawchuk, derived from the big tractors in use on the Strutt’s farm. They were in fact called “Big Four” Tractors. Here are two short quotes that support the explanation that the farm was named after the huge tractors in use there. The first quote is from L.F. White and absolutely agrees with Ted Sawchuk. The second quote is from a fellow who restores old tractors including the Big Four tractors. It provides more information about these massive tractors:
The operators brought in four large gasoline tractors. These machines bore the trade name of “Big 4”, and though the owners called their spread the Eagle Lake Farm, the neighbors took to referring to it as the Big Four and the name stuck.L. F. White, Dewar Lake Home-maker’s book “Winds Across the Plains“
The Big Four, a member of the class known as prairie tractors, is a rare tractor; just 25 are known to exist. The Big Four was built by Gas Traction Co., Minneapolis, until 1912, when Emerson-Brantingham Co., Rockford, Ill., bought out Gas Traction. Emerson-Brantingham continued to build the Big Four for several years.Farm Collector (see full citation below)
I have to agree with Ted Sawchuk that the connection to the name of the tractors is the most likely to be the correct source of the name of Big Four Farm. Both explanations agree on one thing though and that is that the farm was named by the locals, and those who worked there, rather than the owners.
The Big Four Farm
Note: I paraphrased this section from the story by written by Jack Callsen, who in turn obtained the information from Edward A. Strutt (John James’ son), who compiled and forwarded the material from which Jack Callsen’s story was written. The full account can be found in the book, “Little Town in the Valley: History of Flaxcombe and Surrounding School Districts.” Edward A. Strutt, at the time of the book’s publishing date of 1984, farmed at Garlieston, Scotland, and is not connected with the Rayleigh farms in England.
The farm began in 1911 when Edward G. Strutt hired E. L. (Ted) Rose to acquire land on his behalf. Tom Pople, originally of Scotland, was manager of the Big Four from 1913 to 1920.
Edward’s family consisted of three sons and three daughters. The eldest son, Gerald, assisted in the management of the Rayleigh farms in England and his second son, John, supervised the farms in Canada which included the Big Four Farm in Saskatchewan and a slightly smaller farm in Manitoba. John married the Hon. Agnes Roger Dewar, eldest daughter of the first Baron of Fortevoit, on February 24, 1914. ln the spring of 1916 they came, with their young son Edward, to the Big Four Farm to live at Camp 3. A daughter, Joan, was born here in Canada in October of that year; she was probably the only Canadian born Strutt. They started construction of a house at camp 3 but it was never completed so I’m not sure where they actually lived. Perhaps they lived in the stone house at camp one.
“During the first war years, Mr. John. J. Strutt and his family lived on the farm. To meet Mrs. Strutt and see her driving her Model T around, no one would have imagined that she had a million of her own. She was a daughter of Sir John A. Dewar.”L. F. White, “Winds Across the Plains” as quoted in; Little Town in the Valley, page 32
Meanwhile, John James Strutt and his family decided to return to England for the winter, the winter of the terrible flu epidemic commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu in Canada. Mrs. Strutt contracted the flu and passed away on March 30, 1919, at the age of 30. She was remembered as a wonderfully sweet and kind person by all those who knew her. Her death was a devastating blow to John. The children, Edward and Joan, were taken to live with their mother’s parents and were brought up by them. Although greatly affected by the loss, John returned to the Big Four Farm for a brief visit each year, usually at harvest time. He never again lived there full time.
At one time the farm was nearly sold to Mennonites. The management had built fifteen extra houses for them, as well as building a dairy barn and getting twenty-five or thirty cows. “Thirty-six families were supposed to sign the contract but only thirty showed up so the deal fell through.” Note though that in another publication it sounds like the deal failed because “The 36-family group at Big Four couldn’t agree with the manager and foreman appointed by the vendor”. It certainly couldn’t have been easy to sell any large farm because very few people could afford such an operation. Mennonites had some buying power because they could buy as a group but no signal person could negotiate for them so that presented other problems. Ultimately all or nearly all of the farm was sold to The Western Trust Co. whose business it was to break up the farm and sell them as smaller units that individuals could buy.
In 1927 at the age of 73, Edward G. Strutt returned to inspect his farm interests in Saskatchewan and because things were turning out less than satisfactory, he decided to make arrangements to sell the farm. Farming operations ceased after the harvest of 1928. This brought to an end the Strutt family’s Saskatchewan farming business. The large farm in Manitoba was not sold until after Edward G. Strutt died. In November of 1929, Edward became troubled with a weak heart, and on March 8, 1930 he died. During his lifetime he held positions with many agricultural organizations and also devoted a great deal of his attention to matters of state. At the time of his death, he farmed more than 25,000 acres in England; no one in the country farmed more.
From the Workers’ Perspective
The quote below is from Verna Sawchuk, whose uncles worked on the Big Four Farms before they tried to homestead on their own. It seems incredible to read of boys of ages 12 to 14 having to sign on to a year’s labour in England. Equally interesting is how the working conditions changed after moving to Canada even though they were still doing menial farm labour and still working for an Englishman. I doubt that Canada had any particular labour laws that early in the country’s history so why would working conditions have been so much better here? Was it because of a shortage of workers or some other reason?
The caption for the black and white image of the men eating is hard to read. It says, “Big Four men eating in tent. Sign on wall, ‘Eat and Get Out’.” According to Verna Sawchuk below, the workers were well fed and well treated.
My uncles, Henry and Billy Hopper, were born in Yorkshire, England in the early 1890’s. Their father was a farm laborer, and in all probability, they were destined for a similar way of life. Henry and Billy joined the farm labor force at the tender ages of fourteen and twelve respectively. Farm lads, as they were called, left their parents’ homes and lived right on the farm where they worked. They were hired by the year and paid only once, at the end of the year’s work. The work was hard, hours long. wages extremely low, and the land owners very demanding.Verna Sawchuk, Little Town in the Valley, page 35
By the time Henry was twenty two years old and Billy was twenty, they had been hired out for eight years. During that time, they had each managed to save the equivalent of $90-$100. The year was 1912 and they were restless and discontented with their lot in life. They had seen many posters proclaiming cheap land available to anyone wishing to settle on the frontiers of Australia or western Canada. Thus, they became convinced that therein lay their opportunity for a brighter future in a new land.
The brothers couldn’t afford travel expenses for the longer ocean voyage to Australia so they bought two boat tickets to Montreal, Canada for $100 and two train tickets to Kindersley, Sask. for $50. In early May, 1912, they said good-bye to their family and sailed to Canada. Two weeks later they arrived in Kindersley with $25 between them.
While al their Uncle Fred Hogarth’s homestead at Coleville, they learned of a large farming company in the early stages of establishing a farm of 10.000 acres in the Flaxcombe area. They walked to the farm, which was called the Big Four. Men were needed to pick rocks, so they were hired on the spot. They were required to do an honest day’s work, but in return they were well treated, which was a welcome change for them. The bosses were friendly and reasonable, the men were well fed, and there was a little time for relaxation and entertainment.
In 1915 Henry and Billy began their own farming careers which lasted until Billy was squeezed out by drought and hard times in the 1930’s and Henry died in 1953. They both farmed near Coleville, Saskatchewan. Billy Hopper died in 1982 at ninety-one years of age. His last years were spent with Verna Sawchuk’s family. He loved to reminisce about the early days and particularly about his years at the Big Four, which surely was a highlight in his life.
The Big Four Farm presented great opportunities for local homesteaders who had their own lands to care for. This is because they could make extra money by helping to haul the massive harvest at the Big Four Farm to elevators. Homesteaders or anyone with wagons were hired to haul the flax to elevators in wagons with tight lids on the boxes, supplied by the farm, as flax was so clean it would run over the ends of the boxes going up or down hill if not tightly covered. The other side of this opportunity for extra income was that most of the Big Four employees were seasonal and resided elsewhere. This did nothing to help with the construction of schools and other amenities. This was stated very clearly in the local history book dealing with the Manitoba farm owned by Sir Strutt. The locals stated that the presence of such a large syndicate farm in a small community like Meadows was detrimental to the growth and development of the community, since only a few of the managers and foremen took part in community activities.
When the Big Four Farm was sold, camp 1 was bought by Mr. Norman Wildman from Prelate, Sask. As at the 1984 publishing date of the local history book, Little Town in the Valley, this land was still farmed by members of his family. Anecdotally I believe that the former camp 1 is still owned by the Wildman family. The house below is still standing on the former camp 1.
If you look above at the front of the barn you’ll see some interesting features. Note the counterweights hanging up front just below the upper windows? They might have been used to make opening and closing the upper door easier. They worked like the drawbridge on a castle but I’ve never before seen this system on a barn. The house is in trouble. The image on the above right shows the bending of the wall near the ground. The fault is possibly easier to see on the last image in this post. A lot of pressure has likely built up over the years. Buttresses could have saved this wall and house if they were added years ago.
It’s a wrap.
The colour photographs above were taken by me on March 30, 2021. Later in 2021, Alberta photographer Sally Peddle took this image and she agreed to my request to add her image to my blog. It shows the south wall has collapsed. This must have happened shortly after I visited the house and barn. This is sad for all who love history and old buildings. It’s important not to hold the current owner to account for the crumbling house and barn. They are running a business as producers and it’s getting more difficult all the time with our wild weather swings. This house would cost a considerable amount to maintain and for the producer there may be no benefits to an extra house. He must ask himself whether he should use his or her scarce resources to fix or replace a tractor or this house? As a businessman there is only one correct answer to that question.
The Big Four Farm may not be as well known as Saskatchewan’s Bell Farm but it played an important role in the development of the prairies. It’s story includes; love and tragedy, important people and drifters, huge dreams and even bigger buildings. Today, if you happened to be in the area, you would see just another crumbling stone house and stone barn. I didn’t notice any signs or plaques that mentioned the storied history of this place. The stones that the house and barn were built from are silent except when one of them falls back to the ground. Now you know the story. That means in some small way you are part of the story. In fact after reading this post I think that you qualify to use to the honorific of Honourable Big Four Knowledge Keeper. However don’t look for your new title in The Peerage.
Your last task is to click on the like button somewhere below. Thank you for reading my blog post.
- Little Town in the Valley: History of Flaxcombe and Surrounding School Districts, 1984, Flaxcombe Book Committee. (primary source of information).
- Meadows Centennial 1970, Meadows W.A. Community Club. This local history book provides a brief description of The Syndicate Farm in Manitoba. It was slightly smaller than the Big Four Farm at 9,000 acres and had three camps rather than four. Production was different as well. The Big Four Farm grew flax and raised sheep while the Syndicate Farm grew alfalfa and raised both hogs and sheep. The book says at page 22 that the Syndicate Farm was dissolved after Mr. Strutt died.
- Mennonites in Canada, 1920-1940: A People’s Struggle for Survival, 2020, Mennonite Historical Society of Canada and the family of Frank H. Epp. Used for the one sentence above pertaining to the attempt to sell part of the farm to a Mennonite group of 36 families.
- The Peerage : a genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain as well as the royal families of Europe. This is the place to check to see if you are entitled to a title. https://www.thepeerage.com/index.htm
- Farm Collector website, article “Big Four Tractor Restorations: A Global Endeavor” by Bill Vossler 2014-02-11. https://www.farmcollector.com/restoration/tractors-restoration/big-four-tractor-restoration-zmbz14marzbea/ Another interesting article at that website is called, “Gas Traction Co. Designs 4-Cylinder Tractor”
If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise 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.