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Friendship Force takes bus trip to Lethbridge, Canada

Barbara Guilford
Cheyenne, Wyo.
Barbara GuilfordThe Friendship Force arrives. (L to R) Geoff Bradshaw, Lethbridge; Arlene Casabona, Toni Augliera, Jane Case, Denver; Eleanor Hanson, Cheyenne; Isobel Schuler,Stan Weiss, Lethbridge.

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Cheyenne and Greater Denver Friendship Force clubs traveled by bus to Lethbridge, Canada Sept. 4-11, 2008. As our bus traveled north of the border we began noticing green and lush croplands alongside windswept dry wheat lands, much like Colorado and Wyoming.Grain elevators painted different colors appeared on the horizon. The city of Lethbridge, population 83,960, looked like a flower garden surrounded by trees as we pulled into the Visitor’s Center.

Our Friendship Force Clubs received a hearty welcome and we were given the royal treatment all week long. We were shuttled around to welcome parties, Waterton Lakes National Park, Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, Granum Hutterite Colony, local museums, Japanese Gardens and other local attractions. We saw wind power generators around the small town of Cowley and heard about the warm Chinook winds that sweep down the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains melting the snow in the winter. We saw wind fences protecting homes and gardens. My husband and I stayed at the home of Joyce Johnson who thoughtfully arranged for a couple of wise men who knew about agriculture to answer my questions.

Stan Weiss and John Vonkeman agreed to accompany me on an agricultural tour of Canada’s first and largest irrigation system ” Saint Mary River Irrigation Project ” that has a capacity to irrigate over 518,000 acres of land.There are nearly 50 urban communities within the 13 irrigation districts that rely on the area’s abundant water resources that are used not only for irrigation but also recreation. The association of projects celebrated their 100-Year Anniversary on Sept. 4, 2000. Even though it was raining, the men stopped each time I asked for a photo.

Stan handed me booklet and map published in cooperation with the Alberta Irrigation Districts. Jim Csabay, a local expert on water later gave me a book, “Quenching the Prairie Thirst”, by John Gilpin to answer a myriad of questions that arose in my mind that day. When I returned to Wyoming and read the materials, I discovered surprising connections with Lethbridge that I want to share with farmers from the states who like to reminisce with me about the past. Then I might just send this up to my farmer friends in Canada.

We drove east to Taber for world famous sweet corn that we had been eating all week. We stopped at the large sugar factory in Taber, where he showed me potato storage facilities shaped like a dome. We drove by the Lethbridge Experimental Field Station, the largest in Canada. We saw the McKain Potato Chip Factory, Frito-Lay and Sakai Spices, a Japanese business. We ended up at John Vonkeman’s home to see an outdoor reservoir and windmill that provides all the water for his home, animals, and gardens. One of the most interesting stories I heard was about the former community of Readymade.

Readymade area was made up of farms built by the Canadian Pacific Railway prior to the arrival of settlers and was referred to as the Coaldale Colony. On May 9,1912, CPR announced that 17 Readymade farms of 160 acres each with buildings and improvements were to be placed so that occupation could follow in 1913. Readymade farms were also established for veterans in 1916 in the Lethbridge area. The CPR encouraged combining dry lands for winter wheat and the grazing of livestock as well as irrigable land for crops such as alfalfa, barley, timothy, sugar beets and vegetables. We stopped at the Readymade community center near Jim Csabay’s home. Apparently the settlement program was successful for the farmers from Readymade.

Attracting farmers to an area that had wide precipitation fluctuations was no easy task. For example, Lethbridge received 24.8 inches of rain in 1916; they produced 35 bushels of wheat per acre that year. In 1918 they got 7.6 inches and their production dropped to 5 bushels of wheat. Some years in the ensuing drought cycle they produced zero bushels per acre. Of course irrigation would make all the difference in the world. The idea of combination farms had first been suggested by William Pearce in the 1880s.

William Pearce, an advisor to Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, travelled extensively in Canada’s West as Inspector of Land Agencies. He was impressed by Mormon irrigation efforts and eventually would visit Colorado and Utah in 1881. He thought that the hamlet system where Mormons concentrated rural populations at one location would work in Canada. Eventually in 1891 Pearce suggested that the St. Mary River could be used for large scale irrigation. Enter George G. Anderson, Colorado irrigation engineer, who was retained and wrote a complete review of the project in 1897.

After seven years of planning and false starts the construction of the Saint Mary Project began in the late summer of 1898. In 1899 the Lethbridge Board of Trade sent a letter to the Town Council to ensure that the Canadian North-West Irrigation Company (CNWIco.) completes a branch to Lethbridge

John Reid, Colorado State Engineer, wrote a letter of support of the idea of bringing water into the town and surrounding area. He painted this picture of Colorado made possible by irrigation.

In the immediate vicinity of the towns, truck gardens of an acre to 10 acres are the rule, with chicken ranches and dairies sufficient to supply the needs of the town: beyond these come the farms proper, where alfalfa or lucerne forms the principal forage crop: wheat, oats and corn the principal grain crop. In some localities specialties are musk melons and watermelons, in others potatoes, and still others fruit ” all of which crops are bountiful and of a superior quality, which we consider is due to irrigation.

Some early Lethbridge citizens who were content to depend on the traditional industries of coal mining and ranching viewed the future of irrigation as “an act of faith.” However, Charles Magrath, a manager of an irrigation company, made note of the Mormons’ frontier experience and irrigation experience in the American West. Mormon colonists had settled in Cardston and had made Lethbridge their market town. The Mormons provided labor in 1900 to build 95 miles of canals to move water from the Saint Mary River through branches to Stirling and Lethbridge.

Efforts to promote land settlement and assist the new water users in their irrigation agriculture included publicity and the establishment of a new model farm. Mr. Magrath turned to the American West. He hired William Harmon Fairfield, a native of Colorado. Mr. Fairfield attended the College of Agriculture in Fort Collins, earning a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science degrees. He then became an assistant professor of agriculture at the University of Wyoming and served as the Superintendent of the Experimental Station in Laramie, Wyoming. While at UW, Fairfield conducted experiments with varieties of wheat, oats and barley as well as experiments in sub soils and forage plans.

On Aug. 1, 1906, Fairfield signed a 3-year contract with Mr. Magrath at $1,500 a year to operate a model farm. Elliott Galt, a prominent Lethbridge leader donated 320 acres of prairie land east of the city. Starting slowly, the Dominion Experimentation Station had only four buildings on the site in 1908. Fairfield lived in a boarding house until his residence was built. Land-use studies dominated early research on crop rotations of forage, cereal and horticultural crops. Seeding studies on dry land and irrigated crops were initiated. He provided pioneer farmers with help combating drought, wind, weeds, and insect pests.

Soil conservation methods were explored during the Depression years of the 1930s because topsoil losses were extensive in the area. During the decades to come, farm productivity, more efficient land and pasture management, and plant pathology were developed. In 1977 a new $24-million research station complex was funded with federal and provincial help.

Today Lethbridge citizens appreciate the value of the Research Station. A frieze depicting the irrigation introduction appears on the columns near the beautiful city hall. The Research Station employs 350-450 employees depending on the season. It is the largest federal agricultural research center in Canada.

Greg Ellis, of the Galt Museum, told me over the phone that this Colorado-Wyoming bred man, William Harmon Fairfield, had a huge impact on the economic success of the area. His history is not well-known”like many other of my HERO farmers. I believe he never returned to Wyoming or Colorado and must be buried in Lethbridge. Greg Ellis told me that his only daughter passed away not long ago.

Our clubs returned to our respective states relaxed and reinvigorated. Cheyenne FF has voted to invite our hosts down here in 2009. We will try to match their efforts. We watched a slide show taken from all of our photos and concluded we were all privileged to live in the Mountain West ” good people, good spirit, and good land. I am looking around at dining facilities, I am trying to match an amazing dining experience I had there in the old water tower of Lethbridge. The waiter handed me a postcard that read, “You Have Friends in High Places.”


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