Farmers arrived in southern Alberta in large numbers after 1900

A surprising number of Norwegian-American farmers participated in the settler boom in southern Alberta after 1900. Many among their children and children’s children still live and farm in the region today. Seen from a Norwegian perspective it is both fascinating and surprising that so many Norwegians, used to farming under very wet conditions, and where the main challenge was usually too much rain, chose to try their luck as homesteaders on the driest part of the prairies in western Canada.

After 1900 many of the large ranches in southern Alberta were broken up and sold to homesteaders who hoped to get rich by growing wheat. If ranchers wanted to continue ranching, they had to buy their own land. Wheat prices rose and rainfall increased as new dry farming methods were taken into use. New railroads made the previously gruelling move much easier – furniture and farming equipment, livestock and whole families with infants and grandmothers could be loaded onto a train and moved long distances. Before the railways were built, transport of goods and people to the prairies in Canada had depended on steamboats to Fort Benton on the Missouri, for those who could afford it. Beyond Fort Benton, there were wagon trails in many directions; to Canada and Edmonton the Whoop-Up Trail.

The Canadian government conducted an intense international marketing campaign to recruit homesteaders. Even in dry southern Alberta an amazing number of homesteads were established along the railway line north of Fort Macleod, and almost north to Calgary before 1905.[1]Many of the new settlers had former experience as cash grain farmers. Before coming to southern Alberta, they had sold their farms south of the border for 15 to 20 dollars per acre. In southern Alberta they could buy land for 4 to 5 dollars per acre. Many among the new settlers also had capital to invest in machinery, and some hired contractors to break their land.

The hard winter 1906/1907

The winter of 1906/1907 was very hard both in Montana and on the Canadian prairies. It had far-reaching consequences for the ranching industry as many ranchers lost 60 to 65 per cent of their cattle. Even the largest and best operated ranching companies lost 50 per cent. Around half of the capital invested in ranching in western Canada was lost during that winter. Some of the larger companies went bankrupt, while others just took their losses and left the industry.

In the years following the hard winter, the number of farming homesteads increased significantly. Land offices in Lethbridge and Calgary experienced a land boom. The number of registered new homestead entries in Lethbridge was 2,231 in 1907, 6,821 in 1908, and 6,211 in 1909.[2] The numbers, however, fell to less than a 1,000 homesteads in 1910.

Norwegian immigrants in southern Alberta

Among early Norwegians in southern Alberta many had first tried their luck south of the border, mainly in Minnesota, South or North Dakota. Around 1905 Norwegian and Norwegian-American immigrants settled around places like Claresholm, Granum and Stavely – all of them fairly close to the railway line between Fort Macleod and Calgary. Later many began to arrive in Lethbridge. They built homesteads around places like Sundial, Enchant, Nobleville, Milo, Vulcan, Taber, and Vauxhall.

The boom in Lethbridge and in southern Alberta came to an end in 1913. Development slowed, and drought drove farmers from their farms, while coal mining had declined rapidly from its peak even before 1920.

The first Norwegian-American arrived in Claresholm in 1901

Norwegian-born Ole Jacob Amundsen (1860-1918) arrived by train from Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, in 1901, and disembarked at Claresholm, southern Alberta. The place was ninety miles south of Calgary on the Calgary-Macleod Trail, on the rolling prairie with the foothills in the distance to the west. The Calgary and Edmonton Railway reached Claresholm in late summer 1891. A boxcar was left to mark a watering place where steam locomotives could fill up the water tank. Ranchers began using the place to embark and disembark and loaded cattle there. A frame building replaced the boxcar in 1895. A railway superintendent named the place Claresholm, after his wife Clara.

Amundsen was informed that the northeast quarter section of what would later become the village of Claresholm, was open for homesteading. He immediately filed on this section before he returned to Devil’s Lake.[3] Amundsen was born in Norway in 1861, and emigrated to Wisconsin in 1881, but soon moved to Minneapolis and then to Devil’s Lake in North Dakota. After he married Mary Thompson (1867-1918), the couple lived at Devil’s Lake for almost twenty years and became the parents of nine children. During their time on the farm at Devil’s Lake, the family experienced drought and crop failure seven years. In lean years Amundsen built several large buildings at Devil’s Lake and also built a two-deck passenger boat for transport between Devil’s Lake and the summer resort Totten.[4]

Twenty-five farmers from North Dakota arrived in July 1902

When Amundsen returned from southern Alberta to Devil’s Lake, he told everyone willing to listen about the good land he had seen on the Canadian prairies. A group of people decided to join him in southern Alberta. Among them were J. M. Soby, Tom Haig, and James McKinney. Amundsen returned in spring 1902 to build a house, and it was ready when his family arrived later that summer. 

Amundsen had recruited twenty-five farmers in North Dakota. The first days after their arrival in Claresholm were lively. In one afternoon, Amundsen sold 21 sections of land.[5] He had signed up as agent for the Calgary and Edmonton Railway Co. and built up an extensive real estate business in a short time. Amundsen had “a record of selling one hundred sections of land in six months from the day of his arrival.”[6] In addition to his land business activities he had 400 acres under crop in 1905. He soon sold his house to Haig and built a new house on his homestead. Amundsen sold that house in 1907, including twenty acres of land, and the Amundsen family moved to a larger house out of town to the east.

The Norwegian L. H. Ugland went into partnership with Amundsen in 1905. He came from Souris, North Dakota, in 1902. He also participated in the organization of the Claresholm Co-Operative Co. Ltd. Ugland owned the town site when it consisted of three surveyed blocks, and immediately laid out an additional thirty-two blocks. Ugland also had interests in Leavings (Granum), where he built the Knox Hotel and a store.

The village of Claresholm

During the first year as a village a lumber yard, a post office, a grocery store, a drug store and two hotels were erected at Claresholm. A newspaper began publishing in 1904. Claresholm was established as a village on May 30, 1903, and on August 31, 1905, the Northwest Territorial Government designated Claresholm a town.[7]

The first churches were organized before the homesteaders had moved out of their shacks and into houses. A Methodist church opened for service in 1904 and a Presbyterian in 1905. The Norwegians established a Norwegian Lutheran church. In 1908 more than fifty persons were members of this church, which had a quarter of the members of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, but twice as many members as the Baptist Church.[8]

John Soby and his family

Among the early group of Norwegian settlers in Claresholm were John Soby and his family. He was born in Norway in June 1856 and emigrated to the United States in 1883. At first Soby lived in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, but moved to Crary, North Dakota in 1886. He married Anna Emanuelson in Mayville, North Dakota. In Crary he started and operated a blacksmith shop until 1893, when he sold the business to Jake Ostrum. Soby and his wife started a general store, which did well.[9]

Soby decided to move to Claresholm in 1904 and hoped to establish himself as a big farmer. He brought the family from North Dakota in 1905. When they arrived, a store had just burned down in Claresholm. The store was rebuilt but the owners were short of cash and had to sell the store. John Soby could not resist the temptation to buy it. “He immediately put in a stock of groceries and dry goods.”[10] The business grew along with the growth of the population in the area. In 1910 a new hardware department was added to the store on the west side, and an extended grocery store was added on the north side. Soby kept up his farming activities during these years. Among Claresholm inhabitants John Soby was the first to buy a car.

Granum along the railway

Some miles south of Claresholm bull-team freighters had a tradition since the 1870s of using a place on Willow Creek for watering men and oxen and unloading freight. It was expected that settlers would arrive when the railway line from Calgary to Macleod was completed, but nothing much happened during the 1890s.

The first rush of homesteaders began in 1902, the same year as in Claresholm. Most of the new homesteaders came from the United States, and especially from North Dakota. In 1906, within 10 miles of Granum, land was selling for up to 10 dollars an acre. By 1909 prices had increased to nearly 30 dollars an acre.

The Norwegian-American homesteader Hans Ellison

When Hans Ellison stepped down from the train at Leavings (later named Granum), all that greeted him at the siding was a boxcar. He came from Ashland, Wisconsin, and filed on a homestead one mile east and one mile north of Leavings. Ellison owned a general store back in Ashland. He went back and sold the store and returned to Leavings with a carload of materials to build his home and the first general store at the siding.

The family packed what they wanted to take with them, and together with his wife Ellen and daughter Ida they traveled to their future home. When the store opened in May 1903, the post office was also located there.[11] The store offered bolts of cotton, calico and denim, a cracker barrel, kerosene cans, oil lamps and lanterns as well as sugar, lard, and beans. Hans Ellison sold his store in 1912 and moved to his homestead. In 1917 the family left for good and settled in Spokane, Washington.

The first businesses at Granum

In 1903 the place had gotten an eating house, a livery barn, a barber shop, and a blacksmith shop. A newspaper was published from 1905. Shipments of grain from Granum grew fast – 350,000 bushels of grain were shipped in 1906 and 500,000 bushels in 1907. The name of the place changed from Leavings to Granum in 1907, and in 1910 the town of Granum was incorporated. An intense period of homesteading began in 1908 and all land available was taken by 1909.[12]

More Norwegians arrived from Ashland, Wisconsin

Jacob Alsgard emigrated from Mosjøen in northern Norway to Ashland, Wisconsin, in 1900. His future wife Othelia Hansen had arrived at Ashland two years earlier, in 1898. They were married there on March 17, 1903.

Othelia’s father, Claus Hansen, had traveled from Ashland to Leavings in 1902. He bought homesteads for his daughter and Jacob Alsgard, Jacob’s brother Martin, their aunt Trine Jackson Rexford, and himself. Jacob and Othelia moved to Leavings in 1903 and homesteaded eight and a half miles east of Granum.[13] Trine Jackson Rexford and Martin traveled together with them. Jacob’s aunt and her son Leonard homesteaded south of Jacob’s holdings, his brother Martin settled to his west, and his father-in-law homesteaded north of the Alsgard brothers.

More settlers from North Dakota

Ellef Ellofson left North Dakota in 1902, bound for Leaving. He rode his bicycle as far as North Portal and then boarded the train. For a while, he worked as a carpenter and on Brown’s steam outfit, and then he moved to Enchant, where he filed on a homestead. He used oxen to break the soil. After his little house on the homestead was ready, he went back to Norway and married Hanna Sorenson. They lived on the homestead for ten years before they returned to Granum, where they settled in the Rocky Coulee district. Over the years Ellefson built many houses and barns throughout the district.[14]

From Northern Norway to Granum

Anton C. Fjordbotten (born 1866, died 1944) was born at Fjordbotten, Gratangen, Troms County, Norway. As a teenager he participated in the cod fisheries around the Lofoten Islands. But in 1903 he emigrated to Appleton, Minnesota, where he had an uncle. Anton did not like the hot and humid nights and the tornadoes in Minnesota. In late summer 1903 he moved to Granum, Alberta, where he applied for a homestead 12 miles to the northeast. Grass fires were very common at the time of his arrival, and one of his first tasks after building a shack, was to plow a fireguard around the it.

Fjordbotten did not have much money with him, and like many others in the neighborhood he worked in the lumber camps in British Columbia. During three winters at Fernie, Yak, Moyie, and Cranbrook he saved enough to buy horses and equipment to begin proving up on the homestead in Granum. He broke and prepared five acres in 1904, 10 acres in 1905, and 20 acres in 1906. This sufficed to get title to his land.[15] In 1906 he bought a quarter section of land with a house on it. In 1909 Anton Fjordbotten made a return trip to Norway, where he still owned some land and fishing equipment. During his visit he met Laura Kristine Larsen from Vik, Nordland County (born August 28, 1883, died 1976).

A wife from home

Laura emigrated in 1910 and traveled west from New York on the Great Northern Railway. At Shelby Junction, Montana, she took the Great Falls and Canada Railway north across the border to Coutts and through Lethbridge. In December she stepped off the train in Granum. On December 10, Laura and Anton were married on the Fjordbotten farm by the Norwegian pastor J. R. Lavik, who served the Norwegian Lutheran Congregation at Claresholm.

Laura found life in Canada rather difficult the first years. She had to learn the language and adjust to a completely new way of life.[16] The couple became parents of nine children. Their oldest son Christen Ludvik was born 28th August, 1911. The second, Artun, born on the farm on October 8, 1912, later told that the Norwegian language was used at home. When he began school, he was still not able to speak the English language.

[1] Simon N. Evans, «The End of the Open Range Era in Western Canada», Prairie Forum, vol. 8, no. 1, Spring 1983, p. 76.
[2] Simon N. Evans, «The End of the Open Range Era in Western Canada», Prairie Forum, pp. 81-82.
[3] E. R. Patterson, The Early History of the Town of Claresholm, Lethbridge 1969, p. 7.
[4] Where the Wetlands meet the Range, published by the Claresholm History Book Club, Claresholm, Alberta 1974, p. 138.
[5] E. R. Patterson, The Early History of the Town of Claresholm, p. 8.
[6] Where the Wetlands meet the Range, p. 18, 137.
[7] E. R. Patterson, The Early History of the Town of Claresholm, p. 12.
[8] E. R. Patterson, The Early History of the Town of Claresholm, pp. 3, 39.
[9] The Sobys became the parents of eight children – Martha, Alfred, Elida, Julia, Roy, Mabel, Alvin and Harold.
[10] Echoes of Willow Creek, Lethbridge Herald, Lethbridge 1965, pp. 53-54.
[11] Leavings by Trail, Granum by Rail, Granum, Alberta 1977, p. 258.
[12] Leavings by Trail, Granum by Rail, p. 16.
[13] Leavings by Trail, Granum by Rail, pp. 159-160.
[14] Leavings by Trail, Granum by Rail, p. 256.
[15] Leavings by Trail, Granum by Rail, p. 266.
[16] Leavings by Trail, Granum by Rail, p. 267.

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