Village News

The Clear Springs Settlers

  • Glen Klassen, Guest Author
  • Board Member, MHV

When Dominion surveyor Thomas Cheesman was laying out Township 7-6E in 1872, he found three cabins already there on uncharted bushland. One of them, perched on the bank of a small creek, belonged to Thomas and Clementina Rankin, a young Scottish couple from Ontario. Thomas had been there for three years but Clementina had just arrived as his new bride.

Their simple cabin sat on the present-day grounds of the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach, just beyond the ornamental bridge in the south-west corner of the property.

After the survey was completed, the Rankins promptly filed for a homestead on the quarter section now known as SW11-7-6E. Technically they should not have been allowed to homestead on section 11 because it was designated as “School Lands”, but they got the title in due course and lived out their lives in that spot, developing it into a prosperous farm. Within 20 years a handsome two-story house with a pillared veranda and ornamental window lintels stood next to the creek and Clydesdale horses were proudly trotted out front.

The Rankins were not alone. About a mile north, John Jamieson, another young Scot, had also put up a cabin, and a mile and a half northeast were John and Bertha Mack with their bachelor friend Thomas Slater. The three cabins were the only buildings marked on the surveyors’ maps for all eight townships in Hanover, so we can assume that they were the only permanent residents with existing buildings in that vast area at that time.

Jamieson was a former Hudson’s Bay man who came to the wilds of Assiniboia by way of the Hudson’s Bay route. The Macks and Slater had come from Ontario by the American route, trekking from Moorhead by wagon. They were the first settlers to arrive in the Hanover area, a good five years before the Mennonites came.

The three families were soon joined by dozens of other Ontario emigrants to form the vibrant Clear Springs Settlement, mostly confined to the south-east corner of township 7-6E, but spreading east and north into township 7-7E in the RM of Ste. Anne. At its height the settlement comprised about 50 families, most of them Scottish Presbyterians, with a few English Anglicans, and at least one Swedish Lutheran. Quite a few of the settlers were demobilized soldiers from Colonel Wolseley’s expedition, who got their homesteads as Military Bounty Grants.

The Rankins had ten children but unfortunately lost their youngest son John just before his second birthday, and their youngest daughter Nellie tragically at the age of 7, during the great Hanover diphtheria epidemic of 1900.

The unnamed creek flowing past the Rankin farm was a ready source of water and the deep loamy soil promised great crops after the hard work of clearing the poplars. In the clearings grew the tall prairie grasses, and just a few miles to the east were great stands of tamarack, pine, and spruce, ideal for construction and fencing. Water, soil, wood, and hay – almost everything needed for the good life of a hard-working pioneer family. Wild saskatoons, cranberries, and hazel nuts were there for the picking, and game animals were abundant. All you needed from the store was yeast, flour, salt, thread, and the occasional bolt of cloth.

In the early years such things could be gotten at the Hudson’s Bay store in Pointe des Chenes, just eight or nine miles to the north, in the Metis parish of Ste. Anne. This rough village was on the famous Dawson trail, the main Canadian route from East to West, a thoroughfare for adventurers, soldiers, settlers and Metis freighters. The Pointe was one or two days of muddy travel from the big city of Winnipeg.

With the coming of the Mennonites in 1874, the Rankins could soon do their shopping in Steinbach, where Klaas R. Reimer set up a store in 1877. This is the little white building at the Mennonite Heritage Village, now sitting within calling distance of the Rankin’s place. Rankin soon realized that his farming and entrepreneurial talents matched those of the most progressive of the Mennonites and within a few years he was in the lumber and shingle-making business with Reimer himself. He also partnered with super-entrepreneur A. S. Friesen to introduce a reaping machine, which served the entire community. Other Clear Springs farmers introduced the Mennonites to threshing machines and steam engines.

Although the original Selkirk settlers of the early 1800s had occupied the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, the Clear Springs settlers were the first Europeans in Manitoba to farm the unbroken land between the major rivers. Theirs was a rich land of springs and creeks, hayfields, and woodlands. The Rankins, Jamiesons, Macks and their neighbors deserve to be called pioneers extraordinaire.

We are grateful to Alice and Ed Laing for providing much of this information.