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16. Pioneer Writing / W. F. Thomas
by A. B. Estlin —1936


As I have already mentioned, Mr. Thomas was one of the first settlers and I feel that it will be interesting to many of my readers who know him, to hear the story of his early days, his hardships and privations, all of which were told to me by himself, as we sat together smoking our pipes in his comfortable home in Melita, where he lives after completing 50 years of continuous service as Secretary-Treasurer for the Municipality of Arthur, which was enlarged and made smaller at different times in his career.

Walter F. Thomas was born in Queenstown, On¬tario, on November 3, 1856. Like many other On-tario boys, he left home and came west, to look for a job. He had been promised one at Port Arthur, but when he got there, the place was filled. Much disap¬pointed, he looked about for another. He fell in with a man called John Lloyd, from Superior, U.S.A., who promised him work if he would go back there with him. Having nothing in sight, Thomas went with Lloyd on board the little tugboat, and after a very stormy passage, during which they expected to be wrecked at any time, he finally reached Superior. Thomas found the work was in a Root Beer and Ginger Ale factory which did not appeal to him, so after working there a while he left, and travelled up the coast where he got a job in a saw mill. He did not stay there very long either, but went back to Superior and took a train for Winnipeg by Fisher Landing. Things were not very good in Winnipeg those days with jobs scarce, but he got one to go haying near Stony Mountain.

The country around there is low and flat, so when Thomas and his new employer started out with mower and rake tied behind the wagon, they did not get far before they got stuck fast in the oozy mud, for which the Red River Valley is famous. After unhitch¬ing the horses, the two men tried for several hours to get the wagon out. They were soaking wet and the mosquitoes buzzed round them in millions. They finally decided to get the horses and go back. Thomas went to get them but could not find them, and came back to the wagon. His boss wanted him to go back again and look some more, but Thomas had had enough, and started back to Winnipeg. When he got there he found the horses had got back to the stable, so he bought a saddle and went back to the haying, riding one of the horses.

The haying job consisted of pulling the newly mown grass out of the water with the horse, taking it on to dry land, and did not last long. Getting back to Winnipeg, he heard of the great bed of coal that had been found south and west, near the boundary line.

Having no work in sight, Thomas, who had fallen in with Alfred Dugay and James Kinley, proposed that they pool resources, buy a wagon, tent, some provisions and go out to the coal area. They did this and also bought some ponies. They made slow progress as the roads were very wet and soft, but after a rest at Portage la Prairie, they got to Grand Valley where Brandon is now. Here they found deep snow, so had to stop and build jumpers, or rough sleighs, before going on. They left Grand Valley, following a trail to Oak Lake where Marion Brothers kept a store and trading post. They camped here for another rest, but had another misfortune, as some Indians stole a lot of their precious provisions. Leaving Oak Lake they struck south, travelling through a lot of wet marshy country, until they reached the Souris River. They followed the river until they reached the mouth of the Antler. Here they camped and as the country looked good, Thomas suggested staying there and taking up the land, which they did. He was the only one who "stuck it" as I have said previously. In the winter following, he had a very narrow escape from losing his life.

He left the camp with his dog and provisions for four days, riding his pony to Winnipeg. He camped the first night just east of where Melita is now, and travelled along the river. On the third he reached Plum Creek which is where the town of Souris now stands.

As it was windy and very cold, he cut some small poles with his hand axe and covered them with his blankets, making a tent. The next morning he was horrified to find he could not see. Here he was, miles from any human habitation. He lay there for three days in this pitiable condition, suffering from snow blindness. When his sight came back a bit, he discovered that his dog had eaten most of his grub, but his pony was all right, having lived by pawing the snow from the grass, so he gathered up his little outfit, and struck out over the prairie for the Brandon Hills where he could get wood. He reached there and
camped for the night, but he was getting very weak, having had almost no food for three days. He was afraid to go to sleep so walked and jumped around to keep warm, thereby keeping himself awake.

The next morning he started for Grand Valley but the snow got very deep and at last his pony could go no further. There was nothing else to do but to turn back, so he retraced his steps to his camp of the previous night and next day set out for Plum Creek. Snow was now falling heavily, a wind got up and he was badly worried lest he should lose his way. However, he reached his previous camp, which was where the Souris Flour Mill is now, put up two crotched sticks with a cross piece, on which he hung his mitts and socks to dry. During the night the dog, feeling cold, crawled up to the fire, knocked the sticks down and they fell in the fire. It was indeed a desperate situation. The food was all gone. He had no socks or mitts. It was evident that both he and the dog would starve, so very reluctantly he killed his faithful friend of many trials, and it saved his life by supply¬ing a scanty stock of food, or enough to last three days. In order to make sure of this, after cooking the dog, he did the flesh up in separate packages, tied them with a thin strip of shaganappi he had in his pocket and took one for each meal. The next day he made the sandhills. Here the snow was almost gone and the sun shone. While he was riding along, a skunk ran along the trail in front of him. Almost without thinking he threw his hand axe at it and by a wonderful stroke of good fortune, struck it on the head, killing it instantly, thereby avoiding odoriferous complications and providing an extra supply of nice white meat. Very few menus contain both dog and skunk.

Having plenty of food, he got safely home, camping on the river south and west of Melita. The next day he got back to his shanty, very thankful indeed for his narrow escape. He made several more trips, but although they were all strenuous, none was as bad as this one.

In the spring of 1882, the snow was very deep and went away quickly, with heavy rain, causing all the rivers to rise and overflow their banks. It is known to this day as the year of the big flood. Settlers were beginning to travel in and it was necessary for them to cross the rivers. Naturally a lot of them followed the Commission Trail from Emerson. So Thomas decided to build a boat. He had no boards but enquired around among the new settlers. A lot of these had brought cars of stock and implements, and most of them had some lumber in them. He finally got two wide boards, 16 feet long from one called John Bot-teril. These he paid $8 for, and with a few smaller pieces from here and there, he built the first boat. It was not very stable, and the trip was sometimes perilous, but by swimming the ponies and loading the buckboards carefully on to the boat, it served the purpose and sometimes produced as much as $5 for a trip which soon repaid the original outlay.

It was on one of these trips that Thomas lost his arm. He had crossed the river to bring some land seekers across, had landed them and was walking back to the shanty when he remembered he had left his gun in the boat. He went back, picked it up, and for some unaccountable reason, the gun went off, blowing off his hand just above the wrist. Fortunately the muzzle was close to the arm and the flame from it burned the flesh and arteries so that very little blood escaped. The passengers picked him up, tied a handkerchief tightly above the wound and carried him, more dead than alive, to his shanty, using the door for an ambulance. After lying helpless for eight days, the hoped-for doctor had not arrived and there were signs of mortification setting in. Any chance of going out for medical help was out of the question and things looked very bad indeed. But the same good fortune that had brought him through before stood him in good stead once more. News of the accident reached the Dominion Land Office 30 miles east of Sourisford at Old Deloraine and it just happened that a young medical student was there getting informa¬tion about homesteads. He immediately set out for the scene of the accident, and arriving there, decided at once that amputation was the only thing to be done. For instruments he had only a case of pocket lance knives, but no saw. Then someone remembered that Joseph Dann, who lived some miles west, and was a veterinary surgeon, had a bone saw. Both he and his saw were soon pressed into service and the operation was successfully performed. To secure the arteries and sew up the wound they had only gill net twine, but it made a good job. After the operation Thomas had a good meal of stewed wild duck and bannocks, and was himself again, a wonderful relief after eight days of agony and worry. Strangely enough he suf¬fered no pain during the operation. Neither anaesthe¬tics or antiseptics were used. Mother nature, without the aid of science, performed the miracle, assisted by a splendid constitution and a healthy body.

The following summer, being in Ottawa, Thomas showed his arm to the family physician, Sir James Grant, whose only comment was "It was well done." The loss of his arm put an end to his ferrying opera¬tions, but having his right hand and arm left he was able to get along nicely. When the Municipality of Arthur was formed soon after, he was appointed clerk, which position he held for nearly 50 years. He also was Secretary-Treasurer of the Pioneers' Association for over 30, being obliged to relinquish both offices on account of failing eyesight.

He is still in splendid health (1936) and greatly enjoys a chat with old timers.