Adventure leads to opportunity aplenty for early pioneer
R.P. Ottewell family history, part two
In the January 2015 issue of Strathcona County Living, we shared the story of Richard Philip (R.P.) Ottewell’s imprisonment at Upper Fort Garry, when he was a prisoner of Louis Riel during the uprising of 1869. After this near miss, Ottewell returned to his family home in Bruce County on the eastern shore of Lake Huron in Ontario, and for the next 10 years, he worked in sawmills and mines there, work experience that would serve him well later in his life.
In 1877, he met and married Frances (Fannie) Trevillion. By the time two children, William and Ella, had been born in quick succession, R.P. was once again bitten by the lure of the west, now supposedly free of its former political tensions. R.P. left his family in the care of Fannie’s parents to move west in search of suitable farmland. A keg of Red Fife wheat seed was packed among his few belongings as he and friends Thomas Jackson, William Carscaden and Ed Langrell joined freighters heading to Edmonton in the spring of 1881.
Adventure—never far away for any pioneer—followed R.P. on his way northwest across the plains. There is a family account in Cherished Memories, a local history book, of a dramatic meeting with one of the west’s most famous American visitors. Near Fort Qu’Appelle, the freighters crossed the path of a band of Sioux and their famous leader, Sitting Bull. Ottewell and the others were nervous as the natives approached their camp. Several years earlier, the Sioux had annihilated American General George Custer and his troops at the battle of the Little Big Horn, and had subsequently fled to Canada seeking asylum. The promise of a full pardon by the American President, combined with the lack of support from the Canadian government, convinced Sitting Bull to return to the United States. It must have been a tense moment as the Sioux passed their camp. The freighters thought they had escaped unnoticed when, suddenly, a lone man appeared before them. “I’m Sitting Bull,” the man announced, and then left to follow his people. The freighters were thankful the moment had passed without incident.
Ottewell, Jackson, Carscaden and Langrell arrived in the Edmonton area in the summer of 1881. Almost immediately, R.P. staked a homestead southeast of the Edmonton settlement. Today, that homestead claim is the Edmonton subdivision of Ottewell. Almost as quickly, though, R.P. abandoned this claim in favour of another. He, along with his friends, had scouted out the empty lands east of Edmonton and found them to be superior. On August 7, he squatted on what would later be surveyed as NW 16-53-23-W4. Years later, one of R.P.’s sons, Frank, recalled his father telling him that the land “was like a peavine, a jungle of forest. He cut his homestead out of the bush by hand.” R.P. hastily built a 10-foot by 12-foot “soddie” where he spent the first winter. The next spring, he was busy breaking land and sowing his small field with the wheat seed that he had brought with him from Ontario.
In 1883, after the land had been surveyed, Ottewell purchased for $3 an acre a pre-emption, NE 16-53-23-W4. While the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 had introduced a policy of free land grants, or homesteads, of 160 acres, an ensuing depression had resulted in stagnant immigration numbers. To prod what he believed was an untapped desire on the part of Europeans and Britons to immigrate to Canada, Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie introduced in 1874 an amendment to the 1872 Act. Homesteaders like R.P. were then allowed to purchase a pre-emption of 160 acres once the patent had been received for their homesteads.
R.P. had not forgotten his family, and in the autumn of 1883 after the harvest was in, he returned to Ontario to bring his family to their Clover Bar home. Fannie was pleased to find her husband had built a substantial two-storey house of squared logs, with tight-fitting dovetail corners, measuring 19' x 21'. The walls were chinked with a clay and straw mixture. Later, R.P. replaced this chinking with one made from sand, lime and horsehair. There was a chimney made of fieldstones and mortar.
For the interior, R.P. had purchased spruce shiplap for the floor and interior walls, and for the door and window frames. On the main floor, Fannie found one large room that served as a combined living room, dining room and kitchen; a trap door in the kitchen area led to a root cellar. In one corner on the main floor, she found a small bedroom.
Upstairs, there were three more bedrooms. Later, as the family expanded to number nine children, R.P. built a lean-to onto the house for two more bedrooms. Each bedroom was furnished with a log bedframe and straw-filled mattress. In the big room on the main floor, there was a large iron stove that served as stove, oven and furnace; an organ; Fannie’s rocking chair; and her sewing machine. A neighbour, Frank McNutt, made a sofa frame and a large table using legs purchased from the Ross Brothers’ store on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton.
The joy of the family being reunited was threatened less than two years later. Louis Riel had returned to Canada from the United States, where he had been living in exile since 1870, to lead the Métis in their second attempt to secure recognition for their land claims. The problems of 1869-1870 were not far from Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s memory, and when Riel formed a provisional government in 1884, Macdonald reacted by creating a military force to quell the insurgency. The late winter and spring of 1885 was a period of much unrest among the native bands, and fear among the small number of settlers. Like others, the Ottewells abandoned their home and farm to seek shelter inside the walls of Fort Edmonton where R.P. took up sentry duty. In the end, the pitched battles between the Métis (and their aboriginal allies) and government troops did not extend as far west as the Edmonton area, and within three months, with the arrest of Louis Riel and Cree chief Big Bear, the 1885 resistance was over.
By now, it was early summer, and R.P. busied himself with breaking more land with his two oxen, Buck and Bright. For the first number of years, the Ottewell farm was a typical mixed farming operation. In 1886, Ottewell and a neighbour, St. George Jellet, harvested 60 bushels to the acre of barley, 114 bushels to the acre of White Sandwich oats, and 41 bushels to the acre of White Russia wheat. Frank Oliver, editor of the Edmonton Bulletin, could barely contain his enthusiasm: “this big crop had a marked effect in putting heart and confidence into the pioneers who at the time were in much need of encouragement” after a number of years of drought and killing early frosts.
Oats proved to be a hardy crop and the next year R.P. sold oats on contract to the North West Mounted Police at Fort Saskatchewan. The family also raised swine, Plymouth Rock chickens, turkeys and all-purpose cattle. R.P. and St. George Jellet partnered in the purchase of a sausage-making machine that provided some variety in the family’s diet. Much later, R.P. shifted his farming operation to dairy.
By the 1890s, R.P. had a well-established farm, and he was ready to branch into other interests. The Edmonton and Saskatchewan Land Company, a colonization company that had been awarded four townships in the area in the early 1880s, had defaulted in 1885. The company directors had chosen to dispose of all the capital assets including a threshing machine it had just purchased. R.P., with an eye to doing custom threshing, purchased the Giant steam engine and the Minnesota Chief grain separator. His outfit, most often manned by local natives, was a common sight during harvest as it moved from farm to farm.
By 1891, R.P. reasoned that the steam engine could serve a dual purpose. Going into partnership with Alex Rea, Ottewell set up two sawmills, one at Cooking Lake and the other at Old Man Creek, where his trusty Giant steam engine ran the mill that turned out rough cut lumber. During the winter, R.P. lived in a shack by the sawmill, walking home once a week to visit his family.
A few years later, he experimented with placer mining on the North Saskatchewan River, which was well known to have “colour,” that is, gold. “On a good day, he could make $5.00.” His foray into gold mining must not have been profitable because he gave it up by 1895. However, he purchased an abandoned gold dredge and converted it into a blacksmith shop for his farm, as farmers always had horses to shoe and machinery to fix.
One of the many reasons R.P. had chosen land east of Edmonton was the accessibility and thickness of an abundant number of coal seams, as coal mining was something he knew from his younger days back at Bruce County in Ontario. In 1904, he opened the Ottewell Coal Company underground mine on SW 17-53-23 W4 near the current railway bridge over the North Saskatchewan River; it was across the river from the community of Beverly. R.P.’s eldest son, Will, managed the mine, hiring as many as 30 men during the winter season, while also farming at Clover Bar. When the mine closed in 1951, more than 455,000 tons of coal had been mined. Later in 1932, during the dark days of the Depression, R.P. opened another coal mine west of Fulton Creek in 36-52-24-W4. It was, at first, an underground mine giving local farmers and out-of-work labourers employment during the winter months. Beginning in 1946 until the mine’s closure in 1950, the mine operated as a strip pit. Approximately 244,000 tons of coal were extracted from this mine.
Farming in the summer, and running sawmills and coal mines in the winter apparently weren’t enough to keep R.P. busy. He founded the Campbell and Ottewell Flour Mills and had an interest in the Alberta Milling Company, known also as the Ritchie Mill (located at the end of steel in Strathcona, Alberta). A son, Arthur, who had been born in 1885, worked at both mills in 1911, while establishing his own farm.
R.P. was also community-minded, serving as a school trustee and being instrumental in having Clover Bar School No. 212 built in 1900. A farmer first and foremost, R.P. involved himself in organizations like the Equity League and the United Farmers of Alberta, two organizations that worked to improve the marketing of grain and the bargaining power of farmers.
Hard work and perseverance paid off. By 1911, R.P. and Fannie were able to build a large, 17-room brick house that reputedly had triple thick walls and an interior complete with oak trim, a dumb waiter, two fireplaces and hot water heating—the very epitome of a modern house. The old log house that had served them for so many years was then used as a bunkhouse for hired farm hands. In June 1927, R.P. and Fannie celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a sit-down noon meal in their brick home, surrounded by 100 children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews.
Decades later, in 1951 after R.P.’s death, Celanese Corporation purchased from sons Fred and Frank two quarter-sections of the family farm, including the home quarter where the log house was located. Sometime after this date, the log house was moved to Danard’s Great North West Pioneer Village. When the City of Edmonton purchased the Village’s buildings and artifacts in 1967, it moved the Ottewell old log house, now rather dilapidated, to the city’s Fort Edmonton Park, where it was restored as an integral part of 1885 Street. The grand brick house, empty after the deaths of Fred and Frank was destroyed by fire on April 17, 1972.
R.P. was one of the original settlers of Strathcona County. He and Fannie raised a large family, all of whom took up farming in the area and raised large families of their own. With a brother, Sidney, who moved west in 1884 to take up a homestead in the Bremner district, and R.P.’s father and brother, Alfred, who moved from Ontario in 1890, the Ottewell name has become well known in Strathcona County. Another brother, Albert, came out to join the family and attended the newly minted University of Alberta in 1908, eventually serving as the Registrar.