Manitoba History: Review: Donald Weatherell with Elise Corbet, Breaking New Ground: A Century of Farm Equipment Manufacturing on the Canadian Prairies

by John Herd Thompson
Director, Canadian Studies, Duke University

Number 27, Spring 1994

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

Donald Weatherell with Elise Corbet, Breaking New Ground: A Century of Farm Equipment Manufacturing on the Canadian Prairies, Saskatoon, Fifth House Ltd. in association with Alberta Community Development, 1993, vi, 258 pp., illus. ISBN 1-895618-23-1.

The authors of this extremely useful monograph quickly explain that the “century” in their title is an exaggeration. Before the 1940s, farm equipment manufacturing on the Canadian Prairies was more a craft than an industry, and most ventures were failures or at best very limited successes. Larger-scale enterprise did not really begin in earnest until World War II.

In their superb exploration of the “craft tradition” of the pre-1940 period, however, Wetherell and Corbet go well beyond the obviously accessible sources on agricultural implement manufacturing to uncover “a much higher level of activity in invention and fabrication of farm equipment on the Prairies than do the official statistics.” (44) They unearth ephemeral failures, like the Bell Automatic Shocker Company of Winnipeg, whose dream of a mechanical stooker died after only two years. They rediscover now-forgotten successes, like the Van Slyke Plow Company, whose “famous Van Slyke plow” broke the sod of 2000 Alberta farms and proudly graced the coat of arms of the city of Red Deer.

Prairie implement producers found specialized niches within which to operate, niches that “full line” manufacturers based in Ontario or the United States—Massey-Harris, Cockshutt International Harvester, John Deere—ignored. Thus Prairie “short line” companies had an importance out of proportion to their size. The small companies made virtually all the important innovations. As G. N. Denike of the Swift Current experimental farm concluded in 1943, “new types of machines [were] seldom, if ever, found in the hands of the larger producers of equipment.” (71)

Wetherell and Corbet point out the role of Prairie farmers themselves in designing implements suited to the unique conditions of the region, and the continuing role of local blacksmiths and small town machine shops in fabricating them. The better-known examples are here, like C. S. Noble’s “Noble Blade” cultivator which controlled soil erosion, and Ellert and Helmer Hanson’ prototypes of the swather. But so are more obscure innovations, like Rosaire Bussiere’s Rock-O-Matic stone picker, an invention patented by necessity; hard winter frosts repeatedly forced rocks to the surface of Prairie fields.

Wetherell and Corbet carefully delineate the “range of factors” which confined pre-World War II Prairie implement manufacturing. In an analysis informed by the work of economic historian Kenneth Norrie, they place no blame on the protective tariff, and little on discriminatory freight rates. Instead they list the difficulty of obtaining capital, the remoteness from adequate sources of steel, and “the limited availability of energy for manufacturing” (51) as the obstacles to regional industrial development. They make clear, however, that implement production was also constrained by the fact that “the amount of equipment used on prairie farms before World War II was very limited.” (47)

This understanding is one of the great strengths of Breaking New Ground. Unlike most historians of agricultural machinery, who are unabashed techno-enthusiasts or even techno-determinists, Wetherell and Corbet recognize that a machine’s invention does not mean its inevitable or instantaneous adoption. They argue that farm mechanization was “never an even process,” and that “periods of increased use [of machinery] were followed by periods of minor change or even reversal.” (87) The expanded use of the gasoline tractor during World War I, for example, was followed during the 1920s by “a decline and a reassertion of horse power.” Wetherell and Corbet remind readers that the “continuing importance of human labour” was a constant reality of rural life; only after 1945 did those who remained on the land in the Prairies commit irrevocably to full-scale mechanization.

This decision, the authors contend, created the surge of demand which best explains the sudden take-off of farm equipment manufacturing in the Prairie Provinces in the post-World War II period. Manufacturers also took advantage of the support of Prairie provincial governments eager to promote economic diversification, and of prairie workers who were “hard working, loyal and non-unionized.” (66) Between 1945 and 1953, the annual value of farm implement sales in the Prairies skyrocketed from $22 mil-lion to $98 million. Western-based companies increased the value of their implement production from an insignificant percentage of total Canadian output until by the 1960s it rivalled that of Ontario.

An extensive bibliography adds to the usefulness of Breaking New Ground, as do eighteen pages of alphabetized “biographies” of prairie implement manufacturers. The text is munificently illustrate with black-and-white photo-graphs and drawings. These photographs have been well chosen through extensive archival research, but they are reproduced on only one-quarter or one-third of each page. This tiny size makes it difficult for the uninitiated (and those among the initiated who don’t have a magnifying glass handy) to differentiate between a steam and a gas tractor, or to figure out how a Gilbert stacker-barge worked. The line-drawings reproduced from catalogues and advertisements are more comprehensible, and thus much more useful, than the photos. There are no maps, alas.

These reproaches mean no more than that Breaking New Ground, like all histories, isn’t perfect. There are other small problems. The authors combination of topical and chronological organization makes the book repetitious in places and difficult to follow in others. It’s disconcerting, for example, to leap from the 1991 failure of Canadian Co-operative Implements Limited on one page to a discussion of the “early prairie industry” on the next. The opening chapter valiantly summarizes Prairie rural history in seventeen pages, so that a few errors of interpretation and emphasis inevitably creep in. The authors misinterpret the percentage of homestead entries which were never proved up as a general failure rate of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta farmers, and they mistakenly suggest that the depression of the 1930s caused large-scale rural depopulation of the Prairies. There were no doubt “14,000 abandoned farms on the Prairies,” (9) by the mid-thirties, but in 1936 the census takers counted 14,000 more farms and 40,000 more farm people in the three provinces than they had in 1931.

This book was commissioned by the Prairie Implement Manufacturers Association to commemorate its twentieth anniversary in 1990, and publication was supported by all three prairie provincial governments. Perhaps as a result, the chapter which narrates the history of PIMA is relentlessly uncritical, and the authors find little fault with recent provincial policies towards the industry. Given that PIMA and the provinces have occasionally clashed, this leads to some fuzzy prose. “... Government insistence on account-ability for the expenditure of public funds cannot be faulted,” the authors maintain, but “this is not to argue that government cannot improve its administration of these programs.” (204)

But these are minor deficiencies in a book which makes a major contribution to a subject which has been neglected by historians. Breaking New Ground is much more than a history of farm implement manufacturing on the Canadian Prairies: it is an important chapter of Prairie rural history.

A steam driven cultivator on the prairies, 1910.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Page revised: 11 April 2010