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The Scallion Family of Virden

The story behind the farm, the family and the enduring name
Winnipeg author Gordon Goldsborough will release his second book, More Abandoned Manitoba: Rivers, Rails and Ruins, on Oct. 25. The work outlines the thousands of historically significant sites – both known and unknown – that dot the province’s landscape, including the Scallion property near Virden. Photograph By GREAT PLAINS PUBLICATIONS
Often, when I encounter a decaying old building for the first time, I know a lot about its history because I researched it before my visit: when and why it was built, by whom, and for whom. Sometimes, however, I discover an old building entirely by chance and know nothing of its past. Later, when I do some digging in the archives, it turns out to be nothing particularly special. In a few rare cases, I find that one of these discoveries is an important one.
Such a case was an old farmyard about 2½ miles northwest of Virden. I had seen it from afar a couple of times during travels in that region. Knowing that most abandoned farms do not have an interesting back story, I paid it little mind. Then, in May 2012, I decided to take a look up close. It was no easy feat. The yard site was a quarter mile from the nearest municipal road. Its driveway was encroached on both sides by large unkempt Manitoba Maples. As I drew near, I noticed there were actually two buildings there. Both had been made of field stones gathered from the surrounding area that were split in half to make flat sides, then stacked back-to-back, flat sides out, to make a thick rock wall. One of them, a two-storey structure, looked like a giant dollhouse. Its north wall had fallen to show each of the rooms inside. The windows are all gone and the lathe-and-plaster interior walls were badly broken. Clearly, it did not seem safe. So, contrary to my usual practice, I did not venture inside. The other building was a granary, a squat, one-storey structure with a wooden roof, with a soil berm to the top of the rock wall on its east side, probably to help in loading grain into it. Unlike the house, the granary seemed in relatively good shape. To be honest, neither building impressed me much so I took a few photos, a GPS waypoint, and headed on my way. It was only months later, when I reviewed my notes from that trip, and did background research, that their significance became clear. The Scallion farmyard, established over a century ago, is connected intimately to the early engagement of farmers in Manitoba politics.
Sometime in the 1850s (family accounts vary), the Scallion family—William and Catherine along with their two daughters and two sons—came to Canada from County Wexford in Ireland and settled at Thorold, Upper Canada [today, Ontario], near Hamilton. The children were educated at local schools and the eldest son, James, planned to become a teacher. He attended the Toronto Normal School, taught school for a few years, then ran a store at Thorold in partnership with his younger brother, Thomas. The brothers must have been enticed by the possibilities of western Canada and, in 1882, they moved to Manitoba, initially settling at Stonewall before going onto the Virden area the following year. Together, they bought 640 acres of land near town and built the house and granary that I had found, along with a couple of barns and other outbuildings, most of them likewise made of stone. In the custom of the day, they named their farm “The Grange.” The Scallion farm boasted the latest in technology. A power plant provided electricity for the house and barn, at a time when few Manitoba farms were electrified. The granary was immense by standards of the time, being able to hold 12,000 bushels, with electric machinery to load and empty it. Within500 yards of the granary, there was a siding on the Canadian Pacific Railway line that passed through the Scallion property. A loading platform on that siding permitted the Scallions to load their grain into boxcars for shipment without having to patronize a commercial elevator. That independence probably had an influence on James Scallion’s views about farming and the rights of those who did it.
Eventually, the Scallion brothers increased their land holdings to 960 acres. They grew grain and raised livestock with the assistance of a pair of hired men. It is unknown when their sisters Hannah and Catherine joined them. It may have been after their parents died in Ontario, in 1887, or possibly earlier. In any case, none of the siblings ever married and they lived together for the rest of their days. Known for their hospitality, the Scallions were offered to visitors as a shining example of the success that could be achieved through hard work.
If James Scallion had done nothing more than develop his farm, he would scarcely be remembered nearly a century after his death. However, it was through his social activism on behalf of farmers that he came to prominence. He believed that farmers should have the right to sell their produce wherever they could get the best price, whether in Canada or the United States. He believed that farmers should be able to ship their grain directly to market and not be dependent on companies that paid low prices for grain and charged exorbitant “dockage fees,” the fee to load a boxcar. In January 1903, he and some of his neighbours formed the Virden Grain Growers’ Association and he was elected its president. Then, he travelled around the province to encourage other communities to follow Virden’s lead. In March 1903, the Manitoba Grain Growers Association (MGGA) was established at Brandon, with Scallion as its president. He told the assembly that: “40,000 farmers had produced 100,000 bushels of wheat and they should all be wealthy but where was the wealth? Certainly not in the farmers’ hands but in the homes of the manufacturers, railway promoters, and grain dealers.” He served one year as president then stepped down due to ill health, but he remained the honorary president for the rest of his life.
MGGA chapters formed in all of the major communities in the agricultural belt of Manitoba and the Association adopted socially progressive policies. In 1912, it admitted women as associate members and, the next year, it went on record as favouring “votes for women on equal terms with men.” In 1914, its constitution was amended to recognize women as full voting members.
In 1906, Scallion was a founding member of the Grain Growers Grain Company, a cooperative that marketed the grain of its members in competition with private companies. Two years later, the company began publishing a farm magazine called the Grain Growers Guide that became, in 1928, The Country Guide. In 1917, the Grain Growers Grain Company changed its name to United Grain Growers. It would become one of the largest grain companies in the prairie provinces, operating grain elevators in hundreds of towns, with profits shared by its member farmers.
Scallion was politically active but claimed no party affiliation, voting for whichever candidate he believed was best qualified for the office. He is said to have resolutely refused attempts to nominate him for political office. In 1910, he joined a group of 800 farmers who went to Ottawa to lay their grievances before the federal government, especially relating to excessive freight rates being charged by the railways. His belief in free trade put him at odds with federal politicians who favoured protectionism. He put his views, forcefully and persuasively, before Prime Ministers Robert Borden and Wilfrid Laurier when they were in Brandon during visits to western Canada, in 1907and 1910, respectively. To Laurier, he said: “There are no trade arrangements the Canadian government could make with any country that would meet with greater favour or stronger support from the farmers of Western Canada than a wide measure of reciprocal trade with the United States, including manufactured articles and the natural products of both countries.”
In early 1920, the MGGA changed its name to the United Farmers of Manitoba (UFM). Scallion was nominated as president but withdrew his name due to continuing but unspecified health problems. The UFM was, in effect, a political party based on an ideology of non-partisanship and pragmatic, managerial government with special attention to rural concerns, later renaming itself the Progressive Party of Manitoba. In the provincial general election of 1920, it fielded 25 candidates, and had nine of them elected, while Liberal Premier Tobias Norris’ majority government was relegated to minority status in the 55-seat Legislature, dropping from 41 to 20 seats.
Gaining confidence, the UFM was ready to take full advantage when, in March 1922, Norris’ minority government resigned over allegations of corruption and fraud. In the general election held in July 1922, the UFM took 26 seats and gained a majority with several Independents who favoured UFM policies. However, they now had a problem. In the previous legislative session, their caucus had had no formal leader but, now that they were going to form Manitoba’s first farmers’ government, the UFM needed someone to become Premier. At least four candidates were considered, all but one with bona fide credentials as a farmer. Federal politician Thomas Crerar had farmed near Russell, while newly elected MP Robert Hey farmed near Springfield and newly elected MLA William Robson farmed near Deleau. For his part, Ontario-born John Bracken had spent ten years as Professor of Field Husbandry at the University of Saskatchewan before being hired in 1920 as Principal of the Manitoba Agricultural College. In the course of interviews with the caucus, Crerar, Hoey, and Robson turned down the position, leaving Bracken as the sole candidate. He met with the caucus and impressed them sufficiently that they agreed unanimously to offer him the leadership. It took three more meetings before Bracken agreed reluctantly to accept the position. In July 1922, John Bracken was sworn in as Premier of Manitoba, with no political experience and never having cast a vote in any Manitoba election. Three months later, he gained the requisite seat in the Legislature when a postponed election was held in the constituency of The Pas. Bracken would go on to be Manitoba’s longest-serving Premier – 21 years – before jumping to federal politics in 1943 as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party.
In 1918, Scallion, still in poor health, took a holiday in California then moved with his one surviving sister into a comfortable house on Lyons Street in Virden where he lived out his final years. He remained a prolific letter-writer and newspapers took to calling him the “Farmers’ Premier” because of his continuing advocacy for the interests of western farmers. He sold “The Grange” to 38-year-old Scotsman Andrew Murray, who had arrived in Canada in 1911 with his wife and three children. They lived there for about five years before selling to their neighbour, Norman Gerrand, who operated the farm until his accidental death in the farmyard, at the age of 52 years, in 1948. The Scallion railway siding was removed sometime before 1954. I have not been able to determine how the Scallion farm – once a proud showpiece of innovation and efficiency – descended to its present state of disrepair, with all but two of the original buildings gone. Perhaps a reader can tell me?
James Scallion improved the lives of many farm families by working to ensure they received the highest possible return for their hard work. He played a key role in engaging farmers in the political process, helped to found the United Farmers of Manitoba, and he bore witness to its breakthrough in provincial politics. He was a founder of a cooperative grain company that was a major force in prairie agriculture until its disappearance in a corporate merger in 2001. But there was more. Before he died in April 1926, James Scallion made a final enduring contribution to his local community by donating $10,000 (about $140,000 in today’s currency) toward the development of an endowment for the Virden Hospital and $5,000 for the Virden Cemetery where he would be buried. Yet, despite all his accomplishments and accolades during his lifetime, James Scallion is barely remembered in the Virden area. In 1975, the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names renamed a small river that flows through his former property, known previously as Little Bosshill Creek, as Little Scallion Creek. It seems to me that “The Grange” – crumbling though it may be – is as good a testament as any to this remarkable man.
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