On our farm in west central Saskatchewan, there are a lot of rockpiles.
For a farmer, a rockpile – or, if you are looking at my fields, several rockpiles per field – usually means three things. One, your land isn’t necessarily of the highest quality. The best land has topsoil measured in feet, not inches, with no stones to be found. Our land is not that. On our land, the rockpiles help create a sinuous, woven pattern in the fields. It looks like art – from an airplane.
Two, there is an extra level of work involved to bring that land into safe production. Going over fields, every year, and taking off the rocks, stones, and boulders that seemingly ‘grow’ over the winter frost heave, popping out during spring seeding to vex and judder, is an added cost in time, labour, machinery, and field management. Not to mention, planning where to put those stones: they generally end up in the scrubby places, next to sloughs, or get added to old rockpiles. I pretend the piles are collapsed castles, just waiting for the right stonemason to bring them to new life. The behemoths, we move.
Three, ‘safe’ is really important. Anyone who has put a rock through a combine, or hit an embedded boulder with a large piece of expensive farm machinery, will know of which I speak. Not to mention the possibility of crashing into one with an ATV or a snowmobile.
But not all rockpiles are equal, I’ve come to discover. Nor are they all created as a result of farming.
Our farm is in the Bear Hills, a traditional no-man’s-land that demarcated the territorial boundaries between the Cree and the Blackfoot. Historical records point to our region as loaded with prairie grizzlies, fat on local bison. The bison drew both Cree and Blackfoot, leading to conflict.
A fascinating and common feature in our area are rockpiles on the peaks of the hills. Right at the top of the hill, topping what looks like a woman’s breast with a nipple.
What farmer, I always wondered, was so stupid as to haul rocks uphill? That never made sense to me, until I began researching my region’s Aboriginal past.
The rockpiles were essentially watchtowers, used by spies and sentinels, watching the landscape for enemies and threats, bison herds and prairie fires. In building rockpiles on top of the hills, and hiding behind them, enemies or bison herds wouldn’t see them. They are anthropogenic creations – just not necessarily for farming as we know it today.
It’s well-known in western Canada that much of the traditional Aboriginal features of the landscape have been obliterated. Flipping the landscape from what could be called bison ranching to cropland agriculture meant that stones — stone effigies, medicine wheels, tipi rings, and rock carvings — became impediments, objects to be removed.
First piled into rockpiles, many hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rock from those piles has gone into extensive infrastructure construction, from building foundations to roads, bridges and even dams. The Gardiner Dam on the South Saskatchewan River, which created the reservoir Lake Diefenbaker, was built using rock from hundreds of farms in the region.
Farmers loaded rock from their rockpiles and shipped it off, for payment, to the building contractors. Other dams, for irrigation or water power, have been built across western Canada, using local rockpiles. In a one-time only event, farmers had a cash ‘crop’ from the flotsam and jetsam of their farming operations.
The extensive infrastructure and building needs across western Canada in the last 150 years means that the few fantastic stone artifacts that remain are all the more precious, as we mourn those, like the great Mistassini, that are gone.
Yet rocks remained, and each year, farmers with land like mine would once again find a new ‘crop’ of stones in the spring, needing to be removed. And that’s where the Aboriginal story once again returns.
My husband and I purchased a quarter section of land that has an interesting feature: a stone fence. It runs about a quarter of a mile, right on the boundary line between our land and the next. Another quarter, purchased from a different farmer, has a similar feature. A stone fence runs alongside an old road snaking along the edge of a hill.
For years, we assumed that the farmers who owned these quarters just decided to do something more decorative with their yearly rock production. Instead of simply dumping it in piles, these rocks are carefully constructed into a new feature of the landscape. In essence, we thought that we bought our land from farmers with a sense of style.
But I wasn’t quite right.
My father-in-law, who farms next door, has lived here almost all his life. And he knows who built those stonepiles. In our area, local farmers built a strategic business relationship to get the job done.
Families from the Aboriginal reserve communities to the north of our region – around North Battleford, Meadow Lake, and elsewhere from the parkland and forest fringe – would move en masse down to the farms around Marriott and Valley Centre. On contract with local farmers, the Aboriginal families would camp out in the farm fields, often bringing their own horses and equipment, or coming down with trucks filled with camping equipment and kids, to use the local farmer’s tools, and proceeded to pick rocks.
They also brought presents: my farmstead is filled with jackpine trees, brought down from the north and planted by the Aboriginal families who worked on our homesteader, Albert Kessel’s, fields.
It’s one thing to pick rocks; it’s quite another to find a way to measure what you’ve done. Rock picking could only be assessed by volume, not time. After all, it took more work to move one big rock than to move a lot of smaller ones.
Like cordwood (cut stove wood), rock picking was assessed by cubic measure: four feet wide by four feet high by eight feet long. Other variations (six feet wide by two feet high, or eight feet wide by one foot high) can also be found. I found several like these this past spring, on a jaunt through our farmland on the quad. At first, I thought they were old foundations, straight and square and cunningly fitted, until my father-in-law put me right.
Payment was by the cord, and ranged from about a dollar in the 1920s and 1930s, to about $10 per cord by the 1960s.
For a week or two, sometimes three, usually in June after spring seeding but before the crop was very high, these Aboriginal families worked hard to clear the fields of stones. When done, their carefully-constructed fences and other features could be easily measured and payment made. Packing up, most would make arrangements to come back the next year. Many longstanding friendships remain, tying local farm families to friends in the north, though the practice largely ended by the late 1960s.
As a western Canadian historian, I found these stories amazing. They represent an intersection of farming and Aboriginal entrepreneurship not well understood — indeed, I had never heard them before. But I am grateful for the once-fruitful business contracts and friendships: they built a lasting legacy of beauty, making rockpiles that will last for many more generations.
So the next time you see a rockpile, look a little deeper. It may be more than you think.