Prairie patriarch : a history of Almon James Cotton, 1859-1942

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Owen, Wendy Jane
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Between 1870 and 1914 Canada's prairies were settled by thousands of farmers, many from overcrowded Ontario. While the Ontario farmer has been the protagonist in much Canadian fiction, often being portrayed as a tyrannical patriarch, he has seldom been examined as an individual in historical writing. Agricultural history rooted in political economy and economic history presents the farmer as an anonymous figure contributing to collective statatistics about costs, yields, and averages under cultivation. Like the fiction, the historical literature sees the farmer as victim, subject to a myriad of larger environmental and economic forces over which he has little control. In the career of Almon James Cotton (1858-1942), we have the opportunity to follow the agricultural strategy of an effective and articulate prairie farmer. Cotton is one of the few farmers in early Manitoba for whom extensive financial records and personal papers are available. In his early years in the West, at Treherne, Manitoba, between 1888 and 1902, Cotton established himself by exploiting leased land, combined good fortune, above-average farming practices, and constant expansion of his acreage under cultivation to become known as Manitoba's Wheat King. Detailed analysis of Cotton's surviving account books makes it possible to follow the gradual process by which Cotton achieved his success, providing a case study illuminating the long-standing debate over the costs of establishing a prairie farm. At the turn of the century, with four sons to establish on farms of their own, Cotton shifted from tenancy to land ownership, purchasing 3,000 acres in the newly-opened Swan River Valley. In the Swan River Valley, Cotton turned patriarch and squire, perhaps enabling him to avoid the alienation which beset many farmers. He had not only to improve his land but to take the lead in the building of roads, bridges, schools, churches, and even towns. He became briefly involved in provincial politics, running in 1903 for the Manitoba Legislature on a combined Temperance-Liberal ticket. But Cotton found politics unsatisfying, and lavished far more attention on correspondence with over 2,000 potential newcomers to the region, serving as an unpaid agent of the Department of Immigration. He became a spokesman for the successful prairie farmer, sharing in criticism of the eastern establishment and boosting the region in a variety of ways.