Today, all that remains of John William Sandison’s operation is a stone mansion northwest of Brandon. However Sandison in 1893 was one of the largest farmers in Western Canada and had the title “Wheat King.”
The legend in western Manitoba is that John Sandison, a Scot, migrated west in 1884 and found work on Carberry plains where he became known as a horseman and plowman. He won the Carberry plowing match three years in a row in the middle 1880s.
He married and with the financial help of his father-in-law, a Carberry area farmer, purchased a 640-acre farm northwest of Brandon, most of which was broken. In 1887 he planted his first crop, broadcasting the seed by hand with plows following and covering the seed.
Apparently Sandison seeded 400 acres in 1887 which was a large acreage for the time. Good growing conditions resulted in a crop of promise and Sandison purchased three new Massey Harris binders for the harvest. The crop was a success with enough money being made to meet all expenses and pay off the mortgage on the farm.
Sandison at this point purchased another 640 acres and decided to devote all his time to management. The 1888 crop was sown using a broadcast or “Gatling Gun” seeder followed by eight plows which rapidly covered the seed. With a Gatling Gun seeder and an appropriate number of plows following to cover the seed, 75 acres a day could be seeded.
Apparently Sandison hired his regular farm hands on a seven- month contract with wages being payable on the completion of the contract. The men were paid $20 a month which was $5 more than the usual farm hand’s wage. Board, laundry and chewing tobacco was supplied to the men.
The standard day was 13 hours with three of these hours being used to care for the horses. Two paid holidays were granted, Victoria Day and one day for the Brandon horse races. As the Sabbath was strictly enforced in those days, there was no work on Sundays outside necessary chores like feeding the livestock. If someone was dismissed or quit before the end of the contract, the man’s wages were forfeited.
Sandison was constantly in the field supervising operations. Being an expert horseman and plowman, he educated his men in the proper handling of horses and in plowing techniques. He was known for being impeccably dressed in the field with jacket and pants of the best material and riding a horse of obvious quality.
Sandison shunned tobacco in any form and used whiskey in moderation, Scotch being his preferred drink. It is thought he only supplied chewing tobacco to his men in an effort to avoid the dangers of the men smoking, particularly in the barns. As well, the only men suitable for employment on his farm were Scotsmen. A final peculiarity was his habit of sending his laundry to Scotland as he felt the laundry practices in Brandon at the time were not up to the mark.
The 1890 crop was a success, but the 1891 crop was less so as it was affected by frost. Red Fife, the wheat variety in common use at the time, was slow to mature and prone to frost as a result. Sandison had a practice of not burning his straw piles after harvest, preferring to keep them in order to burn them on nights when frost threatened in the hope that the smoke would blanket the fields and keep the crop from freezing. However this practice did not prevent damage in the 1891 crop.
Sandison made preparations for an even bigger crop in 1892 and began building a large stone mansion. Only Scottish stone masons were worthy to work on this project. As Sandison’s farm was stone free, stones needed to be collected from an area further north and from the banks of the Assiniboine River. Sandison was so detail oriented that he even paid close attention to the colour of stone being used in the house.
However the crop of 1892 was subject to a killing frost and burning straw piles could not prevent Sandison from suffering severe losses. As he had spent freely, he had no cash reserves built up. When he turned to his bank, he found his credit had dried up. He was only able to partially pay his men and promised to board them free over the winter in return for their looking after the horses. However work on the house continued. Sandison set off to Scotland in an attempt to secure credit. Mrs. Sandison remained on the farm to keep farm operations moving along.
The spring of 1893 arrived with no word from Sandison and Mrs. Sandison realized that spring seeding had to be arranged. She promised the men that they would be paid in full for work done and her father agreed to financially back her. She also realized that the frozen wheat threshed in the fall of 1892 would germinate and she planned to use this as seed for the 1893 crop.
But by this time, the Brandon creditors were alarmed by the failure of Sandison to return from Scotland and were pressing to have him declared bankrupt so they could seize the security. In a scene right out of the movies, Sandison reappeared at a creditors’ meeting with a large cash box full of money. He paid off many creditors on the spot and reassured others that he was still a reasonable credit risk. The 1893 spring seeding proceeded.
In late May, a middle-aged Englishman appeared in Brandon and while checking into a hotel told the proprietor that he had come to Brandon to work for Sandison. This aroused the suspicions of the proprietor as he was a friend of Sandison, knew Sandison only hired young Scotsmen and would not have hired a middle-aged Englishman.
The proprietor waited until the Englishman went to his room, then saddled his horse and rode to the Sandison farm. No one knows what was said between Sandison and the hotelier but Sandison left the farm at 1:30 a.m. and caught the 4 a.m. eastbound CPR “Flyer” at Chater, the CPR station immediately east of Brandon. No one who knew Sandison as the Wheat King ever saw Sandison again.
The middle-aged Englishman was a Scotland Yard detective who was on the trail of Sandison as Sandison had purchased $70,000 in diamonds in Scotland and had pawned them in Toronto for $35,000. Sandison then returned to Brandon and used this money to pay off creditors and reassure them.
Somehow this had been realized by the Scottish merchants and the detective was sent to arrest Sandison for fraud. Sandison’s bank foreclosed on him immediately. The farm equipment and horses were sold in early summer 1893. Mrs. Sandison remained on the farm until the sale and then left with her father to return to his farm at Carberry.
Ironically, the 1893 crop turned out to be an excellent one. While the people hired to harvest the crop by the bank were not up to Sandison’s organizational ability, enough grain was harvested that a profit was earned. The Sandison Mansion and farm was sold to Mrs. Marie Devine who, according to local legend, was a tall, slender Ontario heiress and impossibly beautiful. Between the crop and the sale of the farm, all Sandison’s debts were retired.
Reality is somewhat different than the legend recounted above. The Manitoba Historical Society has a listing for John William Sandison in the Memorable Manitobans section of its website. The listing, in general, agrees with the legend up to 1893. However, according to the listing, Mrs. Sandison was not the daughter of a Carberry area farmer and Sandison did reappear in Ontario sometime in 1900 -02. His family believes he may have been in South Africa. He was reunited with his wife and family on a 50-acre holding in Southern Ontario. He passed away as a result of a heart attack in 1915. The listing does not make mention of any legal penalties being applied against Sandison as a result of the diamond affair of 1893.
But then maybe legend is more appealing than reality. As Mark Twain said “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” As for Mrs. Devine, that is a story for another day.
The Manitoba Agricultural Museum in Austin is open to visitors and while the museum does not have artifacts known to have come from the Sandison farm, it does have a selection of horse-drawn equipment from the era. So come by, visit the past and remember the Versatile Expo at the 2012 Threshermen’s Reunion and Stampede.
The 58th annual Threshermen’s Reunion and Stampede will be held July 26 29, 2012.
» Alex Campbell is a director of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 11, 2012