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Farm founder cared more about horses than wheat

IMPERIAL, Sask. — Thomas Burgess didn’t care much for growing crops, but he loved animals.

The hunting dog and horse trainer from Marsh Gibhan, Buckinghamshire, England, came to Canada in 1910 to create a farm and home for a growing family that included his wife, Sarah, and children, Jim and Annie May. The family would grow to include William and Rose.

Thomas once cared for as many as 170 horses while working in London, but he realized they would soon be replaced by motor vehicles. Instead, he turned his thoughts to a new life in Canada.

The family came on a settlers’ train to Bladworth, Sask., with the Alf Steer family, who had a relative there. The friends found work in the area before making claims on good farmland at nearby Imperial.

The two families built one shack on the dividing land between their land, a condition of acquiring a quarter section for $10, and broke 10 acres the first year with Steer’s oxen team.

More than a century later, Thomas’s grandson, Bill Burgess, still owns that homestead.

“They got a quarter for $10 and thought that was really something,” he said.

Bill said Thomas walked the 35 kilometres to the homestead from Bladworth to visit his family until he acquired a cream-coloured buckskin driving pony with a brown strip down its back.

An entry in the local history book by Thomas’s son, William, indicates the pioneer’s approach to agriculture: “Dad didn’t do his own farming, he worked for other neighbours and got his done custom wise. He later rented … until Jim was old enough to farm.”

Thomas owned the farm until his death in 1943 and then Jim operated it until 1974. Ill health had forced Jim off the farm in 1936.

The land was crop shared until Jim’s death in 1999, when it was acquired by Bill and his wife, Kay, who carried on crop sharing.

History is important to the couple, with a scaled down version of the Rouse School in the backyard of their home in Imperial — Kay once taught there — and a Model A car in the garage. Bill also has nine John Deere tractors, four of which are restored.

The couple maintains a modest house and barn on the homestead farm, where they make regular treks in the warmer months.

Bill quit school in Grade 7 to help run the original Burgess farm, one of the last to use horses in the district.

He recalled the night he lost his way home on a borrowed horse, toting an 11 kilogram turkey purchased for supper.

“I got lost and rode all night long. I rode in circles all night,” Bill said.

Another night, his experience was better while trying to get home riding one of his own horses.

“It was so dark, I couldn’t see the horse’s ears,” he said. “The horse jerked the reins out of my hand and turned around and it took me home.”

Kay and Bill’s foray into hands-on farming ended abruptly when an outbreak of brucellosis forced them to sell the dairy herd and move into town in 1960.

Like Thomas, Bill also enjoyed tending animals more than crops.

“I didn’t like going round and round in the field,” he said.

Bill turned to a longtime career as a cabinetmaker and carpenter in nearby Davidson.

“We couldn’t make a living with the land we had. We couldn’t sit out there all winter,” he said.

Added Kay: “The kids had four and a half miles to go to school (from the farm) so we came to town and this is where we stayed.

Their family grew to include three sons and three daughters.

Today, with nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, the couple is hopeful about the future of the Burgess farm, a recipient of Saskatchewan’s Century Family Farm Award.

Echoing the sentiments of his English grandfather, Bill said, “There’s nothing like owning your own land.”

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