Man. family survived tough times

On the Farm: Crushing debt made expansion difficult for the Ferrises, but this year they mark 140 years on the farm

HOLLAND, Man. — The national men’s curling championship was held in Brandon last week.

Most Canadians know the event as the Brier, but few likely know why it’s called that.

Les Ferris is not like most Canadians.

He knows exactly why, and has evidence to prove it.

Sitting on a kitchen chair inside his farmhouse about eight kilometres north of Holland, Man., Ferris grabs a tobacco can from the 1920s and places it on the table.

It is a Macdonald’s tobacco can for the company’s Brier pipe tobacco.

Macdonald’s sponsored the curling championship for about 50 years, from the late 1920s until 1979. Because of the long relationship with Macdonald’s and Brier pipe tobacco, the name endured and is still around in 2019.

Ferris has always been interested in such historical details, even when he was a kid growing up on the family farm where he now lives with his wife, Heather.

Les and Heather began dating, by coincidence, after they hit it off at a curling bonspiel in Holland in the 1980s.

Heather grew up in Foxwarren, Man., and her family name is Falloon. One of her relatives is Pat Falloon, the former NHL player. Heather met Les when she was working in Holland as a dental assistant for the local school division. She worked out of a motor home, which traveled from school to school in the area.

They eventually got married and had two children, William and Karen. Both are now adults and live in Winnipeg.

William Ferris, Les’ great-grandfather, established a homestead at the farm north of Holland in 1879. He moved to Manitoba from Goderich, Ont., with his wife and several relatives because farmland wasn’t available in Ontario.

Les’s grandfather and then his father, William, operated the farm, which was a mixed operation for many years and became a grain farm in the 1960s.

Les inherited an interest in history from his father. William loved to tell stories about old homesteads and the people who used to live in the area.

“We would drive the back roads to Treherne and he would talk (about people and places).”

Les took over the farm from his father in the early 1980s, a difficult time for farmers across Canada. Interest rates were 15 to 20 percent and thousands of small businesses went bankrupt because of crushing debt.

At just the wrong time, Les borrowed money to buy additional land and newer farm machinery. The decision affected his entire farming career. Low grain prices and droughts in the 1980s made it difficult to pay off the debt.

Consequently, Les didn’t have a chance to buy land and expand the farm in the 1980s and 1990s. It remained small, and he now farms a section of land.

However, thousands of others quit farming during that time because of financial challenges. Les and Heather persevered.

She worked off the farm, and in the winter Les took jobs in northern Manitoba and Fort McMurray as a heavy equipment mechanic.

Because they survived the hard times, Les, Heather and other members of the Ferris clan will gather to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the homestead this summer.

While he used most of his earnings to support the farm, Les spent a portion on antiques and collectables.

For more than 25 years he collected a range of items, including Massey-Harris toy tractors, tobacco cans and curling pins.

Les and Heather have attended about 14 Briers and world curling championships. His collection of curling pins are framed and mounted to the walls and ceiling of the Ferris’s basement. Some of the Massey-Harris toys and tobacco cans are kept in a display case on the main floor of the house.

Les has a hard time explaining why he loves to collect, but his interest in history is definitely part of it.

He’s also the type of person who needs to understand details, such as why curlers receive a purple heart patch when they become provincial champions.

“Macdonald’s tobacco symbol is the purple heart. They sponsored every province except New Brunswick. So, if you won Manitoba or Saskatchewan, you got a (purple heart),” Les said.

The Canadian Sports Hall of Fame website tells the story slightly differently. Macdonald’s Brier tobacco “contained a heart-shaped silver plug which was inserted with a purple plastic heart. That inspired the prestigious purple heart patches.”

While Les is fascinated by historical facts, Heather has a different set of interests. She grew up on a mixed farm and still loves to be outdoors.

“I really like to be outside weeding my garden, cutting the grass and (taking care) of the vegetables and flowers,” said Heather, who now works part-time as a secretary at Holland’s elementary school.

Les also spends part of his time in Holland.

He’s the president of the town’s Royal Canadian Legion and has been part of an effort to honour men from the region who died in the First World War.

The provincial government has been naming lakes, islands and bays in northern Manitoba after First World War and Second World War veterans who died in the wars.

That’s fine, Les said, but the descendants of the veterans will never see the lakes and islands because they’re not accessible by road.

Instead, Ferris and his Legion colleagues have been asking the province to name local unnamed creeks after fallen soldiers from the First World War.

Several veterans have been honoured, and the Holland Legion has put up signs by the creeks that explain who they were, where they grew up and how they died.

Now in his mid 60s, Les maintains his passion for history and a desire to understand the past. During a 90 minute visit at his farmhouse, he told stories about a steamship that operated on the Assiniboine River in the 1800s, a table hockey game from the 1950s and a tin of British Consols cigarettes from the 1930s.

He has learned that collecting isn’t about having a complete set of Massey-Harris toy tractors or a rare group of curling pins. Instead, the real joy comes from the quest to find a unique item, the people you meet on the way and learning something about the past.

”I’ve also learned to appreciate how good we have it, compared to the lives of our forefathers,” Les said.

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