Round barn a rock solid reminder of Bell’s grand plan

Maj. William Bell was not known for running a crooked operation. Nor did anyone ever say it was straight.

Actually, it was kind of round.

The circular-shaped Bell barn was the centerpiece of the major?s farm and remains the sole reminder of Bell?s efforts to establish a corporate farming operation on the Prairies in the late 1800s. Located near Indian Head, Sask., the stone barn is one of the oldest agricultural buildings in the province.

Bell may have made his name on the Prairies, but he got his start back East. He was born in Brockville, Ont. on May 28, 1845 and spent most of his early years there before heading to the United States.

In the 1860s he returned to help protect his homeland.

At the time, members of an Irish nationalist organization in the United States were conducting attacks on British forts and other targets in Canada. Known as the Fenian raids, they were designed to pressure Britain to withdraw from Ireland, but they were mostly unsuccessful.

By the time he had completed his military service, Bell had risen to the rank of major.

The idea of establishing a large-scale farming operation out West had taken root years earlier. Only the location of the operation had yet to be determined.

Upon setting out from Brandon, Man. following the route of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1881, Bell soon found his place. He found fertile land for farming near present-day Indian Head.

Returning to Winnipeg, he attracted investors and formed the Qu?Appelle Valley Farming Company. He then secured 53,000 acres of land from the federal government and CPR.

Although the railway had yet to reach the area, Bell was ready to break ground in the spring of 1882. While work was underway on the land, he also began an ambitious building program.

During the first year, work was completed on the two-storey farmhouse, which contained 16 rooms. Other buildings constructed that year included an icehouse, cow barn and chicken house, as well as four stone and two wooden cottages.

The highlight of the year?s construction was the circular stable. Constructed of fieldstone, it was 20 metres in diameter and featured a silo in the centre that doubled as a lookout tower. The barn could store 4,000 bushels of oats and 100 tons of hay. It also had stalls for 36 horses.

Instead of windows, the barn featured small holes around its circumference resembling gun ports. The openings, which have mostly been filled in or replaced with windows, were believed to provide light and ventilation.

Organized on a large scale, the Qu?Appelle Valley Farming Company resembled another operation ? a military operation.

The farm was divided into five divisions, with each section further subdivided. Bell commanded the entire operation from his headquarters and kept in touch with his division managers through daily telephone conversations.

His efforts brought immediate results.

The first crop year in 1883 yielded 20 bushels of wheat per acre. Production was expected to increase the following year before an early frost brought a premature end to the crop.

In 1885 the Northwest Rebellion affected the farm?s fortunes, as only 1,000 acres of wheat were planted. When it wasn?t war, weather and other problems plagued the operation.

Only five years after its founding, some of the assets of the farm were seized to cover outstanding debts. Attempts were made to downsize and reorganize the operation, but they proved unsuccessful.

Bell?s horses, cattle and household furnishings were eventually put up for auction in 1896.

With the sale of the farm, Bell?s dream finally came to an end. His life also came to an end in Winnipeg in 1913.

(Paul Spasoff is a freelance writer with an interest in Western Canadian history. Paul can be reached at backtothepast@sasktel.net)