Farmer Alf Bexfield, Age 100:
Harvesting a Century of Memories
“It is unlikely that any generation in history has seen the changes that my generation has,” says Alf Bexfield just days before his 100th birthday. “I can vividly remember my dad, James Scarlet Bexfield, driving oxen!”
Alf Bexfield, who turns 100 on November 5th, 2012, is a vigorous man with a farmer’s strong hands, a twinkle in his blue eyes and a raconteur’s lilt in his voice. It’s not surprising that he seems to love music as much as farming – and that the twang of his banjo has accompanied him throughout his long life.
Over ten of the most vibrant decades in North America’s history, Alf has witnessed the extraordinary journey from homesteads, covered wagons and living-off-the-land to a technology-loving society charged by computers, cell phones and corporate-owned mega-farms.
“Grandpa Alf went through all these changes – from the hardships of homesteading, and later, the frustrating years of farming in the Dirty Thirties to building a three-generation family farm that is still operating today,” observes Alf’s granddaughter, Leah Mann.
“And you’ll still find Grandpa, at the age of 99, out in the field watching the harvesting – and even taking a ride in the combine. I think you can truly say that you love your job when, at 99 years old, you are back where your farming career began.”
Alf was born on November 5, 1912 in the Canadian prairie town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan – his family’s first stop after emigrating from England in 1911.
In 1914, the Bexfield family moved out of Moose Jaw and settled on a homestead in the nearby agricultural hamlet of Neidpath. “Dad built a small, three-room house, bought a team of oxen and broke a few acres of land. As soon as he started to break the land, he found it to be very, very stony,” Alf recounts.
“My father built a sod barn and a small shelter of stones for the pigs. Winters on the open prairies were very harsh, as there were no trees for shelter or to use for fuel. We depended on coal for heat – and the closest town, Rush Lake, was 18 miles away.”
The challenges of homesteading increased when the next year brought the family’s first farming tragedy – and Alf’s earliest memory: In early October, when the harvest was just beginning, a fire with wild, roaring winds raged across the prairie toward their farm.
“I remember my older sister Hilda wrapping me in a buffalo robe and carrying me as she ran from our house,” he says. “Our family escaped, but we lost just about everything else. A bachelor neighbor decided to go back east for the winter, and he gave us his shack to live in. With the help of the Red Cross and kind neighbors, we were able to survive. Dad spent the winter rebuilding the homestead, and our family moved back in the spring.”
The next few years were dry ones with no crops to harvest, but despite the rigors of pioneer life on the prairies, the era delivered some surprises that seemed miraculous to Alf at the time. “One day,” he remembers, “our teacher made arrangements with a pilot to fly over the school so we could see an airplane. This was the first airplane we ever saw – the year was 1920.”
That same year year Alf saw his first automobile when a neighbor offered his mother and the kids a ride in a new Tin Lizzie. “I remember us stopping at a garage somewhere along the way – and there being all these brand-new, shiny black Model T Fords in the showroom.”
Of course, shiny new automobiles were hardly the norm back then – the Bexfields, like many other local folks, mostly got around by horse-drawn buggies. And farm life was as arduous as ever.
“1920 was another dried-out crop – and Mother was all for leaving the homestead and moving up north around Lashburn,” Alf recalls.
He remembers his mother answering a letter in the Family Herald & Weekly Star, which described the Lashburn area. “When Mother read the letters, they’d tell of lakes, the Battle River and all the trees and forests. I’d never actually seen a lake or a river – only in pictures. As children, we were filled with excitement for the adventure, but I’m sure Mother and Dad were overwhelmed with anxiety. They were once again going to a strange land to live amongst strangers, with really nothing to get started with.”
In 1921, the family packed up and moved north to Lashburn, settling into a log cabin that hadn’t been lived in for years. “As Mother looked over the old log cabin that was to be our home, she was much less enthusiastic,” Alf says. “However, she was always a person who could make a home cozy with practically nothing.” And with the help of Alf’s sisters, Hilda and Evelyn, that’s just what Elizabethe Bexfield did.
By the next year, the family was able to move into a rented farmhouse, which made life much more comfortable. The Bexfields enjoyed the camaraderie of other local families who had ventured out to the prairies with the same homesteading dreams – and now faced the same day-to-day challenges.
“There were many sections of vacant company land around in those days,” Alf says. “There was an unwritten gentleman’s agreement amongst all the settlers that if you found a nice patch of prairie wool hay, all you needed to do was take your mower and cut a ring around it – and it was yours.”
“As a young boy,” recalls Alf, “I loved to watch the operations of the big steam unit threshing wheat. The big engine puffed quietly while the separator gobbled up the sheaves and I’d inhale the tangy smell of straw smoke and steam from the engine, mixed with dust from the separator.”
The years continued to bring their challenges: a move to the Beechwood country, where a hailstorm wiped out the Bexfield’s crop that very first year. The northern prairie winters were long and dark, with blinding blizzards that challenged even the most surefooted horses. Influenza epidemics wiped out whole families. And with spring thaws came swift-flowing rivers whose icy currents threatened to sweep away any buggy that tried to cross.
Yet through it all, the Bexfields flourished. The family loved music, and the strains of violin and mandolin lent warmth to even the chilliest evenings. At the local school, there were concerts, box socials and dances. It was a time and place where folks came together to celebrate and support each other – and the community grew as strong as the hardiest wheat crops.
“In 1925, I got my first fieldwork, driving a one-furrow sulky plow drawn by a team of horses,” says Alf.” By 1928, he had finished with school, and was enthusiastically threshing at local farms – and received his first banjo as a gift from his older brother, Hector. It was also the year the Bexfield family got their first radio, which Alf recalls broadcasting favorites like “Lux Theatre,” “Amos and Andy,” and “Gangbusters.”
The following year, after another parched growing season, with crops devastated by the worst plague of army worms anyone could remember, prairie families were confronted with news of the Wall Street stock market crash. In cities and in the country, the Great Depression had begun.
Alf’s father kept farming, his mother raised and sold turkeys – and Alf made extra money as a trapper, selling coyote and badger skins.
In 1933, Alf and his brother Hector began playing in a local dance orchestra, where they were paid a dollar or two for their musical talents. “Our orchestra seemed to go over big and we were kept busy with dance engagements,” Alf recalls. “What was more important was the fact that we were actually being paid to play. Anything that resembled money in any way was most welcome, as so many people were working for just their board and food.”
In the spring of 1933, Alf’s father gave him a bit of advice: “You can never go wrong getting a quarter section of land.”
“At age 20, I had hardly given the future a thought,” Alf admits. “At the moment, my whole world revolved around music and dancing. We were in the fourth year of the Depression, with no end in sight. Everyone just lived from day to day off the land. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I know this farming business is a real uphill battle. Perhaps the sooner I get started at it, the sooner I will get on my feet.’”
The next morning, Alf saddled up his mare for the long ride into Lashburn to see the local land agent. He signed a lease-option on a piece of land – and his farming career began.
In that same year, Alf met Doris Hall, the daughter of a neighbor, at a Lashburn Christmas party. “As I drove home that night, I knew I had met the girl of my dreams and the love of my life.”
Five years later, when they’d saved up enough money, Alf and Doris were married. Having grown up on a nearby farm and taught at the local school, Doris was skilled in many disciplines from threshing wheat and digging a well to raising their two children, Ron and Linda.
Knowing the value of farming with relatives, Alf spent many years working with his younger brother, Art. Their operations flourished – and in 1951, they were awarded 2nd prize for the best barley in the province.
“Throughout the years, they were mostly grain farmers, growing wheat, canola, barley and rye,” Alf’s granddaughter Leah says. “In the mid-fifties, they bought a few cattle – and they always had a dairy cow for fresh milk. The families lived off the land. From wheat, oil, beef and wild game to fresh fruits and vegetables from their large gardens, they used what was available to them.”
In 1963, Alf started farming with his son, Ron Bexfield.
“I appreciated that my Dad was always willing to listen to me and let me take part in the decision-making,” Ron says. “He coached us in little league ball – and I always thought that he was a great coach in both farming and baseball.”
Alf retired in 1976, but continues to be involved in the farm. Ron retired in 2006 – and his son Brad took over the farm in 2007. At that time, the Bexfield farm officially became a three-generation family farm that still grows wheat and canola.
“Growing up, Grandpa was an inspiration for me wanting to farm,” says Brad. “I remember Grandpa always helping out with everything – and if he wasn’t farming, he was in the shop building something like a birdhouse, windmill or a small play barn. He kept everything so well organized and as neat as a pin.”
Brad says that, these days, when Alf comes out to the harvest, he will still take some wheat back to his place. “Grandpa has a remarkable memory for comparing years of farming, recalling the details of everything from great crops to precise moisture levels. He has seen so much change in technology – and he likes to tell me, ‘It is amazing how straight these lines are with the GPS.’”
Leah adds, “Grandpa has had 100 years of incredible accomplishments. He has given our family strength, courage and a dedication to everything that we do.”
Dedication is something that Alf says took on a new clarity when he traveled to England with Doris and the kids, visiting the stately homes their parents had left behind when they emigrated. “Suddenly all the stories we had heard about beautiful England made sense,” Alf says.
“We could not help but wonder what must have gone through their minds when they first saw those endless miles of Saskatchewan prairies. We could not help but admire their faith and courage as they faced the many frustrations and heartaches common to the lives of pioneers. For them, there was no turning back. They had literally burned their bridges behind them.
“Had it not been for the adventuresome spirit of our parents, we may never have had the opportunity to live in this beautiful land of Canada.”
Today, Alf Bexfield’s children and grandchildren feel the same way. “Grandpa has seen 100 years of change, living everything from hardships to joy,” Leah says. “He looks back fondly at his courageous mother and father, who risked everything they had to come to a land of unknowns. The result was a land of opportunity for our family – and for generations to come.”
It’s fitting that Alf’s 100th birthday comes at the autumn harvest. “The harvest was a special time that brought the whole year to a climax. A time when you would be rewarded for the year’s work.”
For Alf Bexfield, this year’s harvest brings all the rewards of a life well lived – and a job well done.
Laura Martin Bacon is a longtime writer and creative consultant for Williams-Sonoma and other well-known entities. She’s also the Culinary Creative Director of DooF (“food” backwards), an organization that uses multi-media entertainment, education and live events to help kids and families discover the magic of food. DooF explores every aspect of food – from flavors, history, science and cultural traditions to the exciting journey from source-to-table. Laura’s mission: to make good food fun – at home, in the classroom and beyond.