In 1913 Benjamin Foxton, aged 16, was travelling by train from Ann Arbor, Michigan to the small town of Alderson in southern Alberta. He had been living in Michigan with his mother and older sister while his father and brother established a homestead. In 1909, the Canadian government, eager to settle the newly formed provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan ran newspaper ads offering 160-acre homestead land for a meager processing fee of $10. There were stipulations, but Ben’s father’s attempts at farming in Ontario had failed a number of times and he believed moving to another part of the country might be the opportunity he was seeking.
Ben grew up in the small town of Tilbury in southern Ontario. His mother grew up in Ann Arbor so they had spent the past three years living there. Ben had enrolled in a school when they first arrived but found the transition challenging. In Tilbury, he had attended a one room school house whereas his new school in Ann Arbor was much larger.
He signed up for a woodworking course but had to travel to another school for the class. He knew he could travel much faster if he had a bicycle but he had little money for such a luxury. Almost all the money he earned from selling newspapers went toward helping pay the rent. He decided to visit the dump and was able to find all the parts he needed. He built his own bike which gave him a much faster mode of transportation. One day when he was riding uphill to school, the bike disintegrated beneath him and he came to an abrupt stop. He looked around but no one seemed to notice. He moved the pieces off to one side and set out on foot. The one thing he was proud of was being named Captain of the school baseball team.
As the hours passed by on the train trip, Ben looked out the window in awe, the terrain was so different. Miles and miles of flat wide-open range with only the occasional small town. He watched the tall grass blowing in the wind and wondered if it ever stopped.
Three days later on a hot, windy summer day, they stepped off the train only to be greeted by a swarm of mosquitoes. On their way to their new home, he noticed all of the farms were barely more than shacks. When they finally arrived, he found their new home looked just as desolate. He knew his mother probably wanted to just turn around and head back to Ann Arbor.
For Ben, everything looked and smelled different and he yearned to take a closer look. With the wind in his face and his hair blowing, he walked away from the house. Before Ben could go more than a few steps, his older brother, Winfield warned him to look closely for the gopher’s holes to make sure he didn’t step in one. Ben had noticed them standing on their hind legs looking around when he was on the train. What funny little creatures they are, he thought.
Ben’s father told him he could apply for his own homestead in just two years when he turned 18, which he later did. A newspaper article shows Ben and his brother attended a local baseball game just two weeks after he had arrived. The following year, he was playing with one of the local teams.
That fall, with no crop of their own to harvest, Ben and his brother joined a threshing crew and spent the next 8 weeks travelling from farm to farm. It was all new to Ben as he had never even seen a threshing machine before and now, he was part of a crew. The work days were long and they slept in barns or on the ground under the machinery.
Their homestead was located in a semi-arid region and they had few crops worthy of harvesting. Year after year, they had to look for alternate ways to make money just to survive. Years later, Ben often commented to his two daughters that they “starved in seven different languages”. Each fall, Ben joined a threshing crew or found work with one of the bigger ranches to the north of their homestead. One winter, he travelled back to Detroit and worked as a tinsmith’s assistant in the shipyards.
Ben was too young to enlist when WWI broke out and later, Prime Minister Borden, desperate for the farmer’s vote for his re-election, passed the Military Service Act in 1917 exempting the sons of farmers. The following year, with casualties mounting, Borden rescinded his promise and Ben was conscripted. He was never sent overseas. When he was demobbed the following January, he found employment at the D.P. MacDonald ranch near Cochrane. His mother told him to write home so he sent his parents a post card with the word, “O.K.” on it. She was not impressed!
Finally, in 1926 the federal government aware of the continual struggles of the homesteaders living in the area moved all of them out by train to different areas in Alberta. His family relocated in Rosebud, south of Drumheller. The area where Ben and his family were living was taken over by the government for DND (Department of National Defence) purposes shortly after the mass evacuation and remains under that jurisdiction today.
His mother was diagnosed with cancer and died the following spring in Ann Arbor. Ben and his father rented a farm near Rosebud where the climate and land were more suited to farming and they had a few successful crops. Then the depression years hit and the price of wheat plummeted. Again, they struggled. The economy slowly improved but his father developed dementia and Ben finally had no choice but to send him to live with his older brother who had married and was living in Calgary.
Ben met his future wife Rose, a teacher while living at Rosebud. He had played on the same baseball team with two of her older brothers but they had known each other for twelve years before they began dating. On their first date, he leaned across the car seat to kiss her good night but she opened the door and ran to her house so fast, he said there was a cloud of dust. She used to giggle when he told that story but didn’t deny it. A mutual friend told anyone who listened that Rose wore out three cars before she finally caught Ben. They married in 1941 when Ben was 44 and Rose was 35.
When the lease was up on the land Ben was renting, he moved to another farm closer to Drumheller. With better crops he was able to accumulate some savings and with Rose’s input, their financial situation continued to improve. She grew up in a large family and knew how to make the most of the resources around them. A garden plot was dug and vegetables that would last through the winter were planted. Rose had grown up canning fruit and vegetables and knew where all the local saskatoon bushes were.
Two years after they were married, they had enough money saved to purchase their own land and in 1943, they bought a 640-acre farm northeast of Calgary. The land was fertile and they were quite successful. They had two daughters; Lynn and Sheila
One year, when there was an abundance of wheat in the markets, Ben approached a brewery in Calgary to see if they would be interested in buying malting barley if he planted it. A contract was signed and following strict regulations on seeding only specially ‘treated’ barley, he was able to sell his grain to a private company instead of going through the government.
With no sons to leave their farm to, they sold everything and retired to Burnaby in 1960 when Ben was 62 and Rose was 53. At their new home, they always planted a big garden and had a number of fruit trees. They stayed in Burnaby until they moved to Vernon to be closer to their youngest daughter Sheila when Ben was 90 and Rose was 81. Ben died in 1993 shortly after his 96th birthday and Rose passed away in 1998 five years later at the age of 92.
Ben’s story demonstrates his ability to seek opportunities when none appear readily available and that a life of perseverance against all odds is the key to success.