Homesteading Near Camper, Manitoba, 1911-1921

Map showing Winnipeg (bottom right) and the location of the Kelm homestead near Camper (top left)

When Robert Bergner arrived in Camper on June 13, 1910, to look for a homestead, “there was no town, only a few tents.” Though described as historically having been “an uninhabited wilderness” or having few permanent settlements by the late eighteenth century,[1] the Interlake region of Manitoba, between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg, was home to the Ojibway, Cree, and Oji-Cree, as well as the Metis.[2] From 1670 to 1869, the region was part of Rupert’s Land, which comprised eight million square kilometers and was monopolized by the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1869, the Government of Canada purchased Rupert’s Land from the HBC, who claimed ownership, for 1.5 million dollars. The transfer was finalized in 1870, the same year Manitoba joined Canada.

Starting in 1871, the Government of Canada established townships in a grid system called the Dominion Land Survey. Beginning in 1872, The Dominion Land Act guided the administration of land for homesteading, among other uses. To boost prairie settlement, the government advertisement homesteads in 160-acre increments. After paying the ten-dollar application fee, the homesteader had three years to break and farm thirty acres of land, reside on the homestead for more than six months out of the year, and build a house and barn.[3] Once these requirements were fulfilled, the homesteader would receive the title for the land and, if he was not already a British subject, become naturalized.[4]

Julius Kelm applied to the Government of Canada for a homestead on May 1, 1911.[5] The 164 acres was located along what is now Edison Road, approximately halfway between Highway 6 and Dog Lake, and six kilometers from Camper.[6] According to an interview with Julius and Martha (see Stories From the Past), there were around twenty other German families living in the area around Camper. The majority of Germans settled north and east of Dog Lake and west of Camper: “Many of the later [German] settlers–from the Russian Ukraine–came to be near the earlier German settlers and took up stonier, more heavily-wooded land.”[7]

“[Julius Kelm entry in Homestead Grant Register, application for homestead 419750]” in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, Canada, Homestead Grant Registers, 1872-1930, Library and Archives Canada, accessed 05 Jun 2021 through Ancestry

Julius likely traveled the 165 kilometers from Winnipeg to Camper alone to look at available land before applying for it. There were few roads during that time; scouting homesteaders only had “a map from the Land Titles Office, showing the township lines, which were just lines just cut through the bush; [they] walked through swamps waist deep in water.”[8] Julius would have returned to Winnipeg for his family. Anna Markwart recalls that, in 1909, the Markwart family “packed up their belongings, loaded them into a freight car and came by rail as far Camper [as] that was as far as the railway went at that time. They had to stay in the freight car while Henry [Markwart] walked seven miles [eleven kilometers] to the homestead to see if he could get the only neighbor to lend him a wagon to move the family to the new homestead.”[9] Julius had selected land “in the twenty-third township, in the sixth range, west of the principal meridian,” or homestead 419750.[10]

The first of the homesteading work occurred in early May. The land would have to be broken and ploughed first, and this was most effectively accomplished between June and August. Many accounts of homesteading in the Camper area begrudge the “mountains of stones”; in order for land to be cleared for farming, “stumps and stones” had to be removed and “every time the land was ploughed there would be more stones.”[11] After this, a house and stable would be built. Anna Markwart remembers that her husband’s family “lived in a makeshift shelter until they could cut enough logs for a small log house.”[12]

Homesteading on the prairie was often treacherous; wild animals harassed and feasted on livestock, even getting into the barns.[13] The year Julius secured his homestead, a timber, or grey, wolf was terrorizing livestock “from Camper to Gypsumville” and farmers would stay up at night with their guns waiting for it.[14] The prairie, immense and seemingly never-ending, could also be a lonely place. Debbie Hoffman describes her grandmother’s, Martha Miller’s, first years in her new home: “Martha wasn’t used to the big forests and swamps of the Interlakes […] The fright and loneliness almost drove her out of her mind.”[15]

Map of homesteads located within Township 23, east of Dog Lake. Julius Kelm’s neighbors included the Drailich family, whose daughter Adeline “Lena” married Edward Kelm, and Mattern and Geske families; courtesy of Taming a Wilderness: A History of Ashern and District by Ashern Historical Society

Julius and Martha had four children while living near Camper: Hannah (born March 4, 1913), Robert (born May 12, 1914), Hilda (born June 22, 1915), and Daniel (born May 17, 1917). The place of birth for the first three children is the Rural Municipality of Coldwell while the place of birth for Daniel is Camper.[16] In the 1916 Census of Canada, the family identified as Russian as World War One raged in Europe, the German families around them also identifying as Russian.[17] Julius (as John Kelm) also appears in the 1916 Census of Canada living with the Rempel family at 814 Bannatyne in Winnipeg as a lodger. He may have returned to Winnipeg for part of the year to find extra work to sustain his homestead.[18] Later that year, in December, the oldest daughter, Olga, thirteen years old, died. No record has been found of her death and burial.

It took Julius and Martha more than three years to earn their papers. Julius owned the land by February 15, 1917, when inspectors verified that he had fulfilled the requirements.[19] Sworn statements from two neighbors were required.[20] When his neighbor John Mattern, obtained the patents to his land on May 20, 1918, Julius testified: “Those that witnessed this were John Kelm of NW 31-23-6W and Edward Geske of SE 36-23-7W.”[21] In the 1921 Census of Canada, Julius is the owner of his three-room home.[22] 

[Homestead No. 419750 grant]” from Letters Patent, Canada, Department of the Interior, accessed 05 Jun 2021 through Canadiana Heritage

But farming proved to be too difficult; the Kelm family “had the worse land, unsuitable for farming” (see Stories From the Past). Frank Tennenhouse, whose family moved to Camper in 1911, writes that there was little government support for new farmers and there were few nearby farmers who had settled there long enough who could help newcomers.[23] Tennenhouse remembers that his father had “visited the location and had thought it was wonderful because there was plenty of hay for cattle and trees for wood. What he did now know was that the hay was low quality swamp and the soil was stony and infertile.”[24] Shannon Stunden writes, “Many […] newcomers settled in the less productive lands […] in eastern or interlake Manitoba.”[25] Most families returned to Winnipeg.


[1] James Morton Richtik, “A Historical Geography of the Interlake Area of Manitoba [thesis]” from Manitoba Heritage Theses, University of Manitoba, 1964, p14

[2] Government of Manitoba, “The First Peoples” [pamphlet], undated, accessed 13 Nov 2020, https://www.gov.mb.ca/chc/hrb/pdf/the_first_peoples.pdf

[3] “Manitoba Crown Land and Homestead Records (National Institute) [wiki]”, FamilySearch, 09 Oct 2018 [last edited], accessed 05 Jun 2021, https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Manitoba_Crown_Land_and_Homestead_Records_(National_Institute)

[4] Ibid.

[5] “[Julius Kelm entry in Homestead Grant Register, application for homestead 419750]” in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, Canada, Homestead Grant Registers, 1872-1930, Library and Archives Canada, accessed 05 Jun 2021 through Ancestry

[6] Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation, “Land Parcel Corporation,” 2021 [copyright], accessed 05 Jun 2021, https://www.masc.mb.ca/masc.nsf/land_parcel_info.html

[7] Taming a Wilderness, p375; Richtik, p198-199

[8] Ibid.

[9] Taming a Wilderness, p190

[10] “[Homestead No. 419750 grant]” from Letters Patent, Canada, Department of the Interior, accessed 05 Jun 2021 through Canadiana Heritage

[11] Taming a Wilderness, p390, 401

[12] Taming a Wilderness, p190

[13] Dugald Women’s Institute, Springfield: 1st Rural Municipality in Manitoba, 1873-1973, Dugald, MB: Dugald Women’s Institute, 1974, p34, accessed through Internet Archive

[14] Interlake Pioneers, Hardship and Happiness, Steep Rock, MB: Interlake Pioneers, 1974, p64

[15] Taming of a Wilderness, p382

[16] “[Harma [Hannah] Kelm, Robert Kelm, Hilda Kelm, Daniel Kelm birth information]” in Manitoba Vital Statistics Agency database index, accessed 06 Jun 2021

[17] 1916 Census of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, accessed 08 Jun 2021 through Ancestry

[18] Taming the Wilderness, p373

[19] “[Homestead No. 419750 grant]” from Letters Patent, Canada, Department of the Interior, accessed 05 Jun 2021 through Canadiana Heritage; the stamp in the homestead grant register indicates February 7, 1917

[20] “Manitoba Crown Land and Homestead Records (National Institute) [wiki]”

[21] Ashern Historical Society: The Next Chapter; A History of Ashern and District, Ashern, MB: Ashern Historical Society, 2008, p319, accessed 06 Jun 2021 through University of Manitoba Digital Collections

[22] 1921 Census of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, accessed 08 Jun 2021 through Ancestry

[23] Frank Tennenhouse, “Photocopy of unpublished manuscript, “Seventy Five Years of Farming in Manitoba: A Collection of Stories of Life on the Farm from Two Generations of the Tennenhouse Family,” Tennenhouse Family fonds, University of Manitoba Archives, accessed 06 Jun 2021 through University of Manitoba Digital Collections

[24] Ibid.

[25] Shannon Stunden Bower, Wet Prairie: People, Land, and Water in Agricultural Manitoba, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011, p35, accessed 08 Jun through Google Books