John Sandison

John Sandison

1851 - 1915

John Sandison was a farmer of Scottish descent that was famous for his remarkably successful career in wheat-farming in Manitoba and his eccentric personality. He had the prestigious distinction of being known as the original “Wheat King” of Manitoba.

Born on November 26, 1851 in Elgin, Scotland, Sandison emigrated to Ontario in 1881, where he was hired to work on the farm of Simpson Rennie in Agincourt. In 1884, he was on the move again, emigrating westwards to the recently opened and potential-rich prairies, settling in Carberry, Manitoba. It was there that he launched his career in agriculture and would eventually established himself as a successful farming entrepreneur. However, he initially took up work as a horseman and a plowman, and soon gained the reputation as one of the best around. He won the Carberry plowing match three years in a row. During his experience as an employee he gained extensive inside knowledge of how the farm system worked in that unique region.

It was not long until Sandison was in charge of his own land, buying a rundown 640 acre plot northwest of Brandon that was within four miles of the C.P.R. Sandison purchased this land on three principles: he believed that land close to a railroad was absolutely essential in turning a profit; that in Manitoba, land of the highest value was the cheapest; and that the country in Manitoba was particularly suited to large-scale agriculture. Still a proficient plowman from his days as a farmhand, Sandison reportedly seeded over 400 acres of land in 1887, which was considered very large at the time. His successful endeavours were recorded in the pamphlet A Scotch Farmer’s Success in the Canadian North-West. He was fully convinced that Manitoba was the destined agricultural hub of Canada.

Sandison developed several new and innovative methods for more efficient farming on the prairies. In 1888 he began using a “Gatling gun” seeder followed by eight plows, which could seed seventy five acres a day. He also threshed his crop directly from the stook (whereas his contemporary farmers would have the crop cut with the sheaves stooked), realizing that this way he would save labour, money, and prevent losses from sheaves that might break apart from too much handling. Some of the secrets of his success were to not only plow in the fall but harrow as well and to buy nothing but the best horses for farm work. Additionally, he would not burn his straw piles after harvest, instead reserving them to burn only on cold nights when frost was an issue. A dedicated leader, he would always be in the field among his workers, educating them with his expert knowledge in horse-handling and plowing techniques.

By 1891, Sandison owned approximately 2,500 acres of farmland in the lands north of Brandon and around Kemnay and Souris (800 of which were under crop), employing strictly young Scottish farm labourers. Despite an unusually dry season that year, he was able to obtain a yield of 17,000 bushels and turn a massive profit. At this time, he was widely regarded as one of Western Canada’s largest wheat farmers, which earned him his iconic nickname “The Wheat King”.

However, his later career was marred by financial difficulties. In 1892 the king began to lose control of his domain when a particularly bad frost damaged his crops despite all of his efforts to save them. His credit dried up and he quickly found himself in debt. After struggling to pay off creditors and the wages of his men, he was eventually forced to flee Manitoba after being caught for attempted fraud- he had been pawning off diamonds from Scotland in an attempt to pay off his debt. Sandison fled to Chicago and was never caught by the authorities, and so his once great farm was sold. After years shrouded in mystery (his daughter believed he may have been in South Africa), he resurfaced in Southern Ontario, purchasing a more humble fifty acre lot in Stayner and settling down with his wife.

John Sandison is one of the more exciting and out-of-the-ordinary farmers in rural Canadian history. His contributions to farming innovations were significant, and although his later career was steeped in controversy, it does not take away from his accomplishments. A truly larger-than-life figure, he has almost reached legendary status, and the legacy of the fabled “Wheat King” will likely live on for a long while.

Celebrating 150 Years of Canadian Agriculture