William Motherwell was born in Ontario on January 6, 1860. He attended the country school in the winter and worked on the farm in Lanark County near Perth during the summer. When the Ontario Agricultural College was founded at Guelph in 1879, Motherwell received a scholarship and graduated in 1881. He worked that summer at Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. After returning home to Ontario for one last winter, Motherwell, then 21, headed west to stay. From the end of the rail line at Brandon, Manitoba, he joined a caravan of Red River carts and wagons west.
In 1882, Motherwell was one of the first to select land in the Abernethy district. With a pair of oxen and a plough he broke the land and began to farm. A year later, he completed construction of a three-room log house. In 1884 Motherwell married Adeline Rogers (1861–1905). Two of their four children died at an early age. In 1897 they built the stone house that is the centre of the Motherwell Homestead National Historic Site. He collected every stone that went into building his house and barn.
Motherwell was a co-founder and first president of the Territorial Grain Growers Association in 1901. Adeline died in the spring of 1905 at the age of 44, in the midst of Motherwell’s successful campaign to enter provincial politics. Motherwell took on his duties in the Saskatchewan Legislature and resided in Regina for three years with the 15- and 13-year-old children. He was appointed Saskatchewan’s first Minister of Agriculture in 1906.
The homestead in Abernethy, referred to as “Lanark Place,” again became the Motherwell family’s centre in 1908 when Motherwell married Catherine Gillespie (1866–1952). Born and raised in Ontario, Catherine had moved west in her 20s to be a teacher and missionary to First Nations people. She was principal of the File Hills Boarding School, north of Abernethy, for seven years.
Motherwell set up Saskatchewan’s Department of Agriculture on the track of “scientific agriculture.” which was largely built around preserving soil moisture by summerfallowing and elaborate systems of soil tillage. Motherwell’s educational efforts were initiated on a multitude of fronts through lectures, agricultural societies, institutes, bulletins, and the Saskatchewan College of Agriculture that he co-founded in 1908. He even advocated that nature study and school gardening be introduced in the public schools. Often in multiple languages, the bulletins were “how-to” manuals on such topics as summerfallowing, crop rotation, tree planting, farm diversification, co-operative associations, and dairying. A system of experimental farms, demonstration plots, and local fairs was established in Saskatchewan. The network of rail lines was also capitalized on as a vehicle for reaching farmers with demonstrations, lectures and exhibits inside special train cars known as the “Travelling Dairy,” the “Special Seed Train,” and the hugely successful “Better Farming Train.” Motherwell’s own homestead was arranged and run in a way that he consciously saw as a model for others to follow.
Motherwell resigned from his Saskatchewan Cabinet post in 1917, and his seat in 1918, to protest the provincial Liberals’ pro-conscription stand, as well as their policy to curtail French language rights in the Saskatchewan public schools. He was nearly 62 years old in 1921 when he ran for federal politics and was elected in the Regina constituency. Mackenzie King invited him to serve as Canada’s Minister of Agriculture, which he did from 1922 to 1930. After August 1930, Motherwell sat on the Opposition side of the House until King’s Liberals returned to office in 1935.
In Ottawa Motherwell worked to improve the quality and continuity of exportable and home-consumed products. He also worked to achieve rust-resistant varieties of wheat, and established the Dominion Rust Research Lab in Winnipeg in 1926. He is credited with helping Canada become the first country in the British Empire to adopt policies to curtail tuberculosis, by setting up “Restricted T.B. areas” and an Accredited Herd System. Motherwell championed the cause of the prairie farmer through endorsing government regulation and financial aid to prairie farmers, as well as participation in co-operative enterprises.
The 1935 federal election was Motherwell’s last. He retired from politics in 1939, just before he reached the age of 80. He died May 24, 1943. His homestead was designated a national historic site in 1966 because of its architectural interest and its historic associations with his career, and as an illustration of a prairie homestead of western Canada’s settlement period.
Frieda Esau Klippenstein