William Sylvester Alpheus "Billy" Beal was one of rural Manitoba’s first black settlers, arriving in the Swan River region in 1906. After a life dedicated to building his community, Swan River has worked hard in recent years to ensure his legacy is never forgotten.
Beal was born in Chelsea, Mass., in 1874 and graduated from North Community High School in Minneapolis in 1898. He then apprenticed as a steam engineer.
At the time of his graduation, Canada was at the start of an aggressive immigration campaign led by Manitoba MP and federal immigration minister Clifford Sifton. The goal was to attract hundreds of thousands of homesteaders to farm the prairies.
Attracting peasant immigrants from far away lands was an expensive endeavour, so the government made special efforts to target those who had already settled in the United States. The enticement to move north was a generous homesteading arrangement of 160 acres of land for the bargain price of $10.
The campaign didn’t specifically include black Americans, though ads appeared in newspapers aimed at black readers. One was the Chicago-based Broad Ax, which was distributed throughout American Midwest. Its editor, writer Julius F. Taylor, also included the occasional editorial and news story about the freedom of farm life on the Canadian prairie.
Sifton’s immigration scheme achieved its goal. The number of people entering Canada rose from 17,000 in 1896 to more than 141,000 in 1905 and is credited with helping to swell the population of the West by about one million people.
One man attracted by Sifton’s campaign was Billy Beal.
Why Beal chose the Swan River region is unclear, as the Edmonton area appears to have been the most popular choice for black American settlers. There were, though, plenty of saw mills to choose from in the region and some had ties to companies in Beal’s home state.
Beal recalled in his later years he was never interested in being a farmer, writing: "I did not come to this part of the country to homestead then, but to follow my trade of engineer. The idea of taking a homestead did not occur to me at the time."
A condition of his immigration, however, was he had to build a house, clear the land and plant at least fifteen acres within three years of his arrival.
Before the deadline, Beal claimed his land in the Big Woody district which is located 16 kilometres northwest of the town of Swan River. As he was late to sign up, he got a poor section of land and faced great hardships turning it into a farm.
Beal admitted: "I got my patent in five years but even then, I did not have the necessary fifteen acres broke but the inspector made an allowance for that on account of the density of the scrub."
With his obligation to the Crown met, Beal rented out his land and never farmed again.
Working as a steam engineer at places such as the nearby Red Deer Lumber Mill earned Beal a decent enough wage that he could afford to pursue his wide range of interests, one of which was his personal library.
Beal sent away for books on topics such as science, law, astronomy and philosophy. He not only read them, but made them available to others in the community. His first library was destroyed by a fire at his house in 1911.
The following year, while he was trying to make a go of it on his land, Beal was a founder of the Big Woody School Division and served for nearly forty years as its secretary-treasurer. He also helped establish a debating society and literary club in the region.
Beal’s self-taught knowledge of medicine saw him called into action to help the local doctor during times of crisis, such as the 1918–19 flu epidemic. He was also happy to pull teeth for area residents.
After nearly 60 years in Swan River, Beal, who never married and had no children, retired to The Pas where he died in 1965 at the age of 91. He is buried in Lakeside Cemetery at The Pas.
The week following Beal’s death, the Swan Valley Star and Times newspaper noted in a front-page editorial, "It was always a pleasure to talk to Bill as he was a man of knowledge. He will be long remembered by friends… he was as every inch a gentleman."
As with many settlers who did not leave any family, the life of Billy Beal could have faded away until it became little more than a footnote in a regional history book. That is not what happened, though.
One person who has helped keep Beal’s legacy alive is Robert Barrow, whose family has lived in the region since 1912.
Barrow is a few years too young to have met Beal in person, but he grew up hearing stories about him from family members. For instance, the first time his uncle listened to a radio was at Billy Beal’s house on a device Beal had built himself. Beal was also known for his telescope, which he constructed out of a stove pipe and soup cans.
In the early 1980s, Barrow, a professional photographer, was contacted by the person clearing out the old Beal house before it collapsed. Inside, he discovered more than 50 glass negatives, the result of yet another of Beal’s hobbies: photography.
While Beal was not the only photographer depicting life in the region at the time, Barrow notes, "Mr. Beal’s were more inclined to people" and is now an invaluable visual record of his fellow pioneers.
Barrow wanted to share the images and stories "old timers" told of Beal. He says, "I love the photographs, first of all. Its my profession and my passion" but, "I grew up hearing these stories and it was these stories I wanted to get out."
The collection of images and stories were compiled in a book he co-authored with Leigh Hambly in 1988 entitled Billy: The Life and Photographs of William S. A. Beal. It was then turned into photographic exhibit that toured Manitoba and Nova Scotia.
The following year, Beal’s legacy was set in stone.
In June 1989, eighty people attended the unveiling of a memorial stone at the Fairdale Cemetery in the Big Woody District in honour of Beal.
When asked why a memorial stone, Neil Brown, one of the men who worked on the project, stated matter of factly: "Because there was nothing there." He says Beal had to retire to The Pas as that was where the nearest nursing home was at the time. The fact that he was buried 240 kilometres away with no recognition in his home district was something residents had long wanted to change.
Brown also notes Beal, who died a pauper, was buried without a headstone. That was corrected in June 1990 after the group spent weeks hand-crafting one for his grave site.
Other reminders of Beal in the region include a plaque outside the Swan River Library and a display of some of Beal’s images, medical tools and photographic equipment at the Swan River Valley Historical Museum. Also, the Swan Valley Lions Clubs will host the 21st annual Billy Beal Ice Fishing Derby in March.
One topic not explored in the various recollections about Beal’s life is racism.
It should be noted while Canada allowed Beal and at least 1,500 other black settlers onto the prairies to homestead, it passed an order-in-council in August 1911 barring black immigration for one year as they were "deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada."
This came after a mounting number of calls from community groups, local government officials, and even the Winnipeg Board of Trade, to stem the large inflow of what they considered "undesirable" immigrants, such as blacks and Eastern Europeans.
Though the order in council was never passed into law and later repealed, it signalled to potential immigrants and the immigration officials who would deal with them at the border that blacks were not welcome.
Barrow didn’t encounter stories of racism in the interviews for his book. He says, though, "I am certain he experienced a lot of racism. But at the same time, he found a community where he was accepted — more than accepted — valued."
Clifford Hogg, also from a family that has lived in the region for generations, says he too, grew up constantly hearing stories about Beal from family and community members. For him, the discovery of Beal’s race was a surprise.
"To tell you the honest truth, he passed away and a couple of years went by. I think I was about ten years old before I even learned Billy Beal was black. That just never came up in any conversation. Billy Beal was just Billy Beal."
Christian explores local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.
Billy: The Life and Photography of William S. A. Beal is available and the Millennium and Henderson branches of the Winnipeg Public Library.
Christian Cassidy believes that every building has a great story - or ten - to tell.