BY LUANNE ARMSTRONG
Amy Kelsey, in Erickson, fifty-seven years old and not in good health, was proclaimed Wheat Queen of the World at the Chicago International Livestock Exhibition on November 26, 1949. She didn’t go to Chicago to collect her prize. It was a long way from Erickson.
She grew hard red spring wheat and corn in her garden and when it was time to harvest this wheat, she individually selected each kernel with a magnifying glass. Then she sent in fifteen pounds of these select kernels as her entry to the Exhibition. She also won the Red Wheat competition at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto that same fall.
In fact, she won a lot of competitions, so many that in 1949, the House of Commons in Ottawa recognized her achievements and proclaimed her Wheat Queen of the World as well.
And yet, I know almost nothing about her. I would love to know more. I like my imagined idea of her, poring over her grains of wheat with a magnifying glass, perhaps by lamplight. But I have no idea where in Erickson she lived or what her life was like. How can a woman’s life be so big and so small at the same time?
But Amy must have been a heck of a farmer. Between 1946 and 1949, she won a total of more than twenty-one awards at fairs from Victoria to Chicago. Her husband at some point is quoted as calling her form of farming as “damned rubbish,” but he may have been upset for another reason. The prize for world wheat “King” in Chicago was supposed to be $2000. Amy received a measley $20. No wonder Charles was upset. As he said, that was more than they could make farming in two years.
At any rate, he apparently hauled the medically frail Amy off to Victoria, where, she found to her dismay, she couldn’t grow wheat in the back yard any more. She had been told she didn’t have long to live but she went on living, into her late eighties, long enough to complain about the BC Museum not accepting her collection of ribbons and other agricultural memoribilia. Since the provincial museum wouldn’t take them, she kept them herself. I wonder what happened to them.
She also turned to writing in the later part of her life. One reason she took up grain growing is that she had been told by a doctor in her early twenties that she only had a year to live. She wrote an essay titled “One Year to Live”, which won top prize in an essay contest run by the Regina Leader Post.
Somewhere in Creston there should be a plaque, a post, a sign, a statue, something saying: Amy Kelsey (or Mrs. Charles Kelsey, as the newspaper always named her) was the Wheat Queen of the World. That is quite a title.
Women have always been at the centre of agriculture throughout human history. It’s one reason why women in Saskatchewan got the right to vote first in Canada. Men and women have always been partners when it comes to farming. Some farm work is more physically demanding than other work but there is nothing I can think of that women can’t do or haven’t done. I grew up as a farmer and my father simply took it for granted that his daughters would work alongside his sons, whether that was bringing in hay, feeding cattle, chopping wood or any of the other myriad of chores that kept us all warm fed and alive.
I was born the year Amy Kelsey was proclaimed by our government as Wheat Queen of the World. I wonder if my parents or grandparents knew her. Apart from an article in the local paper, there doesn’t seem to have been much of a celebration. But Amy herself was said to have been a quiet modest person so perhaps she herself didn’t welcome the spotlight too much.
Although she and Charles moved to Victoria in 1950, she did manage to win one more title in 1958, using wheat from her garden. After that, the rules for grain competitions were changed so that only farmers with acreage could compete.
But as one Canadian farmer to another, I salute her. I can’t even imagine how long it would take to compile fifteen pounds of wheat, one grain at a time. Quite a while, I figure. But then we women are renowned for our patience, and modesty. Aren’t we?