Getting the Know-How: Homesteading and Railroading in Early Alberta


200 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-920316-45-X





Edited by J.P. Regan
Reviewed by A.A. Den Otter

A.A. den Otter is a history professor at Memorial University of
Newfoundland and co-author of Lethbridge: A Centennial History.


Among the myriad of pioneer reminiscences, that of Frank Roe is unique. Roe did not write the standard tale of joy and hardship. Instead he set his recollections in a broad social history of western Canada. Added to his personal memoirs are the insights of a self-educated scholar who experienced the end of frontier Alberta.

Roe arrived in Canada as a teenager in 1894. His family, disenchanted with the uncertainties of industrialized life in England, came in search of a freer, more abundant future. The grinding poverty of homesteading defeated Roe; in 1907 he moved to Edmonton and found a job with the Grand Trunk Pacific. Moving upward from coal shoveller to engineer, Roe remained with the railway until his retirement.

Although Roe was happy in his work, his mind was on scholarship, particularly western Canadian history. While still working for the railway, he wrote several articles for academic periodicals. After his retirement, he wrote a classic work on the North American buffalo and another on the Indian and the horse. His efforts were recognized with an honorary degree from the University of Alberta and a membership in the Royal Society of Canada.

As a result of his scholarly insight into western Canadian history, Frank Roe’s memoirs take on a special flavour. His discussion of southern and northern Alberta societies is more than a recollection of sectional jealousies but reveals the deep sociological and ethnic differences between the two areas. In another instance, Roe does not simply describe life in a log cabin but sketches its historical and geographical background. A chapter on a winter’s trip to Calgary is introduced by a discourse on trail-making. Getting the Know-How is more than memoirs, it is social history written by someone who lived through the era under discussion.


Roe, Frank Gilbert, “Getting the Know-How: Homesteading and Railroading in Early Alberta,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 23, 2024,