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75 years ago - a chilling lesson in farm safety

In 75 years since Harris's death from a farm injury, the statistics have hardly changed!

Re posted from CBC News · Posted: Jun 08, 2023

On June 8, 1948, Cecil George Harris scratched his final wishes onto this panel as he was dying, pinned under a piece of farm machinery. His words were recognized as his will, an important moment in Canadian legal history. (Merle Massie) comments It was a will that would go down in history. Shortly after lunch on June 8, 1948 — exactly 75 years ago — Cecil George Harris went out to work on his farm in the McGee district in the RM of Pleasant Valley near Rosetown, Sask. The plan was to take his Model C Case tractor to a quarter section a few kilometres north of the home farm to work on the field with a one-way plow. A one-way was a typical piece of farm machinery: a heavy plow used for tillage. Farmers would devote long hours to dragging it back and forth to plow the fields and cultivate the land. With the distance to the field and the long June day and evening, Cecil told his wife Bessie May that he did not expect to be home before at least 10 p.m. When the 56-year-old British-born Saskatchewan farmer didn't return when expected, Bessie May left their two young children and drove up to the field to see what was happening. What she found was a nightmare.

Soon after he got to the field, Harris had a terrible, lonely farm incident. The Case tractor didn't have modern rubber tires. It had old-fashioned steel wheels with V-shaped lugs. It was a heavy beast, capable of working hard. No one is quite sure what happened, but the local paper, the Rosetown Eagle, reported that Harris was between the tractor and the one-way, possibly to fix or set something, when the tractor rolled backward. Bob Hannay, who was 15 years old at the time and part of that night's terrible rescue mission, thought that Harris was likely greasing the one-way and had reached up to engage the left-hand clutch to 'jockey' the tractor backward a little to help the procedure. It's the sort of thing that farmers do. Harris had probably done it many times before. This time, disaster struck. The tractor engaged and rolled backwards. Harris was immediately rolled under, pinned by the tractor's huge left rear wheel, sitting upright between the one-way and the tractor. His left leg from his ankle to his hip was cut and completely smashed, stuck under the massive wheel. It was the one-way that saved him from immediate death. As with its name, a one-way plough can only go one way — forward. It cannot back up. So the tractor, stopped by the one-way hitch, stalled with Harris not completely run over, but pinned by his leg and pelvis underneath the wheel.

Harris stayed alive for more than 10 hours, helpless and bleeding badly, until Bessie May found him. She frantically recruited a crew of neighbours, who swarmed into the field to help. As the June night dropped, a fierce thunderstorm engulfed the rescue crew with their tractors and winches and jacks, frantically working to raise the tractor enough to pull Cecil Harris out. The rain turned the fields into a quagmire of gumbo. Bob Hannay, at 15, had the strange task of driving his father's tractor, chained to the rescue car with Cecil in the backseat, safely out to the main road. There was no way the car would make it on its own on those drowned roads. Harris got to the hospital in Rosetown sometime after midnight, still lucid but suffering from shock and loss of blood, on top of the terrible injuries. Despite the rescue efforts, Cecil George Harris died in hospital the next afternoon. This 75-year-old story made Saskatchewan history. While pinned, knowing he might not survive, Cecil Harris took out his pocket knife and scratched a few words into the red Case paint on the tractor fender. "In case I die in this mess I leave all to the wife," he wrote, and signed it as best he could, scratching his name to seal his intent. The panel that Cecil George Harris carved his precedent-setting will into is now on display at the College of Law Library at the University of Saskatchewan. (Merle Massie) That tractor fender became, on his death, Cecil George Harris' holographic will. It was preserved, used as evidence in court, and within weeks of Harris' death, his estate passed uncontested to his wife, as per his clear wishes. The will on the tractor fender went down as perhaps the strangest and most unique legal document in Saskatchewan history. It's still taught in law school, written into legal texts, and even made Ripley's Believe it or Not. The Case fender, and the knife Harris used to scratch out his will, are now held in the collection of the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan. Cecil George Harris used this knife to carve his dying wishes into the side of a piece of farm machinery. (Merle Massie) The will written on the tractor fender is a fascinating and terribly sad story — but it's also has a completely different lesson than what we usually discuss. Cecil George Harris' story is, at its core, a chilling lesson in farm safety, and how quickly a normal work day can go from routine to nightmare. In the 75 years since Harris's death from a farm injury, the statistics have hardly changed. Farming remains Canada's fourth most hazardous industry, and the single most dangerous in terms of absolute number of deaths. Machinery incidents (rollovers and run-overs, like Harris) account for about 70 per cent of farm injuries. An average of 85 Canadians die every year on the farm. And when a farm's main operator dies, chances are high that the business will not survive the death of its owner. These statistics have been captured by the Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting (CAIR) project. The Saskatchewan data, collected by the Canadian Centre for Rural and Agricultural Health at the University of Saskatchewan, is similar. Between 1990 and 2019 in Saskatchewan, there were 132 farm fatalities related to tractors. In about 10 per cent of those incidents, the dismounted operator was run over by the unmanned machine. We all remember Cecil Harris and the will scratched into the tractor fender 75 years ago. But let's also remember the reason why he had to write it. Don't take chances. Come home safe.

Written by Merle Massie CBC News - Saskatoon, Saskatchewan


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