Ann remembered the first bitter winter and those short Scottish woolen stockings, which her mother considered the proper thing for a Scots lass – along with a Glengarry cap which did nothing for the ears when the blizzards blew.
Not only her dress made her different from the other children. There were the glasses which few youngsters wore then, for Ann had already known the frustration of fumbling and stumbling until a famous Scottish ophthalmologist corrected a severe congenital eye defect by radical surgery.
The graduation class of 1914 at Oak Lake included young Ann, honour student. Teacher training at Brandon College and ten years in that profession in various schools followed. Ann was vivacious, and she was pretty – in fact one respected old-timer in this area, a woman, gave it as her considered opinion that Ann Shearer was the prettiest young woman in the whole district in those early years. Robert Shearer, a young Scott with a broad accent, better known as “Bob” had thought so too back in Manitoba in 1925.
Farming near Wawanesa was a new experience for Ann, but she could cope with anything except the three years of crops wiped out by rust and other disasters. The fame of the Peace River drew the Shearers along with all of the others jumping in ahead of the advancing rails. Bob came ahead to look over the land. It was all taken around Rolla and Pouce Coupe, so he and his brothers chose pieces some miles north in a district that later became known as Shearerdale. It was wooded and required clearing before it would produce. There was as yet no house.
Ann, left at home in Manitoba, sold the farm and packed her furniture, the pretty wedding presents, linens, silver, crystal, china – and her tennis racquet, golf clubs and snowshoes. Farming in Manitoba, with its substantial big, brick homes had not quite prepared her for “homesteading”. But she saw her goods and animals off on the long rail journey to Peace River Landing to be transferred to the famous river steamer, The D.A. Thomas, and to be unloaded at Rolla Landing, the nearest “port” to their destination.
Then Ann and her baby, Bobbie, set out on the long cindery, smoky railway journey to Edmonton.
The E.D. and B.C. translated as “Extremely Dangerous and Badly Constructed”, didn’t change its nature when its name became N.A.R. The weekly passenger cars rolled like drunken sailors, except when the crew stopped to put the engine back on the track. After an interminable journey, mother and baby arrived at Grande Prairie, but there was no Bob to meet them. Due to spring break-up the road was closed to Rolla or Pouce Coupe. There was a message that the only open trail was via Spirit River. So back they went on the next train. Ann was glad that it wasn’t necessary to retrace the right of way along the treacherous banks of the Smoky River, which were prone to sliding off in wet weather, delaying the train for days until the track was restored. Ann, used to the flat prairies, shared the usual rather nerve-wracking experience of looking out of the window but seeing no track over the several hundred-foot drop into the valley. The train just crept back to Rycroft, then backed up the short spur to Spirit River.
There in the cluster of false-fronted shops and small shacks, Ann was greeted by the driver of a team and uncovered “buck-board” vehicle, sent by Bob to meet his wife. The next morning on the advice of her driver, she bought and filled a grub box, and purchased a highchair, second-hand, for the baby.
The road was rough – an understatement. The horses plunged and tugged and the wheels threatened to buckle. The mosquitoes were voracious. At noon both Ann and driver ate from the grub-box. Ann’s purchases were not regular homesteader fare.
At night they drew up at a long, low log building, a “stopping place”, for the grain and freight teamsters who traveled the old Spirit River trail. As she was ushered in she saw her first “barrel heater” – an oil barrel on legs or blocks, fired by huge logs. All of the walls had a double deck of pole bunks covered with a layer of straw. She was appalled at the idea of sleeping in an open dormitory with thirty men. The kind family provided a room for her in their home.
Breakfast brought another surprise. There were two items on the menu, porridge in huge quantities, and a large dishpan heaped with boiled eggs. The thirty men made no complaints.
Melting snows were filling the gullies with rapid runoff waters. Flimsy bridges threatened to float away at any moment. Some were covered with water – the horses had to be led across after the driver had ascertained with a pole that the structure was still there. At night they pulled into a place known as Cache Two.
If Spirit River had primitive conditions, Cache Two was worse. Wee Bobbie’s digestion was suffering – Ann asked for some warm water to bath her baby. “Who do you think you are? Water for a bath!” There was no bath. There were other irritations.
The next day brought a voyage through muskeg, miles and miles of it. About four o’clock the driver turned to the back seat, “Mistress, we are lost”. There was nothing to do but follow the tracks back to Cache Two.
“The next night,” remembered Ann, “we reached such a nice, friendly place and the food was so good”. The following night they reached Olsen’s Stopping Place at Gundy. “The food was good, but all I can remember is the delicious stewed dried apples with raisins.”
The next night, the sixth on the road, was spent in the hotel at the thriving village of Rolla. Mrs. Forbes, famous hostess of the hostelry afterwards known as the Columbia Hotel, made the trail-weary girl comfortable and welcome. It was only a few miles the next day to the spot on the map known as Doe River.
Until they got word that their freight had been off-loaded on the banks of the Peace River at Rolla Landing, Ann lived out of her suitcase in a rented cabin. Freighting the machinery and furniture up the long steep hill needed many teams. Luckily she hadn’t shipped her piano which came later via Hythe and Pouce Coupe.
Having the proceeds of the Manitoba farm enabled Bob to buy horses, cows and pigs. Ann boarded with the Doe River schoolteacher, Miss Peggy Brown, and began to enter into the social life of the large area.
That fall they reaped a hundred bushels of oats to the acre.
The days were never lonely. The influx of land seekers and the lonely bachelors made the Shearer home a stopping place. There were always extra plates on the table.
Ann lost no time in getting all the help the Experimental Station could give on farm management, seed varieties, methods of cultivation and all the lore of a new kind of country.
The day came when she made her first trip to Pouce Coupe, the government and hospital centre. “Down East” one put on one’s best for such an outing, – her tailored green broadcloth suit, wide hat, kid gloves, and polished pumps. Even after a thirty-mile drive, Ann realized that she was over-dressed for the time and place. The hospital was the social centre – Dr. and Mrs. Watson and Miss Crook, the matron, made the newcomer welcome. It was not long until Ann was a member of the hospital board, a position she held for years.
That fall there was another trip to Pouce – a rough hurry-up trip in a topless Ford car over frozen ruts, courtesy of two bachelor brothers homesteading a few miles from the Shearer’s. Their car was always “on call” for any emergencies. The second son, Jackie was born in Pouce Coupe hospital, one of fourteen babies being cared for in the old Red Cross Outpost, where the night nurse not only did the baby washing, but baked for the morning and afternoon lunches, and stoked the stoves that kept the place from freezing up. Ann had nothing but praise for the care she received. The hospital took pay in kind – the Shearers gave half a beef, for Ann was a long time in hospital.
In time two girls, Geraldine and Denise were born there. Besides Ann had two serious major operations.
She remembers one trip home with a new baby. Bob had come to town for her. Overnight the weather turned forty below. Even with heated rocks and many blankets on the straw, mother and child were soon shivering with cold. Stops at friendly homesteaders’ and changes of teams to be returned to owners on the next trip to town got the family home across snowed-in fields and through the bush.
During the winter of 1928-29 the men logged at Mica Gulch, taking out enough to build a small shack on the homestead and for the big new house they planned. In time that was built also, with special care – logs squared and fitted on the inside for a neat finish. The walls still stand solid, and evidence of the huge, luxuriant garden can still be found in the high grass. One can imagine the echoes of the gay parties, rousing farmer’s meetings and the occasional church service in what was then the largest living room in the area that became known as Shearerdale.
The hospital was Ann’s first community effort in which everyone joined. Donations of wood, moose meat, vegetables, etc. were collected. In summer the whole community made a day of it on Raspberry Island in the Peace, and pails and pails of fruit found its way for the long-suffering nurses to put up in jam and fruit for the patients.
The Women’s Institute fostered all of the homemaker’s arts, and the community’s social life. Whole families came to the meetings. Refreshments took on the nature of a community feast. Shearerdale was organized in 1930, the third in the Block, Ann holding an office, of course. She also organized the Doe River Institute, and was also at the organizing meeting at Rolla. At the first District W.I. Convention, held in Pouce Coupe in 1931, she was the delegate from Shearerdale. In 1932 Shearerdale hosted the Convention with Ann as President.
She remembered with amusement the reservations of some of the town members about accommodations in such a remote area, where roads were ungraded trails beyond Doe River. The Shearerdale ladies rose to the occasion. When the visiting cavalcade arrived there was a gasp of astonishment at the long, refreshment-laden table, with snowy linens, pretty china, and good silver and floral decorations. One lady was heard to gasp “Where did you get this beautiful table-setting?”
“Out of boxes under every bed in the district”, was the matter-of-fact reply. Asked whether he could remember what year that was, Bob replied, “No, but that was the year the school was painted. And Ann made all of the ice cream for the convention.”
The boys were too tiny, and Bob too busy to dig out the ice blocks from the sawdust-insulated ice house, crush them for packing with salt outside the metal cylinder, that held the rich cream, fresh eggs, sugar and vanilla, which, – turned interminably with a crank on the freezer, – was transformed by a revolving paddle into a delicious product unknown to today’s youngsters.
Ann learned other arts. She once said that the three most satisfying triumphs of her pioneer years were W.I. inspired. The first was making her own cheddar cheese when the depression made sales of butter unprofitable. From a wash boiler full of milk, with great care, she could produce an acceptable product in a homemade cheese press. She also discovered that she could then put the expressed whey through the cream separator and retrieve the fat to make butter also.
Her next enterprise was more ambitious, and took much longer. She had set her heart on having a proper upholstered chesterfield.
The first step was to secure straight, sound birch to make a frame. This was buried for a year in the manure pile to cure. Then it had to be dried. Meantime coil springs were collected from old car seats and broken down mattresses. Each coil was covered with a cylinder of stout flour sacking. A field of flax was grown and threshed for the straw. For a whole winter the family soaked the straw and shredded it into tow for padding – a long, tedious, hard job. Finally, using the frame of an old upholstered chair as a pattern, a new longer frame was fashioned by Bob and fitted, clamped and glued.
The first cover was burlap, but in due time a pretty, proper upholstery fabric was tailored, for a piece of furniture that was as beautiful as a store-bought item – and stronger than most.
Ann was determined that her children should not lack the finer things of education. Their Aunt was an accomplished musician. When it was necessary to go to Grande Prairie for piano examinations, they went. The Elks’ Music and Drama festivals spurred musical performance as well as drama and dancing. The writer well remembers the little “Scottish” dancers who, under Ann’s good Scottish teaching, took top marks in all school classes at the Dawson Creek festival. Making the authentic costumes out of what could be scrounged in the community or secured in used clothing from Manitoba was no small feat.
The Rolla music festival was the cause of her third great satisfaction. The boys, Jackie and Bobbie, were to play a piano duet. Some relative had sent Jackie a proper new suit, not homemade. Ann was determined that little brother should be no less well dressed and not in a hand-me-down. So she got a pattern, and from an old garment turned and pressed, she carefully tailored pants and coat. Perfectionist that she was, even she was completely satisfied. As luck would have it, the day of the performance broke the record for June heat. In the stifling Rolla Elks’ Hall, even the adjudicator shed his suit coat.
In 1938, when Ann was again convalescing from major surgery, Bob contracted rheumatic fever and a serious heart condition, which eventually made him an invalid for years. It was necessary to move to Rolla. Soon after, Douglas, the youngest son was born. Denise, the younger daughter was in the Queen Alexandra Solarium, Cobble Hill, Vancouver Island, for a long time for correction of a congenital defect in her feet – later at home, needing continued therapy. Nevertheless, Ann threw herself into community life, adding the duties of secretary of the school board as well as many other organizations. When Douglas was old enough to go to school she resumed teaching for three years in Rolla. A transfer to the Dawson Creek school brought a move to that centre.
After several years, remuneration was better at Hythe, so she boarded there for two years, where she resumed her activity in the Order of the Eastern Star. Later she taught at South Dawson. The influx of population due to the war and the oil boom brought a number of children who could not fit into regular school life. Ann took time off to go to Toronto where the most up-to-date instruction in new techniques of Special Education were being taught. With her special certificate she was put in charge of the Grade VI class of children with learning disabilities of various kinds. Out of her three and a half years in that capacity grew her drive to get a school for the mentally handicapped. The first cottage school grew eventually into the Open Door School for Exceptional Children that is now a fine city institution. Her work was recognized by the conferral of a life membership in the association. Still not satisfied, she sparked the drive for a workshop for the handicapped. Known as “The Place” it is a memorial to her compassion and executive ability.
Besides these, her absorbing interests, she continued her membership in South Dawson W.I. and her work for the local fair, horticultural society, the Anglican church, the hospital aid and nearly every other community endeavor, meanwhile caring for several aged invalid relatives in her own home.
When she retired from teaching she took up her husband’s insurance business when his health failed. At this time she became active in the Business and Professional Women’s Club.
When the Senior Citizens of the area saw the opportunity to acquire the Trail building for a boarding home, Ann threw herself into the immense amount of work necessary in a short time to raise money and backing to qualify for a grant. With her indomitable Scots determination and an ability to see a way around obstacles and through red tape, she was the natural choice for a secretary. No one not close to her knows the time, effort, and unsquelchable stick-to-it-iveness that she put into it, until the groundwork was laid after which the Rotary Club were able to underwrite the enterprise with a guarantee of financial backing.
Ann’s health failed at this time, making necessary a long absence in Vancouver for radical surgery. She came back to watch the building finished, furnished, and opened. Although she was unable to work as hard, her advice was invaluable, although all of her dreams for a complete Senior Citizens’ Centre could not be realized.
Nothing daunted, when the New Horizons plan for Senior Citizens was launched, it was Ann that explored the new idea, and set herself to obtain the grants of money offered by the government. The Drop-In Centre, under the sponsorship of the Kiwanis Club, became a reality. Her last act of public service occurred in Vancouver, when, almost completely invalid, she nevertheless left hospital to meet an official and secure an extra thousand dollars for that project.
Ann put up a determined fight for more years of community service, but on December 21, 1973, a few days short of her seventy-fifth birthday; she rested from her forty-five years of service to others in this country.
Two things stand out in the memory of those who knew her – her ability to recall so many of the humorous episodes in the pioneer years – and the unstinted praise she gave for the courage and kindness of the people who built the Peace River Block area. Above all, her praise for the pioneer doctors, nurses and teachers, and the homesteaders and their patient wives lent a bright facet to the privations and hardships that Ann herself had known.