When I graduated from Teacher Training at the University of British Columbia in the spring of 1951, I applied for a teaching position with School District #59 (Peace River South) headquartered in the Village of Dawson Creek. It was the only school district to which I applied for a position, because two years before, my friend, Harry Dewar, had gone north to teach at South Peace High School and he told me when he left Vancouver that if he was still up there in two years it would indicate that he liked it, and for me to come on up. I was interviewed by phone by Walt Hartrick, principal at the time, and hired. He was in Vancouver where I was at the time, and when I asked him whether or not he wanted to see what he had bought, he replied, “No, I think it’s pretty good from what I have heard.”
Our trip to Dawson Creek from Vancouver was something else again. I had bought a 1937 Plymouth two door sedan, and I did a ring, valve and bearing job on it myself, learning how to do so by reading, asking questions, and renting tools. I asked Imperial Oil for a route that would be easy on an old car, and they sent me down through the States and up through Fernie and hence to Alberta and north. This was, of course, two years before the Hart Highway was punched through Prince George to the Peace country.
Since we had little money we slept some nights in the car, which was a chore because its roof leaked, and when it rained it was tough to find a dry spot in there. We had two kids then too, and they spent most of their time in the back, where we had constructed a sort of playpen of mattresses.
At Morinville, just north of Edmonton, the generator on the car gave out and we had to wait a couple of days while it was repaired. The old highway north to the Peace country was gravel and mud. When a large truck passed us in the mud we got absolutely plastered from one end of the old car to the other. I had to stop every once in a while to clean off the headlights so I could see a little. In addition, often when we went through puddles of water, the spark plugs would get wet and completely quit working and the engine would stop. I had to then dry off the spark plugs (diapers were handy for this task) and away we’d go again. Sometimes I thought that I wasn’t on the right road, as the highway seemed little more than a trail.
We arrived in Dawson Creek on the afternoon of August 8, 1951, in the midst of one of the heaviest rainstorms I have ever seen. The gravel streets in the town were just like rivers. Since there was only a population of 3000 in Dawson Creek at that time, it wasn’t long before I found out from someone that Harry Dewar was at the Vogue Theatre with some of his kids. I therefore went there, found him, and moved into the house on the corner of 104th and I think about 12th Street, which he was renting from Betty Golata. Fran — Harry’s wife — went to England, and we stayed with Harry for the winter, moving the next year into another house owned by Betty.
We ran out of housing the following summer before Betty Golata’s other house became available, so Betty and Frank let us live in the house on their farm in the Lakeview District north of town. The roads were absolutely grim, so I rode the school bus to school for a time, and then I stayed in town for one week with the Ralph Thomsen family. Friday, after school, I set out to walk the 8 miles out to the farm. If I walked on the road I picked up about 15 pounds of mud on each foot, and if I tried to walk through the fields the clouds of mosquitoes I stirred up just about ate me alive. Finally, as I reached the farmhouse and staggered up to the door and opened it, Edna, my wife, glanced up and said, “Shut the door. It’s cold in here you know.” If I had had the strength I think that I would have just kept on walking. That wet and muddy walk completely wrecked the shoes I was wearing and I never wore them again.
We were absolutely broke when we arrived in Dawson Creek. However, I quickly learned from other teachers that Art Webb, owner of the Shoprite General Store, was happy to extend credit to teachers who were new in town, so that’s how we survived for groceries until I got my first pay cheque. Later that winter we had trouble paying all of the grocery bill one month so I asked Walt Topham, manager of the Bank of Toronto, whom I met on the street, if I could borrow $50 or $75 and pay it back at $10 a month. He replied, “Make up your mind. Which do you want?” When I answered that the $50 would do, he said that he would put it in my account immediately and that I could drop in and sign for it when I got the chance.
Typical of the bad luck we usually had with weather (the winter of 1943 which my wife and I spent in Yorkshire, England, was the coldest they had for forty years) the winter of 1951 in Dawson Creek had the heaviest snowfall they had there for forty years. At least that’s what the townspeople said. I have a picture of our old car up on blocks in the back yard and you cannot see the car for the snow.
There were only 90 teachers in the whole district at that time, so we pretty well knew each other. I’m afraid that we tended to get a little “in-grown”, as teachers tended to stick together as far as socializing was concerned. There were exceptions, and Edna and I were in that group who had friends outside of teaching. Over the years this continued with us, so that now most of our friends are from outside education.
When we first went to Dawson Creek, there was not one inch of blacktop in the town. And the mud, even on some of the main streets, was something to behold. There is still a pair of my toe rubbers somewhere in the subterranean mud at the corner of 10th Street and 102nd Avenue. I recall one night walking along 106th Avenue and stepping off the wooden sidewalk into about three feet of water. What a shock that was!
But it was fun to go to school each day. Really. Some of the practical jokes teachers used to play on each other were very amusing, and all were taken with very good humour. And the students weren’t left out of it either. I’ll never forget the time Peter Blore was teaching a class of girls’ woodwork. One day there was a piercing scream from a girl using the table saw, and she staggered backward clutching her hand. Peter rushed over and found a thumb in the middle of a bloody pile of sawdust on the table of the saw. Poor Peter just about fainted until he discovered that the blood was ketchup and the thumb was made of rubber.
Peter was demonstrating how not to use the table saw one day, and he had a piece of wood stick and then get thrown right through the wall into the next room. That was a most effective demonstration.
Teachers had a terrible time finding rental housing of any kind in the early 1950s. Often two families had to move in together for a time until one of the families could find their own place. The families of the late Gordie Ballantyne and the late Andy Soles were two of these families, as were others. One day when Gordie was desperate to find a place to rent, Walt Hartrick rushed over to Gordie’s classroom and said, “That house that is being moved down the street is going to be rented when it is set up. You’d better take a look.” So, while Walt looked after the class, Gordie rushed out, climbed up into the moving house, and wandered about the two-storied place seeing if it would be suitable. The owner, who was driving along behind the house, approached Gordie in the house and asked him what the hell he thought he was doing. Needless to say, the house was not going to be for rent, so Gordie started planning on how to get back at Walt.
One day a boy rushed down to the office from the gym and said, “Mr. Wilson has hurt himself!” Walt Hartrick, principal, and Charlie Cuthbert, vice-principal, rushed down to the gym and half-carried Jack Wilson, the Physical Ed. teacher, down to the medical room. Jack was moaning and groaning in pain and holding his right arm, evidently in great agony. Charlie ran to call an ambulance, while Walt tried to find out what had happened. Finally Jack managed to tell Walt what had happened. Jack explained, “I tried to scratch my ass with my elbow!” Walt threw down Jack’s “sore” arm and ran to cancel the ambulance. Later, Walt and Gordie Manson “got” Jack at a pep meet in the gym when they, in a skit in front of the whole school, managed to dose Jack up with Ex-Lax.
One time Bruce Niblow, agriculture teacher, stuck the boards from a salt herring box into the heater in the vice-principal’s office. The smell was horrible. The sight of Gordie Ballantyne and Dougal McFee looking for the source of the horrific odour was something to relish. Dougal said, “It smells like urine!” Gordie replied, “No, it’s not Myine!” Pat Horn dangled a plastic spider down in front of Colin Smith one day and it scared him so much that he jumped right up onto his chair. Broke up the staff room it did.
One day, when Frances Dolan, among others, was sitting in the staff room, Walt Hartrick took advantage of one of the first tape recorders, I think it used wire on the spools as a medium instead of tape actually, set it up in the toilet just off the staff room. While everyone sat there trying not to let on, there came from the toilet the most horrendous sounds of grunting and groaning and even screaming followed by a sigh of relief and the sound of a flushing toilet. Walt Hartrick was sitting over in the corner of the room just killing himself trying not to let on, and Frances’s face got redder and redder.
In those simple days, entertainment was, to a large extent, self-made. For example, two of the high points of the school year were the Sadie Hawkins Dance, and the Christmas Concert. The Sadie Hawkins Dance was an affair where all the staff and students dressed up in any costume they could put together for this happy affair. Some of the students and some of the staff showed considerable ingenuity and resourcefulness in making their costumes. This dance came to a rather gloomy end when at one of them the staff realized that they were doing most of the dressing up and the kids were standing around watching.
The Christmas Concert was really enjoyed by the packed houses to which it played each year. The teachers entered whole-heartedly into the process, with some of the most unlikely “entertainers” being featured. I still have snapshots of Paddy Mackie and me doing a little Gilbert and Sullivan, and the late Ken Weir and me singing some rather soulful melody judging from the expression on our faces. We really enjoyed the performances, and of course it helped a lot with the public relations of the school.
My classroom for a couple of years was an old annex at the back of the main building. I used to whip down to the staff room for a smoke between periods, and I never could figure out why all the kids were in their desks ready to start when I returned. I finally noticed a hole in the door, and suspected a spy. Accordingly, the next time I went for a cigarette, I whipped into the auditorium, out its side door, crept along the side of the annex, and reached my hand around the corner to stick my finger into the hole. My finger encountered something warm and moist and there was a sudden flurry in the room. When I got over the fence and into the classroom all were in their desks and everything was normal except that Doug Palsson was holding a hand over his eye. I asked him if there was anything wrong, and he assured me that everything was fine. Doug, a teacher in North Vancouver now, dropped in to see us the summer of 1998, and we had great fun talking over old times. I even showed him his marks in Grade VII English from my mark book.
When I was appointed principal of Pouce Coupe Elementary School effective January 1, 1955, I was replaced at South Peace by a fellow who was a real character. The deal was that I was to do his daybook for him to help the transition, so after having taught a split Grade V, VI and VII class all day at Pouce, I would drive up to South Peace and make up the fellow’s daybook. This became onerous after a time, so I figured that if the fellow was a real teacher, he would resent my telling him what to do, so I started to get very specific. I would write, “Now have the class do this and when that is finished have them do this, and this.” It didn’t take long for him to tell me to stop doing his daybook, which saved me a lot of trouble.
It was suspected that the chap was quite a boozer. In fact, the girls in a school choir which he directed swore that his wooden leg gurgled. They were sure that he had a bottle cached in his prosthesis. I doubt that Walt Hartrick would ever be so ready again to let one of his staff leave in the middle of the room.
The school year 1957-58 was one of the worst of my teaching career. They were desperate for an English teacher at South Peace, so I lent myself to them for the year, and the board appointed a temporary principal at Pouce Coupe. Unfortunately at Christmas time that temporary principal had some sort of a breakdown and left. The board asked me to principal the school from South Peace, and they appointed a head teacher in Pouce. This arrangement meant that I would spend every one of my spare periods whipping down to Pouce and whipping around the school. I would go down there, see how things were going, perhaps strap a couple of kids, and scream back to Dawson Creek for my next class. When Floyd Irwin, the Inspector of Schools came in to talk to me in my classroom at South Peace it took me a while to figure out about which part of my work he was talking, South Peace or Pouce Coupe. It was a grim and terrible year, and unfair and poor for the pupils and teachers at Pouce.
I belonged to the Dawson Creek Choral and Drama Society for quite some time. We used to do plays and musicals and travel around the Peace giving performances. Walter Fischer was our director, and Natalie Kazakoff was very active in the organization too. I eventually found that it was taking too much of my time and left the organization. It was fun while it lasted though.
Not every house in those days, especially the ones which were for rent, had running water in them. I well remember being invited to the home of a teacher who had water, playing bridge, and some time during the evening, taking our turn using their bathtub — sheer luxury it was. In 1954 we built a garage on a VLA lot on Hospital Road, and moved into it while we made plans to build a house there. One day Roy Regner, who came from the same area of Manitoba my wife did, and who delivered water in Dawson to those houses without water service, was filling our large tank which was just inside the back door. He got into a conversation about Manitoba with Edna, and before he knew it the water had swirled out of the tank and all over the floor. He worked manfully for a considerable time cleaning up that watery mess.
A very important facility in the 1950s was the School Dormitory up the hill on 8th Street. The only matrons I remember were Mrs. Landers, and Mrs. Bloder. Various single schoolteachers used to act as supervisors there, including, as I recall, George Hartford and Bill Slight. Some of the students came in from Kelly Lake, and Bill was questioning one of the girls from that area after she had returned about three days late after going home for a weekend. He asked, “Was there a wedding?”
“No,” replied the young lady.
“Was there sickness in the family?”
“No,” was the reply.
Was there a death in the family?” asked Bill.
“No,” she said.
“Were the roads bad?” finally asked the supervisor.
“That must have been it!” was the surprising answer. Bill could hardly maintain his outward calm at this reply.
I served on the salary committee a few times to negotiate for new contracts with the School Board. I recall working like mad to try to get a 0.5% raise. In our local we had a couple of lady teachers whose husbands were pretty well off, and at nearly every teachers’ meeting we had the two of them would try to get us to lessen our demands for salary increases. Those of us who were trying to raise a family (My salary for example, in 1951-52, including $10.00 a month ‘isolation bonus’ was $305.00 a month, paid for the ten months of the school year.) were interested in getting raises. Many a hot debate took place between those two ladies and the younger teachers who were struggling to exist. I should add that one of these two teachers was asked in January by the School Board Secretary-Treasurer to please deposit her checks from September to that time so that they could keep their books current!
The first few years I was in Dawson Creek I found that I had to work during the summers to enable us to survive. I worked for the Village of Dawson Creek, mostly on the end of a shovel, along with Harry Dewar. Gordie Ballantyne also drove truck for the village. It was interesting to be working on a sewer installation and talk to my students as they looked down into the muck where I was working. I received $1.00 an hour, and my foreman was Reg Shields. I recall working on the sewer service to the old hospital and running into frost down about 8 feet in the middle of July. We installed water and sewer services by hand in those days, with a crew shoveling out every foot of the trenches in which we then laid the pipes.
Two of my fellow workers whom I remember were John Scheck and Louie Kobluik. Alex Cameron, the Village Treasurer, finally took me into the village office to do bookkeeping, and I then received $1.10 an hour, a raise of 10 cents an hour.
I also worked for the School Board during the summers, mostly painting, under the careful guidance of the Maintenance Superintendent, Jack McLaughlin. I told them, when I asked for a job, that I did not want to do bookkeeping or painting. Naturally those two jobs are the ones I did the most.
I will never forget the coldest day that I ever experienced; 62 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. It may have been during the winter of 1956 but I’m not sure. My 1955 Plymouth, a notoriously poor starter in cold weather, actually started that day and I rolled down to the Pouce Coupe Elementary School, where I was principal, on “square” tires. I couldn’t get the left door shut because it had been left off the catch all night and the rubber seals were frozen solid so I just couldn’t shut it tightly.
Anyway, when I got to the school the flag was moving slightly, so there was a little breeze. It was cold! My janitor, Charlie Bugg, couldn’t get the school above 50 degrees with the furnace roaring full blast. There were only 13 pupils present out of the 150 we had at that time. We obviously couldn’t conduct school, so Max Miller, the taxi driver in town, took half of the kids home and I drove the other half back to their homes.
I then phoned the Inspector of Schools, Floyd Irwin, and told him about the heating problem in the building and he told me to close the school. I never did tell him that I had already closed it.
I was amazed to find that among the attendees that morning were three children of a farm family, the youngest in Grade I, after having walked a mile and three-quarters across the fields to get to the school!