In 1916 the British War Office sent out a call for volunteers to join the Uniformed Women’s Legion. The reason for this was to release the men driving armoured vehicles. I joined up and as I knew how to drive I was posted to the Number One Company in London and put into one of the War Office cars. Here I stayed for a year. And then wishing to go back into the country, I transferred to the new company at Virginia Water where the Canadian Forestry Corps were cutting timber in Windsor Park.
It was here I met my husband. He had been badly gassed and was unfit for active service. At the outbreak of war he was in northern B.C. with the Ingenika Company, and heard nothing of the war until he came to Pouce Coupe at Christmas time. Like Englishmen the world over he set out to join up. Without delay he put on his snowshoes, headed for Grouard, and enlisted in the 49th Edmonton Regiment.
The war over, he returned to Canada. I followed six months later in the Minnedosa, a Canadian ship. It was transporting wives and other details. And this is how I came to live in this country.
My husband had gone over the Edson Trail in 1911, and filed on a quarter section east of the Pouce Coupe River, so we decided to return there and make our home. My sister Iris came with me as it was rather a plunge into the unknown. The Minnedosa was a small ship, rather frightful, and our accommodation poor. But we were young and on a great adventure.
Arriving at Quebec we were off-loaded into a large Immigration hall. After we had passed the medical, etc. we slipped quietly away and bought our first tickets on the ordinary passenger train. We had a very enjoyable trip and good meals — the fare on the Minnedosa had been rather grim. When we arrived in Edmonton my husband was not there, and I realized that perhaps we had done a foolish thing. So we sat on a bench and waited. We noticed that two ladies were eyeing us curiously. One of them came across and said very sternly, “Are you the two girls who are lost?”
“Not lost”, I said, putting on as bold a face as I could. “My husband is meeting us here.”
“Well”, she went on, “He was here for hours, and was terribly upset when you did not arrive on the proper train. He has gone for a meal and will be back again.”
He arrived soon after and was too pleased to see us to scold. Edmonton was still in the stage of mud roads and broad sidewalks, and looked very unfinished to us.
We were not amused on sitting down to breakfast the next morning, when a swinging door flew open, a girl rushed in and said, “Just mush,” then vanished, and then returned to say, “It’s off”. We went to breakfast the next morning and felt rather let down when two plates of oatmeal porridge were put in front of us. Later in the day we could hardly believe our eyes when we saw a house on the move. This was something we had never seen before, and had a good laugh about it.
Our next adventure was a trip by the E.D. and B.C. Railway. This was full of thrills, mostly the accommodation. A stove at one end of each carriage was meant to care for the heating. After an hour of rattling and bumping we came to an abrupt halt, “Train off the line again”, said someone. The men all got off to help push the train on again. My husband soon came back laughing, “Nothing wrong”, he said, “the engineer expects to meet a lady friend at the next stop, and he hadn’t had time to shave before he left Edmonton”. Several times the train did go off the rails but plenty of help was always available.
Everyone on the train was very chatty and friendly, and we eventually arrived at Grande Prairie, rather pleased to get off the bucking and rattling little monster. We stayed several days shopping for necessities and making friends while we waited for the wagon and team that Spencer had arranged for before he left Pouce Coupe.
At last we were ready for the last lap of our journey. Our possessions were all safely tucked in to the wagon box, topped off with an iron bedstead. No mattress. This they said was to be made with ticking, stuffed with straw, later on. I started to walk with Spencer, who always preferred walking to any other kind of locomotion. So off we went.
Our first night was spent as Beaverlodge, in a stopping place — a new world to us — where we had an excellent meal and comfortable beds. Meals everywhere were fifty cents and were all one could possibly eat. Pies were large and cut into small slices. Wherever we stopped we were warmly welcomed, and had to relate in great detail all that was happening ‘outside’.
Next morning we set off gaily again, and the walkers announced their intention of walking all the way — 100 miles! Fortunately we had fine weather, as the wagon was open to the elements. Literally hundreds of prairie chickens flew up as we went along. There was no road of course, just a bumpy trail, and plenty of grain spilled out as the settlers took their loads to the weekly train at Grande Prairie.
In due course we arrived at Horse Lake where Mrs. Brainard, already famous for her lavish hospitality, lived. The cabin had a sod roof and was wonderfully cozy and warm.
The country had become more and more sparsely settled as we came along and on the third day the only sign of man’s intrusion into the wilderness was at Hay Lake where we stopped for dinner. That night we slept in a large imposing log house with a wide veranda at Swan Lake. It was a pretty sight, and again so much friendly interest in us!
My husband knew everyone as we came along, of course. They were very interested to see what he had brought back from England with him. The consensus of opinion was that I wouldn’t stay very long.
Next day brought us to the end of our journey. A dear little log cabin, that was to be for me a very happy home. And this was how I came to Pouce Coupe.
We were 90 miles by trail from the settlement [at Grande Prairie] and there were no settlers on our side of the river. Our nearest neighbours were two old bachelors many miles away. They were very glad to see us arrive.
Homesteading had no terrors for me. My father was a soldier and I was born on the island of St. Helena on the west coast of Africa, and spent my childhood in Zululand where he had decided to stay after the last Zulu war.
The first winter was spent getting out logs for a barn and roaming around the surrounding countryside on snowshoes enjoying the beauty and stillness after so many years of war.
One stormy night in January, we were startled out of sleep by a loud banging on the door. On opening it we saw two lads who were almost exhausted. They had been into Pouce Coupe, and on the way home had lost their trail. Fortunately for them, they stumbled on ours. Snow was falling, the wind blowing, and the cold bitter. They had almost come to the end of their strength when the clouds lifted, the moon shone out and they saw our cabin ahead. We gave them a good hot meal, divided up our blankets and put them to sleep on the floor. Next morning they seemed none the worse and set out to find their cabin.
They were two Belgian lads who had been told fortunes were to be made trapping in the Peace. One could speak a little English, but the only phrase the other one knew was, “And that’s a cinch!” which he injected into the conversation whenever he thought it right. So far they had caught nothing, and shortly after, left the country.
Gradually people filed on the quarters around us, and we became a very happy community. My chief pastime — besides making a garden — was discovering the wildflowers and the birds, so different from our English ones. There were very few birds around us at first, but they gradually increased in number as the land was cleared. And one day, as I was sitting quietly in the garden, I counted forty different species. By this time I had acquired books on both birds and flowers.
We were kept busy putting up enough feed for the cow and two Cayuses we acquired. When spring came, there was plenty all around us. Grass and peavine up to our shoulders grew in great abundance, but it had to be cut with a scythe, collected and stacked. Looking back over the years the chief thing that I remember is the fine quality of the early settlers, who were always cheerful and ready to lend a hand to a neighbour, and, in the light of the present day, unbelievably honest.
Cabins were seldom locked, everyone was welcome — in case of need — to enter and make a cup of coffee and have a bite to eat. And the only rule was, wash the dishes and fill the woodbox.