It was in 1886 that as a lad of sixteen he drove over the old Athabasca Trail with his mother and eight brothers and sisters. They were en route to join their father who was employed by the Anglican Mission at Fort Vermilion to teach the native people agricultural skills. The long-term plan was to avert, if possible, the starvation that followed the killing off of the game. They had come by train to Calgary from their home in Eastern Ontario. The rails ended in a country still uneasy after the Riel Rebellion.
In their three ox-drawn wagons was a large upright steam engine, a small stone mill to make flour, and a small sawmill. Private enterprise entered the Peace as a missionary enterprise. Besides the heavy equipment there were trade goods, livestock, chickens, clothes and food since they would be eight hundred miles from supplies.
From Athabasca Landing, the freight, mother and most of the children went by York boat. The boys, Sheridan and Jim, herded the six oxen, two purebred bulls and two cows along the river, then along Lesser Slave Lake and over the portage to Peace River Town. They were not the first cattle in the area. Mr. Garrioch, an earlier missionary, had driven and floated in nineteen cattle, one horse and a crate of chickens six years earlier.
At the same time another outfit was carrying a red-bearded missionary, Malcolm Scott and his wife Anna, a seven year old girl Julia and a small brother to the same mission at Fort Vermilion. Eventually Sheridan and Julia were married.
The young people had a thorough grounding in pioneer life. The first years at the mission brought crop destroying frosts and the worst flood in the memory of the Indians. It swept away fuel, food, animals, and building logs. The missionary parents nursed Indians who were plagued by white man’s diseases, taught them to read and to do simple work to eke out the diminishing return from the fur trade. The Metis learned how to build and propel rafts. They were shown on the Mission farm how to cure bacon, grow crops, and preserve wild fruits for vitamins in their winter diet. Sheridan learned to operate the sawmill, and the flour and gristmill. He learned also to trade for furs.
Julia’s missionary mother had educated the young girl until she was ready to enter St. John’s College in far-away Winnipeg. At the age of seventeen she graduated with a gold medal, this young woman who had never attended public school in her life or even had a correspondence course! She learned to sew, and cook pioneer style, to make butter, cheese and bread, and to preserve fresh fruits in crocks sealed with hot tallow. The life did not appeal to her and she was determined to go to university to become a doctor. There was not enough money, so she decided to become a nurse. That, too, was denied because the examiner said that petite ‘Juey’ was not strong enough.
The matter was settled when her mother became almost helplessly crippled with arthritis. Juey returned to the far North mission to care for her. Sheridan Lawrence was already interested in her, but he still had to make enough money to run his own home, although he and his father, brother and uncle had begun to develop a ranch of their own near the Mission farm. Juey was not interested in marriage yet as she had her mother to care for.
At eighteen she became the principal (unpaid since the missionary society had no money to spare) of an Indian residential school for eighty boys and girls. As they were away from their own people she was “mother” to them all. She was not only teaching them to read and write, but trying to help them fit into the ways of the white civilization that was rapidly approaching.
Her day began at 5 a.m. when the older boys went out to do the chores on the farm and gardens that sustained them, while the older girls made breakfast. Juey taught and supervised as each child set about his own assigned duties. Doubtless after keeping order and cleanliness amongst eighty native children, she looked at her own family of fifteen many years later as a small chore indeed. Three years later she got a salary from the Department of Indian Affairs, $200 a year.
Meanwhile Sheridan had been far towards the Arctic as a building contractor, constructing Mission buildings, houses and trading posts. In 1898, the year of the gold rush, he trudged home, eight hundred miles behind freighting dog teams. He made it in only a month less a day. He had come to take over his father’s ranch.
Sheridan had become master of all phases of pioneering, but he was determined to “go modern”. He had a cream separator, a sewing machine and a good kitchen range indoors. Not for him a scythe and flail. Even a mower and rake wouldn’t do and certainly not using oxen to walk the grain out of the stalks. No walking plough and no squeaking Red River cart or jolting wagon! The little old upright 12-horse engine and “bush” sawmill had to be replaced.
He accepted a job of freighting one of Twelve Foot Davis’s scows of furs up-river, and then went East to learn how to run and service the newest thing in grain separators, not horse driven, but steam-engine run. The Waterous #2 engine was big for its time and the forerunner of our modern tractors. There was a sawmill too, and a planer, and a grain binder to learn about. He took a job on a large farm “to learn the ropes” then studied for his steam papers so necessary to safe operation of the big mobile boilers. He invested all of his money, leaving only enough for freight back.
The story of the hauling of all the tonnage over the winter road from Edmonton is an epic that anyone interested should read in the book The Emperor of Peace River by Eugenie Louise Myles. When Sheridan Lawrence reached Vermilion just at the turn of the century, the Peace River Country was just entering its agricultural era.
Yet we must not forget that it was still fur-trade days. Sheridan Lawrence was launched in a fur trade venture that was unique. Many of the Indians and Metis had settled down on little farms. Lawrence had the means to make life more tolerable for them and to provide employment. They had been used to working only for cash, or an “order on the Bay”. Lawrence paid in goods and services, “No work from you, no threshing from me”. “No furs, no ammunition, salt, or cloth”. The Indians brought their catches gladly while Lawrence produced bacon, flour, cattle feed, dog food, lumber and shingles more cheaply than “The Bay” or Revillon Freres could haul them in from Edmonton. The big companies often had to buy from their rival — a new twist to the fur trade!
In September 1900, Sheridan and Juey were married in Manitoba, and began the long, difficult and dangerous journey North. They were going to try a five-year plan. It lasted for fifty-two. Tiny, five-foot-two Juey drove the new buggy, then took her place at the oars, and the steering pole of their freight raft in the dangerous October low water of the Peace. In the next thirty-seven years Juey both rowed and steered the family fortune.
Sheridan’s farm became a ranch where one hundred and fifty cattle fed on river benches along with hundreds of pigs. An abattoir and cannery became necessary to convert livestock into meat, sausage, lard, and tallow to trade with the Indians for furs. In the summer the expanding fields grew more and more wheat, oats and barley. It was costly to freight grain outside to sell so the small gristmill was replaced by a larger one. The Hudson’s Bay began to build steamboats. Lawrence’s own scows and barges, and winter drawn sledges hauled thousands of tons of freight from Athabasca, nearer and nearer to the Arctic, a huge transportation company. Lawrence fur-trading posts naturally followed.
Sometimes the Bay tried to put the Lawrences out of business one way or another. However, greenhorns trading-post managers from outside often overlooked small things that upset their plans. For instance, to thresh their own grain, and hopefully that of the new white and Metis settlers, they brought in an imposing new self-feeding gain separator with a straw blower and a new steam engine to run it. But they forgot the belt to run the machine! The small Lawrence outfit threshed and bought all the grain along the river and then Lawrence lent them his belt.
A small trading post became a large store. Juey in her husband’s long absences on trips became not only the secretary and bookkeeper but also a skilled merchandiser and a competent fur-buyer. Men said that she drove a harder bargain than her husband did. On the other hand the hospitality and the help of all kinds that she gave away was equally famous.
Little Juey mothered fifteen children. In so large a family hundreds of miles from help she learned to cope with all kinds of sickness and accidents. This knowledge she gave to their Indian neighbors and in return became expert in the Indian lore of healing. As well she became adept at veterinary practice. She could “stick” a bloated ox as expertly as a ranch hand could. The Indians were not good at that sort of thing and few white men cared for farm work deep in the bush.
As well as drilling her many children in housework and farm work with all the efficiency of a well-run institution, she oversaw much of the processing of the meat, the canning and preserving of fruit and vegetables, and the making of butter and cheese. In summer she often made one hundred and fifty pounds of cheese a week. There was bread to make for the family and also for the ranch, the sawmill, and the gristmill crews. As soon as each could fetch and carry, each child had chores, but she allowed them much time for fun as well.
In time a piano graced the big new home. Juey’s children learned music, taught by their mother. The girls learned needlework, but the flower garden and houseplants were Juey’s own pride and joy. In time green lawns and fine flower borders sloped to the river, all under her careful planning. When a teacher could not be persuaded to come North, Juey set up a school room where the older children were prepared to enter college as she had done, while they in turn instructed the little ones. Those younger children, when at last a government school was opened, saw pictures of themselves and their garden produce in the textbooks to illustrate that white people could indeed live in the North. All of this was the work of a small girl who hadn’t been strong enough to become a nurse!
As the children grew older, the boys became partners in the family enterprises. The girls took over the management of the domestic arrangements. Juey had time to spare. She became first the secretary of the local school board and finally the auditor of all the school districts that were set up within fifty miles of the Ranch. Sheridan also had more leisure although, like Twelve-Foot Davis, he kept the respect of his employees by never asking them to do what he would not. In his later years he became a Justice of the Peace. He dispensed justice in the Peace in a practical way, since he knew the problems of neighbors, and offenders so well. Juey sold the marriage licenses. Sheridan became a government-appointed marriage counselor, and what would be now called a Judge of the Juvenile and Family Court. Sheridan tried conscientiously to temper white man’s law to the age-old practices of the Indians he knew so well.
At last the couple retired to Peace River Town where Sheridan died in 1952 at the age of eighty-two. Lawrence was a farmer, miller, meat packer, merchant, friend of the Indian, road-builder, freighter, magistrate, and patron of education. He embodied the endurance, enterprise, versatility and vision of the pioneer and helped to push hundreds of miles northward the frontier of agriculture and community life.
The fur companies were mighty, but their contribution to the Peace River area is almost nothing compared to that of one big man and his small wife.