by Marjorie Coutts
Step by step the Peace River Block had been prepared for settlers. In 1912 the influx began. The people who came had heard or read of the fertile lands that could be won for the $10 homestead registration fee and compliance with residence regulations. They took this opportunity gladly, disregarding the long dangerous journeys between them and the frontier farmland.
They traveled by varied routes and with diverse transportation. Mr. Lee Miller and his family were among the first to enter by the Edson Trail.
Since farming rather than ranching was his aim, wagons and all were loaded on a train and to Edmonton they went. By now the boys were old enough to help and three years they sojourned, still seeking the home they dreamed of.
Grande Prairie appealed, and plans were made to go there, but on the way they met someone who had come far from the north and told of a land much finer than any settled. It was being surveyed at the time but would soon be open.
That winter, being the year 1911, they built and ran a stopping house 40 miles beyond Edson. Here the family remained while father and Lloyd set out to see the Pouce Coupe Prairie. Since only pack horses and oxen had ever passed this way, the men rode horseback.
April 8 found them at Tremblay’s [near Pouce Coupe]. From what we know as Querin’s hill, they viewed their home site, and Mr. Miller remarked, “If there are other places as good, I don’t want to see them, for the choice would be too hard to make.”
The Edson trail was a shortcut road many early settlers used. It led from Edson, the nearest railway point, to Sturgeon Lake and at this time was widened and improved for the incoming settlers. However, most of the route was a very ancient trail. Dr. Dawson once traveled it, as did Inspector Moodie.
Bud Piper tells about coming to settle here. “Our family came to the Peace River Country from New Mexico, traveling by train to Edson. There we purchased four oxen, wagons, a plow, and a 6 months supply of food. We traveled with a neighbour, Harry Gibson, leaving Edson in April, and arriving on Saskatoon Creek about July 1, 1912.”
The J.B. Pierce family entered by the river route from Peace River Crossing. Mr. Pierce had thought this would be the easiest journey for his wife, twin baby boys, and tiny daughter. Events were not quite what he expected.
“From Grouard to Peace River the bad road made going nearly impossible for the hired team. Many miles they walked, each carrying a baby, while another passenger carried Arlene.
“At the Rock Creek stopping house run by John Taylor, they remained two days, then Mr. Taylor took them on to the river. There they were told no boat was due for two weeks. They settled down in a tent, but anticipation of two weeks thus with three babies made them decide a quicker way must be found.
“Finally the owner of a small boat, “Lily of the Lake”, consented to make the trip. Sandwiches and tea for the day were prepared, and they were on their way. They had progressed no great distance up the river when the steering gear failed and they were washed onto shore. The boat suffered no great injury, but so much delay resulted that two days elapsed before they reached Rolla Landing.
“Luckily Grandma had sent a box of cookies, the last of which soaked in water and wrapped in a hanky helped to feed the babies.”
The Marion brothers, Oscar and Alphonse, also came by the river route, but from the opposite direction. Mr. Oscar Marion tells:
“At Prince George, we bought a twenty-foot flat-bottomed boat, a tow rope and some provisions. On August 11, 1914, we had our boat towed by the gasoline launch “Viper” to Giscome Portage. At this stage of the journey we hired a team to transport our boat to Summit Lake.”
The Marions stopped at Ft. McLeod for provisions, and advice. Mr. Marion tells on, “When we arrived at the Finlay Rapids we navigated them by towing the boat from shore. The Peace was quite low at this point. One of us from shore lined the boat, and the other with a long pole kept it off the rocks.
“The same procedure was repeated when we reached the Parle Pas [rapids]. In these two instances all provisions were taken out of the boat and packed across. Before crossing the Parle Pas we met some experienced river men in a skiff. Confidently, they went over the rapids, but we dared not follow.
“A sign approximately one-half mile above the Hudson Hope Canyon warned us of danger ahead. At this stage, a teamster, Mr. Gething, hauled our boat and supplies around these rough waters. Now there were no more rapids to cross and we went down the Peace without further incident to Rolla Landing.
The Peace in August 1914 was a shallow and very slow moving stream, and many sandbars were showing. Consequently, a few rocks were hit here and there, but there were no accidents.
“We landed at Rolla Landing on August 22. It had taken us 11 days to make the trip.”
Often the men of the family came ahead to file on land and build some sort of cabin. The C. Anderson family sold out their Nebraska home in February 1913, and left Edmonton on May 14 using the Lesser Slave Lake route. Pollards travelled with them, adding their two wagons to the cavalcade.
The story tells:
“The Andersons had two wagons and were heavily loaded, since they had brought rugs, dishes, pictures, etc., which they blessed most frequently. They decided to ship one large box containing 550 lbs. of bedding and clothing. It could travel up the lake by boat and be picked up at Grouard.
“Mrs. Anderson drove the covered wagon and sat on the stove, which thus served a double purpose. The pipes were wired up in the position so that on rest stops the cooking was quite simple. The other wagons were tightly covered by tarps.
“When they reached Grouard, they found they were ahead of the boat. They waited day after day, and day after day it rained. If only they had had the winter clothing and bedding in that chest they could have gone on. For three weeks they waited and for three weeks it rained. At last they were on the road again, but so much time had been lost that they did not arrive until August 24.”
The Coons families came to their homesteads after the men had put up a cabin and had some breaking done. Their story tells of arrival on the Pouce Coupe Prairie, and of frontier housekeeping.
“Early the following day they reached Tremblay’s, but Ellen had become sick in the night and had to be left. The rest went on to the shack, where the boys who had been left in charge of a number of foxes Fred had captured, had badly neglected the housekeeping.
“Pearl and Cora were much depressed at the prospect, but so thoroughly enjoyed meals cooked indoors, that Cora overdid it a bit and had to have a while to recuperate.
“The shack boasted two bunks and a bed made on trunks for Fred. Before Ellen came on Saturday, a bedstead had been made from peeled poles with a mattress of straw encased in flour sacks. Housekeeping was difficult, but once a week, all loose earth was swept up and shoveled out.
“The crop and garden had to be put in and a pen built for the foxes. Then a wonderful floor was put in! To celebrate this event they held a dance.
“In June the men all went to Rolla Landing to meet their father, the supplies he had brought, and the boxes they had left many weeks earlier at the Smoky. These had been taken to Peace River Crossing, then up the Peace by boat. Now, because of recent rains, everything had to be brought up the banks of the Peace on packhorse. Pearl wept a little when she saw what this treatment had done to a box of beautiful dishes her aunt had packed for her.”
Mae Miller told: “We reached our frontier home in spring. That was good, for logs had to be hauled, split for the floors, and squared for walls. A roof of poles, sod and slough grass was quite effective though I think all such roofs have been known to leak.
“After the house was completed, we used the canvas which had covered the wagon, and eventually the big tent for aprons, overalls, and even shoes. The boards of the wagon were used for window facings and a door.
“Mother at first did the baking in a Dutch oven Dad had made of stone and clay. After the wood placed inside had burned to coals, the bread was put in. It came out a lovely brown.
“Our washing was done by the creek. Dad had made us a wash board, and a large spruce stump sawed off and leveled was the table.
“We had lovely weather all through the spring and summer. Meanwhile Dad and the boys worked hard to get a comfortable place ready for winter. We had time off too, for picnics and berry picking. We loved to get up early and go with Dad to watch the prairie chickens at their dancing floors.
“One exciting time was the unexpected encounter with a bear, when Rachel and I — out picking berries — came face to face with one over a large log. Another time a prairie fire came sweeping down the valley when all the men were away.”
Mrs. C. Mixer had never lived on a farm before coming to homestead in the Peace. She tells something of conditions on the Spirit River trail in the year 1917.
“The road was in very poor condition, nothing but mud holes, there having been a great deal of rain.
“That night we camped near a creek, and there also we found an old barn for the horses. For ourselves, we put our bed under the wagon, but the mosquitoes were so bad Charles Mixer took to the barn. There was a bunk in the barn. Before too long, I, too, took to the barn. We were so close to the horses I was afraid to go to sleep, and the odour was terrific.
“Bright and early next morning we were on our way, when out in front of the team ran a big bobcat which Charles was able to shoot.
“There were few bridges those days – they consisted of a few wobbly poles. We nearly always put the horses over the bridge and pulled the load over by chains.
“The roads were quite narrow, so wagon hubs would click, click, click against the trees.”