“My father, Floyd Strong, and mother Dee Gaddie, were married in 1902 in Oklahoma. Even then my dad had dreams of emigrating to this wonderful land in the North. He was an independent man to whom black soil, long sunny days and abundant rainfall guaranteed good crops and fine gardens. Lush grass and peavine would sustain the livestock he could take pride in. Wild fruit like strawberries, Saskatoons, blueberries, chokecherries, raspberries, currants and gooseberries could be had for the picking. Wild game and wild geese and fish were abundant and logs and labour provided snug housing.
In the Peace River country with a little trapping for a “cash crop”, a few chickens, some pigs and a cow, a couple could raise a family practically off the land! Besides, Mr. Strong needed a cold climate to recover his health, so his doctor said. He had contracted one of the chronic fevers common in the southern central United States before the days of antibiotics. He was unable to do hard work – often able only to perform what he could do sitting down.
Mrs. Strong was tiny, and beautiful! But she was a bundle of energy, not only for her own family but also for anyone else needing help. She and her husband were adaptable – if he was able to sit and peel potatoes, or sew their clothing, that was all right. She could do the chores in any place that promised to restore his health.
They got as far as Edson in the spring of 1908, headed for the “Pouce Coupe Prairie”, glowingly described by early surveyors. Then they discovered that compared to the earlier-settled lands farther east in Alberta the Peace River Block lacked many things — notably a doctor, hospital, or school. In fact, land was not surveyed for homesteading yet, nor did Pouce Coupe or Dawson Creek yet exist. It was called “Pouce Coupe Prairie”, but as Olive remarks, to Oklahoma people it wasn’t much of a prairie being all trees and bush.
The Strongs had to find some other place in Canada where he could recover his health and they could start “from scratch”. Hearing that land was being “thrown open to homesteaders” in the southwest corner in the new Province of Saskatchewan, near the old cattle town of Maple Creek, the family moved there to be the first settlers in what came to be known as Fox Valley. Their nearest neighbors were twenty-seven miles away, where a railroad was being built. However, materials came into Maple Creek on the C.P.R. to be hauled to the new line at Prelate. As it was a long haul for teamsters, the Strongs opened a stopping place. Mrs. Strong was a good cook!
By 1916 the rail came to Grande Prairie, much more accessible than Edson. At least it was considerably closer, although the so-called road was somewhat less than all-weather. This point has been argued by old timers who said that “in all weathers it was bad!” Mr. Strong was on the first train to Grande Prairie. Even the bad road did not discourage him. Dawson Creek had a log school just where the Cedar Lodge Motel now stands [corner of 8th Street and 110th Avenue]. Norman Johnson’s tiny log shack, just east across the present 8th Street, was vacant. True, its windows had no glass and there was no floor, but a flour sack remedied the first problem and the floor could come later. Floyd Strong rented it. He was pretty sure that Dee would pioneer again in what he called “God’s Country”. He was right.
In 1917 they sold out their homestead in Saskatchewan where he had been well enough to farm for two years. They loaded a boxcar with household goods, machinery, two mules, two gray mares, one saddle pony and a dog. Jim Gaddie, Mrs. Strong’s brother, was a widower with two little children. “Uncle Jim” rode in the boxcar to care for the stock. To Edmonton it was easy on the passenger train. Then they reloaded on the N.A.R. a mixed train with the freight cars ahead and passenger coaches behind.
It took three days to get to Spirit River. It was an early spring. In places the ties that supported the rails were under water or out. There were many stops when people got off the train and did anything necessary to get going again. We kids ran all over the place. The women warmed the food on a big old heater in the coach. We stayed in Spirit River several days while the men unloaded all the freight onto sleighs for the rest of the trip. Dad bought four unbroken ponies. He hitched them onto a makeshift cutter on the front of a bobsleigh and drove them a couple of hours each day. Watching, Mother and we kids wondered if we would ever be able to ride behind them.
They did. When we left, Uncle Jim drove the two loaded sleighs, leading one team except up hills, and also going down when the loads had to be rough-locked.
Dad had Mom and us five kids in the cutter. At times the ponies had ideas of their own about running away. It was really scary. The road from Spirit River to Pouce Coupe was over a railroad grade in winter because there was too much muskeg to travel in summer.
We finally arrived at a stopping place. A Mrs. McClelland and her young son, Sid Hewitt, made us comfortable. We all slept on the floor. It Chinooked all night and by morning the roads were bare. The men unloaded the sleighs, put the wagon together again and loaded everything up once more. A couple of days later we headed out on the Spirit River Trail.
On March 17, 1917, we arrived across the Pouce Coupe River from Hector Tremblay’s place. He called to us to wait for his son Israel to come across and pilot us across the winter ice bridge, as the Pouce Coupe River was a raging torrent, up to the horse’s bellies. Underneath the water was the ice bridge. We sure were a bunch of scared kids for we were sure the ice would go and we would all be drowned. Mrs. Tremblay and family made us very welcome and had a hot meal ready for us.
“When we came up Hasler Hill we saw one of the brothers seeding a small field of wheat. I cannot recall that I ever heard of anymore seeding so early since.
Late in the afternoon we arrived at our new home. My Mom took one look and burst into tears. But, being the wonderful person she was she dug in and made the best of everything.
Dad had bought a tent and some boards in Spirit River. He and Uncle Jim built a floor and set up an airtight heater. In winter Dad and Uncle Jim took turns stoking the fire so we wouldn’t freeze. That was our bedroom for two years.
My mother was a good gardener and Dad a good hunter, though he killed only for food. Supplies had to come from Spirit River. If we ran out, we did without or traded with neighbors. Frank Haskins had a small store which stocked only the necessities of life, such as “snoose” and tobacco, salt, yeast cakes and bacon. Mail days were few and far between.
Neighbors made us very welcome. With five new children they were now sure that they could keep the school open. Olive can remember Joe Carling from Pouce Coupe way, the Wartenbe’s and Angus Linehaur as her schoolmates.
Olive remembers that her mother could make anything out of anything and her dad was a great fixer. Their menu was monotonous, but she says, “We were happy.”
Father Strong did not rule with an iron hand exactly, but the children were disciplined in a “cause-and-effect” way. He called Olive “Dot” – short for “daughter”. His commands were gently phrased “Dot”, he would say “Please do this or that, if you want to.” One day Olive asked to get a saw from the workshop, said, “I’m sewing a doll’s dress. I don’t want to.” Father walked quietly and got the saw, carried it to the sawhorse, draped the youngster across the sawhorse and paddled her bottom well with the flat of the tool. Olive says that after that one and only spanking, somehow she always “wanted to.” It may have had something to do with her cheerful willingness to help in any community effort – and with not only a smile but some infectious fun besides.
Like most other pioneers, their relatives sent parcels of clothing and sheets, etc. The sewing machine, run by either father or mother, kept the family and the two foster-children clothed and warm. Meantime the Strongs bought the farm now owned by Alex Cameron just southeast of Fynn’s Corner.
By the time Olive was seventeen the country had developed a great deal — but there were few girls around. Olive was pretty, vivacious and very much her mother’s daughter in competence. Genial young Jack Fynn, a World War I veteran turned freighter, captured Olive’s approval, although she declares that his having been entrusted to freight the first load of government liquor from Grande Prairie had nothing to do with it. They were married in 1922.
Jack homesteaded East of Rolla and ran a taxi to wherever the end of steel happened to be at the time. He bought two trucks and employed young Henry McQueen to freight for him, taking out grain and stock and bringing back provisions for Rolla, Pouce Coupe and the village of Old Dawson Creek. He also bought and raised horses to work on road construction. After they were married, they sold the homestead and moved to Swan Lake where Olive ran a stopping place and post office.
In October of 1927, Olive’s father died. On the day of the funeral, as was customary, the neighbors came home with the bereaved. The doctor gave Mrs. Strong a sleeping pill. Someone went out to fill the lamps, mistook the gasoline for coal oil and caused an explosion. Someone tipped the water barrel over the flames, spreading the gasoline instantly to all corners of the room. “Mr. Dumont carried mother out, wrapped in a blanket. I grabbed the baby Vernon. Jack rescued Phyllis. The first thing I remember was Dumont trying to get a pair of Hudson’s Bay Socks onto Mother’s feet.
One of the things in which Mrs. Strong had drilled the children was a fire drill. Each had his or her appointed responsibility to rescue treasures in case of the disaster every pioneer family dreaded. Even in her distress Olive could see the funny side. There sat her mother on a gas barrel, the newly arrived Eaton’s catalogue in one hand and the chamber pot in the other!
The Fred Callisons up the hill where Grandview now is saw the fire. He flung straw and blankets in the wagon, and came thundering down the road, packed up the five people and took them home. The Callisons had six or seven children in a one-room cabin but the straw was spread on the floor and they were taken in.
“In the morning,” says Olive “Mrs. Callison mixed up pancakes in the dishpan. I thought she would never get done frying for breakfast.” The next day, someone moved a granary onto Mrs. Strong’s land. Someone else brought a stove. It may have been Paul Dalscheid or the Torios or the Ravellis. In no time neighbors had given them all of the necessities. I’ll never forget their kindness,” says Olive.
Two years later a little child who was visiting, was left in the house while the chores were looked after. She poked a stick into the fire, and set the curtains alight. Frightened, she ran out but said nothing. Before anyone noticed, the house and all its contents were beyond saving.
In 1944 Olive and Jack bought the farm at what is still known as Fynn’s Corner on the road to Pouce Coupe. The farm has an interesting history. A Jim Brown had it first. It was a real swamp. He ran a trap line there where ‘[musk]rats and beaver were abundant.” The beavers built the small knoll behind the present house. Later the Hamiltons bought the property and then Wes Harper ran a mink ranch there. The house was built by the local carpenter, George Goodrich, who was known for building things his own way, no matter what the owner said. It was always a good way – roofs sloped at the proper angle to shed the heavy winter snow – no ranch types for him! The Fynn house, in a day when native lumber shrank and twisted like an old wet shoe defying a carpenter’s square, was constructed of fine dry lumber shipped in from the Coast. Square and solid today, it shows the innate sense of good proportion and functionalism that Goodrich’s houses always had. When a contractor newly arrived in town advertised that he could read blueprints, it was a snide slap at Goodrich, who never used any.
Somehow that solid home graciously kept by Olive, was symbolic of the life of the Strongs and Jack and Olive in the community. Olive, until it became too much for her, long after Jack passed on, raised a notable garden. It was appropriate that she should have helped organize the Horticulture Society, and worked with the Dawson Creek Fall Fair Board for twenty-six years. She was famous for angel food cakes of an almost cloud-like lightness! She served on the Hospital Auxiliary for years and became an Honorary Life Member of the United Church Women’s Auxiliary – and of many other civic and charitable organizations. In 1961 she was awarded the “Citizen of the Year” citation.
The writer remembers her vividly as the first person to call when I moved to the village, a total stranger in 1936. The plate of delicious, light-as-a-feather cinnamon rolls have ever since meant to me “the fragrance of friendship”.