Tom had bought his first quarter section for $1050 three miles east of Dawson Creek, in 1927. His capital of $1000 did not cover the cost, but he “worked it out” in the usual manner of settlers of the day. He worked on the roads single-handed or with the horses, picked roots (a back-breaking job!) for neighbours, threshed in the fall to pay his own threshing bill, and helped build the enormous log trestles needed by the railway and highway to cross the deep gullies and valleys.
“Money was very scarce,” he says. “Each settler was in the process of breaking his own land, mostly by hand, with horses. Cutting and piling trees, root grubbing and picking were slow heavy work. Pulling larger roots and breaking with horses was not easy either. Many a man was catapulted over the horses’ heads when the plow struck an unseen root or boulder. Ten to thirty acres was a good year’s work.
Before putting in a crop it was almost necessary to fence the field for most settlers let their cattle run. But we raised huge crops on the new breaking in those days without fertilizer.
Some settlers brought in their own equipment, either by sleigh in winter, all the way from Edmonton or by shipping it to Edson and freighting it over the Edson Trail. When the N.A.R. reached progressively further west, the difficulty became less, although the road between the Alberta end-of-steel and Pouce Coupe could be a nightmare.
Mr. Norman bought his equipment on the spot — four horses for $450, a second-hand wagon for $40, a second-hand working plow for $20, a heifer in calf for spring freshening for $50, and six chickens were his start. Later he got a new eight-foot horse cultivator for $140, a gang plow for $170 and a new binder for around $250. Considering the low prices to be realized for grain and livestock, the costs were cheap only by comparison with today’s.
There was some community co-operation in exchanging work and lending equipment. A disc for the breaking, a seed drill in the spring Tom borrowed the first year. The first year thirty acres of crop were cut by a neighbour in exchange for stooking. The next year, by waiting until after Tom had cut another neighbour’s crop before touching his own, Tom was able to make a deal to buy a binder, which was paid for in the same manner during the next two years.
Several machine agents were here from whom one could order parts for John Deere, Massey-Harris, Oliver, and International Harvester equipment. Parts sometimes took forever to arrive. A man who could contrive and improvise was much in demand. The blacksmith was an important link in the community economy. Many a machine functioned on haywire and a prayer, when the time of seeding and harvest were so critical.
Tom hauled logs from Bear Mountain to build his first shack. He was lucky to be able to buy rubberoid roofing for the house, but the stable had only a pole roof covered with straw which leaked badly. The barn being most essential, Tom had worked out during his first year to buy and have logs ready for it.
The nearest shipping point was Spirit River, reached by sleigh in winter.
“You were at the elevator agent’s mercy when you got there,” said Tom, “both in what they paid for grain, how they graded it, and what they took for dockage. Generally that was heavy because it depended on the agent’s decision.” Lucky farmers got a chance to haul supplies back for stores in Rolla, Pouce Coupe, and old Dawson Creek.
When the rails reached Dawson Creek several new elevators appeared at once–Gillespies, Alberta Wheat Pool, United Grain Growers, and Midland Pacific. Some early grain buyers were Al Stinson, Ted Ayers, Sid Chilton and George Bissett. Now it was possible to ship carload lots, which brought quite a bit more than by separate loads. By 1932 Tom was able to sell a carload lot of No. 1 wheat for 23-1/4 cents per bushel. In 1933 he sold his No. 6 wheat for 8 1/4 cents a bushel, but paid 6 cents a bushel for threshing wheat, 4 cents a bushel for threshing oats, and a dollar a day for stooking. Very little was realized on the transaction. Little barley was grown, if any.
Most farmers found it more profitable to feed the grain to cattle which could be driven to Spirit River for shipping. After the NAR reached Dawson Creek the farmers formed a shipping co-op. Tom remembers that a Mr. Lyman was the first manager, followed shortly by George Dudley. Red McManus was one of the first directors. By 1934 the “stock trains” were a regular twice-monthly feature, beginning their run to Edmonton at Dawson Creek, and picking up more livestock at every village along the line. Those were busy days around the stockyards, restaurants, and stores in town, although the farmer had to wait for his cheque from the buyers in Edmonton.
Because of the local sales, no “beef-rings” were organized in this area, unlike the prairies where different farmers butchered and delivered cuts to all others in the “ring” in a rotation that guaranteed that each got his share of good and lesser cuts. Perhaps the availability of game had something to do with a steady demand. Also buyers such as Glover Lawrence, Butch Webb and Harry Foster had something to do with it. The women canned and smoked vast quantities while there was always an icehouse for domestic water, where the fresh meat could hang for a while.
No help was given by the Government to ensure water supplies in this area where wells are scarce. Later there was assistance to construct “dug-outs” or “scoop-outs”. A regular winter chore was cutting and hauling sufficient ice blocks to store in sawdust and last a year, supplemented by melting snow and a “rain barrel”. Water wasn’t “re-cycled” but it went a long way through various procedures until it was discarded, or fed to pigs in “swill”. Happy the farm that had a spring or a creek.
The Experimental Station at Beaverlodge helped where they could, but in the Peace Country each quarter section of land varies so much in soil elevation and slope that each farmer had to work out what he could produce best. Nearly all would produce some clover, which when later ploughed under improved the soil, but some land favored germination much more than others. Whether or not one was in a “frost belt” had a lot to do with what could be counted on to produce.
The women generally “kept house” by their own industry. Farm wives generally raised chickens. Eggs sold for 5 to 10 cents a dozen, if the stores were not overstocked. Early chickens – fryers- might sell, bringing 10 to 30 cents a pound. The best market for good ones was the Chinese restaurant at 40 cents. Small turkeys sold for as low as $1 apiece, better ones might bring $2 each. In the fall there was some sale for garden produce, but mostly any extra would be bartered for with the many bachelors or restaurants and hotels. Hospital and doctor’s bills were often paid “in kind”. Elizabeth Norman had less difficulty than many in disposing of her produce, for she was known to be a “perfectionist” in whatever she undertook.
Taxes on a quarter section which had little breaking done were six to ten dollars per year. In the early days, Barkerville, east of Quesnel was the headquarters for land assessment in the Peace River Country. A most unlikely and out-of-the-way place in the days of no rails and no highway! About 1930 a try was made to organize a municipality but because not enough money was raised even to pay the local teachers, the idea was dropped. A government agent and provincial assessor took offices in the government agency at Pouce Coupe, which served until they moved to the new Provincial building in Dawson Creek in 1974. Only the towns have a municipal status, as of 1975. The Department of Public Works built and maintained the roads, such as they were.
Due to distance, lack of communication and lack of understanding of the economy of the only prairie portion of British Columbia, the government was of little assistance. Mr. Tom Crock, District Agriculturist did his best. One of his projects was the Annual Seed Fair with a view to raising seed quality. Another project ended in disaster — the provision to allow registered bulls to be brought in. Through no fault of the local departmental representatives, the animals proved to be diseased. For two years there was no calf crop, with consequent loss to the stockmen and settlers. Canned milk became the dairy product of necessity on too many tables. Lard took the place of butter.
Tom Norman was among those farmers who set out to help themselves. The Dawson Co-op Union carried them through the summers for food and groceries until there were some returns in the fall for grain, pigs or cattle. The Lake View Credit Union came later.
In 1926 Pouce Coupe District Co-operative Creamery Association set up operations at Riley’s Crossing. The President was Mervin C. Simmons, the secretary was Louis P. Cadona, and the first butter-maker was Arthur Taylor (known as Creamery Taylor to distinguish him from others of the several Taylors.) A share cost $10.00. In the early thirties the enterprise was moved to Pouce Coupe as a private business, but never really got going before the 1936 flood of the Pouce Coupe River partially swept it away.
The first farmers to organize were known as the United Farmers of the Peace River Block. There was a “local” in East Pouce Coupe in 1921. It was later changed to the Farmers Institute, followed by the Women’s Institutes. District Farmer’s Institute has largely fulfilled the job of a municipality throughout the years.
These twin organizations sponsored fairs. Tom and Elizabeth Norman were enthusiastic supporters from the first. His team of eight draft horses took first prize, also his milk cow. Elizabeth won the Championship in the Horticultural exhibit for garden produce, no small feat with keen competition and tough judges from “outside”. Her exhibits were outstanding year after year.
The Depression of the early 30’s hit the newer settler hard. Families were allowed $7 a month to buy groceries. Some walked from Sunset Prairie to Pouce Coupe to get it, staying with friends overnight. Although it was called “relief”, it was not a gift; every penny had to be worked out on the roads, clearing bush or the like.
Some of the early farmers, like the Normans got by without government relief. With a little money saved up from days of higher prices and good crops, they were able to meet cash expenses, meanwhile carrying on the barter system in produce, wood, etc. Such things were hard to sell, because incoming settlers were “broke”, and early established settlers were few. Most men wanted to work, and would do so, perhaps for lumber, wood or something else they did not need at the moment but could swap for something else. Some things passed through many hands before they came to a useful end in the human scheme. The women, through their Institutes and farm journals of the day, like the Free Press Prairie Farmer’s “Home Loving Hearts” department became experts at the “make do and make over” methods of coping with scarcity.
“You made a little money go a long way in those days”, said Tom and Elizabeth.
When WW II brought the first boom, followed by the oil and gas boom, the Normans were alert to take advantage of the trucking business. Today, retired, they live in a fine home in Dawson Creek, surrounded as before by a showy garden. They take a keen interest in politics and affairs of the day. For years Elizabeth’s consuming ambition has been to see an extended care facility for senior citizens who need some care, but are not ready to be consigned to a hospital bed. Somehow, one presumes that she will reach her goal.