No one knows what motivation prompts people to pioneer a new country. To challenge a country like the Peace River in the early 1900’s — harsh, beautiful and totally lacking in amenities — you had to be of a strong and fearless breed. These are the people who came here. What they did once here is told, page by page, in two delightful old record books lent to us be Mrs. Elsie Washington. They were found among the papers of her mother, the late Mrs. Ed Barrett.
The settlement of the Peace River had been first at Pouce Coupe, and then Rolla, the area then known as Saskatoon. A year later the hamlet of Dawson Creek began to form. The first site was one and one half miles west, and a mile south of the present city centre. It could not have consisted of more than fifty persons, if that, when the opening page of this ledger was written.
They immediately set about creating for themselves and their children a social life.
Their first thoughts were to restore some of the amenities left behind in previous homes and countries. The men had earlier organized a United Farm Men’s Local, one of their first duties being to provide a cemetery for this new settlement. The cemetery at Old Dawson Creek was laid out with the help of a layman, Norman Henderson, who held Sunday School classes in the various homes. At a meeting March 10th, five days after organization, several significant motions read:
Moved by Mrs. Addy and seconded by Mrs. Cusack, a vote of thanks be given Mr. Wertenbaker for his assistance in helping the ladies organizer. That portion of Dawson Creek south of 102 Ave. and West of 13 St. was originally the homestead of George ‘Goldie’ Wertenbaker. He was a bachelor and completely bald and Goldie was an affectionate nickname that had followed him to his new home. He had lent his knowledge of the organization of groups to this new country.
Moved by Mrs. Ramsay and seconded by Mrs. Addy, entertainment be given to the children of Dawson Creek School, with a dance to follow.
Moved by Mrs. Cusack and seconded by Mrs. Ramsay, we meet Monday afternoon at the schoolhouse to plan entertainment with the teacher, Mr. McDermid. At this same meeting Mrs. Strong was empowered to interview Mr. Dow with reference to a school Fair. Entertainment and activity, both for themselves and their children were being set in motion. General meeting in the Dawson Hotel May 21, 1921, “To discuss sports day and children’s fair”.
On June 2, 1921 a motion by Mrs. Reasbeck, seconded by Mrs. Cusack, the school fair include the following: Poultry, booking, N. American map drawing, writing, Gardening, fancy work, composition (subject “Harvest in Pouce Coupe”), cooking to consist of six baking powder biscuits and a plain sponge cake. The prize for the composition would be donated by Ida Crook, matron of the Red Cross Hospital at Pouce Coupe.
This tiny Fair was the forerunner of the Dawson Creek Fall Fair and Exhibition, 50 years later.
On July 7, 1921 it was moved by Miss Neeves and seconded by Mrs. Cusack, Mr. Pelletier audit accounts of sports day, and balance sheet be posted in the Co-op Store. Clearly this little community had some objective in view, and the matter of finances was of interest to all.
December 1, 1921 contains such motions as: A Christmas tree and dance be held. Ladies to supply sandwiches pie and cake. Men’s local to supply coffee, hire musicians, see to lanterns for lights and tend the fire. Moved by Mrs. Addy that 50 lbs. of nuts be ordered. Moved by Mrs. Ramsay that one box of apples and 1 box of oranges (not less than 100) be ordered. Moved by Mrs. Strong that they meet December 19 to prepare presents and treats for the Xmas tree.
Earlier, the men’s local had formed a Co-Operative group, and with a capital of $875.00 opened a small store. Supplies were freighted from Spirit River and Grande Prairie both, where the railroad had stopped in its progress north. The store was housed in a small building heated only by a wood stove. Freezable items could not be stocked. Their stock would have consisted of the following items: flour, salt, sugar, syrup, dried beans, apples, prunes, baking powder and soda, tobacco, and paper, Copenhagen “snoose”. Such items of hardware as nails and rope, leather for harness repair, pails, tubs and a broom or two, and lamp globes, wick, kerosene or coal oil by the barrel.
This Dawson cooperative store became 4th largest in Western Canada 50 years later.
Such luxury items as apples and oranges had to be freighted from Spirit River 75 miles away, some fifteen miles closer than Grande Prairie by horse drawn sleighs. They had to be ordered weeks in advance as did all of the materials to be worked with. Quoting one old timer, he said: “Oh it wasn’t so bad. It was work, we all enjoyed it, we were healthy and young, and full of good spirits! You had to pack your freight in squares with a hole in the centre for the freezables; you put a lighted lantern in with them. You wrapped the whole securely with tarpaulins, leaving a little hole in the top for the lantern to breathe.”
Twenty to 25 miles was a good day’s haul with you freezables. You had to stop early to unload your freezables and put them in the bunkhouse [at the stopping place where you spent the night]. You feed your team and cared for them, then took in your grub box and cooked your supper. The last thing you did at night was fill the lanterns. Put them on your load so the space would be warm for your freezables in the morning. Last thing, – heat a frying pan of oats and to put in your felt boots to dry them out!” When I laughed, he said defensively, “We didn’t waste the oats either! We fed them to the horses in the morning.” He exploded that “dad-blasted”!!! Coal oil! “I hated those kerosene lanterns! Got on everything, mitts, clothes, harness and freight”. An irritating memory after 50 years.
The cashbook of that date records: Oranges for Xmas tree $11.50, freight on it $2.50 for so much work. Apples, 1 box $3.25. To the Co-op Store for X tree candy, 100 lbs. $28.35.
Minutes of meeting February 24, 1922. Mrs. Reasbeck, President gave a report of the convention held Jan. 14, 1921. It does not say where the convention was. It suggested a central board be chosen from the “Women’s Locals”. Moved by Mrs. Cusack and seconded by Mrs. Willert the Dawson Local meet with ladies from the Saskatoon [Creek] local the second week in March to elect officers for a central board.
One asks why these women were so determined to have an elected body to represent them — where and for what? Again we must see the country as it was in the early 1920’s. The people of the Peace River had no direct communication with their province of B.C. either by railroad, waterway, road, or telephone. A telegraph line existed and mail came twice monthly. They were 75 miles from the nearest railroad, over an often-impassable trail or by riverboat in summer. They were dependent entirely on Edmonton, Alberta for their supplies of material things, to be shipped north. Their single link with their own government was a government agency at Pouce Coupe, organized under the direction of a Mr. Moore in the winter of 1920 and 21. He was followed shortly by Mr. Fred Fraser and Aubrey Fisher was named magistrate. Mr. Lester Harper headed the taxation department.
They were protected by a single police officer, Constable G. H. Duncan, whose duties prior to the government agency had been mainly registering births and deaths, issuing marriage licenses and performing such ceremonies as were required of him as well as issuing trapping and hunting licenses. In the districts they had left, the settlers were accustomed to municipal government. It is easily understood why they wished to be represented by an elected group that could voice their opinions and put before the government agent what they felt were the needs of this new country. The Peace River is unique in the prairie section of Western Canada to this day. Fifty years later they still do not have municipal governing bodies.
Throughout this ledger the many ways these ladies raised money is a matter of amazement. Among other efforts, there were quilt raffles, ice cream booths, pie socials, dances, sports day and an endless variety of both social and serious efforts.
Moved by Mrs. Cusack and seconded by Mrs. Willert, an autograph quilt be made — adult block $0.10, children’s $0.05.
Moved by Miss Newby and seconded by Miss Strong, an order forwarded to T. Eaton Co. for materials for 2 quilts and $15.00 for fishpond articles. Oct. 6, 1921 cash in bank $125.57.
July 8, 1922 Proceeds from quilts $40.00, ice cream booth $29.00 a very large entry.
Oct. 7, 1922 Mr. Hart is asked to act as auctioneer for jumble sale. Proceeds from sale and collection at dance $56.30. Expenses: hall and musicians, $30.25. Throughout the ledger reference is made to donations to the Red Cross Outpost Hospital in Pouce Coupe.
An entry February 2, 1924. Moved by Mrs. Reasbeck and seconded by Mrs. Willert that the “Dawson Hall” question be tabled for now. That a leap year dance be held Feb. 29 with the collection to be added to general funds. It becomes clear their objective was to buy a ‘Hall’ in which to hold meetings and entertainment.
An entry June 7, 1924. Ten dollars to be donated toward the piano fund.
July 1, 1925. The final entry in this little ledger. February 1928 notice of a general meeting. In 1929 the surrounding districts slipped easily from this U.F.W.A. group into a new role of “Women’s Institutes” and the men to “Farmer’s Institutes”. No record is found of this hard working little group forming an Institute in Dawson Creek, but their daughters found work to do, first in the hamlet, then in the village and later in the city of Dawson Creek. Their names appear in church groups, on the Fair and Exhibition boards, in the horticultural society, the musical festival, the hospital auxiliary, and the myriad other groups that work for the betterment of life and country.