Cross-posted: 18-086: Mr. Mervin Simmons – Old-Timer
MR. MERVIN SIMMONS:
In those days the Peace River Country could be likened to a sea of horrors, with islands of prairie and crabgrass scattered here and there. Prairie fires in the spring and fall kept the forest from encroaching. Some of these islands have French names, such as Grande Prairie, spelled ‘GRANDE’, which is French for large, and Pouce Coupe, which is French for cut thumb. There is controversy about the origin of this name. Years ago, Israel Tremblay told me that his father actually knew the Beaver Chief Pouce Coupe and that he actually did have a cut thumb. [Mr. Simmons is expressing a minority viewpoint here]
A wealth if animals abounded. A wild animal of pre-settlement days was the wild horse. Like all wild horses of North America it was descendant from a tame horse. There were at least a couple of small bands of these horses in isolated parts when I first came to the country.
Pouce Coupe Prairie was settled mainly between 1908 and the beginning of the First Great War. Of this period I do not know too much and will leave it to those who came then. However, there was some settlement after the First Great War especially by soldier settlers.
Many years ago, my wife had a long talk with the elder Mrs. Tremblay and her first trip to the Pouce Coupe Prairie. They came, of course, by trail, with wagons and with pack horses. A milk cow was tethered behind one of the wagons. Mrs. Cow was expecting and when the blessed event was about to take place, everything stopped. After the calf was born it was packed on one of the packhorses and everything started again. They had a trading post at Tremblay’s Ford, which is about where Dawson Creek flows into the Pouce Coupe River. She told of the first potatoes they brought in. If someone wanted to buy some, he was asked what he wanted them for – if he said that he wanted them to eat [he could have them]. [To] my knowledge that is the story of the first white woman, first cow, and the first potatoes to come to the Pouce Coupe Prairie.
As the years went on, the name of Pouce Coupe Prairie fell into disuse. It was included in the larger area known as the Peace River Block. A few years before the First Great War, a good plan was worked out for giving the Peace River Country a real outlet both east and west. The Alberta Government backed the Edmonton, Dunvegan & B.C. Railway which was to build a mainline from Edmonton to the inter-provincial boundary just east of Briar Ridge. Then the B.C. Government was to back the Pacific Great Eastern Railway which was to run from the Pacific Coast to meet the E.D. & B.C. Railway at the inter-provincial boundary. When railway building was stopped by the First Great War, the E.D. & B.C. was operating a railway of sorts from Edmonton to Spirit River and the grade was built from Spirit River to the Pouce Coupe Prairie. It wasn’t long before the E.D. & B.C. was turned back to the Alberta Government and the P.G.E. to the B.C. Government.
I remember a trip I made from Edmonton to Spirit River over the E.D. & B.C. The couple across the aisle had a baby. In the morning they showed me the marbles of butter in the baby’s milk, and the baby’s bottle. I remember the small slide. It was on the Smoky Hill, which left a few yards of the rails and ties dangling in the air. The train stopped and the rain crew got out their axes, which seemed to be part of their equipment. They cut down small poplar trees, trimmed them up and shoved them under the dangling track. When everything was snug we went on our way.
I had been brought up on a farm and liked the independence of outdoor life. However, I was the younger son and had to shift for myself. When the first Great War was declared I enlisted and went overseas with the First Canadian Contingent. There I had my share of adventure. In the latter part of 1916 I wanted to join the Royal Flying Corps but was told that on account of an agreement between Britain and the Government of Holland, a neutral country, I could no longer take part in the war. So I returned to Canada and wasdischarged.
In the spring of 1917 I came to Spirit River, and with an American and a Swede walked over the grade to the Pouce Coupe Prairie. For the time being, the Swede had a one-track mind — he had no thought for the war. All he wanted was to get a homestead, and settle on it, period. As a start in this direction he packed a small tent on his back. We walked about twenty-five miles a day. As we walked along the grade, we noticed the huge piles of ties, the pile driver with most of the piles driven for the bridges, and the section of land at the boundary reserved by the Dominion Government for a townsite. One thing that interested me was the was the remains of the ovens which the grade builders had used to bake their bread. They had been fashioned out of gumbo, or sub-soil, and burned to brick-red by fire.
I came to [the Pouce Coupe Prairie] again in 1918 and then in July 1920 I came for good, and began teaching at Pouce Coupe Central School. As I came in over the grade, the ties were placed all ready for the steel for about ten miles and I felt fairly confident the railway would soon reach the Pouce Coupe Prairie. But it was not to be. With the P.G.E. bogged down with incompetence, someone got the big idea that Alberta money should not be used to build a railway to serve part of British Columbia. That view prevailed. The ties were gathered up and hauled into Spirit River and the grade abandoned. For several years Pouce Coupe Prairie farmers hauled their grain over the abandoned grade in the wintertime.
The Pouce Coupe Central School was taught first by a Britisher by the name of Simpson. He soon changed to the Landry School. Then there was a Miss Anderson whom I did not know. Then there was another Miss Anderson who was an exchange teacher from New Zealand.
These three teachers together taught about two years, then I taught for twelve years steady, until the railway came and I quit to go farming. The B.C. government of that time was as efficient in educational affairs as it was deficient in railway building. Teacher’s salaries were set and paid from Victoria. The quality of teaching was as high as it is today. And the teachers adapted well to frontier conditions.
The early schools took their names largely from physical features. There was Saskatoon Creek School, and Dawson Creek School, which was about where the Cedar Lodge Motel is situated. Dawson Creek School never did move to the old town. Three of the earliest schools took their names form the Pouce Coupe Prairie. Pouce Coupe South was a little outside the present village of Pouce Coupe. The name was later changed to Pouce Coupe. Pouce Coupe North was some distance from the present village of Rolla. Later it was transferred to Rolla and the name changed to Rolla. Pouce Coupe Central was built near a trail which went east and west across the country passing south of Normark Lake and between the two lakes. Some Anglicans for a short time had the idea of building a church next to the school and starting a graveyard. One man was buried in the graveyard before the idea was abandoned. It was clear that the days of the trails was over. A few years later, Central School was moved one mile south and a half mile east, where it is today. The dead man, now without a graveyard, is still there.
In time Rolla had more than one teacher and started to teach high school subjects. From then on and until the railway came, Rolla was the educational centre south of the river. While teaching school I gradually acquired the farmland I own today. At first I lived near the school, but after purchasing the homestead of Jacob Jacobson I lived on it. He was a Norwegian and was good at woodwork. The cabin had been constructed without nails. The corners were dovetailed, the logs fastened together with wooden pegs. The roof consisted of poles covered with a thick layer of slough grass and this in turn by a thick layer of dirt. The hinges of the door were of leather and the two crosspieces were dovetailed. The up and down boards of the door had been hand hewn and fitted to slip on the two dove-tailed cross pieces.
The wildlife was much as it is today. I remember once plowing near the lake with an outfit of horses and the dog. A young looking coyote, with a glint of mischief in his eye, was passing by and came across to have a look. The dog made a furious rush at him. The coyote turned, taking the same speed of the dog, kept about six feet of fresh air between himself and the dog. He would make large circles around me so I wouldn’t miss the fun. Finally the dog stopped to think it over, then started towards me, the coyote followed him, keeping about six feet behind. Soon the whole thing deteriorated into a game. I went up and down the field with the two satellites circles around me, sometimes the dog chasing the coyote, sometimes the coyote chasing the dog. After about an hour the coyote suddenly remembered something that needed investigating and left. The dog followed me to the end of the field and flopped. He stayed flopped until quitting time.
More than once a coyote has sat on his haunches and curiously watched me go up and down the field, up and down up and down without end and never stopping once to catch a mouse. Human psychologists say a coyote can’t think but after watching me for awhile I’m not too hopeful about what a coyote psychologist would say about MY ability to think.
In 1921 there occurred in Alberta one of those political rebellions which is a characteristic of the history of Western Canada and the UFA, our farmer government, came into power. They improved the roadbed of the E.D. & B.C. and then each year extended the railway until it reached Hythe. This farmer government was very sorry for the plight of the prairie farmer of the Peace River Block. The Honourable Vernon Smith was the Minister of Railways. He was a farmer who had formerly been a contractor in building railways. When the UFA sold the E.D. & B.C. Railway to the C.P.R. they put a clause in the agreement of sale by which the C.P.R. had to build so many miles of new railway. This brought the railway to Hines Creek and to Dawson Creek. Dawson Creek might still be an unincorporated village but for the Honourable Vernon Smith and his farmer government, who, out of their act of sympathy and neighborliness had the railway extension built. This made Dawson Creek the chief distribution centre of the whole Peace River Country and the north.
Lately a historical society has been formed to record the stories of various old-timers so that much of the early history of this country would not be lost. This tape is one of the stories.