Our early pioneers came as far as the Peace River in wagons, cars and trucks. Some even herded their cattle along with them. However when the river was reached, cars and trucks were left behind and everything was loaded log rafts. These were guided and propelled by poles and improvised paddles until the other side was reached. From here things were packed or pulled on stone boats to their respective destinations. Horses were made to swim. Some pioneers went into Alberta and crossed on a homemade scow owned by the Streepers and then made their way back into B.C. again.
The names of the first Ukrainian pioneers were J. Ewoniak, S. Cembrowsky. P. Fedorak, W. Ewanchuk, A. Charyuck, J. Kucher, A. Posterment, W. Hryniuk, J. Hiwoen, W. Kaploon, D. Major, P. Ewanchuk, and J. Stevenson. Mr. John Ewoniak came in with his family in the year 1930 and is known as the first pioneer, with the other families following in 1931 and 1932. Mr. J. Ewoniak’s homestead was the stopping place for many years while the newcomers were able to locate a homestead and erect a log cabin. This settlement was near the top of the north bank of the Peace River and slightly east of the present Clayhurst landing.
The English speaking settlement was begun by W. Clay a few miles north of the Ukrainian settlement. Mr. Clay was followed in 1931 and 1932 by the following pioneers — C. Clay, A. Oderkirk, M. Powers, H.E. Craig, P. Leeland, A. Peck and V. Keyser.
At this time there was no school, store or post office. The school was the first project the pioneers undertook as many of the pioneers, both English and Ukrainian, had families of school age. The first school was started in January 1932 and completed in March 1932, being built by Bill Ewanchuk, who later became known as Two-Bit-Bill because he always charged ‘two-bits’ for his hair cuts and other jobs he was called on to do. His charge for building the school was fifteen dollars and this and various things lead to a lot of friction between neighbors ending with the school being burnt down in May 1932. Miss Harriet Stone had been hired to teach in the new school in March and was forced to continue her teaching in the log cabin of Mr. Bill Ewoniak, better known as Little Bill. Soon after the term ended, Miss Stone was accidentally drowned while swimming in Moose Creek. A new school was erected on Mr. C. Clay’s land and school opened again in September 1932 with Miss. Morton as teacher and an enrollment of 27 pupils. Some pupils came from the neighboring Alberta district of Cherry Point, a few miles west of Clayhurst. These two districts along with the Bear Canyon district in between worked closely together in many things for the betterment of each district. The first school trustees were A. Charyuck, H. E. Craig, G. Locke and W. Clay. The first schools were built of log and not till the later years was the school of 1932 sided and painted. A barn and entry room was built and playground equipment added. These buildings were used till October 1954 when a new school was opened. This one was heated by propane and also had propane lights installed. This was a real improvement after the years of coal oil and gas lights with all the frustration of keeping them in repair. Needless to say after heating with wood and the job of having it hauled and cut, propane heating was a big step forward. Mrs. P. Craig (E.H.) was the first teacher in this new modern building.
These pioneers really felt and saw many hardships, some having to resort to eating rabbits. Butter for some was even a luxury, and rendered bear fat filled in for shortening. The food chiefly consisted of wild game, vegetables grown in small clearings, and native fruits which were plentiful. The men were all good hunters and the women and children rode horseback to pick wild fruit. Many of the berries were picked at the bottom of the Peace River hill and this was a long day’s job. They would ride their horses as far as they could and lead them down the steeper hills till they reached the bottom, where the horses were left for the day. From this point they were then forced to follow animal trails and cow paths up the side of the steep banks to pick, filling tubs and pails. The job of carrying the tubs and pails sometimes had to be left for the men to come and carry out. This was done by balancing them on their shoulders and going down sideways, as the trails were so narrow in places. What little wheat that was grown was used for feed for both cattle and humans. It was threshed by small hand-fed machines and ground into flour and cereal between two large hollowed-out rocks. The coarser product was used for cereal and the finer for flour.
There being no roads in the district in the early thirties, people travelled by horseback or on foot. Later on, deadfalls were thrown aside and by winding here and there, they were able to use wagons and horses. The first trail to be cut through the north Peace River hill was hewn out by W. Clay and his brother C. Clay, and was only wide enough for a team of horses and sleigh. In the spring break-up and fall freeze-up travel was very difficult. It was necessary to have all supplies in before these times or wait it out on whichever side of the river they were on. This was the common practice when women were expecting, and it was nothing for them to stay in Dawson Creek waiting out their confinement. This is still the way of the district in this year of 1973, although not so frequent.
The houses were made of logs, chinked with moss or mud and some were even plastered and whitewashed on the inside. The floors were made of rough boards and many of the beds were homemade bunks. These houses and gardens in the Ukrainian settlement were usually surrounded by woven-willow fences to keep rabbits and fowl out.
The social life consisted mostly of dancing. Everyone who could helped with the music. Mr. W. Clay, C. Clay and B. Ewanchuk played for these dances — violins, guitars, and accordion — and Mr. B. Ewanchuk also played on a harp that he made himself. The women brought the lunches, and happily, there was no charge. Reason? Money was a scarcity. Christmas and New Years and also at Easter the Ukrainians celebrated with a two or three day feast and dances. These festivities were also shared by many of the English-speaking pioneers and led to many stories to be passed on to the children and grandchildren.
The older women, Mrs. Ewoniak, Mrs. Kucher and Mrs. Fedorak wore head shawls and white blouses lavishly embroidered in cross-stitch and full skirts. Many of these women never learned to speak English and communicated through their husbands and children. The Ukrainians served their homeland dishes, such as cabbage rolls cooked in pork broth – known as “kelopsie” — and cheese dumplings. Liquor of their own making was passed around during the meal.
Miss Hazel and Miss Sayles of the Anglican Church were the first missionaries and the pioneers and early settlers will always be grateful to them for the large bundles of clothing sent to every family each year. One of the first and needless to say the most outstanding of our Anglican nurses was Mrs. Kenny, who will long be remembered for her undying efforts on behalf of the people of the district. She was in there in the year of 1938-39. The first Doctor to visit the school was Dr. Beckwith on June 6, 1934. In 1936 Nurse Dunn and Dr. Cull did the first medical examination and vaccinations. Also in 1936 the first school inspector came into the district. His name was Mr. Plenderleith and he was very much impressed by the efforts made by the pioneers.
It was often necessary for a pioneer to walk out to the Rolla district, some fifty miles away [south, across the Peace River]] for supplies. One trip told of was a trip Mr. Carl Clay made. He would ride his horse down to the Rolla Landing at which point he would send his horse home and continue on foot. In order to cross the river he would use a log raft and pole. Once across the river began the long climb up the hill and on into Rolla. They were able at that time to pack 40 or 50 lbs. of supplies as these pioneers were basically very strong from the many other hardships they had to endure. The supplies were sugar, rice, tea, coffee and dried fruit. The amount of money or things you had to trade determined the amount and weight of your pack. The round trip for Carl Clay usually took three to four days.
In the year 1937 the new settlers to arrive were Douglas and Elmer Clay, nephews of Bill and Carl Clay. Robert Walper and wife, Bill Walper, Thoralf Otterbeck, Joe Whatley and wife. A little later B. Brekkas, K. Brekkas and B. Brekkas with L. Leslie, Gammons, Chatter and E. Figley followed and made their homes in the district.
In 1935 W. Clay purchased a sawmill from Mr. W. Streeper of Cherry Point and this was a real help to all the settlers coming into the district, as well as supplying the lumber to side many of the log buildings.
In 1938 Mr. W. Clay loaned the lumber and money to Mr. Jack Murray to build and stock the first store in the district. Soon after the store was opened the Government put in a Post Office. Up to this time all mail was hauled from Grande Prairie through Wembley to Rolla by Mr. Boon Taylor. Mr. Chauncy Berge of Cherry Point brought the mail to Cherry Point, using the privately owned scow of the Streepers. This was from the years 1930-38. Mr. F. Coons was the first mail man to Clayhurst and held the contract till his death in the late 1960’s. After Mr. Coons started with the mail, he also started to haul grain for the settlers. It took him four hours to make the trip that was taking the settlers four and five days with horses. His charge was $8.00, but this was cheap when the settlers added up the expenses of livery stables in Rolla and Dawson Creek, plus meals and time. Mr. F. Coons is believed to be the first settler to own and operate a truck in the district. Through the persistent efforts of W. Clay and H.E. Craig the government was persuaded to put a ferry in at what is now known as the Clayhurst ferry. This ferry was put into operation at the same time as the post office and needless to say the district grew rapidly after that. Mr. Neil Vincent was the first ferry operator.
Any pioneer could procure a work order in Pouce Coupe in the early 30’s to work on the government road allowances. This work order was equivalent of $11.20 in cash to be applied against their taxes. Mr. E.H. Craig was the road foreman and kept records of the time put in by each settler. This did much to help build the first trails in the district and the later settlers put in the roads after 1938. In 1939 the first telephone was put in at the store.
The Farmers’ Union was started in the fall of 1938. Their main project every year was to cut and haul the ice for the school. The hauling of ice was something all the settlers did each winter, as no one had refrigerators in those days. Homemade ice cream was a favorite occasion on Sunday. The Union also bought a community fanning mill, garden seeder and tank spray. This sprayer was used to whitewash chicken houses and spray garden bugs. The Clayhurst Women’s Institute was organized by Mrs. Ann Hartnell of Shearerdale, B.C., on March 6th, 1940 at the home of Mrs. P. Craig, with twelve women present. The Farmer’s Union with the help of the Women’s Institute bought the first piano for the school and paid for the fire insurance on it.
It was many years before the settlers were able to travel to the neighboring town of Fort St. John, which was 50 miles north and west. It was only accessible in the winter until 1951. In 1952 the Government improved the roads till they were passable in the summer. The spring break-up and fall freeze-up still was a big problem. Not until 1956 did they have a year around road.
The Clayhurst cemetery was on the property of Mr. J. Ewoniak and the first burial was in 1933, this being the baby of Mr. S. Cembrowsky. At the time of the baby’s death, there was no cemetery and they buried the baby on unfiled land and later moved the casket when land was set aside for the cemetery. It was not registered with the government until 1968, with the help of Doug Clay, who at that time worked for the Dept. of Highways. At this same time they also had the property for the community hall, which is on Willie Billie’s property, registered.
Of these settlers there has been a number of 25th Anniversary’s celebrated in the district. These settlers were married and lived in the district these 25 years, and many still make their home in the district. Some of these are Mr. and Mrs. Kaare Brekkas, Mr. and Mrs. Doug Clay; Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Clay; Mr. and Mrs. Ed Figley and Mr. and Mrs. John Fedorak. The late Mrs. and Mrs. Joe Whatley and Mr. and Mrs. H.E. Craig, now residing in Dawson Creek, B.C. also celebrated their 50th anniversary. They lived a greater portion of their married life in the district.
This information was given by the following living pioneers and settlers of the Clayhurst district — Mrs. H.E. Craig (P), Mr. P. Leeland, Mrs. K. Clay (Carl), Mrs. R. Clay (William), Mr. W. Ewoniak, all of Dawson Creek, B.C. Mr. and Mrs. Doug Clay of Fort Nelson, B.C., Mr. Elmer Clay of Clayhurst, B.C.