To reach the Flat, whether the traveler comes from the East or West, one begins at “Mile O”, Dawson Creek, and drives over a reasonably good gravel highway for about thirty-six miles. He is now crossing the suspension bridge over the Peace River, built during construction of the Alaska Highway. The bridge was begun in 1942, finished and opened in 1943.
There is some level land on the South side but the larger level area is across the river. On the north side, east of the highway is the partially completed Pacific Petroleum Scrubbing Plant to process natural gas and its by-products.
The larger part of the tillable land, roughly twenty-one quarter sections, is about two hundred feet above river level. In many places the land is deeply cut by water making its way to the river. Creeks and coulees thus formed interfered in a measure with farming operations and transportation and made construction of roads difficult and expensive.
At a lookout point on the south side, descending on the narrow, winding road to the river one can look over the river and fields beyond. What a view!
A first time traveler or even a seasoned resident, stands in awe at the breath-taking beauty of the scene in spring when trees and fields are lush and green, but finds it equally appealing in autumn coloring in ripe grain and leaves of brown, gold and red.
The first white men to make their homes on the Flat — Robert Dewar and Robert Barker — came in 1912. They came up river from Peace River Crossing though they did not come together, nor at quite the same time. Dewar was a little ahead.
Herbert Taylor, from whom the Flat derived its name, was a trader with some Indian blood. He married a Native woman and brought his family to live on the Flat about the same time Dewar arrived though he had met the Indians there for trade in furs some time previous. Taylor worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and took the furs to their trading post. Indians and traders referred to this meeting place as Taylor’s Flat. In this way through usage and habit the name was accepted. Since then it has been officially recognized.
Nine children were born into the Taylor family. Many of them still live in the surrounding district they made up a large part of the number required by law to get the first school. Mrs. Taylor died many years ago but the near-indestructible Herbie lived until two years ago [1955?]. The first school on the Flat was opened in the middle 1920’s although there was a school at Fort St. John before that.
In 1912 it was practically impossible to walk over the land which was covered with deadfall and tangled undergrowth. Fires had swept over the country many times leaving blackened desolation in most parts. Rose bushes grew profusely on the burnt-over land, adding to farmers’ difficulties later. Evidently the fires missed some patches as there were large stands of balm, poplar and spruce where it was possible to get logs large enough for building.
Land for cultivation had to be cleared the hard way. Trees were cut down by hand, the stumps pulled with a team or “grubbed out”, and then the brush piled and burned. After the soil was broken the roots were picked, piled and burned.
An abundance of pea-vine and vetch grew waist high, making admirable pasture and giving credence to the hope that domestic legumes such as alfalfa would thrive on the soil. Alfalfa was grown on large acreage in later years with considerable success at first.
Whether the busy little [leaf-cutter] bee was over-worked or changes in climatic conditions was the cause of failure in seed-setting is a question that still puzzles growers and seed-men. In any case only a few profited from this crop. Alfalfa acreage was greatly reduced and cultivation of it as a seed crop given up.
Many of the men who first made their homes on the Flat were trappers. Some had lines near their homes while others went farther afield in the vicinity of Fort Nelson and farther north.
There were only four families at Taylor until the second influx of settlers between 1919 and 1929. The others were single men who did their own cooking and had a deft hand with flapjacks. Game was plentiful and the fresh meat made a pleasing variety to their standard diet of quick bread and bacon. When off the trap-line every one baked his own bread.
Small fur-bearing animals, bear, moose and deer abounded in the valley. Coyotes barked at nights on the hillsides and became a great nuisance to farmers who kept poultry.
With the advance of settlement game grew scarcer but the deer never moved out entirely and were often seen on their way to the river. It was a beautiful sight to see them leap easily over fences as there were not enough of them to be a threat to crops. Two of these spotted beauties leaped over a fence one day in late summer into a field of rank growing tangled alfalfa. If animals feel surprise the deer must have been far past astonishment by the time they made their way across the fifty-acre field.
Many settlers came from the United States and represented many nationalities. In 1913 George Daniel and George Kirkpatrick came in by way of Finlay Forks, overland from there. Daniel, who came from within sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, retained more than a hint of southern drawl in his speech. Kirkpatrick was from Iowa. These energetic partners were so systematic and untiring that they brought out many a lucrative catch of furs in the spring. So successful were they that when the strenuous life palled and the fur prices declined, they were in a position financially to set up farming on a large scale.
Henry Philip was the first farmer to break land in the district. He had worked through the country with a survey party and he homesteaded a quarter where the survey headquarters were. When the party finished and moved out Philip was given the buildings they had set up and many pieces of equipment and leftover supplies. This true Scot, originally from Glasgow, typified the characteristics of his nationality in thrift and hardihood. He farmed land for those who had no outfits of their own. He owned one of the first cars in the district.
One of the quarters nearest the river was taken in 1919 by Charles Croft, a horse rancher of German descent from Montana. Glen Minaker from Michigan, who came in 1916, was a trapper of no mean merit. He chose land on the west side next to the river.
About the same time Mr. and Mrs. Bart Carmichael and daughter Jo settled on land next to the hills which rimmed the flat on the north side. Carmichael worked as a freighter with his own team. They had the first milk cows in the settlement.
The first buildings were made of logs and were very warm and well built. In 1920 a carpenter, James McKnight with his wife and young son, arrived from Vancouver. He built the first frame houses in the flat settlement and some in other districts. Later they ran a stopping house on the river where the steamers stopped and the ferry landed. Throughout the country the old-time stopping house was a familiar sight and performed a much-needed service.
Very early there was a sawmill at the mouth of the Pine River on the south side of the Peace. In the late 1920’s Otto Hoffstrom set up a mill on the south side but further down river. Lumber was obtained for houses and later for barns and granaries from these mills
The nearest Post Office was at Fort St. John — “The Old Fort” — right on the river where the Hudson’s Bay trading post was located. Mail was brought in by steamer in summer and on sleighs on the ice in winter. Mail days were not too regular in those days and a man might walk seven or eight miles to the Fort to get mail for all and find the mail had not arrived.
In 1919 R.H.A. Neilson came to Fort St. John as a telegraph agent and lineman. He came to work outdoors in the good fresh air. Of that, there was a good supply. Later he homesteaded on the Flat and moved there.
In the early twenties the quarter farthest east was taken by Alex Gilchrist, who after farming for several years went into ranching and built up a fine herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle. He was one of the alfalfa growers.
Then came Mr. and Mrs. Carl Donis and family. He built a store and Trading Post where he handled furs as well as retail goods. Each winter he went out into the fur country in pursuit of trade.
Any mention of the first group of settlers would not be complete without the names of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Feenie, who lived on the south side. They had one daughter, June. Their work was similar to other first-comers — they served meals to travelers; Howard did some freighting and at times operated the ferry.
There was no way of crossing the river except in dugouts, which were not always seaworthy, until the early 1920’s when a cable ferry was installed. Neilson recalls being summoned more than once to fix a frayed cable. One day this small ferry — loaded with cattle — capsized, dumping cattle and passengers into the water. All scrambled to safety; the men to a boat and cattle to shore. Very soon after that accident a motor driven ferry was put in which remained in use until the building of the Alaska Highway.
There was a time of great inconvenience, if not actual danger in the spring when the ice was going out and again in the fall when the river was freezing over. Mail and passengers (the few who ventured to travel) had to be taken in boats where there was open water; put on sleighs where the ice was still firm then changed again (in spring) where there was open water at the sides. This means of transportation was slow, difficult and often dangerous. How the residents appreciated the new steel bridge!
There was an abundance of wild fruit in the area — strawberries, raspberries and cranberries. Wives of settlers gladly availed themselves of the fruit for winter use. Before the women came the bears had undisputed claim to the berries. They went right on taking their share. One day the ferryman’s wife was picking Saskatoons a short distance from her house. Her little girl played in the grass nearby. Suddenly the family dog nudged the picker to draw her attention. She turned on him in some annoyance — and saw a big black bear a few trees away enjoying a feed of fruit. The startled mother scooped up her child in one graceful motion and beat the dog to the house.
The Peace River was the thoroughfare before railway or highway was built. The Hudson’s Bay Co. stern-wheeler, the D.A. Thomas made regular trips in summer as far as Hudson’s Hope. The company had a smaller boat, the Weenusk. These were primarily to supply the company trading posts but they carried other freight, passengers and mail.
Is there any other sound as exciting as a steamboat whistle? The arrival of a boat — large or small — was a great event in the lives of the people in the river settlements.
Harry Weaver of Peace River freighted on the river for several years with scow and powerboat. The D.A. Thomas made her last trip in 1929. She waited too long in starting down river in the fall and got caught in the ice near the Fort (Old Fort St. John). When the ice went out in the spring the historic boat made her last adieu. The railway was then completed as far as Hythe, Alberta and two years later reached Dawson Creek. The need for river travel was nearly over.
Beginning in 1927 and on through the 30’s settlers flocked in from the burnt-out prairies until all available land was taken as far out as Blueberry Creek, present site of oil exploration and gas wells.
Among the first of this last batch of settlers was “Slim” Gooding who had a ranch on the Peace opposite the Old Fort. On February 14, 1929, Mr. and Mrs. Everett Shortt moved onto their home on the Flat, which had been previously purchased from James McKnight. Other land was homesteaded or bought until their holding grew to a section. The Shortt’s first wheat crop was sacked and shipped down the river on Weaver’s boat in the summer of 1930. Two days before Christmas of the same year these hopeful farmers received a cheque for that five hundred bushels of wheat. The cheque was for $2.57 — all that was left from the sale when the freight advance was taken out.
In 1929 the Alexander families moved in from Saskatchewan. There were seven families in all though they didn’t all come at once nor all stay on the Flat. Most of them lived there for a year or two, until they moved to their homestead in the district to the east.
Mr. and Mrs. A.G. Kruse and son made their home n the south side between the ferry landing and the mill in the early 1930’s. They built a picturesque house of upright logs. Perhaps the family will be longest remembered for having one of the best gardens in the country. The soil on the Flat, particularly at river level, is good for vegetable growing.
Mr. and Mrs. John Hill and family came in the middle 1930’s. Mr. Hill still runs the store which he purchased from Mr. Neilson and which forms a part of the centre now known as Taylor. Mrs. Hill has a deft touch with growing things and it is worth anyone’s while to stop and see her flower garden.
At this centre is erected “The Church of The Good Shepherd” built by Mr. Hoffstrom in memory of his four daughters who were drowned in an accident on the ferry in August of 1932.
About four miles west of Taylor is a smaller flat which is very much in the news today. A man named Beckwith, who did very little in the way of improvements, homesteaded this land. In 1946 he sold it to T.B. Wilson who built a road into it from the highway, cleared the land, broke it and grew grass seed on it for several years. In 1955 Wilson sold out to the P.G.E. Where the farm buildings stood the railway bridge is now under construction.