I have been a minister for many years in the United Church of Canada. I have been asked to bring to you some recollections of what it was like to be a student missionary in the Peace River area of British Columbia in the 1930’s.
The place to start I suppose is how one gets to be in that position. I can remember in my last year in University applying to be sent to a Mission field somewhere in the north. I received by assignment by letter from the Home Mission Board in Toronto which simply said, “It is our understanding that there is a growing settlement of people west of Dawson Creek. It will be your task to establish a church in these communities and to be of any service you can. Your headquarters will be at Sunset Prairie.” I didn’t know where sunset Prairie was, and it took a lot of searching the maps in the University Library before I located it.
I reached the town of Hythe by train, the Northern Alberta Railway train — that was the end of the steel in 1929. Leaving the train I had to find some way to get to Pouce Coupe which was fifty miles further on. There was no transportation available that I knew of. Upon inquiring, however, I discovered that there was a trucker leaving Hythe that evening for Pouce Coupe. I discovered him in a restaurant in the town and made arrangements for traveling with him.
I reached Pouce Coupe late that evening and stayed in the Hart Hotel. The next day I searched the town and purchased a horse. Setting out immediately for Sunset Prairie 25 miles distant, I came to that area stopping at every homestead along the way and announcing that on Sunday, which was the next day, there would be a service in the Sunset Prairie community hall. That was a little log hall that had at that time no windows, a sod roof with weeds and grass three feet high on top, a door that hung on one hinge, no glass in the windows, and a huge log across the middle that held up the roof. It would hit you in the forehead if you walked across the hall.
On my first Sunday there were sixteen people in the congregation. They came from homesteads round about. I can well recall that first day in that first church, after leaving the city of Edmonton, where I had been used to large churches. That afternoon in that hall, there were no pews, no chairs, no organ or piano, no hymn books, no pulpit, no music of any description. There were simply sixteen people, sitting on overturned slabs of sawn off logs, with one log four feet high with a board on top for a pulpit. I recall that when crows landed on top of the roof, the dirt fell through and landed on the little pocket Bible that I held. There was nothing there to remind one that it was church. This was the beginning of a number of experiences that I shall try to recall for you, and that may give you some idea of what it was like to be a student missionary in the Peace River Country in those days.
The next thing one had to do was find a place in which to live, and that wasn’t easy, believe me, in that kind of a community in those days. I went from homestead to homestead, calling on people who had been at church or about whom I knew something, inquiring as to where I might stay. I found negative answers everywhere I went, nobody had any rooms. They all lived in one or two room log cabins or shacks and they didn’t have any room, and furthermore to have someone from the city, as they thought, come and live with them, might put pressure on their living habits — pressure that they were not prepared to face. What was one to do?
I finally remembered one bachelor that I had met or had heard about, and went to his place and talked to him, and I said, “Look Wilfred you have two beds in this house, I think I am going to stay here.”
He said, “In no way can you stay here. I haven’t got time to look after you. There just isn’t room.”
I said, “Yes there is room, you have two beds.”
He said, “Yes, but I get up at six o’clock in the morning. I have cows to milk, horses to get in and my chores to do, how can I get breakfast for you and do all of that?”
I said, “That’s simple. I was brought up on a farm. You get the horses, I’ll milk the cows and we will get breakfast together.”
Well he objected a bit, but I just unpacked my little bag and stayed there for two weeks. The arrangement worked out satisfactorily. However I knew he wasn’t very happy about it and at the end of two weeks I discovered another man who was a bachelor who had a double bed and he finally consented to take me in. I lived with him for the next two summers.
We had many experiences, some of which were difficult to face and some of which were humorous. Neither of us had very much money — certainly a student minister had very little money. We had no garden that would amount to anything, but he shot a moose, probably in the fall, and a couple of deer throughout the year. He did grow some turnips. They were supposed to feed his pigs and cows. However for three weeks at a time we had nothing to eat but turnips and moose meat. Believe me I know how to fry turnips, bake turnips and eat them in every way possible. I have never liked turnips very much since. But that is one of the things that one has to face in a pioneering community like that.I should pause to tell you perhaps that this man who was a good Christian Scientist had two books in his cabin and that was all, and he read them avidly. Mary Baker Eddy’s book and the Bible. We seldom discussed religion and he never went to my services, but he was a likable enough chap and for those two summers we were good friends.
What was travel like in those days? There were no roads. Most of the people in those communities had come from southern Alberta or southern Saskatchewan because of the dry years. They had driven their own cars as far as they could take them, and when the roads ran out they hitched on a team of horses and pulled them into their homesteads, probably thirty, forty or fifty miles west of Dawson Creek.
The roads were poor. There was no way in which one could drive cars on them, so the homesteaders stripped the cars down, took the motors out and made the chassis into what was known in those years as Bennett buggies or Bennett wagons. These turned out to be very useful.
The other problem of course, was crossing the rivers, because in traveling up into the Pine Pass which was included in my parish, I had to cross the Murray River, the main Pine River, and, on occasion, at Hudson Hope one had to cross the Peace River. There were no bridges anywhere so how did one cross?
At East Pine we generally crossed by leading horses behind a dugout canoe which was picked up at Palmer’s stopping house at East Pine. The horse struggled bravely in the very swift river and was swept down probably a quarter of a mile before one got across. It was a very swift river in the months of May and June.
Across the Pine was one of my areas, Lone Prairie. Lone Prairie was an interesting place because one had to cross Table Mountain to get to it. In Lone Prairie valley there were four families and two bachelors. I always had an interesting service there because it was the one event of the year that all looked forward to. Nothing else ever happened and nobody else ever came in and they had great difficulty in getting out to a store to buy supplies and groceries for the winter. Every time I had a service in one of the homes there were twenty five people at that service because everybody came. I can still see one family trailing behind a horse – most of them walking, except two little children, including a baby basket, being pulled on a stoneboat behind the horse. (If you don’t know what a stoneboat is you had better inquire of somebody. It was dragged on two logs behind a horse and was one way of moving things that were heavy.)
These were fascinating services as everything one did meant something to these people. Most of all they craved and received, some friendship. I remember going into that community six months after an election had been held and I was the first one to tell them who had won the election for it had been held the previous fall. This shows you how completely isolated many of these people were.
The nearest town to Sunset Prairie, of course was Dawson Creek — not the present location of Dawson Creek, but where the old town was, two or three miles away in the valley of the creek. Once in a long time we had a chance to come into Dawson Creek. One time the summer celebration, the local Stampede, was being held, and I got a ride into town with a man with a team of horses and a buggy. We were supposed to go back to Sunset Prairie that evening when the celebrations were over. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that this man was nowhere to be found. After making extensive inquires I discovered that he was tight. He was upstairs in the livery stable in the hay, sleeping it off, and had no intention of going back to Sunset Prairie on Saturday evening.
I had to get back as I had services the next day. What could I do? The only thing to do, because no one was going out that way that night, was to walk. So I set out after supper that evening to walk 35 miles and reach Sunset Prairie in time for a two o’clock service the next afternoon. I made it but believe me it was quite a task. The mosquitoes were terrific in that area at that time. I lay down several times under the bush along the road to rest, but the mosquitoes drove me off again. I walked that entire distance and arrived in Sunset Prairie without breakfast and without lunch just in time for the service. I had not shaved, I had nothing with me. People looked at me and thought something was wrong, and were quite amused when they discovered that I had to walk the entire 35 miles. Because I shared their experiences, the homesteaders fully accepted me as part of their community.
As I look back now, I think one of the most gratifying parts of my work was the summer camps. We gathered together 12 or 15 boys from across the countryside and brought them down to the Kiskatinaw River for a week of camping. It was a very unsophisticated type of camping. We would have a little pup tent, only big enough to cover our food in case of rain, and we slept under the trees. I think one of the things that made it gratifying is that you were really down to basics. Most of these boys lived very isolated lives; they had no playmates, and one of the elementary things we had to teach them was how to play together, for they just didn’t know how to do this. They hadn’t learned to share, they hadn’t learned the secret of give and take and they hadn’t learned how to relate in a community situation. In many cases it would be an only child in a family that was five miles from its nearest neighbor, and hence seldom had had the opportunity of playing with other boys. We were to bring the boys together for this experience of camping in very primitive conditions, yet all essentials of social living were there.
One of the problems was how to arrange for food. I would take my saddle horse, and with two gunny sacks on either side of the saddle, would load up with bread and moose meat and whatever else the homesteaders could spare and would carry it out to the campsite. The boys all walked in carrying their packs on their backs. Every two days I would leave one of the older boys in charge and would head off into the neighborhood again to scrounge for food from a few different places, coming back with two gunny sacks full of bread and whatever else we were able to gather.
I think one of the gratifying parts of this kind of experience is that you knew you were dealing with boys in the areas of the real basics. There was no denominational differences in our communities in the Peace River country in those days. I have never had any idea how many people might be of my own denomination. They simply came together as part of the community for whatever we had to offer as a church in the community. I was the only minister in the entire area in those years, and therefore everything we did had to be done on a completely undenominational basis.
Looking back on those years I am amazed at the territory I covered, for the Peace River Block was a large area. Besides the four or five regular areas where Sunday services were held, I took the opportunity to be of some service elsewhere. Twice each summer I took an extended trip, 300 miles on horseback searching the lonely, isolated homesteaders, the trappers in their cabins, the Government survey crews, and here and there an Indian encampment. This meant conducting an average of ten worship services during thirteen days. On the 14th day I would be back in Sunset Prairie for my main congregations. These trips took me across five or six rivers, including the Peace at Hudson Hope. Some nights one slept under the trees with the horse tethered nearby.
Some of these services were unnerving for a young minister for some of the homesteaders and prospectors were not a bit bashful about interrupting a sermon with some probing question as they asked for more light or made their own opinions known. One was compelled to be pretty clear about his own philosophy, and it had to be really down to earth. For myself it had the singular advantage in forcing me to speak without notes, for these men didn’t want anything read from paper.
It may be of interest to you to know who these people were who inhabited the Peace River Block in those years. They were really from two sources. A great many of these people I came to know had come into the Peace River area after the World war. They came out in the early 1920’s as veteran’s from the services, staked out their homestead, cut down the trees and built their log cabins, made them into homes and began to try and seek out a living from the not very fertile soil of the region.
Many of them had brought English brides with them. Some of the girls came from London, or other cities in Great Britain. It was a completely, totally new world for them. I often felt very sorry for these women, bringing up families in an area where they still felt strange, and in an area where they were not used to the kind of living that was essential. Some of them were extremely lonely. One of the services we were able to render as a church was to bring to them some feel for the outside world, some new interest. This was particularly true in regard to their children. There were few schools in the entire region and most children in the isolated areas had to take correspondence school courses, and were taught by their mothers.
The other group of people who came into the region arrived after the dry years on the prairies, beginning in 1929. They came from southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan, bringing their belongings with them, and traveling as far as they could with their cars, and then had to, in many cases, leave them. They had no resources. Everybody in the region was on what was called Government Relief, or Welfare. This was a pretty small sum of money, about twenty-five dollars a month for the average family. You can imagine the hardships that they faced as they tried to live with the little bit of cash on homesteads that were not yet producing the essentials of life, and certainly not producing any marketable crops.
After I was ordained I spent another six years in the Peace River country so I got to know it pretty well. Perhaps I can give you one or two illustrations of the more humorous incidents that occurred during those years.
I recall one evening when a man came to our house, for I was married at that time, and he wanted to arrange for a wedding. He was deeply concerned that everything be done just right. He was well dressed in a blue serge suit, and when I inquired about his home he said he came from Hell’s Gate which was only a Post Office some miles east of Hudson’s Hope. He said that his bride was coming from Saskatchewan and would be in town, arriving by train later. He made all the plans for the wedding ceremony, and I was a bit surprised at his deep concern that everything be done properly and that he wanted to be completely familiar with the entire service. So we went over it very carefully two or three times.
During the next few days my wife and I went to visit in two of the rural areas where we stayed overnight with friends, coming back into to town a day or two before the wedding was to take place. It was to our surprise to discover this man walking up and down the sidewalk in front of our home. When I met him I said, “The wedding isn’t today?” and he said, “No, no, but I think that we ought to go over that ceremony again, I am quite concerned that we do it quite properly and that I know just what’s involved.” So we went in and went over the ceremony again.
The next day he met the train and brought his bride down to our little house in Pouce Coupe where he held the ceremony. She was a very lovely looking girl. At the end of the service they were extremely prolific in their thanks and this man thanked us again and again. I wondered at his complete exuberance.
Later in the evening, walking up to the village, I met one of my friends. He said, “Well you had quite a wedding didn’t you.”
I said, “It was a wedding, what was so different about it?”
“Well,” he said, “I guess you don’t know the story, that man had never seen that girl before until he met her at the train tonight.”
I said, “You must be kidding.”
He said, “No, that was correspondence courtship. The way that they met was through correspondence in the Winnipeg Free Press, the Home Loving Hearts page.”
We were quite amazed. I made inquires over the years, and discovered they were still living happily at the little place called Hell’s Gate which was only a dot on the map at that time.
Another of the responsibilities that fell to our lot during those years was distributing the huge bales of new and used clothing that came from centers in eastern Canada and churches. The people were extremely hard up as I have told you, most of them being on Government Relief. These bundles of clothing came in great bales, they were sometimes piled as high as the ceiling in our living room, waiting to be taken out to country points, or waiting until people came in to ask for help in one way or another.
I well remember one evening, not long before Christmas after a very heavy snowfall, and indeed it was still snowing, when in the evening after dark, there came a knock on our door. I opened it to find amidst the swirling snow, two women standing there. We brought them in hurriedly, discovered that one had walked that day, between 25 and 30 miles coming from east Pine to Pouce Coupe, having walked the entire distance. They had come for one purpose only, and that was to ask for help for their families at Christmas. One of the women was the mother of the other. The younger woman had a family of small children at home, and the older woman still had some family at home. They had almost nothing for them for Christmas and they were asking for help. Well we got their coats off and warmed them up and gave them something to eat, and then took down from the bales the necessary items to give them clothing for their children and some toys and other items that would be useful for them at Christmas time. Then we found a ride for them the next day with the mailman, who was going from Pouce Coupe to Dawson Creek, and then would help them find another ride from Dawson Creek to East Pine. I often think about that, and think what a tragedy it would have been, if having walked that far, in the absolute faith that there would be help at the end of the journey, if we had nothing for them.
I am thankful still for the devotion of the people in churches in Montreal and Toronto, in Winnipeg and Vancouver who at that time, and during those years, sent so much material that was good, useful and so helpful, to people in those outlying areas in the north.
One always had to be ready for the unexpected during those years. I recall once in the late summer another couple along with my wife and I headed off to East Pine to pick blueberries. We drove with our cars as far as Palmer’s stopping place, then crossed the river in the swinging baskets. This was a half wagon box, hung on cables that stretched across the river. We carried our tent with us and pitched it on the other side ready to spend the night and to pick blueberries the next day.
We had only just arrived when someone rode up on a horse saying, “I think you are Mr. Rands the minister from Pouce Coupe,” and I replied, “Yes I am.”
“Well,” he said, “we have a little baby that we would like to have you baptize while you are here, if you don’t mind.”
Well, I wasn’t prepared for a baptismal ceremony, I can assure you. We had gone out in camping clothes, I had no books or material with me of any description, but the moccasin telegraph had worked effectively enough so that this man knew we were in the neighborhood, and had asked for this favour. So we planned the service for the evening. Meanwhile he would go home and tell his wife that I was there and bring the baby across the river by the hanging basket. We would meet in front of our little tent that evening.
Everything went off as scheduled. They came across the river all right. We prepared for the baptismal ceremony. The news had spread and two or three other people had gathered from the stopping house across the river. We prepared for the ceremony in front of our tent. The trouble was, about that time it had begun to rain and we had to back into the tent, crowd everyone in, built a little fire at the door of the tent. It was quite a scene there at the confluence of the two rivers, one on either side of us, and the two joining about a 100 yards down.
Well we prepared for the ceremony as well as we could. I did everything from memory. We sang a hymn or two that we knew. I quoted the appropriate scriptural passages from the Bible, and I explained baptism to them, and then moved into the baptismal service itself. When the appropriate time came foe me to take the baby in my arms for the baptism I called the parents forward and we stepped out into the doorway of the tent into the rain, I took the baby in my arms and covered it’s head.
Just at that moment a horrible realization dawned on me that I had forgotten one very important element. I had forgotten to have a dish for the water for the baptism. In order not to break the spell of the proceedings by stopping and saying, “Sorry we have no water,” my mind went into high gear. Three or four things flashed through it in those seconds. One was that that baby had been born on Table Mountain between Lone Prairie and East Pine the previous Winter, for the mother had not got to the hospital in Dawson Creek in time and the baby was born in a sleigh. So they turned back and went back to their home in Sunset Prairie. I suddenly thought, “Here is a baby born in the out-of-doors. What more appropriate than we should baptize him with the rain coming down from God’s heaven?” So with a few words of explanation, I uncovered the baby’s head and let the rain from the sky fall on it, as I said the words of the baptismal ceremony. Nobody knew, until it was all over and I confessed what I had forgotten to some of those round about, that it had not all been planned.
Few days later I was talking to a minister friend of mine, a Presbyterian in Pouce Coupe and he raised an eyebrow and said, “Do you think that was a valid baptism?”
I said, “My friend, I think that was the most valid baptism I ever performed.” And I think it was.
Well these are just a few of the things that happened when I was in a pioneering community and was a young minister, representing the church, and trying to be of service as far as possible to the people that had moved into that area.