You ask for some of our impressions of the British Columbia Peace River area as we remember them from the early thirties. It is not easy to compress so many experiences into a brief letter, but I will endeavor to give a few thoughts of the Peace as we saw it.
As I mentioned in my letter, my wife — then Jean Teeple — came out of Vancouver Normal School directly to the “Block”, as the B.C. Peace area was still called in those days, in the fall of 1929 to the East Pouce Coupe School. From Vancouver it was necessary for her to come by way of Edmonton by train, and then from Hythe, which was the end of steel, by taxi to Pouce. Dawson Creek was at that time just a “stopping place”, a short distance southwest of where the city of Dawson Creek is now located. Pouce Coupe was the government and social centre of the Block, but Rolla was growing into a fair-sized village as it had been expected that the railway would move west from Spirit River to Rolla. Instead it pushed south to Grande Prairie, and then moved north and west to Hythe, then by-passed Pouce Coupe to stop in a wheat field. The few buildings from the old Dawson Creek were moved over to the end of steel, and within a few months quite a community of shacks, tents, and then better buildings grew up.
In the summer of 1931 while in Montreal I received a request from the Home Mission Board of The United Church to go as an ordained minister to the newly created Pouce Coupe – Dawson Creek Pastoral Charge. I was inducted in the partially built first United Church building in Dawson Creek in the fall of 1931. My area covered from the Alberta border to the Pine River, south of the Peace. I conducted services at random times in seventeen communities — every Sunday in Pouce and Dawson, every second Sunday in South Dawson and Hays — and once a month in several other places, and only two or three times a year in the Henshaw country. In the summer I used a Model A car, or hiked on foot, while for a good part of the year I depended on saddle horses.
I often visited the home of Rev. Jim Henderson in South Dawson. Jim had been a pioneer missionary in this same area after the First World War, but for health reasons had given up the ministry and had homesteaded. The United Church work in Rolla had been established for some years, and the minister there often had services at Pouce Coupe, and then later in the new Dawson Creek. He was assisted by students at Pouce Coupe during the summers, one of these being Ernest Rands, who was there just before my arrival, and who completed his theological course and followed me as an ordained minister at Pouce Coupe when I left in 1935. Rev. Jack Scott followed me at Dawson Creek. The work had developed to such an extent that it was necessary to divide the Pouce Coupe – Dawson Creek Pastoral Charge into two pastoral charges, with an ordained minister at Pouce and another at Dawson.
In the summer of 1931 the minister of the Rolla United Church, Rev. C.E. Rogers, began the erection of church buildings in both Pouce Coupe and Dawson Creek. When I arrived in September the Pouce building had been completed except for painting, while the Dawson Creek building still required considerable finishing. We used the basement for several months until the sanctuary was completed. Work was almost all voluntary and the approximate cost of the first Dawson Creek United Church was $1500.00.
Youth work throughout the week took up a good deal of my time in those days. I organized Cub and Scout Groups at Dawson Creek and Pouce Coupe which were registered in Scout headquarters, and had unorganized boys’ groups at South Dawson and Hays. We also developed hockey teams in both Dawson and Pouce for three age groups of boys, and competition was keen. Girls groups were also organized in the church groups and older youth activities. Sleigh rides were popular in the winter. We attempted our first boys’ camp in 1932, holding it at the Cutbank west of Dawson Creek with the boys from all over the South Peace attending. We had about 70 boys and 6 leaders. The Anglicans cooperated too, with Canon T.D. Proctor and Rev. J.E. Whittles assisting in leadership. The cost for the week’s camping for each boy was two dollars. We had many donations of vegetables, meat, etc., and the merchants of both Pouce and Dawson helped out. Later, camps for boys and girls were held at Swan Lake.
Once a month I made a circuit west of Dawson Creek holding services in the school at Devereaux, the Campbell Smith homestead at Progress, the schoolhouse at Willow Valley, and at some home in Sunrise Valley, riding back to be in Dawson and Pouce for Sunday. Some trips were in rather cool weather. I made one three-day trip by saddle horse for a funeral at Willow Valley during which the temperature never climbed over 40 below. But the coldness of the air was always matched by the warmth of the reception by the homesteaders all through the country. I never lacked for food and shelter for either my horse or myself!
My wife, Jean, had her experiences as a teacher in the Dawson – Pouce area. She had many cold trips by saddle horse to get into town on weekends. The Hart Hotel in those days was the social centre for the Block, and to it each weekend teachers came from as far north as Fort St. John and west to the Pine. Included in the weekend might be a trip to Grande Prairie to get a bath, or to attend a show. The road was usually kept open but it was better to follow a snowplough. Other social affairs were the dances in the various homestead communities. These probably continue to this day. The colder the weather the longer the dance lasted. Often the dance program would include a program by school children, a local play, and even a church service! It was not unusual to start for home by 6 a.m. Teacherages were often small log structures set in the bush and visited by moose, bears, coyotes, and wolves. Jean had a good police dog, but unfortunately it would bark as loudly for a rabbit as it would for a bear. Coming out from Montreal and New England, I particularly enjoyed my life in the Block. To me it seemed a throwback to the pioneer days of the American west as I had read and heard of it — except for the lack of violence.
But the early thirties were hard days. There were the covered wagon trains pulling into Dawson Creek from the dried out prairies, with the settlers bringing all their possessions with them, and few of these. But what a spirit they had! There was a fellowship and warmth, and a concern for others, which we today can never forget. The homesteaders moved on out into the bush, cleared a bit of land, and began again after leaving so much away down south.
And then there were the people “outside” who were concerned. United Churches throughout eastern Canada shipped to us tons of clothing. Some came, too, from Dr. Andrew Roddan, the dynamic social minister of First United Church in Vancouver. I did not know Dr. Roddan or First Church in those days, and had no idea that I would find myself in that same church for fourteen years. The bales of clothing were brought free of charge by local draymen to the church building. There Jean, assisted by other ladies, would sort them out by ages, sex, and sizes. On my trips around the country I would have prepared lists of those in need, and they would make up bundles from this list. Then on the next trip out, instead of going by saddle horse, I would take a team and cutter, loaded with these bundles. Altogether we gave clothing through the church to over four hundred families scattered from Tupper Creek to Little Prairie, and from the Peace to Fellers Heights. But it was not uncommon in those days to see children going through the snow to school with their feet wrapped in burlap bags. Rabbits proved to be a real blessing to many — moose, bear, and deer helped out with meat and hides.
Several items of life to which I had been accustomed suddenly disappeared on my arrival in the Block in 1931. I had no radio and could not afford one. I often stopped in at the home of a B.C. Provincial policeman on Sunday nights after church in order to listen to his radio and get caught up on the news. There were few telephones — we were dependent on the government telephone line. There was no electricity — that came later before we left. It was a real thrill when the first streetlights appeared in Pouce and Dawson. There was no plumbing. Even the Hart Hotel required an outside trip for facilities. And of course no bathtub! Cars had been cut down to Bennett buggies, pulled by horses. There were few cars in the Block. Mine, a Model A Ford was in constant service for emergencies, and stuck many times in mud, or frozen up, and on blocks throughout the winter. Shortage of feed at times produced real hardships for homesteaders who often hauled straw for many miles in far below zero weather with the horses hardly able to make the trip.
One real sport was curling — one rink at Pouce and one at Dawson — then two and later more. Competition between Pouce and Dawson was almost acute. The chief prize was called the “Fynn Trophy”. It was a tin can nailed on a block of wood, and went back and forth between Dawson and Pouce. More than once I was awakened at one or two in the morning to get up and curl for the Fynn trophy. This often meant a rough trip between Dawson and Pouce, sometimes having to push a car through snowdrifts. But curling went on all night, as the “Trophy” went back and forth.
Riding of course was necessary for me to get from place to place but also very enjoyable. Jean had a good little mare. My horse was the “Wilber Harper” horse used, apparently, at some of those small rodeos held around the country in those days. I bought him sight unseen more or less from Joe Dill, undertaker at Dawson Creek, who had taken him in as a trade from a cowboy who wanted a radio. I had practically no experience in riding, but liked the horse right away, and took him and saddled up in front of Joe’s place on what was then the main street of Dawson Creek. He started bucking right away and the street was soon lined by men who came out to see the new preacher getting a workout. By pulling leather I was able to stay on but had a rough time of it. The horse, which I named “Raj” after Trinidad association with East Indians, gave me wonderful service over three years in the Block. I later rode him to Edmonton, used him in Leduc and Red Deer and farmed him out while I was with the R.C.A.F. during the war. I used him only for pleasure riding in Calgary, and finally at 26 years of age, with sorrow sold him to packers with the promise that he would be dealt with mercifully! But in the Peace we had many interesting rides, with occasional races on moonlit nights along the snow trails.
Life was uncertain in those days. On looking over my record of funerals I note so many young people who were killed in accidents — dragged by horses, caught by falling trees, caught by exposure to cold in the winter, or drowned by fording flooded streams in the spring. I was nearly caught myself on Bear Creek while swimming Jean’s horse across what was usually a small creek but swift with melting snow. Fortunately Babe was a good water horse. We had swapped horses for this reason. I suppose the rivers of the Peace Country are as treacherous as ever.
Every day seemed to bring its adventures in those days, but this is true today with emphasis now being on air and oil and many other things undreamed of in the early thirties. Then, it was a real next year country. Next year the railway will go through to the Coast. Next year there will be a highway to Prince George. Next year we can travel north. The years went by then without the realization of those dreams. But now they have all come about but there are still greater things ahead, and in God’s plan all things work together for good — eventually!
H. Russell Ross, November 19, 1973