There seemed no way we could survive there. The wife’s people had moved to the Peace River Country so we decided to try our luck along with them. It might have been better if we had left what we had, but somehow there is something in me, which inclines me to hang onto things. We loaded six head of cattle, six horses, machinery, a model ‘T’, a model ‘A’ (1928), a Fordson Tractor, household goods including a piano, and shipped it all to Hythe, Alberta. The government was so anxious to encourage settlement in the Peace River that we were allowed two fifty-foot box cars for which we paid less than one hundred dollar.
Hythe was the end of steel, which point we reached on March 23, 1930. My brother-in-law, Efner Johnson, met us there with his truck. He loaded some of the cattle. The horses we hitched to two wagons, loaded them with household goods and set out for our new home, fifty miles or thereabouts to the northwest.
At ‘Maw’ Brainards we enjoyed our first taste of Peace River hospitality. If you haven’t tasted her pies I’m sure you have heard praise of them. For many years her chicken dinners drew people from far and near.
Another important memory of this trip was our astonishment at the height of the snowdrifts. The family rode with Efner in the truck. Just north of the correction line south of Rolla, I got out and stood on the cab in order to get a view of the countryside. The grades were not built high as they are now and after each storm the roads would be packed with many feet of snow. Many times the snow plough crews worked through the night to keep a tunnel open and they would pile the snow to great heights. About this time snow blowers were being investigated but they were only a partial answer. I know of at least one baby born behind the plough, as the crew struggled to make a hole in the wall of snow, which was packed firmly between the banks they had built following the last storm.
That evening was one of those special occasions — a family reunion. Though it hadn’t been long since the Johnsons had left North Dakota, the children had grown and the stork had made one visit. Elton Asleson was beautiful, healthy and two months old. We were delighted to have Blake and Garnet display their developing talent in song. My father had been training them and, thanks to his New England upbringing, their accent in song, quite different from their spoken language, quite delighted their listeners. There were many of these family get-togethers’ in those days for families formed the habit of meeting each Sunday at the home of Grandma and Grandpa Johnson who lived on the Franscene place. Lauren’s a lively, healthy developing atmosphere for the young. We made our fun — no gyms, no arenas — just lots of ideas.
We had made plans before we left North Dakota to rent the Mast place, six miles north of Rolla. Ed Mast worked full time on the river so Mickey Schobert, who managed for him, was the person I dealt with. We took three crops off this land. The first year Russell Albright hauled my grain into the new elevator in Dawson Creek. It was the first year that grain was brought here. My wheat rated #2 and brought seventeen cents [a bushel].
We rented other land where we could. Patches had been broken wherever it was available without too much brushing. There were trails between these fields, more suited to wagons than to binders. More harm was done to the machinery in moving from field to field than any resulting from work on the land. That first fall we had lovely harvest weather. We were stacking bundles on the Vincent place one day in late October. The sun was glorious and most of us had thrown down our coats when we saw the mail truck stop at the gate. Frank Coons was dropping off my father who came across the field burdened with a heavy coat and wearing sweaters, and as we later learned, winter underwear. He trudged through the stubble, perspiring as he came. The C.N.R. had been held up for fourteen hours south of Edmonton by snow. Reasoning that further north he would find it colder, he had invested in the warmest clothing he could find. We gave him a bad time for coming into the ‘banana belt’ thus. You may be sure he used all his clothes later.
When the time came that we had to buy new machinery there were real problems. Efner recalls that it took him six years to pay off thirty-five dollars on a drill. The Vandewaters had a machine agency in Rolla and I bought a wagon box for some sixty dollars. That was a big debt to take on and paying it took time and struggle.
From the Mast place we moved to our homesteads in the Carpio district — named for Carpio, North Dakota, our old hometown.
The depression had picked pockets clean by this time. We were fortunate however. My father and I each had a twelve-dollar pension (as long as he lived) due to the fact that my brother had been killed in the war. That was wealth!
We were fortunate in finding an expert in log construction, Aldrich Svarrd. He was very adept at saddling logs in place with a tongue and groove effect, using a script. This was a great deal better than the method used by most where the logs were set one on another and chinked with merle. We were very proud of our house but procuring the logs had been a project fraught with problems.
There was a find stand of spruce on the Peace flats. There we cut our logs and brought them up the hill, one and one-half miles. Most of them came up one at a time hauled by one horse. If the going was good two horses could manage three logs. The horses were well shod and the track well packed with snow for the haul was a very difficult one. Two trips a day was all we asked of the horses. We would deck the logs at the top of the hill and in the evening take home what we could haul on a sleigh. Some days were too cold and the horses’ lungs would bleed if they were asked to haul a regular load. Then there were days when a sudden Chinook would take the snow.
Many, many man-hours and much horsepower were necessary to provide materials for our homes and for a school. Efner, Dorval and I, with some help from Anton Moen, hauled the logs for the school. Stanley Robinson constructed with help of various kinds. He and Efner worked all night to get the chimney above the roof so that Dorval Johnson and Arlene Peirce could hold their wedding dance there on November 15, 1932.
The second teacher who came to the district, Margaret Hall, later Baldwin, boarded with us and we enjoyed her a lot.
In those days we travelled miles to parties. No one had money, but Lauren Johnson and the ‘Sheik’ (Ray Ireland) enjoyed making music while the rest of us danced and sang. Birthdays and winning an endurance contest celebrated with much enthusiasm. I remember winning an endurance contest dancing the polka at Shearerdale School. My partner was Hanna Cross and I think she carried me the last round!
Variety in food taxed the ingenuity of the cooks. Everyone shared knowledge gained in experiments to preserve vegetables for winter use. Saskatoon patches were searched out, lunches made and the whole family crawled into the wagon and away to spend the day picking. Raspberries were a favorite of bears and settlers but a trip to Raspberry Island [in the Peace River] was work, for the fruit grew among windfalls. More than one pail of berries spilled when walking a log to get out of the patch. That meant the loss of hours spent crawling over logs in the heat. We really appreciated those jars of fruit when the snow came.
Meat was an item not so easily available. We went to the police and explained our situation. We were given the same hunting rights which the Indians enjoyed. There were only a few among us who could hunt and shells were very precious. Every bit of every animal was used but we learned by experience to kill only where we could get it out without too much trouble. It was no fun to move four hundred pounds of meat through brush and over windfalls.
Ray Ireland came by one day to borrow one 30-30 shell. We gave him two. He knew where the moose was, he said, and needed only one shell. Sure enough he returned one shell, and packed a quarter of meat up from ‘the point’ to pay for the one he used.
One time I hunted all day and came in with nothing. Tired and discouraged I reached the house, sat down my gun and looked around to see – – – a fine, big moose polishing his antlers on some trees growing right in the yard. We all worked late that day doing our butchering.
One day Buster Fynn, driving for the police sergeant, stopped at Ray Gross’ to feed and rest his horses and enjoy lunch. As they were preparing to leave, Ray’s curiosity had to be satisfied so he asked who was in trouble. When he heard that the policeman’s errand was to check on wasted meat he lost no time (some who remember his accent will get a chuckle) informing “the Law” that those hunters fed the whole country and wasted nothing. “It was their gift you had for lunch. Go back and leave them alone.”
Some people and some horses refused to consider bear, but we couldn’t afford to waste even this. Thelma, our black mare, fought at being asked to carry a bear out of the woods. We finally blindfolded her and tied the meat on, only to be told by the women that they couldn’t think of cooking or eating any of it. Instead I must butcher a hog. The cuts of bear I added to the pork barrel really helped to stretch the pork, and if anyone noticed I didn’t hear of it.
Providing good water for drinking in the summer was a problem. Dugouts filled by rain and runoff served the stock but most of us felt it wasn’t the thing for us humans. Ice was the alternative. We would go down to the river when it was two feet or more feet thick, saw out blocks about two feet square, and haul them home on flat racks. This was a tough job for the horses. A few times a Chinook came up and hard cut blocks were carried away by the river. The icehouse was a very important building in each yard. Using tongs made for the purpose we’d place a layer of blocks and cover them with sawdust. Another layer and more sawdust were added until — hopefully — there was enough to keep us in drinking water until winter came again. Log walls and loads of sawdust made excellent insulation. “Getting out” ice was a job the young folks tried to talk their way out of for those blocks were awkward. Each had to be washed free of sawdust and broken up to be put into a barrel or icebox. The only time anyone exhibited enthusiasm was on a Sunday when someone could be persuaded to make ice cream. Then there were eager hands and no problem.
In 1934 we loaded up the Model A and set out for Maine. My father was not well and wanted to go to his old home. We fastened his Bass Violin to the roof of the car and he, my wife and I were on our way. We had to be hauled by horses for the first ten miles. From there what would be an eight-hour drive now, took us three days. There had been a heavy rain beyond Grande Prairie. The gumbo had dried enough that it stuck — and stuck — and stuck. Every few yards we would dig out the fenders. Others were on the road and by the time we arrived at the spot where the North Star road joined the Highway there were at least a dozen cars. No one could pass anyone so we would dig out a car at a time and proceed at a snail’s pace. Along came a 1928 Chevrolet Coupe driven by the banker from North Star. He looked the situation over and when we came up asked for help to remove his fenders.
“Now”, he said, “I’ll break trail”.
The mud flew high and wide but he went through and we followed. Can you feature the expression on the face of the station attendant when the banker asked for a car wash? The mud was piled high as it could stick on the flat top of his Chevy! We are people who know how to appreciate pavement.
In 1936 when Garnet was ready for high school, we left the homestead and made our home on the Barker place, one and one-half miles west of Rolla. Dan had built an addition to his homestead shack when he brought his war-bride home from England. To us the house was a bit of a comedown, but the land here was good and the fields easier to work.
My wife was an invalid and it was necessary that we have a hired girl all the year round — $5 every month.
The hired man (Edgar MacDonald) worked all year. We paid him $25 a month in summer and his room and board in winter. Winter work was not easy either for there was wood to haul, ice to cut, horses to care for, and cows to milk. This last he couldn’t abide so Blake and I managed the milking most of the time.
I bought the half-section from Dan (one dollar down) and later Otto Hoffstrom sold me the quarter to the east. Clyde Miller sold me an ad-joining quarter so I had a fine section in a good district.
We tried mink farming for a season, but had to rely on horses for food and they became so difficult to come by that the business was no longer profitable.
Everett Miller and I bought a threshing machine in 1940 and we did well with it.
We were fortunate with our Fescue crop which won over all varieties of grass seed at the Royal Winter Fair one year. In fact we had prize-winning seed for two years. In 1950, because of failing health, I left the farm and moved to Dawson Creek where we have since made our home.