In 1936 we came over from Alberta to see what Dawson Creek was like. A spell of heavy rains made the roads rather tough, and the Tate Creek had to be crossed on a precarious temporary log bridge, due to a flood. but Dawson Creek had sidewalks high above the graveled 102 Avenue. The morass of mud that came ten years later was due to the U.S. army laying sewer and water pipes. In fact even we were surprised at the amenities in a town that had started in a grain field only six years before.
As it did all over the west, the arrival of a railway consolidated tiny country post-office centres into hamlets. Wherever the end of steel happened to rest for a brief time, a village would quickly spring up and the people set to work to make their surroundings livable. Dawson Creek in the 1930’s was no exception. Our letters invariably were full of enthusiasm. We learned later that our friends back home thought we were just “putting a good face on conditions”, like the woman living in a sod roofed cabin, who wrote back to the Old Country that “they had a roof garden.”
We had a proper roof — not roof garden — but within a year we were supplying our table with fresh vegetables of astonishing size and quality.
Although the village supplied many amenities, life on the frontier had certain characteristics that leave memories, some laughable, and, for some people, tragic. I have many of the former kind. If I ramble on a bit about some of them, they might make a few people smile.
I almost fled from Dawson Creek during our first visit. As I stood on the sidewalk in front of the Corner Drug and looked east, I spied a hotel sign with a large red spot. I told my husband that I couldn’t live here!
“Why ever not?”
” Well, LOOK!” I said, “I know there is vice in every place, but this is the first small town where I’ve seen it advertised openly!”
“Where do you see it advertised?” he asked.
“See! Right there where it says “Hotel.”
“Oh” he said, amused. “That red spot? what do you think it means?”
“Of course!”, I replied — probably blushing a little. ” A Red Light district?”
“Look a little closer.”
Now “The Red Apple” might be an unusual name for a hotel but it was innocent enough. In any case the purity of the “Dew Drop Hotel” sign hung a short distance south of the corner, so I consented to stay.
1931 became Year One in the Peace River Block. Dawson Creek followed the B. R. (before railroad) pattern of every other village in the Peace, when a more or less organized cluster of business and “residences” became a trading-centre. From the time the first rails reached Athabasca every “town” on the line went through almost the same growing pains.
Until 1942, especially during the “Dirty thirties”, the story was repeated over and over. There had been “depressions” before those hard years, when people looked to a frontier to make a new start in life. In the old provinces the large families, common in those days, began to be pushed out of the small pioneer farms which could not be prosperous when divided among several children. Men who wanted to give their sons a start in a country that promised “free” land with prospects of making a good living, decided to go north. The Peace River was advertised as just that kind of opportunity land in books, reports, and advertising. With a railroad into each area and extension of the rails to the Pacific a promised lure, the front line of settlement pressed steadily forward. “The Peace” became a Mecca for hundreds of families to whom frontier living looked so much better than the conditions on almost any other part of the bald-headed prairies that an “immigrant” flood began.
We were among almost the last wave of the Depression-driven settlers. Therefore, we missed the real hardships of the pioneers, — a title we cannot claim. They will tell their own stories in their own time. Nevertheless, we lived through the typical growth of a railroad-born village.
The railroad made all the difference! For a comparatively small sum prairie people could rent a whole boxcar and load up all their possessions including cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, the family dog and the kids’ cat. A man could ride free to look after the livestock. The family paid regular fares, or took their chances driving a car over the “roads” that were passable only in dry weather or after freeze-up.
After seeing once — prosperous farmsteads buried in wind-driven dust we came because logs were available to build a house if finances did not reach the purchase of the locally sawn lumber. Wood was here for cutting, vegetables for growing, wild fruit for picking, game for hunting, milk, cream, and eggs and poultry for little labour. We saw life with hope and beauty again in flower gardens and vegetable plots. Sure, the village streets were muddy, but so were the fields, blessed with abundant rainfall while the prairies parched. There was hardship in days when employment paid terribly low wages — or payment “in kind”. Anyone who would do some “wheeling and dealing” could eventually swap anything he was obliged to take for his labour for something he needed. The menu might be monotonous but no able-bodied man need be cold for lack of fuel for the “airtight” heater.
For several years in any village, until sidewalks were laid, you would know the number in attendance at any party, congregation or other function by counting the pairs of gumboots at the door. We attended all meetings in the rainy season with shoes in hand.
The first building, started sometimes even before the railway “station” was anything more than a boxcar was a grain elevator, the pioneer high-rises. There were five here already in 1930. Almost before the doors opened for business the teamsters of grain wagons — or more usually sleighs — were lined up to sell the crop. It was a poor district that had, within a year, only one grain-elevator. Three or four belonging to rival companies was the usual number on a “prairie” as extensive as Grande Prairie, Hythe, Fairview, or Spirit River, for the homesteader had always moved well ahead of the end-of-steel. Seeing that first load sliding down into the “pit” to be “elevated” by a chain of cups on an endless belt, was a dream-come-true to men who had been freighting to some far-away end-of-steel.
Because every shipping point served a hinterland of from forty to even a hundred miles, man and horse had to be housed before starting back. Restaurants of some sort — usually several of them — were set up in flimsy wood shacks, where a good camp cook or the ubiquitous Chinese presided over the pans of bacon and whatever else, except wild game, that the country provided.
Supplements like fresh apple-pies were available once the freight trains rolled in, instead of the dried fruits that were so expensive when freighted in by horse-drawn vehicles. It was an unusual driver, however, who sought the restaurant before looking after his team. Before the elevator was finished, the feed barn or livery stable had reared its huge frame and hayloft high over every other building but the elevator. Dawson Creek drew the freighters from as far away as Montney and Rose Prairie [north of Fort St. John]. Two stables were always full in good hauling weather when the river had sufficient ice to cross. One stable had character. The “Red Barn” had a refreshingly intriguing sign painted in huge while letters on its gable-end — “Rickety Rigs, Runaway Horses, Reckless Driver”. The horse we hired for our Xmas Day trip to Pouce Coupe didn’t live up to the promise, but no government agency was concerned about “truth in advertising” then. Besides he came complete with a belly-band set of sleigh bells which are more musical over the snow than the snarl of the snowmobile — and the ride wasn’t as rough. Horses for hire were the taxis of the day.
A bunkhouse often admitted drivers who carried their own bed-rolls to spread on the fragrant hay to save hotel bills – inexpensive as they were. Woe to anyone caught smoking around the barn! The threat of fire was bad enough when coal-oil lanterns supplied light before there was enough “load” to make a small electric light plant pay a private owner.
Not far away was a harness maker and the blacksmith shop. The acrid smell of hot shoes being applied to the hoof was like no other. The blacksmith was a craftsman, who had to know how to protect each kind of hoof, and for what road conditions.
Because the sale of grain brought money to spend, there were one or more “general stores’ with an inventory of necessities from dressmaker’s pins to heavy hardware, as well as yard goods, patent medicines, toys, crockery — and candy. Generally, a 10 cent bag of candy — not a small one — was “thrown in” by the storekeeper for the Missus and kids.
Dog teams from as far away as Fort Nelson [300 miles north] appeared now and again on village streets for W. O. Harper, storekeeper, was also a fur-buyer. Nearly every farm family did some trapping as a “cash crop”. Mr. Harper still buys furs as shown by an advertisement published February 2nd, 1972 , in the Peace River Block News.
Another form of currency was good for commodities — the farm wife’s home-produced eggs and butter. The product of a good buttermaker was generally slipped under the counter for customers who would pay a few cents extra for quality. Some women signed their “Prints” of golden goodness with their own names, just as a writer would sign a poem.
In 1936, five years after the last spike was driven, Dawson Creek had done what several other villages had been forced to do when the railway passed them. Waterhole, a thriving communityn north of Dunvegan, had moved to Fairview four miles away where the rail-roaders decided to locate the station. It was amazing what enterprises could do in years when hundreds of thousands had no income but “relief” in the rest of Canada.
We found here a newspaper, a lumber-yard, a barber, insurance office, a dentist, a druggist, a doctor, a post-office for the twice-a-week mail train and a hospital, a four-room school teaching grades to prepare students for University, several churches, a movie theatre that doubled as a Community Hall for the yearly music festival and frequent dances, a library, a town band, a hairdresser, and stores, including a Co-op, catering to every need from drugs and men’s wear to barbed wire and binder twine, a garage, machinery salesmen, a beautifully kept nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, and outdoor skating rink and a curling rink. The Bank of Commerce had an unusual sideline, “The Orphanage”, in which the staff lived in comfort, cooked for and laundered for by a housekeeper. There were several cafes and four large hotels, the “Ritz” and the “Dew Drop Inn”, and “Dawson” besides a smaller one whose over-street sign proclaimed “The Red Apple” but whose logo, looking from a short distance like a red circle, rather startled me at first. There was, of course, a pool hall. I am told there was a gambling joint, but I never inspected that one. A lumberyard supplied building materials that could not be manufactured in the small district sawmills. Those of us who bought firewood for kindling at the lumber yard at prices greater than for coal on the prairies found that door-to-door “salesmen” offered their commodity at $3.00 a cord.
One soon learned which ones supplied “Peace River cords” – whose dimensions when piled were somewhat less than the regulation size of 8 x 4 x 4 feet.
Public works were run by private enterprise, including a water wagon, an electric light plant which, unless by special arrangement, shut down at midnight. Sanitary Services were primitive, especially disposal of garbage, consisting of an old wagon, a team of discouraged-looking horses driven by “Old Shorty” who hunched on the wagon seat, faithfully attended by a fat black Cocker Spaniel whose matted coat had never seen a brush. Shorty’s hair hadn’t seen one for some years either. As a subcontractor for the man who held the contract, he was a free-enterpriser who never apologized for his grubby and smelly, but necessary — and appreciated — services.
There was no liquor store at that time, but I understood that there were many “moonshine” outlets. I couldn’t take my oath on that.
The elements of sewer service were represented by small structures of a universal style of architecture. Some were in use in the city as late at 1959. I am happy to say that they are nearly all gone, one way and another. Ones “country seat” was a fair indication of ones social status, according to whether it became the final resting place of Eaton’s catalogue, or was graced by a more genteel commercial roll of tissue.
I must admit that Dawson Creek boasted nothing so astonishing as Hudson’s Hope’s double-duplex convenience. The modern hotel there was a three story affair, the cheapest third-class rooms being on the third floor. A stairway clung to the back of the building unprotected from all the winds that blow. It descended to a balcony outside the rear exit of the second-floor, second-class hall. From that balcony, guests could reach by way of a catwalk, the upper story of a “ladies” and “gents”. The more affluent guests in the downstairs rooms made their nocturnal excursions in the comfort of a roofed corridor, to a similar pair of conveniences directly under the upper pair. The roof of the corridor was the floor of the catwalk.
It was an ingenious bit of architecture, very functional, although it looked rather like a junior grain elevator. Unfortunately someone lacking an eye for the unique had it torn down about 1960.
Water was delivered from a travelling tank at five cents a pail, and carried into the houses by a husky man. Nobody dared offend him for he could “accidentally” make a mess of a fussy housewife’s floor — Oh! So easily! The water from a spring on the hill south of the town was the softest, clearest ever known. The slightest dash of soap made suds no “bubble bath” could ever equal. Later when the American Army, needing a bigger supply, installed water pipes in our streets, and a pumphouse at the Kiskatinaw, some of the soldiers held forth on the wonder of civilization they were conferring on us. The hard, hard brown, and frequently muddy, muskegy-tasting water that flowed from the taps did not inspire housewives to hymns of gratitude, especially when the army chlorinated it so heavily that it even overcame the natural taste of boiled turnips. But I’m getting ahead of the story. The old waterman should be recognized as a worthy citizen, especially in winter when he had to put an out-rigger on the sleigh-mounted tank to keep it from overturning on the hill road, and when he himself moved with a crackle of ice on his clothes.
Most people had barrels or cisterns in which rainwater was caught for washing clothes and bathing in a wash-tub in front of an open over door. An oil drum, with an end removed, stood near the kitchen stov, for melting snow in winter to supplement the waterman’s efforts. Folks also carried out the ashes from these stoves. Either before or after tuning in the radio for “The Lone Ranger” (Heigh-ho! Silver!) or Superman, they split and stacked wood, usually between the back door and the unsanitary inconvenience. Hopefully, everyone expected that everyone else would, in passing, pick up an armload for the ever-hungry cookstove and the heater in the living room.
Nearly all structures were built of native lumber. Nobody who has not done some carpenter work with that commodity has any idea of the problems it caused.
The edges of the boards were not chamfered, or smoothed, which made it rough to handle and full of slivers, but that was a minor detail. The planer often did an uneven job, so that finished lumber resembled culls from any other mill. Worse even than that, was the tendency of any board to warp, curl, and twist after cutting. A sixteen-foot two-by-four could have a quarter-twist in its length. The reason lay in the manner of milling. Small private sawmills did the cutting. The logs were not seasoned in a millpond but were brought green to the saw, heavy with sap. Spruce, especially, may have a very twisted grain. When it dries after sawing, anything can happen.
In a province that produced some of the finest fir and cedar lumber in the world, its poor relations in the North had to use the most inferior product possible, unless they had money to pay the highest freight rates all the way round by Edmonton from the coast. When newly come to the area, the first thing a carpenter had to learn was to use his eye as well as his square when fitting cupboards for no corner of a building was ever absolutely square due to the “wow” in the lumber. Add to that the fact that no floor every stayed level for long and it became a nightmare for any man who had been trained to be a perfectionist. The very earth a building sat on could not be trusted to stay put. Subsoil is heavy gumbo clay, which swells when wet and shrinks when dry, making huge cracks. In the rainy autumns, water penetrates the soil and then freezes, causing the surface to heave. There was no suitable clean gravel to make good concrete, so cracked foundations were inevitable. Doors that would shut in summer would not do so in winter. Sometimes one cut off a tapered piece at the bottom at one season, and nailed it on the top to keep out the wind. Its position would be reversed in the opposite season. The catchplates of the locks on the door-frames were moved up and down with the seasons just to hold the door shut, for nobody dreamed of locking his house in those days. It used to intrigue me to think that if I could only see it, our house was doing a sort of swaying dance in slow motion as the seasons changed.
The housewife also had a few things to learn. One who had grown up where good fir edge-grain flooring was taken for granted found that here the flooring, unless very carefully selected, was often flat-grained.
The more you scrubbed the more the grain rose. Splinters in fingers and feet were the order of the day. Cracks between the boards widened with the years, and the edges rose, so that no piece of furniture ever sat without rocking a little. Besides, no amount of scrubbing ever got the wood white. The luxury with first priority to a housewife was linoleum. However, one learned not to complain aloud, for one’s next-door neighbor had possibly lived her first year on an earth floor in a log shack. As one yet living relates in her memoirs, she shovelled out the top layer once a week, To her, a native wood floor was luxury. The ultimate status symbol was a native birch wood floor. The birch logs had to be collected a few at a time because they were scarce, and were stacked to dry for as long as possible before cutting. A birch floor, beautifully white, could be waxed or varnished to a satisfying gloss that made a housewifely heart glow with pride. There were few birch floors.
Shingles had their idiosyncrasies also. Being made of spruce in a small shingle mill, they also had a tendency to curl up at the edges, and even to split. Pails for drips were essential although tarpaper was used underneath the shingles over the first shiplap layer of roof. Commercial roll roofing was too expensive for most pioneers. One woman tells of putting up a tent inside the shack to cover bed and table after a hailstorm.
In a way native lumber was a sort of currency in early days, passed from owner to owner, whether or not a new building was being planned. In winter many homesteaders got work in the small mills almost for their keep, and “took out” some small wages in lumber. Then they bartered the lumber for whatever they could get in trade. It might be a quarter of moose, some vegetables, the Xmas Turkey, a day’s help with stove-wood cutting, a woman in the house in case of illness, a hair-cut, or music lessons for the kids. Sometimes the lumber changed owners several times before the millworker who needed a cow made a series of deals. In the end, a man could be found who wanted to get rid of an animal in exchange for whatever the buyer happened to have acquired in the way of barter.
One good feature of the system was the fact that the longer the lumber remained in circulation the dryer it got, and the better the building it eventually entered into.
Suitable sand was not locally available for plaster. Gyproc for smooth dry-wall finish commanded a high freight rate. The standard interior finish was “shiplap” nailed in the studs. Shiplap consists of boards finished with edges that overlap, and do not cause a crack straight through between the two pieces. It had one advantage — for insulation, wood shavings could be shoveled or blown in between the inner and outer walls, ignoring the hazards of fire.
Few women were satisfied with bare wood walls, so the interior was commonly covered with “building paper”. This was a thick, tough, heavy product of an oatmeal shade of colour, but, properly applied, made a reasonable neat job with a slightly textured surface.
“Properly applying it” was our first lesson in northern methods of interior decoration. Of course we had been accustomed to the wallpaper of the day and the paste that one could buy in powder form or make out of flour and water. Not like the pre-pasted wallpaper of today which you actually soak in a trough of water, old style wallpaper needed to be kept as dry as possible by the thinnest possible application of paste to prevent its tearing. We had been warned that you used more paste on building paper, and preferably boiled the flour and water until it was clear, thick and jellylike. Incidentally, to make a bucket of flour paste, you were obliged to start with cold water to avoid lumps, and you stirred it and stirred and stirred it constantly while cooking. Also to avoid lumps and a burnt bottom crust, you spent a whole afternoon to achieve a bucket of moderately smooth goo.
In the evening we approached the job of “doing the ceiling” with a pleasure born of inexperience. Somebody said that we should wet the shiplap surface, which seems unreasonable, but I did that dutifully with a big brush, slopping water all over me and the floor. Friend husband anointed the building paper with a liberal salve of paste, and then rose on the catwalk of planks, smoothing brush in his teeth, to begin the application.
The stuff was heavy, so I came along behind to support the tail end, to keep his head from going through. He slapped the first few feet on the ceiling, and I began to unfold the rest of the length. We had gotten about one-third of the way across the room when we noticed the first stretch coming off with a sort of sigh, and a slurping sound of separating paste. It was a neat bit of footwork by which we exchanged positions on the narrow plank trestle, so that I could hold up the slowly descending first few feet of the strip. It was no use. When it all rested in our heads we gingerly descended, flattened the strip out on the pasting table again, and decided that we had not put on enough adhesive — or maybe my laboriously produced goo was too thin.
The second “go” at applying the strip of ceiling paper started out more hopefully. There was a slightly longer interval before it began to come away again. By this time our combined efforts to hold it up started a tear in the paper. We had paste on our hands, on our clothes, in our hair, in our mouth, as the soggy stuff began to fold in half and curl down over a worried Cocker Spaniel who had been acting as “straw-boss” and getting underfoot as cockers do. In the end, friend husband got himself disentangled, bundled up the stuff into a huge wad and deliberately kicked it into a corner. Let it be recorded that I did not laugh.
It was clear that there was something we did not know about the fine art of “hanging” building paper. We soon learned. One not only wetted the wall, but one also applied a liberal quantity of hot water to the paper, until it was almost soggy. Then one applied a generous amount of paste, slopping it on with great smacking glops. Then, delightful to behold, it went up and stayed on as smooth as could be! Furthermore as it dried it shrank to the tightness of a drumhead.
I also was initiated into the fine, effortless art of making “lye paste”. The raw flour was first stirred to a smooth milky consistency in cold water. Then a can of lye was slowly poured into the fluid, which “cooked” in seconds to a clear gelatinous mass, with hardly any stirring to keep it lump free.
I could make a water pail full of paste while the kettle boiled for tea! Also the old-timers assured me that lye paste was a good defence against the dreaded household insect pests that were a constant threat to peace of mind — and sleep — in a pioneer house before the days of DDT. It may have been true.
Now we’ll talk about the final phase of papering. Building paper could be finished in a number of ways — re-covered with fancy wall paper or primed and painted or tinted with a couple of coats of “calcimine”. This product was a sort of glorified whitewash which had to be washed off again before another fresh coat could be satisfactorily applied. Horrible, sloppy job!
The favorite decorative touch of the time was to “cat-track” the plain wall, by dabbing the surface with a wet bag of laundry bluing, or leftover tinted calcimine on a rag or wad of paper. I shall never forget one house I entered while canvassing for a provincial election with the candidate’s wife. The homeowner must at sometime have been in the decorating business and saved all the odds and ends of all the leftover tints and shades. The front room was divided by an archway into dining and sitting room area. It had a wainscot halfway up the wall. No two adjacent surfaces, either of the walls, ceiling, trim, door or window casing had the same colour scheme. There was pink “cat-tracked” over blue, and blue over pink, green over pink, and blue over orchid, orchid over yellow, and yellow over pink, and on and on! Thousands and thousands of little dabs of color on different, but, plain backgrounds! I spent a fascinated half-hour trying to find two surfaces where the “artist” had repeated himself (or herself), but without success. Talk about “seeing spots before your eyes!” I saw spots with my eyes shut! Somehow I never felt the least bit inclined to “go modern” but left my plain walls unsullied by the decorative sponge-work. I even developed an aversion to polka dot patterned cloth that still stays with me.
For the first season the building paper walls would remain smooth and beautiful. Then as the temperature changed and the house began its slow shifting, diagonal ripples would appear in the corners of the room on the outside walls, especially at the corner of the building. That was comparatively easy to make neat again by slitting the paper with a razor blade to allow it to shift freely. A piece of wooden quarter-round or cove molding could be nailed over the crack. By the time you added another room to the house you found that it was a good idea to finish the corners in this way in the first place.
Then, about six months after the “hanging” came the day — or, much more likely, the dead of night — when a sharp “snap” would sound through the house like the report of a rifle shot. The shrinking and twisting of the building would at last put too much strain on the paper. It would part in a long crack that nothing on earth could ever satisfactorily keep from opening again. However, except for the resounding “bang”, modern wallboard often still behaves in the same way in this area.
A gravel road of sorts joined Dawson Creek and Fort St. John. A motor ferry crossed the river at Taylor. There was always a period in spring and fall when the river ice was not fit to bear a load and the ferry could not run. Those living over-river were completely isolated. It was a terrible hardship — dangerous too, until the Sisters of Providence opened the hospital at Fort St. John.
Once winter fairly set in the settlers constructed an ice bridge as they still do at Clayhurst. The greatest sporting event in the country was a sweepstakes for guessing the exact time in spring when the ice would break up at the bridge [at Taylor].
To move the hard coal from the Gething mines at Hudson’s Hope a dirt trail hung on the sides of the clay hills. It still was a single lane at the famous and dangerous “Hump” when we first traveled it in 1955. Another such trail, in many places single-track, crossed the chasm of the Beatton or North Pine River to the Cecil Lake District. All of them saw more horses than trucks and cars.
A sign on the highway south of Peace River town summarized what had been accomplished. “The Peace river district totaling 50 million acres [had] gained international attention for its rich soil and prize winning crops. The district, 50 million acres available for settlement, had produced 20 million bushels of grain and 12 million pounds of forage seed annually. Lumbering [was] still a large industry.” Thirty years ago fur farming was a large industry as was trapping, and stock raising, which sent the “stock train” to the Edmonton abattoirs fortnightly, and finally weekly. Transportation had opened the door to one of the most promising areas on the continent. Elsewhere the great depression still had a grip on the land.
By 1936 Dawson Creek was a thriving little market village of about six hundred souls. Automobiles and trucks appeared on village streets, along with horse-drawn vehicles. Grant McConachie was soon landing his “bush plane” on a field south west of town.
The Surgeon Lake cut-off road gave access to Edmonton, by a much shorter route than over the old road north of the River to Peace River Landing, on which we came in , in 1934.
Our Peace River Block News printed another account which reflected the determination of the citizens to remedy the situation of having to go to the coast by way of Edmonton. Citizens of Grande Prairie, led by Alex Monkman , were enthusiastically carrying out a do-it-yourself road-building push to reach the main line of the C.N.R. via the Monkman Pass. Dawson Creek, usually not to friendly with Grande Prairie, made a move to throw in her lot with Alberta , as reported in this item:
Since then nothing has ever been the same.
Now just in case you think I have only rose-coloured glasses to view in retrospect life in the old pre-war village, let me say that there were a lot of things there that I can now cheerfully do without. One was stove pipe — six or seven-inch diameter black tubes of thin sheet iron, fitted together in spans, wired up under the ceiling. They were forever getting clogged up with oily black soot or nasty-smelling creosote, when we had to resort to wet wood, especially pine or spruce. When enough of the feathery black carbon had collected to effectively cut down the draft and increase the chance of carbon catching fire and setting the house ablaze, the pipes had to be taken down. They were carried outside and cleaned. Working as a team, a man could pull them apart in sections, and his wife could fit a paper bag over an open end to catch the loose ashes and soot, but rarely could she get both ends covered before the black stuff dropped on something. I particularly remember one incident when we had recently “remuddled” the house, making a dining room into a bedroom and adding a kitchen. Having earlier been in the kitchen, the bedroom now had the chimney-hole in a place where the stovepipes went from the thimble in one wall, over the head of the bed to the stove pipe hole. Normally the pipes separated close to the new kitchen wall. Friend husband would carefully pull the outer section away, and walk outside to empty the contents. This time I muffed the bagging. The length parted in the middle and the parts dumped the contents over me and onto my best hand-embroidered bedspread which I had neglected to cover. Now we had already noticed a strange coincidence. Every time we cleaned the stove pipes two dear ladies, immaculately attired, called on me for afternoon tea. Surveying the mess, and teetering between an explosion of anger and a flood of tears, I remarked bitterly, “This is the moment for Mrs. K and Mrs. H to knock !” They did.
I have a clear mental picture of another event involving stoves. I had waited for weeks for all of the three workmen and three helpers involved in a change-over to gas to come and disconnect the old stove. They were to carry the antique outside along with the range-boiler where water had been heated by circulation through the waterfront in the fire-box. The electrician had to connect up thermostats; the gasfitter had to connect waterpipes from mains to automatic gasfired water heater. Having waited so long, I had given up hope of their ever coming and promised to hostess a ladies’ tea party in honor of a visiting dignitary of some club. After carrying all of the eatables over to my kind neighbor who offered to take over the entertainment on a moment’s notice, a certain overgrown tall twelve-year old boy made a pest of himself all afternoon, hovering over and around the workmen, ignoring every hint to get lost, until the magic moment came to light the gas pilot lights.
“Can I do that, mister?” he asked wistfully, and then broke into a wild war dance and a chant of, “No more carrying wood! No more carrying out ashes! I’m emancipated! I’m emancipated!!” However, my back has never really felt warm since we got the gas. There’s nothing like the radiant heat of an old range and its open oven door, or an old heater to back up to. Nearly every “improvement” had a plus and a minus. I don’t really regret the turkey wing old range “warming closet” above the range tope for flicking crumbs and ashes off after cooking a meal. The new owners of the woodburning stoves now coming back into fashion have something to learn.
I can do without the paper-thin, smelly, round bed bugs we mentioned before and whose bite was like fire. I remember sharing a room in a neighbor town hotel with a friend who was blond and delicate-skinned. We’d no sooner got to sleep than she leaped out of bed, with a shriek, ” I’m being eaten alive!” And sure enough her neck and bare arms were blotched with angry red patches. There wasn’t one on my side of the bed, but I joined the bathrobe parade on to the broom closet for a gun of highly advertised insecticide called “FLIT” which had a coal oil base. I’ve always thought that the almost total absence of early social distinction was due to the bedbugs. If in a big new home you prided yourself on not having those things today, you almost certainly would after the next social “do” when guests laid their coats and babies on your bed. It was a great social leveller.
Then there were the flies! When livestock and chickens were raised right in town and outdoor plumbing and open garbage piles were the order of the day, one had to run an obstacle course when entering any house or restaurant. Saucers of water containing dark purple colored Wilson’s poisoned fly-pads would sit about in a morgue of the buzzing doomed or corpses of the dead. Sheets of fly-paper plastered with incredibly sticky resins lay on tables between meals — and sometimes on chairs — and long, snaky spirals of fly catchers hung from ceilings or shelves. Flyswatters of many utilitarian and decorative designs lay around handy. They were however, excellent for giving a harmless admonitory “swat” to the appropriate part of a very naughty child.
Then there was the laundry problem. Heating water in a boiler on top of the stove, pouring it into the tub — and agitating the soiled clothing. Carrying the suds and rinse waster out was heavy work. So was carrying the slop pails to a cess pit at the rear of the premises. I remember a critical observation by friend husband after one of those excursions. “You carry every drop of water that we use to this house, and one way and another, you carry it all out again.”
Then there was the problem of the heavy Stanfield wool long-johns one pegged to the icy clotheslines in the winter, where they hung stark and stiff until your freezing fingers detached them and bore them in, as awkward as a sheet of plywood. You laid them up against a chair until the heat relaxed their ghastly pale rigidity and they slumped like a puppet whose strings had broken. The only mirth in that situation was to watch them flailing their ghastly arms and legs about like mad marionettes when a Chinook wind thawed them out on the line.
Housing for newcomers was always a problem in young villages. We rented, sighted unseen, the last available “house for rent” when we came. It was described as a four-room house, identical to the one inhabited by the school principal. True there were four cubicles, but the total floor space was only two feet wider than my living room today. The kitchen was so narrow that to drop the oven door open, one stood to one side. In the summer it was easier — you just opened the back door first. The master bedroom just admitted a bed’s length between walls. If you dropped a hairpin at the bed’s head, you dived underneath from the side to sweep it out. Other furniture went in with as much room to spare as a jigsaw puzzle. We finally found enough spare room to build a shallow clothes closet by taking off the bedroom door and hanging a curtain. A steamer trunk was left over. A few days later we got an idea. Now in those days bed springs were supported on side pieces of rails of angle iron. We reckoned that if we turned the rails over, we’d gain an inch and a quarter under the bed. Friend husband volunteered to hold up the springs and mattress while I turned the front rail over, put it in place, and let the front down. The he’d crawl under the bed, pass the back rail out to me to turn around, and he’d replace it, meanwhile holding the back of the springs and mattress up with his shoulders. It sounds complicated but it looked quite feasible. Everything went all right until the back rail failed to slip into the headboard slot. Down came the whole thing on his prone body, face down. He heaved mightily to raise the mass up again but everybody knows that to rise from a flat-out face position one need to get his knees up, and that requires room to heave one’s rear. There was only one thing to do — take everything out in the reverse order to the way it went in. I demolished the clothes closet and removed the dresser to the living room. Then I couldn’t maneuver the mattress out, much less the springs. I couldn’t help but laugh hysterically as the toes of his shoes beat an urgent tattoo on the floor. Having no breath, he said nothing, then. I had enough grace to feel sorry for him, until I got the mattress partly pushed up against the wall, and he oozed out. We could hear an audience outside in the lane. There was some speculation about what was going on in there! Luckily friend husband had a lively sense of humor, or else he mistook my tears of laughter for wifely sympathy. In any case considerably later we had pulled out the terrified cat, and pushed the trunk under the bed and found just room to replace the suitcases. We now had to put our shoes in a dresser drawer.
After the “Alcan” highway came at least one railway-fathered business enterprise was gradually phased out — the biweekly “stock-train,” and the accompanying social ever known as “shipping day”. Every two weeks, local farmers and cattle and hog raisers from as far away as the Halfway River on the north or Goldbar on the west beyond Hudson’s Hope would drive their “finished” cattle to railhead. For those over the river, it was cheaper to feed the cattle and walk the resulting meat to market than to truck grain, for which the market was even more depressed. Freed from the necessity of the long drives to Spirit River or Hythe, few complained about the Peace River Crossing where there was no bridge until the highway was built.
The Northern Alberta Railway obliged by running biweekly stock-trains. During the preceding week the estimated number of the slatted-sided stock cars would be “spotted” along the whole rail line at any village, as the Stock Shipping Association ordered. Then on shipping day the extra train started early from the end of steel, picking up the loaded cars all the way to McLennan, for a fast run to the market at Edmonton. The regular freight trains, known as the “way-freights” stopped, coming and going, at any village or siding where there was business, and were too slow and irregular for stock-delivery.
Since the cars were loaded in Dawson Creek every other Saturday morning , stock had to be in town by Friday. That night the town was entertained by the rural symphony in which the high-pitched squeals and shrieks of pigs were counter-pointed by the soprano efforts of some lonesome heifer and the contralto bellow of an apprehensive cow. The bass was upheld by the tenor steers against the low-throated rumblings and indignant bawls of the bulls. Since the stockyards were just outside the village limits, across from the present Travelodge, the whole population formed the audience for the all-night production which reached a climax early the next morning when the protesting animals were urged onto the cars to the vivid vocal accompaniment of the drovers. After electric shock-prods became available, the morning loading session didn’t last long, but the squalls and grunts were more fortissimo. Once the locomotive chuffed and whistled its way over the east-end crossing a blessed silence settled, and everybody repaired to the Co-op or a restaurant for a social cup, the latest news, and barter arrangements by which other commodities changed hands in the scarcity of money. The farmers had to wait until the returns from their stock were mailed back from the Edmonton stock yards — or occasionally a bill for freight when the proceeds were less the charges.
With the highway came trucks, and the stock trains, after a burst of weekly service, tapered off as more farmers ran their own trucks whenever the arrivals were ready. Having a whole trainload of hunger-gaunted travel-weary or shipping-fever-stricken animals loosed on the marked at one time had contributed to lower-than-necessary price returns. It was more profitable for ranchers to truck the stock at the time it was prime finished, and ship a private carload lot on off days.
Shopping was a slow process. No self-serve, no convenient shopping carts, no fast check-out service. You waited your turn at the counter, asked for the items one by one, and waited for the clerk to assemble, bag them, and pile them into a carton, tediously list them on a bill, total and recheck it.
Of course in the village you could get the order delivered and frequently, on a big order, the grocer threw in a bag of candy, peanuts or a box of Crackerjack for the kids. At the meat market they didn’t charge for bones, kidneys and other organs — or suet. A generous gift for a dog or cat just found its way into the package. After all, with the best steak at 25 cents a pound, what were odds and ends worth?
We generally bought flour in hundred-pound bags, because the square yard of cloth could have the lettering removed by your favorite method (all of them slow). Then you’d bleach the pinkish cloth white, and convert it into pillowcases, tea cloths, tea towels, curtains, quilts, children’s underwear and frocks, even grownups’ shirts and dresses. The sewing machine was treadled by the hour, as nearly every woman learned to “made do and make over.” What a day when one flour company started using pretty print cloth for flour bags!
A woman’s work was never done! Besides the regular housework, there were no drip-dry permanent-press goods in those days. There was the seasonal wild-fruit picking and preserving, vegetable pickling, canning (a three-hour boil on broiling summer days), and the canning of meat and poultry any time of year when it couldn’t be frozen. Food could be kept cool in an ice-refrigerator or fly-proof wire-netted cache on the shady side of the house. But don’t forget the drippan under the ice refrigerator which was forever overflowing!
In her “spare” time nearly every woman had civic duties according to her talents. The old town, South Dawson, had been named “Moonshine Centre.” Almost immediately after it moved to its present site, this became “Donation Creek”. As Government grants had never been heard of, the pioneers had to finance all amenities out of their own pockets. That included the hospital, as well as all amusement facilities, and churches, only a few of which got missionary grants. To make donations more painless, there were no end of money-raising schemes sponsored by churches and charitable clubs like the Elks and Great War Veterans. Teas, card parties, dances, concerts, tag days, raffles, bingo, bazaars, fowl suppers, turkey shoots, amateur theatricals and sports events, as well as straight donations from business establishments, put steady dribs and drabs of money into the pot.
At the same time, however, these events fostered get-togethers and a social life style in which no one could be lonely except by choice. Even the kids got into the activities.
I don’t recall any vandalism, much less serious crime, until the boom of the highway construction days. Sure, there were high jinks and shenanigans among the young folk, but mostly they were of a more or less humorous nature. I recall one young practical joker, the irrepressible Jack Webb, one of whose brainwaves made the doctor wroth for a day or two. The doctor had bought a big new residence where the undertaker’s establishment is now. To convert the sticky-hard pan gumbo into a lawn, he had many loads of topsoil brought in by dump truck. When the hopper opened it deposited a long, narrow load of dirt whose appearance gave Jack an idea. One morning Dr. McKee woke to find at one end of each of the mounds, a neat wooden cross which provoked much laughter. There was a lot of laughter in those days. The people who sat on chairs provided by the Co-op along the whole length of the main aisle of that store exchanged jokes and anecdotes in number exceeded only by vital statistics and the talk of politics.
All of this contributed to everybody knowing everybody else, from the border to the mountains and from the Pine River valley to the Upper Halfway, even the isolated trappers. There is a substructure of closeness and integration among the old-timers to the present day. The newcomer was welcomed on his merits as a part of the community accordingly as he contributed to the general good. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t, went “outside” to stay. I’m personally not a genuine “old-timer” because we did not come before the railway. I’ll never live down that social stigma.
What do I miss most? I think the old-time personal service and reliability in business. When every one of us was apt to be dependent sometime on help from another human being, we were more concerned about each other. There was more person-to-person contact. There were two places where, on mail days, you were likely to see almost all of your friends — the area just inside the door of the old Co-op, where everyone sat and exchanged the latest news and views and the lobby of the post office on Tuesday and Friday nights.
No social affairs were ever scheduled for those nights when the train came in because you were your own mailman, and there were no strikes. Twice a week you encountered happy faces and cheerful greetings for everybody was at the Post Office for the biweekly anticipation and receipt of the city papers, especially the old Family Herald and Weekly Star, the Western Producer, and The Free Press Prairie Farmer.
To tell the truth, the conditions were no worse and generally much better than in any other small town on the prairies at the time. Only a few ever thought of complaining. When the hardship passed, we found that we had lost a lot of good things. The neighbourliness and community fun were gone. The kindness and concern for one another — the open doors, whose locks were mostly decorative — the open hands to share with the refugees from the dust bowl whose needs we understood, because we still have vivid memories of the more hopeless places that we had come from.
The number of youngsters who grew up in those days and now enjoy highly respected positions and financial successes attest to the fact that it was a good place to bring up a family.