John F. (Jerry) Graham was born in the village of Blairgowrie, Scotland on April 21, 1895. He immigrated to Canada in 1913, and was employed by the Imperial Bank of Canada in the Province of Ontario. The following year he was transferred to Saskatchewan. In 1915, he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps, (the forerunner of the Royal Canadian Airforce). At war’s end he returned to Saskatchewan, still in the employ of the Imperial Bank. A year and a half later, he was instructed to proceed to Whitecourt, Alberta to establish a branch of the bank here, arriving on March 6, 1920. He was to spend the next sixty-five years here. He married Wilma (Dolly) Torgerson, daughter of one of the early pioneers. They had one son, John.
Jerry Graham was “many things to many people”; Banker, Land Agent, Postmaster and Magistrate. He was also a World class traveller, and an accomplished poet
His manuscript, “Sagitiwa to Whitecourt” grows out of an experience both varied and rich. In a sense it is a reminiscence – a narration of the incidents and events within the range of his personal knowledge. It gives us a first hand knowledge of the early days of Whitecourt.
Victor Young Postmaster (Retired)
By Jerry Graham
About the Author:-
Following service with the R.F.C. & R.A.F. during World War I, the author, resumed his duties with Imperial Bank of Canada, and was assigned to numerous Branches in Saskatchewan, which Province had been his domicile prior to enlistment.
The year was 1919, and older readers will remember the winter of 1919-1920 as one of the coldest and longest on record. Early in 1920, at which time the author was acting in the capacity of Manager at Springwater, Sask., he received a telegram instructing him to proceed to White Court, Alberta, and to establish a branch of the bank there. (Whitecourt was guite often spelt as two words in the early days). Being curious as to where White Court might be, it was only natural he should contact the local Agent of the Canadian National Railway for particulars.
Imagine his surprise when he was informed by the Agent that no timetable in the possession of said Agent listed any “White Court”. The Agent expressed regret at being unable to help, leaving the author with a telegram instructing him to proceed to a place, the location of which no one appeared to know!
Springwater was at that time, and very probably still is, a sleepy Prairie hamlet with an elevator or two, train service three times a week by mixed train, and as was common at that time, our meals were supplied by a gentleman of Oriental extraction, whose Bill of Fare consisted almost entirely of beefsteak and pork chop, of which one or the other was almost always, “All gone”!
His apple pie however, usually left everyone in a happy frame of mind. While partaking of the latter, the author happened to mention that he had been transferred to White Court, Alberta, but had no idea where the place was, and unfortunately the C.N.R. Agent had been unable to help. A Scandinavian, whom the author knew as “Ben”, supplied the information, and assured the author he had been there. “Go to Sangudo, and drive in from there, maybe fifty miles or more”.
Now the mercury had been hovering around twenty to forty degrees below Zero (Fahrenheit) almost all winter and showed not the slightest indication of improvement, and one could readily think of more appealing assignments than that of driving fifty miles behind a team of horses. This mode of travel was understood when one mentioned “driving” in those days. However, having recently left the Air Force, where an order is an order, haste was made to comply with the order just received.
Through Saskatoon to Edmonton, where after a brief stop, the author boarded the all-day mixed train for Sangudo in a somewhat despondent mood, something the C.N.R. did little to dispel.
Nearing Onoway (half a day’s journey by the way) the train entered wooded country thickly treed with poplars, and the author’s spirits soared immediately. Have you ever gazed across the vast expanse of prairie at the setting of the sun, and wished that just one tree, or even a good sized bush would break the awful monotony? Really, this was thrilling and the further we travelled, the density of the vegetation increased and game birds showed occasionally. This was better.
Picking up a supply of cash at Sangudo, and also investing in some heavy clothing we got wrapped up in the cutter, and set sail for Greencourt, a matter of twenty-six miles or so distant. The road, or one should say “trail” led through Rochfort, (the place was not called Rochfort Bridge at that time), a place named after Cooper Rochfort, a real colourful English character, or probably his brother. It came as no great surprise when the author later learned that Mrs. Rochfort was an artist of considerable ability with her canvases hanging in Edmonton and elsewhere. Talent is found in the most unusual places and as will later be told even Whitecourt, isolated as it was, was not found lacking.
West of Rochfort some distance we caught sight of the railroad under construction, possibly near where the Town of Mayerthorpe now stands, although there simply was no Mayerthorpe at that time, and no settlement of any kind. When the railroad did attract a settlement of sorts there, this settlement was known as Little Paddle.
Later, some time in the afternoon we reached Greencourt and checked in at Jeff Wardlow’s Stopping Place. The difference between a Stopping Place and a Hotel has never been adeguately explained to me, except that in the pioneering days it was customary to refer to all such places as Stopping Places.
But getting back to Jeff Wardlow, let it be said that everyone who passed through Greencourt knew Jeff, a kindly man with a ready smile and a wealth of understanding. He was always willing, and invariably able, to supply information about any part of the country west of Sangudo. In Mrs. Wardlow, who looked after the comfort of the guests and attended to the meals, Jeff had an excellent partner.
Having made arrangements with Jeff for transportation for the next leg of the journey, and having been assigned a driver known as “Shorty” Smith, the departure was being made the following morning, when a gentleman approached and asked if perchance he could ride with us. In this way the author met Pat Hardy, one of the most colourful characters ever to grace the Whitecourt scene.
Pat constantly advised Shorty on the correct procedure to adopt when negotiating what Hardy called “sidling spots” on the road, (places where the drifting of snow has piled the roadway full, consequently making it slope dangerously to one side). Everything went famously however, even through the Selleck Swamp, and we were approaching Lonira (our noon day Stopping Place) when Shorty momentarily forgot Hardy’s advice. We slid down a sidling spot and upset. After reloading. Hardy again laid down the law insofar as it related to good driving, and we made Lonira and Curly Moore’s for lunch.
The team having been placed in the barn and fed, we proceeded into Moore’s. Now stealing was practically unknown in those days and we just left our bags, etc. on the sleigh.
However, having one bag with possibly eight thousand dollars in cash therein, the author decided it would be tempting fate too much just to leave it where it might conceivably go astray, so took it with him. Accordingly he entered Moore’s carrying a grip. Now Curly had seen many a colourful character in his time and he certainly gave the author the eye. It was evident to anyone capable of reading his mind that he was saying to himself, “There’s another strange one; scared he might lose his underwear.” His curiosity was somewhat heightened when on going into what served as the dining area the grip was again picked up and placed between the author’s feet when eating.
When finished eating (a most satisfactory meal served by Mrs. Moore) the grip was again picked up. By this time Curly was just about fit to be tied. To ease his tension somewhat and sidling up to him he was asked, “Say, how goofy do you think one can get and remain at large ?” He was taken aback and stammered something like, “No, No”, as any boy might if caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
He was then informed why the grip was considered quite important, and why precautions were being taken to prevent its disappearance. In later years when the author and Curly were both residents of Whitecourt, we had many a good chuckle about this episode.
The road over the hills, (almost in exactly the same location as Highway 43 now is, with some of the hills now being bypassed), proved too much for Shortie’s driving on two more occasions. We dug ourselves out of the snow, with Hardy vehemently declaring that should this happen once more, just once mind you, he was going to do the driving and from there on Shortie could walk. Considering Hardy was a non-paying passenger, this was something of a usurpation of authority, but the thoughts expressed coincided exactly with those passing through the mind of the author, and most fitting.
Shortie must have taken them to heart as nothing further in the line of trouble was encountered, and we arrived in Whitecourt on a cold Saturday afternoon around four o’clock. An effort will be made to give an account of what was found here, and what prompted the author, a few years later, to leave the employ of the Bank and remain here. Having been asked on many occasions if regret at making such a move had ever assailed me, let it be said that had the choice to again be made the procedure would be exactly the same.
The Whitecourt the author found nestled at the foot of the hill extended from the property of the late Peter Gardner in the east to the dwelling now occupied by Reg Heward to the west.
It consisted of a log store, a log dwelling next to the store, and a log storehouse or abandoned dwelling to the east thereof. Across the street, if indeed it was a street, and starting with the dwelling of the late P. Gardner, (this building a short time later housed the Bank to be established), and travelling in a westerly direction, came the dwelling of Dr. J.E. Wellwood, then a log building, (unoccupied and unfinished), which had been started with the intention of housing a livery barn, although livery barns are rarely situated on Main Street.
The pool room operated by one Henry Steward, a southern gentleman from Texas, was also housed in a log building, and offered what could be termed as good a collection of “pool sharks” as could be found anywhere. The pea pool game which went on almost unceasingly was no place for beginners or even average players. The boys were dynamite!
Over on the opposite corner, with the main entrance to the hamlet intervening, was the Stopping Place run by Mrs. Olson, a gathering place for all and sundry where the coffee pot was always on the stove. Axel, the ‘Man of the House’, (Mrs. Olson’s husband), kept things enlivened by his ready wit, and ability to give imitations on the violin. Nothing ever seemed to bother Axel, not even what might happen to the woodpile should he pass away, as he only sawed sufficient for one day at a time, lest perchance he might not be around to bask in the heat his efforts had provided.
A look at the family group showed Lillian (later, Mrs. Bob Wood) Bill & Albert (still here) Elsie and Anna. John came along at a later date.
A bit to the west, Dr. Wellwood had carpenters working on a new dwelling which was nearing completion (Reg Howard’s residence). Immediately opposite the Olson Stopping Place was another Stopping Place operated by Jim and Mrs. Harrop, and close by a red tin covered building which at one time had housed a pool room, but was now being used as a meeting place or village hall.
Then at the bottom of the hill and to the south, Herb Wilson had his livery barn. Herb, by the way, had his residence a short distance to the rear of the red hall already mentioned.
Our driver, Shortie, deposited us at Harrop’s, the Stopping Place on the north side of the street, and here a welcome discovery was made. Mrs. Harrop was an excellent cook who took a deal of pride in her culinary accomplishments, and set a grand table. Home made bread, buns and cakes etc. with little or no resort to canned goods, was indeed a far cry from what had been experienced at Springwater.
This brought the realization that possibly the long journey with its attendant discomforts might really have been worthwhile after all. A pleasant surprise indeed. Besides looking after the Stopping Place, Mrs. Harrop was also capable of raising a family of (at that time) three girls and a boy.
Jim, her husband, was busy with his homestead west of the McLeod River. Mildred Moore, (wife of Jack Moore), is the only member of the Harrop family still in Whitecourt.
The log store, operating under the name of William and John Torgerson, and almost invariably referred to as ‘Torgersons’ housed the Post Office and Land Office, besides stocking almost everything needed by homesteaders in the way of victuals and hardware, dry goods, and as they are wont to say in the advertising field, “other articles too numerous to mention”.
The mail arrived twice a week by stage coach (visions of the old west) and this provided the only link with the outside world. There was no telephone or telegraph connection. Despite such lacks however, it is indeed interesting to note that during the period from possibly 1910 to 1918 or so, a gentleman by the name of McAlpine operated a printing press, and published a weekly newspaper called The News Record. This had ceased publication prior to the author’s arrival however, but it would be very interesting to speculate as to where the editor found his news. All this being some time before the advent of radio, and with only a mailing contact with the outside, one can only hazard a guess that The Editor must have had a very vivid imagination, and a keen nose for news. Possibly a lot of each.
But getting back to the store. This was operated by a father and son team, and I would make bold to suggest that the father, William Torgerson, might rightfully be called the Father of Whitecourt at that time. He was a man built along massive lines. A big frame with a heart to match. He listened to more tales of woe and hard luck stories than most men, but unlike most men, he usually did something, or tried to do something, to make life more bearable to all. In a word, he was a “touch” and one can only hope his abiding faith in humanity was not misplaced, although he would not have survived long as Credit Manager for any corporation! His losses, and he had many, he took philosophically, no doubt in the belief that he had done what he should have done, and if the recipient failed to respond that was altogether beside the point.
The son, John, who had been seriously wounded in World War I, was a slim built youth, who despite his physical handicaps showed a remarkable ability in almost all sports, baseball, tennis, golf, hockey, etc. while he also, played a very scientific game of bridge and excelled at poker. A good number of pea pool players dropped out when he entered the game, they being aware of the fact that they were getting out of their class.
The family lived in a log cabin adjoining the store, where Mrs. Torgerson and daughter Dolly (Wilma) held forth. Dolly, who had recently returned from Westminster Ladies College was unmarried, and later came to work in the Bank. By a stroke of extreme good fortune the author was able to change the young lady’s marital status some time later. Let it be recorded that in the opinion of the author, John Torgerson will be remembered as one of the best all round athletes Whitecourt has produced. Another party, Johnnie Klymok, who came along at a much later date will, in the opinion of the author be similarly remembered, and it was indeed most unfortunate that Johnnie died at a very youthful age. He really showed promise.
Dr. and Mrs. Wellwood had arrived here in some capacity connected with the railway, but the beginning of the war had seen all railroad expansion abandoned. Consequently, Mrs. Wellwood remained in residence here while Dr. Wellwood went off to war. It is difficult to conceive anyone of Mrs. Wellwood’s many talents isolated in such a place, but here she was, and here she gave very freely of her time and talent to Whitecourt’s development. She was a musician of great ability, a singer who had thrilled church goers in Toronto, and an organizer beyond question. For sheer excellence of presentation it would indeed be difficult to approach the high standards of the Christmas concerts she organized in conjunction with the Sunday School which she also conducted. Dr. Wellwood was invalided home, and was in and out of hospital a great deal, before eventually succumbing a year or two later.
It would not be right to pass the Wellwood menage without mention of one Syd Smith, who acted as a sort of batman there, an old English remittance man, (remittance men were very common in those days, and the name has to be regarded as synonymous to expatriate, insofar as the banishment from one’s homeland extended). In many such cases the embarrassment stemmed from the excessive use of alcohol by the expatriate — not that the banishment to Canada either cured or curtailed such activities,– but it did at least remove them from the area where they could conceivably prove irksome to other members of the family.
Going back a number of years to the days when the author attended school in Scotland, he can well remember the departure of one such individual for Canada. As the train whistled its departure the man destined for Canada waved a fond farewell, and in a strong voice no doubt well fortified with ample potions of Johnnie Walker proclaimed, “I am leaving my country for my country’s good”. He was, no doubt, joining the ever swelling ranks of remittance men.
Syd Smith had been Dr. Wellwood’s batman in the army or so it was suspected. Nothing ever completely satisfied Syd and no one ever believed anything would. He was that kind of man.
What, the reader may well ask, contributed to the economy of Whitecourt, and what justified the establishing of even a hamlet at that period? Candidly it would be difficult to say. True, there was some farming, cattle and hog raising on a limited scale as remoteness from markets dictated, trapping of fur bearing animals on a fairly large scale, the area being regarded of sufficient importance in this field to warrant the establishment of a Hudson’s Bay Post at one time. The Post had been abandoned however a number of years before the author’s arrival.
Another factor was no doubt that ever present optimism that consistently compels Western Canadians to face the future in the firm belief that this is a “great next year’s country”.
The Capitol Lumber Company Ltd. (Harry O’Hanlon, Senator Harmer, Jean Etter, etal) had during the winter of 1919-1920 begun operations north of the Athabasca River, and had a dam piled full of logs down Beaver Creek. With the realization that probably they were much too far ahead of the railroad this undertaking ground to a halt.
Shipping facilities were vital to continued operation, and trucks in the logging industry were more or less unknown at that time. Had they been known, the trail leading in and out of Whitecourt would have been very unsuited to their operation.
When Model T Fords appeared on the local scene a few years later, it is interesting to note that a one way trip to Edmonton consumed seven hours, and as one member of the R.C.M.P. so aptly put it, “Edmonton was seven hours and many tears away”.
However, the area between here and losegun Lake (it was known as Hash Lake then and is now called Fox Creek) supplied an abundance of fur, and Indians with dog teams were a fairly common sight.
Tom Neassis, with his dogs tied to the hitch rack in front of the store, while he sold his furs and purchased supplies, never failed to arouse the interest of the young folks.
The band of Indians known as McLeod Lake Indians (Evan Cardinal, Ben Bisma, Pete Pennystone, Eli and Michel Paul, Louis Moostas to mention just a few) also supplied furs as well as the most delicious white fish in Alberta. And lest the reader may conclude that this is something of an extravagant statement, let him rest assured that same is not that of the author, but the studied opinion of a qualified gentleman who acted in the capacity of Fishery Inspector at that time. He attributed the large size and excellent quality to the abundance of feed in the lake.
While no one actually tried to deposit fur with the Bank, a muskrat skin was, to quote Gus Chaisson, “legal tender”.
Having more or less covered the hamlet, except for the fact that mention should be made of another building in course of construction, which later would become a butcher shop operated by one, Nelson Lyons. We know that the expression “Wheeler Dealer” originated in Texas, but will still cling to the opinion that Nels was the original in this line. The manner in which he could manipulate the big deals to his benefit was really amazing. He was also possessed of a highly developed sense of humor, and his establishment became a regular hang-out for all, craving amusement.
To give some indication of this man’s ready wit, the following incident is worth repeating. While having a meal at Olson’s one day, the liveryman, Jim Hammond, had the misfortune to find something hard and akin to a bone in one of the sausages he was working on most diligently. Knowing that Nels had supplied the sausages, and for Nels’ special benefit, he extracted the offending bone from behind his molars and threw it down on his plate with quite a ‘ping’. Nels momentarily looked somewhat dumfounded and then slowly stated, “You know, I could have sworn I took the shoes off that horse before I put it through the machine”. Never a dull moment with Nels, and if one was lucky he might possibly break even, but chances of coming out ahead were even less than those of Las Vegas!
Now, let us take a trip down ‘The Flat’ as the area in the Athabasca Valley to the east of town is known, even to this day. The school which operated during the summer months was a one room, log structure, situated very close to where 52nd. Avenue enters Millar Road.
A succession of teachers (mostly local) would include the names of Jennie Ward, Mrs. Asa Stuckey, Hazel White, Isa Grindley Jackson, Mrs. Reay and Mr. McDonald. No mention of school affairs would be complete however if one failed to mention the name of Mrs. Paul Linehan, the energetic secretary. Her efforts in promoting the school activities were indefatigable, and when one considers that the school levied its own taxes, — and tried to collect them — the magnitude of the job becomes apparent.
Fortunately for all, the schools in those days operated on a much smaller budget than they do now. Mrs. Jackson, one of the teachers mentioned in the foregoing list, was a poetess of note and regularly contributed to many Canadian and American magazines. She even made the Saturday Evening Post, which in the days to which we refer was indeed the ultimate.
Leaving the school and its affairs, let us travel north along what is now known as Millar Road. First farm on the right belonged to one, Dan Lamey, but was at present operated by Frank Chaisson, considered the leading farmer at that time. He was a man of abundant energy, a worker without question, somewhat inclined to take off in all directions at once. He had, a few years previously, sold his homestead to the Townsite Company and had invested heavily in cattle.
The farm where Graham Acres Golf & Country Club holds forth was that of Cappy Gibbs, an American from the Central States, not entirely dependent on the revenue the farm might produce, and with a great love for the wide open spaces. A very tall man, something of a character, who delighted in spending his summers in Whitecourt.
As we continue we pass the home of Johnnie Goodwin who had married one of the Ward girls, and who had also disposed of his holdings to the Townsite Company.
Next quarter belonged to Jack McCoy, and this farm was regarded at that time as the finest piece of land around. For that matter it very probably still is. Across the way, John Hinckelman farmed the quarter adjoining the Golf Course. His brother Ernest, occupied the quarter next to the McCoy holding, while J.W. Leedy and Walter White (Mr. Leedy’s son-in-law) resided immediately opposite. Some years previously, Mr. Leedy had been Governor of the State of Kansas, and had resided in Alaska for some time, before coming to Whitecourt.
With his wife, two daughters, and his son-in-law, the Leedy place, as we called it, had an atmosphere of refinement one would hardly expect to find in such an out of the way place. Mr. Leedy was a highly intelligent man with an extremely ready wit, and had been a lawyer of note in his native state. Mrs. Leedy, always a most gracious hostess, had that happy knack of making visitors feel at ease, the earmark of all successful hostesses.
The daughters, Mrs. White (Alice) and Clara gave freely of their talents, and they had many, to make guests feel at home and indeed most welcome. Clara had been a concert pianist at one time, and still enthralled the local gatherings with her playing. Mrs. White, a very pleasant woman had a ready smile, and was much at ease in almost any situation.
The atmosphere prevailing at the Leedy home, while possibly on a somewhat lower plane that might have prevailed at the Governor’s Mansion in the State Capital of Kansas, was nevertheless a far cry from what homesteaders were accustomed to, but no homesteader felt out of place or ill at ease there.
It would be wrong to pass the Leedy household without relating an incident showing the ready wit of Mr. Leedy and his ability to fend for himself in any verbal battle. He was a man of considerable girth, and with others usually gathered in the store for discussions which went on there almost continually. A favorite gathering place, where the cracker barrel and peanut sack were open to all. While so engaged one day, Mr. Leedy was approached by one, Hughie Germaine, who had had considerable potent beverage. Approaching Mr. Leedy, the man patted him on the vest and declared, “That’s what I’d like to have”. With barely a pause in the conversation, Mr. Leedy replied, “My boy, it’s not that you need, it’s brains! He had diagnosed the case quickly and perfectly.
Walter White (the son-in-law) attended to the carrying of the mail between Whitecourt and Greencourt. At the time this service was instituted for this point, the mail was picked up at the Baly Store in Greencourt, and a deal of speculation exists as to just how the name ‘Whiteccourt’ was acquired.
In Greencourt the Post Office occupied a space in the premises of Mr. Baly, who was assisted by his son, Hamilton. Mr. Baly was a man of considerable means, and he had established a trading post very close to where Greencourt is to-day. Before coming to Canada he had been identified with a boys school in England, the son, Hamilton being one of the masters there. The name Greencourt, as far as can be determined, was taken from one of the playing areas at the school. Having already named Greencourt, it is quite conceivable Whitecourt may have been derived from this source.
Rumor has it that our name came from there. Also, there has been considerable speculation that the name ‘Whitecourt’ may have been derived from the name of the mail carrier, but nothing as far as is known has ever been produced to support either claim.
Still another theory would have it that it was Mr. Baly’s intention to establish a chain of supply depots, or “courts” as he called them, in the territory to the west. Having already named Greencourt and in the belief that he might be choosing his name from colors, he coined ‘Whitecourt’. He could rest assured of being right for six or seven months of the year anyway.
Lacking proof in any form, one can only speculate and choose which of the probable stories has the greatest appeal.
Lacking official confirmation, we can only hope that one or the other is correct.
We do know however, that the name ‘Whitecourt’ did not meet with universal approval, and that some time later a movement, sponsored by Frank Chaisson and others, was set in motion with a view to reverting back to ‘Sagitiwa.’ A meeting was called and after a deal of talk and argument a vote of the people present indicated that they favored ‘Whitecourt’. So Whitecourt it remains.
Continuing, we come to the homestead of one, Challoner J. Stiles, (now Roy Merrifield’s place) quite an active politician, and the party who attended to the making and maintaining of roads, although neither task involved much in the way of spending or effort. At this stage of growth, no one spoke of roads to any extent, and the road which we are now travelling was simply known as “The Mink Creek Trail”. The installing or replacing a culvert here or there, (wooden culverts by the way), took care of all the money alloted to roads for maintenance and repairs in Whitecourt and district.
Moving on, and on the same north side of the road, we come to the homestead of one, Vrol Vrolson, a hardy Scandinavian with a penchant for neatness, the numerous birch trees surrounding his log house and well kept grounds, still stand as evidence of his tidy habits, even after the lapse of so many years.
Moving on, and on the same north side of the road, and passing through what was a most beautiful lane of birch trees before Calgary Power sacrificed beauty for utility, and as usual on the north side, we come to the abandoned farm which Frank Wagoner purchased from one, Sam Haines, at an early date in Whitecourt’s history. It was always open house at Wagoner’s, a favorite gathering place. Frank was a most progressive farmer, while no one ever attended to the household and other chores any more completely or willingly than Mrs. Wagoner. The Wagoners raised a large family here including Grace (Mrs. Kallbom), Myrtle (Mrs. Leo Baxter), Raymond, Clarence, Ethel (Mrs. Harold Baxter), Marie (Mrs. Clarence Mcllwaine), Bertha, Ruby (Mrs. Jack Braithwaite) and Arthur.
Immediately opposite is the homestead of Oscar Kallbom and adjoining that of Fred Karlzen. In the days of which we write, when any reference was made to Oscar, Fred and Erik, it was understood the subjects were the aforementioned pair and also one, Erik Hedin. The three of them had been boys together in Sweden and had arrived in Canada together. While no one ever referred to them as The Three Musketeers, that is just exactly what they were. They had grown together, had worked together all their lives, and after a friendship that endured through possibly fifty years or more, all passed away here.
Fred Karlzen and Oscar Kallbom married here but Erik remained a bachelor to the end.
Mrs. Karlzen and some members of the Karlzen family still live in Whitecourt and District, while Mrs. Grace Kallbom as well as Lawrence and Donald, her sons, are residents.
Next, and on the north side of the road, comes the homestead of one, Dave Wartman, a highly capable millwright or mechanic, who operated a sawmill about this time. No one really understood Dave, if actually there was any such possibility, his views on almost any subject being sure to be decidedly different, and accompanied as a rule by adjectives not altogether acceptable in polite society. However for the most part, no one paid much attention to him, which emboldened him on occasion to express his opinion of someone right in that person’s presence with disastrous results. Rounding the bend in the road here, and to the north side of the road still, was the homestead of Wm. Ury who still went south of the border on occasion to toil for some U.S. railroad.
Next, and on the same side, the homestead of I.S. Hunt, another railroader, who continued in the employ of Canadian Northern Railway at Winnipeg. Commuting between here and Winnipeg as he did, would have been an expensive item had he not enjoyed the privilege of a pass from the railroad. Opposite and on the south side of the road was the homestead of Andrew Prestlien, a man possessed of all the true characteristics of a Scandinavian, other than that of being somewhat shy and retiring. Andy, a good solid citizen, was inclined to be noisy.
Nels Sonmor, another Scandinavian, joined Prestlien to the east, while Bill Hinkelman still farms where he did ‘way back when.
The Ward family, Ben and his wife, who everyone called “Ma”, and girls Lucy, Sarah, Verlie, Tessa, boys Dave, Wes, Orval and Bob resided somewhat to the east. Chris Prestlien and family, (every member thereof, drowned in the disastrous flood that swept that area in 1926). Wes Ward with his wife and family also resided in that area, Mrs. Ward having been a teacher in Whitecourt just a few years previously.
In the area generally referred to as “the bottom of the flat”, we had the farms of Don Underwood and Dave Anderson. Don, who at the time to which we refer, was operating a pool hall in a tent for the benefit and amusement of construction workers on the railroad grade. Dave Anderson, or “Squeeze Organ Dave” as he was called was always good for a number or two at the dances, and his facial contortions while rendering “The Big Lake Waltz” rivaled anything the wind might blow up said ‘Big Lake’.
Getting back to Whitecourt we now set out over what was called the Greencourt Trail, and after ascending the hill we come to the homestead of Jas. Hobbs, in the area now occupied by Amoco (Pan Am.) offices. Also close by is the homestead of William M. Glass, a southern gentleman from Georgia, with a real pleasing southern accent and personality. The term “southern gentleman” is at times used very loosely, but Mr. Glass exemplified it perfectly. A man of extremely high moral character, who rarely if ever spoke of his home in Georgia. It was later learned when the author was assisting in the winding up of Mr. Glass’ Estate, that Mr. Glass had been admitted to the bar in his home state, information he never divulged during his many years in Whitecourt.
What brought him here or why he chose to remain here and do a bit of carpentry will never be known, but from his exemplary conduct at all times coupled with his honesty and integrity, it is safe to assume he was not “hiding out”. His reason, if any died with him.
Joe Johnston came next. He was located in that area now occupied by The Glenview Motel.
About here the trail left what is now Highway 43, and proceeded to angle over “Switchback”, a very sandy dogleg that took a bit of negotiating with a Model T Ford, a fact to which the author will readily testify. A man by the name of Van Tack had a holding in that area, and did a bit of brick manufacturing in a sort of crude way. Much in the fashion of sun dried bricks known as adobe in Mexico and elsewhere. Here again, talent was revealed, when this party enacted a scene from Oliver Twist at one of the Christmas concerts. His rendition of ‘Fagin’ was superb and no wonder; we later learned that he had been a professional actor at one time.
Syd. Smith, already mentioned had a homestead in this same area, and a short distance along the way, and down by the Beaver Creek, Leo Baxter was getting established. Leo, a New Brunswicker, had noticed fish in the creek, and that did it. The fish were not herring to be sure, but what a substitute they made, and besides catching them was fun.
Leo often contributed his bit at the local concerts, etc. he being especially good with selections from Henry Drummond. He and his brother Harold blended their voices nicely in some of the old ballads, and as a change of pace, Harold would take hold of a guitar while Leo fiddled. The pace seldom slackened. Leo and Mrs. Baxter raised a family there, and still reside there, even if the fishing is nowhere nearly as good as it used to be.
Next, and down by the Beaver Creek we found Jim Hammond. This man had a wealth of stories concerning life in and around Montana. He always sported a pair of torn overalls, and it was really puzzling how even a brand new pair could develop this torn condition, so much in keeping with the man, in twenty-four hours or less!
As a story teller and a humorist he was superb, and equal to many of the stand-up comedians now appearing on T.V. Possibly not too difficult a task. Jim had a homely philosophy, an insatiable appetite for Piper Heidsick chewing tobacco and genuine love for his fellow man.
Ascending the hill which we call the McCaffrey Hill, (bypassed by Highway 43) we next come to the farm where Jim and Frank McCaffrey, two brothers, lived. They had done a tremendous lot of work carving a farm out of heavily timbered land, and they were not young men by any means and had arrived in Whitecourt from Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. Both died here.
Jesse French also had his holding in this area and just a bit farther on, P.Knust had cleared, and was farming, what in the days referred to, was known as a “fair sized patch”.
Thereafter, one ran out of what was known as settled area until he started getting fairly close to what was known as Lonira. We should not overlook however, one Billy Meeres who was farming in on Beaver Creek, three miles or maybe more off the so-called highway.
Also near the Beaver, we had Currie, J.H.P.Cross, and Ausmans, while Cochran Brothers, Pete and Bud, were getting to go ranching around there.
Meeres lived on the south side of Beaver Creek and his ford known as Meere’s Crossing was a real good fishing spot. Meeres liked nothing better than fiddling at the dances (an all night job, usually from possibly nine in the evening until possibly six or so next morning!) The music, by the way, consisted of a small reed organ (played by Mrs. Ward) while Billy Meeres or Danny Eraser bore down on the fiddle. Not being altogether conversant with modern trends, the author is unable to say whether this was ‘soul music’ or not, but at least it was satisfying.
Somewhat further up the creek near a peak known as “Baldy”, Pete Cochran and his brother Bud were getting established. Both were horsemen from Nevada, and had brought quite a number of animals into the country, with a view of ranching. Now while this part of our fair province offers much, it has never actually proved itself highly suited to ranching. Some years prior to the period of which we write, a party on his way to Peace River had been caught in an early winter storm here, decided he could attempt to winter his animals, numbering thirty or more and all highly bred with some even registered, on Eagle Flats. During the winter the hardship proved far too much for the animals which had never been accustomed to such conditions, and all died.
In some years, with something of a break from ‘Old Man Winter’, ranching might prove successful, but unfortunately one is unable to forecast what winter here has in store for him. For absolute safety’s sake expect it to be cold and let it go at that.
Cochranes had arrived in the fall of 1919 and picked about the toughest winter in memory to get established. Their introduction to Alberta, and Whitecourt in particular, must have left them wondering. During that winter the price of hay soared to seventy-five dollars a ton and one took delivery at Sangudo (two days away). Oat bundles, and hardly any were available, ranged in price from fifty to seventy-five cents each.
And strangely enough cattle prices remained fairly constant, with if anything, an inclination to drop; and drop they did next fall, (the bottom dropped out of the market completely), and farmers who had paid seventy-five dollars a ton for hay wondered what it was all about. And who helped the farmer? He helped himself in so far as possible, as governments then in power had not yet embarked on “creeping”, or should one say “galloping” socialism.
But getting back to our ‘tour’ and in the Beaver Creek area we find the homestead of one Dexter Whitcomb who with his two sons had filed on an area of three quarter sections here. Whitcomb was a good carpenter, and readily found work in the Hamlet, but his optimism regarding his farming operations at times struck the author as being far above and beyond anything the situation warranted. In the course of one conversation, he remarked that nothing gave him greater pleasure than to just look over his holdings when the sun was rising, and to think that as far as he could see the land was all his. His dream however faded fast, as he left in a matter of two years or so without, in so far as the author knows, ever making a dent in his undertaking.
So getting back to Whitecourt and at the top of the hill let us proceed south on the road referred to as “The House Mountain Trail”. (South past the Forestry buildings and proceeding down into the valley of Beaver Creek). Someone has, and in the opinion of the writer, wrongly changed the name of that elevation to the south of us from House Mountain to Whitecourt Mountain. Is nothing sacred any more, and is almost anyone privileged to do such a thing to satisfy his, or someone else’s whim? Why not show respect for those who pioneered this country by retaining names, and for the most part descriptive names, by which said pioneers identified hills, roads, etc. All progress necessitates change of course, but not all change is progress.
As we continue, we pass on our left the homestead of Pat Hardy, mentioned in the introduction. It is felt however that Pat is worthy of further mention; a man capable of coping with any situation that might confront a settler anywhere in the bush.
He could do anything an Indian could do, and very probably do it better, up to and including fluency in the Cree language. He was at home behind a dog team, on snowshoes, or on the river, and at times kept timber wolves penned up with a view to crossing them with dogs for sleigh animals. He fitted the Whitecourt scene like a glove. A philosopher of sorts he must surely have had a good education coupled with an ability to assess what he observed. He was the re-incarnation of one of the early explorers, with a yen for adventure, and thought nothing of living off the land for weeks on end. His cabin was always a gathering place and no wonder.
As we approach Beaver Creek we come to what was known as “Steve’s Bridge”, called after one, Charles A. Stephens, who farmed a short distance to the south. A big heavy set man with a ‘corporation’ that went well with his position as Magistrate. Everyone knew him as “Steve” and while not inclined to belligerence or overly aggressive, he did not mind calling “A spade a spade” or even worse, and stated his opinion in what struck the writer as possibly much more over-riding than conventional terms. His wife had died during the flu epidemic, and Steve resided here with his son and two daughters. Both daughters later married here, the elder becoming Mrs. J. Torgerson and the younger, Mrs. 0. Peterson. The son was later a member of ‘New York’s Finest’.
Adjoining Steve to the south was the holding of Cecil Steeple, while Bruce Campbell was located close by.
Ascending the Stuckey Hill, and a good one it was, and on our left was the farm of J. Hamilton Griffith who had arrived in Whitecourt as General Foreman for Northern Construction Co. Ltd., the contractors in charge of railroad grading operations. He had recently married one of the Stuckey girls (Frances) and was getting ready to prove up (obtain the patent to his land).
Next came Erik Hedin, one of “The Three Musketeers”, who would have been dreadfully out of place in today’s society. While it might not be absolutely true to say that he loved work, it was most evident that he was in no way opposed to it, he being one of the hardest workers it has ever been the lot of the author to meet. He illustrated in the finest way what is meant when we hear the expression “An honest day’s work for a day’s pay”. No foreman ever needed to worry about what Hedin might be doing, should he, the foreman have to absent himself for awhile. Hedin later died in a freak accident, when his own car ran over him.
Just across the way from the Hedin farm was the farm of Alfred Stuckey, a Nebraskan, who had labored long and hard to carve a farm out of what was moderately heavy timber. A man with a cheerful outlook who had, in the author’s opinion, more optimism than the situation warranted, had really done a lot of work here, and Mrs. Stuckey, a most capable farmer’s wife and gracious hostess had contributed her bit in no uncertain manner.
To the best of the author’s knowledge the family consisted of six attractive daughters and one son. Two of the daughters had been married prior to the author’s arrival and one had died during the flu epidemic. Frances married Hamilton Griffith, already mentioned, while Hazel became Mrs. Bert White, and Jean, Mrs. Gus Chaisson. Asa, the son, left for Nova Scotia soon after the author’s arrival, that being the home of the wife’s parents.
That area we referred to as House Mountain (and being a diehard the author shall continue to do so), was very well settled at this time, and in mentioning settlers in and around there, names like Skaggs Bros., Ralph Derrick, W. Clark, A. Larson, W.Edgar, W.Wilkins, R. Lovat, the two McKinleys, Alex Kallies, Smoky Wood, Albert Smith and the Kimzeys come to mind. If the author has perchance overlooked anyone, his apologies are offered. And lest such apologies are demanded please let the name of Maurice Humpleby be added to the list.
The Kimzey family had arrived at an early date in Whitecourt’s history and proceeded to farm on what, in those days, was regarded as a big scale. Bear in mind it was no easy task to hack any vast area from the terrain, when an axe and a grub hoe provided the only medium for doing so. Modern machinery and the easy way came at a much later date, when manual work passed into the limbo of forgotten things. Clearing the land was extremely hard work, and only the fittest and most determined survived. Getting established proved too arduous a task for the faint hearted and early homesteaders suffered not at all from weight problems.
Which brings to mind an episode that happened just about this time, and impressed upon the author that even minor accomplishments should not be lightly regarded. To fully appreciate the story however, it is necessary to remember that the author had for some considerable time been conducting business on the prairies, where the average farmer had from three hundred to five hundred acres of cultivated land. One local farmer announced, quite proudly, that he had all his crop in and was, he thought, possibly the first in the district to have accomplished what, in his opinion, was a gigantic task. It was only natural he should be asked the extent of his accomplishment. His rely, “Twelve acres” was, to say the least, most unexpected, but to him, twelve acres of back breaking effort and many callouses was something of a triumph.
Another story depicting a similar view, concerns a middle aged farmer who approached the Bank Manager with the intention of borrowing a matter of one hundred and fifty dollars. Naturally the Manager took a statement of the man’s affairs and after considerable study, asked the evident question.
“Well Mr. So and So, how do you propose paying this loan as your statement would indicate you are presently raising only sufficient crop to feed the stock you have on hand?
“Oh Well”, replied the intending borrower, “I should be able to catch a few muskrats in the Spring”.
It is not recorded whether or not he was accommodated but a man with such an optimistic outlook could hardly be denied.
Names like Stubbs, Pete Knutson, Harold Torgerson come to mind as we continue our journey near House Mountain and a bit closer to the Hamlet we find Hayden Pritchard, Larry Shaw, Geo. Ritchie, father and son, in that area which used to be served by what was known as “The Allendale Ferry”. The ferry was under the supervision of Paul Linehan, a deep sea sailor from the east coast, who would prognosticate the weather for almost any given day or period. Not having kept track of his long range forecasts the author is unable to supply figures as to his batting average, but right or wrong he was not dismayed. After all, in an area such as this, one should be allowed a fair margin for error. Even now, with such scientific equipment at their disposal, the men holding forth on T.V. are by no means infallible.
Of the Linehan family only one, Ida, now Mrs. Fred Reed, is still in the district. But let us continue down the road from the swimming hole towards Whitecourt. We pass the Mohl place, then comes the homestead of one, Fred Hassan, a man of short stature who did not appreciate being called “Shorty”, as almost everyone is wont to do under such circumstances. He subsequently moved to Whitecourt and cheerfully accepted the honorary title of “Mayor”, in the full realization that being addressed as “Your Lordship” precluded any possibility of being referred to as “Shorty”. Axel Olson adjoined Fred Hassan but Axel for the most part resided in town.
Opposite the Olson holdings on the farm of Art Weir, a man by the name of Jim Miller (not the Western Construction & Lumber Co. Ltd. founder, who came later), had set up a lumber sawing unit, and at this same time the Stewart Family, also moved in to assist with the lumbering operations.
Tom Stewart and his wife were true ‘Old-timers’ who had spent all their lives in the west, and on coming here they brought a large family, including one married son Bob, who also had a large family. Of the family of Tom Stewart the author remembers Tom, Howard, Norman, Lyle and Doll who had each been, at some time or other, associated with Jim Miller’s operations. Norman still resides here. Moving north again, we pass the homestead of Oscar Torgerson and that of Frank Selleck, both of which had recently been purchased by the Townsite Company.
On the left bank of the McLeod River, (although the only method of direct approach was to ford the river), we find Fred Smith and Jim Harrop farming.
Now proceeding south on the west bank of the McLeod River, and down what is now known as the Edson Road or Peers Road, although this road did not exist at the time of which we write, we first of all come to the farm of Syd Skogman, almost directly opposite the Allendale Ferry crossing. Thereafter the homestead of Cyril Reay and the Methune place. Directly opposite, or nearly so, the farm of one, Dave Allen. And here let the author pay tribute to one of the all-time greats in the story telling line.
Dave was from Missouri, and the tall tales he told were a never ending source of delight to most of his friends and neighbors. Quite in keeping with the pioneer spirit he exemplified so well, Dave wore a pair of moose hide pants, something not too uncommon at that time. Now moose hide pants may do something for a moose, but they do little for a human. Firstly, they bag at the knees and in the seat, so much so that anyone wearing them is visible quite some time before he has rounded a corner by his ‘nobby’ knees. The same situation is obtained after he has negotiated the corner, only this time his seat is still visible! Unfortunately all the modern methods of counteracting all this bagging tendency such as ‘Never-press’, permanent crease, sanfordising and ‘drip-dry’ were still a long way off. Also the pants developed a shine from constant wear, and while it could be said that one might be able to shine in a pair of moose hide pants, the figure of speech must be taken in its strictly literal sense. Dave’s pants were of ample girth and bagginess, and as one looked at him it might be concluded that all that was required was a coonskin cap to complete the picture.
Dave’s place was however, a real gathering place and no wonder. The entertainment was good, the hospitality perfect, the atmosphere redolent with the odor of natural leaf tobacco which was used for both smoking and chewing. Also Dave was a specialist in the art of serving and concocting baking powder biscuits, which somehow had more appeal than bannock, (a similar product baked in one slab using much the same ingredients). The utmost in bannock, the author was informed on many occasions, was “blue streak bannock”, although what the blue streak actually did for bannock was never explained. But to get back to Dave and his biscuits. He would mix the ingredients in a wash basin and then proceed to do the stirring with his finger. If perchance a stem from the leaf tobacco he was chewing should get lodged in his molars or underneath his tongue, he interrupted the stirring meanwhile, while he fished out the offending stem with his stirring finger. When the stem had been removed Dave would continue stirring, after having wiped his finger on his moose hide pants!
Everyone spoke highly of Dave’s baking powder biscuits, and no one, as far as we know, even had, what to-day is referred to as “upset stomach” and for which they constantly bombard us with cures.
Moving south we come to the farm of Mike Prestlien and nearby the farm of G. Leary. Then up the hill and over, Ed. Olson and Ole Tekset held forth. Good solid Scandinavians. Ole was under a scheme for returned soldiers known as Soldier Settlement as were a great many other ex-soldiers in the area. The scheme, while possibly a good one in principle, was not entirely too successful.
Briefly, the men were given aid to take up land, given loans for purchase of equipment and machinery, the loans extending over a long period of years. For those with some knowledge of farming, and with some land available and ready for crops, as was the case with Ole Tekset it worked very well. With others with little or no knowledge of farming, and little or no land ready for cropping, it proved something of a disaster. Tekset was a worker and would, in the opinion of the author, have made a go of it under almost any scheme, and it was indeed unfortunate that he was not spared to bring matters to a successful conclusion. He died quite young.
Ed. Olson had been in Alaska and was another one really suited to conditions here. Somewhat farther on, Percy Richardson, Jack Willis, the Crocker Brothers, Jules Couasnon, Charles Stone, George Jackson, Jack Wilson and Robert Greene were busy trying to get established.
Mention might be made while in this area of one or two of the more colorful characters found here. Jules Couasnon, known as “Frenchy”, a name to which he answered unfailingly, and no wonder, when one considers the trouble the average English speaking person might have in pronouncing “Koos-non”, correctly. Jules had been educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, or had at least studied at some university or similar seat of learning in Paris. He loved to argue, and it was indeed unfortunate that he was confined to the use of the English language when he did so. He loved to use what are known as “two dollar words”, the pronunciation of which were not always straight Webster. As the words flowed and the argument warmed up, the arm swinging and other gestures intensified, and one could only surmise that many of the debates had their origin with nothing more than this in mind. His opponents kept goading him on, and he kept reaching and reaching for greater points to clinch his contentions, all the while accompanying each sentence with some extra facial contortion or “body English”.
Then Charlie Stone, who rivaled Dave Allen as a raconteur, with tales of derring do in and around the Vashon Islands. He would have been an instant success on the radio program instituted by Bennet Cerf some years ago and presented under the name of “Can you top this one?” He really deserves special attention.
Neither Charlie nor Dave were exactly young men, and the respect usually accorded elders prevented some of the younger members from expressing disbelief, although at times it was not hard to see that everything was not being accepted at its face value. On one occasion, when things were getting just a bit out of hand, one young fellow went as far as to interject, “You know, I would sooner hear you fellows tell it than have been there”. A meeting of Stone and Allen always was something special as it was evident that one doubted the other, while the audience doubted both! The tales they told and the heights they scaled baffled imagination.
Jack Wilson and George Jackson had joined forces in the East and had arrived in Whitecourt under the Soldier Settlement scheme mentioned earlier. Both, a few years later, left the farms and resided and worked in the hamlet. This friendship endured through good years and bad, and while both men have passed away, their widows still give meaning to what is referred to as “a lasting friendship”.
To the west some distance, a short wiry man, by the name of Danny Fraser, had a trap line at what was then known as Bessie Creek. Nothing gave Danny as much pleasure as fiddling at the dances. No matter what the weather was like, and it was often unpleasant to say the least, it was imperative that word be sent to Fraser. With his passion for playing the violin he could not, and must not be overlooked. His Georgia Camp Meeting must be still echoing somewhere in the valley.
While in this area to the south it might be a good idea to mention early settlement in Whitecourt. While it is true that many of the early settlers came overland, some no doubt looking for a direct road to the Peace River Country, — and it was direct, if possibly more than a bit portentous — a great many of them came down one river or the other, most of them favoring the McLeod.
Such as did usually left the train at Peers, built a scow there, loaded the provisions etc. and set sail. The other route down the Athabasca was for experienced river men, and when using this route the people left the train at Hinton. Practically all freight used the Peers route, and many a scow or barge got “hung up” on an outcropping of rock somewhere around Sandstone Canyon.
The fast water in the canyon made passage very hazardous, and only if luck was with one did he safely circumvent what approximated the Inchcape Rock. Not that any loss of life ever took place here as far as can be learned, but many a load of settler’s effects and an occasional scow of groceries and supplies became something more than damp. It all made for excitement, if indeed anyone craved more of that commodity than was supplied by avoiding “sweepers” (trees which have become uprooted along the river bank, and have fallen into the stream).
Many of the early settlers became recognized rivermen and made regular trips as navigators down the McLeod, but none of them, as far as can be learned, guaranteed any safe passage or even dry feet. They just hung to the pole rigged in the fashion of a rudder at the back of the scow and hoped for the best.
Names like Prestlien and Henry Steward come to mind when river running days are mentioned.
North of the Athabasca the area was then, as now, very sparsely settled and only names like Ike Steams and Geo. Connors come to mind.
Geo. Home lived in a dugout on the river bank (the south bank) and stayed there summer and winter. If so, and anything the author ever saw would support this, he must indeed have been a real hardy individual. He was a stocky, well built man who always sported a wealth of whiskers, and may indeed have been the original hippie, insofar as he had no occupation whatever, had the whiskers and the long hair, and living in a dugout excluded any possibility of having a bath for most of the year at least. The river (Athabasca) has never been recommended for such purposes.
When one considers that the area along the railroad for some miles to the east was also settled up, and as this terrain is almost entirely muskeg, one wonders just what such settlers had in mind.
The Donnelly’s had built a house right beside the track, or should one say proposed track, the roadbed being far from completion.
Some distance east, Elof Anderson (known as “Muskeg”) had settled with his wife and family. He was a real colorful character who had at one time been a packer on the Chilkoot Pass (Klondike gold rush days), and at which he had accumulated considerable money. He had gone back to Sweden, purchased a farm, and acguired a wife there. His Swedish farming venture had not panned out too well however or so we surmised, and he had decided to again try his luck back on the North American Continent.
He could tell great stories of his life as a packer, and time and again demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction that his stories were no figment of his imagination. He would unconcernedly hoist a hundred pound sack of flour on his shoulder, and set off down the railroad track to home, possibly two miles away. Now there is nothing surprising about a man hoisting one hundred pounds of flour on his shoulder, and numerous men have done so, but the difference here was that if Anderson met anyone on the way, he would stop and talk for half an hour or more, and the thought of taking the flour off his shoulder never entered his mind. He just stood and talked while the sack of flour caused him no concern whatever. On one occasion, he borrowed a walking plow from someone in town, hoisted it on his shoulder, and set off down the track in high good humor!
His training on the Chilkoot had not been wasted. Some of the family still reside here, and his son, Nels continues to live on the same farm, while daughter Clara, (Mrs. Johnny Miller) lives in town.
In any area such as this with settlers arriving from all walks of life, it is only reasonable to suppose that a percentage of intended settlers would be entirely unfitted for the task ahead. Please remember, in the time of which we speak, there was no radio or any other contact with the outside world. When darkness descended, the settler would repair to his cabin or camp, have his meal of possibly beans and bannock, light his candle or coal oil lamp, and sit around either reading or lost in reverie. He was a deal like Selkirk where in his Soliloquy he proclaims:
“ I am out of humanity’s reach, I must finish my journey alone, Never hear the sweet music of speech;
I start at the sound of my own.”
For the extrovert or the student of nature, the life held no worry but for the silent or brooding type, the danger of becoming what was then called “bushed” was always present. And it is not surprising that this happened in quite a number of cases, and when the actions of the affected parties might indicate they were becoming unbalanced, a report to the A.P.P. (Alberta Provincial Police) would bring an officer who would take the party out for treatment. Not that any were really violent as far as can be remembered, but definitely in need of care.
In discussing this matter with Pat Hardy one day, he disclosed that he had given the matter a deal of study, and had a unique theory of what caused the condition. While the author cannot subscribe to the theory it is worth mentioning, to show how far a man will go to analyze causes and effects. His theory was that most of the bachelors baked bannock and existed for the most part on this fare. Bannock, according to Hardy, depended on baking powder for any rising it might do. Up to this point one could agree readily, but when he contended that this same action continued after the bannock had been eaten, and that such action or chain re-action built up a pressure on the brain, the whole matter became just a bit too complicated for the author to accept unreservedly. Hardy always referred to such unfortunate victims as “Baking Powder Cases”, but was never, insofar as can be learned, supported by medical opinion.
It is also interesting to note that at the time of which we refer to, the natural resources came under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government, and that all matters relating to same were administered there. An office in Edmonton handled minor matters of course, timber and the protection thereof for the most part, although filing on homesteads etc. was also handled. Patrolling the woods around here we had three men known as “Fire Rangers” whose duty it was to patrol the Whitecourt area and report thereon. Soon after the first day of the month these men would purchase provisions to do them for the next thirty days or so, load said provisions on a horse, mount another horse, and set out for another thirty days of fighting mosquitoes and other such denizens of the woods as resented the intrusion.
The protection against mosquitoes, of which we had many, was a powder called “Buhac”. To get a few hours of peace within a dwelling or tent, the general mode of procedure was to roll up a section of a newspaper, place a small mound of Buhac thereon, and set alight to the bundle. This definitely discouraged the pests, and while it is doubtful if it actually killed them, it hastened their departure from the area, and kept them away for some time. Everyone knew Buhac in those days, and fire rangers and others resorted to it often. D.D.T. sprays when they happened along many years later did a much more lasting job.
It would be well when on the subject of outdoor life here, to convey some idea of what fishing and hunting were like. Both could be summed up in one word – “superb” -. Game birds and game animals were plentiful, and one had only to take a trip into the House Mountain country to get moose or deer. For game birds, a short walk into the area up the hill now zoned as “industrial” provided more than anyone would want.
In the spring one could wake up any hour of the morning, and hear partridges “drumming” nearby, something that has not been heard for years in these parts, and which may, unfortunately, never again be heard. Fishing was a favorite pastime of the author, and many a most enjoyable hour was spent on that stretch of Beaver Creek, from about where the Western Construction burner now sits, down to where the creek entered the McLeod River. A stretch of less than a mile. No dams or buildings of any description here, and the Beaver gurgled quietly along, in much the same fashion as mentioned by Tennyson in his famous book.
It was peaceful, it was lovely, and the fish were plentiful and obliging. Fetching them out was no problem, and they were not at all educated as one ardent Scotch fisherman remarked. At the mouth of the Beaver and in the McLeod River, Jack Fish were plentiful, and strangely enough, no one seemed to bother them. For a day’s fishing combined with a picnic, most people hiked up to Steve’s Bridge, and fished upstream from there for a mile or less. It really was fascinating country, and on looking back one is reminded of the words of A. Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who wrote, in part, following a visit to this part of the country about this time.
My life is ebbing downward, it sinks deeper to the day,
When t’will fire its last dark cannon to the plains of Far Away.
But while its stream is running through the years that are to be,
The mighty voice of Canada will ever call to me.
I shall hear the roar of rapids where the waters foam and tear,
And shall smell the virgin upland with its balsam laden air.
I shall dream that I am riding down the winding, wooded vale,
With the packer and his pack horse on the Athabasca Trail.”
END Summer Issue 2019
Some mention might be made here of the trouble the early settlers had in coping with the rabbit population which waxed and waned in what appeared to be seven year cycles. At the time of which we write rabbits were just reaching their numerical peak, and what a peak it was, with rabbits, rabbits everywhere. Farmers tried fencing the stacks with chicken wire and other methods to discourage the four footed pests, and while it is doubtful if a rabbit can nibble through wire, somehow or the other they managed to surmount all obstacles. With stacks of green feed etc. the bottoms were demolished in no time and within a week or less the stack collapsed. Trees and shrubs had the bark eaten all the way around, and as the snow deepened the gnawing crept higher and higher.
Nature provided the only solution to the problem, for when the population soared to insupportable levels – the seven year cycle had run its course—a disease “coccidorsis” began to take its toll. No one who ever witnessed the myriads of sick and dying rabbits could be assured that they constituted articles of food, European custom to the contrary notwithstanding. In deference to Europeans however, let the author declare that there is little or no resemblance between the snowshoe rabbit (the kind we have here) and the burrowing rabbit of Europe. True, both are rabbits but that is about as far as the similarity extends. It is also interesting to note that a much longer period than seven years has elapsed since our rodents disappeared almost entirely, and all appearances would indicate that this time they have gone for good, or at least for a long time.
No doubt the predatory animals regret the passing of the devastating horde, while humans can only give a sigh of relief. Truly the population explosion started with rabbits. What a blessing Mother Nature intervenes when things start to get out of hand.
At the time of which we write neither radio nor T.V. had been invented; we had no daily newspaper, no telephone, telegraph or other direct means of communication other than that provided by the Post Office. What, then, did people do for amusement? Strangely while the various of amusement differed greatly from to-day and were a lot less costly, they were, in the humble opinion of the author, quite as satisfying and involved no great expenditure.
A poster advertising a dance -was usually hung in the store, and invariably ended with the wording, “Ladies please bring lunch”. The men paid in cash while the ladies paid in lunch, and while this would be altogether impractical nowadays, it all added to the wonderful spirit of togetherness so much a part of the community at the time. Over a cup of coffee and with tempting fare, (Whitecourt has always been blessed with excellent cooks even from earlier times) the midnight break at dances was something to look forward to. The difference between then and now is, that to-day the cook decides what she is going to have, and then consults a cookbook for ways and means of preparing it, whereas in the days of which we speak the cook surveyed what she had on hand, and it might not be much in the way of variety, but she did her best with things available.
The lunch having been provided by the ladies eliminated the possibility that one might run into such fare as bear paws, beaver tails and muskrat legs which many of the bachelors regarded as delicacies. Good sustaining food maybe, but for which one must acquire a taste, and an ability to look elsewhere. The annual picnic was an event that was regarded as tops for the year and as a rule it was. At this gathering also, the ladies provided the lunch or dinner, and everyone sat around on the grass enjoying the fare, and renewing contacts with people he might not have seen since last such outing. No one went hungry. The assembly was, of course, almost entirely local, Greencourt being a day’s journey away, and Blue Ridge not having come into being.
Dancing would still be going on at eight the following morning as a rule and the musicians gave freely of their time, spelled each other off frequently, and received little or no remuneration for their efforts. As far as can be remembered no charge of any kind was made for any part of the proceedings. Money and the acquisition thereof had not reached the prime position of importance it has now been accorded.
Sing-songs also contributed to entertainment and the gathering in the Torgerson sitting room, some on chairs, some sitting on the floor, but all willing to contribute his bit to the program when called upon, were frequent and enjoyable. Some singers were, as can be expected, more accomplished than others, and names like Syd. Pomfret and Harry Clay come to mind. But what was lacking in quality was more than made up by enthusiasm, and many an hour passed most pleasantly with Dolly Torgerson accompanying all and sundry, while the rafters rang with such wartime songs as Dear Old Pal of Mine and Roses of Picardy.
It is the opinion of the author that something passed from our lives when people seemed no longer capable of enjoying the simple things of life, and become so much more demanding in what they considered as fit and acceptable entertainment.
The police officer who on occasion patrolled this area (it was Provincial Police then) was stationed at Rochfort (now Rochforfc Bridge), and he appeared on the Whitecourt scene possible once a month. About this time, the policeman confided to the author by stating, “I don’t know why I bother to come up here, they never need me”. A splendid tribute.
While we had no regular church services, the Presbyterians looked after us spiritually, and held a service at irregular intervals in what was then the meeting place (the old red building that had formerly been a pool hall). The missionary rode horseback from Sangudo and arrived in Whitecourt for the most part on a Saturday afternoon. Thereafter he would go visiting in the hamlet, and invite the people to service the following day. While the congregation was never large the percentage attending compared more than favorably with present day figures. Many years later the author attended a church service in Victoria, B.C. and recognized the minister as one of the former Whitecourt Missionaries. On leaving, it was only natural that Whitecourt should be mentioned. The minister beamingly declared that he had the most pleasant memories of the place and he even remembered some of those who had invited him to their homes. And no wonder. It was just that kind of place.
Early in the Spring of 1921 the Canadian Northern Town Properties Co. Ltd. (usually referred to as the Townsite Co.) sent in a gang to survey the townsite. They did so by completing the survey of blocks 1-2-3-4, Plan 662 C.L. (The original plan of Whitecourt). Preparations were then made to move such buildings as were considered worth moving from the bottom of the hill to the new survey.
The railroad grade was completed and a site for the station chosen. With the building of the station and a water tank, and also the laying of the steel, the first train whistled into Whitecourt a few months later.
We now had access to the outside world, and Edmonton was only one day’s journey away (on a mixed train) instead of three days as of yore. Progress no doubt, but something that cannot be measured in dollars and cents vanished from our lives right then, and it is with a real feeling of nostalgia that most of us think about Sagitiwa, later Whitecourt, and the good old days. Candidly, we were lucky to have lived then…..
John F. (Jerry) Graham passed away in Whitecourt on October 17,1985 at the age of 90 years
Wilma (Dolly) Graham passed away in Edmonton on September 25, 1971.