The Spirit of the Peace
A vivid picture of life on the frontier where “a nation within a nation” is rapidly coming into being
WE STOOD on a crowded station platform at the end of one of Peace River’s several branch railroads. It was evening and the first flicker of lights turned on showed in the town. Everywhere were bustle and confusion, shouted greetings, backslapping, excited laughter, the hasty scanning of latest press headings, flying mailbags, roaring motors, jostling, luggage-loaded men.
Gradually the throng moved from the platform in friendly groups, calling farewells as they separated toward homes and waiting suppers.
Then it was we noticed her—a young woman with much luggage and two small children, searching anxiously the remnant of the crowd. Before, the mob had hidden her from view, but now several people hurried toward her enquiringly. Her attempt to look unconcerned failed miserably. Her disappointment showed plainly as she continued to gaze expectantly down the street.
She had travelled from the East, she said, to visit a brother who lived a hundred miles from the railroad. He had promised to meet her. She glanced at the children who gazed back at her in trusting unconcern. That the care of them during the long train journey had been a big strain was evident. For days, no doubt, she had looked forward to this moment. And now . . . Could someone tell her where the hotel was?
Before anyone could reach a parcel or mention a stopping place a man pushed forward and picked up the luggage. “The hotel here is okay,” said he, “but you’re staying at no hotel this night. We’ve got room at the house and you’ll have another woman to chin with over there. Had rain away West. This brother of yours is likely held up. I’ll leave word for him at the hotel. Come on, kids, the old bus is right here.” Feebly protesting, the young mother and her brood were ushered into the newly found friend’s car, to spend the night in a home among friends rather than in the loneliness of a hotel room.
The kind action of the stranger was so natural that it was quite apparent he was used to doing such things as a matter of course. That was our introduction to the spirit that generally prevails in that country. Our second experience occurred not three minutes later.
Earlier in the day I had wired for hotel reservations. Now the hotelkeeper was all regrets. Every place in town was jammed to the roof, he stated. There was no bed to be had, let alone a room. Visions of a night on a
straight-back chair or hanging on a hook dangled before me. I began to wonder which way the good Samaritan had gone, and if there was any chance of his returning for something forgotten, Í, too, began to watch the road—hopelessly.
Then it happened again. This time it was another total stranger. He came puffing and striding along the platform. “Sorry,” he apologized pantingly, “for being late. I meant to meet you. Got a room for you. Not much, but a room.” I enquired if he were a hotelman. “No,” he laughed. “Just a farmer, but I knew you were coming.”
At the prospect of a place to sleep I felt as relieved
as the lady had looked. “Much obliged,” I said, “but I’m afraid there is some mistake. No doubt the person you are expecting is somewhere here looking for you.” He laughed again. “Listen,” he said, “you’re new here. These hotels are always crowded, but right now they’re worse. Some of the boys here saw your wire. Bill, here,” nodding at the hotelman, “can’t do a thing when it comes to doubling up. That’s up to the boys themselves, and it’s all fixed. You folks are to.have my room. I’ll run you over if you like.”
I mentioned this recently to some city acquaintances. They chuckled knowingly. “Sure,” they pointed out; “recognized your name and that you’d be writing about the country. Wanted to create a good impression. The old pat on the back stuff !”
These city cynics were all wrong. Those boys never had heard of us, and what they did was done for no such patronizing purpose. Incidentally, I learned later that they had slept three in a bed. Astounding? Just what we thought. But that’s the spirit of the Peace.
The people of the Peace are a little nation within a nation. Some three hundred miles removed from any other extensively settled district, their problems have been ones peculiar to their own territory. Some idea of the northerly position of this farming block may be derived from the fact that the southernmost edge of the Peace River district is farther North than the Flin Flon mine in Manitoba, while Fort Vermilion which boasts many new settlers is in the same latitude as the Barrens north of Churchill.
With the shorter growing season, some difficulty with early fall frosts was encountered. Then private individuals and government experimental stations set to work, and several species of early ripening wheat were evolved. This new seed, sown in a country of from twenty to twenty-two hours daily sunshine, balanced things up and made of Peace River a world leader, not only in yield per acre but in uniform grade. All this didn’t just happen. Years of hard work were involved, coupled with the faith, vision, and concentrated effort of the people who realized that until they could prove to the rest of the Dominion the possibilities of the Peace, it would remain an isolated spot on the map.
The Peace River Anthem
"pOR years people worked to bring about a deserved official recognition of their country. Meetings were called, representatives sent to attend larger gatherings, policies drawn up, and delegations dispatched to Ottawa. Railroad officials were besieged and beseeched. Visits were arranged and proofs put across. All working for a common end there emerged from this time of strife a
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people well informed, determined, and welded into a race of Canadians who have learned the value of real co-operation and thus established new standards of pioneering.
One of the noticeable features of the Peace River district is the splendid class of settlers found there. Several things have been responsible for this. Before the war, from 1911 to 1913, the first general influx of settlers brought young adventure-craving land-seekers and many Americans who had found homesteading on their own side of the line a tough proposition. During the war, with European immigration cut off, those who entered the new area were mostly Canadian farmers taking advantage of the extending railroad steel to acquire new land. Then, following the war, ex-soldiers, offered special land privileges, flocked into the district. The balance of the population is composed mostly of Scandinavian settlers who, as thrifty, hardy, law-abiding citizens, rank among the best in any land.
In those days of railroad squabbles and general grief was born this spirit of unity and understanding. Now, in more pleasant times, it is not being allowed to die.
There still are organizations to promote the development of the country. Each town has its Board of Trade which is anxious to hook up with other towns for any good cause. Town jealousies are absent. Experience has taught these people that genuine co-operation is necessary. They realize that development in one part of the country means a boost for the country as a whole. Knockers are few. Many of the people have pioneered previously in much less promising districts. They are in a position to know, and they laugh at the knockers.
Of course, at times there are differences of opinion, not so much regarding the objective as the methods to be employed. The present railway situation is a case in point. The Northern Alberta Railways, formerly operated by the Alberta government, has been purchased by the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways. Opinions as to the feasibility of the joint operation scheme differ somewhat. One man, well versed, put it this way: “A combination operating pro-
gramme may be all right, but to get action in railroads there should be competition.”
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Another says this: “We favor the Canadian National here. Leaving all else aside, it’s the people’s railroad.” Still another: “Give us the railroad run by a corporation every time. No waiting a year for permission to do this or that. They get things done.”
Then, when all have voiced their private opinion they join unanimously in what might well be called the Peace River national anthem that has rolled down through the years:
“It matters not who owns the trains,
Or who doles out the grease;
Let’s have some action on these plains
To open up The Peace!”
Judging from recently disclosed plans this desired action soon will be forthcoming.
FAR back as 1913, Peace River people had the help and guidance of a local press, the Grande Prairie Herald, which helped in the organization, voiced popular demands, and kept the country advised regarding developments. This first newspaper outfit made the trip from Edson over the 260 miles of trail to Grande Prairie by ox team in 1912. The first winter the press sat on the open prairie. In the spring a shack was built around it. The paper as published was small, but outlined many big ideas, and did much toward welding the pioneer people.
At times the regular edition was a strange affair. The procuring of newsprint was a problem. Trails went bad and supplies were held up. Many times the popular policies of the Peace appeared on blue, green, or red bill stock, and once on ordinary wrapping paper. Later, to assure a supply, paper was brought in by registered mail, a costly but sure system. In 1917, when a purchaser endeavored to move the press into a fine new building every effort failed. Peace River’s first newspaper office had to be demolished before it would give up its contents.
The work of different pioneer organizations is now showing results. Years ago, Board of Trade members besought officials and men of affairs to visit the territory and visualize for themselves its future. Few came. But now! The citizens of new towns are kept busy piloting the hordes and droves of big business men who are invading their country.
They started coming in fours and fives. The Board of Trade president would quit work and tour the moguls around the country in his car. They were shown everything of interest, every consideration, and the height of hospitality. Citizens were glad to have these small groups of visitors. Then they began to come in larger parties. Two or three cars might be needed to show them around, with the same consideration accorded them. Now they come in special trainloads, men of affairs from all over the American continent and Europe. To handle them requires considerable time and work.
The people in the district have a system. Each local Board of Trade sends a delegate to a gathering in one of the larger towns. There, plans are discussed, routes mapped out, and each town allotted a quota of cars to be rounded up. Then representatives from these larger gatherings convene, and country-wide arrangements are drawn up.
When the special train arrives visitors are ushered into waiting cars. At the edge of the town the motorcade is formed and the tour begins. Luncheons, banquets and receptions all have been arranged. When one string of cars reaches the edge of its ordained territory, the officials of the next district take over the visitors to entertain, educate, and transport them. In this way hundreds of miles are covered without a hitch.
That is, usually. There have been
unavoidable holdups. On one occasion a party of 125 big business men was being shown over the country. They were to be delivered at the river where a boat would be waiting to continue with them downstream. The rendezvous was at the foot of a steep clay hill. The motorists reached the river but the boat failed to arrive. Little anxiety was felt. Sleek business men, several of them millionaires, loafed around in waiting, playing leap-frog, picking flowers, or skipping flat stones on the bosom of the mighty Peace.
Then, as often happens when people are showing off their country, there came a sudden and effective thunderstorm. The clay road became a treacherous chute, the cars that remained were definitely marooned, andstillno boat appeared. With the carefreeness of big men in the open spaces, party members made light of the occurrence. The Peace Riverites in charge of affairs were considerably concerned.
Evening came and with it a unanimous hunger. The harassed guides found themselves faced with the problem of feeding a hundred men in a spot far from any banquet hall. Then a mile down the river a cabin was discovered owned by a widow homesteader. A survey of her provisions was made, the mob was marched to the farmhouse and everything rationed. Then this wilderness widow witnessed the spectacle of one millionaire juggling eggs in a frying-pan while another washed and rewashed the few household plates as the portly waiters returned with them to the base of supplies.
After supper, axes were put into play, a long bivouac erected and stacks of firewood cut. There the night was spent with not a squawk from anyone on pain of instant expulsion from the warmth of the shelter. The next morning, after a night spent on a sandbar the boat arrived and picked up the party after members had breakfasted on bacon rind. The widow found a new stock of supplies necessary, but discovered on checking up that she could well afford them.
A Country With “Good Mud"
p\0 THE people of the Peace get
slightly tired trailing delegations and parties around? They do not. Years they worked to bring about this very thing. These visitations are the fruits of their labors. To see the country is to be sold on it, they know, and every returning visitor becomes a first-hand booster for a country, the possibilities of which can scarcely be exaggerated.
The Peace has her prodigal sons who left when times were tough, and when transportation facilities failed to materialize. But wherever you find one of these, whether it be in the Coast logging country, on Northern mining jobs, or in the city’s whirl, you find him speaking well of the country he left behind. “Had to abandon the old homestead then, and I’m tied up here right now, but soon as I get loose I’m going back. She’s a great country, and watch her hum in the next few years!” Everywhere you hear it—real enthusiasm. The fact of their having failed there years ago is not held against the country. “The Peace is just beginning to get the breaks,” they’ll tell you, “and that’s all she needs. She’s got everything else.”
The climate there, with its long days of sunshine and dry air, is usually unbeatable. The people are proud of this. During our sojourn in the district the weatherman played what looked like a sly prank on the local boosters. We had motored over splendid graded roads, through a stook-crowded countryside whirring with the sound of threshers, wheat trucks, cheerful insect life and great flocks of prairie chicken. We had basked in late summer sunshine on the wooded shores of placid lakes that were dotted with
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every species of waterfowl, and picked a dozen kinds of wild fruit. Our companions occasionally would point out something of interest but for the most part they said nothing. There was little left for words to express. “The fall season is beyond description here, we think,” one of them observed as we parted. “We probably will get two months of weather like this.”
When we rose next morning the country for a hundred miles around was blanketed under fourteen inches of pure, white, September snow. The vast fields of wheat had disappeared. Trees in full leaf were bowed to the ground or broken off with the clinging weight. Insects, birds, motors, and wire communications were silent. What a muffler that soft white blanket had turned out to be!
For a few days the whole Peace River country took a holiday. With the snow rapidly melting, streets and roads were unsuitable for motor traffic. Teams and wagons loaded with harvest hands floundered into town with no squawking motor horns to drive them to the side of the road. Streets were thronged with men, women, and children sloshing around in knee rubber boots.
Then the snow disappeared, leaving only the mud. A smart breeze sprang up, which, driving the sun’s heat before it fanned the gurgling, dripping countryside. A few days later a car came through. The road crust dried, drags were put to work, stooks were turned to hasten the drying process, and soon the country was humming as before.
The reaction of the people to this prank of Nature was surprising. Long faces and any agricultural grouch were missing. Farmers laughed and chatted on the streets. They looked and acted as though they were perfectly accustomed to such things. Actually, the very opposite is
true. Nothing of the kind had occurred for at least twenty-two years back, and the chance of it happening again has now been lessened.
“Kind of tough navigating for cars bist now,” one farmer admitted, “and that spongy-looking mess you see is real mud; but there never was a farming country worth a hoot that didn’t have good mud.” It was not until I had considered the truth of his statement and later tried to clean my shoes that I realized fully the possibilities of the Peace.
“How about the grain?” I enquired of several. “Won’t this hurt the grade some?”
“Not unless it hangs on for some time,” was the verdict, “and,” they added, “in this country such a thing would be impossible.”
A sweeping statement, but in this case at least it proved quite true. Summer returned to the land and continued long after the threshing had been completed, allowing a chance for extensive fall ploughing. “And,” these reasonable optimists point out, “think of the reserve moisture we now have underground to make next year’s crop the biggest and best yet !”
Theirs is an optimism that is founded on something solid. The growth and development of the country have been steady and continuous, far removed from any haphazard plunging, or flash-in-thepan booms. Every problem encountered has been tackled and worked out in a practical, scientific manner. The country has been proved to the rest of the world, and extensive development now taking place is as nothing compared with what soon is bound to follow. A short sojourn there is sufficient to convince the most sceptical of this, and of the fact that to such a friendly, live, optimistic little nation of people, success must surely come.