Mrs. Peace River
N. DE BERTRAND LUGRIN
Here’s a story that defines the meaning of the word “pioneer” ... the story of a woman who, alone and unafraid, with laughter on her lips, adventured on the last lone frontier and, adventuring, found content
THEY call her Mrs. Peace River for several good reasons.
She was the first woman to go into the great country of the Peace and take up a homestead and work it herself. When she went in, there was barely a handful of settlers. She has watched the trek of all the multitude since. She has taken a motherly interest in them, given kindly advice and encouragement to far more men and women than she can ever recall, bound up the wounds of those who have been hurt in accidents, helped to nurse sick children and ailing women, has lifted the fallen and comforted the distressed.
Of such are the works of Mrs. Emily Crawford, who arrived at Fort Saint John with $150, her sole capital. She worked at any sort of honest labor which offered, and the homesteaders gave her every assistance in their power.
She has now a farm of more than 1,000 acres, 300 of them in wheat. She has fifty cattle. 100 pigs and a herd of twelve horses. She is happiness and health personified, and she says that what she has done any healthy, hard-working, determined woman can do.
All the population of the Peace River Block, the 4,000 on the north side of the river, the 10,000 on the south side, know her as a friend. They have chosen her to go to British Columbia's capital and lay their case before the Provincial and Federal Governments.
These are a few of the things she has set out to accomplish for the settlers:
The building of a railway outlet westward from the rich wheat and farm lands of the great Peace River country.
The establishing of a grist mill.
The bringing in of a drilling outfit by which wells may be tested, for the one great drawback to the Block is the scarcity of water for domestic purposes.
The transportation of creamery and dairy products from the north to the south side of the river.
The establishment of a health centre, with two district nurses who will not only look after the sick but will educate the settlers, some of whom are totally ignorant of the first principles of hygiene.
Some of these things she has already succeeded in bringing about. Nurses will be provided. Transportation for dairy products will be arranged at once. And the railway is assured. With an outlet to the Pacific Coast, everything else will come.
But she has done more than this. An ardent Canadian, she is a firm believer in the education of the children as future citizens. There are fifty-one schools now in the Peace River belt, and many of the children are of foreign extraction. Too little stress has been put upon the necessity for instilling national ideals into the minds of the immigrants and insisting upon patriotic observances. She is endeavoring to have the Government install a library with a trained librarian so that the settlers may have access to the best Canadian literature, and she has secured the earnest co-operation of the I. O. D. E., which will send to each school the nucleus of a small national library and individual flags for the children, that they may be taught the meaning of the flag and reverence for it, as is done in the United States. Incidentally the I. O. D. E. has made her a life
member, and she will start a new Peace River chapter when she returns home.
As this article is being written, she is in the capital of British Columbia, where she will remain during the session of the House to work with the ministers on behalf of her beloved North country.
She is the president of the Conservative Association for Fort Saint John, president of the Seedgrowers’ Association, head of the Red Cross, official organizer for Women’s Institutes for the Block.
No wonder they call her Mrs. Peace River.
She is a tall, large woman, the picture of good health. She has snow-white hair, a schoolgirl complexion innocent of paint or powder, and a bright smile. She has the frank, natural manner of those who have lived all their lives on the frontiers. Nothing disturbs her very much. Though men and women in every walk of life from the humble to the most exalted seek her friendship, she treats them all the same, and when she speaks in public, as she has been doing every day recently, it is quietly, unassumingly, and as easily as though she had been accustomed to it all her life.
She was born in Ottawa, her father Scotch, her mother of United Empire Loyalist descent; and after the death of her husband she decided that she would like to "go West"— preferably to the Peace River. That was eighteen years ago. So far as she knew, no white woman had ever been in there. Certainly no woman had ever done what she wished to do—take up a homestead and farm it herself. She had very little money, but was strong, vigorous and ambitious.
This is Mrs. Crawford’s story:
"It is easy to get into the Peace today, with the railway
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Mrs. Peace River
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completed beyond the Crossing, motor cars and steamers available, and the roads Improved. But when I went in, conditions were vastly different.
“In the spring of 1913, having crossed the continent, I took the railway north from Edmonton to Athabaska Landing. Here I was dumped in the gumbo mud, with my bags around me. I travelled light, because it cost dollars per pound to get one’s packing done. My, it was a dreary sight when I arrived that night' Raining hard and the mud was two feet deep in places. Some disconsolate men who had come in before me had their goods stuck in the gumbo and their livestock scattered.
“Perhaps because I was the only woman bound for the Peace River, and perhaps because I could laugh and see the funny side, I managed to cheer them up. Next morning the sun was shining and that made a big difference in the outlook.
“From the Landing we travelled by horses and wagon for interminable miles. We kept to the north side of the Athabaska, for the new road on the south side had not been built then, and the going was awful—slewing and skidding and slipping. Part of the time I drove, and I didn’t have much time to see the surroundings. I was too intent on making time and keeping in the road, and looking ahead each evening to find some kind of a roadhouse.
“Eventually we reached Peace River Crossing. Since then a fair-sized town has sprung up, but it was not much of a settlement when I first saw it—a roadhouse kept by a man named George, a few shanties, and some tents. I stopped here for a week or so, and got a horse to look over the country. I never had done much riding though I knew horses, and I’d never ridden astride. I had a nasty spill one day. My pony took fright, threw me off and dragged me with my foot in the stirrup, but I’d like to see any riding horse try to dislodge me
“They held out inducements for me to settle at the Crossing, but my mind was fixed on settling farther on. I wanted to get to Fort Saint John, Hudson’s Hope—in fact, to see all the great river before I decided. The mail carrier and his brother were taking a trip as far as Hudson’s Hope, and I arranged to go with them in two canoes that had outboard motors. My luggage was transferred to one boat and I travelled with the mail carrier in the other. The first boat went ahead to keep an outlook and pick our camping spots. My mail carrier was obliged to get out often, where the water was rough or shallow, and tow the canoe from the bank.
“The country seemed to become more beautiful the farther we went. Green rolling lands, clumps of willows and birches, and the banks gradually getting higher as we proceeded.
“Fort Saint John was only a very small settlement then, built on the beach, with the bank rising steeply 800 feet up behind it. There were two stores there, Revillon’s and the Hudson’s Bay Company, also a provincial police headquarters.
“Here we stopped for the night. As usual, everybody was surprised to see a woman and amazed when I told them I had come in to take up a homestead and work it. That night, at sunset, I climbed the bank to get a view of the country. It was beautiful. The river is very wide at this point and, dotted with its pretty green islands in the sunset glow, it looked very inspiring to me. All about was a gently undulating plateau covered with a luxuriant growth of peavine and grasses, and dotted with poplars and willows. It seemed to me as if the whole country and the glorious river were holding out inviting arms to me, saying, ‘This is your home.’ I determined to stay at Fort Saint John.
“But I held to my programme of seeing all the river, and we went on nc::‘ Jay toward Hudson’s Hope.
“There was more game then than there is now, or at least it was more in evidence. Scarcely a day passed that we did not see moose or deer or bear, or all three of them.
“I shall always remember the night we reached Halfway. It had grown dark, but we saw a light like a little star far ahead of us, down close to the bank. It was the postman’s little sister come with a lantern to meet us. The postman’s mother, Mrs. Cadenhead, was the first white woman settler to come to Halfway. She had a nice clean cabin made of logs, and a most delicious meal ready for us, the pièce de résistance of which was roast duck, one each. I didn’t suppose I could eat it all, but I did. And that night I slept in a deep feather bed. Some change after my blankets on the ground !
“For the most part my trip was without any danger. I wasn’t frightened of the white water and I had every confidence in Cadenhead, who was an expert boatman. Several times we nearly had a spill. Once, just this side of Hudson’s Hope, we struck a particularly rough spot and Cadenhead got out to tow the canoe. The current pulled it sideways, and if he hadn’t jumped in and seized the bow I don’t know what would have happened.
“Hudson’s Hope is the gateway from the great plains to the mountain regions, being at the easterly base of the foothills. The country round about is rather hilly, rough and stony, and, generally speaking, the soil is not of the best. But it was a pretty place. The settlement was up on the hill—a Hudson’s Bay post, of course, and a nice, neat, log roadhouse. A man and his wife, by the name of Macdougall, ran it, and they made me very welcome. Mrs. Macdougall especially was delighted to see a woman who had just come in from ‘outside’ and knew all that was going on.
“Mr. Jamieson, who had a homestead there, arranged for a party of us to go up to the canyon. The L_ace River flows through the canyon for a distance of eighteen or twenty miles between high banks of sandstone and shale. The fall is said to be 270 feet. This is where the anthracite coal beds are. It is splendid coal, and assays as high as the Pennsylvania product.
“But, after having seen the whole river as far as the canyon, I went back to my first love, Fort Saint John.
“Here, that same year, I took up my homestead.
A Little Accident
"DUT I had very little money left now— not enough to build even the humblest sort of house. I had my tent, and in it I lived for two winters. I had bought a horse and was given a dog, a fine Airedale. I made my home as comfortable as possible and didn’t fare at all badly. In fact I thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of it.
“I broke my first piece of ground with the help of Congor, my horse, and a borrowed plough. Everybody was kindness itself, and would lend me anything I wanted. It was my first experience of ploughing, and I can’t say the plough was in the ground all the time. It was a pretty rough piece of work, but served its purpose. I used a heavy board as a harrow, and myself as a weight when I could stay on.
“There was a log cabin, two of them, to be had for the taking, and my neighbors offered to hold a “bee’’—what we call a barn-raising in the East.
“I made a trip down to the store and purchased a lot of supplies, cooked all day and set out a feast for the men. Then I went down to watch them at work for a little while. When we came back, hungry as hunters, the long table had been cleared of every particle of food. Some dogs had broken loose and devoured it all—and butter was a dollar a pound, everything else in proportion. But these little accidents were just by the way. I made another trip and cooked again that night.
"In due course the two cabins were placed side by side, making me a nice house of two large rooms, i was very proud to sleep in a real shelter again. I chinked the logs with boiled newspaper. It’s an excellent substitute for cement, and much better than moss as it’s so clean. I’ve lived in that same house for eighteen years, and I’ve entertained there more people than I can count who have come in to see the country.
"But by the time my house was finished I had no money at all. There was a gold dredging outfit working down at the Fort, and one day I was invited there to tea. Charming people. Their name was Bagley. They were in great distress for their cook was leaving, and seventeen of them to cook for. I offered. They accepted with alacrity.
“I’m a good cook, and though I’d never done it professionally before, I made a success of it and earned $150. With this I bought my team. Prince and Nellie.
“I was anxious to make a start now with some stock, but I'd have to borrow the money. This will illustrate the spirit of confidence and helpfulness characteristic of the country in those days. There was a young Swede American named Thorston living at the Fort, and when I told him I needed $100 and would pay him back by a certain time with interest, he asked no further questions but gave me his cheque.
"I bought my first six little heifers.
"Not long after this there was a bad explosion at the coal mine at Hudson’s Hope and some of the men were injured. Neil Gething sent for me, as I knew a little about nursing and there was no doctor or real nurse to be had. I went at once and looked after then, and they all got well. I refused any payment, however. It was a deed of mercy I was glad to perform. Shortly after this I received a cheque for $100 from the mining company, and I knew it would hurt those good fellows if 1 refused, so I was able to repay my loan to Mr. Thorston in good time. He wouldn’t take any interest.
“Now I was established. Again I borrowed a plough, and Nellie and Prince broke the land. I had a man to help me part of the time, and between us we put in three acres of grain for the stock.
“When it was ripe for cutting I rode Congor eight miles to borrow a scythe.
"I cut those three acres alone, and Congor drew the crop in on an old drag. My, it was nice during the winter to hear my horses and heifers munching away on my good wheat and oats !
“The next year I broke more land, six acres, and hired a drill for twenty-five cents I an acre and did the drilling myself. I hired a man to cut it, but I did the stooking myself. It was a magnificent crop. My heifers had all come in and were milking now. Prospects were bright.
“But the following summer rabbits came, a plague of them, and ate all my grain. I had to draw every ounce of feed that winter from Rolla, sixty-five miles, travelling on the frozen river. But I never had an accident and I’ve never lost an animal.
“Next spring I bought a thoroughbred Poled-Hereford bull.
“That summer grasshoppers came in a cloud and ate up everything. I had. among other things, five hundred little trees ready to set out, and they were killed.
“But I didn’t lose courage. And the Experimental Farms both in the East and at Lacombe were always the greatest help to me. They sent me plants and seeds— more than I could use. You see, I was experimenting more or less for the good of everybody, and they wanted me to demonstrate what could be done in the North Country. They also presented me with my first poultry—six pullets and a cockerel, Barred Rocks.
“And my neighbors, were kindness itself.
“There are a fine lot of men and women in the Peace River country, for the most part, and we are all anxious to preserve its good reputation. We realize that, as soon as the foreign element comes in, there is bound to be trouble. That is one thing
I want to stress in my work for the Peace River Block—the necessity for choosing our settlers. I shall never forget how ashamed and distressed we were when the first blot came upon our record.
An Unsolved Mystery
A MAN and woman had arrived at Fort Saint John from Saskatchewan. We knew they were not married, but they lived together for all the world to see. I was coming down river myself one day from Hudson’s Hope. Three nuns were on the boat, I remember, as well as a priest and another man. The latter spoke to nobody. As soon as we arrived he hurried ashore and went up the road, peering into the face of everybody he met. Presently along came those two guilty things who’d been making us feel ashamed for weeks. The stranger shot the man on sight. The jury acquitted him because he was the woman’s husband. I think he should have had some punishment. It was a bad precedent.
“Shortly before 1 left home this year there was a similar case, both foreigners. Found dead in their bed, and a post-mortem discovered a dead unborn babe. The man had left his wife, and the woman her husband. Nobody knows yet who shot
“We don’t want undesirable immigrants, and we don’t want those who haven’t health and plenty of stamina, no matter what their nationality. I’ve seen a few pitiful failures. Two years ago a man, his wife and three little children started out from Fort Saint John for Fort Nelson. We tried to dissuade them. They hadn’t enough grub, and the woman was pregnant. They wouldn’t listen. The weather began to get cold, and we were uneasy about them. Finally the police went after them to see how they were making out. They brought them back to us. The poor little kiddies were walking along in their bare soles, their shoes worn dean through; the mother was pitifully ill and the father in despair. But there aren’t many such cases.
“I don’t consider that the labor of breaking land and farming in the Peace River country is to be compared with that in Southern British Columbia. There is practically no timber to clear off. and the virgin soil is easily ploughed and yields in rich abundance. Personally I think mixed farming is the best paying venture. With a variety of field crops, a farmer is reasonably sure of returns in one form or another. Should his oats fail to mature they still make excellent green feed on which horses and poultry and cattle will thrive. If his wheat is damaged by frost it can be fed to hogs or poultry and eventually made profitable. A very dry year favors poultry, especially turkeys. A wet one stimulates hay crops and favors the dairy cow. Horses, cattle, sheep and swine can all be raised profitably.
“From my own humble beginnings I have now 1,000 acres. Part of this is ¡eased, but I expect to buy it all. It runs down to the river, and is all enclosed with good wire fencing. I shall have 300 acres in crop this spring. I have fifty head of cattle, 100 pigs, and twelve head of horses, besides hundreds of chickens. I haven’t a pleasure car, but I’ve got a good truck and my own farm machinery. I can lend now where I used to borrow.
"I employ two Swedes, brothers, to look after the work with me, and I have a business partner who takes charge when I’m away.
"When I return home my new house will be finished, I expect. It is built of peeled logs, thirty by thirty, with an upstairs and wide verandahs. I have good barns and other outhouses,
“My message to the young men of Canada, and the young women, too, who feel that they would like frontier life, is this: If you have health, determination and courage, and the will to succeed, come North. A whole world of opportunity awaits you in the vast rich country watered by the great Peace.”