If you drive north from Fort St. John, up Rose Prairie Road, down across the Montney Creek and back up again, seven miles out of town, there’s a tract of land called the Fort St. John Reserve #172.
It is a rectangle, running from nearly the Beatton River on the east, seven miles to the Beatton Park Road to the west, and four miles north and south.
Sixty-five years ago, that tract of land became home to 42 veterans who had served in World War II, purchased by the Veterans Affairs Department from the Indian Affairs Department, surveyed, carved up into lots, and sold in pieces to the former soldiers.
Not just any soldiers were allowed to purchase it, however; preference was given to those who had served overseas, and care was taken to ensure that they were the kind of men who would cultivate and develop the land properly. Forty-two of them occupied the land, put down their roots, and started farming.
Those soldiers turned farmers are the topic of a book by lifelong Peace Country resident Lana-Gay Elliott. Her husband, Cecil Elliott, was the youngest soldier to purchase a piece of the land, and the last one to leave, in 2008.
“My main aim in [the book] was to recognize that these men had gone to war for their country, they’d come home and with not very much chance or choice – many of them didn’t have much education, some had a lot of education, but many didn’t – they took on a lifetime of work to produce a community to live in and to prosper in – and they did,” said Elliott.
Sadly, her husband died three years ago.
Cecil was originally from Ontario, and had trained for the jungle combat of the Pacific Theatre, but the war ended before he was shipped out. Like many others in his situation, he moved west looking for work. He was 21 when he pulled into the Dawson Creek train station.
“They had to have a certain amount of wherewithal. Whether it was other land, machinery, money or whatever, they had to have a certain amount before they could even apply, and then they had loans through Veterans Affairs,” explained Elliott. “One of the criteria was that they had to be from a farm family, or have had farming experience.”
The first few years were hard on the farmers. They were trying to make the land arable, build shelters and start a community.
The first year there, some of them lived in tents before they were able to build houses of their own. “There’s one story about a lady that was preparing supper for her husband and blew the windows out of her tent because she used too much bug spray. When she lit up the stove it exploded!” said Elliott.
When they did relax, it was to dance or play baseball, activities that centered around the hall. “It was the major thing for a community. That’s what kept everybody socially connected and gave some relief in your life of hard work – and it was hard work.”
Lana-Gay didn’t meet Cecil until over a decade after he had started his farm, and was already established. They got to know each other square dancing.
“We square danced out at the Pineview Hall. We square danced in town with a club in town too, there were two different clubs; I was in one club, my husband was in the other. We met at social events and then decided that we could be socially involved in marriage,” she said, adding that she still dances twice a week when she’s able to.
They had two children together, a boy and a girl.
She described the community as tight-knit, dependent on each other for survival. “At that time the community was very much a community thing, because of the hall we had all kinds of activities and whatnot that everybody was involved in, but mostly everybody was just involved in surviving,” she said. “Nobody could afford to buy anything, so you shared with everybody else and did the best you could. Most of us were raising young kids and it just kept you busy doing life.”
Today, most of the people living in that area don’t farm, she said. The road there is paved now, and it’s easy to get into town. She said she suspects most of the residents who live there commute to jobs in Fort St. John. It’s a different life. “The few families that are left there say that it’s not the community that it used to be,” she said.
“People that are farmers, yes, we think that farming is important. To people that don’t understand growing your own food and being proud of a way of life that you have spent your whole life doing, it is not understandable. You have to have been that committed,” she said.
Her husband was a fixture in the community, as president of the fair board, on the board of the Co-op, and serving on the Peace River Regional District board as Area B representative for 15 years.
The book itself took decades of slow, methodical work. She started the project almost 30 years ago, and slowly accumulated the material for it, careful to only get sources who were related to the soldiers in some way. Some of the farmers were bachelors, with no immediate family to tell their story. For those cases, she had to track down extended family. She said that one month she had a telephone bill five pages long.
There was only one family, three brothers, who she couldn’t find any information on.
The purpose for the book was written by Elliott herself, at the start:
“My aim in putting this on paper is to honour the men who were willing to sacrifice all at a time when many of them were no more than kids themselves. They and their women then came home and took on a difficult job with not much more than their good names and dreams of a great future. They took on a lifetime challenge with little to work with in the way of mechanical assistance to carve out a great community for the rest of us to enjoy. I tried to record the personalities of these people and the dogged determination they had to succeed in this endeavour. They, like many other pioneers, bought raw land and developed it into viable, profitable farms.”