Larry Evans: Early city builders gave name to our schools


As I pointed out in my last column, people, especially newcomers aren’t aware of the history of Fort St. John and the people who made it what it is today. Well, we have two middle schools named after leaders, and rightfully so. We have other schools who are named after men, and while most oldtimers know who they were, most people today don’t. In the following column, I would like to shed a little light on these pioneers and what their “claim to fame” was, as Ma Murray would say.

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While not all schools in Fort St. John are named after people, the ones that are have names of men, and now women, who shaped the course of history of the North Peace in one way or another. 

The schools without people names are rich in their own history. Central Elementary School was built to replace the first school in Fort St. John, making it by far the oldest school in town. North Peace Secondary School was constructed in 1954 and reconstructed in 1987 at its present location.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two other schools, one closed and one very much open. I went to the Immaculata Catholic School in grade two and three. It opened in 1954 and closed a while back. The other, of course, is the Christian Life Academy, which is busy making its own history.

The following columns will deal with the schools with names. Just as a note, all these profiles are men ,and I guess it was the times, but during my research on various stories there is certainly enough evidence to warrant a ladies name now and again. Thankfully, School District 60 has named the last school built after Margaret ‘Ma’ Murray, and the school being constructed at present will be named after Mrs. Anne Roberts Young, featured in our last column, both pioneer ladies that made a difference in our community.

The first two schools I will write about will be the junior high schools. Bert Bowes opened in 1964 and Dr. Kearney opened in 1973 to accommodate the growing population.

Daniel Wilbert Bowes, better known as Bert Bowes, was a World War I veteran. He arrived with his wife, Vera Herron Bowes, from Manitoba in 1929. Vera was a school teacher but also managed the first log hotel while Bert did a little trucking for the town of 200 people.

In 1933, he opened a garage with his partner and brother-in-law, Braden Herron. The garage provided a variety of services: automobile and farm equipment repair, tow truck services, trucking service, taxi service, gasoline pumps, as well as housing the first lighting plant for Fort St. John. The garage was also the first fire house.

When the Bedeaux Expedition left Fort St. John, they left behind a Citroen halftrack that Bert Bowes turned into Fort St. John’s first fire truck. Along with the water wagon, the truck was kept warm in the Bowes and Herron garage and Bert took on the job of being the first fire chief. The men who worked in the garage were also the bucket brigade or first firemen of Fort St. John.

For more than 30 years, Bert helped Fort St. John progress in many ways. He worked on the first arena and helped build the first Legion. It was Bert and his truck that installed the first press in the Alaska Highway News office in Fort St. John.

At that time, Fort St. John had a Board of Trade, and Bert played an important role in making sure Fort St. John was well represented. From its conception in 1931, the Providence Hospital (later Fort St. John General Hospital and located very close to Bowes and Herron’s garage) benefited from Bert’s expertise when needed, along with care and concern for the hospital as well as the patients. 

Bert was chairman of the School Board and with his know-how solved the problem of lack of classrooms by using old troop buildings after the army left and hauling them to various destinations. He was instrumental in establishing the Masonic Lodge. He was a partner in the North Peace Seed Mills with Hart Wiles, a charter member of the Elks, trustee of the Hospital Improvement Board, early carrier of mails, and the list goes on.

With the dilemma of muddy streets and no walkways in the early days in Fort St. John, Bert was instrumental in obtaining hammers from Oaks Construction, a U.S. Army contractor, to build wooden sidewalks for downtown Fort St. John in 1942. The Bowes and Herron garage was located where the Quality Inn is today, facing 100 Street. 

Bert Bowes passed away on September 30, 1964. 

Dr. Garnet Kearney.

Dr. Garnet Harvey Kearney was born in Renfrew, Ontario, in 1884. He came west as a young man to work at a variety of jobs until he entered McGill University in his thirties to study medicine. After graduation, Dr. Kearney played his part in World War I as ship’s surgeon, and at the front as a medic. Returning west after war’s end, he first practised in several small towns in the Kootenays, coming to us from there in 1935. 

Dr. Kearney arrived at the same time as Dr. Szilagyi, the first dentist for Fort St. John. These two doctors shared accommodations provided by Charlie Brandt, and their combined rent was $6 a month. Dr. Brown, our first physician, was pleased to share his load of work and responsibility with the newcomer. 

Dr. Kearney was the first private practitioner in the North Peace, although he had been preceeded by Dr. Brown, who was with the Department of Indian Affairs stationed in Fort St. John. He served the people of Fort St. John faithfully and tirelessly for more than 25 years. Many of those years were spent as the only physician as Dr. Cormack did not arrive to assist until 1945. 

Those were the years of long, lonely trips to the various homesteaders to heal the sick, patch the wounded, comfort the dying, or deliver the emerging (baby). Payment was not medicare, nor guaranteed cash. Payment could be a few dozen eggs, alive or butchered pigs, a sack of spuds, or a promise of fresh vegetables. 

Dr. Kearney made his rounds in an old jeep-style vehicle. It was pressed into service when the snow lay thick and no road existed. Seeming to draw strength and determination from its owner, it seldom failed him on his calls on patients in more remote areas. It also served as the first ambulance here, when ailing patients had to be brought in for hospital care.

In 1944, Dr. Kearney married Marjorie Van Volkinburghin, and the doctor and Mrs. Kearney enjoyed 10 years of companionship before her death in 1954. In 1957, Dr. Cormack departed and Drs. Westover and Dixon arrived to assist Dr. Kearney, who did not retire from medicine until 1962, when he was nearly 80 years old.

Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.

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