It’s still hard to believe, but Fort St. John was nearly centred around Fish Creek, where the bypass road crosses the creek and railroad tracks northwest of the city. If you have walked the paved trails that start at the college and go parallel west along the tracks to a dead end, that would be pretty close to where Fort St. John was at one time. This area is also referred to as Frozen John.
The following story was written a few decades ago by Hilda Munro Large, and is about the determination her family had in making the Peace their home.
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On March 17, 1928, Harold Bray Large left Birnie, Manitoba, via train with four horses, two cows, an Elgin Six car, farm machinery, and household effects. On April 3, he arrived in Wembley, Alberta, which, at that time, was the end of the railway. Travelling with him was his nephew, Owen Chambers, and a friend of Owen’s, Ed Pearson. He had left his wife, Laura, and three small children in Birnie to stay with relatives until he could find a place for them to live.
Leaving his possessions in Wembley, Mr. Large and party travelled to Rolla in the car, which took about two days. There, they looked for land and were told there was some good land across the Pouce Coupe River. It began to snow, so Mr. Large returned to Wembley to see how the livestock were faring. He then returned to Rolla with the stock, sleighs, and some effects.
By then, there was about two feet of wet snow. Nothing daunted them, along with a party of about six including Owen Chambers and Garney Burton, and they crossed the river. They had no trouble crossing, but when they went to make camp in the area where they were going to look for land there was nothing but snow. They had no tents or tarps so they just set up camp in the snow; up went the cook stove and beds. As there were more people than beds, three of them slept in a grain tank, which had been borrowed from a homesteader in Rolla.
When the snow finally melted, the river stayed high for days. The land was not what they had expected and they decided they didn’t want to stay there but they had to wait out the high water.
They ran out of food but Owen had a gun and as long as his shells lasted he was able to keep them supplied with prairie chickens. When the shells were gone, all they had was flour, salt, and the milk from the cows they had taken with them. Biscuits made from the leftover supplies were pretty hard, however, after a few adventures they got back to Rolla.
Mr. Large and Garney Burton then came up to Fort St. John to look for land. Garney Burton settled at North Pine and Harry Large filed on land just north of Fort St. John (Frozen John location). He then went back to Rolla and found a place for his family to live. He also rented land to grow feed for his animals.
The family arrived in June of that year. In late July, the family embarked for Fort St. John in the Elgin Six. A day’s trip took them from Rolla to Feenie’s Stopping Place at South Taylor. There, they spent the night and were treated to the sight of the D.A. Thomas steaming up the river, all lights shining. The next morning after crossing the Peace River on the ferry, they went on to Fort St. John and found lodging above John Middleton’s store, which was located on the banks of Fish Creek.
This was, of course, also the location of the Hudson’s Bay Trading Post at that time, so they were able to stock up on staples. They stayed at Middleton’s until June 1929 when their log house on the homestead was ready for occupancy.
In those days, there was no financial help of any kind. You did the best you could with what you had. You could get a free permit to take out logs and this was done to build the house, a barn, and granary. All field work was done by hand and horses were used to pull out the tree stumps.
By 1930, there were 10 children of school age in the district, so a school was built at Fish Creek. The land was donated by Ron Taylor, and the men of the district got the logs and built the school. The government gave the sum of $200 to buy desks and the equipment needed. By October, the school opened and Fish Creek School was a reality. The first teacher was Miss Barbara Bernard of Victoria, later know as Mrs. Bert Ambrose.
When the children in the north end were old enough to go to school, it was moved to a more central location, this time on land donated by Mr. W. Herron. Sid Martin moved the school, taking it down, marking the logs, and putting it back together again. He received $40 for this task. The rebuilt school had a barn, an icehouse for drinking water, and the usual two outhouses out back. The new location of the school was more centrally located for all the children that had moved into the district, and was located to an area that is now just south of the Alaska Highway on 100 Street.
Some of the highlights of those years were the concerts and dances held in the little one room school. Sports Days were held on May 24 and July 1 each year at the school. Once in a while, someone would come to the school with what was called a “lantern slide” (the fore-runner of a projector) and on those evenings the district all turned out.
Transportation was by sleigh in winter and lumber wagon in summer, or you could walk or ride horseback! Ice was hauled from Charlie Lake by sleigh and this was used for drinking water and to freeze ice cream in the summer. The ice was packed in sawdust in a log house built especially for this. Winter was also the time for getting out lots of wood for the heater and cook stove.
Homesteading in the North Peace was not for the weak of heart as there was lots of work to be done, but lots of fun to be had too!
Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.