Many people in Fort St. John are familiar with the Chiulli Triangle. It's the chunk of land bordered by 108th Street on the east with the Alaska Highway and 100th Avenue forming the triangle. Home Hardware is on the east end and the Pomeroy Hotel and Casino is at the west end.
When I was younger I hung around with Gerry Chiulli, who's dad was Dave Chiulli of Dave's Garage. Dave's Garage was located next to the Condil hotel where the Playland, or whatever it's called, is now on 100th Avenue.
The story that follows is about the head of the Chiulli clan from Italy, Dominic Chiulli - or as he was known as, Grampa Chiulli.
On the Chiulli Triangle there was a store called Westend Grocery, this was owned by the Chiulli's and the Mucci's I believe, who are closely related to the Chiulli's. This is where, as a young lad, I met Grampa Chiulli., although we always called him Mr. Chiulli out of respect.
We would sit around the store and listen to the stories that he and his friends would tell about coming to the Peace River country. I remember Grampa Chiulli driving from his farm, which is where Kal Tire is today, on his tractor to Dave's Garage where he would park it and go about his business on foot.
As I said before, this is his story and I hope I do it justice. The following information was derived from Ma Murray's interview with Dominic Chiulli in his 86th year and put into print by her daughter, Georgina Keddell, in a compilation called "Peace Lovin' Folk".
"I said to my boy Steve, how can we make it? We cannot climb down that steepness. Our shoes are coming off. We cannot stay here all night. We cannot go back" the old man sat in his easy chair beside the oil stove and earnestly went on with the story.
"We had on the summer work clothes we stood in. I had $15 in my pocket and a promise of land when I got there. A farmer where we worked for meals and a bed had loaned me a .32 calibre rifle and some shells in case of wild animals."
"It was on in October and the cold evening wind along the river flattened our cotton shirts against our backs as we turned our faces from it and considered what to do. A mile back and 700 feet up we had started climbing down to the Pine River. Facing us was an almost straight-down bank 100 feet to the water's edge. On the other side of the river are settlers, I said to Steve."
"There is one thing to do. I took the shells from my hip pocket and put them in my shirt. We will slide on the seat of the pants. Who cares for pants when the belly is empty and the feet are bleeding? When we get to the river, we take off our shoes and wade across."
And then Dominic's serious old sun-darkened face converted into smiles. "You can say that some come to the land beyond the Peace by stone boat and some by river boat and some by horse and wagon, but Dominic and Steve came by the seat of their pants!"
The year was 1922. Few people on this continent knew of the fertile empire that lay in British Columbia east of the Rockies. The trip from Govan, Saskatchewan had been by foot.
"We walk, work, walk, worksleep in bunkhouse, sleep under spruce tree, push on, push on. Steve wears straw hat, Dominic has old English cloth hat. Under the shirts, bare hide. Over the shirts, overalls. Binder twine to hold on the shoes. Walk, walk, walk."
Dominic tells his story with very few words from the English language and is sprinkled with Italian vowel sounds, adding gestures to fill in the blanks. He went to school in Italy down the road from his father's grape and fig orchard for just one day. The teacher mistook him for someone else and caned him, so he learned to farm instead.
By the time Dominic was 11 he was an orphan and dreamed of going to America while he herded three or four sheep for an uncle who cultivated the little farm. By 13 he was off to Rome, to work in a brick and tile yard. "One year it take me to learn to make mud good," said Dominic. Slowly, brick by brick, Dominic was making ready for the trip to America.
By the time he was 19 he had saved enough money to return to his home and marry Marieta, his childhood sweetheart. The villagers could see that Dominic was worthy the chance to make a life in America and pitched in and gave him 400 lira, which was enough for steerage across the ocean in 1900. He had been married just six months and the first child was already on the way.
Dominic worked as a section hand on the New York Central rail for three years. He then worked manning a pump in a cement factory in Ontario. He earned enough to cross the ocean seven times in 12 years. There were no wine lists or flowers on these ocean crossings, just sleep in the dark hold of a ship.
In Ontario he bought a harvester's ticket to Govan, Saskatchewan and rented some land. He got together horses and machinery, lived alone and worked from dawn to dusk, hiring on the road crews for the cash to send home to his wife and family which by this time numbered five. His eighth year on the land at Govan, he had enough money to send for the eldest boy's passage, Steve was 16.
In the summer of the ninth year, a stranger rode into his yard and asked for shelter. He had a farm and an outfit in the Peace, he said the grain grew over a man's head, fish jumped in the lakes, you could shoot a moose from your cabin door. Dominic recalled that they dipped into the home brew and had a toast to such a wonderful country as the Peace and before night was over he had traded places and outfits with the stranger.
The old man continued with his story "so here we are on the opposite bank of the Pine, rushing with the wet feet into the shoes, to keep ahead of the facing day. On the left this little river runs into the Peace, and someplace near is the settlement. We hurry along the river bank and hit an old pack horse trail. Thousands of mice run criss-cross ahead of our footsteps. They squeak and rustle the grass."
"Just before dark we come to McGuire's store. He is shutting the door. We come up the path and stand looking at him. We are miserable. I take off my hat and finger it in my hands and tell Steve to take off his. The storekeeper just looks at us. We don't speak. The sight of us speaks instead. Finally, McGuire says just one word. "Okay", he says, and swings wide the door."
Forty four years later, Dominic was still not over the kindliness of the storekeeper, McGuire, who seemed alone and sad due to some misfortune concerning his wife. The lamp was lit and and moose and beans was produced for the evening meal. Then he lifted down blankets so the two men could make their bed on the floor. Then Mr. McGuire listened to the sad story of the man that had taken advantage of the new Canadian in Saskatchewan, because it was looking like Dominic had been dupedthere was no land and outfit waiting for him in the Peace.
On the wall at McGuire's post was a telephone which was connected to the police barracks several miles away. When Dominic had finished his recital, McGuire cranked the instrument, and from tree trunk to tree trunk the message carried across the wire to the police of the stranger's predicament. Right there, Dominic recalls, was where another wonder took place. The constable rode right over, his name was George Barber of the B.C. Provincial Police. He assured them there was no such settler in the country and there was no such homestead.
He was sorry, he said, and rose to go. Then he stopped and turned. He put his hand in his pocket and drew out a $10 bill. "Here", was all he said. What would $10 buy north of the Peace River in 1922? For Dominic, quite a lot. It would pay the filing fee, exactly $10, on a quarter section of land and after you'd proved up on the land, it was yours.
After the best sleep of his life on the plank floor of McGuire's store, Dominic went to work next morning sawing wood for a neighbour for $1.50 a day. He got room and board at 50 cents a day with another trader, next to the police barracks, where he continued to wield a crosscut saw, and here he struck it rich!!! He found friends.
To Be Continued