RIVER BOATS

There were quite a number of people on hand, trying to hold footage against a slippery mudbank, but Mac was not among them, to our surprise.  We gathered our hand baggage and as we started up the bank, a tall, kindly-smiling old gentleman with a big umbrella, bless him, introduced himself as deputy for my husband, who could not get away from work in time to meet the boat. Mr. Moore, our escort, also had a hired automobile which we shared with other passengers across country to the new Fort George.  In the downpour, we wasted no time.

It was a rough ride, like a sea-going tug in a storm and I expected to be catapulted through the window any moment as we slithered this way and that down the streaming gumbo of Connaught Hill, to what later became the main street of Prince George.  The rest of the trip went more smoothly, and Mr. Moore explained how disappointed Mac was when he could not get a substitute to take his place in the mill so that he could meet us.  When I told him that, of course, business always comes first, I think he gave me a good mark for not making a fuss about it.  It was he who suggested that we drive around to the rear entrance when we reached Alex's house, to avoid the walk through the dripping front garden and get under cover more quickly.  I agreed and appreciated his forethought.

Jessie had been watching for us, saw the manoeuvre and was at the open door when we arrived, to give us a warm welcome.  She went up several notches in the boys' regard when, after kissing them, she said,"You boys have grown so tall that I would not have known you."  She hadn't seen them for more than two years. I thanked Mr. Moore for his kindness and care, and hoped we would see him soon again, when we were in our own home.

I knew that Jessie had suffered an illness earlier in the year, but also knew that like most nurses, she was reluctant to admit any ailment, so I ignored her loss of weight and colour.  Her smile was just as bright, her movements as brisk and her wavy, prematurely-white hair above steady blue eyes, gave added distinction to her natural dignity.

"It's good to see you like your old self, Jessie," I said, "in spite of the long winter and other drawbacks.  The boys and I have made up our minds to like everything, no matter how different." "You might as well," she agreed, dryly, with a twinkle, as she picked up the casualty suitcase Mr. Moore had set down, and told the boys to come along to their Dad's room where we would leave our belongings.

There had been a delay in the delivery of the doors and windows for our house and Jessie invited us too stay with them for a few days.  There were too many flies and mosquitoes about to risk camping in the house without some protection from the pests.

Dinner was cooking and the table was already set for six in what they called the best room of the house, i.e. the roofed and screened verandah, which was ten feet deep and extended across the front of the big, brown log bungalow.  Locally it was said to have a million dollar view and I agreed.

Looking past a clump of jackpines,one saw the clear, rippling Nechaco hurrying at fifteen miles an hour to join the Fraser, a mile or so to the east, passing on the left a sandy cutbank two hundred feet high, crowned with feathery young spruce and poplars, and with its feet in the river.  It gave the appearance of a giant loaf sliced by a giant knife.  On the right was a beautiful grove of birches, red willows and cottonwoods with lush grass knee high, as ideal pasture for the herd of cattle enjoying it.  I later found it a close-to-home locality wherein to pick luscious wild strawberries and raspberries,  Scarlet vine maples and highbush cranberries added a bright splash of colour among the dark young pines fringing the bank of the winding river, until the Nechaco lost its identity in the Fraser.

In the distance on clear days one could see the mountains to the east, beyond the miles of green, and the sunrise would drive an artist mad if he tried to catch the beauty of the shimmering layers of delicate rose, gold and amethyst emerging through the morning mist-caps above the snowy peaks. Four miles away where we had left the steamer, the Fraser flowed placidly now on its destined course to the Pacific, and its farther timbered bank rose high, with a thin brown line threading through the green to show that men and farm machines had arrived to open up the country. When the sun was setting to the west, the gold and rosette afterglow spread across the eastern landscape like a gossamer veil, covering all the ugly raw stumps and dips and hills and ragged winding roads, with a delicate film of beauty,  Yes, they had a view!

Jessie had advised me to lie down and take a rest while the boys were busy with some comics, but they had been disappointed too, so I thought it best to explain to them that they were old enough to realize business will often collide with pleasure, especially in a new country or with a new job.   I could not leave them to sit in judgment on their father, for not meeting us at the boat.  Said I,"It was regrettable but unavoidable, so let's forget it," and they saw the point.

Mac arrived out of breath, before the noon mill whistle had ceased blowing, full of apology and regret for the morning faux pas, and our greeting was affectionate,  He told the boys that they had taken good care of me and themselves, and that we all looked in the best of health.  So did he. Alex came in a few minutes later and gave us a brotherly welcome.  There was no resemblance between Mac and Alex who was tall, well built, heavy and dignified  He had a pleasant, good-looking face, dark eyes and hair, and inclined to be a bit ponderous in talking, probably the result of having done more teaching than active engineering.

Mac's proper name was George and his family did not approve of his being called otherwise, but he had been introduced to me as Mac and had asked that I continue to call him that; it was his preference.  Oddly enough, Jessie too, addressed her husband as Mac more frequently than as Alex. My husband was medium height, good features, clear rosy skin, blue-gray eyes, clipped moustache and his thick brown hair was rapidly turning white.  Mac did plenty of walking, was a pipe smoker, liked people and was always ready to pull his weight.

By the time dinner was on the table, the sun was trying to break through the clouds.  I was told that it had been raining practically every day since May, but that nobody took it seriously, it was sure to clear up.  If one were invited to a tea-party she just went ahead and got ready.  Invariably it was safe to leave the house and the chances were that she would arrive dry, though it might rain hard while she was visiting.  I had a chance to prove that myself before the season was over.

One of the shortages at that time was tender meat, as the butcher stock was brought up from the south on the hoof, and by the time the cattle arrived they had developed better muscles than quality beef.  If a settler happened to have a hog or sheep to spare, he was sure of a good price for it. We were all hungry, and the tasty lamb stew with fresh vegetables and hot biscuits, took our attention and the edge off our appetites.  In between bites I answered various questions about the relatives and friends we had left in the east. For dessert we had hot blueberry pie, a real treat to me and the boys, who, up to then, had not experienced the fun of picking our own blueberries, and getting the full flavour of that fine fruit, which later came to be one of the mainstays of our winter supply.

With dinner and dishes out of the way we got ready for a trip downtown with Jessie, who counted on our meeting some of the other children before returning. The townsite of Fort George included three benches.  A bench is a fairly level stretch of land, plain or wooded, which drops in a step pattern, in this case to another level area, longer but narrower, which also in turn dropped to another level acreage. Like a scenic curtain on a stage, a mile high green-wooded ridge extending west and southerly, formed a backdrop for the new townsite, and was designated locally, as the Foothills. The first bench began at the bottom of the Foothills, and covered two or more miles of sandy, sparsely-wooded country until it dropped straight down about twenty-five feet to the second bench.  This contained the entire business section, also two small wooden churches, Anglican and Presbyterian, and an adequate school house for the requirements of that time. The school showed one of the shortages; it was painted pink, due to lack of more suitable colour, and was never changed.  Many a gathering was held in The Pink School House.  A fine modern school came later.  There was also a Roman Catholic Church over towards South Fort George, near Connaught Hill.  It was there before the new Fort George was born.

Alex and Jessie had built their house at the back limit of their property, leaving the front part for the garden, and it was the first house at the beginning of the first street nearest the town, on the first bench.  At this point the drop was graded to join at right angle, Hammond Street which paralleled the Nechaco River, and from where there was a drop of one hundred and fifty feet to the railway right-of-way.  The river normally flowed six to eight feet below that.

The town was supplied with water pumped from the river to a large tank sitting on top of a wooden building designed like a lighthouse, and situated at the head of the main street, Central Avenue. Practically all of the business places had water laid on, but not all of the houses.  Others were served by the barrel at six bits,(75c) and shortly after I arrived the price dropped to four bits (50c). Competition was getting keener. On the way downtown I asked Jessie about laundry and she said,"If you plan on sending your washing to the Chinaman, Helen, be sure to have it in on Monday; the water gets pretty black by Friday". I thanked her for the hint and afterwards wrestled with the wash at home, in clean water. The largest building in the town was The Fort George Hotel, a well built wood structure of three storeys which stood on the North East corner of Central Avenue and Hammond Street.  It was always filled to capacity, a busy, well-kept house, owned and managed by J.H. Johnson, an honest, courteous Virginian.

 Jessie did some shopping and introduced me at a large, well-stocked general store, smart and spotless.  It was managed by a genial, red-haired young man called James Munro.  I patronised that store until I left the Province although the business had been moved to Prince George in 1916. Next we were taken to the post office to meet the postmaster, whose baby daughter was the first white child born in the town, and she was named for Jessie.  We also met two or three of the townsfolk but no children; they were all away at the Foothill flats picking blueberries.  My boys envied them and so did I.

 There was a small hospital on Central Avenue, with doctor and nurse in attendance.  It could accommodate four or six patients and was usually filled.  With five thousand people in and about the town, there was no dearth of accidents or the usual illnesses that follow construction jobs, where men are prone to neglect their health.  Up the Nechaco River, about a mile west, there was a quite large railway camp, and the men swarmed into the town when the work day was done. Both sides of Central Avenue were built up with stores for two city blocks, and if there was any service lacking, I did not find it. There were several fine clothing stores well-stocked with everything for men, from underwear to the last word in summer and winter needs, two drug stores, three private practicing doctors, a very good picture show, silent of course, which was only open three nights a week after the work stopped and the town came alive, large hardware store, butcher, baker, barbershop, bookstore, jewellery store, furniture imported and built to order, tailor, dressmakers, soft drinks and tobacco and three Banks to take care of the money that wasn't spent.  At that time the Hotel had a bar sixty feet long and was said to take in a thousand dollars a day.  It all looked promising to me. 

 When we were in the post office, I had noticed several men with queer, wooden-frame packs on their backs, something like a washboard, with straps of webbing or leather around their shoulders.  Jessie told me they were pre-emptors, in town for supplies, and after getting their mail, they went to the big store to pack the goods they had ordered for the return trip. We saw them later, on their way to the ferry, and I was told their loads could be twenty-five to forty pounds each, and that the pack-board, really was not as uncomfortable to wear as it looked.  Jessie said that Alex used one going to and from their pre-emption, and I knew that Alex was not fond of walking or carrying loads.  Maybe I was wasting my sympathy, or, logically, a well-padded back could take it better than one whose bones were more prominent.

On the way back, while walking on Hammond Street, a woman passing us turned and bowed to Jessie who said,"Good Day, Mrs. H.."  I had caught full view of her face.  It was beautiful!  The cheap black suit, black straw hat, spotless white cotton blouse and faded black cotton gloves, could not do that face any harm.  She looked to be eastern European, with soft, wavy hair, like deep-brown satin, straight black brows, above sparkling brown eyes with curling  black lashes, a fine straight nose and beautiful red-lipped mouth.  Her skin was warm, golden tan, with the healthy blood showing through.  To me she was a picture of glowing life!

I questioned Jessie who told me briefly, that Mrs. H. and her husband lived across the river and raised vegetables, for which there was always a big demand.  It was one of the shortages, that I would miss more than anything in the line of food. "That is fine," said I, "I will be seeing her again soon, and I'll take the boys with me to help carry the purchases." "Now, Helen," said Jessie, briskly, "you are going to meet Mrs. Shearer, an important Old Timer, and the one to whom I owe everything I have learned about a garden.  She is a real encyclopedia of precious information, and is like money in the Bank, to a raw community like this.  I know that you will like her."

Mrs. Shearer came out to meet us in the garden, and it was like meeting one of my own kin.  She and I understood each other without preamble, and when I met her family later, I could understand why they held her in such reverence and affection, for "of such is the Kingdom of Heaven". She made our boys comfortable by telling them to look around, go see the chickens, and see if there were any strawberries left on the vines. Mr. Shearer had brought his family to Fort George in 1910, and had built his own two-story home first.  Later he built the Fort George Hotel, two blocks away.  He and his family took a prominent part in the development of the new town.

It had been planned to walk down as far as the new house after supper, so we did not linger at the table.  There was no sidewalk below Central Avenue, but the walking was fairly dry that evening as we started out.  There were no buildings on the river side of Hammond Street, after leaving Central Avenue, but on the south side, there was a row of newly-sawn pine shacks extending almost to Fraser Avenue, the eastern limit to the townsite, on which our own house was built a short block from the corner. 

Those shacks were mostly bunk-houses, for men only, and had an open window-counter to sell soft drinks, 2% beer, tobacco, cigarettes and, sometimes, short order food.  Inside there were tables, chairs, games going on, and in one or two of the larger buildings, a pool-table.  Victrolas were blaring all the time.  Music seems to be a must for men away from home, and these small places of entertainment were heavily patronised by the hunkies from the railway camp. On the way down, Mac told me not to be nervous in passing those shacks.  "Most of the men," he said, "are good fellows, just awaiting the decision on the railway station in order to get started in something substantial.  This is just killing time for them."

According to information given to me, Fort George expected that the railway station would be built one thousand feet from the river end of Fraser Avenue, which would leave it easily accessible to the town of Fort George, I understood!  As my old Great-Aunt Eliza would say, "The World and the crows" had heard of the really one-sided war as to where the railway station would be located, but it was a foregone conclusion.  The Railway Company knew all the time.  It headlined the newspapers as "The Battle of the Georges."

The Law of the land had already arrived in the district.  A Government Post was maintained at South Fort George, with jail for malefactors and living quarters for the Governor and his wife, clerical staff and several provincial police,  It was a standing joke that it was always possible to "run in" a couple of drunks after Spring opened, to work the alcohol out of their  systems, by cultivating the flower and vegetable garden, and mowing the tennis courts ,which weer the special pride of the Governor's kindly, popular  Lady.  I had also been told that, up to the time  the railway arrived, one might hang money on the trees, and no one would touch it.  Honesty was instinctive there!

When we turned the corner of Fraser Avenue, Mac pointed to the house amongst a clump of jackpines, and without a word the two boys raced away, Murray winning, of course, his legs were longer.  By the time we arrived, they had circled the building twice, and could tell us that there were no animals inside, having looked through the opening for the north window. Grinning from ear to ear they were almost speechless with delight, and I was glad it was so.  They had come to a good land to learn to help themselves without soft living.  One of the first things they questioned their father about was the getting of a Christmas Tree.  It was Alan who asked, "Dad can we cut down and bring home our own Tree for Christmas?" "You surely can," said Dad, "but I'll go with you.  I know where the best ones are."  "Thanks" was a hearty duet.

The house proper was twenty-two feet wide and twenty-six feet long.  The cream-coloured, peeled jack-pine logs were nine inches across the butt, and after the knots had been smoothed off, were laid one on top of another, tip to butt, to make a wall and meet an upright at the corner.  I had hoped that they might have been notched and fitted, but I was told that there was no time for fancy building then. The gable peaks faced north and south, and left space for a good attic storeroom, after the floor had been laid in, and six-inch peeled logs crossed from east to west to support that floor.  All the outside chinking had been done with good plaster containing plenty of hair to hold it, and Mac would do the oakum inside chinking himself. The rear door opened into a substantial shed to hold wood in winter and to serve as a kitchen in the summer.  I knew that Mac was itching to get started on the finishing inside, which he was to begin the next day, Saturday afternoon.  I had noted the window openings and decided that a few more should be added, come next spring, maybe; I have always liked plenty of light.

On the way back to Alex's, we bought a big range for wood and coal burning, with a reservoir for hot water at the back and it cost $69.00.  It seemed a lot fo money to me.  The little sheet-iron stove which we bought at the same time for the living room only cost a few dollars and it was worth its weight in gold during the winter we spent there.  It had a flat top with lid covering a hole to drop the logs in or heat a kettle and what a comfort!, for we did not keep the fire going in the range after the evening meal was over.  Mac had already ordered twelve cords of wood sawed to sixteen inches; he intended to do the splitting himself. That night after we returned, Jessie set the bread for the morrow's baking,and I watched the process with interest.  I had never made bread, but in my precious freight there was a large bread-mixer, and a good supply of dry yeast cakes, the brand Jessie had advised me to buy.  She cheered me by saying,"There's nothing to it, Helen; just follow the directions on the yeast package and watch your oven."

I knew that company was expected for the weekend, so I suggested that Murray and Alan be sent to bed early, and Jessie offered to help them get a warm bath before settling down for the night.  She said there was a tankful of hot water at the back of the stove, enough for me to have a bath too, for which I was grateful.  We'd had our last baths in Edmonton; this time it would be in a washtub in the kitchen.  The boys were a bit shy of their Aunt Jay, but she told them she had bathed lots of boys bigger than they were, so I produced their pyjamas and the job went on.

In the meantime Mac brought a large mattress down from the storeroom, and made up a bed on the floor in his room for his sons, who were soon asleep.  We four grownups then settled down on the verandah to exchange news, especially as to what had happened back in Toronto since the other three had left there.  At ten o'clock we turned in, and it was Jessie who brought me a cup of tea in the morning; she would not let Mac waken me before he went to work.  At home he had always brought me a cup of tea and a piece of toast before he left.  It is a good habit for a husband to cultivate and it pays dividends.  Mac started it himself, when the boys were both babies and wakened at the same time in the morning.  I was  handicapped in getting his breakfast, and Mac was late for work, so he got his own breakfast and arrived ahead of time.

After breakfast that first morning, I asked Jessie to give the boys a job, so she had them rake the chips and tidy the ground at the back, where a man had been sawing wood for the winter.  It takes a lot of wood to heat a house in those winters, but pine makes a fast fire and there was plenty of it to be had cheap.  I was glad to be assured that log houses were warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  The air was so clear that the sun was very hot during the day, but blankets was the rule at night. When Jessie had mixed the sponge that morning, and but the bread back in the mixer, she asked me to punch it down if it threatened to go over the top, while she was downtown doing her ordering.  I felt I was learning something.  The boys were going with her but I had elected to stay at home and do a few chores in preparation of the dinner party on Sunday.  Her friends belonged to Vancouver and she had known them for years.

I felt that it was awkward for me and the boys to have arrived just when we did, but Jessie pooh-poohed the idea.  She was always forthright, however, and said earnestly, "I wish you knew, Helen, just how glad I am to see you and the children here safely." "I do know, Jay," said I with a grin," I know exactly how you feel!" She looked puzzled for a moment, then smiled knowingly and followed the boys down the garden walk. I could appreciate Jessie wanting her home to herself and Alex, but the arrangement with Mac had been a business one, and living with them was part of it.  I also knew that he had made friends for himself outside their home, in order to avoid trespassing too much on their privacy.  Well, it is true.  There is no place like home, for me, for you, for everyone!