Interviewing people who make local history

Esther Darlington MacDonald talks about some of her earliest interviews.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

I am sometimes asked where I get so  much material on our history here in the Cariboo. How I have found the people who can tell you about the “old days” in their respective communities. It really all begins when I came to B.C. and fell in love with the Province, way back in 1959.

History has always been one of  my interests. A subject I did very well in when I went to schools in Winnipeg. I was fascinated by the life of Louis Riel, and learned as much as I could read about him. Visited his grave at St. Boniface Cathedral cemetery – an edifice that was long a landmark across the Red River from Winnipeg’s “twin rivers”, where the Assinaboine River meets the Red.

When I arrived in B.C. and began living in the Cariboo region, I was struck very soon by the richness of the history of the region. The gold rush, the Hudson Bay and North West company traders who broke trail into the wilderness to establish forts and trade for furs with the various native peoples. Fortunately, I met a few persons in Williams Lake back in the early 1960’s who were history buffs and whom had met some of the early pioneers, some of which was recorded. Dr. John Roberts of Williams Lake, and Roy Wellburn were the main sources that triggered my desire to learn from the “horse’s mouth” about life in our towns and villages, from Soda Creek to Ashcroft.

Dr. Roberts, a veterinarian, had flown into the Chilcotin for years, and he had met some of the earliest ranching folk in that wilderness which is still, a wilderness, just 100 miles northwest of Williams Lake. If they were not the original pioneers, their parents were. Characters made alive by the journalist and former MP, Paul St. Pierre, whose books about his adventures in the Chilcotin were the subject of numerous humorous columns in the Vancouver Sun, and whose books grace our library shelves. When I was employed as Chief Interpretor at Historic Hat Creek Ranch, in the early 1990’s, mainly on the basis of my knowledge of the history of the area and many of its pioneer folk, I met Paul, and his grandchildren.  Invited him to speak about his adventures and to sell a few of his books in Hat Creek House. It turned out to be a great event, and it was televised by our community channel. Wild Horse Herds was another event televised by the community channel at Hat Creek, when pioneers, Bill Porter, Kinnick Reaugh and Henry Schneider talked about chasing wild horse herds, herding some, and breaking them in for ranch work.  These men, long gone, left a legacy in their reminiscences which I hope is still in the archives.

My first interviews with pioneers though, began with Tom and Helen Pollard of Clinton. I was living at Clinton at the time, met Chico Choates parents. His mother Mavis, was curator at the Clinton Museum and had saved numerous precious items for the Museum when the old Clinton Hotel burned down. She scavaged through the debris and retrieved artifacts. She was concerned about the deterioration of the displays behind the Museum, and wanted to ask for government funding to rebuild them. The blacksmith’s forge, the farm equipment and other material that had languished for years in need of restoration. I offered to apply for a grant and she replied,

“If you get us some money, I will see that you get a job in the Museum for the summer”.

Well, we received a little less than $20,000, a goodly amount in those days of the early 1970’s. And we were able to hire some men to work on the displays. I was set to work cataloguing every artifact in the Museum. This was quite a job.  When I told former curator at Clinton, Mike Brundage, that it was I who had left the card file of artifacts, he was surprised.

Tom Pollard’s parents were pioneer ranchers who started the ranch that bore the Pollard name and brand since the 1870’s. He left an account of the village that appeared in the Pioneer newspaper when that weekly was published from 100 Mile House. I recall one of his memories about those early travellers who often came on foot through the village.

“A soon as a body was seen on the horizon coming down the road this way into town, we’d rush out and find out who they were”.

Tom recalled the endless teams of freight wagons rolling through, the oxen and mule driven freights. The Chinese shop keepers. Sam and Amelia Kersey who owned the tin covered boarding house on the main highway. A building, unfortunately torn down in the 1970’s. Sam and Amelia played at dances and other social events for years.

When I moved to Ashcroft in 1973, I instinctively sought out the stories of any pioneer folk I could find. People whose parents had settled in the village way back before and after the First World War. Many of the stories of these persons, long gone, are recorded in not only our local Ashcroft Museum, but also in the archives of the Provincial Museum in Victoria. I was told by Bob Graham, who was hired back in the early 1980’s to create a museum in the old post office and employment building at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Brink,

“If it wasn’t for your articles, there wouldn’t be anything in the Ashcroft archives”.

That has changed of course. Over the years, our Museum has received a cornucopia of documents and photographs and other invaluable material from persons not only in the village, but those who moved away years ago, and returned to donate their precious artifacts and other materials. This is an on-going process.

Settlement around the village began even before the railroad came in 1884. Fortunately, when I began seeking out relatives and offspring of those early pioneers, I was able to put articles together, many of which that have been published in our Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal. Names like, Kirkpatrick, Fooks, Evans, Tuoheys, McDonald, Kincaid, and those connected to Walhachin’s rich brief history, such as Rodford, Reid, Faucault, – all of their stories are preserved for future generations to study and evaluate. And, no doubt, there will be history books coming in the future as researchers both in Victoria and other areas interested in South Cariboo history,  see the glamor and the strength of what many would feel are ordinary lives. Lives lived out in this special place with its unique inter-mountain valleys, canyons and mesas.

Still, it  is gratifying, to know that my interviews over the years with so many who have contributed so much to our history, have a place of permanency in the records of the  Province.

Hopefully, I will continue to write, find material that will be part and parcel of our regional history.

Esther Darlington MacDonald

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