Life in the wild and woolly Cariboo in the 1960s

Life was never dull for a young clerk in the Williams Lake Government Agent office.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

There is no greater impact on the human senses than a city dweller’s first introduction to the country. And I am referring to the country we call Cariboo.

From the moment we stepped off the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, known affectionately as the Please Go Easy by the inhabitants of the towns and hamlets along the rail line from North Vancouver to Prince George, what spread out around us was more exciting than any western movie scene that I had ever seen. The year was 1963, and I was about to be launched on an adventure I could never forget.

I’d been hired sight unseen by George Brodie, Government Agent for a good portion of the Cariboo. George had arranged for me to be interviewed by the Government Agent in New Westminster. I’d pass muster, and here we were in a place called Williams Lake. We had passed through some of the most wild and beautiful country imaginable. At Lillooet, native Indian families boarded the train. I sensed we were heading for a territory out of time. The country that time hadn’t forgotten, exactly, but a country that was shaped by the past, a past that was still very much in the present.

The first challenge, after a friendly dinner with George and his family, was finding a place to live. Believe it or not, there was nothing available. Only a few motels along the lake. For a week, we lived in one of them. But the second week, we found a couple of rooms in the basement of a house owned by an elderly couple who turned out to be the warmest and friendliest I had ever known. Mr. Johnson used the term “dry rain”, the first I had heard the expression. “We only have dry rain up here,” he told me, referring to the climate.

My Clerk 2 job in the court house turned out to be a multi-task challenge. I was George’s secretary, and when I wasn’t taking dictation in his office with a view of the meadows high above the town which George predicted, correctly, as it turned out, would one day be filled with a golf course and some very nice homes, I was filling out forms in the front office. In those days, the Government Agent was sometimes referred to “As the Great White Father”, because the agent dealt with government business that included several ministries. George was also Clerk of the Court, and the courtroom was upstairs. It was a very busy place. George had to don the black robes for these sessions, and the RCMP officers were also on hand for them.

One of the jobs I liked very much was Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. The register was a binder that weighed about five pounds. It was kept on a shelf in the safe. Ed, another clerk, with muscles to burn, would remove the register from the shelf for me. Oh, those days before computers! And I would carry it to my desk to record the registrations that came in daily. Dr. Dormaar came in often with death registration forms, all written out in his spidery slanted hand. One of his expressions was, “Warm winter, full graveyard.” The good doctor had a grim sense of humor, I thought.

At the counter, I served loggers who came in to renew the licences for the trucks. These fellows were a special breed, and one which I was completely unfamiliar with. With a cheekful of tobacco, or a lip full of snuff, the odor of stale whiskey, pine and spruce and Diesel and human sweat, sort of set me back on my heels. I found out that George and his deputy would watch me from the doorway of their offices, stifling the impulse to laugh at my expression.  Then there were the ranchers, most of them, tall, stalwart fellows dressed in denim and cowboy hatted. And then there were cowboys, the ones who’d just brought in cattle down the Chilcotin Road from Chezacut or some other place that people didn’t know existed. One doffed his Stetson, covered with dust, and his sunburned face covered also with dust, held a white band where his hat had been, and he said, “How do, Ma’m”. I had never been called Ma’m before and the sight of this good looking fellow straight out of a John Wayne movie, had me goggle eyed.

I typed up all the cheques for Highways crews who worked out in the Chilcotin.  The guys who operated the graders and the snow plows. The names became so familiar, I remember them today. Whole families worked on the highways. The maintenance of which, in those days, must have been the main source of income.

You have to realize that most of the roads in the interior were unpaved until well into the 1970s. In the Cariboo, and there was always plenty of dust and wood smelling ozone in the air because of the big mills owned by Lignums and the numerous bush mills that were still operating here and there. Driving one of those logging trucks, with a 100,000 pound load of logs behind your head as you descended Sheep Creek hill, as you left the Chilcotin country, well, that hill “Separated the men from the boys,” one teamster told me.

We made friends of some of the ranching families. The Satres, near Tatlayoka Lake, and the Fosters, who used to hire tutors from England for their kids. They’d advertise in the London newspapers, and they never had any trouble attracting university grads hungry for a taste of adventure in the wilds of the Cariboo. The Satres had ranched up in Alaska, and they knew all about wilderness. Louise taught school, while Olaf, I was told, would “break trail” to look for meadows for his cattle, Nemiah way.

And those dances in the open air of the Stampede grounds! You had to have lots of stamina, and didn’t mind the stamped thuds of dozens of cowboy booted dancers. The dance was fenced quite roughly and the bouncers had quite a time keeping out the drunks.

We lived for a time in a convent that later was known as “the Hindu palace.  The convent had been converted into suites. We had a wonderful view of the meadows around the Chilcotin Road and could watch the storms descending in dust devils from the road. Eventually, we rented a small house on the Chilcotin Road. One afternoon, I heard unusual sounds. Bells jingling, and horse hooves on the hard packed dirt. At the window, I saw a progression of wagons filled with Chilcotin Indian families, as they wound their way down to the Stampede grounds. What a sight!

The old wooden courthouse on the knoll in the middle of town in Williams Lake is gone. Most of those men who doffed their Stetsons and said, “How do Ma’m” have also bitten the dust. So has most of the dust from the logging trucks, because all the roads are paved today. But those good old days have sure left some fantastic memories!