by Esther Darlington MacDonald
Over the years and my many interviews with oldtimers in the district, I have heard many stories. Some of them were printed in the Pioneer newspaper, the weekly I owned and published for several years. And some of them appeared, in part, in regional newspapers.
But there are some stories, for one reason or another, that never saw print. Yet, they revealed a lot of the color and the character of their time and place. Undoubtedly, that is the experience shared by many journalists. Who hear the damndest things that are good for a laugh, or a shake of the head.
“Don’t print that! That’s just between you and me”, kind of stories. Or, they are stories you’ve heard after an article has gone to print.
Most of the stories that left some pretty strong images in my head are still in my head. And most of the people who told me the stories, have passed on to the Great Immensity.
Here’s a few of them.
Kinnick Reaugh had some vivid memories of the gifted Walhachin musician, Fanny Faucault. So did Kathleen Corra, a school teacher whose teaching assignment was in Walhachin in the early 30s. Kathleen spent many evenings in the Faucault two storey house on the main street of the village overlooking the river and the mesas beyond. Fanny would play anything from Ragtime to Bach and Beethoven, and Kathleen would turn the pages of the music as Fanny played. Kathleen’s vivid description of the Faucault home and the people who attended these impromptu concerts were the stuff, in part, of a series of articles on Fanny. But some of the grittier bits you might say, were left out.
Here’s a story Kinnick told me. He was living in Walhachin at the time with wife and family. He was working on the railroad. And for a cowboy like Kinnick, it was not work to his liking, but it put food on the table so to speak. We are talking about the 1940s, just after the Great Depression of the 30s, when life in Walhachin was still a reflection of those hard times. The village had long lost the luster that the British upper class had given the town, from 1906 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, with their polo matches, tennis court, French doors in their comfortable cottages with indoor plumbing. All that genteel air of hope and fantasy had long since dissipated in the dry hills and wooded ridges above the village. The pall of poverty or near poverty lay like a gray blanket over what was once a vibrant community, with a hotel, brewery, a haberdashery where a man could buy a good cotton white shirt and a tie, and a womens’ wear shop where the latest from England and maybe, Paris, could be purchased by the affluent Brits’ All the accoutrement of the comfortably well off landed aristocracy.
Fanny’s husband, a legendary teamster named Al Faucault, had passed on. His funeral in Ashcroft attracted hundreds from all over the Cariboo. Al was laid to rest in the Ashcroft cemetery with fitting honours. Fanny had fallen and broke a hip. She was confined to a wheel chair, utterly dependent in those days before home care and other support networks on her youngest son, Al (called “Little Al” by the townfolk). Al cooked, baked, cleaned (after a fashion), and shopped for the necessities. He was devoted to his mother. He once told a friend, “When you lose your mother, you lose your best friend”. Be that as it may, Al drank, and his moods were unpredictable.
One fine day in mid summer, Kinnick witnessed something he never forgot. Something that did not appear in the article, The Fabulous Fanny Faucault, published in the B.C. Historical News in 1995, a biography that earned the writer a prize for the best article of the year from the Historical Federation. This is what Al saw.
Coming out of the Faucault house, with a piece of oak furniture in tow was Al. Somehow, Al manouvered the heavy piece over the road to the edge of the embankment. Kinnick watched the struggle, speechless, incredulous. He watched as Al pushed the article over the edge. It rolled down the embankment, and finally rested on a ledge. Then, Al turned around, and a short time later, came out of the house again, this time pulling another piece of furniture over the stairs, and he pulled it across the road to the embankment. Once again, Al pushed the item over the edge. Kinnick watched with surprise, if not a little horror. Finally, he approached Little Al and asked,
“Why did you do that?”
“I got tired of looking at the stuff”, Al replied, and headed back into the house.
Some time later, Kinnick asked Al if he could retrieve the furniture, if Al and his mother no longer had a need of it. The reply was “Sure”, or something equally affirmative, so Kinnick retrieved the items and took them to his own home. One can only wonder what prompted Al to dispose of furniture that he had grown up with all his life. Furniture that must have meant something to his mother, back there in the house, crippled, and utterly dependent. One can only wonder.
Another story told to me by Kathleen Corra is a happier one. As the young school teacher quickly began to realise that the heart of the social life of the village was in the Faucault home, she became a regular visitor, and Fanny loved having her. Kathleen was a pretty, slender young woman of 20 who had just finished normal school. She had great respect for the cultural things of this life. That is, she loved to read. Loved books. Loved music. And loved intelligent conversation. She found all three of those loves in the Faucault home. Every evening, Al served tea and sandwiches, pretty little sandwiches cut into rectangles. He served cake, cut in neat little squares. And, while his mother played the fabulous Bechstein piano that had been brought from Dresden, ordered by her adoring husband Al some years before, Little Al served the cakes and what nots to the assorted guests who sat around the window seats and even on the floor, as Fanny’s romantic fingers “multi tasked”, playing Rachmaninoff, while smoking a cigarette (probably a roll your own) in a long and elegant cigarette holder.
“The lights were kept pretty low”, Kathleen recalled. “You couldn’t really see too much.” She thought the semi darkness of those evenings and the beautiful music kept your eyes from spotting the dust, – any untidiness. And Fanny would admit that house work was just not something she cared or even thought to do herself.
Another story straight out of the Walhachin handbook, circa 1930s, was told to me by the late Dan Leith of Ashcroft.
Dan told me about a Scottish remittance named Scrimegeour. This fellow was well into mid life when he found himself in Walhachin. He built himself a shack down at the river’s edge, just a little ways down from the bridge. He was known by one and all as “Scotty”, of course. Scotty was not an ignorant man. He had a patina of culture about him. Wrote the lyrics for at least a couple of Fanny’s first world war songs. Scotty also wrote dirty limericks. And, for a few drinks, he would give them away to anybody who wanted to read them. Aloud, or whatever. Parties usually included Scotty, who, apparently, loved a good conversation about almost anything that involved a little mental energy. Parties were the pulsing heart of any Cariboo community, before the advent of radio, television, and all the electronic gizmos that occupy us today.
When the Second World War started in 1939, Dan enlisted and was eventually sent to Scotland. Scotty had given Dan the address of his brother. Dan looked the brother up, and found a very comfortably affluent professor who invited Dan into his home and introduced him to his family. He inquired of course, about his brother’s circumstances, and Dan had to relay, more or less, the truth. There are black sheeps in most families. But Scotty also wrote short stories, and Dan told me that one of them was printed in some glossy publication, and that Scotty received $100 for it. Most of that was probably spent on booze, for himself and his friends. Such is life. I do not know about Scotty’s end – how he died, or whether he ever ventured away from his shack at the river’s edge. But it was a sort of haunting tale that’s stayed with me all these years.
There are stories about suicides. About lonely bachelors in the woods who had built their tidy cabins and outbuildings, but who, succumbed to the overwhelming loneliness of their isolation. There are stories of single men found in their homes in our towns, who seemed to have died of nothing more than loneliness. There are stories about orphan girls who made bad marriages and ended with alcohol problems, but whom, on one or two rare occasions, overcame their drinking problem, moved away, and found another life.There are sad stories that stick in the mind forever, and maybe, should never be told, much less thought about.
Everyone’s life has a story. A visit to the historic graveyards of our towns and villages provide a fund of stories to tell. One epitaph, I’ve never forgotten: “Why seek ye the living among the dead” on the tombstone of the wife of a clergyman, for example. The ages of many of the young women who died, probably in childbirth or of pneumonia are too numerous. Men died in their early 50s back at the turn of the century. Women, often, in their late 20s or early 30s. Under every tombstone and memorial is a story. Fortunately, we have museums now that hold the archives of many of our pioneer folk. Fortunately, today, history has become a fascinating series of stories. Not the fusty, musty, dry reading of yesteryear in our schools and universities.
I still think the best history writers are journalists. I think of Harry Gregson’s History of Victoria. And who can top Winston Churchill’s History of the English speaking Peoples? “Winnie” was a journalist covering the Crimean war. His bent for recording the events and times of his life fill the shelves of our libraries.