Past, Present & Beyond – This was the Year That Was: Pt. 2

Barbara Roden completes her "Year in Review" of 1914 as gleaned from the pages of The Journal 100 years ago.

We return once more to “the year in review”; the twist being that the year in question is 1914. It was a century ago, but many of the events that local residents found frustrating and fascinating – sometimes at the same time – are ones that are equally familiar to a modern reader.

For example, in 2014 a meeting was held in Ashcroft to discuss the future of the local library. A similar meeting took place in 1914; only back then residents weren’t looking at what direction the library might take, they were simply hoping to get one. A group of citizens met in December 1914 to discuss the possibility of “securing for the reading public of Ashcroft one of the traveling libraries which is furnished for a nominal sum by the Provincial Government”. Mr. Hobson of the Ashcroft Hotel offered the use of the hotel reading-room as a library, should the town be successful in raising the necessary funds. Residents were cautioned not to refuse if a delegation soliciting “two bits” visited, as “the penalty will be great”.

In an effort to help immigrants adapt to their new country, Ashcroft restaurant owner Chow Jim donated the use of a room behind his establishment so that a night school could be set up for Chinese youth. Miss Janet Baillie, Mrs. Donald Sutherland, and a number of other residents operated the school, and The Journal reported that “the sight of 20 or more bright young men studying the English language from 7:30 to 9 pm each evening, Saturday excepted, is gratifying to all who long to see the utmost done for the Highest. . . . By their zeal to better themselves, the Chinese offer a challenge to the best that is in us. Wake up, Ashcroft.”

Politics was, as always, a hot topic. The leader of the provincial Liberal Party, Mr. H.C. Brewster, visited Ashcroft in January 1914, to campaign at a public meeting in the community hall. A large attendance was requested, and ladies were “cordially invited” to be there. Quite a few ladies turned up at the meeting, which was considered “very unusual at a gathering of this kind in Ashcroft”. A possible reason for the large female turnout was that it had been whispered that the Liberals were “a staunch supporter of ladies’ rights”. If “ladies’ rights” were indeed part of the Liberal platform, however, “the plank was stepped upon very lightly by the speakers”, presumably to the chagrin of the ladies in attendance who wanted to hear about any plans to extend the vote to women.

Annoyance at the federal government, and its lack of movement regarding local projects, is nothing new. In 1914 there was a good deal of displeasure with Ottawa over the glacial progress of the erection of a long-promised public building in Ashcroft. In late 1912 the Dominion Government purchased a plot of land at the corner of 4th and Brink Streets, intending it to be the site of a new public building. In August 1913 Ottawa advised that work on the building would begin “at once”, but when there was still no sign of any activity by March 1914 frustration boiled over, resulting in a petition being drafted and sent to the Hon. Martin Burrell, MP for Yale-Cariboo. More than 200 people signed the document, which described the “absolute necessity of at once constructing a fit and suitable public building in the town of Ashcroft” in which could be housed the post office, telegraph office, telephone exchange, and Customs office.

The four businesses operated out of three separate locations around town; locations described as “small, unsanitary, and poorly equipped”. The one telephone that connected Ashcroft to the outer world was situated in the telegraph office, which was already far too small to accommodate all the telegraph operators properly; and since Ashcroft would be getting its own in-town phone system in summer 1914, a proper space would be needed for it. The Customs office was described as a “small, dingy building”, while the post office was located within the Central Hotel, and had outgrown its space, to the point that when the Parcel Post service arrived in Ashcroft parcels sometimes had to be left on the sidewalk, as there was no room in the post office itself.

Whether or not it was because of the petition is unknown, but in June 1914 Ottawa announced that tenders for the construction of the new public building would be called for immediately. “The long wait has come to an end,” proclaimed The Journal in triumph. “The watched pot has boiled.” Plans for the new building were put on display in the post office (which probably didn’t help the overcrowding situation there), and were widely admired. “The structure will be one of which Ashcroft will be proud, and will be as durable as the eternal hills.”

Even as Ashcroft celebrated the imminent construction of the public building, however, faraway events were conspiring to ensure that it would be three long years before it was finally built. Late in 2014, Canada found itself involved in a complicated war in a far-off country; much as it did late in 1914, when events in Europe culminated in the start of the Great War. That conflict had an immediate impact on Ashcroft and area, as dozens of local men enlisted and headed east. Those left behind also felt the impact of the war, as the price of staples such as flour and sugar immediately rose. “The worst of it is that when once prices go up they will never come down again,” wrote R.D. Cumming in The Journal in December 1914; a final piece of proof, if it were needed, that everything old is new again.

Barbara Roden

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