Strong ranching women set the foundation of our towns

Esther Darlington MacDonald talks about pioneer Dorothy Jackson's love of animals.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

I have written about my first meeting with sisters Dorothy Jackson and Sybil Parke in the early 1980s, and how they had added a new page to our history of the South Cariboo.

But there were other meetings, no less interesting, and revealing of the personality and character, particularly of Dorothy, that should be recorded. The seemingly reserved person who had greeted me tentatively at Sybil’s that afternoon, became a person I would be privileged to know a few years later in  terms of revealing her caring passion for all animals as well as her desire to see the history of her family and the land they had turned into highly productive ranches, recorded for future generations.

Those early pioneers knew they were making history, even if it wasn’t an articulated reality. They lived and worked and built, fashioning not only the lives of their own families, but the lives of countless others.

History is a living document of lives spent building what amounts to civilization in a territory that was as wild and as free as any unexplored in this world. B.C.’s history came at least a century or more later than the history of the other provinces of Canada. For instance, back in Nova Scotia, cities, graveyards and churches were built in the late 1770’s, long before even the Hudson Bay and the Northwest Companies had begun the exploration of the B.C. interior and had built wooden forts on its rivers.

Dorothy and Sybil lived at a time when the wild meadows along the limestone mountains a few miles from what we now know as Cache Creek, were virgin, unplowed. Range land that could be made ideal for cattle production, but the land in itself was empty. It had to be plowed, seeded, and water redirected from its creeks. The adjacent land was a semi desert. The weather couldn’t have been depended upon entirely. The necessity to improvise and channel what limited water supplies that could be harnessed was vital. Cattle grazed in the Lower part of Hat Creek, but it was necessary to move them further up into the alpine meadows to enrich them, fatten them for market. The practice is still used.

In the early 1970’s, I set out one day to explore the Hat Creek Valley. Turning south at the junction of the highway leading to Lillooet, we found ourselves on a flat bench alongside Hat Creek. A few miles in, we found two log cabins with turf roofs, and venturing further along, we came upon a good sized one and a half storey wood frame dwelling set at the edge of a meadow.

Hat Creek ran through it. The building was a typical Cariboo, plank board framed windows, house, without embellishment of any kind. Adjacent to the house were chicken coop-type lean-to’s and sheds, and a good sized barn of logs. When I described the site to Dorothy, she told me that it was the first homestead of the Parke family. The site was later destroyed in the early 1980’s by B.C. Hydro, as they were planning production of a soft coal mine in the valley. The later homestead of the family was built some miles further up.

What struck you as you drove along that big empty valley, was its remoteness. That people would venture into it, and fashion a life for their families seemed an incredible adventure upon which to embark. Children like Dorothy and Sybil were fortunate, in that their parents were able to provide them with a very good education. But that meant the girls had to travel to Yale by stagecoach to Yale for many months in the care of the Anglican sisters operating All Hallowes. Other children were schooled at Cache Creek, where Charles Augustus Semlin and others had a two storey wooden structure built. The Cache Creek School also served as a dormitory for the children of both genders. On Hwy 97, near the Loon Lake turn off, a small log building was erected on a knoll just above the old Cariboo Road. This log school served the children of the Loon Lake area and grades one to six were taught.

While Sybil was in nurses’s training at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, Dorothy was back at the home ranch, spending hours riding in the hills. Indeed, riding was Dorothy’s great pleasure for many years. After she and Basil Jackson married, she told me she would ride the Old Cariboo Road, and up into the hills for miles. Dorothy knew a great deal about horses, as well as cattle. The operation of Hat Creek Ranch with Basil had taught her about Hereford production, irrigation, feed crop production. Indeed, ranching had been her life since birth.

In appearance, the two sisters differed rather dramatically. Sybil was fine boned and lean. Her face was animated, particularly her eyes; and when she talked about her cottage and the improvements she had made in it, she moved around it with enthusiasm. But when she sat down in the sitting area in front of the cottage, and talked politics, she was passionate and firmly entrenched in her opinions. On the other hand, Dorothy and I didn’t talk about politics. Her thoughtful, even guarded approach to conversation,  was almost entirely about animals, that is horses, or her big dog. I think, in her youth, Dorothy would have been a handsome girl, with a good thick head of hair, and a strong body of medium height and weight.

She told me about how she acquired her dog, which I think was a cross between a retriever and some other breed, fairly large. She had found him near her fence outside her bungalow on the Old Cariboo Road one day. The creature was obviously dehydrated and starved. She brought it in, and began to feed and groom it. And eventually, of course, it became a beloved pet. Dorothy would take it to the Cache Creek veterinary clinic to have its claws trimmed. As the years wore on, the dog became crippled with arthritis and Dorothy’s compassion made her realize that it would have to be “put down”. She made herself decide the inevitable, she told me, and she took it to the vet. But instead of asking Dr. Armstrong to put the dog to sleep, she asked him to trim the claws again. And ended up taking her beloved companion back to the ranch.

Likewise, the horses on the ranch were old friends. Even when she could no longer ride, she kept them on. And expressed concern one afternoon as we toured the barn area about the quality of the hay that was being fed to them. Not easily aroused, like Sybil, Dorothy was firm enough in her concerns about animals. And as age began its inevitable creeping into her mobility and energy, she felt even more so about the stock.

Life at Hat Creek House in those early years with Basil, particularly in winter, was a challenge for Dorothy. Even with comfortable furnishings, in the suite which Charles Doering built, drafts and chilling cold invaded all the rooms. And the rooms were voluminous downstairs, with high ceilings.  Dorothy got chilblains, an itching and swelling of the skin.

She had a washroom built adjacent to the dining room. We toured the house together when I was working at the Ranch in the 1990’s, and Dorothy pointed to a rather narrow, worn leather couch in the corner of the dining room, and told me, “That is the couch Basil would nap on.”

Eventually, life in the house became too much, and Dorothy had a bungalow built. It was a lovely, warm, airy, comfortable abode. Nothing pretentious about it. At first, Basil refused to visit it. Finally, after some time, he ventured into the house, and declared it fit enough for him to live in.

Now I was told all this by Dorothy, in her rather dry, amused style. It was one of those prized hours in the company of one of the Chatelaines of the Cariboo, the like of which we will never see or meet again.