Walter Ferguson: a pioneer remembered

Paying tribute to one of the last of the old-timers.

Area pioneer Walter Ferguson.

Area pioneer Walter Ferguson.

A goodly crowd of family, friends, and associates met in Ashcroft on Aug. 13 to celebrate the long and industrious life of the last of the pioneers of the Bonaparte and Hat Creek valleys, Walter Ferguson of Walhachin.

So many had gone before him. Names that resonate in our history books, museum archives, and most certainly in our memories of families who shaped their time and their land in this place we call South Cariboo. Ike and Edna Lehman, who ranched in the Upper Hat Creek valley; Helen and Alvin Kerr of Clinton; Johnny Morgan of Two Springs; Alfie and Nina Robertson, whose parents ranched in the Lower Hat Creek Valley for many years; Alan Parke of the Bonaparte Ranch; and Dorothy and Basil Jackson of Hat Creek Ranch.

Walter Ferguson was the last name in that roster of pioneers. As noted by his good friend Val Carey of Walhachin, his passing spelled the end of an era.

His family settled in the Bonaparte River valley between Cache Creek and 20 Mile, and vestiges of the old homestead remain on the site. It was the era of the horse drawn plough, the horse and hay wagon, when work in the fields began at dawn and ended at sunset, and many a child was removed from school to help bring in crops, feed and water livestock, cut firewood, bring in water, and much more.

Walter Ferguson was such a child. His grade three education was cut short at Lady Byng school in Ashcroft. Like many of those pioneer children, who loved school and left it with everlasting regret, Walter was a very good student. However, they entered their adult lives with the full expectation that survival meant hard work, little pay, and no union or government organization to protect their rights. For many of the younger generation, such a life is difficult (if not impossible) to imagine.

Coming from an era like that creates a person who stands out, even when he’s sitting down. I don’t know exactly what creates that persona, but I think “strength of character” pretty well sums it up. From his impeccable Stetson hat to his cowboy boots, Walter’s rugged appearance spoke of perseverance, fortitude, and every quality that shapes a man whose destiny is pretty well determined even before he is born. And Walter was born hours before his mother could reach the Lady Minto Hospital in Ashcroft.

Walter was, by all accounts, a great storyteller. The ranch and farming life created in him a love and respect for all farm animals, and every other kind of animal. A rancher’s life depended on them.

Walter was something of a healer of ailments, and told the story of a cow that would have been killed because it was too ill almost to stand. Walter said “No,” took the animal to his home, and nursed it back to health. People came to Walter to ask his advice about an ailing animal.

Walter talked about farm life: the frozen water troughs that had to be thawed so the animals could drink, the frozen sandwiches in the lunch bucket that had to be thawed over a campfire. He could draw a graphic picture of farm life with few words, but they were words that spoke of a life that was as rich as it was hard.

Walter knew the history of every family in the country. He knew all the characters who worked on the farms. He was a mine of information about that valley life in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Val Carey calls Walter “a walking history book.”

But life wasn’t all hard work. There were picnics, riding in the hills and up into the mountains, and entertainment that was homemade, before the advent of radio and TV. Walter liked to sing the old western numbers that are still sung around campfires today.

“A gentleman of the old school,” Val termed Walter. Indeed, like many old-timers, Walter was baffled by some of the technology and habits of modern life. The metric system was a nuisance to him, as it still is to many of us. But he enjoyed television, loved the programs about animals and plant life.   “He loved to learn about the world,” Val recalled in her moving eulogy at the memorial service.

Walter’s last years were spent in Walhachin, but he met many old-timers like himself when he went to Ashcroft with Val. He was recognized and respected throughout the area. Walter was a listener, always courteous, a gentleman. He enjoyed convivial company at the pub in Savona, and visiting the old homesteads at Upper Hat Creek.

“Over the mountains of eternity,” Val Carey suggested, as how we should see Walter and his family of times past. Walter on his chestnut mare. Ellen and Ned, Jimmy and Jane, Jesse and Belle, the whole Ferguson family. They’ve left, but they still survive. In memory, and history.