Stories of Canadian pioneers.
Irene Naff was a city girl, accustomed to a busy life full of people and the bustle of social affairs. When she came to the Cariboo, to the remote homestead at Montana Lake, she found the loneliness almost unbearable at times.
Back in Seattle she and her children lived alone for some time while her husband John and his friend Ed Malm worked at a gold mine in Hedley, B.C. But then she had been surrounded by family and friends and the city itself to keep her occupied. Malm and Naff began to hear stories about the huge wilderness country in the BC Interior, where plenty of homestead sites were still available. They were tired of the unhealthy, dangerous work underground in the mine. They packed up and headed north on horseback, through Princeton and on to Kamloops. They followed the North Thompson Valley to Little Fort where they decided to have a look at the Cariboo. They travelled over the rugged old Mount Olie trail and continued on past Lac Des Roches.
Naff and Malm camped at the Jowsey homestead on Montana Lake for several days to check out the area. The property along the lake adjacent to Fred Jowsey's parcel looked promising so they decided to settle there. Noveta recalled that Jowsey happened to be the first Justice of the Peace in that part of BC, a handy coincidence as he was able to help the two men stake out and file claims. Both men built log cabins on their claims.
Meanwhile, Irene Naff was still in Seattle. As soon as his cabin and outbuildings were finished, John travelled to Seattle on the train from Ashcroft and brought his family north.
After she had been in her new home for a while, Mrs. Naff began to miss the cultural side of city life. She began to worry that the homesteaders' children were suffering from a lack of artistic entertainment. She was convinced that they needed some refinements to keep them from growing up as wild as their surroundings. So she wrote to her daughter Viola who was studying in Vancouver and asked if she had any ideas that might spice up the children's lives.
As a result of Mrs. Naff 's letter, "moving pictures" came to the Cariboo.
Viola Naff arrived at her parents' home for a vacation with several cardboard cartons full of pictures that she had cut from different kinds of magazines. The pictures were to be part of a wonderful surprise for a group of homesteaders' children who were invited to attend "a magical evening" at the Naff 's home. Noveta recalled the wonder of that evening with an awe undimmed by the passing of more than eighty years.
"I was really little, not even school age. We rode all that way out to Montana Lake in a wagon, as excited as we could be. When we got there, we stood as quiet as little mice and watched while Viola pinned pictures to a bed sheet. The pictures covered that sheet, there were so many. They were good pictures of people dancing, or people jumping, chopping wood, animals running and people hopping around. Wagons were going along. A lot of action pictures.
"She hung the sheet in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen. Then she told us kids to sit on blankets that she spread on the floor in front of the doorway, big kids in back. All the lamps were put out. Then Viola went behind the curtain with a candle and waved the candle back and forth and up and down behind the pictures. The movement of the candle made it look like the people and things were really moving and dancing. She did a lot of talking and explaining things to us. We kids were just thrilled. We thought that it was a real moving picture show. Years later, we still talked about the night we went to our first moving pictures show," Noveta said.
Noveta remembered that she and the other little girls thought Viola was wonderful. She seemed so glamorous, like a girl in one of her moving pictures. Noveta has a photograph taken on Lac Des Roches, circa 1921, in which Viola is sitting with straight-backed dignity on a box on the front of a raft. She is wearing a filmy, lace-trimmed dress and holding a fishing pole daintily to one side.
"Her mother Mrs. Naff was real a lady too," Noveta said. "She was always dressed so nice and was so kind. When she reached 100 years old, I went down to Seattle for her birthday party and she still looked great!"
Noveta remembered another woman who was very kind to her and left a warm, lasting impression.
"The Jowsey family was one of the first in this area," she began. "Jenny was the youngest daughter and she was the same age as my older sister Velma. I remember that I was sitting next to her on the floor at the moving picture show at Naffs'. I remember that girl and her sisters so well.
"The Jowseys had three older children: Betty, Maggie and Jack. The girls were excellent horsewomen. They always wore such good thick sheepskin chaps to protect their legs. They would ride out from their ranch to the Bridge Lake Trading Post where they would pass the time with Velma, who was working there. When Velma came home from the store she would tell us the latest news about the Jowsey girls, what they were wearing, what they said and all. Beulah and I just hung on every word!"
Mrs. Jowsey enjoyed having visitors stay overnight at the ranch so one day, Jenny invited Noveta to ride home with her and stay for the night. Noveta was very reluctant to do so. She was only five or six and sleeping over at relatives' or close neighbours' was one thing, but spending the night far from home at almost-strangers' was something else. But Jenny persisted and finally persuaded the little girl that her mother would be so happy to have company. Velma would sleep over too.
Noveta rode out to the ranch seated behind Velma , with her hands wound tight in her sister's shirt. When they reached the Jowseys' she slid off the horse. She shadowed Velma to the kitchen door where she leaned against the doorframe, shy and silent. Mrs. Jowsey took her hand and soon won her over with kindness.
"After that, Jenny would get us kids to go up to Montana Lake and stay overnight with her mother once in a while," Noveta remembered. "She was a quaint little English lady, really nice and kind and every night she'd come and kiss you softly 'good night' on the top of your forehead."
When any of the Higgins family rode out to Marion's Bear Lake homestead at Machete Lake, they followed the road that wound through the Jowsey ranch. They knew that Mrs. Jowsey was always happy to have them stop by for a rest.
Irene's hard working companion on all her sewing projects was the sturdy treadle machine that had made the trip from Oregon by train and freight wagon. It's needle punched over heavy, tanned skins and skimmed over lightweight materials.
She made warm, soft buckskin jackets, dresses for her girls, and pants and shirts for the boys. She made serviceable clothes for daily wear, work pants and coats, and fancier things for "good." Sometimes she would make over articles of clothing into something new. Hand-me-downs were altered and mended and back in action in no time.
Noveta liked to watch her mother at work. "If a relative in Oregon sent her a piece of fine material she would sew something special, like a pretty dress or a tailored suit for one of the boys. One time she made Cecil a spiffy double breasted suit with knickers. The coat had two rows of shiny brass buttons. To me and my sisters, the suit was just more proof of how spoiled that Cecil was!"
As the girls grew older, their mother made dresses for them with detachable collars. "The collars were sometimes store-bought and made of lace, but mostly they were crocheted by Mother. She made very pretty ones. Those collars changed the look of our plain, hand-me-down dresses."
Noveta added that her mother was a perfectionist, "Boy, how many times you'd have to try a dress on before it suited her! She kept adjusting the seams and whatever and the hems had to be just right." Eventually, the girls became adept at sewing their own clothes, creating stylish copies of outfits that they saw in catalogues and magazines.
"Mother liked to dress up too. She was a sharp dresser. She had something special that she liked to wear when she was going out. That fur cape with the embroidery she brought from Oregon in 1914, the one in the picture. She wore that cape for years. She was proud of it and it did look nice on her."
For a while, Irene kept a small flock of sheep and carded and spun her own wool. "She took up knitting and made wonderful warm sweaters and strong high socks for us kids," Noveta said. "The good thing about home-made socks was that she could darn them when they got holes in them. She always had that darning basket ready by her chair for whenever she might have some time. We called it the sock basket."
Hats were important year round: woollen toques and fur hats for winter and light, airy, shade-brimmed summer hats. Irene made the children's hats and her own. One of her favourite patterns was a soft floppy beret, which she copied in pastel colours for herself and Irene Naff. In a fresh-as-new photo, the two Irenes smile at the camera from under identical hats, looking like country girls in an old French engraving.
During the summer, the Cariboo sun and the clear air could be a sweltering combination. Noveta said, "Everybody had a summer hat. Mother was so afraid that we'd get sunstroke, so we all had to wear the hats she made at all times." The boys wore ones similar to porkpie newsboys' hats with big, soft crowns. The girls' hats fit close to their heads in a "cloche" style fashionable in the twenties.
Sensible ten gallon style hats were worn by the men and boys and also by girls when they were riding. The hats had huge floppy brims that were excellent for shade and for protection from rain. "I saw those big hats on lots of people but I never had one myself, " Noveta said.
"Now shoes were another thing! We wore them as long as glue, string and twine could hold them together! Buying new shoes was a serious decision, for my folks, one that was put off as long as possible."
Men wore heavy workboots made of thick, coarse leather with sturdy grommets for laces or twine. Farm women wore similar boots.
Of course, everyone had to have gumboots during the wet, muddy times. We kids thought it was neat that they were named for the gum from rubber trees in India. We just knew that it was pretty far away, where there were tigers," Noveta laughed. Into the 1920's, women's "good" shoes had high tops and were secured with laces threaded around buttons and tightened with button hooks. Noveta said that she remembered so clearly her mother and Irene Naff sitting side by side on a bench, hooking the laces of their highbutton shoes with long buttonhooks.
For most homestead children, shoes were seasonal wear, cold weather only. In the warm months, everyone went barefoot. Children attended school in their bare feet, rain or shine. Running over stones, racing through stubble-spiked fields and playing baseball on prickly grass laced with thistles was as normal to them as sneakers on pavement are to modern children.
The children's feet were "as tough as old hides." Noveta said. "Stubbed toes and cuts were just part of life. Half the time we didn't even notice cuts and slivers until later. Nobody cried and carried on about them. Mostly we didn't care but when the weather started to get cold, it could be miserable. I remember spending half the time in school before it was time to start wearing shoes, trying to pull my dress down over my cold feet and legs. In the winter though, everyone wore rubber lace-up boots over heavy wool socks and that was warm. Smelly though."
The shoes that the children did have were often second-hand. As long as they were still wearable, outgrown pairs were passed down the line. When new shoes or boots were ordered from catalogues, it was a big event.
Some of the children wore home-made shoes. Noveta related a story that she said still makes her feel sad. "It was pitiful. This one family, the poor kids had these flat, put-together shoes that their dad made. They were uncomfortable and clumsy, just barely shoes; just shoes enough to keep the soles of their feet from sticks and rocks. They didn't like wearing them but it was the best that their father could do for them.
"They had to walk about four miles to school in those shoes. On the way, they would take them off and hide them in the bush and go barefoot. Well, one day, Mr. Holland and his son decided to burn a brush pile and the shoes were in there. When those kids went to get their shoes on the way home, of course all there was left was a pile of ashes. The poor things were so upset to go home without their shoes! They knew they were in big trouble!" Only "well-to-do or spoiled kids" wore shoes year round.
One warm summer day, four year-old Noveta, her brothers Cecil and Ronald and younger sister Beulah were playing in their yard, happily unfettered by shoes. The Bell girls, Bernice and Helen, were visiting the Higgins children that day and of course their feet were bare and comfortably dirty like the others.
Then along came a wagon with visitors: Irene Naff and her son Vaughn. Vaughn was clean and neatly dressed, as he always was. He was also sporting a fine pair of shoes.
Now Velma was always on the lookout for an interesting subject for her camera, so when she saw the new arrivals pull up, she decided to take a picture of the seven youngsters who were all about the same age and the same size.
"She started to line them up on the grass but suddenly Ronald refused to cooperate. He declared that he was going to wear shoes for the picture, just like Vaughn! Noveta laughed. "He was not going to be outdone! So into the house he marched.
"He was right put out! He wanted to be just as good as Vaughn, so he hunted and dug around until he found shoes and stockings to put on. He finally stomped out where we were waiting.
Those shoes were way too big, probably one of the older boys' but he thought he was really something."
The photo that Velma took that day is a beautiful shot of laughing youngsters, all tousled blondes but Vaughn, and all but two are barefoot.
Velma had become interested in photography when she worked for Mr. Webb after school and on Saturdays at the Bridge Lake Trading Post. Mr. Webb had given her a camera as a gift and showed her how to develop her own pictures. She set up a makeshift darkroom in the corner of her bedroom. The large collections of her photos are a unique documentary of life on a Cariboo homestead.