From Dillon, we flew fifty miles southeast to Ile-A-La-Crosse where I dismissed my chartered aircraft.
I wanted to spend some time discussing the local commercial fishing possibilities with the post manager. Ile-A-La-Crosse Lake has two main arms -- one running north and a secondary arm, Aubichon Arm, running northwest. The settlement stood on a large flat promontory where the two arms met. The Hudson's Bay Company was established here in 1799 by William Linklater to combat the activities of the North West Company whose trading post, Fort Black, stood a few miles south where the Beaver River flows into the lake. After the union of the two companies in 1821, Fort Black was abandoned and the main job of Ile-A-La-Crosse was to supply sufficient quantities of buffalo pemmican to feed the annual canoe brigades. Governor George Simpson is on record as having severely admonished the local factor, Mr Clark, for neglecting his main duty and spending too much time in the pursuit of fur buying.
W. T. 'Bill' Watt, the manager and another Aberdonian, was getting close to retirement age. A veteran of World War I, he had spent his earliest years with the Company in Ungava and around James Bay. He was an excellent trader and a good trainer of apprentice clerks. His wife, Bella, a lady with a pawky sense of humour whom Bill met in Scotland, loved gardening and the grounds around the dwelling house were a mass of flowers. She was one of the many company wives who created a bit of home in the wilderness for their husbands and families. I especially looked forward to visiting their home because although it was the usual cottage-type, similar to that at Montreal Lake, it was much larger and had a brick fireplace in the living room. Almost every home in Scotland had a fireplace -- they didn't have central heating yet -- and Bill, Bella and I spent many a pleasant evening relaxing with our feet up in front of a blazing wood fire and sipping a dram of whiskey.
Bill took me along to visit the settlement. The Company owned a large tract of land and we had to walk about half a mile along the shore road before coming to the first buildings strung along the shoreline. They were the Royal Canadian Mounted Police barracks, a sub-Indian agent's building, a Department of Natural Resources office and telegraph office. Beyond was an hotel and trading store owned by Marcien Marion, the local big shot. A half-breed, Marcien was a member of the Legislative Assembly for Saskatchewan representing the local riding on behalf of the Liberals.
He claimed that his forebearers had come from the Red River and that Marion Street in St. Boniface -- the French-speaking city across the Red River from Winnipeg -- was named after one of his ancestors. Next was a large Roman Catholic mission with several priests and nuns, the school and the hospital. Dr. Lavoie was in charge of the hospital and when he retired two or three years later, he was replaced by Dr. Hoffman, a German emigrant and his wife. Walking back to the post, I remarked to Bill that our store was a long way from our customers, mainly French-Cree half-breeds whose homes were scattered all around the mission property. Bill agreed. 'We do have one advantage though. We have the post office in our store and since they have to come to us for their mail, most of them do their shopping with us too. In any case, all the other land is owned by the mission or the various government departments so I doubt whether we could obtain a suitable site for a store.' I took note to further check into this at a future date.
Bill and I spent a long time discussing the potential commercial fish buying at both Ile-A-La-Crosse and Patuanak. While it is true there were plenty of whitefish at both places, most of the fishermen's time was spent in hauling their catches by dog sleigh or horse sleigh from the fishing camps to the posts. Marcien Marion, our opposition, owned a Bombardier and was able to go around to individual fish camps and pick up the catch which he sold to a fish buyer in Meadow Lake.
'If we had a Bombardier at Ile-A-La-Crosse and another at Patuanak, we could triple or quadruple our catch,' Bill insisted.
'Not only that, we could tap the three lakes on the Churchill River to the east -- Dipper Lake, Primrose Lake and Knee Lake.' I was most impressed by Bill's arguments and anything that could increase our business I was all for. However, the cost of purchasing two Bombardiers would be a major investment. I told Bill that I had a meeting scheduled with Len Waite at Big River in late September and would see if we could come to some profitable arrangement.
The Bombardier, built in Quebec, is a wonderful vehicle for the north. It resembles a truck on tracks, very sturdy with the capacity of handling a large load. It is built of strong plywood, fitted with two steel-reinforced rubber tracks, has a pair of skis in front for steering and is equipped with a six-cylinder truck motor. From a distance it looks like a tank from World War I.
The next leg of my journey was roughly thirty miles south, up the Beaver River to Beauval. Bill put the post's sixteen-foot boat and outboard motor at my disposal along with a driver and guide. The beaver River valley is beautiful and I sat back and relaxed, enjoying the warm and sunny day. There were wild ducks everywhere and as we rounded each bend on the river, large mallards rose enticingly from the reeds. 'Someday,' I promised myself, 'I'm going to make this trip in the fall and bring a shotgun along.'
At Beauval, there was my old friend Jock Mathieson, whom I had last seen at Ombabika in southern Ontario. This post was originally opened in 1933 as an outpost of Ile-A-La-Crosse. It was small and Jock was plugging away doing the best he could. The buildings were on the west bank of the river on an upper slope and commanded a lovely view of the Roman Catholic mission and school across the river where most of the natives had their homes. Beauval was on a gravel highway running north from Green Lake to Fort Black and the river was crossed here by means of a large wooden scow-like ferry running on a steel overhead cable. I didn't stay long and hitched a ride on a southbound truck to my last port of call, Green Lake, seventy miles to the south. Here the post stood, by the side of the road on the north end of the lake of the same name, from which the Green River flows a few miles north to join the Beaver River.
The North West Company was in business at the north end of Green Lake as early as 1782. To meet this competition, William Auld built the Hudson's Bay Company post, Essex House, in 1799 about a quarter of a mile from the 'Canadian Settlement'. There was bad blood between the two rivals from the start.
In 1805, the Nor' Westers burned down Essex House while the Hudson's Bay men were away for the summer and, later in the spring of 1817, the Nor' Westers took them prisoner and seized all their property. Both posts were still in existence when Captain John Franklin visited Green Lake in 1820.
Halvor Ausland with a bear cub on the steps of the
Hudson's Bay Company store Ile-A-La-Crosse, 1943.
After the union in 1821, the council of the northern department decided to close down the operation and in 1822 moved it to Cold Lake. Green Lake was re-established a few years later, however, and has been in continuous operation since 1831. It was raided by the Indians in the Rebellion of 1885.
When freight for the north was delivered by Red River cart after having been hauled across the prairies from Fort Garry, or later by steamer, on the North Saskatchewan River, the post was at the south end of Green Lake. Later it was moved half way up the west side of the lake. In the early 1940s all buildings were hauled by traction engine to the present site, under the direction of Tom Scurfield. In 1948, people were still digging up copper cooking kettles at the old sites. Green Lake post is now the junction point of two roads -- one from Meadow Lake and the other from Big River -- that join and head north to Fort Black on Ile-A-La-Crosse Lake.
The settlement consisted of the Bay buildings; a post belonging to Karl Fuchs, a free trader; a government overseer; an RCMP detachment and a telegraph station. There were no Indians around. All the local people were Metis most of whom moved from other locations by the provincial governments in an effort to resettle them as farmers at Green Lake. Their interests were looked after by the overseer who also had an experimental farm to encourage the Metis to plant crops. This was the first time I came into contact with the word 'Metis' in the north. When I had heard it previously, it meant half-breeds around the Red River settlement in Manitoba. Now, the Saskatchewan Government applied it to all half-breeds. In the North, there was nothing derogatory about the word 'half-breed'. Everybody used the term. They were either Scots, French or English half-breeds and they were proud of the fact.
The only other occupation at Green Lake was a timber sawmill operated by Gus Porat. He provided employment for most of the locals, and was a decent fellow, well thought of in the community. Frank Milne, our post manager, was another Aberdonian and an old-timer in the service. He had started as an apprentice clerk in the Western Arctic, moved to Fort Chipewyan and now to Green Lake. Inclined to be rather easygoing, he handled his duties capably and was well liked by his customers. When he retired a few years later, he bought a mens wear store at Meadow Lake and went into business for himself. Frank was the proud owner of an automobile and was good enough to drive me from Green lake to Prince Albert where I caught the train back home to Winnipeg.
Now that my post inspection of the district was completed, I realized that I was in charge of a first-class operation, a result of the hard work of the previous district managers -- Tom Scurfield (1941-46) and Bill Cobb (1946-48). The buildings were practically new at all the posts; they had electric power and, for the most part, were equipped with modern plumbing. I was particularly pleased with the calibre of the post managers. Most of them were seasoned veterans who merited the description 'good traders'. The term is peculiar to the Hudson's Bay Company and difficult to describe in a few words. To be a 'good trader', a man must first know how to grade and buy fur. He must also keep the buildings in good repair, maintain the grounds and keep store interiors immaculate and well stocked with trade goods. The books must always be in balance and show a profit, and the debt issue and collection must be properly controlled. To accomplish this, he must have an empathy with his native customers. A knowledge of the language is a great asset. He must have infinite patience and never lose his temper. He must listen when his customer has a grievance and wants to 'talk' to him, be able to judge when a trapper has a valid reason for not paying his debt in full, and be ready with advice when called upon. His word must always be his bond. In short, he is a guide, philosopher, and friend whom the natives can respect and trust at all times and look upon as a friend as well as a boss. To be a 'good trader' is not an easy task.
I have added a photograph and brief biography of Tom Scurfield.
The photograph and information courtesy,
Sergei Scurfield, Tom Scurfield's grand-nephew.
Tom and Sergei Scurfield, 1970.
Thomas Scurfield, was a Manager for the Hudson Bay Company. He was the son of Thomas John Scurfield and Sarah Ann Milburn. He was born June 16, 1913, in Clearwater, Manitoba. He died May 06, 1990, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He married Hazel McFayden on April 17, 1943.
Tom was very friendly and giving, he was many peoples favourite uncle. Tom enjoyed working with rocks as a hobby. He kept his lapidary equipment in his basement where he would work to his heart's content. He would collect or buy rocks, then cut and polish them to make beautiful jewellery, bolero ties, rings, belt buckles, etc.
Tom Scurfield and his wife Hazel McFayden, had two children; Anne Elizabeth Scurfield, born August 05, 1945, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and James Allan Scurfield, born April 30, 1947, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.