Interview with Carl Strom




Levesque: I am interviewing Carl Strom, a pioneer of Prince George and District, a resident of this area for over 64 years. Carl lives with his wife, Josephine, at 1690 Dogwood Street, which was originally 990 Yale Street when he first moved in 1948. Carl moved to Prince George from Alberta with his father, mother and brother, Al. His sister was born in Willow River. His father, brother and himself owned the WAC Sawmills Limited. He also owned another sawmill at Strathnaver which he later sold to Dunkley Lumber.

Levesque: Carl, where were you born?

Strom: I was born in a little farming town in Alberta called Viking on January 23, 1921 to Scandinavian parents. My father was Swedish and my mother was Norwegian.

Levesque: When did you first come to Prince George?

Strom: I first came to Prince George with my family in the spring of 1923. The reason for moving to Prince George was my dad who was a railroad tie contractor, was taking out and making railroad ties for the CNR. He first came to Prince George in 1921 working as a tie maker out west towards Vanderhoof, Isle Pierre and those areas. Then he went back to Alberta and that's when I was born. The following year, 1923, he moved permanently to Prince George.

Levesque: Where in Prince George did you live?

Strom: We lived in two or three different places in one year. We were just renting. The first night into Prince George, we stayed at a very prominent hotel which belonged to one of our Justices of Peace called' Mr. Moran, Paddy Moran, The hotel was called the Connaught Hotel. My parents rented a house that was in the bush at the time which was where Sunspun Wholesalers are today. It had a boardwalk from there out to George Street as it was kind of swampy in the area. They had a water tap right on the corner of First and George and that's where we got our water. We carried it back to the house.

Levesque: That was all bush in there.

Strom: All bush, yes. We lived in Prince George for one year, 1923 and the winter of '24. Then we moved out to a farm called the Wiley Farm where the Willow River and the Fraser join together. We lived in a house on the farm that was originally built in the construction days of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad which housed a doctor and a nurse. They had a big construction camp right at the mouth of the Willow River here the scow Landing was for the transportation of goods down he Fraser River from Tete Jaune. There was also a little hospital to serve the people that were working on the railroad.

Levesque: When was that house built? Do you know?

Strom: It was built in about 1911 during the construction of the railroad, the Grand Trunk Pacific and also the days of the scows on the Fraser River. It was 10 or 12 years old when we moved into it. Later it was transformed into a farm house which we went out to live on and to farm to try and make a living.

Levesque: Can you describe the house? Do you remember?

Strom: Yes, it was a 2 story building which had 2 bedrooms, a big front room, and a large pantry. It also had a conservatory where the people used to eat, with a large basement underneath. They had a housekeeper, a doctor and a nurse that lived in the place. The housekeeper did the cooking for them and things like that. We just turned it into a farm house when we moved in and used it, as is, for a good many years. My sister who is now Mrs. Jack Redman of Prince George was born on this farm in 1925. Her birth was quite an incident because there was no doctors in the area at the time. The closest one was at Giscome, B.C. To get a doctor in those days, there was no transportation other than horses. There was a young lady, Elizabeth Standing, who lived there. She was about 18, 19 years old. She rode on horseback the whole seven miles to Giscome to inform the Doctor that my mother was in labor. The doctor in Giscome at that time was called Doctor Laceley.

Levesque: How far away was that?

Strom: Seven miles and Doctor Laceley rode back with her on horseback, out to the farm and delivered my sister.

Levesque: On the farm did you raise livestock and plant vegetables?

Strom: Originally on this farm my dad started out to grow grain. We had horses and cows and things like that. The farm we lived on was called the Wiley Farm which was next to another farm already under cultivation called the Burden Ranch, a place picked out by one of our early surveyors of Prince George, Mr. Fred Burden.

Levesque: Did you have to clear this land or was it  already started before you moved in?

Strom: The biggest part of that we were utilizing was already clear so it wasn't that we had to jump in and clear land or anything like that. There wasn't as much as my father required for his farm so he rented the Burden ranch. Also then we had close to one hundred acres of land under cultivation. He grew grain one year which didn't prove out to be too good. The stalks of grain grew up six or seven feet high and great big heads on them with nothing in them. The next year he put the whole thing into potatoes and had potato diggers pulled by horses, regular potato diggers. He use to hire the natives from the Indian Reserve at Shelly. They would come out and camp right on the farm. They would do the potato picking. Then we would load the potatoes onto Model T Ford trucks, haul them down to the railroad loading platform at Willow River. They were loaded into box cars, not in sacks, exactly the same way as they load grain. They just loaded the potatoes into box cars with doors on each side to keep the potatoes from falling out. These potatoes were hauled to Edmonton, Alberta, into some processing plant. What they did with them, I don't know but I know they all went. We did this for two years. It was getting close to the time when the hungry 30's or the hard times were starting. We moved into Willow River as my brother and I were at school age and we had to get next to a school. We bought a house which was only one and a half miles from the farm. We lived there until my brother and I went to school. He started when he was six years old and l started the next year. It was a little log school building. In my public school years we had as high as forty to forty four pupils with one teacher in this school.

Levesque: Of every grade.

Strom: Of every grade, yes, up to grade 9.

Levesque: Did you still maintain the farm or did you sell it?

Strom: Yes, we still maintained the farm. In those days the economy of this area was pretty good, and people had money. My father bought a brand new car from Prince George Motors in Prince George which was on George Street. I think he paid $650.00 for it. It was brand new, a sedan car. Soon after we bought it, in 1928, we took a trip to Kelowna where the rest of my mother's relatives were. This took quite some time because the roads weren't even gravel. If it rained, you had to stop. You didn't go ahead. It was just like grease. We finally arrived in Kelowna and home. We were away close to three weeks.

Levesque: This was in the summertime?

Strom: Yes, this was in the summertime.

Levesque: As a child did you have chores?

Strom: Yes. We all had our chores to do. As a matter of fact, we kept 2 cows always, pigs and chickens. It was my job to look after the cows. I milked two cows, morning and night. Also looked after the cream separator which was used to separate the cream from the milk to make butter. We had one of them. I also had to look after going out in the evening, getting the cows and bringing them home from sometimes two to three miles. They would wander off in the day and I had to bring them back, feed them and put them in the barn. We always have gardens in the summertime growing all the vegetables that we needed for the winter. We had root cellars under our houses where we stored vegetables for the winter. We had to cut wood which was the fuel we burned in our stoves for keeping warm and also for cooking. We had to cut our supply of wood in the summer so we didn't have to go out in the winter and pick it up. There was no such thing as hauling in the winter time with vehicles. We had to use horses and sleighs.

Levesque: You didn't use the Model T.

Strom: In the winter time we couldn't operate them because there was no way of ploughing the snow and things like that.

Levesque: You sound as if you were awfully busy. Did You have leisure time?

Strom: Yes, we had lots of leisure time. In the evenings we had card tournaments. There was dances for the younger people. We made our own recreation in our homes. We all had battery operated radios. We had big high aerials put up beside our houses. We could listen to the Amos and Andy show.

Levesque: You would sit down as a family and gather around the radio.

Strom: Fibber McGee and Molly was another thing that we listened to. It was quite unique, and the news, of course. You had to have a battery which was called the 1,000 hour battery. Everything was timed. You didn't turn the radio on until the right time and when that was finished, you turned it off to conserve the battery because they were quite costly. If you watched them and used them as you should, they would last a whole year.

Levesque: When it  ran out, could you recharge them?

Strom: No, you had to buy a new battery.

Strom: They were quite, in our terms today, very cheap. They were around $4.95 up to as high as $6.00 which was quite a bit of money to pay out in those days. Our social life included a lot of winter sports. We were very enthusiastic skiers. My dad had both my brother and l on skis when we were around 5 years old. We were out cross country skiing, building ski jumps and things like that.

Levesque: Out at Willow River.

Strom: Out at Willow River, yes. There were quite a few of the people interested in skiing. We kept that up all winter. It was a very interesting sport.

Levesque: Did you make your own skis?

Strom: We made our own skis, yes. There was a Scandinavian gentleman that lived at Willow River who was very, very good at carpentry work and making his own things. He used to make the skis for all of us out of birch. He would cut birch and season it which was locally grown. His name was Andrew. Slim Erickson, we called him. He used to make his own shoes out of leather and things like that. He was very practical man. He could do pretty near anything so the whole community got their skis made from him.

Levesque: How large was the community in Willow River?

Strom: Well as I said before or earlier, there was about forty four children going to school so it was quite a community. We had two stores and for awhile there was a pool hall. There was the John Newson General Store and AB Crawford General Store.

Levesque: What did those stores sell?

Strom: They sold everything. They were general stores.

Levesque: Both of them were general stores.

Strom: Both of them were general stores. They were right across the street from each other and were competitive. We knew they were really competitive. They never spoke to each other. The one store had a hotel above it and the other store didn't have a hotel. The Newson store never but Mrs. Crawford, as we all called her, also had a hotel there.

Levesque: And were there any other businesses there?

Strom: Sometimes. One time l can remember there being a barber shop for a very short time. Before my time in Willow River the community was more active. They had a lot of different things. That's what they tell me of which I never saw and which I just heard about.

Levesque: Did you hunt?

Strom: Yes, I used to. We all hunted. Most of us knew how to handle a gun before we were 12 years old.

Levesque: Women as well.

Strom: Yes, not so much the women in those days but the young boys. Nearly all of us had shot a moose before we were 12 years old. This would be part of our winter reserve for food. My dad and mother had pigs and we used to kill the pork or the pig. We would mix  the pork. with moose meat and can it in jars which we used over the winter.

Levesque: Were moose quite plentiful then?

Strom: Yes, there were. As a matter of fact, it is hard to explain just how plentiful they were. I've seen my brother and I go out and shoot one moose out of a bunch of nineteen standing in one field.

Levesque: You don' t see much of that anymore.

Strom: You don't see it like that anymore. It was illegal for us to be hunting even carrying your gun at our age but in those days to survive you had to do what you could.

Levesque: Everybody was doing it.

Strom: Everybody was doing it. That was in the beginning of the hungry thirties.

Levesque: How old did you have to be in order to get a hunting licence?

Strom: The same as today. You had to be 14 years old but you had to have your father with you. Your father had to be with you until you were of age, twenty one in those days.

Levesque: Did you shoot one moose to last for the winter?

Strom: There were other people who shot them. We would give moose meat to other people and they would give moose meat to us. It was a community affair. Nobody knew exactly how many moose there were. We more or less stuck together.

Levesque: You mentioned that your father owned a Model T Ford sedan. Was that quite customary or did you find your particular family was privileged?

Strom: No, it was whatever you wanted to buy. They had all kinds of fords that were available. They had the touring car, the top came down. They had the one seaters where only two people rode in them. They had the sedan with four seats.. Two people sat behind and two in the front, like a family car .

Levesque: Did your neighbours in Willow River all own one?

Strom: A lot of the people in Willow River had cars, yes. Eagle Lake Sawmills, the sawmill that was only four and a half miles from Willow River where everybody was working, they all had cars in those days. In the 30's the road between Prince George, Willow River and Giscome was the busiest highway in this area because they were the people that had the cars. They were working at Giscome and had the cars to travel back and forth to Prince George which was our trading area.

Levesque: How did you enjoy school days?

Strom: Well, school days were very, very interesting. I went all through my public school right at Willow River which was to grade 8. After I finished grade 8 my mother passed away and I had to stay home and look after or I was still going to school after she died but I had to do cooking and everything else. There was my sister, my brother, myself. My dad used to be out doing work here and there. I would have to go home from, school and get potatoes peeled, things like that started. My brother used to  do the same. My sister was quite young at the time. We still looked after her until my dad remarried. Shortly after that when I was about 16 years old, I went out to work on my own away from home. I went  to  Giscome and got a job in  the planing mill.

Levesque: At what mill?

Strom: At Eagle Lake Sawmills, that was in Giscome. I worked in the planing mill which was not in the sawmill part of the mill. It was where they finished the lumber and the planing. I loaded boxcars most of the time.

Levesque: When was that?

Strom: That was in `37, `38, I worked there `37, ‘38, and '39.

Levesque: Did you know the owners?

Strom: Yes, the owner of the mill at that time was a fellow by the name of Mr. Roy Spurr. a very nice fellow to work for. I worked for him for three years and I got along very well with him. He was a real gentleman. Roy Spurr' s house that he first built in Prince George its still standing. It's in real good condition on the east end of Patricia Blvd. It is quite a nice mansion as a matter of fact.

Levesque: Was this your first job at Eagle Lake Sawmills?

Strom: No, I worked at making ties one winter when I was only 14 years old. My brother was sixteen and I was fourteen. The two of us together took on a contract to make 2,000 ties for the CNR. We went out to the bush where the timber sale was between Willow River and Giscome. I had a saddle horse and we got into the bush where we were going to make the ties and we built this log cabin where we were going to stay for the winter. We pulled the logs up to build the cabin with the saddle horse. We stayed there all winter, made the 2,000 ties and in the spring with the little bit of money we had left over after we paid all our bills and groceries, took a trip back to Alberta for a month back to the place where I was born. That was in 1936. In  the winter time or in  that area all these ties had to be hauled with a sleigh and a team of horses. The next winter after I made the 2,000 ties with my brother I took the job on as a teamster and I hauled ties for one whole winter myself loading these ties onto a sleigh and hauling them about 5 miles to the railroad landing. I had to unload them and pile them. I used to make 2 trips a day to haul the ties 5 miles so that was a 20 mile trip. Then I had to look after the horses besides that, unharness them and harness them up in the morning so I was putting in a good fourteen hour day.

Levesque: Were you still living out in the Cabin?

Strom: No, I was living right in Willow River at the time.

Levesque: Were you still living at home with your parents when you worked for Eagle Lake Sawmills?

Strom: No, I used to go home on weekends which was just a very short distance away. They had one of the most up to date .boarding houses for the working man in the North country in those days. We had showers and inside bathrooms. There were 2 men to a room. We never had to go outside to go for our meals in the dining room. It was something that was the equivalent of today and this is a good many years ago. It was really a nice place to stay. In the winter time, I came to Prince George where my brother and my sister both were. They were going to school in Prince George at which time and I would live with them. I had an uncle, Mr. Lars Strom, who was well known in Prince George, a lumberman in later years who had a business called Rush Transfer and Storage which was down on First Avenue right next to the National Hotel.

Levesque: Was the National there?

Strom: Yes, the National Hotel was there at the time. I can remember the manager. His name was Toad Riley and he was a railroader. He was a conductor on the railroad and he was the one running the hotel and owned it at the time I remember. My uncle had this transfer business and he had a bunch of Model A Ford trucks. He also had the mail contract for the City of Prince George, Central Fort George and South Fort George. At midnight we used to take the truck and go down to the railroad station to meet the train. We would load up all the mail bags and take them up to the main post office which was situated where the Northern Hardware is today. As a matter of fact I think it is still part of the same building and the post master at that time was Arnold Davis as far as I can remember . They used to sort the mail out for the different areas. I would load up the mail for South Fort George and also for Central Fort George. I would go first to South Fort George, come back through Prince
George and up to Central Fort George to the Post Office and drop the mail off in Central Fort George. I used to do this and work off and on for him at the Transfer business.

Levesque: What did you do after you stopped working at Eagle Lake?

Strom: Well in the fall of 1939 the war in Europe started and I went back and worked that summer and also that winter at Eagle Lake Sawmills. On June 20th, in the spring of 1940, I joined the Canadian Army for active service and left Prince George.

Levesque: You did on a volunteer basis?

Strom: Yes, I volunteered and went to Vancouver with the Seaforth Highlanders and went to Calgary for my basic training at Currie Barracks and stayed there for one year. In the spring of 1941 I went overseas and spent four and one half years of the war in England and the later part in France, Holland and Belgium and Germany. While overseas in the Canadian army, I left the Seaforth Highlanders which was an Infantry Regiment and transferred into the Royal Canadian Engineers. I spent a good two and one half years of my time in England as a bridging instructor on the Baily bridges. Today in Northern British Columbia whenever there is a washout or something they use this same type of bridge. I instructed on these, on pontoon Bailey bridges that were built on pontoons and also bridges that were pushed across dry gaps and things like that. While in England I met my present wife, Joan Strom who was with the Royal Air force. She was a photographer in the Royal Air force. Most of the Mosquito aircraft used to fly over Germany, France and those places taking pictures of different things end she would load the cameras in the plane. Also when the plane came back she would take the films, go in with the crew in the darkroom and develop these pictures. This was what she did during the war years. On December 2, 1944, Joan and I got married. Shortly after the next spring I went overseas to Belgium, Holland and France and spent till the the war was over. I came back to England, staying a short time when I was shipped back to Canada in 1945. I back in Prince George when the Japanese war quit.

Levesque: Did you bring your wife with you then?

Strom: No, I didn't. My wife was still in the Royal Air Force. She was discharged the following spring coming to Canada in 1946, a year later. That was the same year I started in my sawmill business career with my Dad and my brother. We started a sawmill at Willow River which was very small. It took about 6 people to operate it.

Levesque: What was it called?

Strom: It was called WAC Sawmills Limited. The reason for that was my Dad's name was William, my brother's name was Al and mine was Carl so we called it WAC Sawmill. That's how it got it's name. We operated that for about two winters. My brother left before, he was in the police force in Prince George. As a matter of fact he was with the Provincial Police. Then I left shortly after. I turned my interest over to my father who operated the mill. I moved into Prince George
with my family to the then address of 990 Yale Street.  We still live in the same place. Then I took my partner, my cousin, William Strom and together started another sawmill which we operated at Redrock for 3 years. We moved down to Strathnaver on the Nave r access road at Mary Lake. We had quite a nice sawmill set up. We had 36 men working for us. We had all our own logging equipment, our own trucks for hauling logs, our own trucks for hauling lumber, our own crawler tractors, caterpillars. We had quite an operation going but in the later years about 1957, I became tired of the business and sold my half interest to Dunkley Lumber which was agreed by my partner and myself. I came back into Prince George and hired on to work as a Foreman for Ferguson Lake Sawmills which was owned and operated by one of our old time pioneers here, Ivor Killey. His son today is the manager of Lakeland down across the railroad tracks in Prince George.

Levesque: At that time were there about 600 sawmills in the area?

Strom: Yes, in the Prince George trading district in the whole area here, there were about six hundred sawmills. They employed anywhere from three or four men to about fifty. They were all different sizes and different categories. It was a real economy here. Everybody that owned these mills lived here, spent their money here. The money more or less stayed right in the community and times were really good in the area. Then the bigger sawmills came in and all the little sawmills died out and the bigger ones completely took over the manufacturing of the lumber.

Levesque: Did this affect the economy?

Strom: It didn't to a great extent for the simple reason that they started the pulp mills here at the same time. There was three pulp mills being built here and these other sawmills employed a good many of the people There were a lot of our workers in  these small sawmills who came from the Prairie Provinces like Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Of course, they .came here in the winter time to work. They would go back home in the spring, put in their crops and some of them would come back and work here in the summer. When the bigger mills took over all the timber and everything, we lost a lot of these workers. They went back and stayed on the farm. We had about six hundred mills in this area, maybe more. It is just a guess and today we only have about ten sawmills in the Prince George area. I'm being very liberal about it.

Levesque: About what year was it when the bigger sawmills started taking over the smaller ones?

Strom: It was around 1956, '57 up to 1960. It was getting costly for the smaller operators to operate. The bigger operators had to take over. The Forest Service and the Government got together and brought out these Management Licenses for the bigger sawmills. The smaller sawmills could no longer buy timber in the small quantities so they had to get out.

Levesque: What did Prince George look like then physically?

Strom: Prince George, in those days, hadn't changed too much except during the war when they had the big army camp here. They had about 8,000 soldiers stationed in Prince George.

Levesque: Where was that located?

Strom: It was located in the present fall fair building that used to be on the Exhibition grounds, the Exhibition buildings. That was one of their drill halls., and also the present Civic Centre downtown is built from two of those drill halls from the army camp. I don't know too much about it because the army camps were built and finished by the time I got back so I didn't see any of this. I was away all the time.

Levesque: What types of businesses were in town?

Strom: Well, it was more or less just cafes, stores. Actually there were men's clothing stores. It was just a trading area for the whole general area around.

Levesque: Were there paved streets?

Strom: The streets were not paved until just after the last war of 1945. There was still signs of wooden sidewalks and things like that in the downtown area until not too many years. ago,

Levesque: Between down town Prince George and Central Fort George, was that a residential area or was a lot of that bush?

Strom: It was a light residential area. There were a few houses scattered here and there through the trees. It was just like driving on a road through the bush to go from Prince George to Central Fort George.

Levesque: And that was the same as going from Prince George to Central Fort George?,

Strom: Yes, it was the same thing then.

Levesque: You mentioned that you skied in Willow River. Did you ski in Prince George?

Strom: Yes, I skied in Prince George. We used to come in from Willow River to the ski tournaments in Prince George. As I mentioned earlier, we were quite well trained in skiing. Willow River, being a small community the Scandinavian people were really interested in training people how to ski so we had our ski jumps and everything at Willow River.