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
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
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
Levesque: When did you first come to Prince George?
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
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
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
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
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
Levesque: Can you describe the house? Do you remember?
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
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
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
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
thing as hauling in the winter time with vehicles. We had to use horses
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
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
Levesque: When it ran out, could you recharge them?
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
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
Levesque: What did those stores sell?
Strom: They sold everything.
They were general stores.
Levesque: Both of them were general
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
Levesque: And were there any other businesses there?
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
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.
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
go out and shoot one moose out of a bunch of nineteen standing in one
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
your gun at our age but in those days to survive you had to do what you
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
in the Royal Air force. Most of the Mosquito aircraft used to fly over
Germany, France and those places taking pictures of different things
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
was away all the time.
Levesque: What types of businesses were in
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?
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
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
Levesque: And that was the same as going from Prince George
to Central Fort George?,
Strom: Yes, it was the same thing then.
You mentioned that you skied in Willow River. Did you ski in Prince
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