I have learned much of the Fraser Valley’s rich history over the past seven years. This all started when I needed to research up on the subject for my new historical romance series, “Wild Rose County”. During this time I came to realize that there was a lot more to be learned about the valley I grew up in. This article covers all that I have learned.
Long before there were any settlements in the Fraser Valley, the ancestors of today’s Pilalt Indians were settled along the Fraser River on the Cheam and Popkum Reserves. The salmon in the river and the wildlife in the forests provided the sustenance that enabled these communities to survive.
The first non-Native to visit the area came in 1808. His name was Simon Fraser, and he was looking for new fur trade routes to the Pacific. He recorded that the Native people of the Upper Valley were the most friendly that he had encountered on his journey.
In 1827, the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Langley 50 miles west and the Fraser River assumed a greater importance as a transportation route through the area. Then, by the 1850’s, a fur trade trail paralleled the river and a small Hudson’s Bay Company supply cabin was soon located at Popkum.
It was the 1858 Fraser River gold rush, however, that changed the landscape of the Upper Valley forever. After 1860, many gold seekers, who were really farmers at heart, settled in the Upper Valley around Sumas, the Chilliwack Mountains and near the present site of downtown Chiliwack. The gold rush opened the door to settlement and it was only a matter of time until the eastern end of the Valley was settled.
In 1873, David Airth established the first small sawmill at the mouth of Popkum creek. The dense forests of the eastern end were a serious impediment to widespread settlements. Then, by the year 1880, two brothers, William and Ebenezer Knight owned the mill and successfully marketed lumber throughout the area for more than twenty years. Over the years, many more lumber mills were established throughout the valley.
Emmanuel Greyall and his son’s Edward, Abel, David and Peter purchased large blocks of land along Camp Slough, thus initiating settlements along the waterway. At the same time, in the early 1800’s, J.C. Henderson and T.H. Henderson were acquiring land near the present day Rosedale. The completion of the Yale Wagon Road through Rosedale in 1875 combined with settler’s pre-emptions ensured growth for the area.
Those farming in the valley were happy and proud to be called farmers. A sense of sharing and comradeship developed as neighbor helped neighbor. Farming has been the backbone of the area for at least one hundred years. Today, it is called the Greenheart of the province and we hope it remains just for years to come.
Farms in the Rosedale area were generally started by a homesteader. For a ten dollar fee he could file a claim for an area which he had staked. Then he had to live on that land for three consecutive years and make improvements by clearing, fencing and building a dwelling. The acreage chosen depended on it having an ample supply of pure water. The farmer had no mechanical means to clear the land so he would chose land on higher ground, safe from flooding with a light forest cover. This forest cover consisted mainly of cottonwood and cedar trees. Forested areas were the enemy which meant hand grubbing and burning. Fires were prone to go out of control during the summer. Later, logging entered the area and logs and stumps were removed by oxen and horses. On some farms, gangs of Chinese men would cut all the trees to a size that could be pulled out by a team of horses. They charged five dollars an acre and would clear out all the stumps and brush. After the year 1900 contractors, with steam donkeys, were used to clear the heavy fir forests. Stumping powder became available about this time as well.
The first crop to be planted after burning was usually turnips. At this time the land was usually oddly shaped and stumps that were too difficult to handle were left behind from the first attempt at clearing. Turnip seeds were usually planted in June and early July. A crop meant survival for both man and beast during the following winter. Other crops which produced large yields were potatoes, mangles and types of huge beets and carrots. Carrots, while primarily grown for fodder, could also be eaten by man. Even though they are still grown, today’s housewife would not look favorably on a carrot six inches in diameter and 20-24 inches in length.
Early settlers were also eager to plant fruit trees. Why? The trees could be planted in the hollows of cedar stumps. These plants included: pears, peaches, a variety of cherries such as: Bing, Royal Anne and Deacons. Apple varieties were: Greenings, Blue Blenham, Northern Spy, Kings, Golden Russets, York Imperieal, Baldwin, and the 20 ounce Pippen. Selling the fruit meant ready cash, so it was shipped on fast river boats to New Westminster. Raspberries and loganberries were important small fruits and were grown in most home gardens together with gooseberries and currents. Bears were more destructive to the fruit trees than insects.
Once the land was cleared for pasture and a shed was built, early settlers would acquire their first cow. He knew that if the animal he chose was healthy it could produce at least a calf a year and so he could expand his livestock. The breed was not important, as long as the cow produced enough milk for butter and cheese, the farmer was happy. Later, the Channel Island breeds: Jersey and Guernsey, replaced the large Short Horns and Durhams. The J.E. Buckingham family, who were then living on the Alex Mercer farm, established one of the first Holstein herds in the area. Holsteins have since become the most popular breed in the Fraser Valley. Shortly after the B.C. Railway reached Chilliwack in 1910, farmers like Joe Brannick started shipping their milk via this more convenient route.
The emphasis of cattle farming changed to milk production and soon milk fever became one of the main concerns for dairymen. The first treatment, that brought the best results, was to inflate the udder using a tire pump. Before the days of vaccine, one of the most unorthodox practices in the control of this disease was to drag the afterbirth of aborted cows up and down the manger. The idea was to cause all the cows to contract the disease and thereby develop an immunity to the disease. However, in many of the cases the infected animals could not conceive again. Milk houses were often built over streams for milk cooling as few dairymen had ice houses. Those who did, had their ice cut each winter from the river.
Early settlers soon discovered that the cleared forests were rapidly replaced by fern after a fire and would grow to be eight feet high. If these areas could be fenced in, the swine would root out the roots and grow big and fat. Pig fat was more acceptable than bear fat for greasing wagon axles, waterproofing, the making of liniment, home remedies, food and other domestic products. However, one problem was that the bears really like the pigs. The first pigs that came were from the southern states. They were huge lard hogs, often weighing over 1000 pounds.