Over the past few launchings of Ponderings, we travelled the Peace River and worked the land in the Peace Country. The river and the land have defined this area – from their esthetics to their practicality, both of which history suggests were, and remain, drawing cards for those contemplating living in an environment beyond a big city, with many amenities those larger areas boast. The area attracted all manner of people – continues to do so to add to the already diverse population.
Dr. Leslie Robinson, a dentist, is one of those, who saw the advantages of living and practising in northern Alberta in the early years. The Peace River was his highway. A few years after his arrival in the Peace Country, he used it to outreach his dental practice in Fort Vermilion, initially at the behest of Dr. Harold A. Hamman, the physician for the First Nations people in that area.
You may remember Dr. Hamman – the doctor, who in December 1928, attended a seriously ill Bert Logan, Hudson’s Bay Company manager, in Little Red River. Unfortunately, Logan succumbed to diphtheria. It was Dr. Hamman, who alerted Dr. Malcolm Bow, Alberta’s deputy minister of health, of the need for diphtheria anti-toxin to avoid an epidemic in the northern community. The route to stemming the acute bacterial infectious disease was circuitous, beginning with the herculean efforts of couriers Joe LaFleur and William Lambert travelling 10 days by dog sled to get message to nearest telegraph office in Peace River. From there, the telegrapher sent it to the health minister in Edmonton, who responded by having anti-toxin sent by air to Fort Vermilion. He put the anti-toxin in the care of aviators Wop May and Vic Horner, who flew from Edmonton to their destination in an open-cockpit Avro Avian, January 1929. Remember, it’s winter – with time and sub-zero elements to overcome.
Although it was too late for the Hudson’s Bay Company manager, the delivery and administration of the anti-toxin prevented a greater number of deaths.
Now, after going off on that tangent, we return to Dr. Robinson’s story. In order for Robinson to transport the needed dental equipment, food, bedding, camping equipment and large quantities of gas and oil to Fort Vermilion to tend the community’s dental needs, a suitable river boat, powered by an outboard motor, was needed. He commissioned Harry Weaver to build it.
Alert – we’re off on another tangent – Harry Weaver, along with Bud Devore, built the Peace River NAR Station in 1916. By 1920, Weaver, along with Devore operated the Beulah Boat Company on the shore just below the Museum. “For the next several years, the Beulahs shared the upriver business with the Mighty Bay. O’Sullivan and Stigsen built and operated their boats, also in successful competition, writes Evelyn Hansen in Where Go the Boats.
Climbing off our second tangent, we return, again to Dr. Robinson’s tale. When Weaver had completed Robinson’s river boat, he and brother, Dwight, headed out on an eventful journey into the unknown down the Peace River. It was only after they moored their boat below the embankment on which Dr. Hamman’s house stood, and scampered up the bank to attend to details, did the following surprising and distressing events occur.
In Robinson’s words in Peace River Remembers: “On our return a few minutes later, we saw tails wagging at the edge of the canvas cover. We found two Indian dogs under the canvas, having eaten five loaves of bread, a roast of beef, a few pounds of bacon, and a package of dates, including other foods I cannot recall, now.” One can imagine the state the boat was in, let alone that of the men and even the scavenging dogs. Apparently, the skilful canines had torn open cans of sticky substances, which found their way into the bedding and clothing. “That was our first experience with Indian dogs,” Robinson writes, with a hint of hope that it would not reoccur.
Undeterred, he managed to perform some dental duties, including painlessly removing a tooth from the mouth of a chief. Dr. Hamman prepared him to expect the chief’s return with several of his band for the same procedure. Sure enough, soon about a dozen showed up, all wanting a tooth removed. Robinson had difficulty in persuading them that the removal of a tooth in most of their cases was not indicated. In spite of some difficulties, he returned several more times over the years to tend the dental needs of the community. “Much was accomplished while working about 20 hours a day in broad daylight,” he writes.
But, back to the beginning of Dr. Robinson’s foray into the Peace Country. It was in response to relatives’ request for him to visit and set up practice to relieve a backlog of dental ills in the area. He arrived in Peace River, January 1925, on one of the tri-weekly trains from Edmonton.
“Another dentist (Dr. William Greene) travelling from town to town, had arrived before me and I recall finding him busy trying to thaw frozen cocaine and other (dental)
solutions above the huge heater in the lobby of the Peace Hotel (where Dr. Greene had an office).”
So impressed with Peace River and its attendant qualities, he encouraged his wife, Edith, to join him. She did. With her came their furniture, as well as permanent dental equipment to establish her husband’s practice in the old Peace Hotel annex.
Before Edith arrived, Dr. Robinson took his meals at Mrs. H. A. George’s restaurant, north of Pat’s Creek, on the west side of Main Street. “I recall that those who sat around the table were Charlie Roberts (lawyer), Norman Soars (librarian) and sometimes Mr. (Alexander) Phimester (lawyer), when the weather was severe, as he lived a distance from the downtown region (near foot of Judah Hill – 104 Avenue).”
Once Edith arrived, they set up housekeeping in the home of the Hawes family, until they bought Dr. Sutherland’s cottage on the road to Judah Hill. Their neighbours were the Carlisles, Bissons, Norman Soars, Kenneth Thompsons and T. R. Wilsons.
Over time, three children came into their lives: Malcolm, who became a consulting geologist; Aileen, a nurse, who married a physician; and Gail, who graduated from the University of Western Ontario in business administration and secretarial.
During the Depression years, services, including dental, were often paid by barter. Payment might be moose meat, venison, vegetables, wood for stove and fireplace, or other commodities. “Even a handsome radio console, a novelty in those days, passed from a hardware to a government employee, who then found certain dental care more to be desired than the new radio, so passed it into my possession…. As in all small towns and communities, the willing horse was pressed into service.”
This willing horse, at times, found himself with overlapping services – town councillor, school trustee, president Board of Trade and of the newly-formed three-hole golf club on property now the Lions Campground. At one point, Robinson’s activities included musical director of several operettas in which the other dentist, Dr. Greene, acted as stage manager.” In 1927, he was involved with the new electric light plant, constructed and operated by Jimmy Mitchell. “One of my community duties for which no one was less qualified,” he writes.
The cottage in which the Robinsons originally lived became too small for their growing family, so they moved into a “large home on a side street, west of the T.A. Norris Furniture Store.” According to Peace River Remembers, it was the “old Hudson’s Bay House, 9811-98 Ave.” – near mouth of Pat’s Creek. “We moved in to enjoy the luxury of water from a tap, and soon, electricity.”
We will learn more of the Leslie and Edith Robinson family and their time in Peace River in the next Ponderings
Sources: Peace River Remembers; Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre files; Fort Vermilion Mercy Flight of 1929, Alberta Aviation Museum, Edmonton
Beth Wilkins is a researcher at the Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre.