History File: Moose Portage a rugged place to live back in the day

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

“Times were so rugged in the thirties and early forties,” Mabel Nelson reminisces about homesteading in Moose Portage in Echoes Along the Athabasca River.

During a windstorm in late January, the roof blew off the Moose Portage post office. This building is one of the two abandoned buildings in a field on East Fawcett Road east of Smith. Across the road is the Moose Portage Cemetery. The area around is farmland and bush.

Back in the day, Moose Portage was one of many farming communities in Alberta with a school, post office, church, and general store.

In 1984, the Smith Half Century Plus Historical Book Committee published a book about the area Echoes Along the Athabasca River: A History of Chisholm, Fawcett Lake, Forest View, Hondo, Lawrence Lake, Moose Portage, Moose River, Otter Creek, Ranch, Smith, and Smokey Creek.

(Editor’s note: All information below is from Echoes).

Post office
“Jake and Mrs. Gerhart came to the Moose Portage district in 1911 or 12,” says Oliver Olson. “They came by team and wagon from the Dakotas in the U.S.A. One of the wagon wheels broke somewhere close to Moose Portage, so they stayed for the winter.” They ended up homesteading and starting a store in one of two “little log houses” they built. In 1919, they built a larger house and bought the store at Fawcett Lake. In 1926, they moved to Jasper Place to raise foxes. They also went to the Arctic to catch live foxes, but weren’t successful breeding them in captivity, so switch to mink ranching.

In November 1930, a bachelor, Vince Logan, had the store, post office and hauled the mail once a week from Mirror Landing. The school building, which also served as a club house and church, was across the road.

As a kid, John Tate moved to Smith in 1931. He says, “when we loaded up the stock in south Edmonton, there were 800 hobos getting on the same train, going north to look for work. My uncle and mother took over the post office, along with the farm. The house we moved into had a sod roof which leaked when it rained.”

School
On October 17, 1913, three men in the Moose Portage area organized a petition to start the Sunshine Valley school district. The school district was formed on March 10, 1914. The school house was built on the lot adjoining the Anglican Church property.

This was definitely a country school. One author remembers – “The practice of kids bringing their 22s and lining them along the wall was stopped and they then had to leave them stashed in the bush. If they were lucky, they’d catch a chicken, squirrel or rabbit on the way home.”

Teaching at the school was no easy task; for example one of the teachers at the Sunshine School “left in a state of mental confusion.”

In the 1930s and 40s, says Nelson, “the school house was made of logs and many a dance and concert was held there. Church services and elections were held there also. The elections were just as exciting and enjoyable as they are now.”

“The first school that the children attended was called the ‘Club House’ and was about one and one half miles from our place,” says Lois (O’Neil) Shannon. “About 1937, a school was built on part of the O’Neil farm and an Anglican church was built there also.” The Smith minister would come out once or twice a month to lead services.

In 1973, the Moose Portage Church was still standing, which was good for Mel and Margaret Van Rompaey and their children, who had just bought the farm it stood on, as the farmhouse had burnt down.

In April 1931, Bernard Edward (Bernie) O’Neil was “the ninth kid in Moose Portage school when they moved to the farm.”

The school population in Moose Portage doubled in 1932, says Floyd Olson. With settlers coming in from Southern Alberta.

The school was still in use into the 1940s and possibly early 1950s.

Leonard Olson was born in 1943 on the family farm in Moose Portage. When he was in Grade 3, the school house burnt down and the church which was close by was used as a school. At times, there wasn’t a teacher, so a supervisor oversaw the students while they did correspondence lessons. The school had about 20 students. The majority were Cree or Métis and spoke Cree.

Later, Moose Portage kids rode the bus to Smith. For a period of time, Smith and Moose Portage students had to billet with people in Athabasca to go to high school. They were bused back for the weekends.

Transportation
“Transportation was a little different when I was a young lad growing up on the farm than it is now,” says Leonard Olson. “There were very few automobiles around, and most everyone used horses. The people that did have automobiles, such as my dad, stored them away every fall for the winter and left them until the following summer. The roads in our community were not all that good and I do not recall ever seeing a snowplow until after I was about 10 or 11 years old.”

Each spring and fall there were about six weeks when the ferry couldn’t run and the ice was too thin to walk across the Athabasca River from Moose Portage to Smith.

Moving to the area
In 1913, Harry and Amanda Reamer and their children moved to Moose Portage and settled on the corner where the clubhouse (school) was eventually built. Prior to 1918, they moved to Grosmont. Their son Walter married Olive Alta Goodwin, who is the author of Silence of the North. She moved to the Tomato Creek area not far from the Athabasca River when she was 10 years old, with her father and brothers. Her book was made into a movie.

“Parts of the movie were made in the Smith, Moose Portage and surrounding areas,” says Echoes. “Quite a few local people were employed as extras.”

Lenora and Harry Adams moved to Fawcett Lake around 1924 or 25, says the story told by Lawrence Adams (son) to Oliver Olson. “He (Harry) trapped for a living, and did odd jobs for the settlers in the area.

“Harry would sell his furs in Athabasca, especially muskrats. He would then buy his summer groceries from Bill Curtis at the Grosmont store and hire Bill to take him to Smith. There he would build a raft and float down to Moose Portage. Ruby Goodwin would then haul Harry and his groceries to Fawcett Lake with team and wagon.

“Harry used to go to Athabasca in the fall harvesting. When his son Lawrence got big enough, he would go too. They would build a raft at the Portage and float down river to Athabasca. They made a fire pot of soil on the raft and cooked and made tea right on the raft.”

August 12, 1931, Les Landon his brother and another young fellow started driving a team of 28 horses from southern Alberta to Smith. They arrived a month later with 17 out of the 28 horses. One died and the rest escaped.

“In 1935, Moose Portage was like a lake,” says John Tate. “We made a floating bridge across a low place to the school which was a good 100 yards. We made the bridge from dry jack pine poles and tied it to a fence which was over half submerged in water. The water stayed for three years; anyway we had lots of swimming holes to play around in.”

“We didn’t need an alarm clock because the mosquitoes would wake us up at three in the morning,” Robert Attfield said, about moving to a farm in Moose Portage in 1965.

“Things were tough on the prairies from 1959-1963,” says Victor Sholtz, “there was a drought on, no one had any crops to speak of, except grasshoppers, Russian thistle and tumbleweeds.”

In the 1960s, The Sholtz family moved to Moose Portage.

The farms in the Moose Portage area north of the Athabasca River northeast of Smith and south of East Fawcett. The Moose Portage Cemetery and abandoned post office are on quarter sections at the intersection of TWP RD 722 and RGE RD 261 (not labeled). Courtesy of the M.D. of Lesser Slave River.
Moose Portage old map
The abandoned Moose Portage post office after the roof blew off this winter.
Moose Portage summer
Moose Portage cemetery in 2019.

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