Photo courtesy of the Provincial Archives There’s an interesting history associated with the Macalister family, whose homestead can still be viewed north of Williams Lake.

Haphazard History: The Macalister family

About 25 miles north of Williams Lake you will see old buildings - the Macalister homestead.

Barry Sale

Special to the Tribune/Advisor

About 25 miles north of Williams Lake, at the bottom if you look to the right, you will see a number of old buildings ­— the Macalister homestead.

There’s an interesting history associated with this family.

James Macalister was born in Scotland, and in the 1890s he persuaded his family to let him come to Canada to learn farming at his uncle’s place outside of Brandon, Man.

It did not take him long to find and fall in love with a girl from an adjoining farm.

Charlotte, however, was only 13, so James was told to stay away. The couple found creative ways to meet in secret and the romance continued.

Seven years later, in 1903, they were married in Winnipeg. The bride’s parents gave permission for the marriage on the condition that the newlyweds return to Scotland so James could complete his education so that he would be better equipped to make a reasonable living.

They did this and, within a year, James had graduated. They returned to Canada where he took a job as a Presbyterian minister and school teacher at the Elphinstone Indian Reservation in Manitoba.

There, they had three sons in quick succession. James gradually became disillusioned with missionary work and found himself in disagreement with the church’s lack of action to really help the native people, so after a considerable amount of soul searching, in 1910, he decided to pack up his young family and go west.

So it was that in the spring of 1911, he took a freight train to Ashcroft, along with a team of oxen, a milk cow and two wagons.

He had the oxen shod, bought a couple of horses and got the wagons prepared for the journey north to Fort George, after which they would decide whether to continue on to Vanderhoof or to the Bulkley Valley.

When all was ready, Charlotte arrived by train with their five children — the oldest of whom was six and a half years old and the youngest was only five months.

In mid-April of 1911, the family set off. James drove the heavy wagon pulled by the oxen. It carried, among other things, a hay rack, a hay mower, a plow, a hay rake, harrows, a sleigh and a cast-iron cook stove.

The lighter wagon, driven by Charlotte and pulled by the horses contained 1,200 pounds flour, 100 pounds sugar, 100 pounds rice, beans, peas, salted pork temporarily stored in a hand-driven washing machine, hay and wheat for the livestock, other necessities of life, chickens, two geese and the five children.

A pregnant milk cow trailed along behind. Charlotte drove this menagerie with her five-month baby on her knee.

The first day, they managed to travel nine miles, then one of the oxen went lame. Apparently the farrier in Ashcroft had no oxen shoe nails, so he had used horse shoe nails, one of which had pierced the soft tissue under the hoof.

All the shoes were removed and time was lost while the animal recovered.

As the family neared Clinton, they looked for fresh water and a place to camp. They finally stopped by a shady gulch which still held the last of the winter’s snow.

As they melted the snow for water, one of the horses strayed over to a nearby alkali pond and drank its fill, causing a bad case of colic and a further delay to the trip.

On the way to Lac La Hache, they met a motor car coming south on the road.

The horses had never seen one and they spooked, taking off at a dead run.

Somehow, Charlotte was able to rein them in and regain control. She was white with terror, but the children thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

At Lac La Hache, the cow calved early. They spent a couple of days there to rest her up and to build a crate to carry the calf in the already-crowded wagon.

On they went, following the Cariboo Wagon Road. At Soda Creek many of the residents came out to see the Macalister parade pass through. Charlotte didn’t much like Soda Creek — it was a rough town with gambling, drinking and prostitution. They did not stop there.

A few miles north, however, the ox with the lame foot could not continue, one of the wagon wheels was ready to fall off and the cow clearly wanted to spend time on some good pasturage with her calf. It was also getting late in the season for planting and they were tired of travelling. It was May 23, and they had come 200 miles from Ashcroft.

James pre-empted a quarter section of land which reached from the top of the hillside down to the Fraser River.

The family cleared and planted a garden.

They found an abandoned log cabin about a mile away.

It was a 12×16-foot structure, but compared to the 8×12-foot tent the family had been using, it was a palace.

They took it apart, rebuilt it on the homestead, chinked the walls and added a sod roof.

James was one of the few people in the area who could read and write. He decided to apply to Ottawa for a post office designation. It was necessary for him to build a 10×12-foot addition to their cabin to house this post office, but once it was all approved, the family received the useful stipend of $5 per month.

James suggested several names for the post office to the Postal Department, but many were already taken, so Ottawa decided that the place would be Macalister, B.C., and thus it remains today.

The family operated the post office until it closed in 1953.

By 1916, the family had spent five years on the homestead.

Charlotte had given birth to two more children and life, although hard at times, was rewarding and full. But the First World War was on, and James felt called to do his duty.

Charlotte had three strong sons to help her, so she was quite agreeable to James’ leaving, and it was a good way to avoid having children for a while.

So James enlisted as a medic in the spring of 1916.

He went overseas and served until he was demobilized in 1919.

Upon his return, three more children came along, for a total of 10 in all.

The family built a large two-storey house, which they operated as a roadhouse until the late 1940s.

James put in a system of pipes down the mountain to carry water to a Pelton wheel which generated 32 watts of electricity.

James, with Charlotte’s able assistance, continued on as a postmaster for the area.

The family made a living cutting ties for the railway, selling beef, cream, lambs and vegetables.

They also ran a trap line and augmented their food supply through hunting. It was a hard, yet rewarding existence.

After the couple retired in 1956, the children purchased the island on McLeese Lake and built a summer retreat there for Charlotte.

For the rest of the year she and James lived in a little house which was built for them on the homestead.

Charlotte was 80 years old when she passed away in 1963, and James followed her in 1969 at the amazing age of 94.

The Macalister family had a unique and eventful life, full of highs and lows, which illustrated the tenacity and spirit of the early pioneer families in our area.

My thanks to Janet (Macalister) Whalley for her help on this one.

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