Dr. John Roberts played a pivotal role in shaping the Cariboo as the town’s veterinarian and later, coroner, author, historian and photographer. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin)

Dr. John Roberts played a pivotal role in shaping the Cariboo as the town’s veterinarian and later, coroner, author, historian and photographer. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin)

CASUAL COUNTRY 2020: John Roberts: A veterinarian’s mark on Cariboo history

Amy Bebawi

Special to the Tribune

In today’s day and age, part of success is defined as receiving recognition for what you have chosen to do with your life, whether that is being involved in your community, excelling in your field of work, or overcoming a difficult hardship.

However, rarely do you find a person who has spent their life doing many a remarkable thing, not for the recognition, but simply out of their desire to bring some goodness into this world and live well.

A perfect example of such a remarkable person is the late Dr. John Roberts; he was a person that provided the world with a refreshing ray of hope.

John was a man of honour and selflessness that played a vital role in making Williams Lake what it is today and is someone that deserves a much bigger spotlight. Dr. Roberts was born near Melbourne, Australia in 1922.

During the Second World War, he joined the Royal Australian Air Force where he learned to fly a variety of different planes.

In 1952, a few years after he came home from the war, he moved to Canada and went to school in Ontario to become a veterinarian. A week after graduating, he married a biologist named Anna Brown.

After they got married, John and Anna decided to take a trip and drive to B.C. On that trip, John’s dear Anna insisted on looking at some birds in the Cariboo.

READ MORE: Dr. John Roberts shares wealth of historical data

That bird watching visit became a pivotal turning point of the couple’s future.

During their trip, they heard that there was no resident veterinary clinic anywhere between Kamloops and Alaska, and the couple showcased their thoughtful selflessness and decided to move to Williams Lake and start a clinic in this area that they had already started to fall in love with.

And so, a mere chance began the remarkable journey of Dr. John Roberts in the Cariboo.

When Dr. Roberts and Anna made their move to Williams Lake, they rented out a couple of rooms to live in and start their vet business. Dr. Roberts simultaneously built a house across the lake where they would raise their two daughters, Naomi and Gina, and son Kim. Whenever there would be a customer while Dr. Roberts was out working on the house, Anna would wave a white sheet from across the lake, and Dr. Roberts would paddle back to help the customer.

Once they moved, John got a contract vaccinating cattle all over the Cariboo. He very quickly experienced firsthand how big and spread out of an area it was, and how difficult it was to get around, especially in the winter.

With that difficulty and his past experience as a pilot in mind, Dr. Roberts decided to buy an airplane. It proved to be a wise investment, as it helped him get to more ranches in less time and allowed him to travel around the Cariboo during the winter months.

During his time as a vet, Dr. Roberts clearly revealed himself to be a man with a serving heart that deeply cared for people.

One perfect example of this is narrated in one of his letters to his extended family that was later published. During the winter of 1958, Dr. Roberts took a trip west with his airplane to vaccinate cattle at many different ranches.

He toured all around the area, including Kleena Kleene, Nimpo Lake, and Anahim, and stopped at numerous ranches, many of which were quite small.

It may seem like he was just doing his job as the vet in town, but in his letter he explained that the cost for the amount of travelling it took to reach all the ranches on that trip, while only vaccinating a small number of cattle, made it so that he did not gain a great deal of profit. It was also the roughest of his trips in the area.

Nevertheless, he went on to recount his joy of meeting, working with, and helping “some of the finest, most genuine gentle people.”

The true joy of those trips for Dr. Roberts was the people. He was more than willing to let go of a larger profit and instead see the value of his work in helping and spending time with people.

The people of the Cariboo had a special place in Dr. Roberts’ heart, and he loved to listen to each family’s stories.

Numerous families were descendants of the Cariboo pioneers, and many times, they would show him or even give him some of their family’s old documents and photos. His growing interest in the Cariboo’s history led him to record the stories of all the different people he met on the job, and through the years, his collection of all of the stories, pictures, documents, and objects ended up providing him with an entire archival collection of his own.

Dr. Roberts also brought his camera along while on his trips. As an avid photographer, he accumulated a large collection of photos from all the different ranches. He continued his photography hobby even after his time vaccinating cattle, and throughout his life he took pictures of many different people, places, and events around the Cariboo.

One of his collections is simply pictures of many of the buildings and streets all over Williams Lake. His immense photo collection has left the Cariboo with some unbelievably valuable documentation of its great past.

In 1977 he retired from vaccinating and accepted a job as the town’s coroner. He spent the next 10 years investigating suspicious deaths in the area. Many people still brought hurting animals to his doorstep, and despite not being the official town vet, he was kind enough to cure and nurture them.

Once he retired from being a coroner, he put his energy into pursuing his passion for Cariboo history and photography. He began to investigate the history of the area and people more, and thoroughly develop his archival collection.

These investigations even took him on two trips to England to research more information and cross check his facts.

John ended up writing several books using the abundant wealth of information he had gathered over the years. One of his lengthier books Cariboo: An Historical Narrative, he personally sold from his own home. He numbered each book (he only sold about 100 copies for $50 each) and made note of which book each person purchased and took down their phone numbers. He would then get in contact with them and ask why they purchased the book out of fascination and curiosity, but also with the hope that their interest meant that they had their own Cariboo history stories that John could learn more from.

READ MORE: Lakecity historian and veterinarian turns 90

With his vast amount of knowledge, photographs, documents, and resources, John headed up the new archival collection at the library, a project that he began to invest in in 1975. Much of the library’s archives was originally composed with the use of his own collection. He would make copies of his own photos and documents to be accessible to the public upon request.

He also had the intention of donating his large collection to the library in later years.

Dr. John Roberts was a man of many interest, talents and sacrifices. He made an immense impact on the community in numerous ways, only one of which would have been enough to grant him recognition. He made the sacrifice to move across the country to become the only vet from Kamloops to Alaska, and he was greatly invested in the history of this area, a place he was not originally from.

Here at the museum, it is easy to recognize his fingerprint in this area’s history. Copies and donations of his photos, documents, letters, and books have been greatly beneficial in offering a deeper lens into the stories of the people of this area that would have never been discovered otherwise. His work provides a key to understanding the past of Williams Lake and why it is the way it is today.

Amy Bebawi is a summer student at the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

John was a man of honour and selflessness that played a vital role in making Williams Lake what it is today and is someone that deserves a much bigger spotlight. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin)

John was a man of honour and selflessness that played a vital role in making Williams Lake what it is today and is someone that deserves a much bigger spotlight. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin)

The Williams Lake Field Naturalists honoured Anna Roberts during their annual fundraising banquet in 2017 by naming the library at the Scout Island Nature Centre for her. Roberts was a founding member of the Scout Island Nature Centre and continues to tend to a plant demonstration garden outside the centre where people can learn to identify natural plants growing in the region such as cactus and various types of sage. Anna and her daughter, Gina, also created and organized the library at the nature centre. (Tribune file photo)

The Williams Lake Field Naturalists honoured Anna Roberts during their annual fundraising banquet in 2017 by naming the library at the Scout Island Nature Centre for her. Roberts was a founding member of the Scout Island Nature Centre and continues to tend to a plant demonstration garden outside the centre where people can learn to identify natural plants growing in the region such as cactus and various types of sage. Anna and her daughter, Gina, also created and organized the library at the nature centre. (Tribune file photo)

Just Posted

The board of directors of Glen Arbor are applying for funding to build an addition of 21 units. (Monica Lamb-Yorski file photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Williams Lake city council endorses 21-unit expansion of Glen Arbor

The board of directors requested a letter of support for a funding application

A woman wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 uses walking sticks while walking up a hill, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Interior Health reports 83 more COVID-19 infections overnight

46 cases are now associated with a COVID-19 community cluster in Revelstoke

(Photo submitted)
MISSING: Alexis Creek RCMP request help in finding Randolph Quilt, 59

Quilt hasn’t been heard from by family since Sept. 26, last seen in Williams Lake

Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson (right) with his partner Shelley Wiese participated in an BC Liberals Caucus virtual oath ceremony Friday, Nov. 27. Doerkson was appointed opposition critic of rural development by interim leader Shirley Bond. (Photo submitted)
Cariboo Chilcotin MLA appointed rural development opposition critic

Newly-elected Lorne Doerkson said it will be an honour to work for all rural consituents

A tongue-in-cheek message about wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 on a sign outside a church near Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection count climbs back up to 656

20 more people in hospital, active cases still rising

(Needpix.com)
Fraudsters projected to use pet scams to gouge over $3M from customers: BBB

The pandemic heavily contributed to the number of puppy scams

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A teacher places the finishing touches on the welcome sign at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Hindsight 2020: How do you preserve a year many Canadians would rather forget?

Figuring out how to preserve the story of the pandemic poses a series of challenges

Haley Callison. (Facebook photo)
Former B.C. pro hockey player frustrated with COVID-deniers after horrific bout with virus

Haleigh Callison hopes people will follow precautions and tone down the rhetoric

A man stands in the window of an upper floor condo in Vancouver on March 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Change made to insurance for B.C. condo owners amid rising premiums

Council CEO Janet Sinclair says the change will mean less price volatility

The Walking Curriculum gets students outside and connecting with nature. (Amanda Peterson/Special to S.F. Examiner)
‘Walking Curriculum’ crafted by SFU professor surges in popularity

The outdoor curriculum encourages students to connect with the natural world

Most Read