HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The Seibert family of Williams Lake

The old Sheep Creek Bridge taken from a 1954 post card. (Seibert family collection)The old Sheep Creek Bridge taken from a 1954 post card. (Seibert family collection)
Sheep Creek Bridge repair workers’ camp in 1952. (Seibert family photo)Sheep Creek Bridge repair workers’ camp in 1952. (Seibert family photo)
Highway 97 underpass at 141 Mile, constructed in 1953. (Barry Sale photo)Highway 97 underpass at 141 Mile, constructed in 1953. (Barry Sale photo)

By Barry Sale

Haphazard History

Some time ago, I wrote a column about the Sheep Creek bridge over the Fraser River. I received several positive comments about this article, and a number of people shared stories with me about family connections to this crossing. One of those stories relates to the Seibert family, a name which is well-known in Williams Lake. I found this story to be a truly interesting one that deals with overcoming life’s obstacles and succeeding through determination and hard work, and I thought I would share it with you.

For three generations prior to World War Two, the extended Seibert family lived in Central Romania, just south east of Bucharest. They were farmers who had moved to that country from Germany in the late 1800s, and although they were all Romanian citizens, they still held on to their German roots and customs. They lived in an ethnic German community, their children attended German speaking schools, and families attended German Lutheran churches.

Into this milieu, six children were born to Heinrich and Hilda Seibert; Ninette (Nettie), Friedolin (Fred), Siegfried (Sig), Johann (Hans), Albrecht (Al), and the youngest, Karl.

It was a happy and peaceful existence for the family until August of 1939 when, as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, all people of German extraction were forcibly removed from countries which came from under the influence of Stalin’s Russia. Heinrich’s wife and children, along with all the rest of the extended Seibert family and their friends and neighbours in the community, were rounded up and relocated to Austria. There, in a refugee camp, they eked out an existence as best they could for about two years . Heinrich was conscripted into the German army, and later was killed on the Eastern front.

During this time in Austria, Karl and his sister Nettie were taken in by their aunt and uncle who became their second parents. In 1942, several families including the Seiberts were uprooted again and moved to Poland to farm for the Third Reich. It was a difficult and dangerous time. The German families were not welcomed by the Poles, they had unrealistic quotas to meet, and the war was waging all around them. In January of 1945, with the German army in full and chaotic retreat, the family had to pack up some of their meagre belongings and leave Poland by horse and wagon, just ahead of the fast-moving Russian advance.

They made it back to Germany, settling finally in a small village about 100 kilometres south of Berlin. At the war’s end, when Germany was partitioned by the Allies, this area became part of East Germany under Russian control. The family remained there until 1949, when they were able to begin applying for visas to immigrate to Canada.

Karl, his brother Sig, and their aunt and uncle came over first, arriving in Quebec City in 1951 with little more than a few dollars and a change of clothes. They were sponsored by another uncle who had moved to Canada in 1933 and who operated a house construction company in Oliver, B.C. The group travelled by train from Quebec to Saskatchewan where they were met by their Canadian relative, then the trip back to B.C. was completed by car.

Karl, who was only 12 years at the time, was enrolled in school in Oliver. He spoke no English and had no knowledge of Canadian ways, so he found himself facing a total culture shock. Sig, who was 19, went to work immediately for his uncles who had teamed up to form the Seiberts Brothers Construction Company.

Gradually, the rest of the family were able to relocate to Canada as well. Fred arrived in 1952. Mother Hilda and her sons Al and Hans had to sneak across the border between East and West Germany in order to apply for their visa papers. They arrived in 1953. Finally, in 1954, Nettie, her husband Hilmar Wolfe, and their young family arrived.

Now to the connection with the Sheep Creek bridge. In July and August of 1952, Seibert Brothers sub-contracted to refurbish the old bridge, installing new timbers and planks where needed, replacing and tightening cables, and repairing railings. It took the crew some 14 hours to drive their three-ton single axle truck on the gravel roads from Oliver to Williams Lake.

A small camp was set up at the bridge site, and the men worked on the old crossing with very little safety equipment other than belts, harnesses and ropes. When they had completed the job at Sheep Creek, they moved downriver to refurbish the bridges at Churn Creek and at Lillooet. That summer, 13 year old Karl made his first trip up to the Williams Lake area to visit with his uncles and his brother at the site.

In the early 1950s, the province of B.C. was opening up, with roads being extended and improved. The year 1953 saw the Seibert Brothers’ company completing, among several other projects around the province, the Highway 97 bridge over Borland Creek at 150 Mile House and the highway underpass at 141 Mile. This structure is still in use today, unaltered after almost 70 years.

In 1955, Karl left school after Grade 9 to take a job in construction as well. He had mastered English well. As he tells it, he learned English by staying quiet for his first six months in school and just listening, by reading comic books, and by going to the movies as often as possible. His English became so proficient that he often served as a translator for his adopted uncle.

The previous year, brother Fred had relocated to Williams Lake to take a position as a mechanic with Neufeld Brothers Motors, the precursor to Beath Motors and to Lake City Ford. Over the next year or so, other members of the family came to Williams Lake, including Sig, then Al, and then Hilde, who went to work at the Famous Cafe. She never remarried, and always remained the foundation from which the family drew its strength and support. Hans continued to work in construction throughout the province, finally settling in the Laketown in 1961. For eight years, Karl also worked in the construction business, eventually entering into a partnership with Prince George businessman Ben Ginter. In 1962, Karl too decided to put down roots in Williams Lake. There he met a hometown girl, Reta Rife, and the two were married in 1963. At the time, the town was booming. Several bush mills had combined their operations and new large sawmills were being constructed at the edge of town. The new Gibraltar Mine was being developed. Businesses were opening and people were moving into the area. There was a big need for infrastructure, public works, and residential and commercial development.

Karl saw the potential, and established a ready-mix concrete and excavation company, Lake Excavating, in 1964.

His brother Hans came to work for this company as well. Over those early years, Lake Excavating grew, growing up subdivisions, building roads, working on commercial developments, and providing services. It was a time of great expansion for the town. In 1968, for example, in advance of the influx of new workers for Gibraltar, the company dug over 250 residential foundations. Lake Excavating was the first, and during that time, the largest such company in the area with more than 50 employees.

Brother Al had already established a successful construction company as well as a building supply business, and he was contracted to build several of the town’s large commercial developments. The Seiberts also became involved in the life of the community. They formed and competed on the town’s first soccer team. Karl and Fred had a real interest in stock car racing, and the brothers were instrumental in forming the Lakers Auto Racing Club and developing the first race track out at Sugar Cane. The family was also heavily involved in the construction of St. John’s Lutheran Church. In 1969, Karl and Reta purchased land from Amadee Isnardy and branched out into the ranching business. They still own the Pablo Creek Ranch although its operations have been scaled back considerably.

Today, Lake Excavating has evolved into a much larger operation, taking on major road construction jobs as well as mining construction and other large projects which require large heavy equipment, both in B.C. and Alberta. Karl retired in 1997 and the company was taken over by his daughter, Kari, and his son, Trevor. Although its head office has since been moved to Vancouver, the operation still maintains a working presence in Williams Lake.

Brothers Fred, Sig, Hans, and Al each retired after successful careers as well. Throughout their working years, their efforts were marked by a determined work ethic and a pride in their accomplishments. The entire Seibert family has been a major force in the shaping and the development of the Williams Lake that we know today. They worked hard to overcome war time experiences that crushed many. With incredible will power, tenacity, and perseverance, this family has made a lasting mark on our city’s history.

My thanks and appreciation to Karl and Reta Seibert for their assistance in the writing of this article.

READ MORE: OUR HOMETOWN: Reta Seibert shares history of life in Williams Lake, love of gardening


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