Tribune Staff Writer
Fredrick Martinius Brink left his mark in the West Chilcotin. Maybe that only stands to reason considering he spent more than 70 of his 86 years there at that little dot on the map known as Kleena Kleene. In fact Fred is largely responsible for elevating the status of that little hamlet, plumb smack in the middle of nowhere, into a place recognized by Canada Post with its own postal code.
Fred built the store there. And then when it burned down, he had the store rebuilt. The fact that his wife Leona ran the store most of those years and inherited post master duties from Fred is besides the point.
Born in Bella Coola on October 27, 1919, Fred was 14 years old when he moved to the quarter section of land his father had purchased in Kleena Kleene a few years earlier.
Fred’s parents, Karl and Oulifine, were both from Norway, and were drawn to the Central Coast valley of Bella Coola to join the Norwegian colony there.
Karl arrived first, going to Minnesota in 1908 and working his way west to the fruit growing region of Washington State. He then took the steam ship up the west coast from Vancouver to Bella Coola in 1912. A qualified butcher, he purchased Hagensborg General Store and, like most men in those days, fished for a living during the summer.
When Oulifine Fredriksen came to Bella Coola in 1916 and met Karl, it must have been love at first sight. In short order the couple was married and their first child Victor was born on March 29, 1918. Their three other children arrived in quick succession, Fred in 1919, Christine (Sollid) in 1921, and Agness (Hoggarth) in 1924.
In 1926, during a lull in Bella Coola’s subsistent economy, Karl figured riches were to be had in the gold fields of Barkerville. He left Oulifine to mind the store and look after the children and headed out on horseback up the Precipice Trail to the Chilcotin Plateau to seek his fortune in the Cariboo.
On the way he overnighted with Frank Render in his sod-roofed log cabin on the banks of the Klinaklini River, where the river exits the Chilcotin and cuts a precipitous route through the Coast Mountains to Knight Inlet. Render told Karl he wanted to sell his 160 acres of cleared meadows, willow brush and poplars, and Karl gave him a down payment.
“It’s a good thing he did,” reflects Christine. “Because he went up to Barkerville and lost his shirt.”
Fortunately Karl still had his store, butcher business and family in Hagensborg to come back to, and the opportunity to earn money by commercial fishing.
In 1932 Fred got his first look at the ranch that was soon to become his home. He accompanied his father and brother on the three-day horseback ride to cut hay there, and Fred must have liked what he saw.
You could hardly blame him. From a photographer’s perspective the viewscape is one of the most spectacular anywhere. It’s almost as if God stopped there and paused a bit longer than most places on His journey of creation, and a sparkle from His eye somehow got left behind. It’s just one of those places.
Reflecting on Fred’s growing up in Hagensborg, Christine says all the kids in the family attended the one-room school in Hagensborg. She says Fred’s ‘worste’ subject was spelling.
“He was a sure-shot marble player, and you’d find him away fishing every chance he got, so he kept the family in fresh fish.”
The summer before Fred moved to the Chilcotin, his father decided to discipline him for truancy, and placed him on a small sailboat to fish for salmon. But you have to wonder exactly what kind of punishment that was. Kind of like Brer Rabbit pleading to Brer Fox not to throw him into the Briar Patch.
Though he liked fishing, Fred preferred the high country. Both he and Victor went to their dad’s ranch at Kleena Kleene the following summer, and left the trolling for Pinks and Sockeye to others.
By then Fred had finished school, which in those days meant Grade 8, and from then on he and Victor more or less became permanent residents of Kleena Kleene.
Over the years they ranched, farmed, cleared more and more land, and purchased more acreage. They sent their few head of cattle to market, adding them to the big cattle drives heading east to Ashcroft or Williams Lake. A couple of times they sent their animals west on smaller drives down the steep hill to Bella Coola. In 1943 Fred and Victor bought the ranch from their father.
During the summer of 1947, Fred and Victor put up some hay at their neighbour Tom Chignell’s ranch near Tatla Lake, some 25 kilometres east of their place. Then that winter Fred brought 80 head of cattle over to the Chignells to feed them there because it was a lot easier to move the animals to the hay than it was to haul the hay to them.
Also living at the Chignells that winter was Leona Bittner, hired to teach correspondence to Tom and Eve Chignell’s two older children.
Leona was no stranger to the West Chilcotin. She came to the country as an infant in the early 1930s, where her Hamm Family clan from Saskatchewan settled in the West Branch south of Tatla Lake.
“I was raised in West Branch as a little sprout,” Leona explains. Then she moved to Vancouver when her parents split up, but came back as a teen to work for the Chignells. “I loved the mountains,” she says.
Leona was impressed by Fred’s work ethic, up very early each morning cutting firewood at 6 a.m.
It didn’t take long for the long cold winter to work its magic. To make a long story short, Fred and Leona became engaged and were married a year and a half later in the fall of 1949.
“We started out in a sod-roofed, two-room cabin,” recalls Leona.
In 1950 Fred and Leona took over sole ownership of the Kleena Kleene Ranch after Victor became ill. In 1953 their first child Cheryl (Shortreed) was born. Randy was next, followed by Karen (Vaughan). Later they adoped Donny.
Leona describes Fred as a “stubborn old guy who always had to be doing something.” He got a D-2 Cat then a D-4 Cat to clear his fields and Leona and the kids put in their time picking the roots.
Fred had been ranching for 50 years when he and Leona sold the ranch to their daughters Cheryl and Karen in 1984. Then he started a new career trucking and helped his sons Randy and Donny get into the logging and saw milling business.
“Whatever he did, he managed to squish fun in as well,” reflects Leona. “He played as hard as he worked.”
Those not versed in the niceties of the old Chilcotin might not understand the humour when Fred’s neighbour Alex Graham once voted him in as director for Cariboo Memorial Hospital in Williams Lake.
“Alex thought that was pretty funny,” says Leona. “Fred was just too busy.”
But she says he likely took his turn, as did other ranchers in the area, serving as chair of the local cattlemen’s association a time or two.
Always big on family, Fred took great delight when his (11) grandchildren started to arrive. This was only topped when he got to meet his (three) great grandchildren.
So what is the measure of a man? Married to Leona for 56 years, hard working all his life, proprietor of that little lighted place on the side of the Chilcotin Road for 70 years. Fred helped more than a few folks out of a jam in that time. Especially those from Bella Coola who looked on Fred like kin. When they broke down or ran out of gas, he was always there to oblige.
Fred was surrounded by family when he died peacefully in Williams Lake on February 25. And with his passing an important chapter in the history of the West Chilcotin ended.
On June 10 in Tatla Lake the Brink family will hold a celebration of Fred’s life. For the man who made his mark in the West Chilcotin where the Klinaklini River flows south into the Coast Mountains, and the world is a better place because of it.