Back to the beginning: Charlie and Agnes Jackson.
Charlie Jackson has so many stories about living and working around Slave Lake he could go on all day. In fact he warns you beforehand that’s what could happen.
So does his wife Agnes. Sitting at the kitchen table in their home on the Lesser Slave River, Agnes interjects every so often, saying, “He could go on for hours!”
But this time the chat only lasts about 90 minutes. Outside, the early fall snow is melting, while tandem trucks filled with gravel run back and forth a few metres away on the Old Smith Highway, churning it up.
During a story about how he worked in highway construction around the area, and how nice those roads are now compared to when they were first built, Agnes chips in: ‘They haven’t paved this one yet!”
They haven’t, and it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. On the other hand, it’s come quite a long way since Archibald Cecil ‘Shorty’ Jackson hiked over from Mitsue Lake in 1919, looking for a cook.
“There was a trail over here,” says Charlie. “Somebody told him he might find a cook here.”
‘Here,’ was the home of the Cardinal family, one of whose members was Sophie.
Shorty Jackson at the time was running a railway camp at the Mitsue siding. He’d gone into Slave Lake, or Sawridge as it was still called then, looking for a replacement.
“Go to the river and holler and somebody will come over in a canoe,” Charlie says he was told.
Somebody did. They couldn’t speak English and he couldn’t speak Cree. But somehow the message got across. He ended up hiring Sophie and her sister (Sophie wouldn’t go alone). A year later, they were married and about eight years after that, along came Charlie.
Charlie and Agnes Jackson, in their home on the Old Smith Highway, on the same property Charlie’s mother Sophie grew up on.
Charlie and his siblings grew up speaking Cree first. Their dad was always working, he says. He’d be home for supper, though, and although he never learned to speak Cree, he knew enough to understand when his kids asked him to ‘pass the sugar,’ or something like that.
“We lived in Mitsue until the kids (the older ones) were ready for school,” says Charlie. “Then we moved to Old Town Slave Lake.”
Next came a move to Kinuso, where Shorty continued to work for the railway. He transferred back to Slave Lake after the big flood in the middle of the 1930s, to the new town site.
“I started school in 1939,” Charlie says. He would have been 11 years old. His younger twin brothers started the same year. All three of them show up in a photo of the students and teachers from that year, which appears on Page 118 of the local history book ‘Pioneers of the Lakeland.’
“We lived happily in the new town,” Charlie recalls. “Whatever we did we had to do ourselves.”
Building a downtown skating rink (roughly where the Royal Bank is now), for example, was all done by volunteers, with water hauled by horse and sleigh from the river. Charlie recalls the Catholic priest, Father Kindervater having a lot to do with that project.
“He was our leader.”
Charlie quite school at age 15 and tried to join the military. With his father and two brothers serving in the Second World War, “I wanted to go,” he says. “I felt very bad.”
Unlike some other kids he knew (Freddy Sawan) who got in underage, he was rejected.
“They told me to go back to school. It seemed to depend how big you were.”
Instead, he went to work for Swanson Lumber, loading green lumber off of trucks in from the bush mills onto flat cars at the Slave Lake siding. That was the job that cost him four fingers on his left hand.
“I worked with Barney Ghostkeeper for 10 years,” he says. “And Louis Ghostkeeper.”
It was through Louis’s wife Veronica that Charlie met Agnes Anderson of Wabasca. Louis and Veronica had met and married in Wabasca, moving to Slave Lake in 1943. They both worked for the Catholic mission school there, where Alfred Anderson, Agnes’s Norwegian father also was employed. Her mom was Maggie Cardinal.
Charlie and Agnes were married in 1949 and had seven children: Dennis, Jim, Joe, Clarisse, Robert, Marcel and Raymond. By now they also have a lot of grandchildren and great-grandchildren – many of them arrayed on a wall in their home.
“Those two are doctors!” says Charlie proudly, pointing out two of the granddaughters. “He’s an engineer,” – indicating a grandson.
Getting back to Charlie’s working career, it was a night of loading flat cars in 1952 that cost him his thumb and three fingers. A cable had slipped out of a pulley on the loading rig. He climbed up a boom and re-set it, and was swinging down on the sling when its cable got caught in a pulley, pulling his hand in and ripping off the digits.
“What a terrible night!” he said, in story that appeared in the book ‘Voices in the Forest.’
There was no getting the fingers re-attached, as might happen nowadays.
“One they found frozen on the cable the next morning,” he says.
It could have been worse though; Nurse Laura Attrux treated the wounds and gave him a shot for the pain and sent him by train to the hospital in High Prairie. There, a Dr. Tredger fixed him up as well as he could.
Being left-handed and a hunter, Charlie was particularly concerned about what was left of his index finger.
“I wonder if you could make my finger so I can pull the trigger?” he asked the doctor. “So he did.”
Several years later, Charlie was still working for Swanson’s and making 40 cents an hour when oil was discovered in the area, by a company called Standard Oil of California (Chevron).
“I new the head man,” he says. “He said, ‘You should buy a steam-cleaning unit.’ I did very good with that.”
Two years in the oilfield and the Jacksons had enough money to buy a bulldozer, a D-8 Cat he picked up in Edmonton for $16,000. Thus started a road-building career, which lasted, on and off, for two or three decades. He and his buddy Henry Sinclair, who also purchased a dozer, got work all over – on the road to Red Earth Creek, the highway to Wabasca and on Hwy. 2. On the Hwy. 43 project between Valleyview and Whitecourt, working for Mannix Construction.
Henry and I became ‘finishers’” on that job, he says.
Roadbuilding was seasonal work. Charlie also bought a sawmill in 1967 and spent 10 years or so sawing lumber in the bush. It started with a bang, with the big 1968 fire south of Slave Lake leaving huge amounts of black timber, much of which Swanson’s decided didn’t want.
“I bought three million board feet of black timber,” he says, “and it took me one winter and one summer.”
Other locations followed for the mill – Driftpile, Virginia Hills, Kinuso. But the one he enjoyed the most was up north in Red Earth country.
“We really enjoyed that job,” he says. “I had the whole family working there.”
It wasn’t all that successful in other respects.
“I was so far in the hole you couldn’t feed me with a slingshot,” he says.
Other ventures were more lucrative. One time he received a call from his brother Harry, who was managing a pipeline project up the Alaska Highway. He needed workers.
Harry Jackson was a veteran of the Korean War, with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
“He was a good soldier,” says Charlie.
In 1961 Harry was a manager with the Pioneer pipeline company, and working in the area of Mile 101 in B.C. He asked Charlie to get a crew together and come up for some pipeline work.
“Oh, we made big money on that,” he says.
That was the year of the big rabbit population explosion, which most people who were around then remember. Frozen rabbit carcasses littered the highway, making it very rough. On the job site, “we had to close up the pipeline every night,” Charlie says, “or they’d be full of rabbits.” In fact rabbits did get into the line, and had to be cleared out before it could go into operation.
Charlie’s last regular job was from 1980 to 1993, as a grade (road) foreman with Alberta Transportation and Utilities, building roads and subdivisions.
“I retired, but I didn’t quit,” he says.
Instead, he set up sawmill at the place on the river and ran it with his son and grandson, mostly sawing lumber for the oilpatch.
Purchasing the land his mother grew up on was a nice touch. He says there were two trees in the middle of the field. He thinks they marked the spot where his grandmother and one of his uncles were buried, after they died in the great flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919. He’d heard stories about that as a boy.
“It seemed the stronger you were, the harder it hit you. My mother said my grandfather, after the winter, went down the river and found seven bodies, in cabins, frozen stiff.”
Which brings us back to the beginning of this story, because it was probably that same year that Shorty Jackson showed up at that same spot, looking for a cook.