Arts & Culture(Archives)
Moments in Time
Growing Up in Early Fort McMurray
It’s no secret that Fort McMurray has an image of being a “working town”. From a historical perspective, this belief isn’t completely wrong. Since the late 1880s, people from all across Canada, and even the world, have been flocking to Fort McMurray. Originally, the main attraction to the area was the promise of adventure and riches from the fur trade. When trading began to decline, the focus then shifted to the profitable natural resources in the area, such as salt, and of course, oil. With a strong tradition of being a destination for workers, one could even argue that it is sort of a rite of passage for a young man or woman to leave their family and hometown to earn a decent wage in Fort McMurray.
This popular view tends to overshadow the fact that many people who relocate to Fort McMurray with a “5 year” or “10 year” plan actually end up making this place their home, settling down, and starting a family. And why not? This region is a perfect place to raise children! We are lucky to have great facilities such as the Fort McMurray Public Library, the HUB, the YMCA, and let’s not forget MacDonald Island Park (Canada’s largest community recreational, and social centre) that offer tons of fun activities and events for families throughout the year. When children aren’t soaking up the summer sun at a nearby spray-park or playing in the brisk winter air at Vista Ridge, there are also a plethora of local arts and recreational clubs and organizations to keep them busy!
These organizations and facilities didn’t always exist, though, and were not part of the original attraction for families. Many of these facilities are less than 25 years old, yet families have been relocating and living in Fort McMurray for over a century. So what was it like growing up in Fort McMurray years ago as a newcomer, before MacDonald Island opened or prior to the construction of Highway 63? What was it like being the child of one of the original “working families”?
One of the first newcomer children recorded in the area was George Golosky. George arrived in Fort McMurray in 1903 when he was about 12 years old. Originally from Eastern Europe, it is believed that George and his family immigrated to Canada sometime in the late 1800s. As described in the book, “More Than Oil: Trappers, Traders & Settlers of Northern Alberta”, relations became strained in the Golosky household and young George ran away from home. Living on his own and working at a livery stable in Edmonton, George met William and Christina Gordon, siblings who operated a successful trading post in Fort McMurray. The Gordons took George under their care, informally adopting him and welcoming him into their home.
When George arrived in Fort McMurray, it had a population of less than 50 people. As a newcomer to this northern, isolated community, survival depended on being hard working and resilient. Even children, such as George, were expected to pull their weight and contribute to their family’s overall well being. Youth were regarded as capable of completing such tasks that many parents today would deem too dangerous or difficult, such as tending to a garden, trapping animals, and chopping wood.
It wasn’t until 1912 that children in Fort McMurray were able to attend an official school. Located on the eastern side of Franklin Ave, the one-room log cabin was built by Douglas Craig McTavish, who was serving as a lay missionary for the Presbyterian Church. His wife Cassia was Fort McMurray’s first teacher, instructing students who ranged from grades one to eight.
School attendance records show that children often missed class in order to help their families with tasks like harvesting vegetables and trapping animals. Some duties were so extensive that they could be likened to having a part time job. Hugh Stroud, for example, was only six years old when he arrived in Fort McMurray in 1921, but by the following year, he was working on a trap-line with his stepfather, in a small cabin in the bush. By age 12, Hugh was waking up at 5 a.m. to help his mother run a dairy business along the Clearwater River. It was Hugh’s responsibility to gather the cows every morning, milk them, load the bottles onto his wagon or dog sled, and deliver the milk to various homes and businesses in town. Hugh would then rush to school for a full day’s lessons, only to deliver more milk to residents in Waterways in the evening.
While most days could be long and arduous for early newcomers and residents of Fort McMurray, it wasn’t all work and no play. According to Tom Morimoto, a second generation Japanese-Canadian who grew up in the area during the 1920s, there were always lots of sports to play and activities to do. In the winter, despite the severe cold, kids would simply bundle up and slide down the snow covered hills or ice skate on the frozen Snye, and in the summer, days were spent outside playing sports and games. Tom details in his memoir, “Breaking Trail: From Canada’s Northern Frontier to the Oil Fields of Dubai”, how every Sunday the rival villages of Waterways and McMurray would play baseball in the area known as The Prairie (which is now roughly the area where Keyano College is located) and how every Canada Day the community would host a sports day with games and races. All the children looked forward to this event as it signalled the start of the summer break from school and they were each given free ice cream and pop!
The childhood stories of George Golosky, Hugh Stroud and Tom Morimoto remind us that Fort McMurray is not, and never has been, just a “working town”. Children have been born and bred here, and will continue to be for generations to come. George Golosky, for instance, became a successful local business owner and served on Fort McMurray’s first Board of Trade. He lived in Fort McMurray his entire life, passing away in the 1980s. As for Hugh Stroud, the young boy who delivered milk in the morning and evening, he bravely volunteered to serve in the Second World War. Upon his return, he served on the Fort McMurray Public School Board and on town council for 10 years. Last but not least, Tom Morimoto has the distinction of being the only Japanese-Canadian on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in the Second World War. He later attended the University of Alberta and graduated as a chemical engineer, spending many years travelling the world and working in the oil industry, both in Alberta and Dubai. Now in his late 90s, Tom recently returned to his hometown to give a TedX talk on February 21, 2015 about “Pioneering”, a fitting theme for a child of Fort McMurray’s early newcomer families.
image001.jpg: Hugh Stroud delivering milk, circa 1929. Photo courtesy of the Fort McMurray Historical Society.
image003.jpg: Cassia McTavish (right) watching her students playing, around 1921. Photo courtesy of the Fort McMurray Historical Society.