May Cole on Little’s Island in 1918.

May Cole on Little’s Island in 1918.

Two unconventional pioneer women make lives in Terrace, B.C.

International Women's Day recognizes unique women often not thought of in history of northwestern B.C.


Happy International Women’s Day!

Women have often been overlooked in Canadian history. Here are two profiles, courtesy of Heritage Park Museum curator Kelsey Wiebe, of local women who don’t fit easily into our understanding of pioneer women to make us reflect about women’s roles in our history. Information was found in Heritage Park’s archives, which includes oral histories, photographs, and maps of Terrace and area.

May Cole

May Cole was an English war bride who arrived in Terrace with a baby in the summer of 1919. She was born in Kent, England in 1895. She married Edgar Cole, a Canadian soldier, during the First World War and followed him back to Terrace after the war. Looking back years later, May recalls that, upon arriving in Terrace, “I thought I’d come to the end of the Earth.”

Life in Terrace (population 351 in 1931) was much rougher than May was accustomed to in England. She assessed the well situation at her new home on Graham Avenue and quickly realized that she would not be able to care for her long hair. She cut it off right away, and kept the locks for her future grandchildren. (May’s hair was donated to Heritage Park Museum recently by her grandson.)

Even so, May looked back on her early days in Terrace with humour. “We were asked for tea by Mr. and Mrs. J.K. Gordon, but I told Edgar I wanted to see the town first,” she recalled in Nadine Asante’s History of Terrace. “I was rather surprised when he said, ‘Look up the street and you’ve seen it.”’

With no bakery, May taught herself to bake bread from the recipe on the back of a tin. She surprised herself with a beautiful loaf of bread, and began a lifelong love affair with baking bread. She used to secretly break up loaves of bread to feed to the chickens, so that it would go faster and she could bake more.

Edgar Cole had arrived in the Terrace area in 1910 as a missionary. His territory stretched from Hazelton to Port Simpson. He became close friends with Chief Walter Wright, the narrator of Men of Medeek, who would travel up the Skeena River every November 11th to observe Armistice Day with the Coles. Edgar’s experience on the front lines in the First World War shook his beliefs, and he never returned to missionary work after the war.

Instead, Edgar returned from the war to work in a sawmill. He made 25 cents an hour as a shingle sawyer and 30 cents an hour when he worked on a machine.

During the Depression, Edgar had to keep taking lumber instead of wages, since there was no cash. May states in an oral interview that he never saw their five children, due to working long hours in the mill.

May gardened, sewed curtains from flour sacks, made mitts out of the tops of old socks, dug the chickens out of the snow, and kept her house warm, at great effort. She grew over 50 fruit trees, including apple, pear, plum, and cherry trees. She found time to celebrate special events like Dominion Day (now Canada Day), and befriended other English war brides.

May thinks that all the hardship turned her hair prematurely grey. She was grey in her 40s, whereas her English mother had no grey hair at 75. Still, she says, if she had to do it all over again, “I would not have changed any part of my rich life.”

Much of the information in this article is derived from an oral history with May Cole, who was interviewed by Marilyn Crombie and Neil Weber in October 1978 for the Terrace Mini-Museum, which was in the lower level of the Terrace Public Library. Transcripts of the interviews are now stored in the archives of Heritage Park, but it is always on the lookout for the original audiocassettes.

Beatrice Johnstone

Beatrice May Johnstone (nee Bradley) cooked, cleaned, and laundered for the mostly male guests at the Lakelse Hot Springs Hotel from 1915 to 1932.

Her son, Lloyd (also pictured), remembers: “I look back on it and I often wonder how she was capable of doing it.

She used to be up at 4 and 5 o’clock in the morning baking pies, doing washing (which in those days had to be done by hand) for sometimes, 12, 15, 20 guests, as well as doing all the cooking.”

Beatrice, who was also known as May, was well-educated, which was unusual for women at the time.

She was born a twin in 1878, to a large, “well-to-do” family in Ontario.

She worked in Ottawa (also unusual) until she was in her 30s, when she met Bruce Johnstone while visiting her sister in Victoria.

Bruce operated the Lakelse Hot Springs as a rustic health resort, after having pre-empted the land in 1906.

Beatrice and Bruce married in 1913.

Bruce felt that “there was no place for a woman in this north country,” so he sold the hot springs property and purchased a home in Victoria for his new wife.

The deal, however, fell through, and the couple returned to the Skeena region, where they spent the winters in Terrace, and the rest of the year at the hot springs.

Their son Lloyd (who later became the mayor of Terrace) was born in Prince Rupert in 1916.

The Johnstone family kept around 15 cows as well as a vegetable garden to feed themselves and the guests at the lodge.

Apparently, their garden was much more productive than those of Terrace settlers due to the minerals in the hot springs water.

Beatrice occasionally had a part-time cook and waitress to assist her at the hotel, but the rural pioneer life nonetheless must have been an extreme adjustment.

She eventually suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of all the manual labour and isolation, and returned to Ontario for three or four years to convalesce.

The absence of her labour may have contributed to Bruce Johnstone’s eventual bankruptcy in 1936, though there were other significant factors (the Depression, the flooding of the Skeena, which prevented tourists from reaching the lodge for an entire tourist season, and the calling in of a loan from the estranged widow of a neighbour).

It must have been a very lonely life for my mother,” Lloyd mused in an oral history, much later.