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A Log Homestead

Alberta

In 2020 my wife and I embarked on a vacation and photography trip to the Peace River Country in northwest Alberta. It was not my first trip there but it was the first time where photography would be my main goal. I was not disappointed. I filled my camera with hundreds of photographs of old homesteads, churches and schools. Some of those images can already be found in earlier blogs while others are still sitting in my computer while I try to find some history to go with them. And so it is with this blog post’s subject image. I’ve made only a little progress in finding the provenance of this log home structure but that will have to do, at least until somebody recognizes it and contacts me with the rest of the story.

A beautiful log home.

We were somewhere between Fairview and Waterhole, Alberta when we spotted this beautiful log house next to a dusty country road. Not only was the log house beautiful, but it was surrounded by bright yellow canola fields. This was one of those, “stop the car, stop the car” moments.

The log house.

Log houses and barns are not unusual in the Peace Country. Most farms either had small forests of pine and spruce trees, or they were very near such forests. Sawmills, on the other hand, were still hard to find because transportation of any equipment was one of the main challenges faced by the homesteader. There were no good roads to this part of Alberta. The Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway, built by private capital, reached Peace River town in 1916. An extension from McLennan to Spirit River and Grande Prairie was completed in the same year. Prior to that there were only two ways to reach the Peace Country; one by the Athabasca River, Lesser Slave Lake and Peace River trail. The other by railway to Edson, and then along the Edson Grande Prairie Trail. Both routes were best taken in the winter when muskeg was frozen and lake ice could handle an ox cart. Many people turned back because the trek northwest was too difficult or they simply had back luck with a cart getting permanently stuck in the mud, or falling through the lake or river ice.

For those who did reach the Peace River country, and successfully proved up their homestead land, the next challenge was how to get their grain to market. Until the railway arrived they had only the same treacherous two routes out to reach the Edmonton markets. These farmers had to be even more self sufficient than the pioneers in the southern prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Why would anyone go through such hardships? Because this is the land that they dreamed of. This was the last great west where good land and decent amounts of rainfall could produce a good crop. Trees were plentiful to build barns and houses, and even to burn in stoves.

The metal eavestrough tells us that this log house was updated at some point.
A dusty road as seen through the window of the log house.
A home to be proud of.
Waterhole School Sign

Back in the early century, Waterhole, Alberta had its own rural schoolhouse. The location is now marked by a sign set well off from the road. I believe that the schoolhouse was moved to one of the nearby towns; possibly Fairview.

Who built this log house?

I visited the Alberta Provincial Archives in Edmonton in order to find out who may have built this log house. At the archives I located five reels of microfilm and started searching for the the person or persons who homesteaded on this land. The archivist said “these reels are getting old”. I was told that they date back to the 1960s and the original documents were destroyed after they were scanned into microfilm. That’s a problem because some of the documents on microfilm were nearly impossible to read. The very last of my preselected group of five reels was the one that held information about George Vaughan and his homestead. This was important because the Vaughan homestead was the only one that took up the southeast quarter section where the log house resides.

George Vaughan selected this quarter section on June 10, 1911. One of the requirements to homestead is that the farmer must build a house on the land as well as live in it for six months of each year for three years. In this case George Vaughan indicates that he built an 18 by 24 foot “log and lumber shed”. That’s not likely the home we see in the photos. All, or nearly all, of the first homes built by homesteaders that I’ve seen were basically just sod homes or log shacks that eventually became storage buildings. These were built to the minimum size and quality so that the farmer could concentrate on building corrals, barns and breaking the land. They didn’t have the time or money to build a fine log home like we see in my photos. In fact most farmers didn’t build a better house until they later married, if they weren’t already married, because a larger and warmer house was necessary for a family. George Vaughn had no family and, as we will soon learn, he didn’t stay long in the area.

Source: Burnt embers: a history of Woking and district in the Burnt River valley. page 21

This log house that I photographed was probably built by someone as a step up home after they had already received a Homestead Patent (ownership) to the land. That was only logical because if they failed to meet the homestead requirements (or gave up on it) they would lose the land and nobody wants to build a beautiful log house like this on land that they don’t own. The black and white image to the right is just a random photo, from the Peace Country, of a the type of log house that a homesteader would typically build and use until he received title to the land. Even then he would likely wait until his wife said, “I want a nicer house”. You don’t need to be an architect to see the difference between this little log shack and the featured log house that I photographed.

Who Was George Vaughan?

We know very little about George Vaughan. The local history book, Waterhole and the Land North of the Peace, has only two lines about Mr. Vaughan. The first mention of George Vaughan was in the personal account of John Campbell where the book says:

They unloaded the box car on to the sleighs, and took off on their two month (journey) through the snow, and across the ice of Lesser Slave Lake. George Vaughan, a retired sailor met the Campbell’s somewhere early in this trip and travelled with them.

Waterhole and the Land North of the Peace. page 29

The second and last mention of George Vaughan was under the personal account of Jack MacKay written by Tina MacKay:

There were several colorful individuals who spent some time in our district and then moved on to other fields. One of them was George Vaughan, an Englishman who sold his holdings and returned to his home near London.

Tina MacKay – Waterhole and the Land North of the Peace. page 143

My searches turned up nothing else about George Vaughan or what happened to the land that he homesteaded. I know that he was reasonably successful in farming because he received title to the homestead land. Vaughan was 47 years of age in 1915 when he applied for ownership according to the copies of the documents that I obtained from the Provincial Archives. He indicated on the application that he has no family, so if he didn’t stay long before moving back to England he likely sold his land without building a nicer house. Of course he could have stayed a few years on the land after receiving title and if he had the funds he may have commissioned the building of the house at that time. It’s a possibility but an unlikely one and I have no information on how long he stayed on the homestead before selling it. Given that George Vaughan was already 47 years of age and still single it’s not surprising that he would decide to sell and return to England. The quote above by Tina MacKay suggests that he didn’t stay long.

Waterhole and the Land North of the Peace. page 62

We have one more possible clue as to the builder of this log house. The clue comes to us from the personal account of Stanley Rowe, who arrived in the Peace Country at the tender age of 17. When he turned 18 Stanley Rowe filed to homestead on the NW quarter of the same section that George Vaughan had homesteaded on except Vaughan was on the SE quarter. There is nothing in the local history book that says that Rowe bought the Vaughan quarter section but it’s possible. What we do know is that Stanley Rowe was committed to farming and he gradually expanded his holdings to include at least ¾ of the section to the west. Below is a diagram to show where their relative land holdings were. Stanley Rowe’s land is shown in yellow and George Vaughan’s quarter section with the log house is shown in blue. Clearly if Stanley Vaughan was selling his land, George Rowe would have considered buying it.

Both Rowe and Vaughan homesteaded on the same section with Rowe having the northwest quarter and Vaughan having the southeast quarter. Stanley Rowe later bought 3 quarter sections of land from three separate individuals plus a half section from Bob Clark, but I don’t know where that half section was located. The local history book doesn’t say where Clark homesteaded or anything else about him. This does tell us that Stanley Rowe was a successful farmer because that is the only reason that he would be buying so much more land. Also we know that Stanley Rowe built a nice log house for a family because the local history book tells us the following:

During the winter of 1915-16 he got out a set of logs to build a new house which he and Jack Sheehan erected the next summer. (This house was used for the family home ’til 1938). Jack had homesteaded the quarter of land to the north of Stanley and the two worked together to build their homes.

Waterhole and the Land North of the Peace. page 62

Stanley Rowe needed a good house because he and his wife Ruth raised six children including Marian Rowe Campbell who still farmed the land at the time the local history book was published in 1970. So while I can’t definitively say that the log house was built by the Rowe family, I believe it’s a pretty good guess that they did buy George Vaughan’s homestead and built a log and lumber house there. Perhaps one of the readers of this blog post will know more about either the Rowe family or the log house in particular.

Regardless of who built this log house in Alberta it is a beautiful structure and it speaks to the optimism that motivated the pioneers to expand their holdings and build high quality homes.

Citations:

  • Waterhole and the Land North of the Peace. 1970, Waterhole Old Timers Association.
  • Canadian Frontiers of Settlement. The settlement of the Peace River country: a study of a pioneer area. Volume 6, 1934, C. A. Dawson; The MacMillan Company Of Canada, Limited.
  • Burnt Embers: A History of Woking and District in the Burnt River Valley. Woking and Area Historical Society, 1897. Friesen Printers – Edmonton. Used for only for one photo.

If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old and potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.

A peaceful setting in the Peace River Country
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12 thoughts on “A Log Homestead

  1. Some beautiful photos of this elegant log home Glen. I am sure I drove past it many times when I lived in the Fairview/Hines Creek area. Always good to photograph amidst canola bloom. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Allan. I’ve seen many old homes but this one always stands out in my memory. Hopefully I can see it again before long.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting read. It seems that you are a cross between a history buff and a detective, Finding and making captures of these historical buildings must be fun, but I bet you enjoy the challenge of digging up history almost as much. Your dedication and willingness to put in the effort to find out as much as you can has to be commended. Great work Glen.

    I sure do like the interior shots. The whole building looks very stury still which is cool as it should still be standing for some time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much Bernie. I do enjoy the challenge of finding out who did certain things and why they did what they did. I also enjoy hearing from people who have a connection to the places that I write about as they can often fill in the blanks of what I couldn’t otherwise discover myself. I appreciate the comment Bernie.

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  3. I’ Uris if you ever discover graveyards in these remote areas of Alberta? Headstone names and inscriptions at times have help me get a feel for the former residents of an area.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always check out the graveyards of the old church when there is one for that very reason. Occasionally I’ll find a small family cemetery or even a single grave. See the blog post called A Solitary Grave for more information about one of those finds.

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  4. Lovely pictures of this home and interesting research. Those empty windows are haunting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Lillie. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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  5. It’s such a shame that someone wouldn’t come along and resurrect this house, particularly when there’s such interest these days in building log homes. It must have been a real showpiece back in the day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s sad to see it decay but I understand. Old houses cost a lot to restore and renovate. There are probably no utilities nearby except for electricity.

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  6. Great perspectives! Which lens(es) did you use? The writeup is also very informative. I love old barns too. Such history!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for commenting. I go back and forth from my 15mm prime lens to a 16-50 zoom.

      Liked by 1 person

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