Part I of II: Grand Barns of the North Peace Country
This is the story of Charles Plavin. He was an extraordinary pioneer who is not well known outside of the general area of North Star and Manning in northwest Alberta. Conversely, it would be hard to find an individual in those two communities and over the age of 25 who doesn’t recognize the name of “Charlie Plavin”. Manning and North Star have kept the story of “old Charlie” to themselves long enough. It’s now time that they shared their collective memory of Charlie with the rest of us who didn’t have the honour of meeting this amazing man in person.
Originally this blog post wasn’t going to be about Charlie. I had been using my contacts to try and find the Philip Daigle barn; a beautiful polygonal barn that is rich in character and also situated in the north Peace River area of Alberta. That’s when I discovered the stories about Charlie Plavin and his homestead. After a three-day photography road trip, I considered putting both the Daigle barn and the Charlie Plavin barn into the same post because they are both polygonal designs and are situated only about 24km apart. That idea quickly morphed into this two-part blog post because Charlie’s life and exploits couldn’t be reduced to a few paragraphs in a shared post. Fair warning, this post is a still little longer than most of my blogs. I hope you stick with me and read this post in its entirety because Charlie was an interesting and eclectic individual. Charlie deserves to be written about and remembered even though he was a tough fellow to warm up to. More on that later.
The following two quotes serve to emphasize the dichotomy of people’s opinions about Charlie Plavin. Both statements are from the same person and just a couple of pages apart in the local history book. These seemingly contrasting points of view are not unique to Barbara Mulcahy. I’ve read a number of accounts of this man, and they all contain what are normally incompatible opinions. Was Charlie a thoughtful and valuable member of the community or a royal pain in the neck? You decide and perhaps let me know in the comments below.
Despite all of this, the thing that everyone who knew Charlie Plavin remembers most vividly about him was his cussed nature. That he was an argumentative, obstinate man there can be no doubt.Barbara Mulcahy – Saga of Battle River; page 460
Despite his comparative wealth, he refused to install electricity, plumbing or a telephone. Although miserly in providing for his own needs, Plavin was generous to the community. Each Christmas during the depression, he provided a box of oranges or apples as a treat for the younger children.Barbara Mulcahy – Saga of Battle River; page 462
Charlie Plavin was a bachelor his entire life so there are no children or grandchildren to now speak about his life’s accomplishments. Charlie is remembered even though he had no family because the good people of North Star and Manning remember Charlie and still speak about him. Men like Charlie are not soon forgotten.
“Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”Terry Pratchett, Going Postal
Manning (and North Star at an earlier time) has an important location for transportation to and from the north. I had expected to find a tired old town that is succumbing to the province wide trends toward urbanization but it’s not that way at all. Manning is doing quite fine and seemed to be expanding as there was new construction when I visited the town. North Star is an older community that is now primarily residential as most of the businesses have relocated to Manning. Charlie contributed to Manning’s development, and would no doubt be pleased to hear it called a transportation hub.
This map from page 60 of Overlord of the Little Prairie shows where in Alberta Charlie Plavin’s homestead is located. It’s just south of North Star which is 7km south of Manning. Manning is approximately 600km from downtown Edmonton, or almost 400km from the NWT border. Charlie’s homestead was on the very edge of settled Alberta. Actually, it was beyond “settled Alberta” because that area hadn’t even been surveyed for homesteading when Charlie arrived. The Peace River area is itself quite far north. In the 1920s there was little by way of roads, rails or other infrastructure to serve that last great region of good cultivable prairie. This blog post, and the one that will follow as part II, focuses on the northern fringe of the Peace River Country. It took a special kind of pioneer to travel this far in search of the “best land”. It took an extraordinary pioneer to succeed. Charlie didn’t just succeed, he thrived.
The Many Names of Kārlis Pļaviņš
Charlie started life as Kārlis Pļaviņš from Latvia. He used many different names in his day, not counting the informal names that some people may have called him, including behind his back. Nobody knows if these different names resulted from border officials struggling with the spelling or pronunciation of the name that he used upon his arrival at the new country, or if it was totally by Charlie’s choice. The chart below shows the names that Charlie used and the main places that he lived.
Some History About Charlie
I obtained most, but not all, of my historical information about Charles Plavin from a booklet prepared by the Province of Alberta called Overlord of the Little Prairie: report on Charles Plavin and his homestead (full citation at end of post). It’s a 194-page research study prepared because Charlie donated his farm to the province. The province required a formal study about both Charles Plavin and his homestead to properly evaluate if it could become a historical resource, which it did. I found the booklet very easy to read and both informative and interesting on a number of subjects. It doesn’t read like a typical textbook on history. For example, here is a line from page three of that document that reads like something from a James Michener novel rather than a document prepared for government administrative purposes.
The Latvians are an ancient peopleJane W. McCracken, Overlord of the Little Prairie. Page 3
whose origins are lost in the mists of mythology.
Charlie’s Early Years
Jane W. McCracken, the author of that provincial publication, attributes Charlie’s unique personality traits to two characteristics of his youth. First is that his mother was a German who married a Latvian. This mixed marriage was somewhat rare in Latvia because Latvians were generally peasants while the German landowners in Latvia were considered upper class. His German mother may have instilled in Charlie a heightened awareness of his position in a class structure that, while not upper class himself, was above that of the typical peasant farmer. You might say that his family was “upper peasant class” (my phrase not Jane McCracken’s). Second, Charlie was not a big man, at least not compared to his brothers. His parents decided that Charlie was not big enough to be a farmer, so they paid the costs for a good classical education at a Lutheran parochial school. It wasn’t stated how many years of education that he received but clearly Charlie Plavin had more formal education than the average Latvian peasant could possibly hope for.
A tenuous connection with the upper class and a fine education may have established something of a superiority complex within Charlie. We can only make educated guesses as to what made Charles Plavin the Charlie that we now read about. We do know that his good foundational education gave Charlie a love of learning, reading and especially music that he maintained up to his last days.
I’m certainly won’t try to summarize the entire history of Charles Plavin beyond citing and paraphrasing some choice parts of Jane McCracken’s booklet as well as the local history book. I would enjoy writing more about old Charlie, but I know that an excessively long blog post is a blog post that never gets read. I’m pushing the limits with this post.
Hopefully blog post readers will gain some flavour of who Charlie was and why he stands out from the crowd of outstanding pioneers. First though, have a look at some old images of Charles Plavin.
The above historical photos are from the Province of Alberta publication by Jane W. McCracken, Overlord of the Little Prairie. Click on an individual image for the source page number. All are Canadian photos except for the first and oldest one which is from his time in California.
Charlie Arrives in Canada
When Charlie arrived in Canada from California in 1911, he lived at the Lake Isle area until 1916. Lake Isle was a Latvian community just west of Edmonton and north of Wabamun Lake. It would have suited Charlie very well to remain at his Lake Isle homestead for his lifetime because he was surrounded by expat Latvians just like himself. That plan ended when he was approached by the Canadian Northern Railway who required his land for their ambitious expansion program. After selling his farmland to the railway, Charlie waited nearly three years before he received the payment that was due to him because the railway was close to bankruptcy. This was a difficult time for Charlie who was left in a state of limbo by the railway. He couldn’t improve the land that he sold, nor could he buy another quarter section of land until he was paid. To survive Charlie worked for others including doing some surveying, a skill that would soon be very useful to him. When Charlie finally received the money that the railway owed him, the good land in the Lake Isle area was taken. Charlie was no stranger to long moves so with his money in hand he quickly bought the supplies he needed and began his trek to the new frontier in northwest Alberta.
Charlie Heads to the Peace River Frontier
The two men crossed the Peace on May 5, 1916. The journey ahead was tailor-made for a man like Plavin. One had to be stubborn, narrow-minded, tough and perhaps even desperate to reach the Battle River area in the spring of 1916. From the west bank of the Peace River a winter trail wound through about one hundred miles of swamp, mud, and muskeg to Little Prairie or North Star. Determined to reach his destination, Plavin walked herding seven cows, one Aberdeen Agnus bull and two oxen who pulled a wagon containing haying and farming equipment.Barbara Mulcahy – Saga of Battle River; page 461
In 1916 the area near North Star and Manning that is often called “Little Prairie” hadn’t even been surveyed for homesteading. There were very few people in the Little Prairie area, but those who had arrived before him had established farms on the expectation that they would eventually be grandfathered into the homesteading program. These early settlers were called squatters, but that name didn’t have the negative connotations that it does now. They were simply settlers who arrived before the surveyors. Charlie wanted the land that was close to three existing squatters, so he took it upon himself to survey the land to ensure that there was a quarter section of land in between the farms claimed by those squatters.
Working from the last marker on the southern edge of the Prairie, Plavin, drawing from his experience as a surveyor on the railway line through Sangudo, paced out the townships and sections for the Little Prairie. Quarters that held too much bush or sloughs he rejected. Other sections he discounted because they had been burnt over. There was, though, a
good stretch of soil that ran through the Peterson’s land south towards Buchanan Creek and both to the east and to the west. It was with mounting excitement that Plavin measured three sections to determine whether a quarter section lay between Gus Peterson’s claim to the north and that of Batise Savard, a Metis trapper who had squatted near Buchanan Creek.
Jane W. McCracken, Overlord of the Little Prairie. Pages 41-42
He carefully measured the sections discovering that indeed a quarter section did lie within the triangle formed by Peterson, House and Savard.
It was on October 5, 1916, that Plavin announced to his neighbours, the Petersons, that he intended to squat on his quarter. Knowing that Charlie had claimed for himself the best land in the area, the Petersons complained, (no doubt believing that he encroached on “their land”) but Charlie refused to move, insisting that his measurements would be upheld when the land was surveyed. It was not until 1920 when all of the Battle River Prairie was surveyed. Charlie’s measurements were incredibly accurate for someone who did not possess all the proper equipment. His measurements were out of line by a mere twelve inches!
Charlie’s Contribution to Community Life
“Involvement”, “dedication” and “duty” are words which are used repeatedly to describe Charlie’s sense of responsibility to his community. He never shirked this responsibility but always worked hard for the general betterment of the community.
Plavin was generous with his skills. The old Battle River Hospital contains the chimney and root cellar that Plavin installed many years ago. He also designed the extension for the North Star community hall. Whenever he was doing something for the benefit of the community, he donated his services.Barbara Mulcahy – Saga of Battle River; page 461
- Charlie became involved in Lake Isle, Alberta, community life by taking an active role in local affairs. Bachelors rarely involved themselves in schools’ affairs but that didn’t hold Charlie back. Trustee Plavin felt it was his responsibility to ensure that the community had a good sound school building and therefore he volunteered not only to draw plans for the schoolhouse but also to use his stonemasonry skills to build the school’s foundation and the chimney.
- Latvians are fond of music and a great affection for the classics remained with Plavin. Charlie played the violin and he soon teamed up with a partner to play at all the local dances held in private homes. He also directed the Latvian choir and “taught the youngsters in Lake Isle to sing”.
- In February 1930, and after moving to the northwest Peace River area, Charlie wrote to the University of Alberta to request forty books on a wide variety of subjects for a local library. The subjects he requested included Canadian history, political science, commerce, geology, anthropology and natural sciences. No doubt, the topics reflected his own personal interests. His refusal to have a selection of novels and “lighter” reading material might have contributed to the failure to have the community support his efforts. As a result, a library was not organized until after the Second World War.
- Plavin took out memberships in the United Farmers of Alberta, the C.C.F. party, the North Star Savings and Credit Union, the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks and the local United Church. At the age of seventy-three Plavin was still very active in the community.
- During 1967, as part of Canada’s centennial celebrations, grant funds were made available to the town of Manning to build the library on one of two lots donated to the town by Charles Plavin. The official opening of that library took place in August 1967. Gifting land to a village or town for the good of the community is a magnanimous act of generosity in and of itself.
After publishing this blog post I learned that the above library is not the one that was built on the land received from Charlie. The first library building was indeed built on the land from Charlie, but that older building had accessibility and water issues, so it was replaced with the above library. The original library building was later sold by the town and is now a secondhand store. The original library was across the road from the building that the locals call the “bomb shelter”. The bomb shelter is an apartment building. It was initially planned to be the music conservatory that Plavin envisioned. Unfortunately, by the time Charlie started to build the conservatory, his dreams and ideas far exceeded his skills and modern building codes, not to mention the realistic needs of Manning.
Fred Johnson’s Friendship with Charlie
Charlie Plavin and Fred Johnson were very good friends. They also lived quite close to each other. The image below shows the 36 sections of land in a typical six by six mile township. This is how all of the Canadian prairies were surveyed and divided. A homestead was a quarter of one section. Charlie Plavin’s homestead is shown in blue and is the northwest quarter of section 28. Fred Johnson’s homestead is shown in yellow and is the southeast quarter, so they connected at the corner.
- Fred Johnson was a Swede who squatted on his land in 1916 at about the same time as when Charlie Plavin arrived. Fred was a craftsman who not only made many fine things out of wood, but he also made the tools such as planes and knives by hand which he then used to make fine furniture. His skills extended to leatherwork as he could make everything from wallets to moccasins. Charlie Plavin was a skilled stonemason and bricklayer. Charlie was quite technically inclined and excelled at drawing and designing things from water wells to whole buildings, but he lacked some of the skills to construct his designs. Charlie relied on Fred Johnson to build what he designed and in turn he helped Fred in his work. The skills of Charlie and Fred were complementary, so they were a fine team. According to George Nord of the Manning area, most of the kitchen cupboards and other furniture in Charlie Plavin’s cabin were made by Fred Johnson.
- Fred Johnson was a farmer, craftsman and a trapper who also hired himself out to those homesteaders who could afford to pay for help. Charlie Plavin was probably the only farmer in the area who could afford to pay help, and Fred Johnson became recognized as Charlie’s hired hand. It was he who helped to build Plavin’s house near North Star. Johnson trusted Plavin, for when Johnson went out on his traplines he had Plavin safeguard his money. Johnson was diagnosed with terminal cancer soon after he finished building his own house. Charlie cared for him as best he could and paid all the doctor’s bills incurred. No doubt grateful, and having no heirs, Johnson willed all his effects to Charlie Plavin when he passed away in 1929. Note that this story differs slightly in the local history book from the provincial occasional paper. The local history book says that Fred Johnson gave his land to the Lovlin’s in exchange for their agreement to take care of him in his final days. Perhaps by saying that Fred willed his personal effects to Charlie, Jane McCracken meant the portable possessions such as tools, furniture and equipment? Either way, I have no doubt that Charlie did everything he could for Fred Johnson in his last days. I feel sad for Charlie at this point in the story. Charlie and Fred Johnson were very close friends and, as stated in the quote below, they accomplished many tasks together. It must have been a terribly difficult and lonely time for Charlie after Fred passed away.
Fred and Charlie, both stubborn and set in their ways, at times had heated arguments while working together. Sometimes, a little profanity passed between the two. If overheard, it was easy to tell who said what, because one spoke with a Swedish accent and the other with a Latvian German accent. Different in behavior and character, they worked well as a team and accomplished many tasks.
George Nord – Saga of Battle River; page 299
Fred Johnson died in his sleep the afternoon of May 16, 1929. Charles Plavin hauled his body with a team and wagon to Peace River where he was buried in the Peace River Cemetery.
Charlie and the Ladies
- According to the provincial research study, there was, at one time, a “Flora” in Charlie’s life, either from his days in California or from his early years in Latvia, but he had wanted to be well established before he sent for her. By the time he felt he could afford the luxury of marriage, his sweetheart had married another. It is written that this jilting experience had left him rather embittered and disrespectful of the female sex. “Reliance on no one but himself contributed to the development of a strong character, self-assurance and not a little arrogance knowing he was capable of meeting the challenges of such a life”.
- If old Charlie was ever disrespectful of women, he must have risen above it. When Charlie was searching for a camp cook for the road crew that he supervised, he hired Mrs. Finnebraaten at a rate that exceeded that of the workmen. As the cook, Mrs. Finnebraaten earned $3.75 a day, with a dollar deducted for board; Charlie did not charge board for her five-year-old son, Einer. The men working on the road also paid board, but they were paid only $2.75 a day. Charlie paid a person what they were worth, and he clearly valued the camp cook regardless of the fact that she was a woman.
- Charlie always had an interest and concern for children’s education. He continued to demonstrate his concern for the education of the younger generation by serving as a school trustee in the Little Prairie School District in the North Star area from 1935 to 1953. Some of the teachers who passed through the Buchanan Creek school in the Little Prairie remembered Plavin with affection. He certainly made an impression on the first teacher, Anna Martha Eggenberger whom I quote below.
The trustees were Oscar Nord, Duncan McLean and Charlie Plavin. The first night I was there Charlie brought his violin, set his chair directly in front of me and played and sang and crooned, until like the young fool I was, I giggled. From then on, I was branded as an uncouth person in his eyes.Anna Martha Eggenberger, first teacher at Buchanan Creek school – Saga of Battle River; page 680
Charlie Encouraged Education
Charlie was always a generous man when it came to matters of education, especially musical education, where his generosity knew no bounds.
“I persuaded some families to buy a piano … and I promised to visit their homes to give elementary instruction on piano and violin provided they arranged transportation for me. It was quite an eye opener for me in handling 2-4 children in a family …. I visit them twice a week; – the violin practice is done strictly when I am present to avoid bad habits and intonation”.Jane W. McCracken quoting Charlie Plavin. Overlord of the Little Prairie. Page 100
- Weekly music lessons, Plavin felt, were required for the local youth. It was during World War II that Charlie Plavin began purchasing the odd piano for resale, at a 10 per cent commission, for interested families in the area. His letters to Peace River, Edmonton and Winnipeg companies inquiring into used pianos demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the instrument. He was not satisfied with the mere purchase of a piano but had to make sure the felts and strings were in good condition, and that it was tuned properly. Delivery of the piano was followed by an offer, on the part of Charlie, to teach the children how to play. Since there was no one else the people could turn to, Charlie was the unofficial music teacher for Battle River.
- Charlie’s desire to pass along to his students a love of music was thwarted by his own temper which he lost constantly. The children were frightened of this old, crippled man who stammered “broken” English and pounded out the beat on the floor with his walking stick. Eventually Charlie realized that the people needed a professional music teacher. He quite willingly offered to pay one-third of the salary for a violin teacher to be hired by the Peace River School Division.
- In April 1962, as another act of generosity for education, Charlie handed over $29,000 of his savings for the establishment of the Peace River Pioneer Memorial Education Fund. Richard Eaton (1914-1968) head of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Alberta wrote Plavin a warm letter of appreciation. This fund was divided between two annual scholarships, the names of which were:
- Peace River Pioneer Memorial Scholarship in Music will be awarded annually to a student of outstanding merit completing the first or second year of the Bachelor of Music program at the University of Alberta, Edmonton.
- The Peace River Pioneer Memorial Bursaries … may be awarded to high school graduates whose homes lie north of Township 68 and west of the 5th Meridian in the Province of Alberta and who are proceeding into the first year of the University of Alberta.
- Richard Eaton did not forget about Plavin. A year after Charlie had set up the Memorial Scholarship Fund, the Eatons and the University’s Mixed Chorus, on one of their trips around the province, paid old Charlie a surprise visit. They felt that the visit was particularly meaningful since the first recipient of the music scholarship was a member of the choir. To the students, Plavin was a pathetic sight. Bedridden with crippling arthritis lying amongst filthy sheets, old Charlie could only cry when the choir sang for him. With Eaton’s help, Charlie struggled out of bed to present his violin to them and to the Department. That visit remained etched in the minds of those who visited Plavin. Charlie, for his part, also remembered the tribute paid to him and arranged for the transfer of an additional four thousand dollars to his Pioneer Memorial Education Fund in December 1963.
The quote below is from the local history book for the Manning and North Star area. This quote was the inspiration for the title of this blog post. I certainly wouldn’t call old Charlie “crotchety” because I hadn’t met him but since Elizabeth Zatelny knew him well, she can and did use that term.
“Music lessons were a regular event that began Sunday morning after church. We brought the elderly, crotchety music teacher home with us. He was old Charlie Plavin, a pioneer in this area, who had come from Vienna in the late 1800’s. His usual attire was large baggy woollen trousers supported by suspenders, a dark-coloured heavy cotton drill shirt and combination underwear that showed at his neck and wrists. When playing the fiddle or reading, he wore round-lensed spectacles. He was balding and had very few teeth, but we respected his man for his wealth of musical information. Not being content to have us learn to play the piano he also taught us to play the violin and incidentally taught us about classic composers and the rudiments of music.”
“After a hearty lunch the old bachelor was settled with a cup of tea and musical instructions began. The family lined up for a bit of vocal training as Charlie Played the model tune on the violin which we were to copy with our voices. His arthritic fingers pressed the strings and his right arm deftly drew the bow across the bridge while we sang, ‘La, la, la,’. The we took turns trying to play the violin. Painstakingly we tried to stretch our fingers to reach each note Correctly. Again and again we tried until the strings left impressions on our left fingers and our right arm ached from bowing. All the while Charlie coached us with phrase like “Keep the bow straight,” and “Hold those notes full count.” When violin practice was over we moved to the piano. Scales were always first. A careless slip or the missing of a black key brought a violin bow sharply across our fingers. Incorrect practice and slow progress often resulted in an outpouring of foul language. But for some unknown reason my sister and I enjoyed practicing.”The Piano in my Life (Elizabeth Zatelny) Saga of Battle River – Page 623
The More Challenging Side of Charlie
- A conscientious man, Plavin took his job as section road foreman and the responsibilities it entailed very seriously. He had little patience with incompetence and laziness and soon acquired a reputation for being a hard foreman who demanded a great deal of his crews. He allowed no “horseplay” while on the job and took a dim view of practical jokes. But if Charlie was demanding on others, he was no less demanding of himself. Up in the morning before the rest of the gang, he worked through until dusk, because he firmly believed that it was his duty.
- A deep appreciation for music and all cultural pursuits had followed Plavin throughout his life to become the most pronounced force of his later years. He had no patience for popular music; if friends at his home played a trick on Charlie by switching his radio stations, he became angry, stomping his walking stick in his annoyance, denouncing that the music played by some of the stations was “chust noise”.
- According to Jane W. McCracken, Charlie’s personality evolved into obstinacy, arrogance and a condescending attitude toward all others. As the self-appointed overlord of the Little Prairie, Charlie felt it to be his right to commandeer “his peasants” when he needed them, to take him into town, or to sort his pigs for shipping. These chores were not for hire; they were duties to be performed out of respect for an elderly master. Charlie’s interference in local affairs and his sometimes less than tactful manner when dealing with people made him, at times, an unpopular figure with the people of the area. A domineering man, old Charlie thought nothing of ordering the school children away from their studies to plant trees around the school yard, and to have them plant trees around his property when they were finished.
Charlie Plavin the Senior Citizen
- Few people remembered or visited the old man so most of his last days were spent alone. He was desperately afraid no one would look after his body when he died. One summer, when he could get around a little, he hired a neighbouring farmer to make a coffin for him which he stored in his house. The need to have a coffin built before his death is actually connected to an ancient Latvian custom. Whether Charlie’s desire to have his coffin ready for him reflects ingrained Latvian tradition or basic insecurity probably does not matter, for the coffin was never used and is, according to the province, still in his home. I would have loved to have been able to photograph that old unused coffin, but the house was not open for photographs or viewing.
- Here is one of more vivid vignettes about the difficult side of Charlie. It seems that poor old Charlie was not welcomed back to the nursing home that he stayed at the previous winter. Charlie Plavin’s last years were not memorable ones or ones that speak truly of the man. Although not ill, he could get around less and less. Arthritis and senility were taking their toll. Never overly neat, old Charlie shuffled through papers, letters, newspapers and magazines which cluttered the floor of his home. It took a great deal of persuasion on the part of a neighbour, Peter Dechant, to convince old Charlie to go into a nursing home for at least the winter months. He spent one winter at the nursing home in Peace River, but he was such a difficult resident that the head nurse refused to have him back the following winter! Sadly, things went downhill for Charlie after that.
He was moved to a home in Fairview another winter, but once spring arrived, he insisted on returning to his homestead. Old Charlie must have hated being institutionalized, forced to wake up, go to bed and to eat when told. He rarely let the nurses wash or bathe him and always wore felt boots even to bed.Jane W. McCracken. Overlord of the Little Prairie. Page 112
One Last Vignette – Charlie and our Fallen Soldiers
While I was in the Manning area, I was told to be sure to stop in at the cemetery at North Star. The big elm tree at the centre of the cemetery was donated by Charlie Plavin. Beneath the tree is a granite memorial for three local men who died in WWII (two are from one family). I photographed the plaque that explains the significance of the graves, but the writing was so faint that it can’t be seen on the photograph. Below is the inscription from the plaque that tells the full story. On the adjacent image of the elm tree the plaque can just barely be seen behind a bench.
The Story of the Elm Tree
In the 1940s Charlie Plavin
planted three elm trees
dedicating them in the memory of
three soldiers who died in
World War II. Only one tree
survived and at the foot of the
tree a granite stone has been
placed with their names inscribed on it.
This photo shows the one elm tree of the three that survived. They were planted by Charlie Plavin in memory of the three local fallen soldiers. Their names follow:
Alphonse A. Exner (1925-1944)
Bert J. Braaten (1916-1044)
Lester L. Braaten (1923-1944)
This is where I’ll end the story of Charlie Plavin. There’s so much more that could be said but I must keep this blog reasonable in length. I’ve left out the stories of how he pushed the provincial government to finally build a road to the North Star area, and how he built what is euphemistically called the “bomb shelter” in Manning. Charlie also worked hard to help fellow Latvians come to Canada. I’m sure that some of the best stories just didn’t get written down. No matter what anyone thought about Charlie, he was neither idle nor boring.
Photographs of the Charles Plavin Historic Site
According to the occasional paper produced by the province, Charlie Plavin’s house, built in 1920-21, is the best example of a Latvian style homestead in Alberta. The warehouse, (the lower building attached to the house) built between 1921 and 1928, does not follow all of the same building techniques. Building designs evolved as Charles Plavin adapted his structure to the northern Alberta environment. The hexagonal hog barn, circa 1940, is the least “Latvian” of all the buildings.
This image to the upper left is from some time before 1950. This is known because the traditional shingled roof needed to be replaced and it was in the 1950s that Charlie put up the metal roof over top the existing roof. The image to the upper right is from 1977. I obtained both images from the provincial occasional paper, pages 135 and 146.
Every Saturday night Plavin heated the cement oven and invited over several of his German neighbours. A crude ladder led to the sweat platform located above the sauna. A large wooden water trough was kept outside the doorway where the men splashed off the sweat. During his last years, old Charlie was too crippled with arthritis to climb the ladder and the pirts (Latvian for sauna or bath) was not used.Jane W. McCracken, Overlord of the Little Prairie. Page 141
The colour images below were captured by me on October 21, 2022, unless otherwise stated. It was a cloudy weekend with rain interspersed with snow and some brief moments of sunshine.
The metal roof was added by Charlie in the 1950s, but the metal sides must have been placed there by the province to protect the structure until they figured out what to do with it. The boarded-up doorways and windows are definitely something added by the province to keep out birds as well as people with a proclivity towards theft and vandalism.
Although I was not inside, I read in Jane W. McCracken’s description of the house that there are just two rooms: a bedroom and a kitchen/living area. One reason that the house needed to be so large is that it has a traditional Latvian stone kitchen oven. When that huge oven is hot, it kept the house warm for three or four days before the fire had to be built up again.
Notice the unusual feature of the logs used to build Charlie’s house. Each log was carefully hewn to fit tightly with squared ends including a groove where it meets the log on top of it. Into the groove they would place moss and other insulating material. Despite such careful shaping of each log, they were left at uneven lengths. It would have been relatively easy to cut them to equal lengths. This was a unique Latvian style that didn’t serve a purpose beyond aesthetics.
I have no doubt that Charlie used this piece of farm equipment for as long as he could. He was not accustomed to modern equipment.
I’m not certain as to what this small log structure was used for. On page 128 of the Overlord booklet, Jane W. McCracken says that there was a small smoke house on the property. Perhaps that is what this small log structure was used for especially given that the size of the building wouldn’t lend itself to much else.
Here’s what Jane McCracken’s booklet has to say about this very un-Latvian style barn.
Polygonal or circular barns and houses have enjoyed a certain popularity from time to time. In the late nineteenth century in the United States in particular, multi-sided buildings were quite the fad and a surprising number of these buildings remain. But they went out of vogue almost as quickly as they had come into favour. The hexagonal hog barn, designed and promoted by the federal Department of Agriculture in 1939, revolutionized current thinking on designs of pig brooder houses. But, as noted on page 86, this new design did not convince the great majority of hog producers of its superiority. One producer it did convince was Charlie Plavin. The last building to be constructed on Plavin’s farm was the hexagonal hog barn which he and Wasil Fazikos built the summer and autumn of 1939. Charlie had done all the cement and stone work first while Fazikos worked the logs. The timbers are finished on the outside the same as Plavin’s other buildings. On the interior, though, the logs have not been hewed, but have been left in the round.Jane W. McCracken, Overlord of the Little Prairie. Page 145
Charlie Plavin used his stonemasonry skills to build this gate to his property. The missing stones are not the result of poor workmanship. According to Jane W. McCracken at page 145 of her booklet, the stonework was damaged at an unknown date by pranksters who tried to blow up these structures but only succeeded in damaging the one gate. It seems that Charlie’s stonemasonry skills resulted in a nearly bombproof structure.
This is the reason that exploring old places can be so dangerous. Most farms had a water well at one time or another. Often there is a small fence to mark where the hole is when it is no longer in regular use. Sometimes the hole is covered by a sheet of plywood. Fences and plywood eventually rot and either disappear or become very weak. It’s easy to step into one, especially if it’s covered by snow. At the very least a person could break a leg. At the worst a person could fall in and succumb to noxious CO2 fumes, or simply be unable to escape.
Charlie Plavin was an interesting fellow who cared a great deal about his community and neighbours. He might have been a little rough around the edges but that came with the territory of being an extraordinary pioneer who beat all the forces of weather, climate, economy and remote location. He was a generous man who made a major contribution to his communities of North Star and then Manning. Charlie Plavin was a man worth remembering.
“One lives in the hope of becoming a memory”Antonio Porchia
Both Charlie Plavin and Philip Daigle built unique barns that reflect their individual personalities as well as their needs. These barns are just two of the many reasons why I enjoy travelling through the Peace River area to search for photo opportunities and stories to share. I’ve never left that area without a camera full of photos and a story or two in the works. Part II of this blog post will focus on the Philip Daigle barn that is pictured below. Click here to go to the blog post about the beautiful Daigle Barn.
An Image from Part II in the Next Blog Post – Daigle’s Barn
If you find round barns interesting you might enjoy my blog post called, “Getting Around to Two Round Barns”. Click here to go to that blog post.
- McCracken, Jane W. Overlord of the Little Prairie: Report on Charles Plavin and his homestead. 1979. Alberta Historical Resources Division, Edmonton. Digital copy from the University of Calgary, Digital Collections, Local History. Most of this post was paraphrased from this source.
- Alberta Registry of Historic Places, Heritage Resources Management Information System (“HeRMIS”). Plavin Homestead. Online.
- Saga of Battle River: A History of Deadwood, North Star, Manning, Notikewin, Hotchkiss and Hawk Hills Districts. 1986. Battle River Historical Society, Manning, Alberta. Hardcopy from Edmonton Public Library.
- Carmel B. Ellis, Barns of The North Peace. Private Collection. Hardcopy available exclusively at Almyra’s Fashions in Grimshaw, Alberta.
- Find-A-Grave online https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/217596605/charles-plavin
I wish to thank Cheri Dechant, and Bryan Kelemen for providing access to the Plavin homestead and the Daigle barn respectively. Also, this post would not be possible without the assistance of the Battle River Pioneer Museum Association, specifically Mary Kamieniecki. I also wish to thank Ron Thoreson, my contact in the north country with an amazing amount of knowledge of the area.
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.
22 thoughts on “Charlie the “Crotchety” Pioneer”
Another great post, Glen. Thanks for your in-depth research here. I grew up in Fairview, but I haven’t explored the Manning area. Very interesting!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you Lori. This was the first time for me to spend any real time in Manning (I drove through it many years ago as well). It is quite far away.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Wonderful read and very interesting!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you very much Jenn. It’s easy to write about Charlie. The hard part was deciding what to leave out so it didn’t get too long.
Very interesting even though I have no connection to this area. Very enjoyable read
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you Martin, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Fabulous story(ies) Glen, as always. Thanks so much for sharing so generously!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you Val. I always appreciate your comments 🙂
Charlie sounds like quite the character! What a blessing to give so much back to his community. May he be remembered more for that than being a grumpy, old man. Thanks for another brilliant post & photos, Glen!
LikeLiked by 1 person
He is remembered and I think that his good deeds will be his legacy. Thanks for reading the blog post and commenting Rebecca.
A great story on a real character. I worked in Manning from fall 1971 to spring 1972 and never heard of his legend, but I was much younger then. There were a lot of characters in Manning in the day, typical of all areas that played host to homesteaders. Thanks for sharing Glen. Hope all is well. Allan
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks Allan. If you were there in 71 it would have been shortly after he died. You are right about the characters, there were a lot of them, especially among the homesteaders.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Enjoyed the story – don’t think you need to be concerned about length when the information is so interesting and the photos so excellent!
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thank you so much Margy. That’s very kind of you to say. Part II will have much better photos and slightly fewer words.
LikeLiked by 1 person
This is an amazing look at a fascinating person and a world that’s very different from our modern lives!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’m glad that our world is different now as I’m not too sure that I’d fare too well if I had to survive on what I could grow and hunt. Thanks for reading and commenting Elene.
I don’t think I’d do too well, either…..
LikeLiked by 1 person
I always save your posts until I have time to savour them and this one was especially fascinating. I think you’ve written a wonderful tribute to a man that was quite obviously a ‘character’ with a multitude of character traits. And….no worries about your post being long because I enjoyed it all and now I’m looking forward to Part 2.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you very much Mary Anne. I appreciate your kind words. I’m sure old Charlie would appreciate them too.
I read your interesting article, if you talk to local people you will get different versions of a story. Of course the barn is not Latvia style. The log barn was built by my Grandfather Wasil Fazikos who had built the same style of pig barn on his farm. Grampa was from Czechoslovakia all his building were log construction. In the Centre there should be a wood burning stove which Charlie made out of stone. The pig pens were pie shaped , each pen had a small exit door to the outside. From the main door there was a narrow alley way to the Center of the barn where the wood burning heater was and also where the pigs were fed and watered in each separate pen. Grampa raised about 100 pig and used the barn for farrowing. There were 6 pens inside the barn.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you Marianne for your excellent description of the Plavin barn. It was indeed not Latvian in style. You must be very proud of your grandfather who could build such a well designed barn.