A Hudson's Bay Boy Shacks Up
Jack Milne said a prayer as he dragged the old wooden pew from Fort Wrigley’s abandoned church to his little cabin. Pews are uncomfortable for a reason: a sore butt focuses the mind on the sermon. But the last thing Jack wanted was for his soon-to-arrive bride to have a sore butt. The lonely fur trader knew he’d need a miracle to turn the pew into a plush sofa, and to transform the rest of his cabin into a cozy home. Otherwise, he feared, his sweetheart would take one look at her new dwelling and flee from the Northwest Territories back to Scotland.
Jack was a dreamer. Growing up in the Scottish countryside, he couldn’t wait to escape the family farm and its endless acres of boredom. In 1919, he tried to join the Royal Navy, but he was just 16 and his parents wouldn’t give him permission. A few years later, he asked to sign up with the South African police, but his parents put a stop to that nonsense as well. Then, at 20, he spotted an advertisement from the Hudson’s Bay Company. They were looking for young men to serve as fur traders on the Canadian frontier. Jack’s mind filled with visions of the northland, and of explorers like Hearne, Franklin and Mackenzie. What could be more exciting than walking in their footsteps? He was now old enough to decide his own future – so, suffice to say, he was soon on a ship bound for Canada.
The Bay sent him to Wabasca, Alberta – not as far north as he’d hoped, but, regardless, he settled in and learned the fur-trade business. Then, after a few years, he got a more romantic posting: Fort Nelson, in British Columbia’s far north.
In 1928, after five years in Canada, Jack was given his first vacation back to Scotland. He wrote in his diary that he couldn’t face “another year batching it,” so he married Gertrude, a girl who he’d known from his teenage years. The plan was for Jack to return to Canada and for Gertrude to follow him the next summer.
When Jack got back to Canada in February 1929, he was delighted to learn he was being sent even farther north, to Fort Simpson. Located at the junction of the Mackenzie and Liard rivers, it had been the fur-trade capital of the north since 1802. Named for a former governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Fort Simpson had figured large in Jack’s youthful imaginings. Finally, he was heading into the real North.
“It was just as well that my wife hadn’t arrived here with me. I was very certain that she would feel like going back to her mother right away whenever she saw the place and the conditions under which she would have to live.”
Jack had no idea how right he was. He spent only the late winter and early spring in Simpson before being told he would become the manager of his own post. At just 26, it was a high honour – but he would have been a lot happier if he wasn’t being sent to Fort Wrigley. Some 200 kilometres down the Mackenzie from Fort Simpson, Wrigley saw little business, and was kept open mainly to deter the Bay’s rivals from setting up shop in the same area. “The post at the little rapids” didn’t even have a proper name until, in 1887, Hudson’s Bay Company commissioner Joseph Wrigley made his grand tour of the North. He wasn’t impressed with the honour of having his name on such an insignificant locale.
Before heading down to Wrigley, Jack’s bosses gave him more bad news. The post’s account books were in shambles, they said, and the local Slavey Dene had run up debts they could never repay. But they had good news, too: He would have a new, fully furnished log cabin. Gertrude would be pleased.
“Fully furnished,” however, is a term open to interpretation. When Jack arrived, his new home left him disappointed. The cabin was certainly new – so new it was unfinished. It had one big room downstairs and another up, and contained nothing more than a woodstove, a rough homemade table, a couple of creaky chairs and a bed with a filthy mattress. Jack wrote in his diary, “It was just as well that my wife hadn’t arrived here with me. I was very certain that she would feel like going back to her mother right away whenever she saw the place and the conditions under which she would have to live.”
Jack had only a few weeks to make things right. Gertrude was due to arrive in Wrigley on the first paddlewheeler of the season. He did what he could – sweeping out the mouse turds and giving the mattress a good thrashing – while also trying to get the business affairs of the Wrigley post back on an even keel. Then a letter arrived saying Gertrude would be delayed: She’d been too sick to leave Scotland that year, so couldn’t join him until the early summer of 1930. It was disappointing, but at least he'd have time to finish the cabin.
When the river froze and trading halted, Jack was finally able to start working on it. He scavenged lumber and burlap and partitioned the cabin into a living room, a kitchen, a dining room and three small bedrooms. Construction of a useable outhouse was next, followed by a system of ropes and pulleys to haul water from the river. Old packing crates became side tables, bookshelves and kitchen cupboards.
At the trading post were bolts of colourful cloth that would work well for curtains, cushions and a much needed mattress-cover. Jack was offered the use of an old sewing machine – all he needed to do was fix it and figure out how to use it. Even in his wildest dreams of Northern adventure, he couldn’t have imagined himself hunched over the sewing machine making dainty accessories for his cabin. His diary noted that he thought the drapes, though a little rough, turned out well, and that he then “turned to making cushions … complete with frills and ruffles and what have you.”
With time running out, all Jack lacked was a sofa. Some of his previously salvaged materials had come from the post’s abandoned church, where Jack had noticed a couple of dusty pews. He dragged one down the road, muttering his little prayer. Once at the cabin, out came the saw. The back legs were shortened a little at a time until just the right recline was reached. He found a couple of old horsehair-filled mattresses, tacked one to the back and one to the seat, then covered it all with a Navajo rug. Presto! He now had the most comfortable sofa North of Sixty.
By summertime, with Gertrude en route, years of “batching it” had apparently left Jack a little bushed. He wrote that, upon catching sight of the ship bearing his sweetheart, “I ran around the buildings, down the river bank to the beach, up again and into the house and got myself into such a dither I did not know what I was doing.” Gertrude disembarked, and, a full year and half since their last meeting, the two lovers were reunited. Jack took her to his new home and showed her around. She loved it – but alas, she said, they wouldn’t be living in it. Gertrude told Jack he was again being transferred.
She said they needed to be ready to move in a few weeks, when the ship came back up the Mackenzie. Jack’s orders were to leave the cabin as he found it – “fully furnished.” So they packed the curtains, cushions and improvised furniture Jack had laboured so hard over. When the day came to leave, the old pew had to be left behind. It was too big and heavy to move.
Jack and Gertrude spent the next few years in Fort Simpson, then Fort Smith, then northern British Columbia, where Jack was promoted to district manager. After 20 years of moving, they finally settled down in Edmonton, where they ran a real-estate and insurance company. Nestled among the more glamourous items in their home were a few frilly cushions and roughly sewn curtains, nostalgic souvenirs of Fort Wrigley.