Another New Year will soon be upon us. It is a time to speculate what the upcoming year may bring, but it is also a time to reflect back on what happened in the year just past. However, reminiscing can also become very interesting if one compares the New Year of 2016 with the one that the first settlers in Red Deer faced in the mid-1880s.
The differences between the Red Deer of today and the Red Deer of 130 years ago are enormous. Today, we live in a vibrant modern urban centre, with a population of more than 100,000. In the mid-1880s, the permanent population of Central Alberta numbered only a few dozen.
Except during winter blizzards and periods of extreme cold, getting around today is quite easy. In the 1880s, before the building of the railroad, even a trip to Calgary could take several days. With the electronic age, we can communicate virtually all over the world in an instant. In the 1880s, mail came up from Calgary one week and down from Edmonton the following week.
Hence, the frontier community was quite isolated.
Moreover, only the First Nations and some Metis freighters had been in the area for any real length of time. Most settlers had either just arrived, or had been in the district for only a couple of years. As with all newcomers, a lot of time was spent learning about their new homes, the weather patterns and the customs of the land.
One large family, who came to Red Deer in 1884 and started a farm in what is now downtown Red Deer, was the Leonard and Caroline Gaetz family. There were 10 children in the family, which soon increased to 11 as Caroline was pregnant when they arrived.
Although the Gaetz’s had experience as farmers, they did not know much about frontier life. Hence, the first logs they cut to build a home were too small to be of any use. Some neighbours came to their rescue, cut the proper sized logs from along the river and quickly erected a snug log cabin.
Shortly after the Gaetz’s got settled, George King of Calgary paid them a call.
He had built a small store at the Red Deer Crossing (an all-weather ford across the river). However, he found it too remote to properly run himself. Hence, he offered to sell the business to Leonard Gaetz on very easy terms.
Leonard Gaetz himself was far too busy establishing the farm to run a frontier general store. Hence, he assigned his eldest son Ray to be the storekeeper, even though Ray was still only a teenager.
Ray quickly learned the challenges of his inexperience.
In his first purchase of furs from a local trapper, he paid five times what the furs were actually worth. Thereafter, Ray relied heavily on the advice of Tom and Mary Lennie who, despite operating another small frontier store across the trail, were willing to help the poor young man out.
Fortunately, Ray was bright and a fast learner.
He soon grasped the ins and outs of a barter system, as cash was generally scarce in such a remote area. He mastered enough Cree and Stoney to be able to carry on a conversation with the local First Nations.
He also learned that serving tea, hard biscuits and a few plugs of tobacco during the trading sessions made for a much more agreeable and profitable exchange with his customers.
Ray was still often caught off guard.
On New Year’s Day, he was startled to find the store filled with a number of giggling young women. He did not know that New Year’s Day was also known as ‘Kissing Day’ and that a young, good-looking and unattached person such as himself was expected to provide some tokens of affection to those young women who presented themselves on New Year’s morning.
Fortunately, someone tipped Ray off as to what was expected.
It also occurred to him to boil a pot of brown sugar and molasses on the stove, take it outside to spread on the snow and then pass out large helpings of the improvised toffee to his unexpected guests.
The generous gesture went over very well.
While Ray bashfully avoided giving away too much in the way of kisses, the young women eventually left feeling very happy with the nice young bachelor who was running the store.