“When we came to the Cariboo looking for property, I’d watch Kay out of the corner of my eye. When her face got long, I’d just turn around. “
That’s what happened one spring day in 1976 when Ernie and Kay Gibson headed out Tatton Road.
“The road was terrible, solid mud. So when I saw her face get longer and longer, I made a U-turn.”
The Gibsons were a young couple that had been living for several years on their small farm at Cedar, near Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
Kay was a city girl until she married Ernie. She had been the area librarian at seven libraries on Vancouver Island.
Ernie was raised on various farms on the Island and had also spent a good part of his early life, being a seasoned sailor by the age of four, on his father’s fishing boat. Later, he and his father became partners in a larger boat.
Since his marriage he had been working with a paving company.
The Gibsons decided that they needed more acreage to fulfill their dreams of owning a ranch. They already had several head of cattle, horses and other livestock plus a fine jersey milk cow Ernie’s father had given them as a wedding present. They also had a new baby, Graeme, who had been born in January.
Ernie came north in the early spring to look for property.
“One night I slept at the end of a little road at Watson Lake, and a pair of geese swam by. I thought ‘What a nice place’. From there I went to the Peace River country. It was beautiful but that wind!
“After a couple of days, I called Kay and told her the cattle and horses looked a lot better from Prince George south.”
The Gibsons soon sold their farm at Cedar and headed up to the Cariboo, to where Ernie remembered the lovely country around the 108.
After they turned around on Tatton Road that day, they met Len Monical at the 108 real estate office. He took them out the very same Tatton Road, past where they had turned around. The property he showed them was perfect.
Ernie described the 240 acres:
“It was the May long weekend. There was no house or anything but there was a good creek, meadows with tall grass, wildflowers everywhere and a mile of frontage on Abel Lake. It was very picturesque.”
The property had not been surveyed since 1911. The Gibsons realized some of the acreage was part of the lake, but this was not an uncommon situation at the time.
They returned to Cedar, packed up and headed north with dogs, horses, ducks, chickens, furniture, supplies and a large fuel tank on a one-ton flat deck truck, complete with a rocking chair strapped on top, just like the Beverly Hillbillies.
“After a long, uneventful trip, at 83 Mile, a headlight was broken, the windshield cracked and the radiator punctured by Seal Coat on the road,” Ernie said. “We were towed all the way into our property and the tow bar fell off right at our fence line.
“Later we brought the cattle up. We had to work fast to put up fences to keep our registered Angus cows from being bred by the Charolais bulls that were all around our place. We’d chase the bulls away using a lunge whip. They would often beat us back home.
“And to make matters worse, when we arrived with our cattle we found that a neighbour had come through with his herd and the grass was almost gone. We managed to fence off about 15 acres.”
Added Kay: “We’d put some OFF on Graeme and hang him in his jolly jumper between two trees while we worked. I’d ride the horse and pull the wire out and Ernie would pound in posts.
“We were living in a tent and it was a terrible, wet summer. We just had an open fire. Nothing would dry. Our clothes were always damp. It was so cold; it never rose above 13 degrees all summer.
“On Labour Day, it snowed and the tent sagged. There was a small plastic window in the wall and here were all the cows, standing close around the tent, staring in at us accusingly, as if to say, ‘What have you got us into?’ We lived in that tent until we were able to get a mobile home in October.”
The Gibsons’ property was landlocked. Ernie eventually punched his own driveway through to ease relationships with their nearest neighbors. However, boundary and fencing disputes carried on for years. They were greatly offended to be called “squatters” when they had paid for their property.
When they finally fenced their entire acreage, a two-year project, they were unable to rent equipment from ranchers who preferred the Gibsons’ meadows to be open range. For much of the work, Ernie stood on a garbage can, using a 14-pound maul to pound in the posts.
After two years, life on the homestead was greatly improved when hydro was brought through the area under the Rural Electrification Scheme. Landowners cleared the right-of-way, working together with a bulldozer owned by Howie Bell. The cost to property owners was $85, which included poles.
When the project was finished, everyone headed to Enterprise Lake for a celebration that lasted all night, Ernie said. “We churned through mud in our little two-wheel drive Cortina that was so deep you didn’t dare stop.”
Two years later, fire destroyed a barn the Gibsons had just built.
“Our red-and-white Holstein cow had cut a teat, so we put her outside the barn and went to town for medication. When we got home, the barn was gone. To our surprise, the cow walked over and stood where her stall had been.”
Then, in November, their house burned.
“We had logged our property and put the money into expanding the house, but hadn’t yet increased the insurance on it,” Ernie said. “We were coming back from town when all these cars passed us as we puttered along. Finally, one stopped and told us our house was on fire.
“We lost everything but the people in this town were incredible, so many people came to our aid. Overwaitea gave us food. At the thrift store, we were told to take whatever we needed. That night, the fire marshal, Mr. Beaton, came by where we were staying and gave us $100 from his own pocket. A 12- by 24-foot cabin that had been built for another burned-out family was brought down to our place from the Catalines’. We lived in it until we built a new house.”
During those years, Ernie worked for the Department of Highways and for other highway contractors. He sold milk from the family’s eight dairy cows to the 108, the 103 and in town.
Animals, especially horses, have been an important part of Kay’s life since she was a child. In 1990, the Gibsons bought five wild horses that had been captured in the Nemiah area. They helped George Peters and his partner Art Collins to halter and de-worm 10 of the yearlings, then brought theirs home.
Ernie had built a barn with 10 stalls. The young horses were tied in stalls with an empty stall between each horse. A log pen with seven-foot walls was also prepared for them.
“They were terrified and dangerous,” Kay said. “They were used to fighting off wolves, so they were quick to lash out with their front feet. A rooster wandered into one of their stalls and when it crowed, its head was kicked clean off.
“At first, it took two people to handle them. Then I began to talk to them and touch them, very softly. I moved slowly and gently around them. I brushed them every day.
“Within six weeks, they were tame. Because humans had never mishandled them, they were a blank slate to work with and everything they learned was soft and gentle. In time, I could ride all of them.”
Ernie marvels at the way Kay accepted every setback and hardship encountered throughout their years of homesteading. Two more children arrived, Jordie and Diane, he said, and never once did she complain.
“She carried water from the creek and took care of three children, worked with the animals and never once complained about anything!”
After 28 years on Tatton Road, the Gibsons moved to a smaller place on Bradley Creek. In 2009, they moved into their present home on Eagle Creek Road in Forest Grove.
Kay continues her work with horses. She is the horse manager at Four Hearts Ranch near 100 Mile House. She also conducts dog-training classes at her home.
Through the years, Ernie became known as “the grader man” throughout the area. He still works at times on logging roads during the summer.