Harrison/Mills Families [L-R] Jim Harrison from Big Bay on Ootsa Lake, Mrs. Jim Harrison, daughter Oakley Harrison Mills, Oakley’s husband Guy Mills . (Lakes District Museum photo/Lakes District News)

A 20th century life story at Ootsa Lake

© 2018 Michael Riis-Christianson and the Lakes District Museum Society

  • Jun. 16, 2021 12:00 a.m.

© 2018 Michael Riis-Christianson and the Lakes District Museum Society

Originally from the eastern United States, Jim Harrison, his wife Henrietta, and teenage daughter Oakley (born in Morocco, Indiana) came to Ootsa Lake early in the second decade of the 20th century. The land they chose to settle, for many years accessible only by boat in summer and sleigh in winter, was located toward the east end of the lake. Their first residence was a small log cabin, but they later built a large two-story home at a place known as Big Bay.

No relation to the family of the same name that had previously settled in Wistaria, the Harrisons of Big Bay were famous for their parties. Despite the remote location of their farm, people came from miles around to attend dances and card parties held there. It soon became a community gathering place, and many bachelors found temporary shelter there as well.

In 1916, the Harrisons got some more permanent company. Like the Harrisons, the Mills brothers (Clark and Guy) originally hailed from the eastern United States, but arrived at Ootsa Lake via Saskatchewan. The brothers moved into the Harrisons’s smaller cabin, and Guy then sent for his wife May and the couple’s daughter, who arrived in Burns Lake by train.

Clark, then in his 30s, took a shine to Oakley, and when she was 20, the two were married at Fort Fraser in the presence of Oakley’s parents. They returned to the Ootsa Lake country, but later moved (along with Guy and his family) to the Cheslatta Valley.

Life in the remote Cheslatta area was difficult for the homesteaders. Oakley became pregnant, and when she was due to give birth to the couple’s first daughter, left for Prince Rupert. By the time she and the baby were ready to return, winter had already set in and Clark couldn’t make it out to pick her up. She didn’t see her husband until the following January.

Within a few years, the isolation of Cheslatta took its toll on the homesteaders. All abandoned their holdings. Guy and his family left in fall 1920; Clark and Oakley moved first to Francois Lake, then to Sheraton. Clark’s name appears on the Village of Burns Lake voter’s list of 1924.

Oakley’s parents eventually left Ootsa Lake, too. Jim and Henrietta went to Prince Rupert for work in 1917, returning to Big Bay only occasionally. By the 1930s, they had relocated permanently to Vernon.

Burns Lake Lakes District News