Don Whillier at his 92nd birthday party in June 2022, with three of his 12 great-granddaughters and one of his three great-grandsons. Left to right – Hailey, Don, Gabriel, Alexa, and Jariah.
On November 1, 1966, Don and Ruth Whillier decided to check out Slave Lake. Ruth had been through the town when she was a child during World War II, but Don had never been. Don had applied for a job as a mechanic in forestry in Slave Lake, but Ruth was hesitant.
“The wife she was pretty sure it was a disaster,” says Don.
The couple left Westaskiwin at around 7:30 a.m. They took Highway 44 and planned to turn at Smith, to take the established road. However, Don saw a new wide gravel road heading west, but no signs to say what was at the other end. It was still early in the day, so they decided to see where it went. The topped the Mitsue Hill and saw the lake. They realized that this gravel road was Highway 2.
That was the first shock of the day. The next one was much worse. It was the morning after Halloween.
“What a mess,” says Don. “Obscenities wrote on windows and bales burning in the streets.”
At the time, Main Street was a dirt road with eight-foot wide trailers all along from downtown to Lesser Slave Lake.
The couple ate their packed lunch by the Lesser Slave River. Don told his wife, “if this is Slave Lake, they can keep it.”
A month later, forestry called Don for an interview.
“I definitely didn’t want that job,” says Don.
He told them he wasn’t interested, but when they learned that he had driven all the way to Slave Lake, they asked why he wouldn’t go to Edmonton for the interview.
However, at the interview he didn’t mince his words.
“It’s a disaster,” he said. “I wouldn’t take a family into it.”
Bernie Simpson was the only person on the interview panel who had been to Slave Lake. He was the Slave Lake fire control officer.
“I never have been in such chaos as what that town was,” Don said.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell these guys,” Simpson said.
Don left the interview thinking that “the job was alright, but the location – no way.”
Forestry offered him the job.
Don said at the proposed wage, no way.
“They tripled it,” he says. “I couldn’t pass it up then.”
On January 1, 1967, Don started working for Forestry in Slave Lake.
“I stayed over there in this little blue building,” he says.
He is referring, to the smaller of the two old forestry buildings, which now belong to Slave Lake Koinonia Christian School. These are behind Vanderwell Heritage Place, where Don now lives.
That first night, it got -15°F (-26°C). The fire hall was across the road. In the middle of the night, the siren went off. One of the small trailers in town was on fire. This happened most nights when it got to -15°F or colder.
“There was literally trailers everywhere you went,” says Don.
Don had never felt so bad for a group of volunteers in his life, so he joined the volunteer fire department. Don stuck with the fire department until he was too old to climb in and out of windows.
“I was chief for a couple of years,” he says. “These fires sure chewed the town up. They built nice homes afterwards.”
“The wife and family came up on Easter of ‘67,” says Don.
The couple sold their house in Wetaskiwin and bought a house in Slave Lake. Don’s wife still didn’t want to stay, however.
Asked what changed, Don says, “She got pregnant.”
The couple’s last daughter was born in 1971. Something about this made Ruth want to stay in Slave Lake. She worked as a guard at the RCMP. The couple lived in their house for 44 years.
In the 1990s, when Don retired, he was ready to move.
“She said no way. She would not leave this town.”
Don doesn’t know the details of why she changed her mind, but “she was very much in love with the lake,” he says.
At the time, Ruth was very sick. Don wanted to move back to Wetaskiwin or somewhere else closer to medical services.
Ruth is buried in the Slave Lake cemetery, which overlooks Lesser Slave Lake.
“The biggest change was a hospital,” says Don, asked about how Slave Lake has changed. The second biggest change is “mannerisms. You don’t see people standing on the corner having a leak. It used to be quite common. There used to be some pretty crude things around here.”
The third one was paving.
“It was the muddiest and dirtiest goldarn place,” says Don. To walk anywhere in Slave Lake, people had to wear their “knee rubbers” (rubber boots).
Another change was the level of housing.
“After people were able to get mortgages money to buy better homes,” says Don.
In the mid-1960s, there were no realtors in Slave Lake.
“Our house I just bought that from somebody else,” says Don. The house was about three years old. For many years, it was the nicest house on the block, he adds. Now, it is hard to find because of the bigger houses all around it. One of Don and Ruth’ grandsons lives there now.
Don credits Slave Lake Developments (SLD) with bringing mortgages into town. They built town houses, a court house, office buildings, and other buildings in town. It was a social development corporation with local people buying shares.
“That was the big turning point of the town,” says Don. “They did a lot of good for this town, made the banks open up their eyes and see that there was something happening here.”
Don and Ruth
Ruth’s maiden name was Johnson.
“She was born in the States to Canadian parents,” says Don. She was one of nine children. Her father was a pastor. When Ruth was young, he was ministering in the Peace River area, which was why she’d been through Slave Lake as a child.
Don was born in the Gilby district of Alberta, which is north of Eckville and west of Bentley on Highway 12, between Rocky Mountain House and Lacombe. It is in the Medicine Valley, with the Medicine River flowing in the bottom of the valley.
“It was a post office at one time,” says Don. Now, the only signs of Gilby are a hall and cemetery.
Don’s parents met in the Medicine Valley School. Don also attended this one room school through Grade 9.
The well from the Medicine Valley School is still visible as a 20-foot high metal tube. The school as on the top of the hill. After it was torn down, the hill was excavated to change the course of the road, exposing the outside of the well.
The school had “just one room, from Grade 1 to 9,” says Don. “I think there was about 36 kids in it. Come recess that hill was just covered. My (maternal) grandfather he was one of the instigators to get that school built.”
“I was nine years old when the war broke out,” says Don. “I was 15 when it ended.”
Don had registered for the military, but wasn’t needed.
Asked about the war, Don says, “it never affected us one goldarn bit, except rations.”
Also, the war made it hard to find teachers for one room school houses.
“We had many teachers,” he says. Sometimes, they would only get a month of teaching the whole year. Someone who taught at another school would come from the middle of July to the middle of August.
“It took quite a while to get through a grade,” says Don. “We didn’t have much of a variety of school,” he adds. In comparison, one of his classmates was equal distance from three one room schools, so could choose.
The school house was two and a half miles by road or under a mile as the bird flies.
Don was the oldest of six, with one brother just younger. He also had two uncles younger than him and an aunt just older. Don, his next brother, two uncles and aunt played together a lot.
Asked about his childhood, Don says, “It was free range. As compared to today, we should never have survived.”
“You had to make your own entertainment,” Don says.
By the time, he was eight or 10 years old it was common to end up six or eight miles from home on a bicycle, horse, or on foot.
Don lived in the Medicine Valley until he was 24. He was born on a farm on the west side and before he was 18 had started a farm on the east side.
Asked why he moved, he says it is “a medical mystery.”
“I became very ill,” he says. “They finally ended up taking me to the university hospital in Edmonton.”
Don was in the hospital from August 13, 1954 to March 2, 1955. He was receiving blood transfusions every week to keep alive. He was eventually diagnosed with a type of anemia, which stopped his bone marrow from creating blood cells. An experimental iron pill from England seemed to be the cure. At the time, the doctors weren’t sure of the cause, but suspected it might have been caused by seed cleaning. Later, Don had cancer, and the doctors said “it’s something that happens spontaneously to some people.”
He received a bill for $11,000, which was the value of his farm equipment.
Don then lived in a boarding house in Edmonton for a few months, going into the hospital weekly. By June, it was down to once a month.
Don returned to his parents’ farm.
“The folks they still had a thrashing outfit,” he says. “I said I’m going thrashing with you. I stuck it out for nine days.”
Don’s brother had moved to Wetaskiwin to work at the Ford dealership. He found Don a job washing cars.
Asked how he met his wife, Don said they went on a blind date in 1956.
“We met on February 14,” he says. “I took her to a hockey game. We got married second of September.”
It was a quick courtship, part of this was because Don wasn’t sure if he was going to live or die. For the same reason, the couple waited until 1959 to have their first child.
There was “no guarantee that I was going to survive yet,” he says.
In Westaskiwin, Don became a mechanic and a partner in two gas stations. In 1966, the highway moved out of town, so the stations were struggling. Don decided to look for something else. He applied for the job in Slave Lake.
“I always had an apprentice up here,” he says. “When we came here, there weren’t that many qualified mechanics.”
Don and Walter Vance were the only two. The apprenticeship board told the mechanics working in the area that they had to be supervised.
“They had the choice of Walter or I,” he says. “I think they all ended up with papers.”
Don and Ruth had three children.
“We came here (to Slave Lake) with two and had the third one while we were here,” says Don.
There oldest daughter lives in Marten Beach, and at least one grandson lives in Slave Lake. The rest of the family is spread around.
Don’s family has deep roots in the Medicine Valley.
Don’s maternal grandfather Gant started farming on the west side of the valley in 1910. He came up from Missouri.
“My mother was born there in 1911,” says Don. “The next year after she was born, her mother passed away. She was raised by a Finnish family. My grandfather would go every Sunday. She didn’t know a word of English. She was a Finlander.”
When she was around three years old, her father took her back to the farm.
“She never remembered a word, yet that’s a Finnish area,” says Don.
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by Pearl Lorentzen
March 21, 2023