In 1937, like so many Great Depression-era Europeans, Fritz and Rosa Gyger packed up five of their six kids, Fritz Jr., Bill, Mary, Emma and Johnny and immigrated from Switzerland lured by the promise of cheap land and abundant opportunity. The eldest daughter, Rosa, immigrated to Argentina with her husband.
The Gygers final destination was the Bulkley Valley.
“They lived in a box car for about a week while Bussinger and Kenney, the real estate agents, took them all around the valley to find a farm,” said Annette Maze, a daughter of Fritz Jr. and his wife Ruby.
The farm they found was 360 acres on the banks of the Bulkley River that stretched north up the hill to Viewmount Road and south across what is now Hwy 16 including the property that is currently the Smithers Par 3 and RV Park.
They built a home, grew a variety of vegetables and raised cows, goats and chickens, Maze said.
The very next year, though, tragedy struck.
“Fire struck the house that they were living in and [it] burnt down and they all had to live in this little cabin until the community came together and helped them build [a new] house,” she said.
In the book Stories of Swiss Settlement, the community support is described:
“The parents were working in the potato patch when they saw smoke coming out of the roof of their house. By the time they reached the building, they only managed to throw a few things out the windows. All the family possessions they had brought over from Switzerland were destroyed. However the community gathered and, within a few days, they had more clothes and furniture than they had owned before. They were overwhelmed by the generosity of the people, despite the fact everyone was poor. Even now, family members gratefully recall the help they received when they were still strangers in this new land. The surrounding farmers, especially Stuart Campbell, George Oulton and those of the Swiss community, came out to cut and haul trees for a good sized log home which was built in record time.”
The Gygers farmed there for 11 years, but as the children gradually all moved away, it became too much for Fritz and Rosa to keep up by themselves. Fritz Jr., Bill and Johnny built them a small home on 18th Avenue in Smithers and they sold the land to the Then family.
Over the next 67 years, the Thens would add to the original house, but subtract from the acreage, selling off bits and pieces.
By 2015, when they put the remaining piece up for sale, what was left was 57 acres bound by Lunan Road and Old Babine Lake Road. At that time, Maze’s daughter, Nicole Clausen, and her husband Ed, were looking for a piece of riverside property and bought it.
“In a cute way, the land has come full circle,” Maze said. “It went from Gygers to Thens to Clausens, and [Nicole] is a Gyger.”
One of the additions the Thens made to the property was a mobile home. The Clausens invited Maze and her husband Ray to live in the mobile.
“Ray and I owned a house in Smithers, but I tell you, it took me 30 seconds to make up my mind to rent out that house and move here,” Maze said. “We’re very, very … fortunate.”
Back to the land
From July 19 to 21, the farm will be temporarily transformed into a campground and RV park as more than 100 of Fritz and Rosa’s descendants gather for a family reunion.
“They’re coming back to the land, and they’re all going to be camped over there on the alfalfa field,” Maze said.
Among the participants in the reunion will be some very familiar Bulkley Valley names including Bovills, Waltons and Dohlers.
They will be coming from all over British Columbia and beyond, possibly even from South America where one of Fritz and Rosa’s great granddaughters has expressed interest in coming.
“Harold Gyger [one of Maze’s cousins], they’re all getting together and putting money in a purse and hopefully, Patti might be able to come from Argentina,” Maze said.
It has been 20 years since the last time the Gygers had a reunion and Maze got choked up when she talked about the importance of the past and the family being together again on the original homestead.
“Whenever my husband and I are walking on the land, I feel like Granny and Grandpa are behind me,” she explained. “I know it’s silly, but I feel their presence on the land, for sure.”