Betty Chapman turns 100 March 10, 2021 (Deb Meissner photo)

100 years young: A ranch mother recalls the early days of Smithers

Betty Chapman came to the Bulkley Valley as an infant and has been here most of her life

Betty Burtt Chapman will be 100 years young on March 10.

She still drives, works out on an elliptical trainer, has keen recall and a quick smile and loves spending time with her family and friends.

She has lived in Smithers most of her years, as she came here as an infant in 1921, the year Smithers was incorporated as a village. Her Dad John Burtt had a job as the first high school teacher in Smithers.

That was when the high school was at the old Scouts Hall, she said, before it burned down.

Her family moved north for a time, and then to Nukko Lake, north of Prince George where she spent her younger years.

“The winters were very cold back then with lots of snow, and I remember one year when I was about six or seven, that dad had to keep the car protected so it would run when we needed it. Well, they cut a big hole in our living room wall, brought the car in, and there it sat for the winter,” she says with a laugh. “That was what needed to be done.”

After spending her younger years at Nukko Lake, with a year adventure in California when she was in grade four, Betty returned to the Bulkley Valley in 1945 to work at Hanson Lumber.

She met and married Gordon Chapman during this time and moved with him to Tatlow Road where they owned an area of land from Tatlow Road to both sides of the Telkwa River.

It was known simply as “the flat or the ranch,” Betty said.”If I needed to go to town for supplies, I had to drive to the end of Tatlow Road and walk across the train trestle to Telkwa.”

“Before the fire that destroyed Telkwa, that was where the main town for the area was supposed to be, not Smithers.”

Life was simple, but an awful lot of work around the ranch. There wasn’t running water, so Betty hauled water daily from the Telkwa River for her family and at times to help out Gordon hauling water for the cattle.

She learned to be quite an accomplished horsewoman, and could operate all of the equipment, as at times circumstances might require it. She and Gordon, and by then four children, worked as a team to make the ranch thrive.

“I cooked by wood stove, had lanterns for light and we worked from sun up to sun down everyday.”

“We didn’t have all the modern conveniences you have nowadays. It was a simple life, but I enjoyed it.”

Betty and Gordon were married 33 years, raised their two daughters and two sons on the Ranch, and watched the area grow.

Smithers became the main hub, due to the railway. Betty recalled to get to the Bulkley Valley you came to Prince Rupert by ship, then took a ferry to Terrace, and the rest of the way by rail.

Those were the early days of Smithers, when main street was mud, so people walked on planks of wood along the sides. Because of it being such a marsh, Betty said, ditches were built off to the sides of the street to try to carry the water away, but it was still mostly mud she said with a laugh.

She recalls a lot of the history of Smithers. There were awful fires that burned both sides of the street and all the houses and businesses where Bovill Square sits now.

“One summer it was so hot, Alfred Street caught fire where the rooming houses were, and laundry business and restaurants and homes, and the whole town came to put the fires out. The train came in, so the people from the train came to help fight the fires too. It was a losing battle.”

“Another year a rooming house on Main Street caught fire across from where the old Bulkley Lodge used to be, and all the Edmonds girls had to jump from the second storey, they all made it,” Betty said with obvious relief.

“I watched our area change transportation from horses to cars, which was interesting too with the mud,” she said with a smile.

Betty has her own personal tragedies too. Her husband died and she lost a son and a granddaughter in horrible circumstances that filled her eyes with tears.

The ranch sold in 1979, and she moved to Smithers

What Betty likes to talk about, besides her family and friends, is the adventures she has been on that have taken her across the world. She has been to China, Texas, Australia, England and the Caribbean.

Betty had never been on an airplane before going to China in 1985 and found them to be “quite amazing that you could go places so fast. It was exciting.”

In 100 years she has seen a lot, but she very quickly noted what was most amazing to her.

“Space and the adventures men and women are having there; and computers and electronics,” she said. “Both of those things I could have never imagined.

“Electricity was also an amazing invention too, but you had to have enough money to pay for the pole and then to get the electricity to your house. Then you had to pay for everything in your house to be changed, so it was too expensive for us.”

“There are so many things that have been invented in my time, I can’t keep up with them any more.”

Betty does a pretty good job, though, as she is learning how to use an iPad.

“I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but my kids and grandkids teach me.”

A willingness to learn and be adaptable all of her life seems to be key to what keeps Betty young at age 100.

Up until COVID shut things down, she was very active with the seniors functions in Smithers and Telkwa, which she greatly misses.

“I miss seeing my friends every week,” she said.

Mostly now, she keeps to spending time with her daughter and son-in-law that she lives with, playing cribbage and memory games. She picks up her mail in town for an outing, and sees her nine grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren when she can.

“They are pretty busy,” she said with pride.

And what would be her best advice for people after 100 years of experience?

“Make the best you can with what you’ve got, and appreciate it,” she replied quickly.

“Most of the world doesn’t have what we do, so people need to remember and appreciate.”

Sage advice from one who has seen so much in her lifetime.

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Betty Chapman hauls water everyday to cook (contributed photo)

Betty Chapman hauls water everyday to cook (contributed photo)

Smithers in the early 1920s looking toward the Babine Mountains (Bulkley Valley Museum archives)

Smithers in the early 1920s looking toward the Babine Mountains (Bulkley Valley Museum archives)

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