It was a fine time for strong and resourceful families, as the area boomed with the post-war demand for beef and strong-as-steel first-cut Interior Douglas fir.
100 Mile House was in its infancy in the late 1940s and 1950s, while to the east over a dusty dirt road, the communities of Buffalo Creek and Forest Grove hummed with activity, their economy growing and their society close-knit.
The many small bush mills brought their rough two-inch sawn lumber to Gordon Graham’s edger mill at Buffalo Creek.
Names like McNeil, Minato, Uyama, Karahashi and Sikui were prominent. The Japanese families were interned here during the war years, and stayed on to play their part.
After edging, their wood was trucked to the railhead at Exeter, bound for Vancouver.
Laird and Mona Crawford’s store was there, too. It sold every possible item the thriving community needed – groceries, clothing, hardware, appliances, animal feed, fuels, even a few cars.
A generator ran 24 hours a day, keeping the lights on and the freezers cold, long before BC Hydro came through.
Laird and Mona’s daughter, Maureen, says the gas pump was never locked.
“If we happened to be away for the day, and someone needed fuel, they would help themselves and leave a note stating how much they had taken. Dad always said you could leave a $10 bill on the front veranda and nobody would ever touch it.”
Bill Baker stepped into this scene in 1949. A faller and ship-builder from Vancouver, he was looking for a healthier place for his family to grow.
It didn’t take him long to decide. He bought land in the heart of Buffalo Creek and the following year he made the three-day drive north with his wife, Marge, and children, Garry, 13, and Sharon, 10.
Marge was no stranger to the Cariboo and its people. Though born in Point Gray, she had worked at the Lakeview Hotel in Williams Lake and quickly recognized the potential at Buffalo Creek – lots of hungry working men on the move, and no place to get a good meal.
By 1951, Marge’s Café was open in the front room of their house – eight in the morning until 10 at night, and on weekends for lunch and supper. Bill made the furnishings and sign.
It didn’t take long for Marge’s cooking to catch on. Customers were sometimes lined up outside the door – loggers, truckers, mill workers, tourists, hunters and friends just wanting to socialize.
Garry remembers the food well – a summer special cold plate with potato salad and ham, and at all times, hamburgers with “melt-in-your-mouth” pie and super moist chocolate cake.
Marge cooked on her wood-burning range, which, in summer, sent temperatures in the kitchen soaring above 100F.
“Marge had a smile for everyone and good conversation always prevailed in her café,” Maureen says.
Marge also had a great collection of Columbia records. Her favourite was Mantovani, but most of the folks enjoyed something faster. With the electric lights on at night, and music in the air, people gravitated to the café.
“When mom put on ‘Crazy Otto and His Piano’, people were bouncing off the walls,” says Garry.
With Marge’s natural good humour, it’s not surprising she made many friends among the Canim Lake Band. Theresa Boyce and Lizzie Archie were close, and they would stop sometimes for tea.
Sometimes native people ate vegetables from Marge’s garden located across the road. This would be repaid in various ways – one time with a beautiful pair of beaded-hide gloves left in the garden as a gift.
Some would borrow fuel from Bill who would loan them the battered Quaker State can to carry it home with.
The thing about Marge Baker though, beyond the cooking and her friendly open ways, was she was one classy lady who knew how to dress. “Vivacious” is how Maureen describes her, always “dressed to the nines” – high heels and all. Even in the garden, the high heels stayed on, says Garry.
Those days were rich with colourful characters and interesting events. One such was Herbie Auld who drove all the children from 93 Mile to 105 Mile out to the only school in Forest Grove.
The bus would take them all the way and then double back for the kids from Gateway and Buffalo Creek.
As Sharon tells it, one day in winter just past Gateway a front wheel came off.
“We started bouncing from one side of the road to the other, but the snow banks were so high and frozen, we never left the road. Herbie just said ‘Oh, can’t cut the mustard’.”
The house that once was Marge’s Café is gone now, burnt in the Buffalo Creek Fire of 2009. Marge and Bill have passed on and rest together in the cemetery at Forest Grove.
The spirit and character of those early days live on, however, in their many descendants. But that’s another story.
Peter Hart is the Free Press Canim Lake correspondent.