A trunk full of jewels

100 Mile House man leaves behind four treasure troves from Saskatchewan and California

Alice Jewell Albrecht with one of the trunks from California.

Alice Jewell Albrecht with one of the trunks from California.

When Melvin William Jewell passed away in 2005, his children discovered a treasure trove, a lifetime of mementos and meticulously-kept records, carefully sorted and stored, that tell the story of their family through several generations.

Part of the historical collection is four trunks, one from Saskatchewan and the other three from California. The trunks held old clothing, photos and other artifacts, even the jewelry worn in some photos. One trunk contained tin types from the mid 1800s, in perfect condition. Another held exquisite embroideries and delicate handiwork.

Boxes held hundreds of items, every piece of paperwork their grandparents and parents had ever had: notes, lists, greeting cards, letters, school report cards, teachers’ letters, newspaper clippings, official documents and certificates, even Bill Jewell’s love letters from his wife.

The story begins with Melvin Troupe Jewell, born in California in 1881. His family moved often, to Nevada and Mexico, places of turbulence and drama. Melvin grew up with a predilection for adventure. By trade he was a civil engineer but also performed as a musician and singer. He was in San Francisco for a concert in 1906 when the great quake of that year destroyed the city.

In 1924, Melvin married Edith Graham, a vibrant, accomplished school teacher. Edith had two sons from a previous marriage. The following year they moved to Saskatchewan where Melvin worked on a public building project. While they were there, a son, Melvin William,was born in 1925.

Billy, as the baby was called, inherited a serious eye condition that his father also suffered. Billy’s affliction was more severe than his father’s. He was declared legally blind. However, the handicap did not limit Billy’s progress in school later on or his development as a very capable boy who had one aim in life… To be a cowboy.

The family moved back to California. After a time, a restless Melvin began to look toward British Columbia, where hundreds of Americans were homesteading in the interior of the province. He settled on the fertile Bulkley Valley as a likely place to try his hand at ranching. It would be an opportunity to set up a future for his son.

In the summer of 1939, the Jewells headed north to check out the Bulkley Valley. Their trip ended near 100 Mile House. A stopover in town led the family to a ranch at Buffalo Creek that was for sale. The Slaughter ranch was located roughly from Drewry Lake Road to Archie Meadow Road.

In 1940, after selling their house in California, the family travelled up the Fraser Canyon. Edith’s son Paul Graham made the move to BC with them. Edith was at the wheel of her 1928 Falcon Knight car. Their belongings, including a piano, were piled on a three-ton truck. The trip up the canyon was a breathtaking one. The road was gravel, one lane with no barriers between vehicles and eternity. In some places it swung out on old cribbing above the river. Once they had to back the truck nearly a mile so an oncoming car could pass.

The Jewell’s first priority on arriving at Buffalo Creek was to build a house on a steep rise above the Forest Grove Road. The house is unusual for the area, neatly gabled and trimmed. A photo of a house that seems identical, yet slightly different, was found in Melvin’s collection. On the back is written, “a certain house in Saskatchewan.”

The brown-stained home perches on a vantage point that affords a beautiful view across the willow flats along the serpentine curves of Bridge Creek, toward the green hills of the Canim Lake Reserve and on to the mountains beyond. The original Slaughter ranch was a half section. Eventually the MJ Ranch included a full section with extensive grazing rights. There was wildlife everywhere and everyone had horses. For 14-year-old Billy, it was a dream come true. He would finally be a real cowboy.

A herd of cattle was included with the ranch. The Jewells had no experience with operating a cattle ranch but there were plenty of old timers and ranchers around who were more than willing to lend a hand or give advice. Melvin and Edith also formed lifelong friendships with natives who lived close by. Melvin became “Pops” to all the children in the area.

It soon became apparent that there was one very serious problem with the ranch, an element vital to raising cattle was missing; there were not enough hay fields to feed their herd. There were only the Archie Meadows to depend

on. So, in order to buy hay, money had to be earned off the ranch. Young Billy had learned enough about carpentry to work with his father on an addition to the Emissary’s Lodge in 100 Mile House. Melvin and Bill built a house for Lord Martin Cecil that later became the home of longtime mayor Ross Marks. They also built several homes in Forest Grove.

But the future of the MJ Ranch remained bleak, no matter how hard everyone worked. The winter of 1944 was particularly hard. They were completely out of hay by mid-winter. In desperation, Billy saddled up his horse Old Blue and set out for neighboring ranches in the hope that someone would have hay to spare — but there was little to be had.

When he returned home he wrote a touching poem about losing the family ranch, written from the perspective of a faithful old ranch hand facing the loss of his home.

“…to see what could be done, I rode and rode for many days,

But the fight could not be won.

We had lost our hay for good,

There was no more to be had,

The ranch was slowly dying,

And I was feeling bad.”

The Jewells continued to struggle. Paul Graham set up a logging operation on the property and the men took what outside work they could get, to scrape by. In 1945 they were able to purchase the bench above Bridge Creek in a tax sale. Billy used logs from an old building to build a small house nearby for himself and a machine shop. His house still sits in a grove of tall poplars, down below the road and across from the main house on the hill. The tiny house is a landmark, its setting a perfect Cariboo scene through the seasons.

For his birthday in 1946, Billy’s father gave him five dollars to join the Western Canada Friendship Society, a correspondence club for rural youth. Billy began to exchange letters with a young lady in Macdowell, Saskatchewan: Gladys Swales. For a year they corresponded, their letters revealing a growing relationship. Billy resisted Gladys’s efforts to get him to move to Saskatchewan. In the end, she decided to come to Buffalo Creek to meet Billy’s family.

When Gladys stepped off the bus in 100 Mile, the local boys checking out the new arrivals stared with open mouths when the lovely girl was welcomed by none other than shy, introverted Bill Jewell. Where on earth had he found such a beauty?

Gladys found work at Crawford’s store and post office in Buffalo Creek and at the 100 Mile Café. She was able to board at both places. When she was at work at Crawford’s, young fellows such as Frenchy Baril, Hank Rudosky, Roland Poirier and Jay Houseman would drive by. If Bill’s horse was tied up out front, they would keep on going. If not, they would hang around inside, watching Gladys at work.

Bill continued to work on the ranch and off whenever possible. Once a week, he found time to serve as the Scoutmaster of a Boy Scout troop that was truly unique. It was the smallest scouting troop in the world, consisting of Billy and the two St. Laurent boys, Larry and Ralph. An article about the unusual troop appeared in England in the London Daily Mirror, June 1950. In the article, Billy states, “There is nothing they like to do better than build a rope bridge or a rope ladder. We prefer pioneering, first aid and outdoor sports.” In the winter the troop went out on overnight ski patrols, prepared for all emergencies.

In 1950, Billy and Gladys were married in Saskatchewan where they stayed until Edith summoned them home. Mineral survey crews were in the Buffalo Creek area. She wanted Billy to come home to handle the situation. So Billy and Gladys returned and settled in the little house.

In December of 1954 Gladys was in Williams Lake waiting for their first child to be born. Cecil finally arrived in mid-January. The call came to the home of Bill and Marge Baker who had the only telephone around at the time. It was 40 below and the Bakers’ car wouldn’t start so young Gary Baker was sent out in the bitter cold with a note for the Jewells, a note they still have. It was so cold that, by the time Gary walked the long way to their house, tears were frozen on his cheeks.

Three more children, Elaine, Alice and Cliff, were born to Bill and Gladys. When Edith passed away in 1959, the family moved up to the ” big house ” on the hill to be with Melvin.

Edith had been a remarkable woman, a schoolteacher, an artist and a writer with several books and many articles to her credit. She had been an entrepreneur, operating a gift shop in her Buffalo Creek home during the late 1940s and through the ’50s. Tourists and locals would stop by to purchase her handmade souvenirs, artwork and crafts, such as dainty hand-painted handkerchiefs and wooden plaques with silhouettes that she drew, painted black and glued on the wood. Some of her work is on display at the 108 Heritage Site.

Keeping the ranch going continued to be difficult. Bill’s journal entries show that he did whatever he could to augment income from the ranch, for example, “custom plowing for John Sundman.” But bad luck seemed to pursue the family through the years. One time, during a storm, lightning struck the tall tree where their three horses were sheltering. All three, their team and Bill’s beloved saddle horse, Lady, were killed, a devastating blow to the family.

In 1955, the decision was made to sell the ranch to Ted Pincott Sr. The deal included 50 cows, a bull and a cattle squeeze. Bill’s entry regarding the sale is written in a shaky hand, very different from his usual neat writing, showing his distress at having to sell the main ranch.

Bill used money from the sale to buy chainsaws and logging equipment. He went into the woods to work as a logger, which was very difficult because of his poor eyesight. Also, another problem was that he wasn’t able to drive and had to depend on other people for transportation to and from work.

Despite the loss of the ranch, Bill still considered himself a cowboy. He dreamed of doing it all over again. Eventually he cleared some land that he still owned in the hope that he would able to startover, with more room to grow hay. But it was not to be.

Gladys passed away in 2002. Like Edith, she had been a very creative woman. Alice remembered how her mother worked to clean, card and spin wool. Gladys had worked for 20 years at the Buffalo Creek Post Office. She had been an avid gardener and was very active in her church.

In 2005, Bill died and was buried at the Forest Grove Cemetery, as were Gladys and his parents. It became necessary to sell the home place. The Jewell family was thrilled when Levi Pincott was able to purchase the property. The Jewell and Pincott families share a long history as ranching neighbours.

These days, the little house in the grove below the road is coming to life. Cecil plans to restore it to the exact way it was when he was a child. Most of the original furniture is still in the family, including a pump organ that somehow managed to fit into the tiny space along with the children. The old cook stove is in place. A bedstead is back home. Cecil even has his grandmother’s old Falcon Knight, ready to be buffed up a bit and parked in front of the house that is sure to become a Jewell of a museum some day.