These memories were written around 1995-2000 by Bill (William) John Wright, principal and teacher at Masset Elementary-Secondary School from 1954-1957. They are based on photographs he took, letters he wrote to family that were saved, and other notes he kept at the time. There are four parts to this series; this is part two.
Like the south end of Graham Island, the north end also consisted of two large settlements–Masset (or New Masset), the “white” village and Old Massett (or Haida), the Indian village. Old Masset is situated at the mouth of MassetInlet; New Masset is situated three miles up the inlet. Except for a ridge of mountains running up to the top of the west coast of the island, the northern half of the island is basically a flat muskeg with a few low hills scattered along the inlet. As one flies over it, he can see whater glistening in much of the grass and trees below. A road running along the inlet joins the two villages. In our Masset days, there was only one totem pole–a mortuary pole–left standing in the area, and this pole stood beside the Masset road. Early photographs show literally a forest of totem poles in front of the village, but it seems that the missionary looked upon them as objects of worship and so, after converting the natives to Christianity, he advocated that they should cut down all their poles.
In our day, also, the road from Old Masset passed through New Masset–the school, teacherage, and church were all on this road–and crossed over the Delkatla Slough on a wooden bridge to the suburb of Delkatla on the south side. The slough was actually a large flat tidal area through which a stream flowed into the Inlet, but at high tide the water would back up over the flat to form a slough. On the inlet-side of the bridge, the flat had been dredged and two piers led off from the centre of the bridge to afford anchorage for the local fishing boats. Today, the Delkatla half of this bridge is gone; the Masset half still leads to the fishing piers. An earthen causeway now crosses the slough a block further east, and this causeway holds back the slough from going out to sea at low tide; this slough and the surrounding flats are now a bird sanctuary.
In our day, as today, the road passed thrugh Delkatla and swung east to travel along the north coast of the island eighteen miles to Tow Hill–a major landmark rising out of the sea, yet surrounded on the land side by flat muskeg country. Much of the Tow Hill Road was plank-road in our day and although it is now a gravel road, the odd plank still shows through the gravel. As I have already noted, there was no road from Masset up the Inlet to Port Clements; we had had to come down the Inlet by boat. A road from Masset to Port was under construction when we left the Islands , and today a paved road runs from Masset to Queen Charlotte City.
Masset began as one of several Haida Indian villages on the Islands. In 1869, a small one-man Hudsons’ Bay Co. trading post was established in the Indian village. New Masset began in the early 1900’s. At one time apparently, there were thousands of Haida Indians but white man’s diseases–particularly small-pox–decimated them. In 1954, there were about 650 people in Haida and 400 in New Masset–the latter consisting of “whites” and mixed. After many years of use, the original school in New Masset had been moved kitti-corner from the school grounds and had been converted into a two-apartment teacherage (our home); the original town “hospital”–turned “high school”–also became a two-apartment teacherage. Both these buildings in 1985 are regarded as Heritage Sites. In 1952, with these former schools converted to teacherages, a new four-room school with activity room had been opened on the school grounds.
It was this school that was to be my place of occupation for the next three years–1954-1957. It was an elementary-senior high school with all grades from 1 to 12. Today, it is a small part of the Masset or G.M. Dawson Secondary School; another school, almost as large, houses elementary grades. In our day, Haida had an elementary school with students up to Grade 5. When students at Haida were promoted to Grade 6, they then came to our school. Today, all schooling is done in New Masset. Another reason for the great increase in school facilities is a large military radar station. In 1954, there was a small station out on the Tow Hill Road, employing about 25 servicemen; a small compound in Masset contained five or six houses for married personnel. Today, a major radar-detection station is further out on the Tow Hill Road, and a large base has been constructed in Masset, consisting of administrative offices, hospital, single-men’s quarters, and houses for married personnel–all of which handles about 250 servicement. This base stands directly behind the school–an area that was just bush and swamp in our day.
This was the town into which Marjorie and I settled. Marjorie taught Grades 7 and 8; I taught Grades 9 to 12. Obviously, I could not teach all the required subjects, although I did teach sixteen separate subjects a day. It took a few days to come up with a workable time-table, allowing for the teaching of four different grades at the same time. And what I could not teach, the students had to take by correspondence–which still required my guidance and control. Obviously, also, with all those subjects to teach, I had to spend many hours that first year preparing lessons in all those different courses; once they were prepared, I was able to use them again in the following two years. However, Marjorie and I still took time–especially in the lovely autumn evenings–to go for walks and to enjoy the gorgeous sunsets. Saturdays were spent preparing lessons, but Sunday was our day of rest–a time when we went for long walks–often out along the Tow Hill Road to the Cemetery–perhaps the most beautiful cememtery in the country. Graves were simply dug amongst the trees, and moss and vines gave an ethereal aspect to the place. Then, only a few steps past the cemetery, we would be out on the north beach–a stretch of beach that extends for close to thirty miles from the entrance to Masset Inlet along the north coast to Rose Spirt.
One interesting aspect of our day was that Masset was “open-range” and cows wandered the streets. Garbage cans had to be placed high up or on fenced porches; otherwise the cows would knock them over. I’ve never forgotten chasing a cow off our porch with a broom which still in my pyjamas. One could not get anyone to admit ownership of the cows, but if a cow were killed, several Haidas would show up claiming ownership and demanding payment.
Our teacherage was on the corner of the main road through town and a side-road running down to the Inlet. The school was kitti-corner to our teacherage, while directly across the street was the Anglican Church. As explained earlier, Masset was Anglican. There was a tiny Roman Catholic church in the town, and a priest would come in overnight on the boat, twice a year, to hold Confession and Mass. Otherwise, in our day, the Anglican church in Masset and the one in Haida were the only churches in the area. Today, there is a Pentecostal Church, a Brethern Assembly, etc.
On our first Sunday morning in Masset, we dressed for church; and when we saw some people going in to the church, we went across the street–to learn that Sunday Shool was held on Sunday morning while the Anglican minister was preaching in the church at Haida. Then, in the evening, he would hold a service in the Masset Church, while a Haida lay-reader would take the service in the Haida Church. So, we returned home and waited for the evening service. From then on, we would listen to Christian broadcasts from the Ketchikan radio station on Sunday mornings until eventually Marjorie was asked to assist in the Sunday School. Very few people came to the evening service–the typical congregation consisted of the church sexton (bell-ringer) Mr. Jesse Bridden; a couple of native ladies, Norah Bellis and Mrs. Setso; Mrs. Anderson; and the Wrights. Singing, however, proved popular and when a choir was later formed, the attendance improved so that there would be ten or twelve in the choir loft (including Marjorie), and the sexton, Mrs. Andrson, and myself in the congregation. Since we lived right across the street from the church, we would wait until Mr. Bridden began ringing the bell and then we would go across to the church. Very interesting was the fact that even if we were delayed a few minutes, he would continue ringing the bell until we came in.
The minister, Rev. Monty Young, was a gentleman who, after retiring as a farmer, had gone into the ministry at age 70. After his departure, the pulpit was supplied by the Commanding Officer of the local military base and by an Anglican deaconness who was sent to Masset. Eventually, a new minister, Rev. Stan Leach, came to Masset. He had apparently been a lawyer in London, England, who at age 50 felt the call to go to Canada as a missionary. His wife, Dot, and he became good friends of ours; he used to call us his “loyal heretics” because, although not Anglicans, we were two of his closest supporters.
Business enterprises in the town consisted of a Co-Op Store and a second store owned by Kurt Lindner; Mr. Lindner also owned the little hotel. Mr. Clarence Martin operated the Post Office, the local electricity plant, and the fuel oil business. Mr. Noel Taylor owned and operated a combination taxi and U-Drive business, as well as the school bus for bringing students from Haida to our school. There was also what we termed the “Greasy Spoon” Cafe. Mrs. Nora Burton operated the local telephone exchange in the front room of her house. Mrs. Grace Frost had come to Masset many years earlier as the public health nurse, and though now retired, was still “Dr. Frost” to the community.
Amongst our friends, other than those already mentioned, were the Prudents–Bill Pruden was the Indian Agent; the Grays–who we’ve visited in later years on two or three occasions at Parksville; the Mallorys–Bob was the local fisheries officer and his wife, Freda, took over Marjorie’s class when Marjorie resigned [due to pregnancy]; and our next-door neighbors in the teacherage–Hugh “Shady” and Ruby Lane–Shady was one of the local military personnel. In 1984–thirty years later–we had the pleasure of having Ruby visit us from her home in Nova Scotia; Shady has passed away.
The first four months slipped by quickly. We had a visit from Inspector Campbell in the Fall and again the following Spring. He was very pleased with my work, and I still prize my copy of the report that he sent to the School Board. As I was the principal, we were expected to host the inspector and other VIP’s who visited the school, although they slept at the local hotel. This business of hosting was rather difficult for they usually came in on the boat on Thursday–and as the boat came in with fresh supplies only every second week, the last few days before the arrival of a boat was a famine. Unfortunately, we had to host visitors on the Thursday evening on whatever Marjorie could scrape together, as the new supplies off the boat were not in the stores until Friday morning. Also, we had no fridge.
Another situation that faced that that first four months was to find that the previous principal had not ordered any supplies for the new school year. Howard Phillips gave me the okay to order supplies–and did we ever! Phyllis Steele, the primary teacher, had been there the previous two years and she had never had enough supplies–but now she surely did! We even ordered and got a movie projector. With the present education restraint program, the School Board would have shuddered at the amount of supplies we ordered.
One thing we soon learned about the people of the area was the easy-going life-style. No one was ever in a hurry. Being on time was a very foreign situation there. Movies were shown at the local community hall twice a week at 7 p.m., but the projectionist, Arden Crist, never arrived until almost 7:30 p.m. This unhurried attitude carried over to the students, and it was a real problem to get the students into class at 9 a.m. All I had was a hand-bell, and so at 8:45 a.m. and again at 8:55, I would go outside, face south and ring the bell frantically; then around the corner of the activity room, face north, and ring it frantically again. This process would be repeated at noon-hour. I remember that, at one time, Norah Bellis went over to Prince Rupert for a few days, with the result that every morning, I would send a student to the Bellis house to wake up Dick and John, and they would arrive from half to three-quarters of an hour late.
Having obtained a movie projector, we began ordering films from the Department of Education’s Visual Aids Division. We showed the films in the hallway that ran along the classrooms. One film we ordered was on the construction of Kemano and Kitimat. It was so good that we showed it one evening in my classroom to the general public. On another occasion, I noticed that the Visual Aids Division had a copy of “Martin Luther” which had been shown in regular theatres only a year or two earlier. I ordered the film and we showed it to the school; next, because of popular demand, I showed it in the community hall; finally, the Military borrowed it to show to the men on the Base.
…. Meanwhile, I had promised Marjorie that I would take her home for Christmas; at last, school was out; the seaplane (pontoon plane) would be arriving in a couple of hours. I went over to the school for a moment. On the way back, an elderly Indian, later known to us as Captain Brown, approached me and asked if I would like to buy some “toys.” I asked him what kind of toys, and he unwrapped several argillite totem poles that he had carved. We had seen such poles in various homes and had planned to buy some–and here was our opportunity. We bought poles for my parents, Marjorie’s parents, the MacDonalds on whose lawn we had had our wedding reception, and for ourselves. I had two of Captain Brown’s grandsons in my class, and their mother Nora also became a close friend of ours.
The seaplane flew us to Queen Charlotte City where we were to stay overnight with Miss Budd and Miss Daley at Skidegate Mission and fly to Vancouver on Saturday. However, we waited all day Saturday for word to head to the airport, but the plane from Vancouver to Sandspit never came as it was fogbound in Vancouver. Sunday morning, however, word came that the plane was on its way from Vancouver, and we took the water taxi across Skidegate Inlet to Aliford Bay, where a special bus ran us into the airport at Sandspit to catch the return flight to Vancouver….
Then it was back to Masset and back to work–1955. However, Marjorie found that pregnancy onto top of teaching and housekeeping was too much, to she resigned early in March. She was replaced, as mentioned earlier, by Freda Mallory; and Freda continued to teach the class for the rest of the three years we were in Masset.
At Easter, we had a visit from Miss Budd and Miss Daley…
Teacher’s meetings were held usually twice a year at Port Clements, and we would travel up the inlet by fishing boat. We usually travelled with a fellow named Walter Gerlach. On one occasion, at the end of the meeting, we had to cross from the dock over one fishing boat to get onto Gerlach’s boat. As we did so, Marjorie dropped her purse into the water and it sank. Later [at a low tide], it was retrieved and brought to us in Masset. Marjorie had to take all her papers, such as her driver’s licence, and dry them. Then she put them in a book to flatten them. Later (our second summer holidays), she did much of the driving on our trip, and it was not until the following Fall that I happened to open a book and out dropped her driver’s licence. During all the driving, she had been doing so in complete confidence that her licence was safely in her purse.
About this time, the Indian Department built a new combination home and dispensary in Haida and hired a young nurse, Mavis Kellar… it was not long before we became close friends. On the occasional Sunday afternoon, we would take a taxi out to Haida Village to visit her, and would go with her to the evening service in the village church. The lay-reader who usually took the evening service was Peter Hill, a wonderful Christian gentleman. How could we foresee in those days that he would be one of the great-grandparents of some of our own grandchildren? Yes, he was Lionel’s grandfather.
May always brought the annual Sports Day. This was usually held on the Delkatla flats, but an exceptionally high tide that year was daily flooding the field, so we had to hold the track events on the main street of the town, a street that was about eight lanes in width. As principal, it was my job to plan the events and to supervise them. I came home exhausted.
As Marjorie was expecting in early July, we felt that she should fly out before the end of school, so on June 1, she left Masset for Summerland… I remember that during this month, I had a meal at the Herald Grays’ and also on one occasion accompanying Howard Phillips fishing on the Chown ….
[details about summer holidays and birth of first child, Norma June]
Addenda: Although I had a least three students in Grade 12 in my first year in Masset, I cannot recall their names, although I remember one was a native lad and I can still visualize him. Unfortunately, these students were at least three courses short of graduation for a reason that will be explained in Chapter 3. Perhaps some day I will be able to find out their names through the memories of some of my other students.