Early Newton and Surrey Stories

The following submission appeared in “We Are Newton: A Neighbourhood Anthology.” See here for more information about the project.

By: George Zaklan

There are hundreds of stories. Here are just a few.

I recall a young neighbour, working barefoot in his garden on a Saturday summer’s evening. Some friends walked by, stopped to chat and mentioned that they were en route to the local dance. After a moment’s reflection, he dropped his hoe and walked off with them to the dance.

At that time, Surrey’s population was thin. Perhaps each mile of dirt road or trail had two or three farm families scattered per mile. Social support systems did not exist.

Life unfolded. It was summer; a heavy rain created misty, fog-like conditions. The backyard of our farm was heavy bush land. Out of the rain-soaked trees emerged a man, totally soaked and chilled.

He spoke little but looked starved. Without much fanfare, Mom sat him in front of the warm wood-burning stove. As he dried, Mom provided the guest with food. After he ate and was reasonably dry, he moved on. Few words were spoken. Who he was or why he was wandering through the woods was never discussed. What Mom could see was that he was hungry, miserable and drenched.

We often reminded Mom of the dangers associated with strangers. She smiled. Incidentally, she lived to enjoy the many guests who came to her hundredth birthday celebration.

Like so many in our area, my parents had been raised in a village. Their education was modest but their native “smarts” served them well. They had an extraordinary work ethic and applied the age-old adage: “The harder you work, the luckier you become.”

This was a Surrey of the early part of the century. Most roads were either trails or non-existent. Even King George Highway, also known as Semiahmoo Trail, was a two-lane dirt road. The newly built schools were mostly two-room, wood-framed grey buildings, heated by wood stoves and furnaces and illuminated by kerosene lamps, and the toilets were outdoors. Surrey struggled to find teachers. Finances were weak, facilities were modest, distances were great and the roads were difficult to traverse. The toll on the Pattullo Bridge deterred many as well.

Libraries, recreational centres, medical facilities and public transit were only conceptual. Surrey was connected by an interurban work/passenger train that extended from Chilliwack to Main Street, Vancouver. For five cents, one could get on board.

Surrey was large in area, thin in population. As far as the eye could see, there were trees and stumps.

Historically, Surrey had one of the largest, finest coniferous forests in the world. By l930 the loggers modified the environment. There was a huge lumber mill constructed on the corner of l32nd Street and 76th Avenue. (Currently, the sprawling bus depot is on this site.)

Lumber-related income provided us with the main payroll. Beehive burners disposed of most wood waste. They burned huge amounts. And when we had temperature inversions, the smoke would become trapped in the moist atmosphere. The fog would be so thick that the cars had to be guided by someone on foot. People were unable to recognize their own driveways!

Those who lived in Surrey were mostly immigrant farmers, war veterans and retirees. Land was pretty well free. The rules of supply and demand applied even then.

Over the years, huge tracts of land remained unsold or were forfeited because of unpaid taxes. Our early politicians wisely or fortuitously kept control over this land—land that provided the many parks that now give us so much pride.

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