Friday, December 9, 2011

A Tofino Christmas, 1904

I was given a little gift a few weeks ago, courtesy a couple doing a bit of purging — six boxes of old newspapers from the west coast. Only a history nerd like me would probably think that was cool, but I'm slowly going through the musty piles, gleaning some gems here and there. I'll share a few from time to time, but I thought that given the time of year, some of you might enjoy reading a bit about a Tofino Christmas before plastic (and electricity, water and sewer for that matter), circa 1904, written by Alma Sloman. Alma was the first child — and only daughter — of Jacob Arnet, one of the area's first settlers, and his wife, Johanna. This was printed in The Sound in December 1990. (Copyright gods, please forgive me for the direct cut-and-paste, but I feel fairly confident that all involved will be okay with this.)

A Child's Christmas in Tofino, 1904
By Alma Sloman (nee Arnet)

I was born on December 22, 1897, at what is now known as Grice Bay. Our home was across the bay at Metla Moses. In the native Indian tongue "Metla" is understood to mean "between" and it could be that it means a point of land between bodies of water. 1897 is a long time ago and I have these many years of memories to look back on.

As my birthday was so close to Christmas it was a very special time of year for me. I am remembering back to the beginning of this century — about 1904 — and my family had settled in Tofino by that time. What an exciting time of the year it was and what a busy time it was. There was the baking to be done and the cooking to be done and, of course, the cleaning and polishing of every corner of our house!

My father would cut a pine tree and it would be set up in our living room. My mother had saved ribbons and brightly coloured paper during the year and we would decorate the tree with them, cutting and forming the paper into attractive shapes. Cedar boughs were brought in and placed above pictures and about the house.

I helped my mother with the baking and what a lot of baking there was to do before Christmas. The steamed puddings had already been made a month or so before and were mellowing in their bowls. Ours was a Norwegian Christmas so we made sugar cookies and lefse with its delicate cardamom flavour (spread with butter and sprinkled with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon, it was food for the gods!). We made fatigmands and jule kaka, which is more commonly known as Christmas stollen. It is a sweet bread with the addition of raisins and other dried fruits and nuts and while still warm an icing glaze is applied. We made krum kaker which when baked we quickly rolled around a wooden shape that formed them into cones. When served, they were filled with whipped cream and were so delicious.

My father had a herd of Herefords — those lovely red and white beef cattle — and we had the black and white Holsteins for milking so there was plenty of rich cream and fresh milk. My mother would make her own sweet butter. She had two dozen Leghorns — those big white chickens with the bright yellow legs — so we had fresh eggs.

My mother would make me a dress for Christmas and this would be sewn on her hand-operated sewing machine. It was made in Germany in 1885 and my mother brought it from Norway when she came to Canada in 1896. It was one of her most prized possessions and my mother made most of our clothing with this sewing machine.

Our Christmas dinner usually consisted of stuffed wild goose and venison and gravy and mashed potatoes, carrots, and turnips. I was the eldest in my family and you can imagine the fun we had in later years when I had been joined by my six brothers! We all sat around the big table that had been made by my father and there was so much joy and laughter. In memory, I can still feel the warmth that was given off by our big "Majestic" wood stove. There was a compartment for water at one end so we always had plenty of hot water. It was ladled out for dishwashing or personal use. My parents and any guests who had shared in the dinner would have their coffee — it was sipped in the Norwegian fashion, a cube of sugar being placed in the mouth to sweeten it.

We bought our major supplies at Mr. Walter Dawley's store over at Clayoquot (Stubbs Island) — there was no store in Tofino in those days. I can remember some of the ships that served the area and most of the West Coast. There was the Maude, Queen City, Willapa and Tees and as they all called at Clayoquot at various times, we were not entirely isolated. We would row over in our boat and my mother would look for suitable materials for the clothing she made. At Christmas time Mr. Dawley always gave us a five-pound tin of hard candies and included in the assortment would be a long ribbon candy so hard and brightly coloured, and there were "satins" in pastel shades with coconut centres. And we had apples and oranges and nuts, too.

Sometimes we had snow for Christmas but I remember the weather being pretty much as it is now. When we visited our neighbours at Christmas it was by boat. We went everywhere by boat as there was no road and the trees came right down to the water's edge in those days. I can remember visiting our neighbours, the Wingens. They still lived at Metla Moses and Mr. Wingen operated a sawmill there.

After visiting, it was back to the coziness of our home and I remember the coal oil lamps and the welcoming glow they shed. And I remember the beautiful braided rugs made by my mother and myself and how pretty the room looked. And sitting there near the Christmas tree was my doll, given to me by the doctor in Ucluelet. She had a china face with pale pink cheeks and her blue eyes opened and closed. She had blonde hair and wore a blue organdie dress with matching blue shoes and real silk sockettes.

One last peek at the tree and then off to bed after an exciting fun-filled Christmas Day in Tofino, eighty-six years ago.

[Published in The Sound, Vol. 1, No. 21, page 7.]


  1. What a wonderful find, Adrienne! You are very lucky. I would LOVE to read those old papers. Happy holidays to you and yours. :-)

  2. Wow, Adrienne, thank you for sharing this! Absolutely amazing! An incredible glimpse into those pioneers' lives.

    I am sure it was so incredibly difficult for them at times, and that they were much tougher people than any of us today. But it is incredible to see what warmth and comfort they had, too, what they were able to do and make with what they had there - more than 100 years ago!

    Do you know where their house in Tofino was, and if it is still there? I am trying to imagine where those cattle were walking around. I understand that there used to be problems with the cattle walking around town (eating people's laundry) and sheltering underneath the hospital building, pooping on equipment - I think that was more in the 30s?

    Thank you!

  3. The property is still in the Arnet family, but the house Alma would have been living in at that time is gone now. It would have been between buildings lower on the lot (Remote Passages) and the yellow house up above. A photo of the original house will be in Historic Tofino: A Walking Tour, which should be out soon...really!

  4. What a little gem of a story. Thanks so much for sharing it Adrienne. Really looking forward to the walking tour book - we'll be sure to have a copy on hand for our B & B guests too.

    Merci encore,
    Robin Pearce,
    Gull Cottage B & B

  5. Thank you for posting this article, Adrienne.
    Alma was my great grandmother, and I have many fond memories of spending time with her in her little red house on Main Street (where DNA Clothing now is).
    I had never heard her tell this story before, and I was only 6 when it was first published in The Sound. So again, thank you!
    Jodi Payne (nee Sloman)

  6. Thanks for your note, Jodi. I was so glad to come across it. I also found a story written by Mary Hardy about a Tofino Christmas in 1930. I know she's done other writing, so hopefully we can talk her into putting them together in a little book! Happy holidays.

  7. That was really cool thanx

  8. Thank you very much for posting, Adrienne. I really enjoyed that snapshot from 1904. It's a great reminder of how self-sustaining Tofino's early pioneers had to be. Amazing too how rich their lives were without the luxuries of electricity and cheap oil. There's a lot to learn from this. Great food for thought for the new year!