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HAPHAZARD HISTORY: (Part 2) The Australian dream takes root in Cariboo

Cariboo prosperity wasn’t all gold-coloured
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Australian Ranch between Williams Lake and Quesnel 1905. (BC Provincial Archives photo)

Andrew Olson was nicknamed “the Australian,” even though he was Swedish. He, along with three partners, came to the Cariboo in 1863 to establish a roadhouse and cultivate a garden to supply vegetables to the gold fields. (That origin story is available in Part 1 of this two-part feature.)

The winter of 1863 to 1864 was a brutal one with bitterly cold temperatures and deep snow. The four partners realized that they could not be successful growers or stopping house proprietors at the location they had chosen, so they decided to try to develop another one of their land pre-emptions about a mile to the north.

Thus, in the late winter, the men relocated to a large bench just above the Fraser River and began clearing the land. It was incredibly hard work falling the heavy timber which covered the land, clearing the stumps, and tilling the ground. But they persisted and by May of 1864, they had a small, sod-roofed, temporary log dwelling place and nine acres ready for planting.

Their first harvest was excellent, yielding about 5,000 pounds of potatoes, hundreds of pounds of turnips, and a good quantity of grain.

With their harvest complete, they had to consider how to get the crops up to the goldfields at Williams Creek.

By chance, a trader came along and offered to take the entire shipment on consignment. He told the partners that he could get them more than a dollar a pound for the potatoes, and the prices for the turnips and the grain would also be good.

They made a deal with the man and helped him to load up his mules, wishing him well on his trip.

They never saw the trader again. He made it to the gold fields without any problem. There, he sold the entire cargo for an excellent price, and keeping all the money for himself, he returned to the coast by the Antler to Keithley Creek route.

The loss of their entire investment was devastating. The four men began blaming one another and arguing about even simple decisions. One of them, George Cook, quit the partnership and returned to the coast.

Andrew Olson and the Downes brothers had no choice but to prepare for another miserable winter of turnips and beans in the Palace Hotel. (In Part 1, published in last week’s Observer, we learned that it was no palace at all, just a rustic cabin.)

When the spring of 1865 arrived the three remaining partners started all over again. They realized that oxen would be needed to develop more land for planting and they came to an agreement that in order to bring in some much needed cash, Olson would take a job as a clerk in Danielson’s store at Quesnellemouth (Quesnel), while the two brothers would work the land on the river bench.

A deal was made with Thaddeus Harper of the Gang Ranch, and four oxen were purchased over time for $500.

1865 saw the construction of the Cariboo Wagon Road all the way to Quesnel. Unfortunately the route did not pass close to the Palace Hotel so the three partners set about building a new large two-story log roadhouse on their partly cleared preemption where a large creek crossed the wagon road.

To no one’s surprise this creek had come to be known as “the Australian’s Creek,” usually abbreviated to Australian Creek, and the new roadhouse, completed in 1866, took on the name as well.

The land around it was fertile, and over the years the ranch, which naturally was named the Australian Ranch, grew and prospered, eventually becoming the largest and most profitable one in the upper Cariboo region.

The ranch also served as a BX horse change stop and the stagecoaches made regular visits. The roadhouse served excellent homegrown, home-cooked meals prepared by a series of Chinese cooks, while local First Nations women were employed to clean and to keep the house immaculate.

As the ranch grew through the 1870s and 1880s, large fields for growing grains, hay, corn and vegetables were developed and harvested. Herds of beef and dairy cattle were introduced and expanded and a slaughterhouse operation was added.

In order to avoid a repeat of the scam perpetrated on the partners with their first shipment to the goldfields, Andrew Olsen made sure that he made future deliveries in person. He would make several trips in the fall and winter during severe winter conditions. He made the trip in “Andrew’s Locomotive,” a stove-heated tent mounted on a sleigh, which kept both the driver and the perishables warm.

Never again did the three partners face the cold miserable, near starvation conditions that they faced during those first two winters.

In June 1872, William Downes boarded the BX stage for Victoria. Two days after his arrival there, he passed away. He had been suffering from advanced tuberculosis (called galloping consumption in those days) for some time, but he had told no one how sick he really was.

At the young age of 42, he died without any will, so the courts allowed both Andrew Olson and Steven Downes to take over his shares in the ranch and they became equal partners.

Life, however did not go smoothly for this partnership. As the years went by, the two men grew further apart and their relationship soured. At one point Stephen took Andrew to court trying to prove that Andrew was not a legal partner in the business. Andrew then submitted a bill for the years of wages he had not been paid if it were true that he was merely an employee. William dropped the lawsuit.

When Downes passed away at the ranch in June 1898 at the age of 67, Andrew, who was only a few years younger began thinking about selling the place. Running the ranch with all its complexities was difficult for any one man to do, especially if he were in his 60s and suffering from arthritis. As well, he was under pressure from his brother Sam in Sweden to come back to the country of his birth.

It just so happened that two brothers, John (Jack) and Robert Yorston, both of whom worked for the B.C. Express Company were looking for a good land opportunity and a suitable place to settle.

The Australian Ranch was exactly what they were seeking and negotiations were begun. The total price agreed-upon for the 492 acres of land (200 of them cleared), 200 head of cattle, and all the equipment and outbuildings was $10,000, quite a hefty sum for that time.

The Yorston brothers took over the title in November 1903 and the ranch still remains in that family today.

Andrew Olsen remained on the ranch in semi-retirement, providing knowledge and advice when needed. However, the pressure continued to mount from family in Sweden for him to return.

Andrew was very reluctant to leave Canada, but after a great deal of persuasion and an extended visit from his brother, he finally agreed. In August 1904, after more than 40 years in the Cariboo, he left accompanied by his brother for the long journey overseas.

Less than a year later, Andrew Olson, “the Australian,” respected throughout the Cariboo for his persistence, industry, integrity and generosity, passed away.

The doctors could find no single cause of death, saying that they believed he had succumbed to homesickness.

As with Part 1 of this article, I have depended heavily upon the writings of Branwen Patenaude for this piece.

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