Amross Blayney and his bulls breaking ground at Grassy Plains. (Lakes District Museum Society photo/Lakes District News)

Amross Blayney was a man, not a myth

The Lakes District has been home to several larger-than-life characters, few of them bigger in reputation than Amross Blayney. His exploits here during the early years of the last century are akin to those attributed to Paul Bunyan, the fabled lumberjack of Eastern Canada.

Unlike Bunyan, though, Amross Blayney was a man, not a myth. A blacksmith by trade, Amross was born May 1, 1860, in Simcoe, Ontario. He made his way to western Canada at some point, living for a time in the coalmining town of Anthracite, Alberta, before making his way to the West Coast. According to electoral records, he was homesteading near Hagensborg—a small, unincorporated community between Bella Coola and Anahim Lake—around 1906, when he heard there was good farmland near a body of water called Ootsabunket. Despite being forty-six years old at the time, he packed a few necessities and headed north with a team of oxen.

The trip must have been a difficult one. The trail, part of a network of trading routes established by the region’s Indigenous people, was poor in many places, and there was limited feed for Blayney’s animals. Nevertheless, after a lengthy journey, he was within twenty miles (32 km) of his destination. He camped in a meadow near a nameless lake, and there he met Skin Tyee, an Indigenous leader famous for his trapping ability and belligerence.

Sparks fly whenever two strong-willed men find themselves in opposition, and this was no exception. When Amross sought safe passage through Skin Tyee’s traditional territory, the Indigenous man challenged him to a fight.

“Skin Tyee was big [and] tall, and Blayney short and square,” said Alma Bostrom Allen, who grew up in Tatalrose and knew both men. “It was over before it started. Amross had been a wrestler, and he threw Skin for a loop. Skin got up and shook hands and allowed Blayney to pass.”

Having earned Skin Tyee’s respect, Amross drove his oxen onward in search of open, rolling country suitable for farming. He found what he was looking for at the north end of Tatalaska Lake, and despite bringing few possessions with him (according to one old-timer, he arrived with only his animals, a camp stove, an axe, and a walking plow), he proceeded to build a small cabin with a sod roof. He left for Vancouver before winter arrived, but returned the following spring with his wife, Alma, and daughter Jennie.

Alma L. Blayney, born in Ontario two years before Amross, was a unique individual in her own right. Described as “very prim and straight-laced” by those who knew her, she had a rigid code of conduct and expected everyone (including her husband) to abide by it.

“Amross was not allowed to smoke in the house and would have to sit on the back steps to have his after-supper smoke,” said Allen. “Also, now this is hard to believe, but I have seen it myself, when the Eaton’s catalogue came out in the spring and fall, Mrs. Blayney would go through it and paste strips of paper over the middle of models who modelled lingerie or exposed too much leg. Only then was Amross allowed to look at the catalogue.”

It didn’t take the Blayneys long to establish themselves in the community. Three or four years after their arrival, they built a new two-storey house, one of the finest in the country. It featured a spacious kitchen, front room, and two bedrooms, but the piece de resistance was the downstairs parlour, which boasted wicker furniture and an organ. Mrs. Blayney was so proud of it, said Allen, that she only used it “on very rare occasions, like when the minister came to call or an invitation to a very few women was extended for tea.”

The Blayney farm flourished. Amross hired local men to help him on the farm, many of them related to the man he wrestled at Skins Lake in 1906, and together they raised cattle, oats, and barley. The Blayneys were the first settlers to bale and sell hay in the area, and their spring wheat won fourth prize at the Vancouver Winter Fair in December 1928. Amross even got into fox farming, and fed the animals fish caught by Burns Lake pioneer Dick Carroll.

Despite being well under six feet tall, Amross was immensely strong. Local legend has it that he once picked up a man who had driven one of his steers into a bog and threw him over his head.

While this was impressive, it was the fortitude of his oxen that earned him the most fame. The oxen were Amross’s secret weapon. If there was a heavy load to haul or rocky ground that needed breaking, “Blayney’s bulls” were the draught animals for the job. They could pull one hundred trees a day out of the bush, and graded the area’s roads with a massive wooden blade hewn from a single log shod with iron. The animals even played a role in water-borne transportation by dragging Wiggs O’Neill’s motor launch from Burns Lake to Francois Lake in 1915.

Amross and his oxen played such a key role in the area’s development that Tatalrose farmer Mike Tuohy wrote a poem about them:

Blayney’s bulls broke the trail to Francois Lake,

Blayney’s bulls hauled the harrows, plows, and rakes,

To fertile lands around the lakes.

Tuohy’s poem paints a somewhat idyllic picture of great beasts toiling in noble purpose, but the reality was likely somewhat different. The recollections of those who lived near the Blayney homestead suggest that Amross may have had some difficulty motivating his oxen.

“In the evening, if it was still or the wind was right, we would listen to Mr. Blayney at the end of the lake driving his oxen,” recalled Allen in the 1980s. “Boy, did I ever learn to swear.”

Jennie Blayney married a man named F. J. Burroughs and moved away, but Amross and Alma stayed on the family farm. Despite being in their seventies, they were still working the land in 1933, when Amross regularly placed advertisements for farm produce in the Observer, Burns Lake’s weekly newspaper.

Father Time finally caught up with the Blayneys in the mid-1930s. Amross, the Southside’s version of Paul Bunyan, died in February 1936 while visiting his daughter in Lillooet. After burying her husband, Alma moved to Vancouver, where she lived quietly for another decade before dying at the age of eighty-seven. She was buried in Mountain View Cemetery.

Jennie remarried in 1945 to a man named Wilfred Hogg and continued to live in Vancouver. She joined her parents in the great beyond in August 1982, and now lies in the same cemetery as her mother.

We don’t know what became of Blayney’s bulls. While the great beasts died long ago, it is possible some of their descendants are still grazing on the gently rolling fields of Grassy Plains.