The small community of Rolla is preparing to celebrate a major milestone – it was founded a century ago, and its history is intrinsically linked to the story of the whole Peace River area.
It was in 1912 that Lea Miller, his wife and their seven children settled there after about a decade of travel from where he was originally from – Rolla, Missouri. The family braved many hardships following the Edson Trail with the promise of free land and better farming, and soon other families followed.
John Miller, a descendent of that first-family of Rolla, said it astonishes him to think about what his grandfather’s family had to go through to reach their final destination. He said with no roads leading up to the area at that time, the ground was too soft to travel on with heavy loads during the summer, so the journey had to made during the winter when the ground and watercourses were frozen. He said his grandfather lost two of his daughters along the way. Still, he said he understands what compelled them to leave their home and travel hundreds of miles to try to make a new start.
“I was down to Rolla, Missouri one time, where my dad came from and I’m kind of happy he moved up!” said Miller. “I don’t want to tell my American relatives, but this does beat it, at least for farming.”
As more families began to settle there, the community began to grow. He said there were plans to build a railway connecting Rolla to Spirit River, Alta, in the early part of the 20th Century, but those plans never materialized.
“This was going to be the town at the end of the steel, but the first World War came along and they had to use the steel to make ammunition and stuff, so they shut it down,” he said. “There was more people up here than there was in Grande Prairie at the time. My folks came through Grande Prairie, and all that was there was a barn and a land office.”
By the 1920s, Rolla boasted a post office and telegraph office, hotels, restaurants, banks and several other businesses, and eventually even the printing office for the Peace River Block News. Miller said he recalls the movie theatre was quite the site to see as a young boy.
“They powered it with the car that brought the stuff up. They drove a trailer behind them and then when they got there they drove the car up onto the trailer and they used the one back wheel to spin the reel!”
The area was eventually connected by railroad in 1930, but it went to the smaller community of Dawson Creek instead, which forever altered the future of Rolla. Businesses started to move to Dawson Creek, and the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942 solidified the Mile 0 City as the hub of the B.C. South Peace.
“I can remember coming home one night and I looked south and there was nothing but army trucks for two miles, there must have been a hundred of them!” said Miller. “I think they were testing them out before they went north to build the highway.”
Rolla still persevered as a farming community – he said he remembers farmers used the proposed railway right-of-way and built bridges so they could get to Spirit River with teams of horses hauling grain. He said he did not appreciate it then, but now he relishes the fact that his hometown has remained the picturesque farming community it always has been.
“You watch a town go down, and as a kid, it bothered me, but now it doesn’t because you look out there and the farmland isn’t cut up by railways, they are nice, square fields sitting in a nice spot, really.”
The 82-year-old is now retired, but as a farmer in Rolla for nearly 40 years, he said he has no doubt the area has some of the best soils for growing in the Peace Region, if not the whole province.
“My dad was quite the gardener, and he used to grow plums – small ones, though, they weren’t very big – and crab apples,” he said.
He added while the climate is not exactly ideal, he never once experienced a crop failure in all his years of farming.
The area still produces an abundance of grains and oilseeds, though Rolla has not been immune to the consolidation experienced in the industry that has seen small, family farms replaced by larger, commercial operations.
“There was a lot more farmers – there was pretty near a farm on every quarter section, but now there are only maybe four farmers around here farming the whole bloody works,” said Miller. “How are you going to grain farm without big machinery, and to have big machinery you have to have lots of volume to pay for it.”
Rolla is no stranger to the development of the petroleum industry in the region either – oil has been drilled for in the area since the 1920s. The recent boom in unconventional natural gas has resulted in wellsites and processing facilities dotting the landscape on and next to farms, and the industry has brought business opportunities to some local residents and concerns about safety for others. Miller said he, at least, is not upset Rolla is not experiencing some of the growing pains Dawson Creek struggles with as a result of that industry boom.
A comfortable place for artists
Rolla has also grown into a popular spot for artists of all mediums to come and showcase their work. The annual Sweetwater 905 Arts Festival has evolved into one of the premiere summer attractions in the region, welcoming local artists as well as some of the most talented from abroad. The festival started about eight years ago and has been hosted at the farm of Emilie and Larry Mattson for the past several years.
Emilie, who is a painter and mixed-media artist herself, said art is a reflection of culture, and there was always talented people in and around Rolla with something to say, but Sweetwater has just given them a welcoming and comfortable place in which to do so.
“It’s like a dialect – everybody has a little different way of saying something – but it makes them braver to do it when they have a place to do it in where it’s accepted,” she said.
She said Rolla has always been a welcoming and open-minded community since she moved there more than 40 years ago, and the arts festival has given them an opportunity to connect with like-minded people.
“We’re meeting really interesting people from all over the place who are very accomplished,” she said.
Julian Pinder is a filmmaker from Toronto who has been documenting the impacts of the natural gas boom in the region over the past couple of years, and he said he was drawn to the warmth and creativity of the Mattson’s and the Rolla community.
“There’s a magnetism here,” he said. “Artists are all wanderers, and there’s a magnetism here where you can come and feel comfortable and be creative. I was just making a film and trying to find a story, and what I’ve found is an energy that I’ve kind of become a part of.”
“People in the region should realize there is something interesting going on here, it’s not just a bunch of weirdos getting together, there are actually world-class artists who are coming up here because of what has been created, and they are doing some incredible work because of it,” he added. “It’s not just happenstance, it was something created and something that should be supported. This a time and a period where the arts community is very vacuous in a lot of ways because it is becoming more commercial, so to come back to something like this gives us those pastoral roots from which creativity is born.”
Pinder said the arts create a legacy that will outlast any kind of development or industry.
While many artists have been attracted to the sense of community that has been created in Rolla, others have taken those values with them as they have travelled abroad. Acclaimed folk singer/songwriter/guitarist Roy Forbes is an artist who has made his mark in other parts of the country, but has a special place in his heart for the community he calls his spiritual home.
“Rolla taught me about community and the closeness that people can have in both times of good and times of adversity, I learned that in Rolla,” he said. “I’m now part of a big, national community of musicians and artists and that all goes for all of us too, and those roots for me come back to Rolla.”
He said that acceptance and encouragement in his early years were just as important as the adversity and challenges he faced as a young artist, as all of it gave him the determination and work ethic to pursue his passion for music as a career.
Forbes left the region to pursue that career in Vancouver when he was just 18 years old, but he said where he grew up has always been an influence on his songwriting.
“Like any small-town kid – especially of that generation before the Internet and all of that – I couldn’t wait to leave,” he said. “It was only about a year after I left that I realized what a rich culture that I had sprung from, and a lot of my early songs, especially the first three or four albums, deal with the Peace Country. It’s like that saying, ‘You don’t know what you got ’till it’s gone,’ and when that hit me. It hit me in a really good way and helped fuel a lot of my writing in those days.”
Forbes has deep roots in the community – his family was one of the first to settle in Rolla in 1920 – and he said it is very special to be returning there to perform this Sunday as part of the centennial celebrations.
Rolla – an international tourist attraction
Rolla has become a point of interest for visitors from abroad, in no small part due to the popularity of the Rolla Pub. Today, the pub is much more than just a drinking establishment – it has become a museum of sorts filled with photos, newspaper clippings and other artifacts that tell the story of Rolla and the Peace Region.
“I just wanted to collect the history – which has taken about 15 years – and let young people know that they have an identity, they have roots here,” said Patti Martin, who has managed the pub for the last 26 years (the pub has been in her family for 46 years).
She said while the business used to be a lot busier with local patrons, she now sees a lot of tourists coming in from all over the world. She said just last week, for example, she hosted patrons from Sweden, Denmark and New Zealand.
“People find it on the Internet and come and ask if they can play music or just visit,” said Martin.
The pub has hosted a variety of musicians and artists from abroad over the years, and she said her intent was to create a place where they could feel comfortable and inspired.
“I have had lots of people from Vancouver Island, Toronto or California, and they’ve said they’ve never been as comfortable as they have been here, because it activates creativity. If you’re a creative person, it just sparks a million ideas, and then they go off and create and that’s what I want.”
She added the local audiences are very supportive of those artists and she believes that is why it has gained such popularity amongst musicians in particular.
Martin said there is an ingrained sense of community in Rolla that makes it a special place to live, and she is very pleased to be able to help preserve its 100-year history.
Janet Loiselle, John Miller’s daughter, has taken the lead on organizing “Rolla Remembers,” the 100th anniversary celebrations. The ceremonies have already begun with a wagon team led by Laurie Myatt that left Spirit River on Monday and is expected to arrive in Rolla on Thursday afternoon, emulating the trip that so many local farmers had to make to sell their grain.
The main celebration events get underway this Saturday starting at 8 a.m. at the community hall, where there will be a full day of live entertainment, games and activities, wagon rides, and great food. There will also be an art Exhibit at Rolla Traditional School courtesy of the Dawson Creek Art Gallery.
The South Peace United Church in Dawson Creek will hold a special service on Sunday morning at 11 at the site of the old church in Rolla to recognize the site of the first United Church in the South Peace, and its importance to the community as a place for social gatherings, meetings, and charitable works throughout the region.
Forbes will then perform at 7p.m. on Sunday at the Rolla Hall.
More information on the events, and the history of Rolla, can be found online at www.rollaremembers100.ca.