9. Back to Graham River Farm
I loved Christian community. Soon after my return one of the ladies, Janet Booth, told me with a smile, "I knew you would be back." I loved the shared meals in the Tabernacle with all the hubbub of people visiting with one another. I loved the services, upon which was an anointing of the Holy Spirit I had not known before, or since I have left community. There was an earnestness and devotion in worship and in the word that these people had that most once-a-week Christians never know. I loved the simple hearty meals cooked on wood cook stoves. I loved working with the men on all the types of tasks I had read about in Farmer Boy when I was younger. And I loved seeing others whom I knew and loved benefit personally from the work of my hands.
9. Back to Graham River Farm
Jim Buerge knew a family from Salem who were moving to a small community near Edmonton, Alberta that was associated with Graham River Farm. He suggested that I ask about traveling up with them. Once in Edmonton, I might be able to get a ride up to Fort St. John. This family, the Widmer’s, agreed that I could ride with them.
We crossed the border at the crossing in northern Idaho. There my experience was exactly opposite the first time. A kindly gentleman gave me a three-months visa to Canada with no problems. I would be able to get an extension through the immigration official in Dawson Creek, the town at the beginning of the Alaska Highway. We drove on to the town of St. Albert just north of Edmonton. Just beyond the outskirts of the city there was a small farm purchased by Christians who had established a small community there. Besides the main house there was a bunkhouse where I stayed with two other fellows, Patrick Downs and Rustin Myers. Patrick had just emigrated up from Houston, Texas and was working in Edmonton for a season before going on to a newly started community called Hilltop, also north of Fort St. John. I enjoyed a couple of days with them.
Then a couple of gentlemen came down from another Christian community called Shiloh that was not far from Graham River by a straight line, although by road it would be 80 miles. Their names were Don Deardorff and Fred Vanderhoof. They had come down to Edmonton in a truck to pick up a load of windows. They agreed to take me with them on their return trip. I found them to be hilarious. Don was short and skinny and Fred was tall and skinny. They told jokes and laughed all the way back to Fort St. John. Don Deardorff’s laugh is quite infectious. Years later, at the Blueberry community, his table often erupted into gails of laughter during the meal, enough to cause heads to turn to see what was so funny. His children laugh the same way.
It was a pleasant trip for me from Edmonton to Fort St. John. It was June and full summer now. The whole Peace River country was considerably different then when I had seen it two months earlier. The north has four seasons, white, mud, green, and mud, and then white again. The white lasts the longest, 6 months, the green lasts only three months. The mud season is between them on both ends. Now it was green and breathtakingly beautiful.
Upon our arrival in Fort St. John, Don and Fred dropped me off at the home of a family, the Burnham’s, who was associated with the communities and who made their house available to anyone coming into town from the farms needing a place to stay. I did not realize it at the time, but as I entered Fort St. John, that June of 1977, the Lord was turning my life into a different phase of experience with Him. It was a time of judgment. I was a mess inside and completely closed up, though I did not know it. Somehow God had to pry my shell apart so that He could eventually heal and restore. I was entering a furnace, a glorious furnace of affliction.
I spent two days at the Burnham’s until the town trip from Graham River came to town. It was a van full of folks come to do their shopping. Many often came into town only once a month, though there was a town trip once a week. I had to wait all day until they were ready to return. It was late by the time we left Fort St. John, with a two-hour trip ahead of us. We were just a few miles from the turnoff to the Graham River when our tire blew. The driver, Todd Booth, did not have all that he needed to fix it, so he had to walk the few miles to get help. It was around three in the morning before we finally made it across the river and onto Graham River Farm. The delay must have been the Lord because right around the time we would have arrived, a bear was prowling around right at the Tabernacle. He tried to get into the cheese house, leaving marks on the window with his face. Then he meandered over to the butcher shop nearby, trying to get in there. He succeeded at that, only not the way he intended. One of the brothers shot him next day; they turned him into food for the table.
So I had returned to Graham River. I do not remember where I slept that first night, but for the first couple of weeks I stayed in a cabin by myself. I grew pretty lonely; I was not a socializer. I did not easily start relationships with people, and I was pretty much left alone by the people there as far as visiting was concerned. This was not an intentional oversight of the community; it’s just the way it was. The communities have improved much in this regard. Of course I was with people all the time at meals and on the work details.
Graham River is beautiful any time of year. The fields stretching back from the cabins were sprouting green with new grain. The trees were in full leaf. The gardens were beginning to grow. I fitted into the work schedule in the same way I had done before, though there were different sets of tasks. The firewood season was over for a few months. The children were out of school, so they and their teachers were also on the work schedule now. There is a lot of activity on such a large community farm. One of my tasks was to work on the sawmill crew. The sawmill was a little distance from the rest of the community, at the far end of their landing strip. Warren Bowles, a young man my same age, was the saw operator. I helped roll the logs onto the carriage and helped take the fresh new lumber off on the other side. I loved watching the new boards being shaped by the saw.
After about two weeks, one of the women elders of the community, Ethelwyn Davison, approached me to say she would like to see me at her cabin that afternoon. Delighted at the chance to visit with someone, I went with anticipation.
“Daniel,” she said as we sat in her small living room overlooking the gardens, “my husband, Dural, and I have been praying about having you come live with us. We asked for visions, before we said anything to you. They were positive, so we want to know if you would like to live with us.”
“Yes, I would!” I answered.
“Good, bring your things over tomorrow.”
So I was introduced to the practice in the communities of seeking for visions to confirm what someone feels God is speaking to them. I have obtained many sets of visions for directions I had from the Lord during my years in that fellowship. Almost every time, they were clearly for my situation and provided much comfort and assurance that the Lord was indeed working in my life.
Just then a young lady came into the Davison cabin wanting to talk to Sister Ethelwyn. She asked me if I wouldn’t mind leaving so they could talk privately. Unbeknownst to Sister Ethelwyn, this was a crushing blow to me. I was so lonely and had so wanted to visit. I went back to my cabin and wept. But the next day I moved in with the Davison’s.
The Davison’s had doubled the size of their cabin with an addition, making it around 25 feet by 35 feet. I had my own room in the middle of the back wall. On one side of my room was a room shared by Mallory and David Smith, Ethelwyn’s two sons. Between their room and the living room was a room occupied by Meri Smith, Ethelwyn’s daughter. Mallory was just a year or so younger than me, Meri, a couple of years younger than him, and David was probably around 10 or 11. Dural and Ethelwyn shared a room on the opposite corner of the cabin. The living room and their bedroom were in the new addition. Dural was away for a couple of months on a ministry trip. He was a traveling ministry, going from group to group and community to community around North America, ministering to the various fellowships.
Dural and Ethelwyn were as opposite as could be and yet they shared the same heart. Brother D was slow and methodical. Though he had good things to say, I fell asleep under his preaching many times. His gift was in prayer, and he had one of the closest faith-filled relationships with the Lord of anyone I have ever known. Sister Ethelwyn, on the other hand, was dynamic and creative. She was a trained musician and a music and drama teacher and to her final day young people were out of breath to keep up with her creativity. I would live in their home for the first six months of my community experience.
I loved Christian community. Soon after my return one of the ladies, Janet Booth, told me with a smile, “I knew you would be back.” I loved the shared meals in the Tabernacle with all the hubbub of people visiting with one another. I loved the services, upon which was an anointing of the Holy Spirit I had not known before, or since I have left community. There was an earnestness and devotion in worship and in the word that these people had that most once-a-week Christians never know. At the age of twenty, I loved the “primitive” conditions. It was like camping out all the time. Our water came fresh from the spring in buckets. We had outhouses, each shared by two or three cabins. All the daily activities were involved with obtaining the basic necessities of life – food, warmth and shelter. Everything was real; there were none of the “cover-ups” produced by civilization to hide people from reality. I loved the simple hearty meals cooked on wood cook stoves. I loved working with the men on all the types of tasks I had read about in Farmer Boy when I was younger. And I loved seeing others whom I knew and loved benefit personally from the work of my hands. I valued that reward far greater than any pay check.
July was hay month. The men who took care of the horses hooked them on to the hay wagons and we rode out to the fields. These horses were large, powerful Belgians, hooked two to a wagon. The hay was layed out in neat rows across the fields. It had been cut and winnowed by horse-drawn machinery. A contraption pulled along behind the wagon picked up the hay and brought it up over the end wall of the wagon. My job was to pitchfork the hay forward to the front of the wagon as it came up. The field was filled with crews of men and horses working together. When the wagon was piled high we rode back to the barns, lying on our backs on top of the pile seeing only the sky, rocking to the slow plod of the horses. It was a wonderful break before the hard work in the haymows.
There were two big barns, the cow barn and the horse barn. They had large high haymows above them. The wagon pulled up in front of the barn and we climbed up to the haymow. Beyond the wagon was an ox tied to a rope. Rohn Ritchie, around 15 at the time, was the ox man. A large tong was suspended from a pulley riding on a track running the length of the haymow ceiling and attached to the rope on the other end from the ox. The great tong dug into the pile of hay on the wagon, and then Rohn urged the ox in the opposite direction, swinging the tong filled with hay up and back into the interior of the mow. At a certain point it released and dropped its load onto the growing pile of hay. There, a crew of men, myself included, forked the hay back up into the corners, keeping the pile growing. We went back and forth from fields to barns until both mows were brim full of fresh, sweet hay.
I had milked a cow for about a year when I was younger, so I joined on with the milking crew. We arose before breakfast, got the milking equipment and went out to the barn. Each of us took a cow, sat on a low wooden stool, buried our foreheads in the cow’s flank, and milked a pail full of warm milk. The milking crew included Mallory, his friend, Doug Witmer, two younger fellows, Danny Reesor and Bobby Cole, a young elder named Paul Petrocinni, and myself. We each milked one cow except Doug and Mallory who were faster and milked two. We carried the milk up to the Tabernacle in a cart, usually Doug and myself, and ran it through a hand-cranked cream separator. The other fellows cleaned the barn and drove the cows to pasture for the day. While we were separating the cream from the milk, the girls from the goat barn came in with several buckets of goat milk, which we ran through the separator as well. The goat milk was separate from the cow milk, but the cream was mixed together. We finished just in time to clean up for breakfast. I was ready to eat!
The food was simple but good. There were many great cooks at Graham River, and indeed in every community where I have lived. Our diet consisted mostly of root vegetables and grain. We ate lots of potatoes as well as carrots and beets. We had potatoes fixed in every possible way. Each morning for breakfast, we ate cracked grain, and we had good homemade bread at every meal. Dinner, the big meal of the day, was our noon-meal, and supper was usually soup – leftovers plus water. We had a small amount of meat, four times a week. It takes a lot of meat to supply 150 people each with a portion. Most of our meat was moose and bear gotten in fall by hunting. Graham River did not raise beef cattle at that time. We also had pork, the occasional sheep, and rabbit once a month. Occasionally, we would even have horse, which is decent meat in spite of the thought, similar to moose. There was homemade cheese as well and peas, cabbage, and broccoli from the gardens. The greenhouses turned out tomatoes during the summer.
Sometimes I rode with Rohn Ritchie out to the sawmill to get a load of lumber for a building project. Those were always great days. It took half a day for the ox to lumber slowly out to the sawmill, for us to load up the wagon with rough-cut boards, and then for the ox to plod slowly back to the community. Only on the last stretch of the day, when it sensed that it was headed for the barn, did the ox pick up any speed, and even that was just a mild walk for us. We made two trips on such days, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
It was soon discovered that I was a builder. Builders are in high demand on community farms. I worked with Steve Herman, a woodworker from Pennsylvania. He was preparing to build a carpenter shop right next to the welding and mechanics shop, on the corner where the road came up from the river. He enlisted my help. I enjoyed working with Steve; we had good conversation together. I had only framed before, but now I began a journey of learning by doing into every aspect of the construction trade. We built the carpenter shop through the summer. It was 40 foot square. The farm had some tools to put in it, a radial arm saw and a table saw as well as Steve’s Shopsmith. The stove was right in the center. It became a great place in which to work as well as a gathering place for the men around the stove.
One morning as I was laying out the rafters on top of the wall, Ray Clark, the elder in charge of the work schedule came up to us. “We need all the men in the potato field to pull the weeds,” he said. Steve was a bit perturbed at losing my help at this point of the construction. “You don’t understand,” he said, “we’ve got a carpenter here who can really help us with the building.”
“Nope,” said Brother Ray, “The potatoes are our food. We need every man weeding.”
So that day I went to the potato field to pull out the lambsquarters from between the fast-growing rows of potatoes. It was actually an enjoyable experience. There were 30 to 40 men and boys on their hands and knees moving through the rows of potatoes, pulling out the thickly growing lambsquarters. Of course, the lambsquarters contain more nutrition than any plant in the garden, but they aren’t the best tasting, so away they go. The sun was warm; the day was pleasant. The men laughed and talked together through the day. We weeded ten acres of potatoes in short order.
I ate my meals in the common dining room and worked with the men during the day, but in the evenings and on Sundays, I spent my time in my own room, steadfast at the most important task before me in those months. I spent hours searching the word, crying out to the Lord to show me if the strange things I was hearing were really true. My first question was concerning righteousness. Does God really expect us to walk in righteousness ourselves? I went through the New Testament from beginning to end and wrote out every verse that had to do with walking in the truth. I became astounded as I filled out page after page, copying nearly a third of the entire New Testament. By the time I was finished, I could only affirm that the New Testament did agree with the Apostle John who said, “Do not be deceived, my little children. He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous.”
The community had a tape evening once a week in which we gathered in the tabernacle to listen to a message on tape. One such evening, we listened to a tape by Sam Fife on what he called “the mystery of a man and a maid.” I did not understand it much, but I thought it was the biggest bunch of baloney I had ever heard. This concept had two parts, one that the process of human reproduction was a picture created by God to show His plan for bringing forth His life in us. The other part of the concept is that Jesus plants His seed in the womb of His bride through the preaching of the ministry to the church.
I was so flabbergasted by this teaching that I spent the next two weeks pouring over the word trying to refute it. Then, one day, my eyes opened wide, and I saw that the process of human reproduction is indeed used in the Bible as a picture of God birthing His life in us. Suddenly, I saw this truth from Genesis to Revelation; it was as if the whole Bible were built upon it. And indeed it is. I am convinced that without understanding the pattern of the reproduction of life, it is impossible to understand the Bible, since the whole purpose of God is built on that pattern and so many references are made to it that have no meaning without understanding the pattern. And it is true that the Lord Jesus has established a five-fold ministry in His church for the “equipping” of the saints.
Later in the summer, Dural Davison returned from his ministry trip. The farm had a long airstrip with one end between the camp and the barns. Dural, or Brother D, flew a small plane and used it to travel from place to place. One day he invited me to go with him to another community in the area, Headwaters, where he was going to minister. I eagerly went along. We climbed into his four-seater plane and headed down the airstrip. The moment the plane lifted off the ground, I was in love with flying. By plane it was only a few minutes to Headwaters. The airstrip there was several miles from the farm; we had to buzz the farm so they would come pick us up.
Although Headwaters was a community farm like Graham, it was different in many ways. It had just gone through a major split during which a number of families had moved away, but it still had more people than Graham River. Headwaters did not have a river to keep the vehicles out, so they were everywhere in the camp, turning everything into mud. I instantly appreciated the Graham River with no bridge. At least Graham was not muddy. Graham was also the only farm in the area that had a sandy soil. Everywhere else was clay, which meant that you could sink several inches into the mud with each step you took going back and forth to the Tabernacle for meals. At Graham, the cabins were all in neat rows, close to one another. At Headwaters, the closest cabin to the Tabernacle was as far as the furthest from Graham. There was a mile between the furthest cabin on one side and the furthest on the other side. In fact, the cow barn was closer to the Tabernacle than any but the one cabin. That cabin belonged to Danny Robertson and his family, and it was there we spent the night.
I shared a room with the Robertson’s boy. Headwaters had a number of young people who did not like the farm and who were not seeking the Lord. The Robertson boy gave me an earful of complaint and intrigue, though it meant little to me. I was interested only in what the Lord was doing in my life.
There were several community farms in the Peace River region. Graham River, Shiloh, and Headwaters were all to the west of the Alaska Highway and north of Fort St. John, in the foothills of the Rockies. Blueberry, Evergreen, and Hilltop were to the east of the Alaska Highway and a little closer to Fort St. John. Finally, Peace River Farm was only a few miles west of Fort St. John in the canyon of the Peace river, and Hidden Valley was southwest of Dawson Creek, the furthest from the others. Peace River farm had just been bought out by the government in preparation for a dam that was never built. Some of the people from that community went on to other communities and some called it quits.
Most of the people in the communities had emigrated from the states specifically to establish these communities on the edge of the wilderness, a number also coming from eastern Canada. Graham River was the first to begin, in the early summer of 1972, with Headwaters and Shiloh starting later that summer. Hidden Valley had also begun in southern BC in early 1972, but had moved a couple of years later up into the Peace River Region. The others were established from 1973 to 1975, Hilltop being the “new” farm in the area. When I came to live at Graham River, Graham was five years old. I also began to learn of similar community farms in Alaska, across the States, in Latin America, and around the world.
Why community? For three basic reasons. The vision for the communities, and particularly the communities in the wilderness areas came from Brother Sam Fife, a former Baptist preacher from southern Florida. His vision was to see God’s people living together and sharing life together. There is clearly the pattern for such community in the New Testament, a pattern that has been practiced by many moves of the Spirit down through the centuries.
Establishing communities in wilderness places was unique to Brother Sam. Sam Fife believed in the early seventies that there were only a few more years left before a one-world government would be established and liberty would be no more. There were certainly many signs that seemed to agree with that. Brother Sam taught that God’s people needed to establish community farms on the edge of the wilderness where they could support themselves and survive during a time when many Christians would perish.
The third thing that he taught was that during this time of difficulty that was coming, many Christians would be fleeing, looking for a place of refuge. It was Brother Sam’s belief that God would use these communities in the wilderness to prepare a place of refuge for His people. That vision, “to nourish her there,” gripped my heart from the beginning and remains to this day.
The urgency of Sam Fife’s message persuaded around a thousand people to move into community in the Peace River area, as well as a similar number in the States, including Alaska, and a similar number in several Latin American countries, mostly Columbia. In 1972, Brother Sam predicted that we had only about five years left. It was at the end of those five years that I came to Graham River. With hindsight, thirty years later, we can look back and say, “Boy, he sure got the timing wrong.” Yet, I believe that a large part of the urgency was from the Lord, regardless of the timetables of history.
At the same time, looking at the world today, there is more reason to be pessimistic now about how many years of liberty we have left than it was even then. Yes, many people moved to the communities in the wilderness out of a “herd” instinct, compelled by an external concern. At the same time, many sold all that they had, gave it away, and came to the communities out of obedience to a direct word from God to them personally. And God is always working all things together for good for those who love Him.
For me, for my life, God’s timing was right on time.