Updated: Jul 19, 2019
Lot Willey had a lot of bad luck. And bad timing. He was a sort of anti-Forrest Gump, with an uncanny knack for arriving in a town just before disaster struck.
Born on Aug. 19, 1848 (or 1851 or 1855) at Ekfrid, Ont. to Lot W. Willey and Catherine McPherson, he farmed at Ekfrid and Dulwich in the 1870s and 1880s. He married Elizabeth Wells in 1879 at Williams East, Ont., but she died within weeks of the wedding of rheumatic fever — the first of Lot’s recorded misfortunes. Willey then married Agnes Auld on June 14, 1881 at Warwich, Ont.
Their daughter, Ann McIntyre, was born the following year at Glencoe, Ont. The family then moved to North Dakota where they homesteaded near Codington before coming to Spokane. Two sons were born: Lot Scott in Codington in 1885 and Auld somewhere in the US in 1892.
Lot reached Kaslo by 1893 and tried his luck at the Slocan Valley town of Watson, between Bear Lake and Fish Lake. The following summer, forest fire destroyed the entire town. Lot was the only one with the desire or fortitude to rebuild.
“Lott Willey and his amiable wife keep the hospitable hotel which is now Watson’s sole building,” the Slocan Prospector of March 16, 1895 reported.
We only know four more things about his activities over the next two years:
Lovatt Brothers, who owned a sawmill, successfully sued him, although over what is not clear.
He bought a half interest in a mining claim, the Florence, from C. Von Moerkerke, for $1.
He raised pigs, one of whom, Black Princess, rated her own entry in the 1896 Canadian National Record for Swine. I am not making this up.
He became sick enough that a doctor was sent to tend to him.
The next serious misfortune struck on May 13, 1897 when a fire began in a stovepipe through the hotel’s kitchen roof and destroyed the building. Some furniture was saved, although it was badly damaged.
“Willey and his wife were in Kaslo yesterday and returned home this morning, reaching there a few hours before the fire,” the Rossland Miner reported. “Much sympathy is felt for them as Willey is in ill health.”
The Nelson Tribune described the building as the “new” hotel at Bear Lake, but by then it had been around for at least a couple of years.
Willey gave up on Watson and moved to Kaslo while he cast about for another location to go into business. He settled on the then-thriving hamlet of Kuskonook on Kootenay Lake, building a two-storey hotel in partnership with John Morgan (Jack) Allen. A fire in March 1900 destroyed most of Kuskonook, presumably including Willey’s hotel.
Lot Willey had a hotel in Kuskonook, seen here around 1898. The town burned in March 1900. (Uno Langmann collection/UBC)
The 1901 census found the Willeys living in Kaslo. Lot was listed as a contractor. The following year, Jack Allen married Lot’s eldest daughter Annie in Nelson. He was 36, she was 20. They had three sons, Charles, Ted, and Tommy.
Lot and his son Lot Scott set out again to find greener pastures. They chose Frank, Alta. — just in time to witness the deadly Frank Slide in April 1903. They survived, but their livelihood, whatever it was, probably took a beating.
The family then moved to Athabasca, where they owned the first restaurant and boarding house. They also had a quarter-section of farm land and Lot and his sons cut and delivered telegraph poles and hauled freight between Athabasca and Edmonton.
One anecdote from around this time, recorded in Hugh Joffre Sims’ 1984 book Sims’ History of Elgin County, aptly demonstrates Lot and Agnes’ pioneer hardiness:
Lot Willey and his wife were an adventurous pair. On one occasion in their search for new and better land, they came to a river over which there was thick ice on both sides. Lot tied the wagon box, which was waterproof, to the axles of the wagon, handed the reins to his wife, and with a heavy staff began to break the ice. After a time he had to swim and break the ice. Then he swam ahead of the team and broke the ice on the opposite shore. After his wife brought the team ashore, he built a fire and dried out his clothing, then carried on as if nothing had happened.
The family maintained ties with Kaslo, though, by virtue of the fact that Annie Willey Allen continued to live there with her husband and children. And it was there that Agnes died in 1910, age 55, although I am not sure of the cause. She was buried in the Kaslo cemetery, where a fine marker was erected (seen here), although it has badly deteriorated over time.
The following year, son Lot Scott married schoolteacher Jettie Day. They had daughters Mary, Beryl, and Anne. The family was now complete, lock, stock, and barrel (or rather, Lot Scott and Beryl).
Lot and Agnes’ youngest son Auld was killed in a car accident in 1917, age 25 or 26. But at last, Lot’s bad luck seems to have run out. The Edmonton Journal of Aug. 14, 1919 described the rewards he was at last reaping from his industriousness:
To the south of Athabasca there are old established farmers, some of whom are carrying operations on a large scale. Lot Willey has been 17 years in that location and now farms a whole section. He is an old railway contractor, and in the early stages kept up his farming along with his railway work. He has 300 acres in crop and during the present season has broken and cleared 40 acres and cleared 40 acres more. He has 65 head of cattle, a delight to look at.
His 17 years’ experience has let him in no doubt as to the possibilities of the Athabasca country. He declares that last year with the early freak frost was by all means the poorest in all the time he has spent on his farm and that even then he was able to thresh two or three thousands bushels of good grain.
Lot Willey died on Feb. 25, 1927, age 71, 76, or 78, and was buried in the Athabasca Cemetery.
In 1955, Lot Scott Willey was recognized as having lived the longest time in the Athabasca district. He wrote a brief but valuable memoir that was published in the Athabasca Echo in 1959 and much later printed as a booklet by his family (the cover is seen here).
Unfortunately, the memoir only begins with the family’s arrival in Athabasca in 1903. Along with some photographs of early Athabasca, it forms the Willey fonds held by the Athabasca Archives. Lot Scott died in 1960. His sister Annie Willey Allen died in 1954 and is buried in Kaslo, along with her husband and two of their three sons.
UPDATE, July 19, 2019: I am thrilled to report that Rossland’s Shelley Ackerman has turned this post into a song, which she recently performed at Finley’s pub in Nelson! You can watch it below.
Here are the lyrics so you can sing along:
Young Lot Willey was a hard-working man
He had a strong ambition and he had himself a plan
Farmed some land out east with his woman by his side
But he barely got a crop in when his sweetheart up and died
Ohhhhh Lot Willey....
Your smiles are few and your tears are many
Ohhhhh Lot Willey...
If it weren’t for bad luck, you wouldn’t have any
So he found a new wife and they headed out west
To the Silvery Slocan, and he decided to invest
in a thriving little inn in a tiny mining town
but they Hadn’t been there long, when the whole damn place burnt down
Then he thought he’d try his fortune on the shores of Kootenay Lake
He was a pillar of the village, but couldn’t catch a break
Built a fine hotel, where his friends could drink and chat
then a fire roared through town and leveled Kuskanook flat
Well, they didn’t look back, and the search for greener grass
Took the Willeys to the town of Frank, in the Crowsnest Pass
Maybe his poor luck caused it, but his family did survive
when the Mountainside came down and buried half the town alive
He endured a lot of pain and an awful lot of sorrow
And he bust his back until the day was done
’Cause he’s the kind of guy who always worked for tomorrow
and he wouldn’t stop trying till he won
North to Athabasca for the peace that they all yearned
That’s where Willey found his lot in life, his luck had finally turned
Six hundred 40 acres of good land, the Willeys farmed
And it was such a damned relief to find his life was finally charmed
Ohhhhh Lot Willey....
Now your tears are few and your smiles are many
Ohhhhh Lot Willey...
You were short on luck but now you’ve got plenty
Old Lot Willey was a hard workin’ man