SMITH, Jessie Ann

Author Tags: Agriculture, Women

Born in Gartly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland on July 17, 1853, she was strictly raised as a Presbyterian by her father, William Smith, a schoolmaster. At 18 she began to teach at the Gartly school with her father. Four days after her marriage to childhood friend John Smith, she and her husband left Liverpool on February 5, 1884 with James Teit and sailed to New York. The couple reached Spence's Bridge, B.C. by taking a work train up the Fraser Canyon. Her training in music, banking and teaching did little to prepare for her pioneering life as the wife of an orchardist. The young couple left "The Bridge" to endure a difficult time homesteading in a valley south of Merritt, returning to repurchase their former orchard in 1897. After her husband died in 1906, unable to fully recover from a minining accident at Granite Creek, Jessie Ann Smith persevered with a successful orchard operation with the help of her children. They were able to grow a remarkable variety of apples. In particular, their Grimes Golden apples won many awards in agricultural shows in North America and England. King Edward VII once sought the apples of the "Widow Smith of Spence's Bridge" when they were available at a London Horticultural Show in 1909. Assisted by three granddaughters, Jessie Ann Smith wrote her memoirs in the 1930s, continuing to do so into her 90s. She died on February 7, 1946. Her memoirs were edited and published by Murphy Shewchuk.


Widow Smith of Spences Bridge (Merritt: Sonotek, 1989), as told to J. Meryl Campbell and Audrey Ward.

[BCBW 2003] "Women" "Agriculture"

Widow Smith of Spence's Bridge

SOME PIONEERING STORIES, LIKE GOOD wine, get more valuable with age. Passed through three generations, Widow Smith of Spence's Bridge (Sonotek $9.95) qualifies as vintage British Columbia. It's the modest autobiography of a little Scottish Presbyterian schoolteacher named Jessie Ann Smith who, at age 30, married her childhood sweetheart, an orchardist named John Smith, and set off for Spence's Bridge in 1884, leaving behind servants but maintaining Victorian ideals. The Smiths were joined for their honeymoon trip to the New World by a 17-year-old from the Shetland Isles named James Teit. James Teit would also settle in Spence's Bridge under the eye of his uncle John Murray, owner of the local store, hotel and stables. Teit quickly distinguished himself as one of North America's most important anthropologists, gaining firsthand knowledge of Native culture by both marriage and inclination.
The Scottish threesome travelled across the Atlantic by steamer, across the United States by rail, rode the CPR work train to Cisco, crossed the Fraser River on a cable bucket and completed their trip on a horse-drawn wagon.
"For the first little while at Spence's Bridge," Jessie Smith recalled, "I was often lonely for the company of my own sex." Trained in music and banking; fearful of Indians; unaccustomed to rattlesnakes, cougars and bears; unwilling to milk cows; she persevered and slowly prospered.'-5'. Renowned stage coach driver Steve Tingley used to stop his stage on the way to the Cariboo to allow his passengers to enjoy the flowers in Jessie Smith's garden. Smith watched the building of the railway past her house, the famous CPR line through the Fraser Canyon that quickly relegated Spence's Bridge to a whistlestop.
Trouble brewed when John Murray, her husband's employer, became overtly fond of Jessie, mother to the first white child born in Spence's Bridge. John Smith left "the Bridge" to homestead with his two brothers in Voght Valley, 20 miles south of Merritt, until Murray died and John Smith was able to purchase the estate of his former employer in 1897.

'We had brought with us some cuttings from Grimes Golden apples trees in my father's own garden in Scotland," wrote Jessie Smith, "John grafted these cuttings onto other stock and they grew very well." Following her husband's death in 1905, she supervised the operation of their Spence's Bridge orchards, except for a five-year hiatus during the Depression, until her own death in 1946. The inscription on their gravestones reads, "Safe in the arms of Jesus."
The many species of apples grown by the Smiths included the Twenty Ounce Pippin, the Totosky, Yellow Transparent, Red Wax, Red Astrakhan, Gravenstein, Winesap, Northern Spry, Baldwin, Maiden's Blush, Snow, Golden Russet, Ben Davis, WolfRiver, Autumn Strawberry, Winter Banana, Red Cheek Pippin, Blenheim Orange, Cox's Orange, Pippin, King O'Tomkins, Salome, Pewankee, Ribstone Pippin, Mann, Paragon, Rhode Island Greening, Newton Pippin, Mann, Spitzenberg, Jonathan, Tydeman Red, Baxter, Duchess, Wagner, Wealthy and Black Twig. Smiths' apples won many international competitions and attracted the special approval of King Edward VII in 1909 when the King specifically requested the apples of 'Widow Smith of Spence's Bridge, B.C." With the aid of three granddaughters, Smith commenced recording her story in the mid-1930's. "Today I am celebrating my 92nd birthday," she wrote, "I have lived a long time and have seen good times and bad. They tell me that the first hundred years are the worst. I will soon be able to judge the truth of that statement."

[BCBW Winter 1989] “Pioneers”