The world was a very different place when Vera Duval was born. For one thing, ‘Slave Lake’ wouldn’t exist for another three or four years, and wouldn’t move to its current site for another 18 years.
“I was born on November 15, 1917 in Sawridge,” says Vera (now McConaghy). “My father managed the hotel there.”
Vera now lives near Smith, about 30 miles downriver from where she was born. A lot of water has flowed between the two places since then, to say the least. She’ll be celebrating the century milestone with family and friends on Saturday, Nov. 11 at the new community hall in Smith. She’s hoping for a good turnout.
“It’s open for anybody!” she says.
Chances are the crowd will be fairly large. Her descendants alone number 96, including 46 great-grandchildren and 14 great-great-grandchildren. To say nothing of cousins, nephews, nieces, etc.
“I still can’t believe I’m a hundred,” says Vera. “I don’t feel like I should be that old.”
She certainly isn’t acting that old. Still living on her own in the house across the river and up the hill from Smith, Vera says, “I’m not going anywhere.” She benefits from regular visits by a helper from the Gentle Ben Care Society (she’s a founding member), plus daughter Noni Graling drops by pretty much every day to see how she’s doing and to help out.
“She’s legally blind,” says Noni. “But she’ll notice a spot on the rug across the room.”
She’s also been advised to use a cane or a walker in getting around the house, but usually doesn’t.
“I leave them behind and then I can’t find them!” she says.
Thanks to the eyesight degeneration, hobbies she used to enjoy aren’t possible. But her lifelong love of reading is able to continue, thanks to audio books.
“I get them from the library,” she says.
As mentioned above, Vera was born in what’s now called ‘Old Town’ Slave Lake. The Duval family had moved there not long before, from Athabasca. William and Hulda Duval were immigrants from Minnesota and had settled in the Parkhurst district northeast of Athabasca in about 1911. The family moved to Sawridge in 1916, in a wagon pulled by a team of oxen. By then they already had six children. Three months after Vera was born, the hotel burned down, and shortly after that, the family relocated to Edson. It was the first of several stops for the Duvals, as her dad followed work around the province.
“We moved around a lot and I remember living in Blackfalds and Lacombe and Calgary,” Vera said in 2008 in a write-up for the Athabasca history book. In 1929, the family moved back to Athabasca. That was where Vera finished her schooling. When she was 18 she met Douglas McConaghy in Busby. They married and lived there for a while, then moved to Athabasca, where Doug worked as a mechanic. He also worked as bus driver – there and in Lac La Biche.
“In 1948 Doug and I moved to Spurfield,” Vera says.
This was the sawmill community on the rail line between Smith and Slave Lake, which no longer exists. After about five years there, the couple and their growing family (six kids by then) moved into Smith, where Doug worked for the Stelter sawmill. He built a house, which a few years later (1968) was moved to the acreage where it still sits. Four more children came along, rounding it out to an even 10.
“So we had a large family, but they were never all at home at once,” Vera said in the 2007 family history.
It’s easy to see why Vera wouldn’t want to move from her home. It’s a well-favoured location, with a splendid view out over the Graling cow pasture, across the Lesser Slave Valley with the country rising gently beyond. Last week, the view included a green pasture in the foreground, dotted with cows, a band of yellow larch, a band of dark green spruce and then the greyish-white mass of bare poplars, with blue sky above.
“I’m enjoying my old age,” she says.
If you’d like to help her celebrate the milestone, it runs from 1:00 p.m. to about 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 11 at the Smith hall. There’ll be lunch, desserts, a slide show and probably lots of stories.
From the family archive: Vera as a young girl in a famly photo. And below, several years later.
Vera McConaghy in her home a few weeks ago.