The culture of local agriculture: Stories of Revelstoke’s rich farming history

  • Jun. 21, 2023 11:00 a.m.
(Contributed by Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
(Contributed by Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
(Contributed by Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
(Contributed by Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
(Contributed by Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
(Contributed by Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
(Contributed by Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
(Contributed by Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
(Contributed by Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
(Contributed by Revelstoke Museum and Archives)

Cathy English

Curator, Revelstoke Museum and Archives

This article was originally published in the Revelstoke TIMES Magazine, available now at your local coffee shop, book store, or any other business in downtown Revelstoke.

Revelstoke doesn’t immediately come to mind when we think about farming, but this district has a long history of agricultural activity going back to the early days of settlement. The Sinixt, whose homeland was on the Columbia River and its tributaries, were hunter-gatherers, but they did manage their plant resources with controlled fires to enhance berry production, and by rotating foraging areas from year to year.

Revelstoke became a community in 1885, with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Within a year, there were two substantial farms in the district.

Fred and Catherine Fraser settled in the Big Eddy in 1886, just south of where the railway bridge crossed the Columbia. They were faced with the monumental task of clearing the forest to create land for growing vegetable crops and grains. They had dairy cows and chickens and provided dairy products, meat, eggs, and vegetables to local residents. The Frasers moved to the current location of the BC Hydro office on Powerhouse Road in 1909, and farmed there until they left Revelstoke in the 1920s. Their farm was purchased by Charlie Sing, a farmer from China who operated a market garden there until his death in the 1950s.

Sam Crowle arrived in Revelstoke in the summer of 1885, after having worked on railway construction across the country. He took up a farm three miles south of Revelstoke, and farmed there for close to 60 years, supplying local hotels and stores with produce. By 1901, he had 800 acres of land with a house and out-buildings, including a three-stall stable with a hay loft with a capacity of five tons, a vehicle and implement shed and vegetable cellars. He had 35 acres cleared, where he produced a variety of vegetables. He had extensive strawberry patches, and was sending up to six crates a day to C.B. Hume’s General Store. He also grew gooseberries, apples, and plums. When the first cross-country flight was passing over Revelstoke in 1920, they were forced to land here, and chose the Crowle farm as the safest spot. In 1946, the city purchased the Crowle farm for the airport, and rebuilt the airstrip in 1970.

Over the years, more farms were established throughout the region. Big Eddy, Columbia Park, Southside, Arrow Heights, and the valley south of Revelstoke were all primarily farming communities. Prior to the creation of the Arrow Lakes reservoir caused by the opening of the Hugh Keenleyside Dam at Castlegar in 1969, there were about 200 farms just between Revelstoke and Arrowhead.

Big Eddy was an important agricultural area for decades. Rev. William Calder and his family established the 63 acre Tonka Farm near the Tonkawatla (Tum Tum) River in 1907. He had a herd of Ayrshire dairy cows, and Berkshire pigs. In 1915, he applied to build a silo under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture, and built the first silo in Revelstoke, with a capacity of 68 tons of silage.

Tom and Alice Griffiths settled in the Big Eddy in 1908, and established a farm. For 15 years, there farm was the Dominion Experimental Station for the district. Each summer, a field day was held to inspect the harvest, with agriculturalists arriving from across Canada to give lectures on farming practices.

Many other families farmed in Big Eddy, including the Nelsens, Gunnarsens, and other settlers from Norway and Sweden.

Several families established farms in the Columbia Park area. Job Maley, a trained florist, moved to the Big Bend trail, close to where the Baptist Church is located, in May of 1898 and established a flower nursery, fruit orchard, and vegetable gardens. He had several greenhouses for flowers, and a large strawberry patch, as well as a substantial apple orchard.

The street names in Columbia Park could almost be a listing of some of the farmers there: Maddocks, Malcolm, Allen, Smythe, Laforme, Cleland, Viers, Maley, Colbeck, Peterson. Strawberries were one of the major crops, with crates full of the fruit being sent by train to Calgary. Local merchant Wing Chung also had a strawberry farm in Columbia Park. Two photographs in the 1920s album of Emma Roberts show an opium poppy farm at the point in Columbia Park. Sunflowers were planted around the perimeter of the poppy fields to shield them from view.

Joseph and Lili Stephenson had a poultry farm across from the current location of the Best Western. Other Columbia Park farmers included the Upper family, the Petersons and Hansens, and Boyd McMahon, who had a dairy farm where Woodenhead Park is now located.

Revelstoke’s early Fall Fairs were held in Columbia Park, on what is now part of the golf course. A racetrack was constructed, and in 1912, an Agricultural Hall was built for display of the fall fair entries. The hall is now the clubhouse.

Until 1981, Downie Street was the boundary of the City of Revelstoke. Much of the land from that point south was agricultural. Many of the early settlers in the Southside area were from Italy, and even the houses within the city boundary were built as close to the sidewalk as possible, to allow for large gardens and chicken runs. The area both east and west of the roundabout was known as Little Italy.

Alf and Alma Grauer, both originally from Norway, had a poultry farm on the east side of Fourth Street and Moss Street. It extended back to where the Hideaway Trailer Park is now located.

Several Japanese families came to this area in 1942, after being displaced from the west coast. They lived mostly in the Southside area, as well as in Big Eddy. The City Council of the day would not allow any Japanese people to live within the city limits, but they were able to find homes and land outside of the city. The Wakita family had property at the south end of Downie Street where they had a large strawberry farm. The Nakamuras had property across the old railway bridge on the Illecillewaet. The bridge was located where the pedestrian bridge is now. A road bridge also crossed at that point, as part of what was known as the Loop Road.

Revelstoke had several dairy farms over the years. The two largest were Hillcrest Dairy, owned by the Campbell family, and Standard Dairy, owned by the McKinnons.

Hillcrest Dairy was on land where Hillcrest Coast Hotel is now located. Daniel Campbell purchased 51 acres there in 1907, and with his sons Leslie and Arthur, started Hillcrest Dairy in 1920. They purchased other farms in the area and expanded their operations. Hillcrest Dairy was in operation until 1956.

Hector and Delia McKinnon bought land at the junction of the Columbia and the Illecillewaet rivers in 1916, and began Standard Dairy. Their land encompassed much of the area below what is now Downie Street Sawmill. The McKinnons built a large log farmhouse, and Delia insisted that it have running water and electricity. They eventually built up a herd of 100 dairy cows.

On July 30th, 1929, Hector McKinnon was stacking hay in the barn of a neighbouring farm when fire broke out. He was badly burnt, and died in hospital. At the time of his death, Hector McKinnon was mayor of Revelstoke, a position he had held for several terms. In 1930, a beautiful stone water fountain was erected in what is now Queen Elizabeth Park in memory of Hector McKinnon.

Hector’s widow, Delia, continued to run the farm, with operation of the farm later taken on by their son Jim. They ran the dairy until the late 1960s, when the property was purchased by BC Hydro when they were preparing to flood the valley with the completion of the Hugh Keenleyside Dam. The McKinnons had land in what is now Arrow Heights, and they moved their old log farmhouse and one of the barns up onto Nichol Road where they still stand today. In order to get them across the Illecillewaet, the buildings were loaded onto flatbed moving trucks, and driven across the river, with a bulldozer at the front to help pull the truck across.

Much of what is now Arrow Heights was once farmland. Hay Road is named not after the crop hay, but after the family of Henry and Mary Ellen Hay, who established Willow Creek farm in that area in 1894. They grew large fields of strawberries, gooseberries, and currants, along with fruit trees. When they moved to their farm from Revelstoke, there was no traffic bridge over the Illecillewaet, and it took them almost a full day’s journey to reach their new home.

Several Italian families had farms in Arrow Heights, including the Cashatos, the Siriannis and the Lanzos. The Lanzos settled just south of what is now Nichol Road around 1900. Their landmark A-frame barn, which stood on the property for decades, was built with the help of neighbours in 1916.

Williamson’s Lake, our community’s favourite swimming hole, was named after Albert Williamson, who took, up a section of 160 acres and established Lone Pine Farm. He later sold land to C.B. Hume, who grew strawberries, apples, and vegetables for sale in his department store.

The area from about six miles to twelve miles south of town was settled mostly by people who came to Canada from Ukraine and Poland in the early 1900s. Stanislaw Kulchyski and Damien Hulyd were the first to come around 1907, and many followed them over the next several years. By the 1940s, there were 78 households recorded at the community that became known as Mount Cartier. The community had its own church and school, a post office, and a Canadian Pacific Railway Station. Farmers helped each other with barn raisings, and bringing in crops. The community had a Ukrainian band and choir, and they occasionally performed in Revelstoke. The district experimental farm was moved from Griffith’s farm in Big Eddy to the farm of Roly Hold (formerly Hulyd) at Mount Cartier. Annual field days were held there in the 1940s.

Much of the farmland in the valley south of Revelstoke was lost due to the construction of the Hugh Keenleyside Dam at Castlegar in the late 1960s, and the creation of the Arrow Lakes reservoir, which extended all the way to Revelstoke. BC Hydro bought the properties, but no-one felt that they got a fair deal. People had to leave their farms, get rid of their animals, and equipment, and find a new place to live in Revelstoke or elsewhere. Most of the families had the man of the family working an outside job on highways, or in the forest industry, and the farms supplemented their income and provided plentiful vegetables. That extra source of income and food was also lost, along with the rural lifestyle that so many people enjoyed.

There has been a resurgence of small farms in the district over the past few years. Interest in growing one’s own food, and contributing to food security in the region has seen people finding creative ways to use the land that is still available in our valley.

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