A trip down Bancroft’s memory lane

If houses could speak, Bancroft Street would have its own series.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

Bancroft Street houses. For me that Street has always been a charmer. You might say, a fascination.

From the corner of 4th St. and Bancroft to the place where the Street dips down and ends somewhere under the Ashcroft Bridge, that stretch of cottages has been a feast. I was not only fascinated by the buildings themselves, I wanted to know the people who lived inside them.

Eventually, I did. And I’ve written several articles over the years about the people and the homes that figured so prominently in the history of the town. Postmaster Richards’ two spinster daughters lived in the house with the miniature widow’s walk on the roof. They loved cats. And the cats loved them. And the cats proliferated until the death of one sister and the departure of the other into care at our local hospital.

But I’ll start with the old Methodist manse near the corner of 3rd and Bancroft. The Muirs live in it now, but 40 years ago, there lived an old lady named Reta Fooks.

Reta was a widow when we met. Maynard, her late husband, had been a CPR telegrapher and the two had met when Reta worked as a waitress in the old Spences Bridge Hotel, which is adjacent to the rail station. Anyway, the house is one and a half stories, and it has an octagon shaped window on its south wall, long narrow windows front and back, and the house faces one of those enormous cream colored alluvial fans across the Thompson River. Reta’s history goes back to the very beginning of Ashcroft: Her parents were Oliver and Ellen Evans who surveyed and planned the streets and avenues of the town months before the Canadian Pacific Railway was scheduled to run through.

She grew up at the Butte Ranch which was located at the “slough”, about two kilometers from the town center. You can imagine the stories Reta told me about those earliest days of our history! The color and character of the place known as Spud City, and The Gateway to the Cariboo. Anyway, Reta took me fishing at Divide Lake. She never got “skunked”, and brought home trout that was he freshest you will ever taste. And she introduced me to the joy of a cold beer with home made tomato juice on a hot Ashcroft summer day. She showed me the place where she and Maynard had built a cabin in what Reta called “The Milk Ranch” which is really the woods in Highland Valley where the game roamed freely and every lake was filled with fish. Reta was a very good woman. She took me to the cabin of an old man who lived at the mouth of the Bonaparte River where it enters the Thompson. She called him “the old Swede”, a bachelor. She would pick the gentleman up every Friday and take him into town to Wing Chong Tai’s grocery store on Railway and he would buy his few groceries. Then she would take this gentle diminutive recluse who had lived for years alone in Venables Valley, and she would see him into the bath tub, and after, give him a good hot meal, and then she would drive him back to his cabin. Reta did this for years. Never thought a thing about it.

A little further up Bancroft on the south side is a low built “L-shaped” cottage, where lived an elderly couple named Cavell. Ted and Evelyn. Ted had spent his life at the back-breaking toil of a sawmill worker. His bent figure walking up the main street to the steeply graded Mesa Vista hillside was a daily regular. He told me he did it because the doctor told him if he didn’t keep moving, he’d find he couldn’t move at all. Ted’ feat of endurance on that walk didn’t fail to impress people. Evelyn was a social person who enjoyed  visitors dropping in. She had a green thumb and one of the most beautiful giant Easter cactus’s I had ever seen. She always made tea for her visitors. One of them was Nina Robertson, who lived just across the street and who never went anywhere except to Evelyn’s of an afternoon. But more of her later. The Cavells lived in that Bancroft Street cottage for many years. One afternoon, after taking his usual trek up to the Mesa and the Highland Valley road and back again to Bancroft, Ted went to the bedroom to have his usual lie-down and never woke up. A peaceful man. And a peaceful death.

Across from the Cavells, on 4th and Bancroft, lived Nina (Ellen) and Alfie Robertson. It is a Regency-style house – one and a half stories, with a wide veranda in front.  It faces Zion United Church and has been recently painted a gentle color that suits the whole corner because it is rather like the color of the clay cliffs across the River. Nina and Alfie never married. When I lived on 4th St., I would see Nina pegging the Monday wash on the line strung between two gnarled maple trees in the front yard. The sheets flapped in the wind, white and homely in that smallish yard where nothing had changed since the death years before of Nina and Alfie’s parents. Inside, the same brass beds, sturdy oak furniture, wood fired cookstove, and the same linoleum on all of the floors. I would visit Nina often. Make us a pot of tea. The brown betty was always in the warming cupboard on the stove. And Nina would tell me about the days when her parents operated the stopping house on the road to Lillooet, the Robertson Ranch. When stagecoaches rolled through, and the freight wagons. It was the busiest time of Nina’s life. Cooking, cleaning, helping with the haying. Nina loved all animals. Told me that dogs actually smiled. So did cats. Her dark blue eyes were half moons when she laughed. And she laughed often.  And told me how “bonny” I looked. After Alfie died, Nina went into care in our local hospital. And I sat at her bedside when she was dying. The end of a long life, most of it happy. Despite the toil and habit of a never-ending regime of service.

Now there is a cottage adjacent to the Juniper Apartments on Bancroft. There lived there a childless couple named Dan and Tibby Leith. They, too, had a story to tell. Their history had begun in the early 1930s. Dan had been an orphan in Ontario. When he came of age in his mid teens, he left the orphanage and made his way west. He eventually found work as a sheepherder in Deadman’s Valley. And then in the gold mine at Vidette Lake. He met Tibby in Walhachin. The feisty, tiny woman with hair the color of hay. And Dan was tall and spare. Tibby’s mother had been the postmistress at Walhachin. Her father worked as foreman on the Marquis of Anglesey’s estate. When the second world war broke out, Dan joined. Fought in Italy. Arrived home several years later. Married Tibby, and they settled down in the Bancroft Street cottage. Dan drove truck. Their story doesn’t end there. But it is a sad one. And a private one. Suffice to say, that Dan and Tibby were good friends. Took us up to Deadman’s Valley to the old Uren ranch, where the ground squirrels scattered into their holes as we approached. And showed us where some Swedish workers had built a house and a sauna. The Swedes long gone. But the sauna still standing.

So this thumbnail sketch of Bancroft Street might give you some idea of the place. And maybe a little glimpse of the time. Long ago enough to stir some nostalgia in the old timers maybe.

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