Ashcroft as it used to be – a busy little town

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

It is pretty hard to imagine today, what Ashcroft looked like 40 years ago.Forty years is not a long time. It is nothing but a blip on the circuit of time. But it is amazing, how swiftly the changes occurred in that village on a lonely bench of the Thompson River. Changes that not only altered the appearance of the Village, but the character and substance of its economy, its citizenry, and ultimately, its identity.

The old adage that “you can’t go home again” was more than apparent to old timers in the village, as the changes came about. Some, like Ashcroft-born, the late Hazel Tuohey, saw it is nothing short of an invasion by strangers.  There were others too, whose alarm bells began to ring, as seemingly small things were altered or destroyed entirely.

Small things, like the movement of the old fire hall from its original site on Railway Ave., to a corner overlooking the river. Become a tourist attraction.  And, undoubtedly it is. The tall red wooden tower, its quaint doors, only wide enough for a horse-drawn wagon. The row of false fronted shops with their second storey verandas, on both sides of Railway Ave. from Barnes Lake Rd. to 1st St., razed to the ground. By the firemen of the time, no less, who convinced municipal council that it was a fire threat. This same stretch of Railway, termed a priceless piece of western Canadian history by a Heritage Canada official who visited Ashcroft in the late 70s.

There are pictures in the Museum today of those shops that look straight out of the set of a western movie. In fact, those shops may very well have been the template for the TV shows we watch today that are filmed in the Vancouver coast area. On one side of Railway, where the Safety Mart stands today, stood a row of brown weathered wooden shops, and behind them, a highboard fence, and behind the highboard fence, stood some houses. Chinese families lived in these houses. As they lived in the cottages behind the shops on the other side of Railway.

The late Henry Leong told me that his father had three wives. He was the youngest son of the third wife, brought from China in the 1930s. Asked where they all lived, Henry replied, “They lived together in a house just off Railway.” Behind a high board fence. And the wives went about their business in that household, keeping chickens fed and watered, and tending their vegetable garden just across the street from the blacksmith, Bundus. Henry’s father owned a trucking business, and Henry became a driver for his dad, transporting the potatoes and tomatoes grown in and around Ashcroft to the markets on the Coast.

In our many talks together in Henry and Ruth Leong’s home and garden, Henry painted a picture of life in Ashcroft when he was growing up. The Leong cottage is still standing, but looking nothing like it did when Henry and Ruth lived in it. The cottage sits at the end of 1st St., behind where the Ashcroft Library stands today. A tall horse chestnut tree shaded not only the Leong’s yard, but the lane between their cottage and the Godau’s. Lilies of the Valley exuded their special fragrance around the perimeter of the Leong cottage.   The Godau’s kitchen garden lay behind a highboard fence. And, no doubt, the odour of fragrant soups wafted over the fence when Una prepared them for her family.

Henry said that gambling was a way of life for the whole village. Not just the Chinese. He ran “numbers” for his dad’s friend, – collecting the bets from all over the village.

Poker games were played in the lanes of an evening, after the heat of the day had melted from Ashcroft streets and avenues. Men would set up a card table in the middle of the lane to play. No fear of cars in those days. Very few people owned them.

It wasn’t surprising that Henry’s father could have three wives, with no one else in the village the wiser, except, of course, the Chinese families. The two races lived apart for many years. Two communities they were, in one community.

The Chinese had their cemetery just above a stretch of rail track on the east side of the track. In 1970, when I visited that patch of derelict ground with is scattering of grave markers, tumbleweed and rabbit bush had taken over the gravel. Thankfully, the cemetery  has been restored in recent years, and the graves of pioneer Chinese folk are given fitting care.

I recall the late Ken Kidder of Ashcroft expressing to me his concern about the state of the graveyard. He wanted a chain link fence put around it, and the spot cleaned of weeds. I don’t know if Ken had anything to do with the interest that grew out of his concern – the good man passed away some years ago, in the late 1980’s – but he will be remembered by quite a few as a responsible citizen of Ashcroft who contributed his best to the common weal.  He was president of the business association for some time, as I recall, and established an explosives plant on the Ashcroft Reserve for Gulf Canada.Kitty corner from St. Alban’s church, lay a sprawling sort of cottage with a veranda around it. The families who had occupied the cottage after the death of the South Cariboo’s first permanent resident physician, Dr. George Sanson,  had long since moved away or were deceased.

Dr. Sanson used the cottage as a clinic, as well as a residence. He was living in this cottage when the first disastrous fire of 1916 destroyed half of the Village of Ashcroft. His daughter, Margaret, whom I interviewed in 1981, recalled the fire vividly. She was living in Victoria with her mother at the time, her brother was overseas in the First World War, but Margaret visited her father at every opportunity. She recalled the smoke that began to stream from the roof of the hotel, and the chaos and anxiety that followed. Her father ordered her to return to Victoria as soon as they could get her on a passenger train. He feared the whole village, including his cottage and clinic, would be burned to the ground.

In 1970, there were a few cottages tucked here and there on either side of Railway, at the south end of the village. One of them was a small repair shop in front, and the family lived in the rear. That was my first meeting with the late Jack Elgie and his repair shop. Jack later went on to get employment at Bethlehem Copper mine in Highland Valley, where he was employed as a lead hand millright.

The feedstore was a very busy place through the 1970s and 80s. It is today, but the feedstore actually sold feed to the ranchers and farmers about.  Pigeons flew in and out of their roosts from the roof of the building. Today, the feedstore is a bottle depot. The building was beautifully restored by the Adamski family some years ago, and murals of the village as it looked during the era I am writing about grace the north side of the building.

There was a small cottage on the knoll where the fire hall sits today. And there were small cottages behind the false front stores on Railway. Potting sheds and gardens were also behind the scenes. There was a butcher shop, roughly where the Credit Union sits today. And, believe it or not, there were three banks in Ashcroft! The Bank of Montreal, which is now the cable company office (the building should be designated a heritage building), the Bank of Commerce, that used to sit where the Buffalo Station coffee garden stands, and the Credit Union. And, there were several hardware stores on Railway. It’s hard to believe it today. But all three hardware stores did a thriving business. Sho Saito’s garage and business operation specialized in fishing equipment. Sho’s operation is where the real estate company sits today.

At the south end of Railway St. stood an elementary school, a large school yard. Coppervale Elementary served the community for 30 or more years. And the old Lady Byng school used to sit at the south end of Brink St., and the school stood facing that long street, with its white painted surface shining in the sun, and serving to educate in the primary grades, countless Ashcroft children. The school was still standing when I moved to Ashcroft in 1973.

Before our lovely little library was built in Ashcroft, in 1973 or 1974, Ashcroft’s library was on the second floor of the Community Hall on Brink St.  It was a long, steep climb if you took the stairs on the outside of the building. And the climb wasn’t any less steep if you took the indoor stairs.  Ashcroft Municipal Council held its meetings there, until the Landrich shopping centre (as it was called then) was built on Railway. That building now houses the Fields store and the provincial government office.

Across from the old Ashcroft Hotel, was a red brick cafe. And next to that was the former F.W. Foster store, turned into a pool hall. And, of course, Ashcroft had two railroad stations. The CPR station stood roughly behind Fields store. It had been a very busy place  through the 1930s and 40s. Just ask Ashcroft resident Rod Craggs – he was a telegraph operator there for some years. The CNR station stood on the other side of the River, and the Marlow family lived in that station and Mr. Marlow was the station master. Fortunately, there is a record of that station for posterity. I painted a picture of the station back in the mid 70s and the painting is in the possession of the Marlow family today.

And so, Ashcroft, with its very busy hospital, then called The Lady Minto Hospital, and later, Ashcroft and District Hospital, and all its small business activity, was more than a “bit” of a hub. Babies were born in that hospital, major operations were conducted by qualified surgeons, and all the activity of a thriving community gave employment to professionals and semi professionals alike.

So what happened to Ashcroft in the succeeding years? Years that are relatively short in the span of centuries. Major businesses are closing, as they have been for decades. What is the reason? Or, are there a number of reasons?

This article, with some imagination, can unveil a community that was. Ashcroft has survived and renewed itself a number of times over the generations. Hopefully, that will happen again.