Bancroft Street thick with memories and faces of Old Ashcroft

One of the oldest parts of Ashcroft, the street still bears the faces and memories of the pioneers.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

Of all the streets and avenues in Ashcroft that are redolent with history, Bancroft Street is undoubtedly the oldest and most memorable for me. When you live in a community long enough, the social history as well as the dwellings themselves become a part of you. So much so, that you can’t drive by those two short blocks without the past experiences there surfacing again and again.

Thinking of that corner, Bancroft and 4th, for example, I’m back in the kitchen of Nina and Alfie Robertson, brother and sister who never married and whom lived for many years in the house directly across the street from Zion United Church. The stories that Nina told me as we sat sipping tea of an afternoon became part and parcel of more than several articles for The Journal.

Nina lived at a time when stage coaches were still trotting up the dust of the road to Lillooet. And she remembered vividly the excitement when one stopped and passengers dismounted and were treated to hot tea and a meal before carrying on.

As we sat in the cozy warmth of the wood stove, Nina’s memories were always tinged with a kind of wonder. Wonder that she had lived through that time? Or, simply a manifestation of the kind of spirit and freshness of a mind not willing to “dwell on the unpleasant things of life”. For I was told that Nina worked hard all her life at the ranch, still known as The Robertson Ranch. She worked not only in the tallish two storey house on the edge of the field, but also in the fields at hay time.

Still, in old age, she smiled a lot. And somehow, the Scottish accent of her parents remained with her. For example, she would tell me how “bonny” I looked on a given day. Nina herself, looked bonny. Red cheeks, even features, strong jaw line, dancing eyes that were so much younger than her years.

Nina and Alfie attended the one roomed school house on the Hat Creek Ranch meadow. The building, miraculously, is still there. She would speak of personalities at the turn of the century, names like Fanny Faucault, Doc English, Johnny Morgan, she knew them all.

Nina would some times walk across Bancroft to visit Evelyn Cavell. Ted and Evelyn Cavell lived in the L-shaped cottage one cottage behind the corner of Bancroft and 4th. That cottage, too, is still there and very much lived in. Some of those cottages on Bancroft live and breath that “lived in”, still comfortable feeling. They not only look and feel history, they remain testament to the permanence of a place that is cared for, preserved for the next generation.

Evelyn Cavell would serve tea and home made cookies. You could sit at the table at the window with the cactus flowering in all its glory on the sill. A scene reminiscent of the kind of nostalgia painted so beautifully by the illustrator-artist Norman Rockwell. You would talk about all kinds of things. But I never heard gossip at that table. Talk was more growing things, about events, past and present. Of the weather. Of pet cats and dogs. Nina maintained that cats and dogs smiled. That made me look at my own in a different way. Conclusion. Yes, by gum, they do smile.

Further down Bancroft, was the cottage of the Richards sisters. They, too, never married. Like Nina and Alfie Robertson, the sisters lived in the home of their deceased parents.

Richards had been the village postmaster for years. Active in many affairs, including the historical society. It kind of amazed me, that those pioneer folk like Richards, Parke and Dr. Sanson realized they were making history for generations to come. Yes, even then, back before the First World War, they formed a historical society bent on the preservation of buildings and preserving documents and memories in a village that had not yet had a museum.

It was R.D.  Cumming, who published The Journal and lived on Bancroft Street at the corner of 5th and Bancroft, who put together the first museum upstairs in The Journal office. They said the Cumming gardens adjacent to the two story house was the most beautiful in town. It was sad to see that house go to rack and ruin years later, and the lot that had once been filled with flowers and shrubs, go to dirt and gravel. Now, of course, the corner is graced by new homes, and flowers flourish inside the years and outside.

The Richards sisters loved cats. They fed so many of them, that the neighborhood soon over ran with feral cats. I can still see one of the sisters coming out of the front door with a dish of milk in her hand, and the cats gathering on the veranda. The scene remained in the mind’s eye so long, that I finally painted a picture of it. A night scene. The first I’d ever painted. And the figure of one of the sisters, and two more figures walking toward Zion United church, the church windows aglow. The painting was shown in Merritt and purchased by a resident of Squamish.

The Teshima family still live on Bancroft. A more charming cottage, more lovingly cared for inside and out can’t be imaged. Flowers grow on the borders, and fruit trees bloom in the front yard. The cottage has one of those tent shaped roofs, and the cottage behind, painted in the same colors and in the same lot, adds more of a dimension and character to the whole.

That end of Bancroft has several fine older homes. All well kept up. It is a street with a great sense of place and time, that Street. I’ve been in several of those houses and known their owners. Interviewed and wrote the personal histories of two of the residents. People who had contributed so much in the way of building the character of the village. Teachers, a cannery manager during the 30s and 40s, when the big cannery on Railway produced canned tomatoes, catsup and pumpkin for many years.

Yes, a town and a village can change over the years. Change quite dramatically. Newer buildings mushroom. Modern. But the past is still very much visible in Old Ashcroft.

At the end of Bancroft, buildings no less part of the growing history still stand. Are still looked after. I recall the building that was a dry cleaning and laundry establishment when we first moved to Ashcroft. It is now a private dwelling. The tall house of the Copeland family is at the corner of 3rd and Bancroft. And across the street, the tallish former Methodist manse is beautifully preserved. A stone walk leads into an intimate garden setting. The octagonal window on the south end of the manse always intrigued me, and figured in one or two of my paintings. These houses face the clay cones of the slopes across the Thompson. Even the backs of those houses are full of character.

Ross Darlington and I lived for many pleasant months in the cottage next to the manse. The interior of that cottage is so much roomier than appearances outside. Those old timers who built these cottages knew exactly where the light would be the best for house plants. And some of them hold fire places made of stones from our river shore. Those round stones with such subtle coloring, depending on the time of day.

Once in a while, I hear somebody complain that “There is nothing to see in Ashcroft.” Nothing to see? Where are they looking? That Community Hall on Bancroft Street, was once a busy school house. Then it became the Village office. And now it is a completely refurbished hall for all kinds of events. I knew pioneer folk, now deceased, who went to school in that building. It would be wonderful to have the exterior restored some day. To its original siding. There are photographs available, I’m sure, if we ever had the finances to do that.

Walking tours of Ashcroft have been in place during the summer for some time. Bancroft Street and Brink street houses all have a history. Living history remains one of the Village’s most attractive features.