There are monsters lurking in the lakes and forests of British Columbia, if legend is to be believed. Lake Okanagan’s Ogopogo is one of the best known monsters in the world, and closer to home there are countless sightings of the creature known as Sasquatch or Bigfoot, many of which have taken place in or near Gold Country.
These sightings are fairly rare, for the Sasquatch is an elusive creature. There is, however, another monster in the area which is considerably easier to spot. Indeed, I’d wager that most of the people reading this have passed by it many times. Depending on how old you are, you may also have seen many of its siblings, for at one time this creature could be spotted all over the province. Alas, its numbers have been dwindling steadily, and now only a handful of its kind remain. One of them, however, is situated in Gold Country, outside Ashcroft Manor, where it keeps steady watch over the traffic passing by on Highway 1.
I’m speaking, of course, of the Garbage Gobbler. Next time you’re driving past the Manor, glance to the east of the highway, and you’ll see him, standing quietly in the shade of a tree. He’s the green and yellow chap with the big teeth and the cheerful smile, who’s been keeping watch over travelers there for more than 50 years. He has an official job – gobbling garbage – and an unofficial one, which is to delight children of all ages.
The Garbage Gobblers were the brainchild of Len Shaw, who designed and created them for the BC Parks Branch in 1957; by the time of BC’s centenary in 1958 they were all over the province. They were designed to fit over a garbage can, with garbage inserted through the mouth of the Gobbler., and were installed in provincial parks, at information sites, and at highway rest stops: anywhere, in short, where they’d be easily accessible to travelers.
No one seems to know how and why the Gobbler’s distinctive look – it’s been described as a frog monster, which is as good a description as any – was decided on, but it was an inspired choice, for the design was an immediate hit with the travelling public, especially children. Or perhaps it was something to do with the deliciously frightening possibility that when you placed your hand trustingly in the Gobbler’s mouth, poised to drop your sandwich wrapper or apple core into the garbage can below, those teeth would clamp shut over your wrist. . . .
Children love to be frightened, as long as they know nothing bad will really happen to them, and the Garbage Gobbler was a welcome sight to many during their BC sojourns. Adrian Barnes, writing of the Gobblers in the Rossland Telegraph, understands that. “Garbage Gobblers, to a six-year-old, were massive, Easter Island-like totems,” he says. “Wherever we drove, my sister and I would keep our eyes peeled, hoarding candy wrappers and chewed-up straws, until we caught sight of a rest stop that sported a Gobbler, at which point we’d beg our (hopefully) bemused parents to pull over and let us feed the beast.”
Barnes isn’t alone in having fond memories of the Garbage Gobblers, as comments under online pictures of the creature demonstrate. There’s also a charming home video, shot in 1957 by Les Walters of Saskatoon, showing his family traveling through BC. In one shot his daughter, Bonney, is shown beside a Garbage Gobbler in its natural habitat, complete with a sign reading “The Garbage Gobbler says Feed Me!” Young Bonney seems only too happy to comply (the video can be seen on YouTube).
Children (and adults) were further encouraged to look out for the creatures and put them to use via “The Junior Gobbler”. These were paper bags, provided free to motorists, which featured a Garbage Gobbler wearing a bib reading “Hang Me In Your Car” and the words “Feed Me!” coming from his mouth. They also exhorted people to “Keep BC Green and Clean”, and asked that motorists “Help Prevent Forest Fires”. It was, in retrospect, the beginning of a new era of ecological responsibility and awareness; proof, if it were needed, that caring for our environment is a concept that’s been around for some time.
Alas, the design of the Garbage Gobblers meant that the cans were open, and accessible to bears. Roadside garbage cans needed to be made bear-proof, and thus the death knell of the Gobblers was sounded. They were replaced, one by one, with much more practical – but far less interesting – sealed garbage cans, and the roadsides of BC were made just a little less colourful.
The Garbage Gobblers were constructed in the BC Parks workshop in Langford on Vancouver Island. Today a restored Gobbler – complete with commemorative plaque – stands in Langford’s Veterans’ Memorial Park, which occupies the spot where the workshop once stood. Another Gobbler lives in the Public Works yard in Revelstoke, while a third – without teeth, and in need of a historically accurate paint job – stood in the Birch Island rest area north of Clearwater as late as 2003, and might be there still. There’s also a Gobbler located in the fairground at Rock Creek, between Osoyoos and Midway, and at least one other Gobbler is in private hands, lurking in a garden on Vancouver Island.
Add the Gobbler residing at Ashcroft Manor, and it means that only a half-dozen of these once mighty beasts remain in the province. So the next time you’re driving along Highway 1 past Ashcroft Manor, slow down and give a wave to one of the last of the Garbage Gobblers. If you have time, you might consider stopping for a moment and giving him a snack. Just be careful when you put your hand in his mouth. After all, you never know what might happen. . . .