by Esther Darlington MacDonald
This valley which has played such a vital part of the region’s economic and social fabric since before the First World War, and certainly in the generations to follow, is a history in itself.
The one thing that I’ve noticed about people who’ve lived in Highland Valley before the mining industry came in, is their willingness to tell you about the basics of how they lived and what the valley looked like, but they are quiet on the personal details of their lives in that once unspoiled ancient wilderness. I mean, the emotional impact of living so close to nature that they were part and parcel of it.
It was obviously a memorable time of their lives, but something keeps them from relaying the personal details. You might say, the human side of the picture. And there was certainly a human side. You can’t live miles from the mainstream with only a few scattered far flung neighbors in an environment that must have extracted the sum of endurance not to have a story to tell.Mary Curnow, bless her vigorous and practical independent heart, is one of those persons. But she tells me, “Don’t write about me.” She does want me to write about Highland Valley, how it was 80 years ago. And, whether she knows it or not, she wants me to record that special time in their lives, and the life of the valley itself.
I’ll do my best.
An unspoiled wilderness is always a sight to behold. If you are fortunate to be standing on the edge of it, looking over the mile upon mile of evergreen, tier upon tier of it, right up to the sky. If you are fortunate enough to have moved through some of that forest, finding the small lakes hidden away beyond sight or sound. Where the silence is deafening. Lakes full of trout. Forests full of deer, grouse, duck. An angler’s paradise, a hunter’s dream, there for the stalking. You are blessed indeed.
Long before the mining industry found Highland Valley, people found it. God knows how they found it. The valley was certainly off the beaten trail. And the route into the valley was little more than a path. But people found it. And they plodded up the mountain with horse and cart loaded with everything they owned, or came via “shanks pony”. A few of them made a new life for themselves, but not without a struggle that you might call the sum of human endurance. They drained the wild meadows, cultivated them to feed their animals. And the McElroys had cattle and horses, and milk cows and, at first, some sheep. But sheep in Highland Valley weren’t practical. They ate too much of the precious grass. And the cattle needed grass. And so did the horses.The McElroys settled at a place now known as the LL Dam, at 16 Mile, below what is now Halfway Trailer Court which is 16 miles from Ashcroft. The property had been previously occupied and there was a house and some outbuildings. The family settled in, and began the work that Mary recalls was so much a part of their lives that, “You didn’t think about it.” Mary was just an infant, only a year old.
“I learned to ride before I learned to walk.” Mary smiles a bit. “They propped me up against the saddle horn and put a blanket around me.”
The only transportation into Highland Valley was by saddle horse. There weren’t any roads, at least, not in the way of dirt and paved, as we know them today. That was true of so many of these hidden valleys deep in the forests of the Cariboo-Thompson region at the time. Loon Lake, for example, was only accessible by horse for many years.
At an early age, Mary worked alongside her parents to build the ranch.“I would cut hay all day, milk four or five cows back at the barn, and I’d separate the milk, and turn the cows back into the pasture”.
Asked about riding at night, Mary said she thought nothing about riding in the darkness with only the treeline to guide her. Was there any threat or danger? Only one incident comes to mind. Her horse shied and snorted at something in the woods. Was it a moose?
“There were no moose in Highland Valley until the 1940s.”
The Provincial Forestry Ministry built a substantial two storey ranger station made of logs in the valley, Mary thinks, before the First World War. She wonders if Tom and Sam Kirkpatrick had been hired to build the station. The position of the station Mary asserts, was where the Valley Pit is today at the mine. But before the deep open pit crater was dug, the ranger station’s views in every direction held views of the mountain ranges, some of them snow covered all year around. The station had five bedrooms upstairs, and two bedrooms down. The kitchen was large, and so was the adjacent the dining area. Forestry had a number of smaller cabins built on the mountain ridges, where the rangers could sleep overnight.
When Forestry decided to close the ranger station, it was put up for lease and a man named F. L. Stevenson took the lease over. Stevenson used the station as a holiday retreat for his family and friends. It was a “roughing it” kind of holiday. The kitchen held the only supply of domestic water, supplied by a gravity system. There was no hydro or telephone line.
When the former ranger station went up for lease again, the McElroys took it over. They still maintained their ranch some miles down the trail. Their aim was to turn the station into a lodge for hunting, fishing, and for people who just wanted to get away from it all, take in the clean mountain air, and “get back to nature”, as they say. And as inaccessible as it was, a surprising number of persons wanted to vacation in Highland Valley. Situated only a mile from Divide Lake, guests could easily walk to the lake. And Divide had a reputation that went far beyond the region.
“It was known as the best fly fishing lake in the Pacific Northwest.”
Georgina McElroy did the cooking, cleaning, all the work associated with the handling of a tourist facility. She hired Phyllis Gray (nee: Parke) of Ashcroft to help. Phyllis would take the train from Ashcroft down to Spatsum, and the McElroys would pick her up there.
Cutting down trees for firewood for both the ranch and the Lodge was an on-going task. Mary and Georgina used a cross-cut saw. You can picture the two women at work in the woods, one middle aged, the other a tiny teenager, not much over five feet tall. Doing a man’s work? The two women bucked the trees into manageable pieces to be fitted into the wagon, and carted by horse through the rough and tumble of brush back to the lodge.
While Mary is matter of fact in tone when she talks about that time at the lodge and the ranch, you get the feeling, nevertheless, that she marvels not a little about how much work was done. That had to be done.
Asked how visitors got in touch with the lodge, Mary replies, “They made reservations.” Yet the former ranger station hadn’t had a telephone line. Mary explained that a former Maritimer, Frank Rogers, and herself, strung the telephone line from the lodge to the connecting point, about four miles distant. Asked if poles were erected. Mary replies, “No, we strung the line on trees.”
Mary recalled the many visitors who came to the lodge on a regular basis, every year. One of them was a famous artist. Alexander Phimister Proctor, a sculptor of horses and other animals in the genre of Frederic Remington. His specialty was the American mid-west cowboy, but Proctor’s love of wild animals and his sculpting of them probably drew him to Highland Valley. Mary recalls that Proctor did a sketch of Anne Walker, the daughter of a prominent Seattle business man. Mary recalls Dave Spencer who would bring his family up to the lodge every year. Spencer owned Vancouver Bindery. When the lodge filled with guests, the McElroys bedded down in an outbuilding near the lodge.
Another visitor who appeared now and then was the bachelor Billy Brink. Brink was the son of William Brink, one of the founders of Ashcroft. Billy lived in a log cabin not many miles away from the lodge. Billy had lost his leg in an accident when he was a youth. Mary recalls that Bill could mount a horse in a twinkling, grabbing the saddle horn and swinging the stump of his leg over the saddle like a true horseman. One wintery day, Billy came to the lodge asking for help to extricate his horse from the ice of Witches Brook. They went out help immediately and successfully got the horse to safety, and the animal was none the worse for wear. A horse for Billy or any other person in Highland Valley was as crucial as a motor vehicle is for us today.
When Mary wasn’t working at the Lodge managing the stock, or taking guests out on trail rides, she was down the trail helping her dad at the family ranch. You could say, quite rightly, that cattle and horses have been part of Mary’s life almost from birth.
Mary’s father passed away at the age of 64, in 1946. Mary and her mother continued to operate both lodge and ranch for another two years. Then Georgina decided to sell the lease on the lodge to a man named Bob Rideout in 1949. Rideout, in turn, sold the lease to Max and Mabel La Musse. When the mine came into the valley, the La Musses moved to Ashcroft, where they were both active members of the Royal Canadian Legion, branch 113.
Mary’s mother moved to Lytton and remarried. In 1954, Mary married Ron Curnow of Spences Bridge and together they operated the ranch there for many years. Today, however, Ron is in care in Kamloops. But Mary has continued the ranch operation, working mostly non-stop with her 100 head of cattle and calf operation.
Mary’s energy seems incredible for her age – well into her 80s. Getting time off to reminisce about Highland Valley seems a luxury. But when Mary does find the time, I guess she thinks about the history of that unique wilderness before the mines came in, and wants that early part of Highland Valley history to be recorded. God bless her!