Past, Present & Beyond – More on the history mysteries: the aroma of sewage and lilacs

Barbara Roden carries on with that which was once there and that which is left behind.

History is, at first glance, fairly easy to recognize. It’s something that happened a long time ago, usually (but not always) so long ago that no one now alive remembers it firsthand; the sort of thing one fidgets through in school, like the Upper Canada Rebellion or Confederation. Other, more recent, events are also classed as history, even though many people still remember them – the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War are three that leap to mind – because they had a profound effect on the world we live in today.

But there’s a grey area of history that’s easy to overlook, and that’s what happened, quietly and without drama, in our own backyards just a few decades ago. It’s the sort of thing that no one will ever write books about, and that Ken Burns will never turn into a six-part documentary for PBS. But it’s fascinating in its own way, as it captures a place and a moment that would otherwise be forgotten.

Just such a piece of history was what I found when I asked what building once stood on the west side of the Ashcroft bridge in about 1965, where a row of lilacs now stands. For those who didn’t see my letter in last week’s paper, the building was the sewage treatment plant for North Ashcroft, and I’m grateful to all those who contacted me with this information. There the story would seem to end; but several people offered up details that combine to fill in a little corner of the history of Ashcroft.

Ray Thompson said that his father Syd was Village Foreman between 1962 and 1967, and that the plant was built during this time (it was completed in 1969, when Ed Walsh was Foreman). There was already a sewage treatment plant for South Ashcroft (what’s now downtown), where almost all the residents and businesses were located in the town’s early days. What’s now North Ashcroft was orchards and fields, with the odd ranch and a scattering of residences clustered around the Cariboo Road, which had been the gateway to Ashcroft until the bridge was relocated near to its current site in 1932.

It was not until some years after World War II that development began in North Ashcroft. The town was booming, with the cannery and lumber mills attracting new residents, and when the Bethlehem Copper Mine opened in 1962 the demand for new housing soared. There was no room in the old town, so North Ashcroft was the logical place to build. With the new development came the need for new infrastructure; hence the building of the new sewage treatment plant.

Dolly Lowe, who moved to Ashcroft in August 1966, remembers that the plant was there when she arrived. Like many buildings of its type it did not aspire to architectural greatness: it was a plain, utilitarian structure meant to deal discreetly with an unsavoury business. Just how unsavoury was something longtime Ashcroft resident Louise McKague – who lives directly across from the plant’s site – recalls vividly. “The smell was terrible,” she said. “We had a councillor over for dinner one night, so he could smell it for himself.”

Louise also had a much more pleasant memory of the plant: specifically, of the lilacs planted in front of it, which are just coming into bloom as I write, and which first made me wonder what building had once stood there. “The lilacs were planted by Finlay Anderson, who was one of the Village crew members,” she said. “I’m glad they’re still there, because when I see them they remind me of Finlay, and what a nice man he was.”

Despite the smell from the plant, the area around the building was not without its attractions. Murray Kane remembers that he and many other kids rode their dirt bikes along the numerous trails beside it, and that his sister Heather and their father rented land nearby from the Ashcroft Indian Band, where they kept a couple of horses (Fergus Joslin recalls a small shed or stable on the site). Presumably the horses weren’t bothered by the plant’s smell.

In one of those twists of fate life likes to throw up, Ashcroft’s success is what made the North Ashcroft plant obsolete little more than a decade after it was built. The north side of town had grown rapidly, and houses had sprung up on the Mesa. A new sewage treatment plant that would cope with the needs of the entire town became necessary, so between late 1976 and early 1977 a new plant was built on the east side of the river. Both of the existing plants were abandoned when the new one came online, and eventually taken down, existing only in people’s memories and a few photographs.

But that last statement is not quite correct. If you pull off Hwy 97C and walk up behind the lilac bushes, the cement foundations of the old plant are clearly visible. And according to Al Midgley, part of the North Ashcroft plant might well have served the town until very recently (and may still be in use). He said that he thought something from the plant had been used in the new facility, and a passage in the 2011 Village application for a grant to upgrade the current plant bears this out: “The clarifier from one of the [older] facilities was actually incorporated into the current sewage treatment plant, and remains in operation today.”

The North Ashcroft sewage treatment plant may be gone, but it’s not forgotten, and the lilacs that bloom there every spring mark the place where it once stood. Next time you drive past the spot, think of Finlay Anderson, and know that in that brief moment you’ll be touching history: not of the dramatic sort, but history nonetheless.

Many thanks to Michelle Allen for her assistance.

Barbara Roden