The little town where nothing ever changes

Esther Darlington MacDonald begs to differ - many things have changed over the years in Ashcroft.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

To those who believe that “nothing changes” in Ashcroft, and I’ve heard the complaint over the years, I have to disagree. I’ve seen too many changes in the Village over the last 40 years to count.

I’ve considered the reasons why some would feel “nothing changes” in Ashcroft, but I think it would be counter productive. Better to recall how the village looked when I first set eyes on it in 1973. I have to admit, I wasn’t impressed. Not even a bit.

“It’s a dry, brown Anglican town”, I thought. If that sounds more than a little harsh. Consider the opinion of Ashcroft’s first permanent medical doctor, George Sanson.

“The only thing separating Ashcroft from Hell is a piece of brown paper” I think is how he put it.

The remark made to a friend or a colleague, recorded in our Museum. Now George Sanson may have been referring to the blistering heat of summer in Ashcroft, and we are told that the climate in the village and surrounding areas has changed quite dramatically over the past 40 years. And I would certainly agree that it has.

I can recall leaving our air conditioned apartment on Brink Street, in mid July, 1973, with a gasp as I stepped outside. The heat was a hammer blow. It made you suck in your breath, and head for the nearest watering hole. Which, at that time, was the “last of the great old raunchy establishments”, as one wag put it. He was referring to the Ashcroft Hotel.

This Tudor style white plaster two storey edifice with its brown trim held a definable air of forlorn “used to be”. The hotel had so clearly seen “better days”. At one time, when passengers fresh off the train had looked for transportation north to places like Williams Lake, Quesnel and Prince George, they streamed into the premises known as “the beer parlor” and the dining room. The Hotel had been a going concern. But those days had long gone. In 1973, I would describe the interior of the Hotel as having an empty air of waiting about it. The cafe on the 4th Ave. side of the building was busy enough, I suppose.  But the dining room had long been closed.

Then, a disastrous fire took the building down for the second time in almost 50 years. In 1916, fire had destroyed half of the downtown core. The fire in the early 1970s caused loss of life. And, as the flames lit up the night sky, the volunteer fire men battled fruitlessly to contain them. I saw a few watching the fire, persons who had worked in the hotel during the 20’s and 30’s, shed a few tears. The Village would not have another hotel for several more years, when the River Inn was built on a bench just above the river, at the foot of Railway and Barnes Lake Rd.

Wandering around the streets and avenues when I first arrived in Ashcroft, the impression was one of isolation, and a general air of ennui. To call it “laid back” is not quite the expression that fits. Perhaps it was the heat. We had arrived in summer. But the buildings themselves, seemed, well,  small and defenseless.

Weather-beaten cottages along Railway close to the rail track. Yes, there was a drugstore, now referred to as a pharmacy, and yes, there was a very attractive retail ladies wear store, but the facility you see today, containing pharmacy, real estate office and employment office, had yet to be built. There wasn’t a flowering planter or a tree to be seen on all eight blocks of the main street. And the sidewalk, with its goodly share of dog droppings, wasn’t what you would call pedestrian friendly.

Yet, people didn’t seem to mind. Dog droppings wasn’t an issue. What was an issue was upgrading the water system, so that the water pressure was sufficient to protect the outer edge of the village residences, particularly those above the Cemetery, in what is now the Mesa Vista Court. And the issue of the NDP government advising the Village that they needed a sewer system that would protect the river from further pollution. They ordered the Village to build a sewer system that would serve a population of 10,000. That meant two referendums, and a heck of a lot of money that the Village didn’t have.

“No changes in Ashcroft,” you say. Scarcely a convincing statement.

Today, Ashcroft’s water and sewer systems, expensive to maintain, supply residents with good, clean drinking water.  With the building of the Mesa Vista sub divisions, and then later, the subdivision in North Ashcroft, the demands on the water and sewer systems are substantial. But we have parks we never had in 1973. Beautiful, spacious green parks where our young people can play soccer, where residents can celebrate Canada Day, and tourists can enjoy our look back on history in the lovely landscaped gardens of Heritage Place Park on Railway.

In 1973, none of these facilities which we all enjoy, were there.

The new swimming pool in the park adjacent to Desert Hills farms is a far cry from the modest little pool at the foot of Tingley Street alongside the rail line.

There was no Fields Store, no Safety Mart supermarket, no pavement on thoroughfares off the main street. I don’t think people can imagine just how much the Village of Ashcroft has become the people-oriented village it has become over the last 40 years.

And I have to mention the graveyard. “If you bury me in this place, I will haunt you for the rest of your life,” I told my former husband in 1973. Cracked earth. Not a shrub and a very few trees. A new superintendent had trees planted along the perimeter, and grass sown. That cemetery is now a tribute to the staff who maintain it, and a tribute to our councillors who want to see it maintained. The dignity and the TLC that goes with that, is a far cry from the neglected “dry gulch” condition that reminded you of the old westerns.

Benches along Railway for people to rest on. Well maintained shops. Buildings supplies, bottle depots, recycle depots. These are all changes that have come about since 1973. And yes, there is always a need for more. More of everything. But in my view, the quality of life in the Village has improved tremendously over the years. And more resources will come. The Village will grow. Undoubtedly. Ashcroft has always grown.