Golden Country: Past, Present, and Beyond: Ghosts of Walhachin part seven

What ultimately caused the demise of Walhachin? There are several culprits, some of which the orchardists could do nothing about.

Charles E. Barnes

Charles E. Barnes

Part seven of a series looking at the history of Walhachin

As we have seen, the apple crops of 1914 to 1918 were bumper ones, and seemed to bear out the early promises and grand claims made for the site in an information pamphlet published in 1908. It had stated, of the growing potential of Walhachin, “No artificial manure of any description is necessary, water only being needed to render the land abnormally productive. The best varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries, small fruits, and all garden and farm crops which flourish in the temperate zone can be grown to perfection.”

The filler crops—including onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and even tobacco—that were planted to tide the orchardists over until the fruit trees started producing also grew lushly, and Walhachin did appear to live up to its early promise. So why was the site abandoned, less than 15 years after its founding?

A filler crop of tobacco at Walhachin. Photo courtesy Ashcroft Museum and Archives.

There is no single culprit. A number of factors, some of which the orchardists could not have known of or controlled, and some that they could have dealt with, account for the failure of the site.

Take the soil, for example, the quality of which was so glowingly extolled. Scientific analysis of soil to judge how suitable it is for growing crops did not start in the province until the 1920s, when governmental experimental farms began to be set up around B.C. It was not until 1953 that the B.C. Department of Agriculture began testing the soil around Walhachin.

Their findings did not prove Walhachin to be a second Garden of Eden. Quite the opposite, in fact: none of the soil in the area was found to be suitable for growing fruit trees, and fewer than 160 acres at the site were found to be suitable for vegetable cultivation.

There is also the fact that the valley in which Walhachin is located suffered from far more severe weather extremes than the more temperate Okanagan Valley, where lakes serve to moderate cold air masses. The draws and gullies feeding down to the orchards also allowed for cold air masses to be drawn down to the site from the plateaus above. This meant that any crops planted at Walhachin were at far greater risk of damage or destruction from frost, making it marginal at best as an area for orchards. That no devastating frost occurred during the war years was pure luck.

Walhachin (seen here in 1910) is in a beautiful location; but there is little protection from extreme weather. Photo courtesy Ashcroft Museum and Archives.

Several people have put forward the theory that the town failed to survive because of the huge toll taken on its population by World War I. In August 1914, when Canada entered the war, there were 107 men of military age in Walhachin. By the time the war ended in 1918, 97 of these men had marched off to war—the highest per capita enlistment of any town in the British Empire—and popular wisdom holds that those who were not killed or seriously injured simply decided not to return.

It is an appealing theory. Almost all the orchardists were British, with no longstanding ties to the area, and in many cases their wives and families had returned to Great Britain when the men had left. However, few of the Walhachin soldiers had sustained serious injuries, and most of them did return to the settlement after the war, in some cases bringing their families back with them, or rejoining families who had not left.

Many of these settlers were “remittance men” who had failed at home, or been a disappointment to their families, and had been sent to Walhachin with a remittance in their pocket (and often a regular income from home) on the principle of “out of sight, out of mind.” They were thus reluctant settlers of this isolated outpost, and some of them probably had no desire to stay there after the war. However, they had attempted to re-create the sort of upper-class lifestyle and leisure activities in Walhachin that they had enjoyed at home, and succeeded to a large extent, making it a not-unattractive place in which to live as gentlemen farmers.

Few of the men had any experience with orchards or farming, however, and they tended to stay aloof from the residents of nearby communities, meaning that assistance from more experienced settlers was not usually asked for or offered. And few of them showed any sign of wanting to learn more: only two settlers from the community ever availed themselves of the winter courses in horticulture offered by the Pullman Technical College in Pullman, Washington.

Be that as it may, most of the men who had gone off to fight returned when the war was over, and perhaps they would have stayed, buoyed by the reports of the bumper crops while they were gone, and ignorant of the soil and climate conditions that were working against them. However, two decisions—one made in 1910, the other in 1912—probably share the most blame for Walhachin’s failure.

The 1912 decision came after the original investors bowed out, and the site was purchased by the Marquis of Anglesey. He promptly dismissed the site’s manager, Charles E. Barnes, who had been Walhachin’s first champion. Barnes was committed to the community, a tireless worker and promoter of the site, and a dedicated leader who had gained the admiration and respect of everyone in the settlement.

Barnes’s replacement was Ralph Chetwynd (affectionately known as “Rafe”), who was considerably younger than Barnes (he celebrated his “coming of age”—probably 21—at Walhachin in 1911). He was popular in the community, doubtless did well during his first two years as manager when the community was booming and the mood was positive, and acquitted himself with honour on the battlefield during the war. But when he returned as manager in 1919, his youth, inexperience, and lack of strong leadership abilities left him wildly unsuited to deal with what awaited him and the other returning orchardists.

To be continued