Taking Local History Seriously

Posted by Howard on Nov 1, 2010

By Jean BarmanUniversity of British Columbia

Titles Reviewed:
The Ambitious City: A History of the City of North Vancouver. Warren Sommer. Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2007. 342 pp. $44.95 cloth.

Chewassen, Tsawwassen or Chiltinm: The Land Facing the Sea. Gwynn Szychter. Delta: self-published, 2007. 181 pp. $35 paper. Available from the author, 5122 44th Avenue, Delta V4K 1C3

The Chilliwack Story. Ron Denman, ed. Chlliwack: Chilliwack Museum and Archives, 2007. 360 pp. $39.95 cloth.

Desolation Sound: A History. Heather Harbord. Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2007. 260 pp. $24.94 paper.

Dog Creek: 100 Years. Don Logan. Victoria: Trafford, 2007. 186 pp. $25 paper. Available from the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin.

Hollyburn: The Mountain & the City. Francis Mansbridge. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008. 204 pp. $24.95 paper.

Kamloops History: Fictions, Facts and Fragments. Wayne Norton. Vancouver: Plateau Press, 2007. 111 pp. $16.95 paper.

Lantzville: The First Hundred Years. Lynn Reeve, ed. Lantzville: Lantzville Historical Society, 2007. 96 pp. $25 paper

Nothing Without Effort: A History of Langley. Warren Sommer. Langley: Township of Langley, 2008. 337 pp. $49.95 cloth. Available from Langley Centennial Museum.

Penticton British Columbia: Celebrating a Century. Yasmin John-Thorpe and Penny Smith, ed. Penticton: Penticton Writers and Publishers, 2007. 108 pp. $50 cloth, $30 paper.

Photographic Memory: Salmon Arm’s past in essays and pictures. Denis Marshall, ed., Salmon Arm: Salmon Arm Branch, Okanagan Historical Society, 2007. 192 pp. $20 paper.

The Story of Dunbar: Voices of a Vancouver Neighbourhood. Peggy Schofield, ed. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2007. 441 pp. $39.95 paper.

Tidal Passages: A History of the Discovery Islands. Jeanette Taylor. Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2008. 316 pp. $24.95 cloth.

Vancouver Stories of a City: A History of Vancouver Neighbourhoods and the People Who Built Them. Lisa Smedman. Vancouver: Vancouver Courier, 2008. 320 pp. $44.95 cloth.

Voices from the Sound: Chronicles of Clayoquot Sound and Tofino, 1899-1929. Margaret Horsfield. Nanaimo: Salal Books, 2008. 365 pp. $45 cloth.
Williams Lake: The Heart of the Cariboo. Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin. 2 vol. Williams Lake: Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin, 2003, 2008. 232, 233 pp. $30 each paper.

The writing of history comes in many forms and fashions. Those of us who seek to interpret the past with words approach the task with different backgrounds, preconceptions, and passions. For all of this diversity, a hierarchy exists in some minds between kinds of written history, with academics, not unexpectedly, liking to place themselves at the top. While the argument that lengthy scholarly training in theory, method, and historiography has merit, it should not preclude paying attention to writing from other perspectives. Local histories have particular utility in British Columbia, whose large size and diversity make it extremely difficult for any single person to interrogate every place closely and thereby to understand the province as a whole, cognizant of all its parts.

Local histories explore, often from an insider perspective, the relationship between a relatively small physical area and the human beings who have through time attempted to impress themselves on it. The area becomes localized by virtue of arrivals claiming it as their own. In comparison with scholarly texts, local histories are often more modest in their aspirations, being, in the words of one such work, “simply a snapshot of some of the happenings, and of some of the people who made things happen” (Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin, Introduction, np). Ambitious or not, local histories contribute to our understanding by evoking place from the perspective of families and communities with the intimacy that proximity brings.

Taking local history seriously, we come to realize how fertile a field of publishing it has been in British Columbia over the last while. Some of the locations in the sixteen books noted here are known to most of us, others less so. Few among us are likely familiar with all of their histories or, for that matter, can locate them precisely on a map. These considerations are part of what makes local history so valuable an addition to understanding this province of ours.

The sixteen books divide into three groups. Six of them are in the mainstream of local history by virtue of attending to discrete communities dotted across the landscape. The centennials of the coalmining community of Lantzville on Vancouver Island, fruit-growing Penticton in the Okanagan Valley, and ranching Dog Creek in the Cariboo gave the impetus to locally produced accounts nicely incorporating vignettes and family stories. A two-volume history of Williams Lake published by its very fine Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin opts for a combined historical and topical approach permitting readers to single out aspects of that ranching community’s past of most interest to them. Salmon Arm in the Shuswap is brought to life through engaging first-hand accounts and family stories complemented by a wide array of photographs. Wayne Norton’s foray into the history of Kamloops explores topics that interest him, including outsiders’ first impressions and the postcards, collectables, and persons that depicted this ranching town to outsiders.

Seven of the books focus on the Lower Mainland extending through the Fraser Valley. The number is hardly surprising given this relatively small area of British Columbia, which includes its largest city of Vancouver, has since the 1920s housed half or more of the province’s population. All the same, as Lisa Smedman’s account of the growth of Vancouver neighbourhoods and the story of one of them, Dunbar, emphasize, the city is not that unique, thriving in good part because it retains in its neighbourhoods a sense of the local with which residents can comfortably identify. Warren Sommer’s solid histories of nearby North Vancouver, another centennial project, and of Langley in the heart of the Fraser Valley not only narrate their stories but place them within larger regional, provincial, and national frameworks. The history of greater Chilliwack in the eastern Fraser Valley comes across more as a reference book, being broken up between thirteen separate geographical areas and factual rather than interpretive. More focused are Francis Mansbridge’s fascinating history of the recreational use of the mountainous Hollyburn area above West Vancouver, and Gwen Szychter’s historical “self-guided tour of Tsawwassen…to be enjoyed through a leisurely walk or drive, or in the comfort of a favourite armchair” (11), but sadly lacking maps to guide the reader.

The remaining three books turn attention to British Columbia’s long coastline, where the local has often equated with individuals and families who “yearned to get away from the evils of civilization” (Harbord, 12) and also from each other more than it has with discrete communities working together towards common ends. Heather Harbord’s rich history of Desolation Sound, Jeanette Taylor’s of the large area lying between Vancouver Island and the mainland of which the Sound is a part, and Margaret Horsfield’s of Vancouver Island’s west coast each stitch together stories and recollections with gossamer threads into enjoyable and persuasive narratives that extend across time from the early establishment Brits, resourceful Scandinavians, religious zealots, and others serviced by coastal steamships and missionary boats to the later hippies, draft dodgers, and back-to-the-landers similarly seeking alternative, self-sufficient ways of life.

As well as marking out the many ways in which British Columbians have interacted with their settings through time and thereby defined what the local means to them, these sixteen books expand our sensitivity to the past in other ways as well. One of these has to do with methodology. Local historians are limited by their sources, as is all historical writing to a degree. While local archives around British Columbia have done their best to acquire and maintain original records, they have been all too frequently starved of funding. The longtime tendency to equate the past worth remembering with white men in positions of authority further limits archives’ reach. Local historians, and also communities interested in surfacing their past, have as a consequence become imaginative scavengers of a sort, reclaiming the past through conversations with long-time residents. Authors’ proximity to their subjects opens the door to wonderful photographs, sometimes contributed by the families themselves, and virtually all of the books take advantage of this opportunity.

While such initiatives are highly commendable, they run the danger of writing the past backwards in time from the perspective of those who “came and stayed” (Szychter, 10) as opposed to those there first as with indigenous people, there briefly, or perforce lived in the shadows. Indicative of changing attitudes more generally, most of the books make a real effort to integrate indigenous people into the text, some albeit better than others. Newcomers who came and went fare less well, an interesting exception being the Salmon Arm history with its attention to notable early visitor Canadian geologist William Mercer Dawson (31-38), The substantial attention to Chinese British Columbians in the Dog Creek, Chilliwack, and Penticton histories are welcome counterparts to the tendency for them to appear, if at all, anecdotally. The Japanese internment during the Second World War figures in several of the books.

Two intriguing topics running through the books exemplify local histories’ utility for interrogating broader topics as well as reflecting on the local. The first has to do with making a living, the second with moving about for the sheer pleasure of doing so.

The many ways in which British Columbians have fashioned a living are everywhere evident in these sixteen local histories. There’s the Lantzville cooperative whose members crawled in, worked, and then crawled out on their bellies to mine a single narrow coal seam (20, 22), hop picking at Sardis near Chilliwack (319-21), woodcarver and Squamish chief Mathias Joe who during the Second World War “was happy to turn his talents to crafting the spars required on His Majesty’s ships” (Sommer, Ambitious City, 199), the Ladner Turkey Farms that at their peak in about 1960 were “the largest producer of turkeys in Canada” (Szychter, 58-60), the Salmon Arm company whose tree seeds became sought around the world (141-45), and the two Penticton pilots and mechanic so intrigued by “a new fangled flying machine” they successfully introduced helicopters in British Columbia and beyond (43). Then there are the many, many loggers, fishermen, farmers, and ranchers whose perseverance in oftentimes difficult circumstances have anchored locality after locality. Virtually all of the books include stories of woman teachers, some of whom soon moved on but others who married into the local community and continued to contribute to it throughout their lives. Women employed outside of the home did not only teach: those in Penticton worked in the local fruit cannery (72), in Salmon Arm in its fruit packing house (46, 53), and their North Vancouver counterparts in its shipyards during the Second World War (202-03).

These books emphasize how British Columbians have never remained fixed in place throughout the year. The province’s size has encouraged people to move about not only in search of a better life, but also for recreation. As early as the 1880s some British Columbians began to take themselves off to the seaside or some other water locale for extended periods of summertime to locations including Lantzville (50-52), Desolation Sound (15, 79, 94-95, 116, 202, 210-22, passim), Tsawwassen (123-32, 149-53), Cultus Lake near Chilliwack (237-38), Penticton (21), and the area around Salmon Arm (146-52). The Langley history pinpoints wealthy Vancouverites’ role in a section aptly entitled “Playground for Millionaires” (171). Tourism also helped to fashion Williams Lake with its annual stampede and rodeo (182-97). The Hollyburn history skillfully evokes the tension between recreation with skiers constructing impromptu cabins, the demands of the larger economy in the form of lumbering, and municipal expansion with a penchant for regulation and control.

For all the contributions local histories make to our understanding, they are far too often on the margins of our attention. Means of publication play a role. Harbour Publishing, long committed to local history, is behind three of the books, smaller publishers another four. Seven have been published by community groups, the others self-published, an increasingly viable option given changing technology. While local history has the advantage of sales being geographically concentrated with less need for wide-ranging marketing, the downside is some of the books being unavailable in public libraries, much less bookstores, outside of the locality.

Taking local history seriously advantages all historians. Reading accounts written out of a commitment to place, we perceive the benefits to be had from putting less distance between our subjects and ourselves. Local historians delve into aspects of the past of both particular and general interest, including individuals’ relationship to their physical settings, their diverse and imaginative means of making a living, and the need we all share for recreation. Taking local history seriously, we also come to understand how it is that the locality with which we identify as individuals and groups is in no way predetermined, but rather an ongoing process in which we all engage throughout our lifetimes.