The drive from Hedley to Coalmont would have been worthwhile just to drink Bob Sterne’s richly flavoured coffee and sample Diane’s lemon loaf. Between Princeton and Tulameen, Coalmont is somewhat off what we call the beaten path. At one stretch there is a steep drop to the valley below. I’d want a 4×4 pickup for the trip in winter.
Linda and I had not met the Sternes previously but we already suspected they aren’t the type who wring their hands and say “someone should do something about it.” They initially came to the Coalmont area to do gold panning. “We fell in love with the community,” Diane told us. “Over several years we became quieter and quieter on our trips back to Anmore. This was where we wanted to be. At that time I was a dental assistant and Bob was building radio controlled sail boats.”
Set in a spacious valley Coalmont is, for the most part, peaceful and idyllic. In 2003 the Sternes made the momentous decision to buy the former CPR pay office in this community of about 85 citizens. “The building had no electricity, no plumbing and no septic tank,” Bob recalled. It was a daunting decision for other reasons as well. Even now, Coalmont has no doctor, nurse or first responder, no cell service, stores, or fire department. Also, there is no community water system so each property must have its own well.
They transformed the sadly neglected structure into a home and 3 unit motel, and named it the Mozey-On-Inn. Wanting to retain the aura of the earlier gold mining era, signs on the units designate them as Bank, Saloon and Barbershop.
With virtually no services people must come together in an emergency. “When Bob had a cardiac arrest while shovelling snow in the driveway,” Diane said, “people came to help. I had purchased a defibrillator some years ago after my Dad had a heart attack. A neighbour put the paddles on Bob. The Tulameen fire chief lives here and showed up with oxygen. Without the help of neighbours, Bob would be dead. It was a reminder that as a community we need to be self-reliant and help each other.”
The Sternes are passionate about preserving local history, and in our 2 hour conversation there were frequent references to the past. “Walt Smart owned the only grocery store in town,” Bob said. “He let people run up a tab. Sometimes they couldn’t pay and when they moved out of town, they gave him their property. He loved the town and stayed here until he died in 2010.”
When we had emptied Bob’s coffee pot, eaten Diane’s delightful lemon loaf and toured the motel, we drove to the Granite Creek Cemetery. “The Granite Creek community was founded in 1885,” Diane said. “By 1886 it was the third largest population centre in B.C.”
The community died when Postmaster Foxcrowle Percival Cooke passed away. Only the cemetery remains and it had deteriorated almost beyond recognition. “Fallen trees were lying across the graves,” Bob said. “The graves were poorly marked and hard to find.” In 2004 the Sternes and others in Coalmont decided to restore it. Using information provided by a funeral director and also notes from a high school research project, they began identifying occupants of the graves. They checked birth and death records at the Vancouver Library.
Walking about the now orderly and clean cemetery with Diane and Bob, we concluded that they think of the people in the graves as interesting acquaintances, even friends.
“We have marked all the known graves,“ Diane said. “I talk to the people when I’m working on their gravesite.” (Don’t worry, she’s totally sane).
As we passed one grave, Bob said, “That’s Mary. She was the second wife of Louis Marcotte. He built the Coalmont Hotel.” At another grave Diane said, “that’s Hattie McBride, the Coalmont madam, the second biggest contributor to the community’s WWI machine gun fund.”
As we were about to leave Bob said, “everyone in our community is involved, but people don’t talk about what they do. They just do it.”
“We’re living our dream,” Diane added. “I never want to leave. I want to die here.” Bob nodded agreement.
People waved at us as we were leaving town. If Linda and I weren’t settled in Hedley, Coalmont would be an attractive option.