Category Archives: Hedley Times

Nickel Plate Reunion In Hedley

Former residents of Nickel Plate townsite.

This past weekend Hedley was the scene of a pretty unique reunion. Participants came from various points in the province. With the exception of one individual, as children they had all lived at the Nickel Plate townsite, high on the mountain overlooking Hedley. Their parents worked for the Kelowna Exploration Company, the entity which operated the highly lucrative Nickel Plate Mine.

The mine ceased operations in 1955, so these people are now seniors. Although they’ve had several reunions previously, some had not connected since the mining days. Bob Richards of Penticton, whose father was a foreman at the mine, largely organized the event. Now age 74, he has worked in mines himself and has also earned his living as a wrestler. Like the others, he spoke fondly of his childhood years living in the Nickel Plate community.

Bob Richards

I was one when my parents moved up,” he said. “We left when I was 12. Those were good years. The mine provided a bowling alley and a skating rink. It helped us create a ski run, and much more. I attended school up there until grade 6.”

Patsy (Williams) Ehlbeck

Patsy Ehlbeck (nee Williams), spoke of her father (known by miners as Dibbs) who was mine superintendent during the family’s years at the town site. Her parents had given the Museum a painting of the family home on the mountain. This was of particular interest to Patsy.

Garnet Graham

Garnet Graham, now living in Prince George, said “There were about 40 families up there, plus singles. My dad worked in the mine and is mentioned in Mines of the Eagle Country. It was a great place to be a kid. We had lots of freedom. Sometimes we rode our bikes to Nickel Plate Lake. I have awesome memories of that time.”

Ore was sent down the tram line in skips (ore cars) to the Stamp Mill on the periphery of Hedley. The skips were controlled by the Hoist Man at Central Station part way up the line. “There was one house at Central, and this is where our family lived,” said Carl Lofroth, now of Terrace. For this reason he didn’t have as much interaction with the children of the Nickel Plate community. Even so, there are plenty of great memories. “We had Disney movies,” he said, “and there were Chinese dinners. We went camping together and had picnics.” He doesn’t recall any quarreling. When he was 6, his family moved down into Hedley where he attended school.

Jim Munro

Jim Munro lived at Nickel Plate from age 9 to 14. His dad was the camp administrator. “Kids had the run of the town,” he recalled, “but we couldn’t get too far out of line. Everyone knew who your parents were. It was like having 40 moms and 40 dads.”

Carl Lafroth

During the open mike session, there were a number of references to riding the skip down to Hedley. “People would ride the skip down and do their shopping,” Carl Lafroth explained. “On the way down, we sat on the ore. This allowed us to have a great view of the valley. On the return trip up the mountain, the skip would be empty. We’d be lower and couldn’t see much.”

Don Armstrong provided 2 cakes. This one had a photo of the stamp mill. The other showed the trestle bridge crossing the Similkameen river.

After many laughs, the reunion group was joined by locals for an outdoor roast beef dinner hosted by Don Armstrong and assisted by Judy Turner, Sharon Sund and others, all of Hedley. In the evening the Black Birds provided music for a street dance.

Good Bye To Dwight And Spook

Dwight & Spook and the loaded 1928 Chrysler coupe.

Moving out of a home inevitably entails considerable planning and work. Our neighbour Dwight (Whitey) has been moving out for at least 2 weeks. It’s taking that long because not only does he have a house full of the usual belongings, his double car garage has been crowded with quite an array of “toys”.

At one time there was a sporty little convertible in there. He must have sold it to make space for other items. I haven’t seen it for some time. A 1928 Chrysler coupe needing a lot of work took its place. In time, he and his friend Leroy turned it into a dazzlingly pretty hot rod, with a chopped roof. A real peppy little job with a 1979 Chev 350 motor. He also has a regular “family” type car, plus a heavy duty pickup. Not that he has a family living with him.

1928 Chrysler, photo taken June, 2015.

Several years ago he bought a motor home, about 27 feet long. It’s been gone for about 2 weeks, so I think he found a place to park it until he settles in somewhere.

Other than the hot rod coupe, it’s the Harley that has attracted most attention in our quiet little community. Some people in town think he must be a Hell’s Angel. I’ve never seen any indication of that. They certainly haven’t stopped by to chat.

There used to be parties in the back yard on his side of the hedge that separates our properties. Dwight is pretty generous with his beer and at times the music, talk and laughing made it necessary to close our bedroom windows at night. I think Kim, our neighbour across the street may have paid him a visit to discuss that. In the past year there have been fewer people and the noise level has been negligible. I suppose its his biker image, his congeniality, and his willingness to share the beer that have drawn a seemingly continuous stream of people to him.

Recently he casually informed me he has a girlfriend in Alberta. He said she was coming out shortly to spend a week with him and he’d introduce me. Shelly did indeed show up and I found her to be an attractive lady with a lively personality. She’s likeable and easy to converse with.

I understand now why he changed his mind about where he’d settle. Initially he thought it might be Salmon Arm. Now it’s definitely a small community not far from Edmonton. He told me the land around there is swampy and infested with mosquitoes. I asked why he’d leave Hedley for a place with an abundance of creatures eager to torment him. “It’s for the love of a woman,” he said. I’m going to miss Dwight and his faithful companion, Spook.

Chief Holmes of the Upper Similkameen Indian Band

Chief Rick Holmes at the entrance to the Snaza’ist Centre

Rick Holmes, Chief of the Upper Similkameen Indian Band, doesn’t attempt to impress people with the position. In preparation for an on-stage interview at the Hedley Canada Day celebration, I asked how I should introduce him. “You can introduce me as Chief,” he said, “then call me Rick. It’s only a title.”

In a subsequent conversation with him in our home, Linda and I sensed his thinking extends comfortably well beyond Reserve boundaries. There is an evident openness to interactions with the Similkameen community and the world beyond.

He attributes much of his shaping to being placed in a foster home in Alberta at the beginning of grade 4. “I think my mom agreed to it because she thought I’d have a chance at a better education,” he told us. “I see it as a positive. During that time I lived in the homes of 2 different families. I still stay in touch. This June I went to Alberta to visit them.”

He says observing his foster parents shaped his values. “When I ran for Chief last year,” he said, “I told the band I bring fairness and honesty.”

Rick first sought the position of Chief in 1990, but lost to Slim Allison. Elections take place on a 2 year cycle and in 1992 he won. He says Slim Allison gave him a piece of wise advice. “Some people will holler and scream at you, but don’t do the same.”

The band, which now has about 210 members, doesn’t provide a salary, he said, but he does receive an honorarium. He works at the Copper Mountain Mine, operating a crusher. Three of his five children also work there. “My daughter Rosie drives a haul truck,” he said. “The tires are huge. They cost about $30,000 each.” He is obviously pleased that his children are gainfully employed.

Jobs and band prosperity are high on my list of priorities. It’s a big thing for me that our people should not have to depend on the band for a job. Quite a few band members work at the mine.” Doing a quick mental count he said there are 14 to 18 including spouses. “We have several small contracts with the mine. I’d like to see this increased, but we don’t use the band to bully anyone to get work. We listen and try to get a foot in the door.”

We have a logging operation in the Princeton area,” he said. “It has a crew of 7 men. In the past it was one of the biggest in the southern interior. We have our own equipment, a feller/buncher, 2 skidders, a cat and loader and processors.”

Wanting to clear up a common misconception, he said “we get the same deductions from our cheques as others. We pay income tax. Also, our homes are not given to us. We have to buy them.”

Chief Rick Holmes beside a display in the Snaza’ist Centre

He told us the band office receives daily inquiries concerning the popular mine tours. “There is work needing to be done up there. We’re still looking at the idea of a gondola, but that’s for the future.” The band is also considering re-starting the Princeton Pow Wow. When I asked if band members attend the Ashnola Pow Wow, he said, “I believe they all do.”

Rick understands that as a leader he needs to give attention to his health. He walks along the highway morning and evening (“when I can”), a total of almost 8 miles. He also plays slow pitch ball. “We have a family team. I used to play short stop but now one of my sons is better, so I’ve moved to third base. I’m still a pretty decent ball player.” He has three sons. Two are mirror image identical twins and both are power hitters.

When he’s invited to functions outside the band, he attends if his schedule permits. When possible, he attends district School Board meetings. Teachers at times ask him to come and read to students. He enjoys doing this.

Rick understands the importance of a relationship with the larger Similkameen community. “We can work together on some issues and help each other.” He cited the example of Hedley’s Fire Department fighting the grass fire on reserve land recently. “We very much appreciate the efforts of the fire fighters, band members and everyone who came to help.”

It seems there are possibilities for increased cooperation and positive interactions between the band and its neighbours.

Hedley Citizens Clean Cenotaph

(clockwise) Bill Day on ladder, Peggy Terry, Andy English, Linda Martens, Margaret Skaar

Carrying buckets of water, soft brushes and toothbrushes, six enthusiastic Hedley citizens showed up at 9 am this past Sunday to thoroughly clean the Hedley cenotaph. Restored recently, with the help of fundraising and a matching grant from the federal government, the cenotaph will be rededicated at 1:00 pm on August 26th. The impetus for the refurbishing came from local researchers Jennifer Douglass and Andy English. From early issues of the Princeton Star and the Hedley Gazette, and conversations with descendants of service men named on the cenotaph, Douglass and English gleaned considerable information that might have been lost without their efforts. Their research brought to light 2 new names that needed to be added. According to English, the cenotaph may have been the first in Canada. Its location marks a point where 17 local recruits assembled in August 1915, prior to departing for Penticton where they enlisted. They were given a rousing send off with a marching band, a large banner and much applause and cheering.

Bill Day observing Jennifer Douglass meticulously cleaning with a toothbrush.
Peggy Terry, Terry Sawiuk & Andy English coming up with a plan to repair the cement floor. (The repair has since been successfully completed by Terry Sawiuk & Bill Day).

Hedley’s Canada Day 150 Celebration

Corporal Chad Parsons led the parade.
Corporal Chad Parsons led the parade.

Hedley’s Canada Day 150 celebration got off to a rousing start Saturday morning, in large part due to a creative advertising strategy by Peggy Terry. She placed notices of the Seniors’ Centre’s $5.00 breakfast on the doors of outhouses at local camp grounds. A near record 142 hungry customers showed up, many of them tourists camping in the area.

Breakfast was followed by a parade, one of Hedley’s best in recent years. It was led by Corporal Chad Parsons of the Princeton RCMP. Following him were 3 horseback riders from the Sterling Creek Ranch. Nicely groomed and well behaved, the horses were a reminder of Hedley’s swashbuckling past. Also in the parade was a float carrying 6 local ladies wearing apparel representative of Hedley’s early years.

Canada 150 museum 062

There were a number of vintage vehicles, each in some way representing the character and personality of their owner. Bill Day was at the wheel of “Nellie”, a 1930 Ford Model A. Dan Twizzle’s 1929 Dodge, Leroy Fague’s 1936 Ford pickup, and Gary Zroback’s 1953 stock coral red Mercury pickup also drew a lot of attention. Certainly the noisiest entry was Al Skramstad’s 1982 Malibu wagon. Sporting a 500 horse power motor, it was radically modified specifically for racing. Two vehicles that may have been unique to this parade were Pete Pillipow’s 1950 Studebaker and Cecil Holmes’ 1994 Cadillac hearse.

Pete Pillipow in his 1950 Studebaker
Pete Pillipow in his 1950 Studebaker

At noon people gathered at the Hedley Museum for a formal program. A main feature was a talk delivered by local historical researcher, Jennifer Douglass. Her subject was “Diversity and Inclusion in Canada and the Similkameen Valley.”

Another highlight was a visit by Upper Similkameen Indian Band chief, Rick Holmes. In a conversation with the MC, he spoke briefly about the history of Indigenous peoples, the band’s deep respect for elders, and the very popular Mascot Mine Tours, which are currently on hold. Several rounds of applause indicated a warm reception of his words.

After the program, hamburgers and hotdogs were served by chefs Simon Harris and Terry Sawiuk. A wide range of vegetable salads, plus fruit, were also on the menu. Once again, there was a line up for 5 cent ice cream cones.

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Tomahawk and Friends, a local group headed up by Darryl Brewer, provided a pleasant, well received blend of music. At the end  of the Canada Day 150 celebration there were numerous positive comments about the parade, food, program and music. People went home well fed and happy.

Hedley Museum Celebrates Stamp Mill Day

The entertainers had an attentive audience at Hedley's Stamp Mill Day.
The entertainers had an attentive audience at Hedley’s Stamp Mill Day.

Sitting in the shade of several large trees, guests at the Hedley Stamp Mill Day celebration enjoyed a sumptuous lunch on Saturday. Put on by the Hedley Historical Museum, the meal featured beef on a bun plus a variety of salads and fruit. There was a continuous line up for the 5 cent ice cream cones.

Historical researcher Jennifer Douglass had written an account of the purpose and nature of the Stamp Mill. According to Douglass, the stamps pounded relentlessly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When the Nickel Plate Mine ceased operations in 1954 and shut down the mill, there were reports of people not being able to sleep due to the silence. The account was read by Hedley Postmaster Ruth Woodin.

Harold Tuck, George Huber and Colleen Cox playing Bluegrass music.
Harold Tuck, George Huber and Colleen Cox playing Bluegrass music.

Bluegrass music was provided by the energetic and highly popular duo, George Huber and Colleen Cox of Powell River. They had invited 85 year old Harold Tuck, also of Powell River, to accompany them. Harold’s father worked underground here from 1935 to 1941. Harold was only 3 when the family moved here but still has positive memories of Hedley and returns occasionally. He plays guitar and sings bass, mostly doing country and western music. Local musician Eric Lance played guitar and added his pleasant voice and style to the group.

Terry Regier has attentive observers for his gold panning instruction.
Terry Regier has attentive observers for his gold panning instruction.

Terry Regier of Hedley offered instruction in gold panning. The sand had been “salted” with real gold flakes. Participants were definitely motivated.

Also as part of Stamp Mill Day the Seniors’ Centre offered its always well received $5.00 pancake breakfast. In addition to pancakes it features 2 eggs and 2 sausages or slices of bacon and coffee.

Sixty three guests attended the event. Judging by comments they all went home well fed and very content. Museum president, the energetic Jean Robinson, expressed great appreciation to the numerous volunteers who made the day successful and memorable.

Iva McLaren, Everyone’s Granny

Demolition of the McLaren Home
Demolition of the McLaren Home

In 1940 William and Iva Mclaren travelled by train with their 9 children from Saskatchewan to the Lumby/Cherryville area. Hearing there were mining jobs in Hedley, they loaded furniture, children and chickens onto a truck and travelled here, hoping for a new beginning. At that time the community was a bustling gold mining centre. With their large family, William’s job at the Nickle Plate Mine was sorely needed and welcome. Last week the McLaren home, nestled among trees alongside 20 Mile Creek, was taken down. The demolition was a reminder that their simple way of life is gone forever

When Linda and I had a conversation with their granddaughter Marianne McLaren recently, we found she has fond recollections of them, especially of her grandmother. We have been told by long time residents, Derek Lilly and Terry Sawiuk, Iva was everyone’s Granny.

Talking about her grandmother’s early years, Marianne said, “Grandma was 9 and had only a grade 4 education when her parents took her out of school and sent her to a farm to help with the children and do housework. Grandfather was a worker on the same farm, but 20 years older. It took time, but they fell in love and were married.”

Marianne’s family moved to Ontario when she was 5 so she didn’t get to know her grandfather well before he passed away in 1962. She does remember that he was quiet and laid back, and let grandmother make many day to day decisions. “But there was never any doubt that he was the final authority in the home. Grandma rented their first home, the house next to the former ball park, now owned by Dave Peers.”

Marianne thinks of her Grandma as a real go getter. “She joined every group in town and, in partnership with Jean Granger, ran a bingo in the Senior’s Centre. She also opened a cafe in the building on Scott Avenue where Elef Christensen now has a store.”

Iva frequently came to the aid of ill individuals, preparing meals and cleaning their home. One of these left her some money in his will. Another, Bob MacKenzie, sold her a lot with a small house at a very good price. In 1945 the still growing McLaren clan moved into this house. Located on Webster street on the far side of the bridge over 20 mile creek, it’s still an idyllic setting.

The 1948 flood left the house perched precariously on the bank, but the family continued to live in it for a time. This was also the year Iva, now 48, delivered her 12th child. With a large family their options were limited.

When their small home on the creek became too endangered by erosion of the bank, Iva moved the family into 2 small shacks behind her cafe. In 1958-59, a son and a son in law dug a partial basement by hand and built a new house on the family’s property. Much of the lumber was hauled down from the no longer operating Mascot mine. Three years later William passed away, leaving Iva to carry on alone.

Idyllic setting of McLaren house.
Idyllic setting of McLaren house.

When Marianne returned to BC as a young woman, she and Iva sometimes did cooking projects together. One day while pickling cucumbers, Marianne observed that Grandma wasn’t measuring ingredients. Appalled at the large quantity of salt being added, she exclaimed, “Grandma, that’s far too much salt!” Nonplussed, Iva said, “It will work.”

In another cooking project Iva said, “stop using that dirty sugar!” Surprised, Marianne asked what she meant. Iva’s explanation helped her understand that with the advent of white sugar, manufacturers’ advertising had begun referring to brown sugar as “dirty.”

Grandma didn’t buy bread,” Marianne said. “She baked her own. She grew a garden and canned the produce.”

After the children were out of the home, Iva was able to relax more and have fun. “Grandma and several girlfriends began taking the bus to Vegas,” Marianne said. When I asked if they gambled, she replied, “oh yes, they gambled!”

To help Iva, Marianne’s father, Ernest McLaren, bought the property and paid maintenance expenses. When Iva was 86, her son Tommy moved her to the Legion apartments in Princeton. She passed away at age 97.

Marianne and her partner, Mark Woodcock, now own the property and will put up a new home. Undoubtedly William and Iva would be pleased.

Mark Woodcock & Marianne McLaren
Mark Woodcock & Marianne McLaren

Drug House Sign On Telephone Poll

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Last week when Linda and I were walking along Daly Avenue in Hedley, we noticed an unusual sign attached to a telephone pole. It was an “advertisement” for the local drug house. Someone must have placed it there in the darkness of the night. It had not been there the previous day and would certainly be removed before the end of this day. People selling illicit drugs do not place ads in newspapers or on telephone poles. Fortunately, I had my camera in my jacket pocket and I took advantage of the opportunity.

The sign intrigued me because although there is a good deal of under the breath grumbling about the drug house, I’m not aware anyone has taken any direct action, other than complaining to the police.

At the Senior Centre’s coffee time early the next morning, Linda learned that similar signs had been posted on poles elsewhere in town, but no one could even guess who had done it. Whoever did it likely fears retribution and isn’t talking. All we know is the individual has the ability to use a computer, but just about everyone in Hedley possesses that skill.

My best guess is that it was a woman. One with the lively imagination required to concoct a plan such as this. (I’ll call her Martha.) Without exposing herself, Martha has cleverly and effectively cast light on the local drug operation. This certainly will not be welcome. When I looked for the signs the next morning, they had already been taken down.

Martha evidently possesses a well developed social conscience, and the will to take action when she believes her community is threatened. If one of the drug house “clients” had been restless and wandering about that night, she might have been seen and reported.

In suggesting that it was a woman who posted the signs, I’m obviously making an assumption. However, women have often provided leadership in battles against wrongdoing in their community. I’m always impressed when, instead of attacking head on, they devise wonderfully ingenious schemes to unsettle their adversary.

Nellie McClung

Martha seems to have a lot in common with an early Canadian social activist, Nellie McClung. I was reminded of Nellie when I saw the sign on the pole. Early in the 20th century Nellie and a delegation of women publicly presented Manitoba Premier Redmond Roblin with a petition requesting that women be given the right to vote. Roblin told them his mother had instilled in him a great respect for women and that they are actually on a higher plane than men. Nevertheless, he declared himself unequivocally opposed to giving them the right to vote. While he was speaking, Nellie observed his pompous, patronizing attitude, his ingratiating friendliness designed to disarm them, and his at times loud, commanding voice.

The following evening Nellie announced to a capacity crowd in the Walker Theater in Winnipeg that the program would include a mock parliament. It would feature a fantasy legislature in which gender roles were reversed.

When the curtain rose the stage was occupied by women wearing evening gowns and black coats.

Nellie McClung, in the role of Premier, adopted Roblin’s pompous, patronizing words and tones. Referring to a delegation of men who had requested the right to vote, she said, ”if all men were as intelligent as these representatives of the downtrodden sex seem to be, it might not do any harm to give them the vote. But all men are not intelligent.” Many in the audience had heard similar words about women from the Premier the evening before. She adopted the Premier’s stance, palms up. “There is no use giving men the vote,” she continued. “They wouldn’t use them. They’d let them spoil and waste. How could they be allowed to vote,” she thundered, “when 70% of those appearing in court are men? Giving men the vote would unsettle the home. The place for them is on the farm!”

These women protested with Nellie McClung.
These women protested with Nellie McClung.

Nellie McClung’s response to the Premier was innovative and her performance was masterful. She succeeded in persuading the audience that the Premier’s intransigence was illogical and foolish.

Although the signs have been removed from the poles, they aren’t really gone. I’ve heard that a local citizen posted a picture of one on Facebook.

The drug house won’t close because of Martha’s signs, but like Nellie McClung, she has reminded us that it is possible to push back against unsavoury influences in our community.

Seeking The Hedley Monk

A Buddhist monk.

Autumn had set in and brown leaves were falling freely from the trees when Anna told me about a Buddhist monk living in a cave somewhere in Windy Canyon. I had not heard of him previously and wondered if she was an imaginative storyteller. She was young and had recently come to Camp Colonial in Hedley to work as a cook.

I hiked along 20 Mile Creek yesterday and came upon his cave quite by accident,” she said. “He doesn’t come into town, and he doesn’t want visitors.”

This was the early 1980’s. Our organization, the One Way Adventure Foundation, had recently been awarded a contract by the Corrections Branch to work with 12 young offenders. Many of these youths had not had the benefit of constructive modeling in their homes. They had learned to function by lying, cheating, deceiving, stealing, being aggressive, avoiding responsibility and much more. Most had lived in foster and group homes. Whenever possible, I took the 4 most difficult ones, Phillip, Curt, Bert and Harry away from the camp so they couldn’t influence, intimidate or incite the others.

I was constantly alert for activities that might shift the thinking of these youths away from the street culture with which they were familiar. If this monk living in a cave was indeed real, it might be an opportunity to expose the boys to a radically different set of values and lifestyle.

Already the mercury was dipping to zero at night. For several weeks the mountains surrounding our little community had been bedecked by a mantel of white. On the third day of November, a skiff of snow covered the ground and we began seeing smoke rising from chimneys.

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By December 22nd the ice was thick enough to walk on, and I asked Anna to pack 5 lunches for the following morning. She suspected my intentions and again said, “he asked me to tell people he doesn’t want visitors.” I thanked her for the reminder.

A fine, wind blown snow was falling when I instructed the 4 boys to dress warmly because we’d be out all day, searching for a mysterious monk who supposedly lived in a cave. After breakfast we leaned into the snow and wind, walking determinedly along 20 Mile Creek.

Initially we followed the former mining road. When it turned up the mountainside, we were well into Windy Canyon, a deep mountainous gorge with space only for the creek and a narrow footpath. At the first crossing of the creek, we found a log with short boards nailed insecurely to it. After that the crossings were mostly on ice, water gurgling beneath us.

There were no complaints from the boys as we slogged laboriously in the deepening snow. After about 3 hours, Bert glanced up. “Look!” he exclaimed excitedly, “is that it?” We clambered up a steep bank, having difficulty maintaining our footing.

A short wooden wall covered the front of the cave. There was a door of rough boards and a small window. The monk had heard our laboured grunting and opened the door. His bespectacled face revealed no displeasure at our unanticipated appearance. He beckoned us to enter.

I looked around and concluded this man lived in unimaginably sparse circumstances. A small wood stove with a pipe exiting through the wooden wall provided some heat. A large chair and a mantel stood against the rock wall to our right.

Would you like coffee?” he asked, as though he had anticipated our arrival. His voice suggested a quality education and upbringing. The boys nodded and I said “we’d appreciate that. Please forgive us for showing up without prior notice.” He smiled at this, then filled a tin can with water and deftly ground coffee beans with a manual grinder.

Why are you living in this cave?” I asked.

I’m seeking enlightenment,” he replied. “Much of my day is taken up with doing prostrations.”

We talked for about 15 minutes, drinking his delicious, black coffee. The boys listened respectfully.

During our conversation Bert asked where he slept. The monk pointed to the large chair and said, “that’s where I sleep.”

Through the wooden wall we could hear the wind growing stronger. It was time to leave. Before walking out, each of the boys said “thanks for the coffee” and shook the monk’s hand. They seemed to sense they had experienced a bit of Similkameen history.

George And Christina, Still Valentines

George & Christina, with a couple of Christina's creations.
George & Christina, with a couple of Christina’s creations.

For me a relationship that has been tested by the storms of life holds a more riveting fascination than young, often transitory romance. Aware of the cloud overshadowing the marriage of George and Christina Thiessen, and with Valentines Day approaching, I wanted to hear their story. Last week they invited Linda and me to their spacious heritage home in Hedley.

For reasons that will be revealed, George did most of the talking. “We met in Reno,” he began. “Christina was a passenger on the bus I was driving for Maverick Tours. The Tour Guide asked me what I like to do in Reno. I told her I’d probably go dancing. I just needed a partner. She introduced me to Christina, and that evening Christina was my dancing partner.”

She told me later she had not expected to hear from me again, after we returned to B.C.”

George had been married twice. His first wife had borne 3 children, then died at a young age. The second wife had become a demanding, unruly alcoholic and the marriage had been a crushing failure.

Upon meeting Christina, George realized she possessed the depth of character he had been longing for. Smitten by her pretty, smiling face and evident kindness, he called her.

In time they moved in together. “Christina wouldn’t marry me though,” George said. “She had also been hurt in previous relationships and didn’t want to commit again.”

George continued to drive the tour bus, at times away for 11 days, with only a 1 day break between trips. Christina was working at the Surrey Memorial Hospital, cleaning operating rooms. George’s driving schedule and their history of hurtful relationships might have made this a rocky union. Fortunately George’s stability appealed to Christina and reassured her.

When I lost my 17 year old son in a bike/automobile accident, it was a difficult time,” he said. “Christina stood by me. Then my daughter passed away and again Christina was at my side, supporting me.”

They saw an ad for a spacious home in Hedley and called the realtor. Entranced by the house and the large yard, they bought it. The house needed serious updating so George studied magazines, bought tools and set to work.

George & Christina, in front of their Hedley home, Oct. 2015
George & Christina, in front of their Hedley home, Oct. 2015

He began experiencing severe sciatic pain and Graham Gore, pastor of the Hedley Grace Church, drove him to Kelowna for surgery. After recovering, George and Christina attended the church on a Sunday morning to thank the congregation for their support. Liking the people and the atmosphere, they continued to attend. On May 30, 2009 Graham married them in a small ceremony on their park like grounds.

About 2 years later the aforementioned cloud appeared on the horizon, scarcely noticeable at first. “Tests were done and we were told Christina had a slow progressing form of dementia,” George said, a note of deep sadness in his voice.

The diagnosis changed their lives. “Christina was always very talented in crafting,” George said. “One year she made 30 teddy bears to give away as Christmas gifts. She inspired me to take up woodworking.”

He pushed back his chair. “Come,” he said, “we’ll show you some of our creations. He led us upstairs to 3 rooms where we were greatly impressed by an array of Christina’s stuffed animals lolling on chairs and George’s intricate wood creations displayed on the walls. A beguiling aura of genius pervaded these rooms.

George with one of his wood creations.
George with one of his wood creations.

The dementia has caused this creative activity to cease. Their lives have become constricted. They still attend the church but participate only briefly in the coffee time afterwards. “Christina becomes anxious in groups.”

George paused. “Sometimes when I’m doing yardwork she wanders off and I don’t notice Fortunately, if she stays on the route we walk, she can find her way back. Usually when people see her alone, I get phone calls. People want to help.”

Christina playing the keyboard.
Christina playing the keyboard.

Not all is lost. Christina played the key board for us and her rendition of the Blue Danube Waltz was delicate and pleasing. Also, we had observed that while George was talking about the dementia, she sensed his distress and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. When they go out, she requests his assistance in selecting appropriate combinations of clothes. Although her comprehension is limited, she is able to engage in simple exchanges.

I love Christina and I’m committed to her,” George said. “I won’t place her in a home. We’re in this together to the end.” They’re still Valentines.