Fernie has always welcomed new people and some have chosen to make it the permanent home for several generations. Two of those are the McConachie and Wakefield families.
“Elko Will Become One of the Finest Fruit Belts in the Great West” shouts the headline on one of the many brochures circulated to attract investors and settlers to the area in the early 1900s. It was said information “stretched the truth” such as a photo of a tree with oranges tied to branches to prove the claim of a mild climate. It was these brochures that attracted Arthur Wakefield of County Wexford, Ireland to come and settle in Canada.
Arthur born in 1894 was only nine when his mother died from blood poisoning caused by infected sores on her hands from using a washboard. The five children were put into an orphanage, but Arthur ran away from the institution and went back to his dad. Tragically a few months later his father also died from an infection after stepping on a rusty nail. By age 12 Arthur had a job at sea on a British ship sailing out of Plymouth. He travelled down the coastline to Africa and the West Indies loading and unloading cargo from ships. And then he met Maggie.
In a handwritten note he writes that after spending seven years on ships traveling around world, he ended up in a coal town in South Wales but didn’t like the coal mines after his experience at sea. He adds that he had no intention of staying there until he met Maggie, an attractive daughter of a Welsh Coal miner who “changed his life”.
“I wanted to go back to sea but after seven months with Maggie I decided to stay as a coal miner and married her on December 5,1914”. For 14 years the couple lived in Ystradgynlais, South Wales where son Arthur and daughters Blanche, Mary, and Phyliss were born.
By 1929 the mines were barely working one day a week. Workers and families were poor and food scarce. It was at this time that the brochures from CPR about the West drew the family to apply as CPR officials wanted immigrants and so painted a rosy picture of how beautiful the west was. The family was accepted and sent to Bowden, Alberta, presented with a crumbling house with no windows or doors and left completely alone without help from anyone. Arthur and Maggie had eleven challenging years with Arthur not earning a paycheck with the family hunting for food by killing rabbits and other small wild animals. Arthur worked as a farmhand in exchange for milk and butter to feed the family. After consulting with the embassy in Calgary they were directed to move to Newgate where they set up in a two-room house that was “short of insulation.” Winter mornings would often find a covering of fresh snow on bed blankets. Life was not easy for the Wakefield family, their house suffered floods and a fire and so for a time the family lived in tents.
Youngest daughters Margaret and Carol were born during that time. Arthur eventually turned the barn into a four-room house that they called home until 1969 when they were forced out by the Libby Dam project relocating to a house at Baynes lake. The provincial government paid them just $11,000 for their home and property. A paltry sum for all the years the family had struggled, Maggie working for a dollar a day cleaning house for neighbours walking seven miles on foot to some places and Arthur doing what he could on the farm. Later finding paid work in sawmills, trucking, and operating machinery to make ends meet. Life brought other heart break when their only son Arthur drowned at age six. He and Maggie were crossing on a log over Gold Creek, both fell into the water, but Maggie couldn’t get to him. Despite all the hardship in 1974 the couple celebrated a 60th wedding anniversary. This year Maggie and Arthur’s youngest daughter Carol and husband Ken celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary and so the story continues.
Carol, a petite and attractive woman remembers attending school in the one room building her parents and two other families managed to get approved by the school district. It had one teacher educating all grades up to grade eight. To go further she had to come to Fernie and that meant being billeted. Jim and Teresa Eckersley invited her to stay with them for $100 monthly, fifty paid by her family and fifty paid by the government. The Eckersley’s were strangers, but they were kind people and Carol lived with them until she married Ken McConachie in 1961. When she finished grade eleven Carol found work as a stenographer at McDonalds Consolidated on Second Avenue working with Bing Kusner, Bill Morley, Wilf Ashmore, Bill Haile, Bill Komarevich in the warehouse and Doreen Neidig, Myrna Kasmar and Carol in the office with manager Dan Danielson. In later years she moved on as the first to work the front desk at the Fernie Motor Inn, worked at Gunderson running the Hosmer Trailer Sales, worked at the front desk at the Griz Inn, at Subway and worked for several businesses on Second Avenue. In Sparwood she managed the office for Elk Valley Cement and for years worked the front desk at Super 8. The family was heavily involved with gymkhana rodeos, so she managed the rodeo’s entries and was a leader at Weight Watchers. For a time, her activities stopped as she recovered from an accident on the 16-mile hill. On the daily commute to and from Sparwood she had a serious truck accident hitting eight vehicles as she came down the hill. Today, not one to sit around although retired she still drives transporting vehicles for car dealerships.
Carol reminisces about life in Newgate, saying excitement was watching lumber trucks coming down the hill to go to the mill then trucking lumber to the James White mill in Fernie. The children fed the horses and milked the cows before school, in the home there was no indoor plumbing, no bathroom, water was carried from a well from quite a distance.
Winters were severe, Carol recalls how an actual shovel was used as a sleigh. The kids had fun building tunnels in the snow all over the yard. They rode horses, biked, played horseshoes. Their father worked at the Wilkinson mill, and they grew vegetables, grain, hay and raised cows for milk, butter, and homemade cheese. She met future husband Ken McConachie in school, recalling book covers wrapped with newspaper and how the schoolboys would tear them off to get attention, and mail only delivered Monday, Tuesday’ and Friday. She remembers how difficult it was for her mom to see their property covered in water and having to move out to Baynes Lake, and when her mom went for a visit to Wales on her return seeing her dad getting a bouquet of colourful gladiolas to greet his wife at the train station.
Ken McConachie was born in Edmonton, Alberta. His Father Leonard was born in Riley, Alberta and his mother Mary born in Edmonton. Leonard’s grandparents had immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine and Mary’s ancestors from Belgium. Leonard, a veterinarian and hobby farmer and his family lived for a time at Wabamun Lake Indian reserve. In 1948 when Ken was five Leonard decided to move his family to Nelson, BC. Facing a stop in Hosmer owing to the old wooden bridge being impassable due to major flooding the family took refuge at Fink’s cabins and while waiting his dad found employment at the Michel mine taking care of the horses. This led to a purchase of a farm on Hartley Lake Road where he built fences, grew hay, and raised horses. The family were all involved in Gymkhana events. “It was good there at White Spruce, Hartley, at the time nothing there but hay fields where the trailer park is now, and Dicken Road was the main highway”. Ken mentions his sisters, Shirley, Joyce, Venita and Marie. He jokes, “We were the Beverly Hillbillies back then, we had all our belongings in a trailer, brought from Wabamun to Hartley, cows, pigs, horses, chickens, in an old Model T Ford, with mom driving truck”. Ken adds “I was only five, but I have a strong memory of coming here, I recall how shortly after eight in the morning the bus picked us up for school from the highway in Hosmer, the government would use coal slack on the ice instead of sand. Dad travelled the valley taking care of animals and so I would go with him”. This allowed Ken to become familiar with those residing in the Valley so it helped when he worked as milkman for the Elk Valley Dairy owned by Stan Lazarek. He said his mom peddled milk in Natal and Michel and he did the same in Fernie. He would pick up bulk milk in the Elk Valley and take to the dairy in Fernie. He remembers how in Natal/ Michel there was house upon house on either side of the highway and what a bustling community it was. In later years his mother Mary worked as a dietician /cook in the Fernie hospital well known as a pleasant and hardworking woman. “Dad got me an electrical apprenticeship at the mine but logging was looking for workers so I took that job as I didn’t want to go underground”, he says. Chum Holley was the bush foreman at Crowsnest Coal, cutting timbers for the mine, I would get them bucked up, sized them to length and placed them on skids, a truck would take them to the mine”. After a year Ken was driving trucks to the mine, running the forklift at the Natal sawmill going next to the log yard with a 966-front loader on the property now a gasoline tanker parking lot. He also was given the job of keeping the main highway open from drifting snow in the Michel Creek area as drifts were bad at the old mill site. Then he was sent to Knight Lumber Mill in Elko where he worked from 6 am to 6pm sometimes getting home at midnight to have supper.
It was no surprise when lovely Carol and handsome wavy haired Ken were married on October 7, 1961 in the Anglican church in Fernie. The couple celebrated their 25 anniversary by being remarried in another ceremony witnessed by 150 guests upstairs in the Legion Hall with sister Margaret as bridesmaid and friend Ollie Peltier best man. The couple enjoyed lots of outdoor activities, picking blueberries and huckleberries in fall and breaking horses, fishing, and hunting, and Ken also working as a guide to Waterton, the Flathead and the Akamina area. They also started a family adding children Tammy, Debbie, Shelley, Kent and Kevin.
Crowsnest Coal bought Knight Lumber and built a new mill at a new location and Ken was made charge hand in the log yard working under Fred Joseph and Gordon Hill. Hill promoted Ken to supervisor of one crew with Russ Cornish as supervisor of the other crew at this new mill. In 1968 Ken was headed for work going through the tunnel at 5:30 am when drifting snow caused him to go onto the oncoming lane, it was tough, but he managed to move back into his lane just as the Greyhound bus came through, a couple of more minutes and he would have been in a head on collision.
Ken worked at the Elko mill for decades as a supervisor, it was a learning experience taking courses in using the computer programs and through several changes in ownership and new equipment. He was respected for his work and enjoyed it but in 2003 he retired. Not used to sitting idle he took on work as a carpenter help for 2 years, worked at the bottle depot hauling empties to Cranbrook, picking up bottles from Elkford, Sparwood and Fernie. He did a two year stint at the old Fernie dump and then worked at the new transfer station with Barry Dootoff for four years. Trying retirement again and not liking it Ken took on driving vehicles for dealerships something he still does today.
Life isn’t always smooth and fifteen years ago Ken was shoveling snow off the roof on New Years Day, when he got hot and clammy, his wife took him to emergency where Dr Virginia Robinson treated him along with nurse Cathy Prince. He was sent to Calgary and doctors told him he needed to thank the Fernie doctors and nurses for saving his life. The couple have both faced life threatening medical events that they have overcome but they say the loss of two young grandchildren has been most emotionally challenging but they are happy to have eleven beautiful grandchildren with one more on the way. Despite constantly working, losses and accidents this couple has been very active, besides attending all the Gymkhana rodeos they have managed to work in trips to Mexico, USA including 12 Vegas trips and several to Disney Land and Disney World.
For their 50th anniversary they had a big party, flying to Hawaii, enjoying a Carnival ship cruise that included four islands to Vancouver port. They visited the Grand Canyon, got stuck in Hurricane Mathew in Florida, camped for years at Surveyors’ Lake and took son Kevin to hockey camps. Their grandson Kevin was a goalie for the Ghostriders hockey team and on a Grand Canyon trip they recalled taking a ride on an old steam locomotive with cowboys on horses that held up the train robbing the passengers of their silver change. When the robbers were asked what they did with the money the response was that they were “going to spend it at the doughnut shoppe”.
When Carol’s dad was 93 years old she accompanied him to Wales, her face lights up speaking about the trip and meeting all the cousins. The expression on her face is wistful as she says, “one time we had three big gardens now we can’t handle one, I guess we’re old and have to sit down and watch tv, they laugh and Ken says “Naa, that’s too boring“.
With this family it’s difficult to believe that life will ever be boring, what it has been and will continue to be is productive and interesting. From the first generation of Wakefield’s and McConachie’s to present generations and beyond there is no doubt they will continue to lead lives that will contribute to the fabric of this community and wherever they choose to call home.
Sincere Congratulations on your 60th anniversary Carol and Ken and best wishes for many more years together.