Harold Rhenisch: The World History of the Okanagan
I come from this land. Its dust is my dust. Its wind is my wind.
In the beginning, Tom Ellis ranched everything from Paradise Ranch sixty miles south to Haynes' place on the border at 'Soyoos. The big pines, the sage and clay benches, the blue creeks running out of the hills in deep arroyos of cottonwoods and dogwood, the lazy oxbows of the Okanagan river, were all his. He could ride his horse for days and never get to the end of it, through deserts of greasewood and creosote-scented antelope brush, past sunbathing rattlers, while red-tailed hawks screamed overhead and blue herons startled out of the lowland scrub.
After a week, they had left even Canada almost completely behind and had landed deep in the heart of the British Empire, in Penticton, British Columbia. They might as well have taken a train from Mombasa, up to Nairobi, and then west to Lake Victoria, passing through the savannah and the flame trees, past Masai villages and derelict train stations and mad Englishmen who had hitched zebras to their carts.
Just as cowboy culture started in the B.C. Interior long before it hit most of what we call the Wild West, English colonial culture set down roots here long before its more familiar East African face.
Among the first ranches to abandon cattle for the plantation culture was Greata Ranch - the kind of spread where Rudyard Kipling or Somerset Maugham would have been happy in the evening over a gimlet. The Chinese bunkhouse above the main dock was two stories high and a hundred feet long. For two decades, the second sons of England's greatest houses - the wealth, if not exactly the pride, of an empire - roamed through the hills above the ranch, hunting deer and roasting them on the beach in parties that went on for days. It was the Goa of its time.
Even when I grew up here, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Okanagan still had an English planter culture - as strong as those of Kenya or Southern Rhodesia, but with a twist.
All the remittance men who had come out from England, and who had used English money to scratch out polo fields in the bunchgrass, had heard the call, had gone back to do their duty and to earn back a place in society, and to a man were cut down by machine guns as they strode in front of their men with a riding crop. What was left in British Columbia was no different than a blasted church spire in Flanders. Anyone lucky enough to be standing among the piles of rubble, not bricks in this case but the rump towns, orchards and failed irrigation schemes, the dreams reduced from wealth to survival, was the British Empire then.
That's where my family comes in.
With their own empire lost, the Germans came to those ruins, too, and stayed. They settled in the Okanagan with the same dreams that had taken their ancestors to the Volga and down the Danube to the Black Sea. The Okanagan was their new South West Africa. They could imagine that the sun on their faces was the sun of Angola. The paddlewheeler on the lake, the S.S. Sicamous, was like a steamer on the Sudan. For thirty years, the Germans were cast adrift by history in the Okanagan. They burnt away into the sun and made their own culture, built a pastoral - and peaceful - German country centred in the orchards stretching above the lakes north and south of Penticton.
Chinese cook cabin at Inglewood, Upper Keremeos.
Canada would come later, in the 1980s, in the form of a new colonizing force from Calgary and Vancouver, replacing the orchards with retirement homes just as surely as the orchards themselves, originally envisioned as retirement retreats for the British middle class, replaced the métis ranching culture that had preceded them. Everyone wants into the dream.
Sometimes, it's been a nightmare. Settlers were dispossessed of their cash as ready as the O Kin O Kane had been dispossessed of their land. One group from the prairies, for instance, answered a particularly lavish real estate brochure:
The land was offered sight unseen, good bottom land in the basin of the valley, with the promise of a train trip to the Okanagan to view it, and the offer of a refund should it not prove satisfactory. People felt secure. The catch - there is always a catch - was that when they came to the front verandah of the Incola Hotel and walked forward to see their land (the country road stretching through newly surveyed fields, men riding out, white-flanneled, with a horse and carriage into town, women strolling with parasols), they saw only water, lapping gently at the pilings. It smelled of fish. An enterprising American realtor had surveyed the lake bottom, on paper, had drawn the whole thing up into lots, and had sold every last one. By the time the buyers got there, he had fled back to Montana.
The modern world was starting to make its mark! It came with a vengeance.
That's when my father became the founding chairman of the United Fruit Growers movement.
Its goal was to persuade the government to change fruit-marketing legislation. As it stood, a farmer could sell retail fruit from his own farm, but could sell to no one else, at least in lots of more than ten bushels - about half the production of a single tree. To make sure that rules were followed, the Fruit Board had its own police force. The Ministry of Highways had even built pullouts for the Fruit Board on the highways leading out of the valley. As the light sifted through the pine trees above them, men in light green shirts and black loafers, with clipboards and barricades, stopped all holiday traffic. Fruit in excess of ten bushels was seized and loaded onto waiting trucks.
It was the fall of the Berlin Wall - a decade and a half early!
The revolution began with secret meetings in farmhouses throughout the valley. Within a week, the membership drive had split the industry in half, with farmers on each side claiming those on the other side were using mafia tactics to bring them to ruin. Even a quick look at the membership list of the United Fruit Growers, however, ought to clarify the battle lines: Rhenisch, Tilstra, Tomé, Treitl, Wagner and Wallin, Wuensche, Czuczor, Wingelmann, Dutra and Sebastio, Sousa, Stoll and Strafehl, Szanto and Souto, over a thousand immigrants, all with their backs against the wall, all of them paid three cents a pound for apples that sold for twenty cents a pound at the packinghouse gate and forty cents a pound in the supermarkets of Vancouver, all with the banks closing their doors to Canadian farmers in order to cover their South American debt.
My grandparents, Bruno and Martha Leipe, on Fairview Mountain, early 1960s.
The Okanagan has thousands of stories like this - important pieces of the puzzle of world history, strangely silenced. Meanwhile, the land remains.
Winds of apricot petals drift across farms in gritty spring wind. There is the taste of tomatoes picked out of a field, with a dash of salt out of the shaker in your back pocket.
And the wind.
Harold Rhenisch was raised in Cawston and has lived in worked on vineyards and orchards throughout the Okanagan. An award-winning poet and journalist and acclaimed essayist, he has published twenty books of fiction, poetry, and memoir, including Out of the Interior and, his newest, The Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys Through a Dark Century. He was born in Penticton in 1958 and currently lives in 150 Mile House.
Except where noted, all selections are from The Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys Through a Dark Century. Brindle & Glass (Edmonton). 2006.