It counts legendary Vancouver archivist J.S. Matthews among its first members. Historian Margaret Ormsby and provincial archivist Dr Willard Ireland were early speakers at gatherings. Created in 1957, the Burnaby Historical Society was the brainchild of Barry Mather, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers. In the summer of ‘57 he phoned his friend Fraser Wilson, a Sun cartoonist, to suggest they form a Burnaby historical society. Others joined in, including neighbour Roy Long, Q.C. and Rolf Macey, editor of New Westminster’s The Columbian. Dr Walter Sage who was chairman of the British Columbia Historical Association was consulted, and soon 25 people gathered in the basement of the Burnaby Municipal Hall to launch the new society. Now, 61 years and many accomplishments later, Burnaby Historical Society is disbanding.
Board member Roger Whitehouse was drawn to the organization 15 years ago. “If you know your history, you can learn not to make the same mistakes.” His thoughts on the demise of BHS? “We’re probably the oldest society in Burnaby. It’s a disappointment and a wakeup call.”
Its first significant project was saving the B.C. Electric Railway Interurban 1223 tram from the burn pile in 1958, B.C.’s centennial year. Built by the St Louis Car Company in 1912, the tram did service for 45 years in the Lower Mainland, carrying passengers to school, work, movies and dances. On display at the corner of Edmonds and Kingsway, weather and vandalism took a heavy toll. Eventually the tram was fully restored by the Friends of Interurban 1223, and now rests inside a replica tram barn at Burnaby Village Museum. (The society also helped plant the seeds for this museum and pioneer park in 1970.) A robust membership of 100 people kept busy with projects — from establishing the Violet and Blyth Eagles Scholarship, to helping develop Burnaby’s Heritage Commission and creating an impressive photographic archive that was donated to the city for digitization. (See www.heritageburnaby.ca) Members also helped restore the 1912 C.W. Parker Carousel at Burnaby Village. Secretary Margaret Matovich has volunteered with Burnaby Historical Society for 35 years: “We’ve done a lot of the groundwork and moved on.” This will remain an important part of the society’s legacy.
Over the years membership dwindled to just 14 people. Many older members died or moved away, and like many non-profit groups in B.C., the society has not been successful in attracting younger people. As a result, “We were basically burned out”, says Roger. Not keeping pace with technology and social media is another reason. “When the computer age started, most of us — I’m 74 — we had all learned how to write with typewriters. You have to get online.” In 2015 the Burnaby News Leader, a local newspaper that supported the society’s work, disappeared. It became difficult to get the word out, especially without a website presence. Margaret adds, “We fell down on the technology, but I personally don’t think young people are interested in going to meetings. I know people that have two or three jobs.”
Now it’s a matter of following the provincial government’s (online) directions for dissolving a society. A special meeting was called to generate a resolution to wind things down by the end of this year. Assets are being divided with $5,000 added to the university scholarship administered through Simon Fraser University and another $1,000 to support a youth heritage project through area schools.
Once the society folds Roger will remain a member of the New Westminster Historical Society. “My interest in history won’t fade at all.” Margaret remains philosophical: “I truly think we’ve done the full circle of things we set out to do. You said, you must feel sad. In a way we don’t…we’ve done a lot of things over the 61 years. We feel it’s the time, and we did alright.”