By Mark Forsythe
“Smith was a very ordinary sort of man. He was in his late thirties at this time, smoked rollings, used the standard Association saddle and from the top of his head to his heels was one straight line, which some people say is a sign of stubbornness and others attribute to Irish ancestry.” — Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse by Paul St. Pierre (Ryerson Press, 1966)
Fictional cowboy Smith ambled out of Paul St. Pierre’s imagination at Big Creek in the Chilcotin where he spent years mining stories and characters for CBC Television’s Cariboo Country (1959–1967). The show launched the acting career of 60-year-old Chief Dan George in his role as Ol’ Antoine, and spawned novels, including the classic Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse.
St. Pierre’s wry storytelling and realistic portrayal of ranch life, cowboys, and Indigenous people earned high praise and a special honour — the Joe Marten Award for Preservation of Cowboy Heritage from the BC Cowboy Heritage Society. In later years, he lived in Fort Langley, but his heart remained in the Chilcotin until his death in 2014 at age 90. His headstone reads: “This wasn’t my idea.”
For a sense of real cowboy culture, visit the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin in Williams Lake, home to the BC Cowboy Hall of Fame, administered by the BC Cowboy Heritage Society. Saddles, spurs, and cowboy memorabilia are displayed along with stories about the people behind them. The Hall of Fame highlights more than 140 pioneering cowboys, cowgirls, and ranchers; early inductees include bare-back champion Leonard Palmantier, a 1920s Williams Lake Stampede star who could ride a bucking horse backwards.
There’s singer and champion yodeller Shirley Field who hosted the Cowboys Sweetheart Show, performed at the Grand Ole Opry, and toured with Marty Robbins. Louie Bates was a Best All-Around Cowboy at the Williams Lake Stampede and a Second World War veteran who was born on the nearby Sugar Cane Reserve, one of many Indigenous cowboys.
Recent inductees include the Bayliff Family for their enduring dedication to ranching that spans four generations, and Allison Everett, a Williams Lake teacher-librarian who competes in rodeos, raises and trains horses, and teaches rodeo skills. (All profiles are on the BC Cowboy Society’s website.)
Cowboy and ranching culture reaches back to the gold-rush era when newspaperman D.W. Higgins observed that miners “expected to scoop up the gold by the handful and live at ease evermore.” They also needed to eat.
Mark McMillan, president of the BC Cowboy Heritage Society, thinks the cattle ranching industry is central to the story of modern British Columbia. “Cowboys and cattle drives followed the miners to supply them with beef, and many started their own ranches along the way,” he explains. “When the gold ran out, the miners left…the cowboys and ranchers stayed, and many are still in their original family location to this day.”
The agreement to showcase the Cowboy Hall of Fame at the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin was made between McMillan and Diana French, an author, former museum board member, and its past president. The deal was sealed with a handshake. Says Mark, “The Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin is a natural home … It’s in the heart of cowboy country and a huge ranching community.”
In 2017 the museum pulled up stakes from its downtown Williams Lake location and moved to the Tourism Discovery Centre, a striking log and timber structure beside the main highway. (Constructed by local log home builders, its centre post beam is 52 feet (15.8 metres) long, cut from a 745-year-old-tree in Bella Coola.)
Situated over two floors, the museum rests on unceded territory of the T’exelc lands, the traditional territory of the Secwépemc, Tŝilhqot’in, and Dakelh Nations. The museum is telling more Indigenous stories and history, including the harrowing legacy of St. Joseph’s Residential School. Davana Mahon, marketing and promotions co-ordinator at the museum, describes another collaboration: “Recently the museum was part of the repatriation of a baby basket and arrowheads with the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with Chief Jimmy LuLua and Xeni Gwet’in, and to ensure this piece of history is honored and maintained.”
The museum reflects the history of the vast Cariboo Chilcotin region, from ranching to railways, forestry, and medicine. There are programs for youth, interactive educational kits for the classroom, and plans for virtual tours.
“We also offer a few photo collections on our website, as well as our new Cariboo Strong: Resiliency in the Face of the 2017 Wildfires exhibit online,” adds Davana Mahon. With a staff of three, the museum relies on an active volunteer base and is eager to expand membership and think of new ways to engage the public.
Last spring it hosted a saddle-cleaning workbee with expert saddle-maker Mark Denny (also a recipient of the Joe Marten Award for Preservation of Cowboy Heritage). This helped restore the museum’s saddle collection and gave horse lovers a unique hands-on experience. Just like a good pair of jeans, it was a perfect fit.
The Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin is located at B-1660 Broadway Ave South, Williams Lake. The BC Cowboy Hall of Fame Categories include Working Cowboy, Competitive, Pioneer, Horseman, Artistic, Family, Century Ranch, and Builder of Western Culture. Nominations continue until November 1. More information is available at bcchs.com, or contact the museum at email@example.com or 250-392-7404.