BCHF News Time Travels: Okanagan Historical Society

Time Travels: Okanagan Historical Society

By Mark Forsythe
Seeing the tree beneath Its baptism of snow, the twigs
Seem dark, and the bark feels
Cold to your hands, but inside she
Pulses with the urgency of green.

From the 36th Annual Report of the Okanagan Historical Society (1972) written by Donna Lezard of SnPink’tn (Penticton Indian Band) which represents one of the seven communities of the Okanagan Nation

A legacy of storytelling. This year marks the centennial of the British Columbia Historical Federation and we’re excited to salute the work of member organizations like the Okanagan Historical Society (OHS). The OHS has generated thousands of stories about the region’s people, events, and landscapes in 85 Annual Reports—each a book unto itself.

This remarkable tradition began with the Society’s formation in 1925. In the following year, president Leonard Norris noted, “A start at least has been made at the work of drawing aside the veil which
hangs over the past history of our valley.”

The Report encompasses three watersheds: Okanagan, Shuswap, and Similkameen. Branches are
rooted in Salmon Arm, Armstrong-Enderby, Vernon, Kelowna, Summerland, Penticton, Oliver-Osoyoos, and Similkameen, with each contributing to the Annual Report. In the early years, road travel in the region was an ordeal, so the publication connected and communicated with members across this vast area. As the province began to open up for travel, the OHS was also keen to share its story with the rest of BC.

Jessie Ann Gamble of Armstrong is a past president of the Society. She says the first priority continues to be publishing Okanagan history. “Our readers like to support the recording of local history and feel the written word has a longer shelf life than Facebook.”

Historian and former O’Keefe Ranch curator Ken Mather is the current editor. “My mission is to assemble the entire gamut of articles, from family histories to scholarly studies. I’ve also tried to include natural history articles; after all, the society started out as the Okanagan Historical and Natural History Society. I am committed to including cultural diversity, from Indigenous People to newcomers.”

Ken is in distinguished company. In 1935 Margaret Ormsby was one year away from her PhD in history
when she became editor of the Sixth Annual Report, the first of nine that she guided. Ormsby later authored the definitive British Columbia: A History, was president of the British Columbia Historical Federation for a dozen years, and broke new ground for women at McMaster University and the University of British Columbia. BC’s most famous professional historian felt most at home back in the Okanagan; in retirement, she returned to the family house beside Kalamalka Lake to write more local history.

The Reports have been consistently eclectic over the decades. The Second Report (1927) featured an account of the first marriage at Okanagan Mission, the “Rise and Fall of Rock Creek,” and “Indian Picture Writing.” Leap ahead to the 67th Report (2003) to read about mysterious “airship” sightings reported in 1896, a student essay on mixed marriages, and a lament for rodeo legend Kenny McLean who died sitting on his horse. The page count on this issue clocks in at 244.

Wendy Wickwire, professor emerita in the Department of History at University of Victoria, scoured the Annual Reports for information about Similkameen elder and storyteller Harry Robinson. She eventually published three award-winning volumes of his oral stories. “I consider those Annual Reports to be
among BC’s richest archival treasures. There is nothing I have enjoyed more over the years than leafing through the reports, year by year, because each time I’ve done this I’ve found golden nuggets. They offer such rich first-hand accounts of life in the Okanagan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Jessie Ann Gamble is proud of their publishing record and scope. “We have always tried to include marginalized groups of any kind, but in recent years the editors have worked hard to include Indigenous stories and writers.”

Editor Ken Mather says this collaboration has a long history. “Most of the early ranchers in the
Okanagan/Similkameen married Indigenous wives and, through the 1870s, mixed families were the norm. When the OHS was formed, offspring of these families were involved in the organization and contributed Indigenous content.”

In addition to producing the Annual Report, the OHS branches are fully engaged with other projects:
overseeing the Pandosy Mission lease (Kelowna’s first European settlement); the annual student essay contest; supporting historic trails; a presence in the abandoned gold-rush town of Fairview; and working with the UBC Okanagan campus on digitizing the Annual Reports. The Okanagan is fortunate to have these collaborative and enduring storytellers.

Mark Forsythe travels through BC and back in time, exploring the unique work of British Columbia Historical Federation Members.

Explore this surprising array of Okanagan stories, written by the people who live there at this link: www.okanaganhistoricalsociety.org. Digital copies of back issues are available through UBCO’s British Columbia Regional Digitized History: https://tinyurl.com/yckteuvv