Growing in Revelstoke, by Hailey Ross — Part 1 of a new column series
When I told my grandpa that I was moving to Revelstoke, the first thing he mentioned was how good he remembered the food being here. “Especially the potatoes, they were to die for,” he said. My grandma reminisced about the strawberries that she’d pick up at the train station near her house in Calgary. I could almost see my grandparent’s mouths watering at the recollections. Not yet aware of the strong agricultural history of the Revelstoke area, I was surprised that my grandparent’s lasting impression of this area was of local produce.
Recently, I met with Sam Olynyk, a man with a long history in Revelstoke and a gift for telling detailed stories about the past. He was born out on “the flats” in his family’s home at the time. Amongst many others, Olynyk’s Ukrainian family homesteaded below Mount Cartier for almost 60 years prior to the flooding in 1967/68. Right now, as we gaze out onto “the flats” along the Columbia River just south of town, it is hard to imagine this area’s previous agricultural state.
As Olynyk pointed out numerous neighbouring farms once located in the area, I tried to imagine the current wetland scene with the 200 farms that once existed between Revelstoke and the site of the old 12-mile Ferry. Most of the farms in the Cartier region were divided into 40-acre plots and were worked primarily to feed the families living on the land. Collectively, the farms grew everything that was needed to support their families throughout the year. Garden plots contained all the typical vegetables, and fields were cleared of trees to make room for grain crops and livestock.
In addition to subsistence farming, there were numerous farms in the Revelstoke area with market gardens. These farms were scattered around the Big Eddy, on the site of the Revelstoke Golf Course, and in the area now known as Arrow Heights. Olynyk remembers a few such farmers who did business with the Canadian Pacific Railway – potatoes and strawberries being the primary exports to Alberta (sounds like my grandparents’ memories were spot on!)
While Olynyk acknowledges that he didn’t grow up with much money, he pointed out that his family was able to trade produce, butter or eggs for other necessities. “Even the hungry ‘30’s didn’t effect us that much, we still ate well,” Olynyk said. He assured me that farming is by no means easy, and looks back to the days of his youth and realizes that people had the skills they needed to provide for themselves. “It’s no walk in the park … farming teaches you how to survive in the world.”
Although Olynyk moved into town by the time he was 17, he has never quit gardening. When I asked him why he continues to put time into gardening given how easy it is to buy food these days, he responded: “I garden because it relaxes me. Having your hands in the soil is like therapy. … When you’re done, you feel like you’ve accomplished something worthwhile.”
You don’t have to look far to realize that the skills Olynyk picked up in his youth with regards to working the land, or simply understanding where your food comes from, are missing in large segments of today’s younger generation. Luckily, we still have many avid gardeners in Revelstoke who started out as farmers in this region and are likely keen to share their knowledge with anyone who is interested.
With the rising costs of transporting food in today’s world, the number of individuals who are interested in local and sustainably produced food is increasing. The knowledge held by our community’s elders provides a valuable resource in this regard. Whether for financial, environmental, or therapeutic reasons, backyard gardening is on the rise.
Thank you to Cathy English, Curator of the Revelstoke Museum and Archives for informational assistance and photographs.
Hailey Ross writes Growing in Revelstoke on behalf of the North Columbia Environmental Society in partnership with the United Church. The column contributes to a joint project aimed at increasing the sustainable production of local food and intergenerational knowledge sharing.
For your chance to learn from a local-foods expert, join us at the next workshop in the Garden Guru Series: Harvesting Techniques with Hermann Bruns from Wildflight Farms. Saturday, June 25 at 2:30 p.m. at the United Church. By donation.