When fire ripped through one of Kelowna’s oldest buildings Monday night, the men and women who dedicate their time to protecting the region’s history were heart-broken.
“It had always been a worry of ours that something like this could happen,” said Don Knox, president of the Central Okanagan Heritage Society.
“It’s devastating. (The Fleming House) is almost 150 years old… Once something like this is gone, there’s nothing that can save it.”
Knox said he’d long hoped that the building could one day get refinished and become the Central Okanagan’s version of O’Keefe Ranch — a place where school children could go and learn about the history of the region.
Unlike other Okanagan communities, Kelowna doesn’t have a robust supply of heritage sites.
That’s because when Kelowna, Vernon and Penticton were starting to develop, it was the least economically relevant — it didn’t become the economic centre point of the valley until the airport came along, said Knox.
Vernon was the head of the lake and ranchers would take their cattle up there to partake in the gold rush and the mining industry made Penticton a place to be.
But it wasn’t until the Aberdeens started fruit farming in the 1890s that Kelowna started to build a population base. And then came Brent’s Grist Mill and, in turn, the Fleming House, said Knox.
“The mill, when it was built, was the only one from the border to Kamloops,” said Knox, adding that it’s currently the oldest mill in B.C.
“People would come from all over the valley with their grain, and visit and such, it was a social gathering place.”
Knox said it’s also important simply because it’s a living monument to people and enterprise, having been built during a provincewide recession.
The large two-storey house was built in 1871 of large squared logs up to 35 centimetres high by 17 cm thick. The site was acquired by John Dilworth in 1900, and prior to 1908 he installed milled siding on the house and added plaster walls on the inside, indicating the pattern of improvements made to pioneer houses as the settlers prospered and more refined materials and techniques became locally available.
There’s an off chance that the logs that made up the Fleming house can be saved and, if that’s the case, Knox said that there’s a greater chance that a case will be made to ensure this particular piece of history lives on.
“The mill has already been stabilized and it’s in good shape and secured,” said Knox. “If it generates understanding or awareness in the value of what we have left, that’s one good thing that could have come out of it.”
The Kelowna Fire Department was called to the fire at around 6 p.m. July 2 and found the heritage building engulfed in heavy flames, with smoke showing from the rear of the structure.
“Due to structural issues, crews could not initially enter but later completed primary and secondary searches confirming no casualties,” said Scott Clarke, platoon captain, in a press release.
“Fire cause is being investigated by RCMP and the Kelowna Fire Department.”
No cause has been released.
In recent years the heritage site has needed a great deal of repair and has been known to be a preferred site for transient populations pitching tents.