by Sam McBride
Who knows what is going on in town better than the folks at the general store? That is certainly the case on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake in southeastern British Columbia, where the Gray Creek Store established by Arthur Lymbery in 1911 is still going strong. And still the place where customers catch up on local news, road conditions, weather and events.
No one has witnessed the history of the area as closely and attentively as Arthur`s son Tom, a lifelong resident of the area and a keen history buff who has done extensive volunteer work through the years with the Gray Creek Historical Society and the B.C. Historical Society.
He also knows a good story when he sees one, and he knows how to tell it . This is amply demonstrated in his wonderful new book on Gray Creek`s history up to 1945. As Greg Nesteroff says in the Foreword, “every small community should be so lucky to have a Tom Lymbery“.
Tom`s memories of the ups and downs of the community and its quirks and characters go back to the early 1930s when he was a toddler. And he is able to cover the quarter century before that from stories told to him by his parents. These stories, and the ones in his own vivid memory, are reinforced and brought to life in the book by remarkably good photographs, documents and memorabilia that his family collected and kept safely preserved for more than a century. Historians of today and the future will appreciate the efforts made in the book to identify people and situations in the photos and interpret the maps, drawings and other memorabilia so their full value in revealing the local history is achieved.
An image I found of particular interest is the Honourary Exclusion badge issued in 1917 to young men who tried to enlist in the armed forces but were deemed medically unfit to serve. This was the first I heard of such badges. My grandmother`s brother Noel Peters in Prince Rupert repeatedly tried to enlist, but was rejected because he had a moderate, but noticeable, mental disability. Not being in uniform made Noel a target for merciless harassment by bullies in the community, causing him to suffer a serious nervous breakdown in the spring of 1915. He was finally accepted for service in the Canadian Forestry Corps in May 1917 — ironically, about the same time that the badges came out that might have helped him avoid persecution a couple of years earlier.
While much of the book is about how the Lymberys and other families enjoyed life at Gray Creek before the conveniences of modern life were available, there was no way around some of the limitations. For instance, Tom notes that in that era before refrigeration – requiring electricity, which was not even on the horizon for folks on the East Shore – the store did not even try to sell meat to customers. Keeping fires going to heat the home and for the cooking stove was an everyday concern for the families. And Tom talks of the orchard business of that era with the authority of someone with personal memories of the drudgery of picking huge quantities of fruit and boxing it to meet commercial standards.
While the book naturally focuses on Gray Creek, the story will also appeal to the larger Kootenay region as well as folks living elsewhere who have experienced the area in their travels.
From today`s perspective, it is amazing to think that there was a time when the only way you could drive a car from B.C. to Alberta was to cross Kootenay Lake on the magnificent sternwheeler SS Nasookin which docked at Gray Creek and has a central role in Tom`s story.
When I heard Tom`s book was coming out I expected good stories, but the quality of editing, illustrations and design is really quite impressive. Tom is quick to direct credit in this regard to the contributions of Frances Roback and other members of the Gray Creek Historical Society.
Congratulations, Tom and Gray Creek Publishing for producing a treasure of local history. Readers will be looking forward with great anticipation to the post-1945 sequel scheduled to come out later this year.