Barkerville

To complete our Northern BC circle, we make the big swing south onto Highway 97 at Prince George, but only for a quick run to Quesnel, where a hard left leads into the mountains and our final stop on the heritage trail. We pull into Barkerville six days after the 150th anniversary of the gold strike Billy Barker registered on August 21, 1862.

Gold fever had already reached epidemic proportions. The Fraser Valley gold rush of 1858 had led to the creation of the colony of British Columbia to ward off American expansionism. The first strikes in Cariboo country were made in 1859 and 1860, but the rush didn’t gain momentum until word got out in 1861. Then, stand back.

With Billy Barker’s strike on Williams Creek, Barkerville was born. As a veteran of historic towns from Williamsburg to Upper Canada Village, I’m here to say that the largest historic site in our province is top drawer. With over 100 historic structures still standing and a cast of characters who wrote the book on bringing history to life.

We’d been warned to budget two days for our visit and getting smarter after the disappointment at Fort St. James, booked accommodations onsite at the Kelly and King House B&B, right on Main Street across from St. Saviour’s Church and the schoolhouse.

“Wecome to Cariboo” proclaimed a sign in Chinese characters over the arch that separates Chinatown from the rest of Barkerville. Having consulted our daily activities schedule, we’d decided to join the Chinatown tour. Archeologist Ying-Ying Chen guided us on an utterly fascinating walk through Cino-Euro relations in colonial times. Startling to our Euro-centric worldview was the notion that the Chinese regarded the indigenous people with favour because they belonged there, while our Euro-ancestors were foreign devils to be kept at bay. According to Ying-Ying, the segregated Chinatown was as much their idea as it was that of their neighbours’.

Working our way backwards to the Barkerville orientation. We began to meet the cast of street players who would speak to us about “my time (1862)” and “your time (2012)”.

Although, we chatted with them so frequently (even over a friendly beer in the saloon), that they finally broke down and talked frankly about real life at Barkerville.

One player who lives in nearby Wells and moves to Barkerville for the summer, said the end of the season is like “having a Victorial rug pulled out from under you.”

Miss Playfair (Lynette Candy), whose lively repartee with Mr. Grimsby (Dave Brown) at the Cornish waterwheel keeps even fidgety kids riveted, told me, “I put my first dress [costume] on when I was five.” Her dad was chief conservator. As a kid, Lynette and the 19 other kids on site had to be in school in the morning, but “afternoons we were expected to be at a display being helpful.”

Mr. Grimsby’s been on the waterwheel for 25-plus seasons and the two of them have wracked up 52 seasons at Barkerville.

Barkerville is a small world indeed. Attilla Kallai, the lively, loveable drunk we dubbed Johnny Depp turns out to be engaged to Tracy Froese, the lady in red. And James Douglas (no relation to the former colonial governor) who manages the place, has produced twin actors-of-the-future with Danette Boucher—The Bride of Barkerville.

Talk about a show with a lots of laughter and a few tears. Her one-woman show depicting the life of Florence Wilson so enthralled me, that I came home and bought a book about the bride ships. Yes, Florence’s tale is the story of a woman brought to this country to help stabilize the overwhelmingly male society by providing wives so the men could settle down to family life. But Florence had other ideas. What a story!

A session in court where Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie (Timothy Sutherland) soundly upbraided me for taking a photo without asking, “May I,” wrapped up in the saloon where we shared a pint with his honour and his clerk Peter O’Reilly (Stewart Cawood), both longterm Barkerville veterans.

What a show. For great family entertainment and easy-learning history, no British Columbian should miss Barkerville.

First published in Okanagan Life magazine, March 2013. Download PDF.