Cultural Mosaic: Early Ukrainian immigrants

 

February 19, 2021

Every four to six weeks, the Vernon Museum will feature an individual or family who immigrated to this area.

Bringing some of their traditions and cultures with them, these early immigrants to the North Okanagan have helped to created the community and culture of the North Okanagan today.

ukrainian Canadians

Vernon has a rich Ukrainian Canadian culture. As of 2016, more than one-tenth of the city’s population was composed of people whose origins can be traced back to this Eastern European country.

WWI Internment

Early immigration to Vernon by those of Ukrainian descent was not always marked by respect. 2020 marked 100 years since the closure of the Vernon Internment Camp, where hundreds of  men, women, and children determined to be of Austrian-Hungarian descent were held prisoner—the majority of these were Ukrainian Canadians.

Ukrainian Canadian Culture

In the last 100 years, Ukrainian culture and traditions have flourished and deepened in this local setting.

This can be seen in the beautiful 74-year-old, gothic-style Ukrainian Orthodox Church that adorns the side of 27th Street, or in the colourful and energetic performances of Vernon’s Sadok Ukrainian Dance Ensemble. 

early immigration

It all began with one family—the Melnichuks.

Starting in 1896, under the aggressive immigration policies of Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, Canada began to experience a significant westward expansion of Ukrainian emigrants, many of whom had left their country of birth to escape poverty and oppression, and seek out land of their own.

 

Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Assumption of St. Mary, located at 4105 27th Street. This photographs shows the church shortly after its construction in 1947

 

Sadok Ukrainian Dance Ensemble performing at O’Keefe Ranch in 2018

 

Cultural Mosaic dance reformed by Ukrainian, Celtic, and Bhangra dancers at 2017 Okanagan Military Tattoo

Roman and Rose Melnichuk, both of whom were born in Ukraine, were the first to arrive in Vernon in 1914. They initially lived in a house on Mission Hill, but later Roman purchased property on both sides of Swan Lake to start a farm and raise a family. The couple would go on to have 12 children.

The second eldest of the children was Nicholas Melnichuk. From a young age, Nick had an adventurous spirit, and at only 12-years-old left Vernon to work as a ranch hand across the border in Washington State. He returned to Canada as a young man, and married Lucy Bordula. 

Nick served for two years in the motorcycle regiment of the Canadian Army during the Second World War, and for the next 35 years after that as a construction worker. In an article for the Vernon Daily News of 1981, he was quoted as saying “sure wish I had a dollar for every mile of road I drove the cats for various construction companies during that time.” Following his well-earned retirement, Nick spent his time trout fishing in the mountain lakes around Vernon. Nick Melnichuk remained in the city until his death in 1992. 

From this first pioneering family, the local Ukrainian community has proliferated and diversified, and their vibrant and symbolic traditions help to enrichen our city’s cultural mosaic.

Gwyn Evans

 

the first winter carnival

 

February 8, 2021

The 61st Vernon Winter Carnival has official kicked off!

Businesses around town are decorated with cowboys, horses, and the Carnival signature colours of blue-and-white.

Beautifully carved ice sculptures line the roadways in Polson Park, and several organizations are preparing to host Wild Western-themed virtual events.

Prior to the 1960s, when the Winter Carnival as we know it began, Vernon already celebrated the winter season with style. Long before Jopo, Jopette, and Queen Silver Star, there was a highland shepherdess, a minstrel, and a Russian nihilist on a frozen Kalamalka Lake.

In February of 1893, Long Lake, as Kalamalka Lake was then known, boasted a most spectacular scene; a fancy dress carnival, allegedly the first affair of its kind in the Province. 

 

Some of the participants in Vernon’s first winter carnival, held on Long Lake in February of 1893

Thanks to exceptionally cold weather that year, the event’s organizers were able to clear out a large skating rink in the middle of the lake, with plenty of room for the costumed skaters who were transported to the venue by horse-drawn sleigh.

As they skated around the rink, a jockey milled with a flower girl and Little Red Riding Hood, while a book agent attempted to sell the Canadian Stock Book to a clown and a gentleman of Henry II’s period. The costumes were judged, and Ida Birnie was recognized as the best-dressed lady for her portrayal of a highland shepherdess, while best-dressed gentleman went to S.A. Shatford in his Uncle Sam costume.

After the judging, the skating continued, complete with a two-mile race between some of the boys and young men. The crowd was loath to leave the frozen lake even as the sun began to set, although the ladies who had been standing behind the refreshment booth all day were probably ready to head home and get their feet warmed up.

The following day, this same group of church ladies hosted a follow-up event at Cameron’s Hall in order to use up some of the plentiful refreshments that had been gathered for the Long Lake festival. That evening, community members arrived once again in their costumes for yet more revelry. The evening passed quite happily, with dancing, music, and recitations, in spite of the stir caused among the church ladies by the appearance of one F.W. Byshe, who was dressed as none other than Satan himself, complete with horns and a tail.

Join us from home on Tuesday, February 9th, at 7 PM for more tales about the Vernon area during the Wild West era at the GVMA’s Winter Carnival Virtual Event Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…

magical Ice Park & Palaces of the past

 

February 1, 2021

The 61st Vernon Winter Carnival – Western Canada’s largest winter carnival – is about to begin…

…in ways different from every Carnival hosted since the first in 1961!

This year’s theme is “Wild West” and it will be a new frontier to explore the Carnival through virtual events and in small, safe groups due to public health and safety guidelines.

This year will be the first for a Drive-Through Ice Park at Vernon’s Polson Park.

The Ice Park will follow a long history of ice structures, palaces, sculptures, and  carving competitions.

 

Vernon Winter Carnival Ice Palace 

The first Ice Palace  debuted on Barnard Avenue (now 30th Avenue) during the Carnival’s inaugural year, 1961. The following year, the Ice Palace moved to Polson Park, where it provided a sparkling venue for the coronation of that year’s royalty and was a major attraction for visitors.

Huge blocks of ice were tinted in shades of blue and green, and framed by two massive ice columns. The columns, with their lights and pennants, reached a height of forty feet! Visitors were invited to fill the seats of Polson Park’s grandstand for an excellent view of the coronation, while a concession provided hot coffee to warm up cold hands.

In 1966, the Palace was built for the first time in the (then-new) Civic Plaza.

The first ice sculpture contest was held in 1971. Students of all ages, under the direction of art teachers from local junior and secondary schools, were provided with a block of ice, chisels, and mallets, and allowed to let their imaginations run wild.

In 1974, the Inland Natural Gas Company upped the ante by offering prize money for the best sculptures, while all participants received a celebratory scoop of NOCA’s blue and white Carnival Ice Cream. 

This well-loved tradition was not always easy to realize. On January 26th of 1977, the Vernon News reported that a pipe had leaked and filled the local Inland Ice Man plant with ammonia. Engineer Gus Joachim was overcome by fumes that could be smelled as far away as half a mile into the city’s downtown core, and sent to the Vernon Jubilee Hospital to recover.

This incident not only caused employees to be sick and out of work for several days, but also put a halt on the Winter Carnival’s ice sculpturing event that year. The plant’s manager John Jones had managed to produce enough ice for the Palace, but not enough for the sculptures.

Warm winters during the ‘70s and ‘80s meant that in some years, ice blocks could not be cut from natural sources like Swan Lake, since the ice was not hard enough to carve. Eager students waited on the weather to see if they could take part in the Ice Sculpture Contest in the Civic Plaza, now known as Spirit Square. 

In 2020, the Ice Palace and sculptures returned for the Vernon Winter Carnival’s momentous sixtieth year. The Winter Carnival committee will carry the spirit forward into this unprecedented year with the first ever Drive-Through Ice Park.

 

 

 

Click here to find out more about the GVMA’s Winter Carnival Virtual Event Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch… on Tuesday, February 9th.

horse drawn magic

 

November 27, 2020

During an unpredictable year, the Caravan Farm Theatre has been a model of adaptability. With strong and responsive COVID-19 safety protocols in place, the theatre has once again sold out their popular Winter Sleigh Ride Show.*

The Caravan Farm Theatre, now located on an eighty-acre property near Armstrong, actually began as a traveling troupe in the 1970s—hence the title of “Caravan.” The horse-drawn touring company put on a variety of productions for rural communities throughout B.C. and Alberta up until 1983. 

In 1985, the troupe split, with half deciding to continue touring internationally as the “Caravan Stage Company” and the other half deciding to settle on the North Okanagan property to form the “Caravan Farm Theatre.” One of their first productions was George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” held outdoors and with audience participation.

 

Horse-drawn Caravan Farm theatre wagon in 1989

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the theatre became known for its large-scale, high-quality productions, with a special emphasis on the works of Shakespeare and Brecht. The Caravan’s focus on Shakespeare was particularly natural. In Shakespeare’s era, plays were expected to be versatile, at times being shown in an outdoor playhouse, at other times an indoor theatre (hence his famous quote, “the whole world is a stage.”) Similarly, the Caravan’s productions were, and are, staged outdoors at different settings, allowing the audience to experience an immersive journey.  

The Caravan Farm Theatre carried forward this momentum and ingenuity into the 21st century. Their infamous Walk of Terror launched in the early 2000s, and at Christmas time the Winter Sleigh Ride is often sold out far in advance of December. Although this year things will be a little different—with tickets sold to “bubbles” instead of individuals, and plexiglass barriers separating one bubble from another within the sleigh—the magic of Christmas, and of attending a production by this innovative local theatre group, is sure to endure. 

As for the Caravan Stage Company, they too are still going strong, but their stage has experienced a bit of an upgrade: while they still use their traditional horse-drawn wagons to stage productions across North America and into Europe, they perform most of their acts aboard a 30-meter sailboat called the Amara Zee, which relaunched just this year after being dry-docked for two years of repairs. 

Gwyn Evans

*please note, as of November 27, it is uncertain if “the show will go on” with recent provincial public health protocols. Please check the Caravan Farm Theatre site for the latest new.

all that jazz

 

November 20, 2020

Vernon has a healthy, but somewhat underground, jazz scene. Not literally underground, of course. In fact, the Vernon Jazz Club sits proudly overlooking Vernon’s 30th Avenue in the upper floor of a heritage building that also houses Nolan’s Pharmasave.

The building was built in 1906 and used as a sales outlet for farm machinery. In 1910, the Ranchers’ Club, described as a “family social club” with male and female members, took over the second floor. A few years later, the bottom floor was purchased by R.E. Berry and converted to a drugstore. Meanwhile, the Ranchers’ Club was starting to lose their family-friendly reputation. In 1919, the club’s steward was fired for hosting all-night card games with unrestricted stakes. 

 

The first gig hosted by the Vernon Jazz Society and featuring the Larry Crawford Jazz Ensemble, held on September 11, 1999, in the basement of the Sandman Inn

In 1922, the group was reorganized as the Vernon Club for men only, and a peephole was installed in the door to screen those entering. It is even reported that the RCMP set up surveillance in the building across the street to determine what kind of card games were being played. The Vernon Club lasted until 2001.

A few years before the club folded, Tom Collins, a former HVAC technician, Curt Latham, a doctor, and Gerry Sholomenko, a secondary school teacher, and all jazz lovers, meet over coffee to discuss the organization of a venue where the music “wasn’t too loud, couples could have a dance or two, and local jazz musicians would have a stage,” and thus the Vernon Jazz Society was born.

The Society’s first gig, performed by the Larry Crawford Jazz Ensemble, was held on September 11, 1999 in the basement of the Sandman Inn. Drinks and chairs were hauled into the venue, which seated about 60 at tables around a small dance floor. Despite an awkward moment when the owner of Bean Scene, where the tickets for the evening had been sold, was turned away at the door, the performance was a success and inspired a greater public interest in Vernon’s jazz scene.

The club began to rent the current building from the Vernon Club in November of 1999 after the basement of the Sandman Inn was flooded by a burst pipe. They made a few changes to the venue, such as constructing a raised stage with curtains, and adding performance lighting and a sound system. After the folding of the Vernon Club, the Jazz Society began fully paying the modest rental fee to use the building. Since then, the Society has hosted a number of local and traveling jazz musicians, such as Brandi Disterheft, the Tom Collins Quartet, and Sherman “Tank” Doucette, to name but a few, as well as several sessions where young and mature musicians alike are invited to simply come out and “jam.” While the Jazz club has been closed since March this year, with such a passionate group of music lovers at its helm, it’s sure to continue bringing jazz to Vernon for many more years.

Gwyn Evans

glory days

 

August 25, 2020

“They used to have the like of Sing Le Lung, Mr. Lee, Mr. Kwong, Mr. Loo Jim who were the head ‘boss.’ If anybody had any problems they would go to see him and he would say ‘now let’s think this thing out. What seems to be the problem?’ And then he would say ‘well, I think you’re wrong. You should just pour a cup of tea—offer your friend a cup of tea and an apology, and the case will be all settled.” – Walter Joe (born Chow), talking about the resolving of interpersonal conflicts within Vernon’s close-knit Chinese community.

Chinatown was one of the most culturally rich and lively parts of our city’s downtown. Despite the fact that they were immersed in a larger settler community that, throughout the years, regarded them with alternating detached curiosity and out-right intolerance, Vernon’s Chinese population was unabashed in their traditions and lifestyle.

 

 

McCulloch’s Aerated Waters Coca-Cola ‘Cooler’ float, used for a parade in 1934

 

In fact, they were known for their hospitality, and particularly so on Chinese New Year. According to the Vernon News of 1905, “during this special season of rejoicing, the Chinese are peculiar in the open-hearted manner in which they welcome stranger as well as friend and acquaintance to share their best and join with them in the festivities of the occasion.” Shops and dwellings throughout Chinatown were elaborately decorated, and cigars, wine, sweet-meats, and fruit were handed out to visitors to the light of fire crackers. Other cultural practices enrichened life in Vernon over the years, from the Dance of the Dragon, to the flying of kites, to the secretive rituals of the Chinese Freemasons.

A variety of businesses and residences formed the physical bounds of Chinatown, including several restaurants that were frequented by both Chinese and non-Chinese. The smorgasbord at Goon Hong, which opened in 1950, was particularly popular; a heaping plate of fried prawns, egg rolls, roast pork, chop suey, chow mein, and fried rice cost only $4 in 1976. Other businesses included laundromats, cobblers, groceries, stables, a boarding house, and a church. 

One such business was a dry goods and grocery store run by Eng Shu Kwong. Kwong immigrated to Canada from a village near Canton, China. After failing to strike it rich in the Cherry Creek gold rush, he moved himself and his family to Vernon, and opened a business. The two-storey building, which housed the family on the top floor, had a facade with the store name printed in block letters — KWONG HING LUNG & CO. DRY GOODS & GROCERIES. “Hing Lung” translates roughly to “abundant prosperity,” and this is indeed what the Kwong family brought about for themselves. The second youngest of Kwong’s 15 children, Larry, would go on to become the NHL’s first non-white player.

How is that so few traces of Vernon’s one-vibrant Chinatown, which allowed families like the Kwongs to prosper, remain in 2020?

Gwyn Evans

Golden age of small town cinema

 

May, 2020

“Modern In Every Detail Building Brings Vernon To Front In Theatre Activity.”

These were the headlines in the Vernon News on November 3rd of 1938. The previous year J. Fitzgibbons, Canadian Director of Theatres, had made a promise to the citizens of Vernon in the special “Marching Onward” edition of the Vernon News, stating that Vernon would soon have the most modern and complete theatre in British Columbia. On Monday, November 7th, 1938 this pledge became reality when the Famous Players Canadian Corporation opened the new, state of the art, Capitol Theatre on Barnard Avenue

The theatre site at the east end of Barnard Avenue had been settled on after negotiations with the National Cafe Holding Company, who agreed to erect the structure on the site previously occupied by the National Ballroom, and then lease it, under a long term arrangement, to Famous Players.

 

 

Capitol Theatre Box Office with advert for Don’t Give up the Ship with Jerry Lewis, 1950

 

Vernon architect Richard Curtis was engaged to design and supervise the construction of the building. The general contract was awarded to David Howrie Ltd., and the electrical work was given to Okanagan Electric and J.M. Edgar. The Vernon Hardware Company was engaged to install the modern heating and ventilation system, cable of handing one million cubic feet of air per hour.

A formal opening was held at 6:45 p.m., Monday November 7th, with the Hon. Grote Starling, Member of Parliament for Yale, in attendance, along with Mayor Harry Bowman, British Columbia manager for Famous Players, Frank Gow, and new local manager, Walter Bennett. The curtain then rose for the premier feature film “The Valley of the Giants,” a “four bell” picture in technicolour selected to showcase the up-to-date colour reproduction equipment.

The following enthusiastic description of the new theatre appeared in the Vernon News.

“Surmounted by a 50-foot tower and enhanced by a wide marquee running the full length of the National Block, the new building offers an imposing, modern appearance. From Barnard Avenue the play-goer enters an arcade, fifty feet long and beautifully decorated in rose and silver, and goes on into a spacious oval foyer which is handsomely furnished and which is flanked by rest-rooms, and the manager’s office. Here too is noticed an innovation – a check room with a young lady in attendance. As the main auditorium is entered the Vernon theatre-goer will notice another change, that of boy ushers smartly uniformed and specially trained.”

“The auditorium is the last word in theatre accommodation and decoration. Having a floor space two and a quarter times the old Empress Theatre, it will seat approximately 800 persons in the very latest type of fully upholstered chairs set wide apart with ample leg room. The heavily carpeted aisles which hayed concealed lighting, are wide and the floor has sufficient slope to assure perfect vision from every seat. Here too, the decoration has been carried out in shades of rose, lavender, and silver for the walls, while the ceiling is plain, having been treated with acoustic plaster to abolish any chance of echo and to assure a good sound reproduction.”

The cost of construction was approximately $60,000, and the Capitol Theatre was rated as one of the finest theatres in Western Canada. Since that time, many changes have taken place, including the loss of the imposing 50-foot tower and the change of name to the Towne Theatre. However, the theatre still plays a major role in the entertainment scene, bringing in a wide and varied range of movie fare to satisfy Vernon film buffs.

To learn more about some of Vernon’s earliest businesses, visit http://www.okcreateonline.com/the-history-of-local-businesses.html.

Barbara Bell

lions & tigers & bears, oh my!

February 20, 2020

 

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! At the beginning of June 1938, Vernon was buzzing with excitement following a thrilling announcement: the Al G. Barnes and Sells Floto Combined Circus would be coming to town. The day before the circus’ arrival, the Vernon News reported that five herds of elephants and their trainers, as well as dozens of clowns and trapeze artists, 50 ballerinas, and scores of perfectly trained horses would leave Kamloops for Vernon sometime after midnight that evening, to arrive in the early hours of the following morning.

The circus in question was started by the American Alpheus George Barnes Stonehouse in 1895, with the first show consisting of a pony, a phonograph, and a stereopticon (more commonly known as a magic lantern). The “Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Show” grew from there, and was eventually purchased by the American Circus Corporation. Following the Great Depression, two of the corporation’s acts, the Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Show and the Sells Floto Circus, were merged under one name.

 

 

 

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Although the circus featured a variety of acts, they were largely known for their menagerie of trained animals. One of the most famous was Black Diamond, a massive Indian elephant. Black Diamond had an unpredictable temper, and was usually kept between two calm female elephants while out on parade. In 1929, while being unloaded before a show in Texas, he went in to a rage, injuring his trainer and killing a female assistant. He was deemed too dangerous to continue using as a circus animal, and the decision was made to have him put down. 50 to 100 shots were required to kill this formidable creature.

The circus arrived in Vernon on the morning of June 3, 1928, in a long line of red and yellow train cars, and the weary travelers were provided a meal of hot coffee, wheat cakes, and sausages. The circus professionals then started the long task of setting up the site at Schubert Street (now 32nd Avenue); in addition to the Big Top, the circus consisted of a large menagerie, a side show, a blacksmith shop, a dinning tent, a doctor’s office, stables, and numerous other smaller stations. The setup work took quite some time, and a large crowd of Vernonites gathered to watch the progress.  

The circus put on two shows that day, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. The highlight was a display by eighty highly-trained horses, under the direction of celebrated trainer Jack Joyce, who cantered through difficult marching routines with the trainer nowhere in sight. In total, the circus brought with it more than 500 horses, a four-ton performing hippopotamus named Lotus, and 900 other furred and feathered creatures.

Although a change in sensibilities about the treatment of animals has meant that circuses have largely fallen out of fashion, it is easy to imagine the excitement the arrival of the Al G. Barnes and Sells Floto Combined Circus would have brought to the city of Vernon in 1938.

Gwyn Evans