Left, the “Night Rescue” painting by Australian artist Howard Totenhofer, 1960. Right, the original photo which appeared in the Vernon News off which the painting was based.

A storied History

Based on a historical fire, “The Night Rescue” painting comes to the MAV with a storied history. This special blog post is courtesy of Programming and Marketing Coordinator, Jenna Kiesman.

“Anyone left in the building would have perished” said Fire Chief Fred Little speaking to the Vernon News reporter on the scene; “we had to take chances, something we only do when life is involved.”

The date was April 22nd, 1960. The fire began late on a Friday evening, around 11:00 pm, when the flames were first spotted inside the Bagnall Building. Black smoke swept through the offices of Interior Appliances, located on 32nd Avenue in downtown Vernon, and then rose to the suites above.

The Vernon Fire Department arrived on the scene shortly after 11:00 pm and a dramatic night operation ensued with two women, Ada Hitchcock and Winnifred Neff, being rescued from the upstairs suites with an aerial ladder.

Both women were later admitted to Vernon Jubilee Hospital for smoke inhalation and, thankfully, the only other casualties were minor injuries to two fire fighters.

vERNON nEWS cOVERAGE

On the following Monday morning, the Vernon News newspaper featured a black & white photograph taken at the scene of the fire on the Friday night. Under the title “Rescue Two Elderly People, Appliance Store Gutted,” the photograph captures the look of relief and confusion on Winnifred Neff’s face as she is lifted down while wrapped in a blanket.

From recent research, we know the names of most of the others in the photograph, such as Fire Chief Fred Little (with glasses, holding Mrs. Neff) and Firefighters Jack Vecqueray (also helping Mrs. Neff) and Bill Georgeson (behind Vecqueray). Also pictured are Irish Connelly (above the Fire Chief) and in RCMP uniform is Officer Ken Coburn.

The news article recounted a harrowing fire and timely rescue of the two women who were trapped upstairs by the smoke.

“The smoke was so thick, that anyone trying to get upstairs could just go so far and then they’d have to come back. Every available smoke mask was in use, he said. The boys were facing two problems, rescue and fire fighting. We knew the construction of the building so knew how important it was to get the fire out,” recounted Little. 

This letter is included on the reverse of the “Night Rescue” painting.

Guy Bagnall and Howard Totenhofer

The next part of the story takes place in October of the same year. Guy Bagnall, who was a longtime Vernon resident and the original owner of the Bagnall Building where the fire occurred, commissioned a painting to memorialize the lifesaving efforts of the Vernon Fire Department.

 “The Night Rescue,” was painted by Australian artist Howard Totenhofer, who was working in the Okanagan Valley at the time. Totenhofer used the photograph from the front page of the Vernon News as his inspiration for the painting. Totenhofer’s choice of pastel pink for Mrs. Neff’s clothing and encircling blanket serves to highlight her stunned expression in the centre of the composition.

“The Night Rescue” painting was officially presented to Fire Chief Fred Little and the Officers and Men of the fire department on October 14th, 1960. The painting originally hung in Vernon Fire Department location and then was later moved to storage.

On Saturday, May 20th, 2023, members of Fred Little’s extended family will reunite with “The Night Rescue” painting at the Vernon Fire Hall in a small private event. In a demonstration, the Little Family will receive the painting from David Lind, current Fire Chief of the Vernon Fire Department, and then hand it over to Collections Registrar Carolyn Ben of the Museum & Archives of Vernon (MAV). The MAV has accepted “The Night Rescue” painting into our permanent collection and it will be on display as of May 24th, 2023.

Author’s note: In February this year, I was lucky to be introduced to Alan & Warren Little, both sons of Fire Chief Fred Little, when the painting was being evaluated as a possible acquisition to the Museum’s collection. I have utilized the Little Family’s research in this report and I sincerely appreciate their generous spirit and diligent research related to “The Night Rescue” story and the dramatic historical event.   

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Jenna Kiesman, Programming and Marketing Coordinator 

 

 

 

 

IR

A black-and-white image of a group of men standing outside a fire hall. There are 7 men pictured and three trunks behind them.
VFD staff outside the fire hall, then located at 3005 30 Street, in 1952. Fred Little is pictured in the middle, wearing glasses. The new ladder truck can be seen behind him.

Ladder Truck BYLAW

In 1951, the city’s taxpayers were asked to vote on an important bylaw that would see a new ladder truck purchased for the Vernon Fire Department (VFD).

While this might nowadays seem like a no-brainer, at the time it did require some effort on the part of the VFD to convince Vernonites that this was a necessary purchase. Vernon had only a few multi-story buildings at the time, so some likely felt that the $38,000 cost to purchase the truck was a needless expense, considering that the VFD already had a truck with a ladder in its possession.  

But Chief Fred Little disagreed. In letter addressed to the city’s taxpayers, he argued that a new ladder truck was a vital piece of equipment, since the old one was already 17 years old, and practically obsolete. The new truck would be equipped with state-of-the-art supplies, including metal ladders of various lengths, a 150-gallon water tank, night lighting facilities, protective equipment, and a variety of fire hoses and nozzles.

vOTE YES!

At the end of the letter, signed anonymously as “your volunteer firemen,” Little urged the public to vote “yes” at the upcoming bylaw, saying “a vote for the Ladder Truck Bylaw is a vote for your safety as well as ours.” On March 2, 954 taxpayers came out to vote. The bylaw passed 632 to 329 (with two spoiled ballots).

By October of that year, the new fire truck arrived in Vernon. It was constructed by the Bickle-Seagrave Company in Woodstock, Ontario, and was shipped to Vernon by train. A photo in theVernon News shows Chief Little beaming with pride over this new piece of equipment.

oOPS

Unfortunately, the fire department quickly discovered that the truck was actually too big for the fire hall! It passed through the doors easily enough, but an uneven floor designed on an angle for draining purposes meant that it couldn’t quite make it underneath a steel beam running the width of the hall. But the VFD was quick to pivot, and dug channels into the concrete floor for the rear wheels of the truck to nestle into.

Finally, the VFD had a truck with a ladder high enough to handle fire-fighting rescues in any building in Vernon.   

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

Gwyneth Evans, Head of Archives

 

 

 

 

 

A man is seated at the front of a small, open glider. He is smiling at the camera.

Fred Little on the open pilot’s seat at the front of the glider he built with Frank Oliver in 1932. Photo courtesy of Warren Little.

A race to the skies

Eldon Seymour and Jim Duddle were not Vernon’s only dynamic duo of intrepid aviators; around the same time the two young teenagers were building their open cockpit airplane in the loft of the Kalamalka Lake Store, Fred Little and Frank Oliver were gliding through the sky in their own creation. Thank you to Fred’s son Warren for supplying the information and photos for this story.

A large frame of a glider under construction in an empty room. A space heater is nearby.
The glider under construction circa 1932. Photo courtesy of Warren Little.

The Work Begins

When Fred and Frank were in their early twenties, they began building a glider in the kitchen of Fred’s family home. At the time, Fred was a professional mechanic, and was employed by Watkin Motors in Vernon (he later went on to serve the City as Fire Chief and was named the 1969 Good Citizen of the Year). Frank, meanwhile, was a businessman, the owner of Specialty Cleaners.

Once complete, the glider was flown from Vernon’s first airfield, located in the Mission Hill area. This take-off location was ideal, because updraft winds from Kalamalka Lake allowed for long flights in the glider.

 

Successful first flight

Local flying instructor Lowell Dunsmore piloted the first flight of the 32-foot Northrop Standard on June 12, 1932. On the second of three attempts, the Ford Model A towing car reached about 65 km/h. The glider soared into the air and hovered a steady ten feet above the airstrip before Dunsmore released the tow cord and brought it to a gentle landing. The following Tuesday, Fred and Frank performed another five successful flights in their aircraft.

Not to be outdone, Eldon Seymour and Jim Duddle also saw their own homemade glider successfully piloted by Lowell Dunsmore a few weeks later, and launched the City of Vernon airplane the following year. While the latter may have been the first home-built aircraft in Vernon with an engine, Fred and Frank owned and constructed the first glider in the B.C. Interior.   

The glider went on to have many successful flights but was unfortunately later wrecked by a winter snow storm that collapsed its top.

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator