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Review

Coldstream: The Ranch Where It All Began

By Donna Yoshitake Wuest

November 4, 2013

Review By Wayne Norton

When Lord and Lady Aberdeen purchased the Coldstream Ranch near Vernon in 1891, they could hardly have suspected their experience with the property would establish patterns that would be followed for the next century. By taking us through the subsequent decades and several changes in ownership, Donna Yoshitake Wuest makes it clear that the ranch has consistently had difficulty in living up to the expectations that have been placed upon it. Wuest also demonstrates that, whatever the disappointments may have been, there has been no lingering bitterness among the disappointed. She presents us with a book that concentrates on the lasting affection for Coldstream felt by so many of those who have been associated with it over the years. 

Excerpts from historical memoirs are combined with the memories of those Wuest interviewed to delineate the process by which the historic ranch of a century ago became the working ranch of today. The decision to divide the contents into chapters dealing with specific aspects of the ranch rather than to present a purely chronological narrative has clear advantages. The Cattle Ranch (Chapter 8) and the Orchard Ranch (Chapter 3), for example, show that the various economic activities at Coldstream have had separate histories – separate lives almost – and that while one endeavour would prosper, another would falter. One drawback of this organizational structure is that the reader can become confused due to having to jump forward and backward through the decades. This confusion is sometimes compounded by the layout, which places biographies of significant personalities in the midst of narrative sections, often repeating information from the main text. 

Almost every chapter provides insight into a colourful history. Until the 1940s, for example, the Coldstream Ranch continued to grow smaller apples than were generally preferred in North America because this was the preference of the English market that it was supplying. It is interesting to learn that, until 1914, seasonal labour was provided by Natives from the Nicola and Thompson Valleys as well as by the Nez Percé from Washington State and that 20,000 soldiers were trained on the ranch during the latter years of the Second World War. 

There are a few minor cautions. The bibliography can be misleading and the book will disappoint readers who want their sources precisely identified. The reader will seek in vain to discover the current location of the oft-quoted annual reports written by Fluffy Woolaston; and while many of the photographs are wonderful, others perhaps could have been allowed to remain in family albums. 

In some respects, that is what Coldstream is – an album and historical chronicle intended primarily for those who have lived and worked (or still live and work) at Coldstream. They will welcome the publication wholeheartedly. Perhaps a wider audience would have welcomed a broader analysis of trends and changes over the course of the history of the ranch. British Columbia does not enjoy the same depth and breadth of historical writing on agricultural history as do the Prairie provinces, but the existing literature could have provided greater context to Wuest’s consideration of the changing ethnic labour force, economic trends, and evolving social relationships. The book is not intended for an academic audience and, however unfair it may be to criticize it for failing to appeal to that audience, there will be at least some readers who will wish Wuest had asked more questions about her subject. Could transitions from one market to another have been accomplished more efficiently? Can particular managerial decisions be applauded? Are others open to criticism? The book does not analyze the economic forces that the Coldstream Ranch was forced to respond to over the decades, though it does often identify them. 

If a book analyzing life on Coldstream were to be written, one gets the impression that Wuest would be a good bet to write it. She has a splendid ability to let her subjects speak for themselves – providing insights that one can admire at the same time as one wishes that their words had been more thoroughly analyzed. As the reader delves further into the book, the curious subtitle becomes clear: Coldstream is where many of the people involved or cited acquired their great affection for ranching and the Vernon area. Yoshitake Wuest displays that same affection for her subject, creating a volume that is clearly a labour of love. 

Coldstream ends on a hopeful note – reminiscent of the optimism Lord and Lady Aberdeen brought to their purchase over a century ago. Readers of Coldstream will wish the current owners every success, but they will know that they, too, must be aware of the fundamental lesson learned from the ranch’s history: market conditions will inevitably change, and the ranch that changes with them is the ranch that will survive.