Life in the Tee-Pee
November 4, 2013
Review By Ian Mosby
In the spring of 1956, the proprietors of the roadside Tee-Pee Restaurant near Boston Bar were unceremoniously informed that their business and odd assortment of buildings would be expropriated and destroyed to make way for the arrival of the Trans-Canada Highway. The Tee-Pee – and its signature Wimpy Burgers – had become a fixture for the local community and highway travellers since it was first opened on the side of Fraser Canyon Highway in the spring of 1949 by Ontario transplants Bill and June Koropecki. Published just a year before June’s death at the age of 87, Life in the Tee-Pee is the story of the restaurant’s brief but colourful life. And, to this end, it’s much more than simply the self-published memoir that it seems at first glance, and manages to paint a fascinating and lively portrait of a rough-and-tumble postwar period in British Columbia history. Indeed, this story of a small roadside stop contains enough humour, nostalgia, and eccentric characters to populate a small city.
The Tee-Pee Restaurant, which over time added a gas bar, campground, and other amenities, was a reflection of both the early postwar years and its energetic and fascinating young owners. The Koropeckis were not natives of Boston Bar or even British Columbia but, instead, stumbled upon their home following a meandering road trip that began in Brantford, Ontario, and took them to Juarez, Mexico, and eventually back up the west coast to their highway location thousands of kilometers from where they started.
Koropecki therefore begins her fascinating memoir with a question: “Who knows why, or from where came the notion to leave home, kin, [and] the security of steady employment, to set out upon an unknown road to take up a new life?” (1). By the end of the book, of course, it’s abundantly clear. The Koropeckis viewed themselves as modern day pioneers who sought to build a life that was unique and precisely their own. Who, for instance, would construct a Tee-Pee shaped restaurant on a whim from wood harvested from an empty lot on the side of the highway? Who, moreover, would get their running water for their restaurant by constructing a small dam on a nearby, wildly-rushing creek and, later – fed up with a finicky diesel generator – build their own creek-side hydroelectric plant at what turned out to be great peril to their own lives?
The tale that Koropecki tells is, to that end, very much a pioneer story that follows the rules of the genre, with its share of hardship, colourful characters, and harrowing encounters with – and inevitable triumph over – nature. And, like many of the stories of the “wild west,” it’s one that ends with the arrival of a government keen to modernize and tame the landscape. To a certain extent, then, it’s a story perfectly suited to capturing the spirit of British Columbia’s rural interior during a profoundly transformative period.
In addition to lovingly describing the family’s odd assortment of pets – which, at various times, included dogs, cats, a goat, a groundhog named Skookum, two de-scented skunks, and a baby squirrel – Koropecki is most interested in the people who passed through this roadside institution. These range from a fascinating and well-loved local Nlaka’pamux elder named Johnnie to a family of subsistence farmers from McBride who, with their pigs and chickens, passed through on their way to a rumoured job at a sawmill in New Westminster. While, like most self-published books, Life in the Tee-Pee could have benefitted from the attention of an editor, Koropecki is nonetheless a good writer who really does, at times, succeed in making her characters come alive through humorous and sympathetic portraits.
The answer to one of the first questions I had going into the book – why a Tee-Pee? – was not quite what I expected. It turns out that it had nothing to do with the Indigenous inhabitants of the region who, of course, lived in pit houses (kekulis). Instead, the Koropeckis were inspired by other roadside Tee-Pee cafes that they had eaten at on their ramblings in Kentucky and Montana. Their Tee-Pee and its associated totem poles and other painted and carved iconography were, in other words, pure kitsch – designed as eye-catching oddities made by a family that had little understanding of Aboriginal culture and traditions but who wanted their restaurant to be noticed by curious travellers from afar. And while a number of Indigenous peoples from the nearby Boothroyd First Nation populate Koropecki’s narrative, it’s never quite clear what they thought of this monument to the “Imaginary Indian” only a few kilometers from their rooted and viable Indigenous community.
The story of the Tee-Pee Restaurant, in other words, offers a fascinating glimpse of life on a highway in rural British Columbia during the postwar years, and food for thought for those interested in this period of rapid growth and transformation.
Life in the Tee-Pee
By June Koropecki
Lytton: Freedom Graphics Press, 2010. 306 pp. $26.95 paper.