Ranch in the Slocan: A Biography of a Kootenay Farm, 1896 – 2017
June 7, 2018
Review By Shirley McDonald
Cole Harris’s Ranch in the Slocan: A Biography of a Kootenay Farm, 1896 – 2017 is delightful summer reading. It is, primarily, a history of the Harris family’s Bosun Ranch and a record of the lives of those who lived there. For those who have frequented the Slocan Valley and the Kootenay Mountains to enjoy the sunshine, forests, and hot springs, Harris’s detailed descriptions of this treasured vacation spot serve to rekindle memories of time well spent there. The region is a cultural mecca, a favourite destination for music lovers who make annual pilgrimages to renew their spirits at the Kaslo Jazz Festival (the first weekend in August) and at Shambhala in Salmo (the second week). The region is home for full-time residents as well, for the many organic farmers, back-to-the-landers, musicians, writers, artists, artisans, and other devotees of the vibrant counterculture scene that has evolved there since the 1960s. Travellers not so familiar with this vast paradise will find Ranch in the Slocana rich travel guide complete with maps of the region and a history of Nakusp and New Denver, small mining towns that came into being in the early 1900s when prospectors found silver in the hills above the lake. Harris also includes archival photographs embellished with explanations of the fluctuating economy of the mining industry and descriptions of the indigenous flora and fauna for the edification of amateur ecologists.
Yet, Ranch in the Slocanhas appeal for more than just music and nature lovers. It is the legacy of Cole Harris, a distinguished geographer, a Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and a Fellow of The Royal Order of Canada, whose prizes and awards attest to his expertise. Thus, Harris’s book will interest scholars of many disciplines: geographers, sociologists, life writing scholars, colonial and postcolonial historians, and even philosophers, for it embodies the fascinating socialist ideologies of Harris’s grandfather, Joseph Colebrook Harris. Initially, the author tells us, Joseph Harris intended to develop an estate in New Denver much like the family seat in Calne, Wiltshire, England, but, inadvertently influenced by Fabian and Marxist ideologies, the patriarch became a social reformer whose goal, ultimately, was to create a society in which everyone worked to contribute and share the wealth equally. Such aspirations border on utopianism. Yet, Harris is never harshly critical of his grandfather’s dreams even while revealing that the Bosun Ranch survived (if not thrived) on influxes of capital from the Harris family in England, a family whose fortune was earned from industrial meat processing plants. Rather, Harris reveals that his own goals were not much different from those of his grandfather. Both sought to establish and maintain a subsistence farm where its residents could live well on the land. Thus, the book is a well-balanced discussion of the patriarch’s ideologies and the author’s personal values.
Ranch in the Slocan, Harris informs readers, emerged from his perusal of his grandfather’s diary and from booklets in which Joseph wrote political tracts, hoping to lay the foundation for social reform (124). Harris also read “dozens of letters” that his grandfather wrote “to the editor of the Nelson Daily News” expounding on his political thought (267). He also gleaned information in the memoirs and letters of family members long deceased, he interviewed members still living, and he gathered family photographs (267). Harris begins the biography of the ranch by paying homage to the First Nations for whom the territory has been home since time immemorial. He continues with a history of the Slocan region during the colonial period, followed by a family history prior to Joseph Harris’s emigration in 1888, and the history of the ranch during its development. Interwoven into the latter are well-worn family stories, including anecdotes about the Harris family’s amicable relationships with Japanese-Canadians who, during the Second World War, were interned at the Bosun Ranch near New Denver. Harris concludes the book with brief biographies of anti-Vietnam War protesters, conscientious objectors, and draft dodgers from the United States, who sought refuge in the Slocan Valley and worked for brief periods on the Bosun Ranch. They contributed their skills and labour as carpenters, plasterers, and such, Harris tells us, as they renovated the original homestead dwellings and outbuildings, and designed and constructed new ones. It was the cooperative efforts of this diverse and dynamic group of Bosun Ranch residents that allowed the Harris family to continue to live on the ranch and maintain possession of it so that the generations to follow would have the opportunity to practice, as they had, the art of living well on land they revere. Ranch in the Slocan reflects the dreams of many of us, who like pilgrims, return year after year to the Kootenay and Slocan regions, aspiring to find remedies for the rampant consumerism that plagues our cities. Perhaps, William Morris, Bernard Shaw, and other Fabians would approve.
Madeira Park: Harbour, 2018. 288 pp. $24.95 paper.