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The Kelowna Story: An Okanagan History

By Sharron J. Simpson

Review By David Dendy

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 175 Autumn 2012  | p. 132-33

Sharron Simpson’s The Kelowna Story offers her clear intention of providing for the people of Kelowna, most of whom are recent arrivals, “a collective memory” (9) about the origin and development of their community. Overall, Simpson has accomplished this in a reasonably balanced manner, largely through summary and consolidation of existing published material.

She covers the main events through a hundred and fifty years of Kelowna’s history, from the establishment of the Okanagan Mission by Oblate missionaries in 1859 to the Okanagan Mountain Fire that destroyed 239 houses in 2003. However, the episodic nature of this coverage means that continuity is somewhat lacking. For example, early buildings in Kelowna’s downtown are described, but the reader will not discover when they got electric power, piped water, or sewer service. And it is a little disappointing that Simpson, who served on Kelowna’s city council, does not use her first-hand knowledge to give a little of the “behind-the-scenes” story of the explosive development of Kelowna since 1970, which changed it from an agriculturally-based community to a major urban centre.

Simpson’s main focus is on the “development” of the infrastructure of buildings and transportation, more than on the people and the society of the community. Even the photographs she has selected are largely of those things. Many buildings get more than one photo, or even double-page spreads. But very few images of people appear – not the founding settler, Father Pandosy, or the first mayor, or even villains such as outlaw Boyd James and murderous police chief David Murdoch, whose stories are told in considerable detail.

The coverage is somewhat uneven. The First World War is hardly mentioned, and the 1920s quite thinly. Native people get only a rather vague page and a half, with no mention of their actual habitation and activities within Kelowna. The Chinese, who made up over ten percent of Kelowna’s population in 1930, get short shrift with only scattered mentions. And while the outlying communities of Okanagan Mission, Rutland, and Glenmore get regular vignettes, East Kelowna doesn’t even make the index.

The book is attractively produced and presented. Unfortunately, while editorial care has been taken with grammar, style, and the spelling of names, the book is peppered with factual errors that undermine confidence in its accuracy. Some are simply careless and should have been caught in the editing – the Similkameen Valley is not to the east of the Okanagan (25) and Rock Creek is not to the west of Osoyoos (31). The apple variety is Golden Delicious, not Yellow Delicious (258). The Kelowna Cannery produced No. 2, No. 3, and No. 10 (=1 gallon) cans, not “two-, three-, and ten gallon sizes” (103). Some errors come from an overly casual approach to history. Simpson says that “gas lamps . . . lit every house and shop” in 1904 (81), but despite historical clichés about the Edwardian era, Kelowna never had gas lighting. She means coal oil lamps. “Kelowna Pride” was a brand of cut tobacco produced in the 1920s, not the 1890s as Simpson has it (72). And some things are simply wrong. The early rancher A.B. Knox did not eventually sell out to his nemesis, Tom Ellis (36), but to a syndicate of property developers. Furthermore, Simpson cannot resist embellishing stories, as with her assertion that “early settlers patrolled the lakeshore, musket in hand, to protect their families” from the lake monster Ogopogo (56). And the killer Boyd James was not Jesse James’ nephew (106). Since Simpson does not provide source citations, it will be difficult for readers to verify which factual statements in the book may be trusted.

The Kelowna Story: An Okanagan History
by Sharron J. Simpson
Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2011   320pp, $36.95