Walhachin: Birth of a Legend
December 18, 2014
Review By Dennis Oomen
Walhachin has a particular resonance for many British Columbians. Because of this, certain aspects of the Walhachin story have acquired a permanency and legitimacy that are not supported by what actually happened at this Edwardian orchard settlement. Larry Jacobsen’s book, Walhachin: Birth of Legend, goes some way towards dispelling some of the more enduring misconceptions but is compromised by its unstructured and confusing approach.
The Walhachin story is generally understood to revolve around certain key events. In 1907, an American entrepreneur named Charles Barnes saw the potential for a prosperous orchard community along the south shore of the Thompson River west of Kamloops. Barnes wanted to build a community that would appeal to English settlers. In due course, the settlers arrived and they proved to be comprised of solid middle class Britons. Poor soil and an unreliable and badly constructed irrigation flume hampered efforts to establish productive orchards. Then came the First World War and the departure of the male settlers to join the fight. When the war ended, almost all of the men had been killed and the community collapsed. The focus of Jacobsen’s book is, presumably, to examine those factors and events that led to the demise of Walhachin as a viable agricultural settlement.
Jacobsen turns a knowledgeable eye towards many of the practical aspects of the Walhachin story. He shows that the main irrigation flume was well constructed and adequate to meet the demands of a growing orchard community. Jacobsen’s experience in construction and engineering are evident: he uses photographs, graphs, and text to show that the flume that serviced the orchard lands was sound in design and well built. Jacobsen also pays considerable attention to orchard management, detailing how filler crops of onions and potatoes not only provided cash income for the settlers but also food for their own use. Jacobsen shows that, properly irrigated, the Walhachin properties could and did produce commercial crops.
Unfortunately, the author’s careful work on flume construction is not carried through the rest of the book. A large number of photographs, maps, and tables break up an already confusing text. The layout of the book does not allow for a logical progression of the story. Jacobsen mentions that low fruit prices and lack of capitalization contributed to Walhachin’s collapse, but this information is not presented in a coherent fashion. There is no index to help the reader find his way. On the other hand, Jacobsen has included some most moving and evocative photographs. The images of Captain Rowland Paget (150-51), struggling to maintain his orchard after the loss of his leg in France, speak to the determination displayed by many of the Walhachin settlers.
Jacobsen reproduces a table listing Walhachin men who joined up in the Great War. The table, based on the work of Kamloops historian Keith Wood, does not tell the reader how many men died compared to total enlistments and does not compare Walhachin war deaths with those in similar communities, an omission that leaves this part of the story unresolved. Wood, however, argues that the number of Walhachin men killed during the war was well within the average.
Jacobsen introduces chapters on the history of the Christie family, who were involved in Walhachin’s founding, and provides a long piece taken directly from the local First People’s website on the establishment of the nearby Skeetchestn reserve. Some material seems quite out of place and might have been better suited for an appendix. Jacobsen ends his book with an epilogue that compares Walhachin with the Eastern Irrigation District (EID) near Brooks, Alberta. As Jacobsen makes clear, the EID was eventually successful, but this part of the book needs to be more fully developed to shed real light on the reasons for Walhachin’s demise. It not clear if the EID and Walhachin form a legitimate basis for comparison.
Walhachin: Birth of A Legend would have been a far better book if the author had marshalled his information properly and developed his arguments in a logical fashion. While adding to the scholarship around Walhachin, Jacobsen’s book leaves the reader with an incomplete picture of this fascinating episode in BC history.
Wood, Keith R. 2000. “A Walhachin Index,” British Columbia Historical News (33:2), 19-23.
Walhachin: Birth of a Legend
[Port Coquitlam]: Larry G. Jacobsen, 2014. 200 pp. $24.95 cloth