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April 7, 2016

Wells, BC: Cariboo Counterculture
by Susan Safyan

From the dreams of a lonely prospector grew the town of Wells, BC, now the location for one of the province’s best-loved music festivals.

Fred Wells, a “raw-boned, well-built man” came to the Cariboo looking for gold in the 1920s. After a long struggle to get financial backing, he formed the Cariboo Gold Quartz Mining Company, which produced tens of millions of dollars in gold over the next three decades. In 1933, Fred Wells declared: “A town is essential‰Û_At present, there are a great many shacks and cabins being built in the woods. It is better to provide a proper place for people to live, and this is what we plan to do.” Purpose-built for the mineworkers, Wells boasted a school, hospital, capacious community hall[1], general stores, hotels, bakeries, restaurants, movie theatre, race track, ski hill, and more. The little town was described as a “pocket of prosperity in a land shackled by the Great Depression.”

But the history of Wells follows a boom-and-bust pattern that will be familiar to historians of BC resource-extraction towns. The boom town of the 1930s was nearly a ghost town thirty years later, when the mines shut down, businesses closed, and homes were abandoned. An unexpected human resource” young people from all over Canada and the US who were looking for a place to go “back to the land”” saved Wells from extinction.[2]

In every corner of BC there were thinly populated towns and inexpensive remote acreages where “hippies” from big cities moved to drop out, evade the draft (if they were Americans who’d fled to Canada), get in touch with nature, write their own rules, and escape “the system.”[3] The back-to-the-land movement generated the organics and health food movements, the rediscovery of traditional and/or Eastern medicines and religions, the DIY movement, and other forms of self-reliance.

The hippies who came to Wells between 1969 and 1979 shared much in common with these other counterculture sojourners. They were primarily under the age of 25, white, of middle-class backgrounds. Most had been in their teens during the Summer of Love in 1967. Wells’ hippie settlers were students, entrepreneurs, travellers, and for the most part, floaters in the economic system. When they arrived, few had careers” they had dreams. They lived in some of those shacks and cabins in the woods that Fred Wells had disdained for his workers or bought small houses in town for a couple hundred dollars.

More than forty years later, many have left, but some have put down roots, becoming integral to the rebirth of the town as an arts centre and location for the annual ArtsWells festival that now draws several thousand visitors, performers, and vendors to Wells each August long weekend. Though its population remains small, Wells’ spirit continues to be irrepressible.

[1] See Judy Campbell and Susan Safyan, “At the Heart of It All: The Wells Community Hall,” BC History 49 no. 1 (2016): 29-33.

[2] See Susan Safyan, All Roads Lead to Wells: Stories of the Hippie Days. Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press, 2012.

[3] See Kathleen Rogers, Welcome to Resisterville: American Dissidents in British Columbia. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2015; and Colin Coates, ed., Canadian Countercultures and the Environment. Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2016.