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South Similkameen Museum Gets a New Home

by Della Barrett

The South Similkameen Museum Society in Keremeos, B.C. is proud to announce it has bought a much larger, more versatile building. The presently over-crowded artifacts, maps and photos will have a new, more spacious home. And it never could have happened without the enormous generosity of the Hedley/Keremeos Masonic Society.

For many years, the South Similkameen Museum Society has been salting away funds in the hopes of purchasing a new-to-us building. The Hedley/Keremeos Masonic Society has offered the Museum Society a deal of a lifetime. At an amazingly super price, they have sold their building on 9th Avenue to the South Similkameen museum society. They wanted their building, which was built with care and community volunteers in 1964, to be used by a community group who would be appreciative. The S. Similkameen Museum Society is extremely appreciative.

The Masons, who now have a dwindling membership, will be joining those in Peachland for their future meetings. The Keremeos museum society is thrilled and honoured to take over the use of their spacious, two-leveled building. There are no windows, yet lots of lighting, which is perfect for preserving artifacts, maps and photos. There is a foyer, ideal for reception, gifts and souvenirs. There is a large lower level, complete with kitchen and utilities. It has a large parking lot which can be used not only for staff and visitors, but also, hopefully, as a space for the original museum building, which began its life as a B.C. provincial holding cell.

But let’s back-track to 1907. It was a very exciting year for Keremeos and the whole Similkameen valley, all the way to Princeton and the Tulameen.

In April of 1907, train gang workers arrived to lay tracks for the new VV&E., a subsidiary of the Great Northern coming in from Oroville, Washington.

On July 10, 1907, the first train whistled into Keremeos. A welcoming crowd was at the station (situated south of the present day Value Plus grocery store) to cheer. The town had officially grown. Many of the train gang workers, both Chinese and non-Chinese, stayed in town. There was a successful sawmill nearby employing many, as well as a growing number of farmers, miners, and merchants in the area. With the influx of new workers, the B.C. Provincial Police potentially had much to deal with. Just two years earlier, B.C. Provincial Police had given Maximilion Ewart the honour of being the first permanent Constable of the area. He must have been overworked, dealing with rowdiness and such in the growing community.

In mid-July 1907, two men quickly built a jail cell in Keremeos Center, which was a growing neighbourhood approximately three kilometers north of the present village, near the present-day Bears Fruit stand.

The first police building, which included a lockup, the Constable’s office, and a third room that doubled as a Law Court was built in great haste. A note in the Hedley Gazette dated July 25, 1907 stated that the work was rushed. “Even respect for the Sabbath rest did not interfere with it.” Why the haste?

There are theories. They may have been worried about trouble among the growing population of workers. Or they may have been worried about “copycat” train bandits imitating Bill Miner, the first-ever train bandit in B.C., who was incarcerated at the time. The bottom line is that the jail was solidly built. The wall construction was of two by six lumber laid on top of each other and nailed down. The floor was also six inches thick. The ceiling was of two by four lumber laid on edge.

A month later, in August 1907, the notorious “gentleman” train bandit, Bill Miner (he often bid his victims a good day), escaped custody in New Westminster. Prior to his 1906 arrest, he had been living quietly, well-liked by his neighbours in Princeton. Might the infamous train robber, Bill Miner, return to his cabin there? Might he rob the newly accessible train? Might he have started a trend among thieves? This new, solid but small prison cell must have provided much relief among citizens of the valley. This building was boasted as the only holding cell as far west as Hope and as far north as Kamloops, B.C.

In 1917, the building was moved down the hill to 604 6th Avenue in lower Keremeos. Horses were used for this process and it cost the huge sum of $300.00 for the move.

In 1950, the RCMP took over official duties from the B.C. Provincial Police. Nine years later, in 1959, the RCMP moved to a newly constructed brick building at the top of the Keremeos hill. The original jail cell and office were left temporarily empty.

From 1962 until 1970, the former jailhouse was used as the office for the Village of Keremeos.

In 1972, the South Similkameen Museum Society leased the building from the Provincial Government. It was eventually discovered that the Provincial Government did not own the building, or if it had, the records of the purchase were lost. So, in 1991, the Village of Keremeos purchased the property for back taxes, and the Museum Society negotiated a lease agreement with the village.

In 1991, the museum building was designated a heritage building.

Now, the S. Similkameen Museum Society is looking forward to the transfer of precious artifacts to the now-empty Masonic Hall on 9th Avenue, Keremeos.

A few words about the new building: The Hedley Masonic Temple Society worked hard to construct their building in Keremeos in 1964. Many people and suppliers pitched in. There was land donated for the project, as well as lumber, cement, and other materials, not to mention many, many hours of volunteer labour by members of the Masonic Lodge. It was reportedly a group effort with unparalleled community spirit. The lot it stands on was contributed by J.C. Clarke of Keremeos. The neighbour donated ten feet of his own property so that the building could stand in an east-west direction as is customary for Masonic Lodges.

Amongst the members, they decided that the Museum Society would be a great one to take over their well looked-after building. They knew that for years the museum had been attempting to expand and find a new home. They also knew that the South Similkameen Museum Society was not a rich society.

Connar Clarke, a long-standing member of the Masonic Lodge, so admired the qualities of the Museum Society that he decided to assist the best way he knew. He decided to “pay it forward.” When Connar, now in his eighties, was a young man in his twenties with a wife and two young children, he had a problem. He needed tuition money to finish one last year of university. He didn’t have the $250.00 needed for tuition. Someone told him to ask the Masonic Society, as they are known for helping others. He did. They paid his tuition fee and he was able to complete his training and have an honourable career. Now, Connar has decided to repay this generosity. He offered the South Similkameen Museum Society $10,000.00 toward the purchase of the Masonic Hall. Both groups are very happy, and Connar has paid it forward. $10,000.00 is close to the going price for a year of university tuition these days, is it not?

The South Similkameen Museum Society is very grateful for this donation and also the overall low price set by the Hedley Masonic Society. Certainly the good karma and the spirit of generosity and fellowship will spill over to the new occupants of the building.

On the wish list, the Museum Society hopes to move not only the artifacts, but the heritage building itself, literally. Possibly, through the enthusiasm of volunteers, new members, and village officials, this move could take place in 2017. It would mean a centennial celebration! One hundred years since its first move, when it was drawn by say… four horses, from Central Keremeos to Lower Keremeos. This time, if the arrangements could be made, it would be hauled a mere three blocks across level land by a big rig truck with say…500 horsepower.

So, this summer, take a break from the digital world. Come and browse the artifacts and so much more at the museum on 604 6th Avenue, Keremeos. Next year, the museum will have a whole new look. Treat yourself to a taste of history: enjoy what the museum has to offer, and even enjoy becoming a member of the society. You never know what exciting things you will learn about the fascinating past of Keremeos and the Similkameen Valley.