Community ties in Wycliffe

June 23rd, 2022 6 Minutes
Houses sprung up in Wycliffe with the Staples Company in full bloom – Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History

In his series “Wycliffe in the Early Days,” George James has the following memory of the town’s growth. 

“It was a regular beehive of industry. Houses were springing up everywhere until it became a town of no mean size. Wycliffe was considered to be the sportiest little town in the interior. The Staples Company did everything possible to get the finest obtainable in sport. Their baseball team was the best in the country.”

Otis Staples was familiar with loggers and lumber camps, stemming from his early history in the pine woods of Minnesota. He knew that to make his investment work overtime, he had to build a sense of place and a commitment to the enterprise.

Soon after the mill’s construction in 1904, the town boasted a school, Anglican Church and a Company store managed by Lloyd Crowe, which supplied all the home necessities. And there was the St. Mary’s Hotel run by Mr. Bradford. Soon employee houses were reaching up the hillside away from the mill.

Street view of Wycliffe B.C. and its amenities – Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History

Wycliffe grew to be a town of more than a thousand people, with sometimes more than 300 men working in the sawmill, planing mill and the bush. As the community developed, the need for entertainment and relaxation grew. Roads were often impassable, and many had minimal transportation. Even in the 1920s, Peter Cox’s memories are “the ore train from Marysville had a passenger coach stuck on the end. That’s how we got to Cranbrook. If it was not available, we walked the rails to get there, or I took my bike and rode a rough road into town.”

Otis Staples was aware that contented men were productive men. 

Otis Staples Lumber Co. Float Wycliffe Parade c. 1900s – Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History

Eventually, a Community Hall was constructed, erected by popular subscription of the workers. The company donated the land and lumber. 

An anonymous article in the Cranbrook Herald of 1913 states: 

“The building was erected by the subscriptions given and the labour donated by many of the men. The building is a credit to the little city of Wycliffe and will furnish a desirable recreation resort for the man who is loafing or off duty.” 

The building housed a reading room with easy chairs and a fireplace, a recreation hall, a library, free stationery, and a weekly picture show. There was a lot of compelling interest when ‘Conflict,’ filmed in part in Wycliffe and Bull River, was shown in 1923. Another of Otis’s sons, Chester Staples, was involved in that production. In addition, the hall was regularly used for school concerts and community plays. Another feature was the showers installed in this building.  

Bill Lye, an early resident of St. Mary’s Prairie, contributed the following to ‘Come With Me To Yesterday No. 361’ in the Cranbrook Courier of 1972: 

“Because the people were proud of their efforts, loggers’ boots were not permitted to be worn on the floors, which were of polished hardwood. 

One happy (!) on being restrained from going on the dance floor with his caulked boots gave out this reasoning: ‘I’ve got $50 in this Hall, and I’m going to jump on my floor if I want to.’ 

Hopefully, he was persuaded otherwise, as many years later, the floor was still in grand shape.”

Another aspect of the community involved the living conditions of workers in the bush. The Otis Staples Lumber Company had several camps (at least nine) spread across the landscape and connected by the railroad lines.

Springbrook Camp – Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History

In’ Otis Staples’ Motherlode,’ Betty Oliver (1975) states that: “Mrs. Drysdale had no figures on how many camps there were but said records show that number nine camp on Cherry Creek sounded like a resort. It had spring beds and white sheets laundered weekly; an unheard-of innovation in a logging camp.” 

Each camp also had a nearby Emporium of Delights. One woman visiting a camp in 1913 reminisced: “It being dinner hour, the party boarded the train and in a short time were seated at the long board table devouring with a real woodsman’s appetite all the good things for which camp dinners are noted.” 

George James also remembers the camp table well: “The food at this Camp (Springbrook) left nothing to be desired. Fancy having beef steaks put up for breakfast. We had them quite often.”

The Otis Staples Lumber Company was also attentive to its surrounding communities. George James said it was the largest Community Hall in the district, and “Also within its walls was the largest dance floor, kept polished like glass.” In his ‘Wycliffe in the Early Days,’ George James gives the following account of a dance: The Staples Lumber Company stopped at nothing to make the men happy. Mr. Barter was Superintendent at the time, and he put on a dance at the Hall one night, and it was a howling success.

Workers for the Otis Staples Lumber Company out in the bush – Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History

All the local men who worked at the Camp were given invitations for their wives and lady friends. A special train was put on to run from Wycliffe to Springbrook Camp via Lost Dog Canyon. The ladies from Wycliffe, Kimberley, Maysville and Cranbrook met the train there. 

The Ta Ta Creek and Wasa ladies came by sleigh. The One-Spot was detailed for the job with Harrison at the throttle. All went well until we got to Lost Dog Canyon, where we were derailed!

 It took about an hour to get the locomotive back on the track. We arrived at the Camp a little late but rarin’ to go. I think the ladies outnumbered the men. It was a humdinger of a dance.”

Another account from the 1913 Cranbrook Herald gives a feeling of how open the arms of Wycliffe were to the surrounding area:

“Those who attended the new house opening at Wycliffe last Monday evening report a most enjoyable time. The exercises opened with a concert in which Mrs. Bay Staples and Alan Graham (a Cranbrook lawyer) gave vocal renditions, and Misses Hanley and Taylor shared a pianoforte duet. The Rex orchestra (From Cranbrook’s Rex Theatre) also contributed to the programme. 

After the concert, the Rex orchestra furnished music for a dance which was highly enjoyed by those present, dancing continuing until 4 a.m., with refreshments served at midnight.”

There are many other documented aspects of the community, and we will explore them later. But, for now, sticking with the Community Hall lets us explore the eventual demise of Wycliffe. 

The mill ran out of timber limits in 1928, and the planer mill burned in 1929, effectively closing the centre of Wycliffe’s employment. During the Depression years, the caretaker’s house was used as the foreman’s quarters and office for a government work camp that used the Community Hall for cooking and meals. 

In 1939-40 the roof was partially recovered with tarpaper. Then Elmer Staples, of the S half Diamond Ranch at Premier Lake, offered to deed the hall and the acre of land it sat on to the people of Wycliffe, but they failed to organize and accept. The Staples family was out of Wycliffe at this point, and the Staples mill site was eventually sold for back taxes. The property buyers dismantled the hall and moved it to Kimberley, where the hardwood was reused as the floor of the Moose Hall.

As with so many other East Kootenay communities, Wycliffe vanished in pieces but lives on in memory.

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